After the Florida Mass Shooting: PTSD in Teens

Can just listening to the news and viewing disturbing images cause PTSD in teens? This is a question some parents are asking in the wake of the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High school, in Parkland Florida. These parents wonder if their teenagers’ sleeplessness, nightmares, and frightening thoughts are more than just strong but temporary reactions to the news. The answer is a definite yes: if your teen is experiencing such symptoms, it could be posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and your child should be seen by a mental health professional.

Florida Mass Shooting

Perhaps thought you’d done as good a job as any parent might do in explaining the awful news coming out of Florida to your teen, but here it is, two weeks later, and your child still can’t get through the night without waking up drenched in sweat and shaking. Is this a genuine mental health issue or is it something that will pass with the healing qualities of time? What should you be doing to support your teen?

Dr. Robin Goodman of A Caring Hand, a nonprofit that specializes in helping children cope with bereavement, confirms that even teens outside of Florida can experience posttraumatic stress disorder as a result of the mass shooting, “We do know that direct physical exposure (witnessing the event or being there) or emotional exposure (knowing someone who was injured or who died) as well as indirect exposure (seeing and reading about the event in the news and on social media) can impact teens and lead to trauma reactions,” says Goodman.

Knowing that teens even far from Parkland can suffer emotional trauma from the fallout of the mass shooting is one thing. But what are the symptoms of PTSD in teens? What should parents be watching for?

Jessica Tappana, of the Aspiring trauma counseling center, says that teens can be impacted by PTSD every bit as much as adults. The difference is that teens may hesitate to reach out to the adults in their lives for help. That means that their parents may not even know their children are struggling. And not all of the complicated feelings teens may experience after a mass shooting like the one in Florida can be labeled as posttraumatic stress disorder.

Healthy Response

“In the immediate aftermath of the traumatic shooting, it is normal to expect youth to be shaken and more anxious. Certainly students returning to Stoneman Douglas this week are going to feel anxious, but youth across the country who have watched the news coverage of Stoneman Douglas and the many “copycat” threats since are experiencing anxiety as well. Some of this nervousness is a normal response to the trauma.

“In the weeks following the trauma, you can expect teens to be processing this anxiety and talking about the trauma; their personal experiences; and their reactions. This is their way of trying to make sense of the experience, and facing their emotions about the situation is actually a healthy response,” says Tappana.

Teens protest the Parkland, Florida mass shooting in TallahasseeSo when does a teenager’s reaction to the traumatic school shooting become an issue of concern?  When do you seek professional help? “If time goes on and your child’s anxiety about the shooting is impacting his or her ability to function, you may want to seek professional help. PTSD develops when the brain doesn’t heal from the trauma and instead sees danger around every corner,” explains Tappana.

“Teens developing PTSD might be avoiding situations that remind them of the school shooting (i.e. school, the news, etc). They may be thinking about the shooting constantly or even having nightmares.

“For teens who were at Stoneman Douglas or who have attended another school where there was a threat, there may be ‘flashbacks’ where it feels like they’re experiencing the threat all over again.  Withdrawing or reacting to everyday situations in an extreme manner can also indicate a problem.

Wait Three Months?

“Traditionally, mental health professionals wait until about three months after a trauma to diagnose PTSD. That said, it’s better to err on the side of caution. Speak to a mental health professional regarding whether counseling might help children process their reactions to the shooting. This is especially true if children’s concerns are interfering with their ability to feel safe at school, interact with peers, or otherwise function on a day-to-day basis,” says Tappana.

Dr. Sal Raichbach of the Ambrosia Treatment Center cautions parents that PTSD isn’t just something that happens to soldiers, “When we think of PTSD, we often think of active soldiers or veterans who have seen wartime and are plagued with flashbacks from the battlefield. But PTSD is a lot closer to home than we think. Any traumatic event can trigger PTSD, from abuse in the household to a school shooting, like the one we’ve witnessed in Florida,” says Raichbach.

But that doesn’t mean that teens are going to experience PTSD the same way as those in the military, or war veterans. “PTSD in children usually differs from that seen in adults, and teens fall somewhere in the middle. Kids tend to reenact their trauma during play or watch for signs that the trauma will recur and try to prevent that from happening. Teens, on the other hand, will often show more aggressive behavior and potentially engage in self-harm or use drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms.”

Unprocessed Trauma

Why do teens experience symptoms of PTSD after incidents like the mass shooting in Florida? “PTSD is the body and mind’s response to unprocessed trauma. When trauma is processed properly, with enough expression either through shaking in the body, through crying, or through the expression of rage and fear, it becomes ‘resolved.’ This means the body and mind won’t be haunted by the experience forever, which might lead to nightmares, chronic and constant fear, and the feeling of being perpetually unsafe,” says psychoanalyst Claudia Luiz.

Why do teens outside of Florida experience PTSD? It may be because of the extensive and inescapable media coverage of the event. “Research from 9/11 has shown that people can develop PTSD just from watching a traumatic event on television over and over again. Teens have been fascinated by this school shooting more than others because the distressed students have continued to speak out,” explains Dr. Carole Lieberman, author of Lions and Tigers and Terrorists, Oh My! How To Protect Your Child in a Time of Terror, who adds that the most important thing parents can do to help kids with PTSD is to acknowledge their reactions to the event as understandable. “It is important to talk about what happened and to get them to express their feelings about what happened. Ask them if they’re worried that this will happen at their school. Ask if they know anyone who they think has angry feelings and might be ready to explode like Nikolas Cruz. Ask if they know any classmate who has guns. Ask if they themselves sometimes get angry feelings that make them fantasize about hurting people or hurting themselves.

“If they have feelings about hurting others or themselves, get them into therapy. Also, if their symptoms of PTSD don’t resolve on their own in a month, get them into therapy,” says Lieberman.

Practical Tips

Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author, The Self-Aware Parent, and regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors and CBS TV offers the following practical tips for parents:

  • Before injecting too much information into your teen, first ask “What did you hear?”
  • Listen not only to what your teens say, but also pay attention to what they do.
  • Emphasize to your teen “You are safe.” Explain details of the measures schools have already taken to reinforce safety, for instance locking school doors and practicing emergency lockdown drills.
  • A senseless school shooting at their school or anywhere else can make teens (and adults) feel powerless. Give your teen a sense of control by suggesting she write a letter send it to a surviving child or family affected by a school shooting. Or offer to help your teen have a bake sale so she might send the proceeds to the families. These actions are proactive and also offer your teen an opportunity to feel helpful and giving.
  • Limit exposure to TV news, online broadcasts, and social media. Repeated exposure to the violent stories and graphic pictures can re-traumatize your teen.

What if you can’t tell whether your teen is experiencing PTSD or just normal teenage angst? “In my opinion, parents are the first line of defense against mental illness in children. They interact with their children more than anyone else, so they are usually the first to observe signs and symptoms. If you know your child or teen has experienced a traumatic event, talk to them and keep an eye out for any further signs of PTSD,” says Raichbach.

Dr. Goodman adds that teens aren’t the only ones affected by the mass shooting at the school in Parkland, Florida. “Parents must take care of themselves and get their own support so they can best support their teens.”

How to End Power Struggles with Toddlers

Is there a way for parents to end power struggles with two-year-olds for good? Probably not. But parents can certainly aim for fewer power struggles. You may even turn most of the struggles into learning experiences, if you keep the goal in mind and work it with all you’ve got.

What causes power struggles with two-year-olds? It’s about a milestone in the child’s development. The child at two, now understands that she is an individual, and that her behavior is a choice, under her control. Exercising that choice reinforces the idea for the child that she is an independent being: no one can force her to do anything she doesn’t want to do.

“Toddlers must claim their separateness from their parents. The adolescent phase mirrors toddlerhood in that teens must resolve the separation they first declared during toddlerhood. This means, “I am me – you are not me! Don’t tell me what to do!” That is their way of asserting and declaring control and independence.  During this phase they must also learn control over their body functions including toilet-training, self-feeding, delayed gratification, language development, coping with disappointment, and social skills,” 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.

Power Struggles: Testing the Limits of Power

This need of a toddler to be a distinct individual means that when the parent tells the child to do something, the child will do the opposite action, because that’s part of the process of individuation; or becoming a separate person, distinct from others. Going against a parent’s wishes, at this stage of development, is about children making decisions for themselves, and about testing the limits of their power as human beings. It’s about learning the boundaries of their own abilities, their choices, and their behavior.

The trick for us as parents is to guide children to make positive decisions, whenever possible. This allows the child to be independent in a productive and meaningful way. It’s the difference between demanding something, and helping the child see the smart thing to do. It’s about empowering children, as opposed to overpowering them.

Toddler playing with toy mobile phone
No power struggles here. This boy is comfortable exploring what it is like to be an adult with a mobile phone.

Let’s take a look:

Tracy wiggles her finger into a small hole in the fabric of the living room sofa. “Stop that,” says her mom. “You’re going to make the hole bigger. Leave it alone.”

Tracy, however, is two years old. Telling her not to do something is like egging her on to do exactly that. Which is why the little girl now pokes her finger into the hole of the fabric some more, casting a mischievous smile at her mother as if to say, “Ha ha. Who’s going to stop me?”

Now, we all have good and bad parenting days. If Tracy’s mom had been having a good day, she never would have demanded the girl stop what she was doing. Instead, she would have distracted her. “Oh look! The begonia has a new flower bud!” she might have said, pointing to a potted plant on the other side of the room.

Tracy would have forgotten all about the hole in the sofa. And the potential for a power struggle would have been nipped in the bud, right there and then. No raised voices, tears, or tantrums.

Tired and Cranky=Power Struggles

But because Tracy’s mom had been up half the night with Tracy’s new baby brother, she was tired and cranky. She was not in the mood to do the kind of creative thinking necessary to engage in positive parenting. And so, Tracy’s mom, without meaning to do so, set off a power struggle with her two-year-old daughter.

We’ve all been there: arguing with a two-year-old and feeling stupid when the child gets the best of us. Sometimes it is the child who sets the scene for a power struggle, doing something she knows she’s not allowed to do. At other times, the parent sets the power struggle in motion, by making a demand of the child that feels like a challenge. No matter how it begins, however, the power struggle leaves everyone feeling bad: parent and child (and anyone within hearing distance).

We’ve established that Tracy’s mom could have distracted her daughter to prevent a power struggle. But that isn’t the only tool available to end a power struggle before it begins. Tracy’s mom might have asked for the little girl’s help with the sofa, which would have made Tracy feel in control of the situation (not to mention powerful and cooperative). Tracy’s mom might have asked the two-year-old to help her turn the sofa cushion so the hole doesn’t show. She might have explained that a small child could get a finger caught in the hole and get hurt, and that the couch looks so much nicer this way. Using this tack, this mom can make Tracy feel really big about keeping other children safe and helpful in terms of making the family living room look nicer.

Requesting Tracy’s help prevents a power struggle in which Tracy would be made to feel powerless, overpowered by her mother’s demands. Instead, Tracy feels empowered, since her help is needed, even requested, to improve the situation. Compare this outcome to a power struggle, in which the child is made to feel as though she must obey: that there are no choices. By requesting a child’s help, a parent can put the power back into the child’s hands by making her feel part of the solution.

Toddler plotting mischief
This boy is plotting some kind of mischief–the kind that tends to end with power struggles. It would be good to give him something positive to do that will make him feel big.

That doesn’t mean we can or should let children do things that endanger them. Sometimes, we really do have to forbid behavior. Often, however, there’s a way to help children work through the logic demanded of the situation. Failing that, we can offer children a choice of behaviors to choose from, or distract them with something interesting.

Take the two year old child who is exhausted and needs to nap. Told that it’s time to take a nap, the child will scream, “No!”

That’s because you’ve taken away the child’s power by giving the child a command: take a nap. It’s a recipe for a power struggle. The child must protest. But once you’ve “blundered” by commanding your child to do something, you still have a way out of the power struggle. You escape the tantrum by offering your child a choice: “Which stuffed animal would you like to have with you for your nap? The brown teddy bear or your Snoopy dog?”

In offering a choice, you’ve found the way to restore your child’s power over the situation. Having a choice and the power to make a decision restores justice to your two-year-old’s world. He just wants to exert his human right as an independent human being. For this purpose, choosing between a teddy or a stuffed dog is all it takes.

Toddler girl paints the wall of her bedroom
This little girl thought she’d be like her mom and do some creative “decorating.” What would you do to prevent power struggles in a case like this?

Here, it should be noted that power struggles are more than just tantrums, or finding creative ways to prevent them. A power struggle is a negative experience with an unhappy ending. A command to take a nap sets up a negative experience that will always be associated with naptime. The mom who offers a choice between stuffed animals at naptime, on the other hand, gives her child a chance to feel happy and powerful. Nap, in this case, becomes an opportunity for a child to exercise his own free will, rather than a nasty, tear-filled struggle between parent and child. This mother sends a message to her son: “I trust you to make good decisions,” instead of, “You aren’t big enough to make decisions. I will tell you what to do.”

Let’s say you are putting your child’s coat on because it’s cold outside. The child is struggling and screaming, “No, no, no!”

It’s a full-blown power struggle. Can a parent end a power struggle in progress?

Often, the answer is yes. You might, for instance, ask if your child’s small rubber duck should sit in the right front pocket of the coat, or the left? Or you could sing a silly song to distract your child. The trick is not to let the crying and screaming go on without doing something to refocus your child. You want to turn the struggle into something else: a child’s choice instead of a parent’s command; cooperation between wise child and loving parent; or even an opportunity for the child to choose laughter over tears.

End Power Struggles with Humor or Distraction

Ending power struggles is about seeking ways to give your child more power in tricky situations. The child who doesn’t want to go to sleep may be able to choose the best way to sleep: his sleeping circumstances. The child who hates to wear a hat can earn a prize for wearing one, or choose the type of hat he must wear. It’s not always easy to find the way to a happy, independent child. It helps if parents remember that the goal is a raising a child to be a confident, capable adult.

Sometimes, all you need to do to defuse a power struggle is to change the tone. Picture this: you ask your child to pick up his toys and put them away. He says, “No!”

Instead of arguing or repeating your demand, you say the same thing in a funny, sing-song voice while rolling your eyes. He laughs and says, “Again!”

You say, in the same funny, sing-song voice, “Not until you pick up those toys and put them away. Now put away the truck!”

He laughs and puts away the truck.

“Now put away the policeman.”

He laughs and puts away the policeman.

Power Struggles Replaced by Laughter

In this way, the two of you continue until all the toys are put away. The child has learned that his good behavior—putting away a toy—is rewarded (with more funny-sounding, humorous commands). The child chooses to do as requested, instead of engaging in a battle of wills with the parent. He puts his toys away and the struggle is gone, replaced by laughter and a fun time for both parent and child.

In this case, instead of forcing the child to do as you say, you have inspired him to do the right thing of his own free will. This time you used humor. But next time it might be about offering choices, or making the child feel part of the solution, as with Tracy and the hole in the sofa.

High Level Parenting

But how does a parent get to this high level of parenting in which power struggles are a thing of the past? How does a parent get to this place of always finding the right thing to say to the child? In addition to keeping the goal in mind: restoring the child’s power, there are two other things we can do as parents to end power struggles:

Detach: It’s easy to get sucked into the emotion, into the wanting to be right. After all, you’re the parent, and the child is the child. The parent is supposed to rule, to be in charge, to make decisions for children. A parent has to learn that it’s better to be smart, than right. If you feel yourself getting steamed up, it’s sign you’ve already entered a power struggle. Stop what you’re doing and saying and take some deep breaths. Think: cut the emotion, just detach. Think: how can I restore my child’s power?

Self-Care: You know how on airplanes they tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before you help your child with his oxygen mask? That’s because if you become oxygen-deprived you’ll be no good to your child. By taking care of your own needs, you make it possible to care for your child’s needs. So do what you can to take good care of yourself. Get enough sleep, even if it means skipping housework for a nap. Do whatever it is that makes you feel fulfilled, whether it’s working out, or getting your nails done.

If you do feel cranky or sluggish, make a note of it. Make sure you don’t allow your mood to get you and your toddler into power struggle hell. Do something to baby yourself that makes you feel better. Go slow. Think.

And if you slip up and a power struggle occurs, don’t beat yourself up over it. Parenting a two-year-old is challenging. “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,” notes Dr. Walfish.

“Toddlerhood is the time I prescribe parents, especially moms, to be all there with their kids.  If moms work, choose an ever-present warm, nurturing, and firm caregiver.

“Toddlerhood is the foundation (bricks and mortar) laid upon which adolescence must resolve. Parenting is most challenging and rewarding when toddlerhood is done well.”

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.


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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Science is Sheepish: Spirituality Makes Us Healthier, Happier People

All along, the majority position of Psychiatry has been that Psychiatry has nothing to do with religion and spirituality. Religious beliefs and practices have long been thought to have a pathological basis, and psychiatrists over a century have understood them in this light. Religion was considered as a symptom of mental illness. Jean Charcot and Sigmund Freud linked religion with neurosis. DSM3 portrayed religion negatively by suggesting that religious and spiritual experiences are examples of psychopathology. But recent research reports strongly suggest that to many patients, religion and spirituality are resources that help them to cope with the stresses in life, including those of their illness. Many psychiatrists now believe that religion and spirituality are important in the life of their patients.

The above is the introduction to a study published in 2008 on the subject of Spirituality and Mental Health. The semi-apologetic nature of this lead in to a rigorous scientific study underscores the irony of scientists encountering the spirit and religion as therapeutic and beneficial to their patients.

Here is the thing: science doesn’t like to acknowledge the existence of a higher power. Science likes to acknowledge nice, hard, provable facts. Which is why it may be an irksome thing for scientists to acknowledge the absolute fact that spirituality and religion can have a positive impact on health, both physical and mental.

And so, when forced to acknowledge the benefits of belief, they, the scientists, must remain detached and apologetic, explaining that while religion is a crock, if it helps their patients, it’s no skin off their teeth. But for the rest of us, those of us who are regular people, we are quite happy to acknowledge that striving to be spiritual people makes us better. We don’t care who says we’re being silly or imagining things. We believe what we believe.

And it makes us well. Makes us better people.

Yes. Everyone knows, for instance, that 12 step programs help people get sober. One of the reasons these programs work is that acknowledging a Higher Power is at the core of all of these programs, beginning with the mother of them all: Alcoholics Anonymous. That is what really sets apart 12-step programs from other types of substance abuse treatments and makes them work.

And this can be proven. In a study of teens aged 14-18, for instance, increased spirituality concurrent with receiving treatment for substance abuse was found to improve the likelihood that the participants would achieve abstinence, increase positive social behaviors, and lessen narcissistic behavior. One-third of the teens in this particular study entered this program for substance abuse as self-declared agnostics or atheists. Two-thirds of them were subsequently discharged claiming a spiritual identity.

What about mental health, quality of life, happiness? There too, it can be proven that having a spiritual side makes everything better. Scientists studied 320 children and found that strong spiritual beliefs were a strong predictor of greater happiness. In fact, the researchers found that it was possible to attribute up to 27% of the difference in happiness levels to spirituality.

But here’s a study that will really make your head spin: scientists found that people with a family history of deep spiritual ties were at a lower risk for depression. The reason? They had a relatively thicker cortex, the region of the brain found to be thinner in those with depression. In other words, if your mom believes in God (and maybe your grandmother before her), you’re less likely to become depressed. A family history of spirituality actually changes the physical contours of the brain! Mind-blowing (well, let’s hope not!).

By Patric Hagmann [CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons
The funny thing is, it doesn’t matter what religion you are, or what you believe in. It’s all good from the standpoint of your mental health. Dan Cohen, an assistant teaching professor of religious studies at the University of Missouri says that’s because it’s more about spirituality acting as a personality trait. In the study he authored, no matter what faith the participants: Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, or Protestant, the more spiritual they were, the better their mental health. The more spiritual participants had lower levels of neuroticism and tended to be more outgoing.

“Our prior research shows that the mental health of people recovering from different medical conditions, such as cancer, stroke, spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury, appears to be related significantly to positive spiritual beliefs and especially congregational support and spiritual interventions,” said Cohen. “Spiritual beliefs may be a coping device to help individuals deal emotionally with stress.

Cohen thinks that being a spiritual person aids mental health by reducing self-centeredness and by helping people see they are a part of a much larger whole. Forgiveness is also part of the dynamic, as it is a central theme for all the major religions. Being able to forgive means being able to let go of blame and recrimination after an accident or during serious illness.

With all of this evidence that having a spiritual life is healthy, there’s a tendency to sneer at the religious, to see them as immature or even a bit weird. Those who embrace spirituality, however, couldn’t care less what others think. Hunger Games actress Jennifer Lawrence, for instance, spoke about her spiritual life in a 2012 interview with Marie Claire, “In the South it’s very normal. It would be weird for me to go to sleep without praying,” said Lawrence.

Meanwhile, Jim Gaffigan, of Comedy Central, expressed the belief that, “When we were kids it didn’t matter if someone was religious, it just mattered if they were annoying.

Could it be Gaffigan longs to return to that time when no one cared what you believed as long as you didn’t foist it on others? It’s not difficult to empathize. No one likes to have a belief foisted on them.

Oprah Winfrey said it well in a talk she gave at Stanford University on spiritual practice, “I’m not telling you what to believe or who to believe, or what to call it,” said Winfrey. “But there is no full life, no fulfilled or meaningful, sustainably joyful life without a connection to the spirit.”

Rabbi Avi Davidowitz is Camp Rabbi at TheZone, Oorah’s summer camp facility. Oorah, of course, is a Kars4Kids affiliate charity, with the latter funding many of Oorah’s programs. At TheZone, Rabbi  D., as he is known to the campers, sees daily evidence of the power of spirituality and the interplay between religious development and personal growth.

Spirituality: Elisheva E.

One day, Rabbi D. was approached by a girl at the beginning of his lesson. She asked if she could tell her personal story to the assembled campers and Rabbi D., of course, gave his consent. “We were spellbound as Elisheva E. spoke about her reading disability and how she pined to pray the shmoneh esrei prayer, also known as the Silent Benediction just once in her life. This young girl said it took her 45 minutes to say shmoneh esrei. She wanted to stop when almost all the other campers had already gone on to their activities, but her camper partner, Alana L. who also struggles with reading from the prayer book, stood there next to her as if she too were still praying, and with this friendship and encouragement, Elisheva kept going until she finished.”

The two of them stayed at it until they both were able to read through the entire prayer.  Rabbi D. remarked that, “They spoke to us about never giving up: if we keep trying, Hashem (God) will help us out.”

This aptly illustrates the power of belief and spirituality: the idea that a difficulty can be conquered if you believe in God and if you try hard enough. It also shows how belief in God led to empathy between two individuals, both struggling with difficulties, one in the past, one in the present.

Spirituality: The Donation

Another striking Oorah story that shows how belief helps children strive to be better comes from Rabbi Avraham Krawiec, who served as Director of TheZone for many years.  “A girl just back from a camp outing walked over to me, telling me that she had to speak with me. She became emotional and said, ‘I just won some money in a raffle and I want to give back to Oorah knowing how much you do for my family.'”

Rabbi Krawiec was torn. On the one hand, he didn’t want to take her money, at the same time, he didn’t want to take away her right to a good deed, either, and that is what made him accept her modest donation of $15

As Rabbi Krawiec put it, “It was only $15 but it was the best $15 donation I ever received.”

Here a child has learned the value of charity, a central belief of Judaism. Her spiritual development has led her to the concept of paying it forward and helping others. As a result, the girl is growing up to be a kind person—someone who will surely be an asset to any community lucky enough to include her as a future adult!

Spirituality: Delayed Gratification

Belief in the tenets of religion can also teach us about self-control and delaying gratification for a higher purpose. Aryeh, a TeenZone division head at TheZone, kept in touch with one camper calling him just after the Rosh Hashana holiday to see how he was doing. As it turns out, the boy was not doing well at all.

He’d wanted to observe the holiday with orthodox rigor, but could not stop himself from using his mobile phone, a no-no for the orthodox. The camper begged Aryeh to help him come up with a plan so he wouldn’t repeat the error on the upcoming Yom Kippur holiday, when phones are similarly off-limits for the very religious.

The boy intuited that his phone was coming between him and his relationship to the Divine. The phone was not in the spirit of the Ten Days of Repentance when we look back over the year past, to see where and when we failed to stop ourselves from doing things we wanted to do in the moment, instead of pushing to come closer to God. After discussing with Aryeh various ways he might keep himself from using the phone on the holiday, he got a brainstorm idea: he’d mail his phone to Aryeh!

Well, this plan certainly worked. Aryeh’s phone rang right after the holiday, and the boy’s voice was filled with joy. He’d done it. Observed Yom Kippur from start to finish, as it was meant to be observed. He’d felt nothing but holiness all that day.

Is it any wonder that the following summer, on the very last day of camp at TheZone, as the buses were already beginning to leave, that the boy went over to Aryeh and asked him to remind him to mail his phone to him for safe-keeping over the Rosh Hashana holiday?

Here was a boy who had learned that contrary to everything he’d always thought, it is quite possible to delay gratification, to patiently endure whatever trials and tribulations come our way, and come out all the stronger for it! Here was a boy who had learned that being a believing Jew on Rosh Hashanah meant putting away the phone and looking into his own heart instead of a screen.

The scientists may not like it, but there it is: being in touch with our spiritual side makes us better, healthier people, kids or adults.

And that’s a fact.

It makes us strive to achieve the seemingly unachievable and well, it makes us happier, too

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Teens and Smartphones: Should They Be Separated?

Teens and smartphones seem to be attached by some invisible cord. We’ve all seen teens all hunched over, not really there with us, totally absorbed by whatever is going on in their virtual worlds. The nagging voice in our (parental) heads may say, “This is what addiction looks like.”

We’re not wrong.

A recent study by Common Sense Media found that 50 percent of teenagers feel they are addicted to their smartphones. The same study found that 77 percent of parents feel their teens are distracted by their smartphones and don’t pay attention when they are together. When we speak about addiction and not paying attention to the person next to you, in favor of text on a screen, it does suggest there’s something wrong.

So should teens and smartphones be separated for their own good?

More Harm Than Good

Not so fast. Because after all, that invisible cord is strong. The phone is your child’s entire world right now. Taking it away may end up doing more harm than good.

Parents have long understood that withholding or confiscating something important can spur children to an important goal. A parent may link a clean bedroom to a much-desired trip to the mall. A parent may precondition television time to completed homework assignments. It is only natural for a parent to see the smartphone as yet another item to be used for this type of carrot and stick gambit. A parent, in an effort to limit a teen’s smartphone use, might be tempted to say, “You want time on your smartphone, you have to earn it.”

Teens and Smartphones: Networked Publics

But if the phone is really an addiction, and even teenagers say it is just that, you’re looking at more than a carrot. That’s because of something called networked publics. Once upon a time, you see, teens spent time in malls or movie theaters. Today, they don’t.

Instead, social networks like Facebook have taken the place of these once teen-friendly venues. And smartphones are the teenager’s port of access to this world. Cut the cord between teens and smartphones and you’ve taken away their peers, their ability to relate to others, their entire social life.

A parent might argue that tapping on keyboard is not the same thing as relating to friends in real life. You’d think that in taking away the smartphone, you’d be pushing your teen into the real world of real human contact. But in actuality, the smartphone is the hub for teenage communication. It’s the way teens are relating to each other today. It’s how they hang out. The reason for this, say the experts, is that teens have limited access to actual physical sites where they might meet for unstructured social time.

Think about it: teens can’t hang out in bars because of their age. They aren’t going to dine out in restaurants because they lack money. And if teens hang out on the street, someone will be sure to accuse them of loitering. Facebook, Snapchat, and the like, on the other hand, are free spaces where teens can spend time together irrespective of age, for free, and for an unlimited period of time.

Social networks as networked publics also offer teens spaces where they can connect with their friends without adult oversight. This frees teens to try out various ways of expressing themselves as they develop their identities. Teens might, for instance, use bold language in a text that would shock a parent. They’re looking to see what works, what feels right, as they make their way into adulthood.

And again, the phone is the portal to this virtual space.

So what happens if you take away the phone?

Pretty much, you’re taking away the primary vehicle for a teen’s social and emotional development.

The smartphone holds the teen’s entire social network. Take away the phone and you’re taking away everything. Everything that counts in a teen’s life. Instead of your teen relating to peers in the flesh, in real life, take away the smartphone and you will watch your teen withdraw from you, hide from you. Your teen needs that social contact on the smartphone and will be forced to lie and sneak around to get that social fix.

None of this changes the fact that a smartphone is a poor substitute for real face-to-face contact. Teens, in socializing through their smartphones, are missing out on learning how to read body language and social cues. They aren’t learning how to be good listeners. They aren’t learning how to make conversation.

The best solution to this problem is to limit, rather than take away a teen’s smartphone. Teens and smartphones can, for instance, be safely separated for the 45 minutes to an hour that constitutes dinner time at the table with family. But parents have to put their smartphones away, too. Set up a charging station somewhere and have the entire family set their phones to charging while they eat and talk and get to know each other in person over a meal.

Separate teens and smartphones at night, too. The bright light from the screen keeps kids from developing melatonin, the hormone that regulates the sleep/wake cycle. And teens are going to answer texts even if it’s 3 AM. It’s just the way they are. If you want them to sleep, the phone must go until the morning. You can hold it for them for safekeeping. If they are worried about their friends judging them for not answering middle of the night texts, just have them explain the no-phones-at-night rule and blame it on you.

Don’t Confiscate, Impose Limits

Imposing limits on smartphone use makes more sense than confiscation. Your aim, after all, is to help your child regulate his smartphone use, and the way your teenager relates to others and to technology. That makes it quite legitimate and appropriate for you to let your teen know when it’s time to put the phone away for a bit. You can say, “You’ve been on the phone for hours now. It’s time for a technology break. Do something else for a bit, okay?”

Teens, you see, are digital natives. It’s up to us, the adults in their lives, to remind them that there’s another world out there. That other world is an unplugged world that never requires a USB port or a charger.

It’s where stuff gets REAL.

Why Do Kids Have Imaginary Friends?

Many children have imaginary friends. Imaginary friend can be invisible to others, or take the form of an inanimate object. When the imaginary friend is a real object, the child imagines the inanimate object as having personality and abilities.

Just how many children have pretend companions varies according to the sources you read and sometimes according to the type of imaginary friend. An Australian study says some 65 percent of all children have imaginary friends. Author Lauren Young says that as many as two-thirds of children, typically between the ages of 3 and 8, have imaginary friends. Young’s article, however, further cites researcher Marjorie Taylor, who says that only some 37 percent of all children have invisible imaginary friends, or imaginary friends that aren’t objects. Whatever source you look at, it’s a significant enough percentage, even at the lower end of the scale.

The conclusion: imaginary friends are common as mud.

When parents go looking for statistics, however, what they are often looking for is assurance that a particular phenomenon is normal. One parent whose child has an imaginary friend, for instance, may be concerned that the imaginary friend is a symptom of mental illness. Another parent may be concerned that the child has no real friends and must invent imaginary friends, instead. If a parent knows that many or even most children have imaginary friends, that parent is going to be pretty sure that it’s perfectly fine and healthy to have an imaginary friend (it is).

Imaginary Friends With Benefits

Here, while we can’t say exactly how many children have imaginary friends, we can say that imaginary friends are common enough to be benign, harmless. Having an imaginary friend may, in fact, have many benefits. An imaginary friend may offer a child a way to try out and practice new skills without getting laughed at. Children may, for instance, use imaginary friends to practice language or social skills. Imaginary friends can also help children talk through situations, think of solutions to problems, or vent emotions.

Children who have imaginary friends are not typically loners. They don’t have issues with making or keeping friends. Parents should see imaginary friends not as a replacement for real friends, but as a sign of a child’s resourcefulness. A child with an imaginary friend is a child who has found a way to cope with feelings and problems.

Children have two different ways of relating to imaginary friends. Children may have hierarchical relationships or egalitarian relationships with their imaginary friends. In a hierarchical relationship, one friend in the relationship is dominant, more powerful. In the egalitarian relationship, the imaginary friend and the child are on equal footing.

In the hierarchical relationship, an imaginary friend may boss the child around or direct him to a good hiding place. In other cases, the imaginary friend is under the child’s command, and must serve the child’s wishes. Imagine what a comfort this is to a child who is bossed around by her peers in real life! Finally, she gets to tell someone else what to do and get that friend to obey.

Children who have egalitarian relationships with their imaginary friends tend to be better than their peers at social coping. They’re already good at managing friendships and social situations. Interacting with the imaginary friend may be just a child’s way of practicing and improving existing skills. Having an imaginary friend does give a child a chance to practice both sides of the conversation. This teaches a child the best way to get his point across.

Whether friends as equals or otherwise, there are some things that are true of most children with imaginary friends. Children aged 3-6 with imaginary friends, are, in general, both more creative and more advanced in their social skills. They have larger vocabularies, use more complex sentence structures, and get along better with their real life friends.

If you think about it, you, as an adult, probably have imagined a conversation with a friend or acquaintance. Maybe you don’t like the way you handled an interaction at a party. You may reenact that conversation in your mind with different endings. You are thinking: What would have happened if I had said this instead of that?

This is very much like the conversations children have with their imaginary friends.

It is one of the marvelous things about being a human being: that we have an imagination. We can use that imagination to think about the future or to solve problems. For children, an imaginary friend can be a guide or a comfort or a way to understand things. The imaginary friend is there by command when the child is bored or lonely, and has no one to play with. An imaginary friend can soften  a difficult or stress-filled time, for instance, when the child is adjusting to a new baby brother or even a new home.

Imaginary Friends: The Magical Bubble

Adults can be surprised to learn that children with imaginary playmates know their friends aren’t real. Children with imaginary friends are, however, perfectly capable of separating out the fantasy from reality. Expert Tracy Gleason says, “The way I like to think about this is that there is this kind of magical bubble in which the children and their imaginary companions live. And they know that the bubble exists and they choose not to pop it.”

One of the great things about imaginary friends is that they are always available. Big sister doesn’t want to play? Imaginary friend to the rescue.

The imaginary friend is forgiving. Children can yell at imaginary friends. They’ll still be your (imaginary) friends.

A child wants to imagine the sky to be green and the grass blue? The imaginary friend is right there with the child to imagine it and “live” it, and most of all, laugh about it. No one has to know about the color switch, which makes it safe. No one will laugh at the child for being creative at play.

A list of some of the many things imaginary friends can do:

  • Provide companionship
  • Give the child a chance to try different ways of doing things
  • Allow the child to play in a more creative way
  • Offer a safe place to practice people skills
  • Permit children to test out strong emotions like anger and fear, in safety and in private
  • Let the child be the one in charge, the boss, when the child may be feeling powerless or vulnerable in real life
  • Empower the child to experience a rich internal private life that is safe from others’ eyes
  • Grant comfort when a child is stressed out by being there with unconditional (if imagined) love and acceptance

What can parents learn from a child’s imaginary friends?

A child’s relationship with an imaginary friend can help parents spot problems with their children. If an imaginary friend is afraid of something, for instance the dark, or dogs, the child may be wrestling with this fear and may be using the imaginary friend to express the fear and work through it. If the imaginary friend is always getting into trouble, it may be a sign that the child feels overwhelmed with too many rules or is being punished too often.

Of course, sometimes the imaginary child is used as the child’s scapegoat or to get out of doing an unpleasant task. A child may blame misbehavior on the imaginary friend, “Mr. Kipsy broke the window,” or a child may tell a parent that “Mr. Kipsy says I don’t have to go to bed right now.”

When imaginary friends are used in this manner, parents should see this as an opportunity. In the case of the broken mirror, a parent might say that everyone has accidents and makes mistakes, and not to worry. Then you tell the child that a broken window mess can be cleaned and the window replaced. Next you proceed to do just that. The child wants to know that you still love him, even when he makes mistakes or giant messes. You can say, “I love you, even when mistakes happen.”

In the case of imaginary friends overriding a parent’s command, remember that kids know their imaginary friends are imaginary. You can say, “Mr. Kipsy may say you don’t have to go to bed right now, but I am your mother, and I say it’s bedtime right now.”

Imaginary friends are a child’s cushion. Children have to take in an enormous amount of information as they are doing the important business of growing up. The world can seem a big and scary place. If imaginary friends give children a safe way to practice what to say and do and make that world safer and easier to take in, than that can only be a good thing. Always remember that imaginary friends are a sign that your child is good at finding ways to cope and move forward.

Be glad your child has an imaginary friend, acknowledge this as a benefit, and watch on with wonder. It’s a really cool phenomenon. And it will all be over before you can blink, leaving some really awesome memories the two (and not the three) of you can share for a lifetime.

FOMO Is Messing With Our Children’s Sleep

FOMO, or fear of missing out, is the reason you rarely see a child without a phone in hand during daylight hours. Most of us feel a bit sad about that. We’d rather our children communicate with their friends in the flesh. What’s even worse, however, is that FOMO extends deep into the night. Tiptoe into a child’s bedroom at night, and you’ll likely still see that blinking, chirping phone in your child’s hand, or on a pillow next to his head.

Is that any way for a child to get a good night’s sleep?

According to a study just published by JAMA Pediatrics on October 31, the answer is an unequivocal no.

When kids keep portable mobile screen-based devices like smartphones and tablets in their bedrooms, the result is fewer hours of sleep, poor sleep quality, and daytime sleepiness. This is a serious problem because sleep is vital to our children’s health and development, both physical and mental. Not getting enough quality sleep time has been linked to obesity, lowered immunity to diseases, stunted growth, substance abuse, and mental health issues like suicidal tendencies and depression. Considering the health risks associated with having an electronic device in the bedroom , you might even say that FOMO is killing our children.

Screens and Sleep

Earlier studies have already found that using screens close to bedtime keeps children from getting sleepy. In part, this is because the bright light from the screen keeps the body from producing melatonin, the hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. This new study is different because it focuses specifically on portable electronic devices that can be brought into the bedroom and their effects.  To that end, Ben Carter, PhD, MSc, Department of Biostatistics and Health Informatics, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London, looked at 467 studies to find 20 studies that had the metadata he needed.

The 20 studies cover some 26,000 child participants and the effects of having mobile electronic devices  in their sleep environments (their bedrooms). The kids in these studies are from North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia, and are 6-19 years old. Carter found that kids who had their mobile devices nearby at bedtime were twice as likely to get fewer than nine hours of sleep per night. Just keeping these devices in their bedrooms meant the kids were 50 percent more likely to sleep poorly, and 200 percent more likely to drag along and be groggy with sleep the next day.

Why did Carter focus on smartphones and tablets in the bedroom? What makes these devices deserve a category of their own, when we talk about screen use and sleep? A commentary accompanying the study in JAMA, if one will excuse the pun, sheds some light on the subject.

FOMO Is Making Them Sick

Written by sleep medicine expert Charles A. Czeisler and pediatrician Theresa L. Shanahan, both of Harvard, the authors note that parents say two-thirds of their teens leave their devices on even as they sleep at night. Worse yet, 43 percent of these kids awaken periodically during sleep to read and send text messages throughout the night. We know what makes them do it: FOMO. And we know it’s making them sick.

Czeisler and Shanahan write:

The use of mobile media devices at bedtime provides socially and physiologically stimulating material at a time when the transition to sleep requires the brain to wind down. Interesting content is often difficult to resist, and children frequently have a fear of missing out if they disconnect. Coupled with the demands of homework, media devices can keep children and adolescents awake well past the bedtime needed to obtain an adequate amount of sleep.

Czeisler and Shanahan explain that delaying the start of sleep can set off a whole slew of physical effects that push off sleep starting times even further, which then limits the amount of sleep hours not just for that evening but for many nights to follow. The situation is made worse during the school year. That’s when kids must wake up early to get to school on time; go to weekend sports events that continue late into the night; and attend extracurricular activities that force kids up even earlier to get some practice in before school start times.

Delayed bedtimes plus the light from mobile devices and more efficient LED light sources that have all but replaced incandescent bulbs combine to suppress the release of melatonin. Kids need that melatonin to tell their brains it’s time to sleep. But without melatonin, kids’ bodies think that the sun hasn’t gone down and that it’s not yet time to sleep. Kids’ bodies could, for thousands of years, depend on the sun to tell them when to sleep. Modern technology, however, won’t turn off the lights, so our teens don’t know that dusk has arrived.

Even when kids do finally fall asleep, having those phones next to them means they won’t be sleeping soundly.  That’s because they’re receiving and answering text messages throughout the night. It’s a case of constantly interrupted, disturbed sleep. Czeisler and Shanahan list the adverse effects of this sort of sleep: sleep deprivation; sleep-wake cycle disruption; enhanced appetite; obesity; reduced insulin sensitivity; increased risk for type 2 diabetes; ADHD; mood changes; poor academic performance; impaired immunity; slowed reaction times; memory issues; anxiety; depression; and finally, impairment of the natural course of hormonal development in teens, some of which takes place during sleep.

Texting in Bed

Phones and FOMO

That’s a lot of stuff to look at. Stuff that hurts our kids. All because of phones and FOMO.

FOMO, or the fear of missing out, means our children are exploring the parameters of the online world deep into the night. They do it because they can. They do it because their parents aren’t around to watch over their shoulders and oversee their online activities. And because they’re surfing the net and chilling with their friends deep into the night, during the day they are plain, full-out, exhausted.

Because they are sleepy during the day, they aren’t doing well in school and may even sleep the weekend away when there is no school . The effects of not enough sleep, and poor sleep at that, is having a dire effect on our children’s learning and memory and their physiological and psychosocial development. They’re showing symptoms that resemble ADHD.

Daytime Sleepiness
Texting at night means daytime sleepiness.

Czeisler and Shanahan say that all this, “raises serious ethical concerns about advertising campaigns targeting school-age children that tout the use of mobile media devices in the bedroom at the expense of sleep.”

But if we’re going to point a finger at advertisers, one has to wonder about the ethics of us as parents allowing our children to bring these devices into their bedrooms. Can we stop them? Is it too cruel to take away their devices? And if we take away their phones and tablets would we be putting them at risk, instead, for extreme anxiety, due to their intense fear of missing out, their FOMO?

As parents, we need to find a way to sever the invisible chords that bind our children to their phones and to their virtual worlds. At least at night. It’s our best and brightest chance of keeping them safe, sane, and happy in this world now, today.

The Adolescent Brain: Why Gray Matters

The adolescent brain fascinates scientists and scares the living daylights out of parents of teens, everywhere. The scientists are excited because they can now actually see what is happening inside the brain, thanks to better imaging techniques. Parents are terrified because they suspect that the difference between a teenager’s brain and an adult’s brain can be deadly.

Parents don’t need statistics to understand that teenagers are prone to rash and extreme behavior. But if you really want to know, the stats are there. The rate of death by injury between the ages of 15-19 is six times that of kids between the ages of 10 and 14. The overall mortality rate in teens is higher. Crime rates are higher. And finally, alcohol abuse is rampant in teens compared to any other age.

Researchers began studying the adolescent brain in a quest for understanding how mental illness develops. Many serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia in which voices and hallucinations are experienced, begin during adolescence. Thanks to Imaging techniques such as fMRI, researchers were at last able to track brain growth and the connection between the brain’s function, development, and human behavior. All in real time.

Adolescent Brain Assumptions

Over the past two decades, scientists found they’d been wrong in many of their earlier assumptions about the adolescent brain. Researchers used to think that the adolescent brain was just an adult brain, if slightly immature. Instead they discovered that the adolescent brain is unique and that the brain is not fully “adult” until the teenage years are but a memory.

Scientists wanted to get to the bottom of an apparent contradiction: adolescents are at the peak of their mental ability, their health and strength. And yet—those crazy mortality rates are through the roof. What makes adolescence so hazardous? Is it something to do with the adolescent brain? Is there anything we can glean from studying the adolescent brain that can help parents guide their teens safely through those years into adulthood?

One clue to understanding teens has to do with how the adolescent brain deals with gray matter. Gray matter is the thin, folding, outer layer of the brain, known as the cortex. The cortex is where we form thoughts and memories. The amount of gray matter increases during childhood and then declines.

Scientists thought that the amount of gray matter was highest in very young children, and that the volume of gray matter fell as the child grew. Imaging scans found something very different. Early adolescence is when peak volume in the brain’s gray matter is reached.

Pruning The Adolescent Brain

What this means is that the brain is still not mature at this time. We know this because the adolescent brain’s gray matter must be pruned away over time to reveal the finalized adult brain in its full glory. We won’t see this adult brain (in imaging scans) until the person reaches his or her early 20’s.

The process of brain maturation is, of course, more complicated than this suggests. Imaging scans show us that different parts of the adolescent cortex are maturing at different speeds and times. The parts of the cortex that control our most basic functions develop first. Our senses, and our ability to control movement, for instance, are primed to mature first. Meantime, the parts of the cortex that help us adults plan and control our impulses (surprise, surprise), mature only much later.

So what is gray matter, anyway? Gray matter consists of the cell bodies that make up the neurons, the nerve fibers they sprout, and the cells that support them. A baby’s brain is distinguished by having lots and lots of synapses, the “wires” that connect the brain cells. Through these synapses, the circuitry of the brain, the neurons can communicate with each other.

A baby is born with more synapses than an adult and these synapses continue to multiply quickly over the first several months of life. A toddler of two has one and a half times as many synapses as his parent. This is no small matter: a 1 millimeter cube of brain matter can hold anywhere from 35-70 million neurons and around 500 billion synapses.

More Efficient, More Elegant

Scientists think that when children lose their synapses, it’s like pruning a tree. Cutting back on the synapses makes the brain a more efficient machine, more elegant. At any rate, now there is no doubt: the adolescent brain’s main feature is that it is in the process of losing gray matter.

The loss of gray matter during the teenage years happens in specific ways, which explains some of the behavior we’ve long noticed in teens. Teens have a stronger reaction to emotions and situations than do adults. This has to do with the signaling of the reward system of the brain that motivates our behavior. Teens feel and react more intensely and sense greater urgency in situations adults may not see as needing immediate attention at all.

The hormonal upheaval going on inside the adolescent brain affects not only sexual behavior but social behavior. The adolescent brain’s response to stress is complicated and can result in bizarre or even dangerous behavior.

The adolescent brain is the equal in intellectual power to that of the adult. The ability of the adolescent to learn is actually greater than that of the adult in terms of taking in, processing, and retaining information. Somewhat offsetting this ability, however, is the still immature impulse control and planning of the adolescent brain, compared to the adult’s. The upshot:  adolescents and adults use different parts of their brains for various mental tasks and to process emotions.

The Adolescent Brain And Sleep

The adolescent brain has trouble regulating the sleep-wake cycle, which explains teenagers who want to stay up late at night and who then cannot wake up in time for school in the morning. Forcing them to get to school on time means they are being educated in a state of fatigue, which makes it hard to pay attention, may lead to depression, and may also explain irritable behavior. Sleep deprivation has, in addition, been found to increase impulsive behavior and even delinquency.

The adolescent brain, in essence, is fully operational, with some of the parts perhaps overshooting the mark for impulse control, planning, and keeping emotions well-checked. The inability to plan ahead or check an impulse, and the strength of the feeling and desire to do something, can cause a teenager to do some mighty risky things. They can’t see the predictable outcome. They feel impelled to do the dangerous, without knowing the full danger. Their brains just don’t see what our brains see.

But you knew all that without any fancy imaging machines.

One Of A Kind Brain

Some scientists are looking at the adolescent brain with new eyes in light of these recent discoveries. Maybe we shouldn’t look at the adolescent brain as “immature” but as a unique and exciting specimen. Something one of a kind.

More pragmatic researchers are hoping to use this greater understanding of the adolescent brain to provide teens with an environment that allows them to explore life while keeping them safe from behavior that could hurt them or others. Part of getting to that point is pinpointing the differences between adolescent behavior and adult behavior to get to a better place of understanding these behaviors.

Take, for instance, the difference between the way teens drink compared to the way adults drink. Adults drink more often than teens. But when teens drink, they consume larger quantities of alcohol. There’s also scientific evidence that the adolescent brain has a different response to alcohol than the adult brain. These differences may help us understand how to protect our teens from binge drinking and from developing an addiction to alcohol as adults.

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.


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.