Underage Drinking: Having the Talk About Alcohol and Brain Health

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

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

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

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

Some conclusions from the report:

More Parents Are Talking the Talk.

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

Parents Wait Too Long to Have the Talk.

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

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

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

Parents Think Kids Are Too Young for the Talk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Survey Methodology

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

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

Spanking? The Jury is in: It’s BAD

Spanking was never proven to be a bad thing, at least not scientifically. That is until now. University of Michigan researchers have looked at the data and finally and absolutely concluded that being spanked as a child may lead to an assortment of mental health issues in adulthood.

This new study was undertaken by Andrew Grogan-Kaylor and Shawna Lee, both assistant professors of social work at the University of Michigan. The work they did in tandem with their colleagues points to spanking in childhood as a form of violence, which leads to mental health issues such as depression, attempts at suicide, and moderate-to-heavy levels of substance abuse, such as alcohol or illegal drug use, later in life.

“Placing spanking in a similar category to physical/emotional abuse experiences would increase our understanding of these adult mental health problems,” says Grogan-Kaylor.

Spanking and Physical Abuse

The researchers noted the similarities between spanking and physical abuse: both involve using force and inflicting pain. Both are linked to similar mental health outcomes. These similarities caused the researchers to wonder whether spanking should be categorized as an “adverse childhood experience.” That would place spanking in the same basket with, for instance, abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. Household dysfunction would include, among other things, divorce, or a parent in prison.

To a layman, the questions that comes to mind are: are the scientists looking to label spanking as abuse? Could it be that parents who are likely to spank their children are also more likely to use physical abuse, neglect their children, or run dysfunctional households? Just how big a study was this?

Also: can we finally lay this to rest and rule, unequivocally, that spanking is bad? Or is this just some psychobabble being spouted? Must we, as parents, pay attention?

It bears noting here that the study is based on data pulled from the CDC-Kaiser ACE study. “ACE” stands for “adverse childhood experiences.” The ACE study definitely represents a large enough sample to be statistically relevant. The number of participants stands at over 8,300, with an age range of 19-97 years. As for the methodology, the data was gathered by having people answer questionnaires when visiting an outpatient clinic for routine checkups.

Clinic patients were asked how often they were spanked during the first 18 years of life. They were also asked to describe their childhood households and whether an adult had abused them. Physical abuse was defined for the participants as pushing, grabbing, slapping, or shoving. Emotional abuse was described as being insulted or cursed.

Almost 55 percent of those who filled out the questionnaires reported having been spanked as children. Men were more likely to have been spanked compared to women. Minorities, except for Asians, were more likely, compared to whites, to say they’d been spanked.

Spanking and mental health connection according to gender and color
(photo credit: Michigan News)

Participants who reported being spanked as children, were more likely to be suffering from depression and other mental health problems.

What constitutes “spanking” in this study? Is spanking any time the hand is applied to the bottom, whether or not the parent is angry at the time? The researchers came up with this definition: “spanking is defined as using physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain, but not injury, to correct or control the youth’s behavior.”

A fair enough definition. But how do we know it’s spanking that is causing the mental health issues later in life and not some other factor? This author put the question to researcher Grogan-Kaylor, who responded as follows: “The question is a great one. The key question is whether we are comparing children who are otherwise alike. That is to say, are we comparing families and children that are otherwise alike with the exception of spanking? Statistical techniques allow us to ensure that we are comparing like to like, and to rule out a number of other alternative factors as possible causes.”

Spanking as “Adverse Childhood Reaction”

Grogan-Kaylor shared with this author two other papers he’d co-authored, The Case Against Physical Punishment, and, Unpacking the impact of adverse childhood experiences on adult mental health. Both papers lend evidence to the theory that spanking can be seen as an “adverse childhood experience,” and therefore causes harm to the child, which may manifest only in adulthood, in the form of mental health issues. The former study illustrates this harm to the child through three theories: the attachment theory, the social learning theory, and finally, the coercion theory.

The attachment theory suggests that a child needs to feel absolutely sure of a parent’s love and care in order to flower. This sense of secure attachment to the parent is founded on parental empathy and sensitivity to children. Spanking then, is a way of responding to a child’s need for attention that erodes the child’s secure attachment to the parent by making the child feel degraded and rejected. Such children can develop feelings of being unworthy, which in turn can lead to depression and anxiety.

The social learning theory has children learning from example. The theory here is that when parents punish children for bad behavior by spanking them, children learn that violence is an acceptable method for correcting the misbehavior of others. Further complicating the message, is the fact that spanking stops the poor behavior, so that children learn that violence is an effective way to control and cope with interpersonal relations and for dealing with social interactions in general. In other words: violence is the way to work things out with people/relationships.

Coercion theory describes a cycle that occurs when the child rebels against the parent’s punishment. The parent may say, “If you don’t stop doing that, I’m going to spank you.”

Spanking: Vicious Cycle

The child may react with hostility to this situation, which causes the parent to “step up his game.” The intensification of the parent’s response comes with anger from the parent, which makes the child more rebellious. This “coercive cycle” continues to worsen until one side gives in. The parent may give up disciplining the child or the child may give in to his fear and pain and do as the parent wishes. In any event, one side “loses” and feels defeated. Defeated, one might emphasize, as opposed to feeling as though a problem has been resolved, or a lesson learned.

The latter paper shared with this author by Grogan-Kaylor does a fairly good job of showing that spanking in childhood is a risk factor for later mental illness independent of such adverse childhood experiences such as neglect; a parent in jail; or divorce. This suggests that spanking should also be included in an expanded understanding of the “adverse childhood experience.” This idea led to the current study, which concludes that spanking is absolutely an adverse childhood experience.

In terms of real life examples of how spanking is or isn’t used as a parent-rearing method, this author has often heard one mother say, “I don’t need to hit my children.”

The implication here is that there are other ways to make children behave, and they don’t involve violence.

Spanking as negative association

Another friend said she spanked her child just once, when her child ran out into traffic. This mother spanked her child out of equal measures of love and fear, out of a desire to preserve her child’s safety. It was a protective, knee-jerk reaction. In spanking her child this one single time, this mother meant to create an association: run into traffic=receive an unpleasant smack on the butt.

That child is today, what seems to be, to this author’s eyes, a well-adjusted adult, with no apparent mental illness. Also, that child never again ran into traffic. Thus, at least on a basic level, the parent achieved her aim: to create a negative association so the child would never repeat the behavior. Would that lesson have been driven home as effectively in any other manner?

There may be a generational factor in parents who did spank and parents who never do. Today, there is a greater awareness of abuse in all its forms. A parent may be reluctant to spank due to the perceived association between spanking and physical abuse. Back in the 1980’s, however, there was much less awareness of abuse and its effects. Even today, this is study is groundbreaking in that it suggests that spanking actually hurts children in terms of their future mental health.

Lead author of this study, Tracie Afifi, associate professor at the University of Manitoba, suggests we too often think about child abuse and its prevention, but not so much about harsh parenting. Afifi believes we need to put thought and effort into preventing this sort of parenting before it occurs. “This can be achieved by promoting evidence-based parenting programs and policies designed to prevent early adversities, and associated risk factors,” says co-author Shawna Lee, who is also a faculty associate at the U-M Institute for Social Research. “Prevention should be a critical direction for public health initiatives to take.”

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Energy Drinks and Bars: Deadly Teenage Treats?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obesity and Energy Drinks and Bars

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

Caffeine and Energy Drinks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Energy Drinks Vs. Sports Drinks

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

Other Dubious Ingredients

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

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

Proprietary Secrets? Nah.

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

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

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

Mixed Results

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

Energy Treats Cost Big Time

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

Meal Substitute?

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

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

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

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

Devil’s Advocate

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

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

Missing: Phytonutrients

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

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

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

Better Choices

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

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

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

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13 Reasons Why Your Teen Should Not See This Show

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

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

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

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

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

And the show is utterly believable.

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

They say the show makes suicide glamorous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead there is nothing of the sort.

13 Reasons Why Classified in New Zealand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As should you.

How to Prevent Teen Suicide

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

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

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

depression

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teen Suicide Risk Factors

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

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

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

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

Teen Suicide Protective Factors

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

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

Depression and Teen Suicide

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

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

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

Preventive Measures and Teen Suicide

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

Suicide Threats

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

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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 et.al. [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/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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Drama Therapy and Your Child

Drama therapy is a form of treatment that uses playacting to explore feelings in a safe environment. In drama therapy, participants may use storytelling, improvisation, and performance to solve problems, vent feelings, or work toward emotional goals. Drama therapy can succeed where other forms of therapy fail, because first of all, it’s fun. Second of all, drama therapy helps participants experiment with different behaviors and responses to events without any risk, because it’s all play, with none of it real.

Another reason drama therapy works so well is that it touches more of the senses than simply sitting and talking with a therapist: it’s multisensory. Getting up and acting something out makes it more real, than talking about what you did and what you might have done instead. In drama therapy, too, the goals are modest. You’re not looking for some incredible breakthrough. You just want the party to get comfortable with his or her feelings.

Drama therapy is a great way for kids to work out how they feel about things, or to vent feelings they’ve been too afraid to share. Kids already use drama therapy every day, without being aware that they do so. When they play “house” or play with their dolls, they are role-playing and exploring their feelings about parenting and family dynamics.

drama therapy
Playing the Clown

A child may not know how to tell a grownup that she experienced abuse. But in drama therapy, she may be able to play act the whole thing with dolls. A child who experiences terror, and suffers from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), may need to let out pent up scary feelings in order to face them and move on. Telling her story in drama therapy, as if it happened to someone else, may feel safer than just talking about what happened.

Sometimes children have a hard time making friends. They feel awkward talking to their peers and might not know how to break the ice. At other times, a child may be so afraid of rejection that she becomes a loner by default: she (let’s call her “Jane”) is too afraid that Miranda won’t want to jump rope with her, so Jane doesn’t bother to ask. She just sits in a corner by herself.

In drama therapy, Jane can practice asking Miranda to jump rope and imagine the different responses Miranda might offer. She can practice having Miranda say yes, and she can role-play Miranda saying no. She can role-play her own part as well as role-playing Miranda’s part, too. Jane can play-act every possibility of this interaction and see how she feels in each case. In this way, Jane has a chance to see how she feels in the worst case scenario of rejection, and get used to how that feels.

drama therapy
In drama therapy, the child is the star of his own drama.

But there are still more possibilities. Jane can then go back and see why Miranda said no. Was it because of the way Jane phrased the request? Did her fear of rejection come through and color Miranda’s negative response? In exploring every facet of this pretend interaction, Jane might find a more effective way to behave in social situations. In so doing, she gains a measure of control over what looks like a hopeless situation in which she is helpless: Jane can learn how to make friends.

Role playing is the most common tool used in drama therapy. Another common tool in drama therapy is mask making. When a child creates a mask, he is expressing emotion with paint and paper. Making a mask can be a relief for a child who has trouble talking about his feelings. Wearing a mask is like putting on a new mood or personality. A child who has been forbidden by his abuser to speak about the abuse, may find masks a safe way to show what happened and how he feels about that.

Drama Therapy Methods

Drama therapy is more than acting. Here are some common methods and tools used in a drama therapy session:

  • Scripts and script-writing
  • Role-playing
  • Making and using puppets
  • Games
  • Improvisation
  • Creating and performing rituals

One reason drama therapy has become so popular in recent years is that it doesn’t have the same stigma as just plain therapy. A school child or teenager would be embarrassed for friends to know she’s seeing a “shrink.” But going to drama therapy doesn’t have that same kind of negative connotation. It sounds more like an extra-curricular activity, a fun thing to do, than a way of getting in touch with feelings or dealing with emotional problems.

drama therapy
Mask making is a tool that is commonly used in drama therapy.

Drama Therapy Uses

Drama therapy can be helpful for these conditions, as well as others:

  • PTSD
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Substance abuse
  • Behavioral problems related to Autism
  • Peer and Family Relationship issues
  • Substance abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Grief
  • Learning disorders

Drama Therapy Goals

Some of the goals of drama therapy are to:

  • Encourage positive changes in behavior
  • Improve social skills
  • Increase self-awareness, self-esteem, and personal growth
  • Improve quality of life

In short, drama therapy offers a safe, fun, and effective way to explore issues. If you feel as though your child is getting nowhere in her therapy, you may want to look for a qualified drama therapist. The North American Drama Therapy Association (NADTA) website, has a search page for finding drama therapists in the United States and Canada.

Has your child had a success with drama therapy? We’d like to know about it. Write to Varda at Kars4Kids dot org with your child’s success story.

 

The Impact of Song Lyrics on Our Children: What You Need to Know

Is the impact of song lyrics on our children something we should worry about? Is it something you have worried about? Because if you’re like most parents, you have no idea what your kids are listening to, unless the lyrics are so obviously sexualized that the song makes it into the news headlines.

And of course, since society as a whole has become more tolerant about what is and is not acceptable language, the boundaries are much further away than ever before.

We’ve heard that graphically violent computer games and cartoons can affect behavior, causing children to become more violent. But most parents are completely unaware of the impact of sexualized lyrics in popular music on teenagers. How would they know it’s a problem when they don’t even know what their kids are listening to?

Technology has made it easy to listen to music in a crowded room without disturbing anyone. Devices such as iPods and MP4 players have made music more portable and lightweight earphones afford the listener an amazing degree of privacy. One hundred people could be listening to one hundred different songs in the bus station without infringing on any individual’s rights.

teens, boys, music, impact of song lyrics

So where does that leave us as parents? Parents don’t know that sexualized song lyrics are a growing trend. They never hear their children’s music because the kids are using earphones. And it doesn’t occur to parents that this is something they need to know about or research. After all, what could be bad about music? What could be more universal than the teenage attraction to popular music?

That’s what teens do: they listen to music.

And apparently, they are listening to more music than ever before. According to a study published in 2011, the amount of music listened to by children aged 8-18 has increased by 45 percent, (by now, that figure is probably closer to 50 percent). It’s music that is piped directly into our children’s ears.

So what is it doing to them, to our kids, hearing all those sexed up lyrics?

Well, for one thing, it’s giving them the wrong impression about their peers’ sexual behavior. Teens tend to think their friends are engaging in more sexual activity than they actually are. Experts have found a connection between these overblown perceptions and entertainment media such as music, games, and movies.

The fact that teens believe their peers are more sexually advanced than they actually are, leads teens to challenge themselves to increase their sexual activity to play “catch-up.” They may worry they aren’t grownup enough or cool enough because they aren’t doing what they think their friends are doing. Meanwhile, adolescents are at risk for contracting sexually transmitted diseases such as genital herpes, for instance. They are also at risk for teenage teenage boys, iPod, degrading to womenpregnancy.

In the 2011 study referenced earlier, researchers studied lyrics from the 100 most popular songs on Billboard for the years 1959 through 2009 and (big surprise) found more numerous sexual references in the lyrics of popular music today than in songs popular in 1959. They also discovered that lyrics written by men and by artists of color were more likely to include sexual references.

Of course, there are sexual references and then there are sexual references: when lyrics are degrading to women or sexualized, they can have a terrible effect on how boys treat girls. Such lyrics can also impair a teenage girl’s self-worth, which in turn might lead to a poor or distorted body image, eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, depression, and even drug or alcohol abuse.

Teenagers just feel things more deeply and the thing is, once upon a time, there were lyrics like this:

I have often walked down this street before;

But the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before.

All at once am I Several stories high.

Knowing I’m on the street where you live.

Are there lilac trees in the heart of town?

Can you hear a lark in any other part of town?

Does enchantment pour Out of ev’ry door?

No, it’s just on the street where you live!

And oh! The towering feeling

Just to know somehow you are near.

The overpowering feeling

That any second you may suddenly appear!

People stop and stare. They don’t bother me.

For there’s no where else on earth that I would rather be.

Let the time go by, I won’t care if I

Can be here on the street where you live.

Lyrics such as these were innocent and dreamy, causing the listener at most, to swoon. But these are not the sweet nothings being piped into your children’s ears today. Instead, teenage boys hear lyrics that suggest they force themselves on women and treat them as sexual objects to collect. And teenage girls learn that their main value is to give sexual pleasure to anyone who demands it from them.

It’s not just a bad lesson, it’s a dangerous one.

What can you do about this state of affairs?  Begin by purchasing a set of earphones for yourself so you can find out what all the cool kids are listening to these days. Lucky for you, it’s as easy as going to Billboard’s Hot 100.

Have trouble understanding the lyrics? Not a problem. Just check out Lyrics Planet and use the handy-dandy search bar.earphones, music, lyrics, self-esteem, behavior

Once you know what kind of messages teens are hearing, you can begin a conversation with your child. Keep it light and casual by making the conversation seem incidental. Perhaps you are scrambling eggs at the stove, with your back to your teen who is eating a bowl of cereal at the table. You can bring up a new song you heard that you really liked and asked if your teen likes that artist.

Once you’ve broken the ice, you can talk about the lyrics and point out some of the negative messages in them. Then you can ask your teen’s opinion on the subject. Compare the lyric to those of a song with a positive message and see if your teen gets what you’re saying.

You should revisit this discussion on a regular basis say, while taking a walk together or doing errands. Talking to teens without full-frontal focus is the best way to get your point across without putting your child on the spot or making her defensive. The most important thing you can do for a teen is to work as hard as you can at keeping the channels of communication open between the two of you. As long as you can talk about it together, you can remain a force for good in your child’s life.

The upshot? Song lyrics can be downright dangerous. Get informed. Talk with your teen. Offer balance and perspective.

And possibly save her life.

ADHD Prescription Drug Abuse: Do You Know Why It’s Wrong?

ADHD prescription drug abuse is on the rise. Has been for more than a decade. A study presented May 3, at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, found that not quite one in five students at an Ivy League college said they’d abused prescription medication while studying and one-third of the study participants didn’t consider this type of drug use to be cheating.

But college kids aren’t the only ones hitting prescription stimulants for an, er, off-label use. Adderall, a mix of amphetamines currently ranking as the top ADHD treatment, has seen a tremendous rise in use in women over 26. In 2002, only 800,000 women reported Adderall use. By 2010, 5.4 million women in this age group were using the drug. In particular, the number of Adderall prescriptions for women aged 26-39, rose by 750% during this time period.ADHD prescription drug abuse

College students call Adderall, “college crack” or “cognitive steroid” while suburban moms, mimicking Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives, call it, “Mother’s Little Helper.” Students use the drugs in hopes of improving their grades. Moms use it to combat fatigue and get things done.

But if they were truthful, both groups would admit the stimulant makes them feel good. Which is a large part of the attraction. Which makes these drugs, yes. Addictive.

There are a number of problems with such misuse of prescription drugs. For example, the way in which such drugs are obtained. In general, students facing exams, and burnt out bored housewives have two options for getting the drug:

  • Fake out a doctor so as to convince him to write out a prescription
  • Buy the drug from someone with a valid prescription for the medication

Let’s take a look at these two methods for obtaining prescription medication, shall we? What do you think of a doctor that is so easily fooled into thinking a student or a suburban housewife has ADHD at a level serious enough to require prescription stimulants? Would you want such a doctor treating your family members? Furthermore, isn’t it just a bit suspicious that such large numbers of people are able to cadge ADHD prescriptions from MD’s?ADHD prescription drug abuse

What’s up with that? Why is there no watchdog group paying attention? And wouldn’t you think that at the very least, someone would sue some of these physicians for malpractice?

Maybe it’s a cultural thing. We think nothing, for instance, of imbibing strong cups of coffee for the caffeine they contain to keep us alert to cram for an exam or have a glass of wine to steady our nerves in social situations. Why should the abuse of a drug given, after all, to children, cause us any special qualms?

As for the second method of getting the drug, we’re talking about kids selling off their prescription drugs without the knowledge of their parents or doctors. And guess what? It’s a class II drug, in the same category as, for instance, COCAINE. How does the court look at this? Depending on the state and the circumstances, selling ADHD medication is a felony. In fact, trading the medication or even just giving it away, may be viewed as a felony.

In his concluding remarks regarding the Vancouver study, senior investigator Andrew Adesman, MD, FAAP, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York said, “To the extent that some high school and college students have reported feigning ADHD symptoms to obtain stimulant medication, should physicians become more cautious or conservative when newly diagnosing ADHD in teens? Additionally, should pediatricians do more to educate their ADHD patients about the health consequences of misuse and the legal consequences that could arise if they sell or give away their stimulant medication?

All things considered and aside from the fact that the child is not using the medication deemed necessary by his doctor for his academic success, selling that medication to others makes him complicit in a criminal act.ADHD prescription drug abuse

It can also make him rich. During college exam period, a kid might be able to sell a single Adderall pill for $20 whereas, the usual going price is just $5. Students under stress are willing to pay for whatever they think will get them through crunch time.

While college students and young mothers are the two main groups identified as misusing medication for ADHD, the National Institute on Drug Abuse spoke of a “cause for alarm,” the abuse of prescription stimulants by high school students. A survey performed by this institute of 45,000 students found that such abuse increased among senior high school students from 6.6-8.2% from 2010-2012. Could there be a trickle-down effect in play here? Big brother at college uses it, Mom uses it, why shouldn’t I?

In 2012, there was a market shortage of ADHD medication which had moms scrambling to find sources to medicate their children, who really do need the medication to cope with schoolwork. Drug companies blamed the shortfall on government quotas levied on psychoactive ingredients by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The quotas are meant to help control abuse of these drugs. Meantime, DEA officials blamed drug firms for manufacturing more of the name brand medications and less of the more inexpensive generic versions of these drugs. It’s simply more lucrative to sell the name brands.

Dramatic Surge In ADHD Prescription Drug Abuse

The National Institute on Drug Abuse, however, laid the blame squarely in the laps of women of childbearing age who have seen a dramatic surge in both the use and abuse of these drugs. Why not? It’s a feel-good drug. Experts say the drugs improve the brain’s utilization of dopamine, everybody’s favorite neurotransmitter. When crushed and snorted, the drugs give the use a rush comparable to that of cocaine.

Habit forming? You betcha. Wondering about side effects? For sure. The following side effects have been observed with medication for ADHD, such as Adderall:

  • Seizures
  • Paranoia
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Tics
  • Cardiac arrest (in those with preexisting heart problems)

Nonetheless, a 28 year-old Utah woman, Sunny Morrisette, heard “good things about Adderall and wanted to try it.” She traded cigarettes to school kids for their drugs. And got caught. Morisette was charged with several counts of felony drug offenses as well as contributing to the delinquency of a minor. During her initial hearing she admitted she’d traded cigarettes for drugs at least 10 times with the kids in her neighborhood.ADHD prescription drug abuse

College students say they use the drugs to study, but in truth, they’re also using Adderall to party, lose weight, and chug down more beer without falling asleep.

Meantime, a University of Pennsylvania study found that drugs for ADHD don’t improve cognition in children with ADHD. In other words, the meds don’t improve their grades. So what gives? Why does there continue to be such a huge market both for the drug as it is meant to be used and for its abuse?

Well, it’s like this. The medication, in and of itself, doesn’t solve the problem of academic failure to thrive. Only study does that.

Gotta Study, Period

So if you take Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta, or any other ADHD drug, but you fail to study, fuggeddaboutit. Your grades will go bust. And we’re not talking about last minute cramming. We’re talking about serious study, sustained over a lengthy period of time, on a regular schedule.

The meds help with focus, concentration, and with controlling impulsivity, but it’s like leading the horse to water: just as you can’t make the horse drink, you can offer the optimal environment—in this case for study—but you can’t force the student to put his nose to the academic grindstone.

In any event, the medication, even under optimal circumstances, with a motivated student that is willing to study, must be accompanied by lessons in time management and organization. Those with ADHD have difficulty with executive functions. They find it difficult to plan, prioritize, and execute everyday activities, such as academic study. As a result, a student on medication for ADHD, may find it easier to concentrate, but end up using her focus to have a deep discussion with a classmate while another student might suddenly “come to” and realize he’s been madly cleaning his room instead of studying for that French test.

Exaggerated Sense Of Productivity

Meantime, a small University of Pennsylvania study found that the drugs don’t contribute to the academic success of college students who abuse them in such large quantities. What they did find instead, is that the drugs give these students an exaggerated sense of productivity, due to the more efficient use of dopamine. One college senior remarked, “Of course, I could have studied in college without Adderall, just like I did in high school — I just couldn’t have studied with such ecstasy.”

What Every Parent Should Know About Teenage Drinking at Home

Teenage drinking at home: are you under the impression that within reason, this is a good thing?

I know my parents thought so. They felt that if given sips of good liquor, we would relate to alcohol as something delicious to be had in moderation. That’s as opposed to tippling large quantities of drink for the sake of getting wasted.

Not that my parents were into drinking. They totally weren’t. In fact, I don’t even think their friends were into drinking, except for one woman they murmured about in low voices punctuated by the occasional tsk.

But my parents prided themselves on being good and generous hosts, so when there was a party, the liquor cabinet would be unlocked and there, revealed in all its glory, would be the four-tiered built-in, pull-out well-lit bar, with all the different sorts of glasses, swizzle sticks, and soda dispensers a tippler could desire.

Back then, there was none of this single malt scotch snobbery. Chivas Regal was considered top of the line. Ditto Bristol Cream Sherry, deemed  shutterstock_169020203elegant and therefore more appropriate to the ladies. Both these classics were present in my parents’ liquor cabinet, but there between them were such oddities as the tall-necked bottle of Galliano liqueur with its distinctive yellow color, and a wonderful chocolate liqueur from Switzerland with yummy cocoa nibs, to be drunk in small glasses as an aperitif. Whenever there was a party in our home, my siblings and I were given a choice of what we would like to drink and we could each have a modest portion of whatever we chose.

The liquor cabinet had a lock but we always had access to the key, because we also stored treats in the liquor cabinet; the kind of treats you eat while watching TV. It was understood that our parents trusted us not to abuse the privilege of access to liquor. For the most part, we never did.

Except once.

I was the youngest child at 11. My sister Margery was meant to mind me. She was 14.

Margery decided that my cultural education would remain incomplete until such time as I tasted a Harvey Wallbanger, which is basically vodka, Galliano, and orange juice. She mixed up two tall ones then and there. The next memory I have is of being passed out on the floor only to have my left index finger impaled by the spikes of my mother’s golf shoes. My sister had decided it was a necessary skill to learn how to walk in golf shoes, indoors on my mother’s new linoleum flooring. And since I was so rudely unaware of the importance of her learning experience, she decided to pretend I was simply part of the floor.

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I have the scar on my finger to this day.

Interestingly enough, my mother came home right at that moment and found me crying and bleeding on the floor. Naturally, I wanted to lay the blame on my sister who was, after all, supposed to be taking care of me. “Margy made me drink Harvey Wallbangers and walked on my hand in your golf shoes,” I sobbed.teenage drinking at home

My sister did get in trouble, but not in as much trouble as one might have imagined. It was deemed that we had learned our lesson about drinking and could now be trusted to never become crapulous again.

Now I won’t say we never got tipsy after that, but certainly not at home, and certainly not until we were grown-ups. We enjoyed the taste of liquor and yes, the pleasant glow of having a buzz on. I won’t deny that this is true.

All this occurred to me as I tried to formulate a policy vis-à-vis how I would handle the subject of alcohol with my own children. On the one hand, genetics were on my side. I didn’t come from drinkers, nor did my wife. So that eliminated one risk factor for my children. Happily so.

On the other hand, I wondered about the parenting theory my parents subscribed to: allowing children to drink in moderation in the home. Did this serve to foster “a healthy attitude about alcohol?” And what does that mean, anyway, a healthy attitude about alcohol? Is there such a thing?

So I looked into the issue and found that there is a preponderance of evidence against the practice of allowing children to drink in moderation in the home under supervision.

Studies On Teenage Drinking At Home

For example, one study of children in the 6th, 7th, and 8th grades whose parents let them drink at home had the steepest rise in drinking compared to their peers. See: Komro, K.A.; Maldonado-Molina, M.M.; Tobler, A.L.; et al. Effects of home access and availability of alcohol on young adolescents’ alcohol use. Addiction 102(10):1597–1608, 2007.

A second study found that teens allowed to drink at home will drink more than their peers when outside the home. See: van der Vorst; H., Engels, R.C.M.E; and Burk, W.J. Do parents and best friends Influence the normative increase in adolescents’ alcohol use at home and outside the home? Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs 71(1):105–114, 2010.

A further study, showed that teens will drink less outside the home if their parents forbid drinking from an early age and who take care not to overindulge in drink themselves. See: van der Vorst, H.; Engels, R.C.M.E; Meeus, W; and Dekovic, M. The impact of alcohol-specific rules, parental norms about early drinking and parental alcohol use on adolescents’ drinking behavior. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 47(12):1299–1306, 2006.

Lower Drinking Risk?

I came across only a single study that suggested that teens allowed a sip of a drink at a family gathering may have a lower risk factor for heavy drinking. See: Foley, K.L.; Altman, D.; Durant, R.H.; and Wolfson, M. Adults’ approval and adolescents’ alcohol use. Journal of Adolescent Health 35(4):7–26, 2004.

Taken as a whole, the literature on the subject is persuasive: teenage drinking at home is something that is best forbidden by their parents. Mom and Dad did a good job raising me. But the evidence suggests that my kids might not be as lucky as me and my siblings were in relation to drinking habits. The key to the liquor cabinet is therefore going into hiding.

I’d rather not take the chance.