The Child Mind BlogBrainstorm

  • Uncounted Casualties: Military Children
    April 18, 2014 Suzannah Creech

    A recently posted feature on CNN called "The Uncounted" draws attention to the impact of military deployment and mental health on military and veteran families. Among the stories we hear is that of a teenager in a military family, Kristi Anne Raspperry, who describes the development of her own symptoms of depression and anxiety when her father returned from a deployment with post-traumatic stress disorder and her family struggled to cope.

    Kristi's painful story is an important reminder to all of us that behind the media coverage on the mental health impact of military deployments are children and families who may also be struggling. In this revealing portrait, Kristi describes some of her most difficult moments, as well as her path to getting treatment. We also see her father respond to Kristi's story in a written statement.

    An important takeaway here is that parental mental health can impact children's mental health. And in military or veteran families who experienced a deployment separation, this may create a risky family dynamic. More needs to be done to support military families coping with mental illness, including parenting training.

    That's why we are excited about recent developments in this area such as Dr. Ellen DeVoe's work to develop and test the Strong Families Strong Forces intervention for military families with very young children. There is also a new online resiliency training course for military families called FOCUS World that provides support and training around common family challenges after deployment.

    Suzannah Creech, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Psychiatry & Human Behavior at Brown University, Providence VA Medical Center. Her research focuses on the mental health of veterans and veteran families. 


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  • The Ravitz Report: 'Saving Mr. Banks' and 'Finding Vivian Maier'
    April 18, 2014 Alan Ravitz

    On the issue of nannies, good and bad, simple and complex: This week I saw Saving Mr. Banks and Finding Vivian Maier. The first, about the making of Mary Poppins, evokes P.L. Travers' memories of childhood, her father's illness, and the nanny who came to save the family—as well as Walt Disney's efforts to get the film made. I liked it—was honest and the acting was great. Then I saw the Vivian Maier movie. She was a nanny to several wealthy families in the Chicago area—even Phil Donahue; she kept to herself, seemed a bit odd, but many of the children she cared for loved her. What no one knew is that she was a truly great street photographer whose 150,000 negatives were found by an antiques picker at various auctions. The photos now sell at major galleries around the world. As the director pursued her life in more detail, he discovered she was likely quite mentally ill, and despite those wards who loved her, she was abusive to many of the other kids she cared for. VERY INTERESTING, VERY PROVOCATIVE. For those who love the idea that life is mysterious, this is the film for you.

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  • Jenny McCarthy's Slippery New Vaccine Stance
    April 16, 2014 Beth Arky

    It's been a super-busy week for Jenny McCarthy. Not only did she announce on The View today that she's engaged to Donnie Wahlberg, she's also facing a backlash after she wrote a Chicago Sun-Times op-ed in which she tried to backtrack from her anti-vaccine stance.

    The celebrity mom's 11-year-old son, Evan, was diagnosed with autism in 2005. Since then, McCarthy has often argued that vaccinations are linked to the disorder, fueling the anti-vax movement that has led to preventable diseases like measles, mumps and whooping cough making a comeback.

    In the Sun-Times op-ed, she recalls an interview that she says clears up her stance: '"People have the misconception that we want to eliminate vaccines,' I told TIME Magazine science editor Jeffrey Kluger in 2009. 'Please understand that we are not an anti-vaccine group. We are demanding safe vaccines. We want to reduce the schedule and reduce the toxins.'"

    Kluger quickly called her out on TIME's website, completing her quote for her: "If you ask a parent of an autistic child if they want the measles or the autism, we will stand in line for the f-cking measles."

    He concluded, "It's just too late to play cute with the things you've said. You are either floridly, loudly, uninformedly antivaccine or you are the most grievously misunderstood celebrity of the modern era...Your quote trail is far too long—and you have been far too wrongfor the truth not to be obvious."

    Commenters on Facebook agreed. "The damage is done," one wrote. "Families went against everything we've come to know through years of vaccinating our children with proof from data collected, doctors' information, research." And whatever McCarthy says she really meant won't change that.

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  • Autism Community Split in Four, Says NIMH Chief
    April 11, 2014 Beth Arky

    The autism community is conflicted in many ways, most obviously between those seeking a cure versus those who see the autism spectrum as a natural state of neurodiversity. Dr. Tom Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, codified those divisions even further in his Autism Science Foundation 5th Anniversary Celebration talk, "From four kingdoms to one community for autism."

    Dr. Insel laid out the four "kingdoms," or schools of thought:

    Autism as an illness. Those with this view see autism spectrum disorders as a neurodevelopmental disorder. This group is looking for genetic factors, or biomarkers, with a cure as the goal.

    Autism as an injury. This camp sees ASD as a "response to an environmental insult of some sort," making autistic children the "canaries in the coal mine" who might just be warning us of the effects of toxins or even climate change. Here, the goal is prevention.

    Autism as an insight. This viewpoint sees autism "as a window into the social brain." Here, the goal is comprehending the fundamentals of how the brain grows and functions.

    Autism as an identity. Here, autism is seen as a disability. Adults on the spectrum have become self-advocates who focus on functional outcomes. The goal is inclusion, with advocates seeing themselves as part of a civil rights movement with the motto "Nothing about us without us."

    Dr. Insel then raised another way of looking at things: "Maybe there really are at least four different disorders involved—we should be talking about 'the autisms.'" From this perspective, he said, "there are people who may be more in this illness kingdom" versus, say, those for whom identity is a better approach.

    Dr. Insel noted that the divisions within the autism world mean it's "not the same type of [unified research] community that works on cystic fibrosis or Type 1 Diabetes." He said the problem is so serious, great scientists are saying they have a lot to offer but this is "a community I don't want to deal with. It's too difficult."

    The enormous conflict between these four very different groups needs to be overcome if progress is to be made, he continued. He emphasized the need for finding shared interests to unify the community, such as the demand for greater services for—and understanding and recognition of—adults on the spectrum. And scientific efforts that bring together the far-flung kingdoms are crucial, he concluded. "Science has a way of letting us understand."

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  • An App for Skinnier Selfies
    April 8, 2014 Rachel Ehmke

    In what feels like an inevitability, there's now an app to make yourself look skinnier in pictures. For the slim price of just 99 cents in the Apple store, you can get the app, take a selfie, and then choose to shave off 5, 10, or 15 pounds from your face. It's called SkinneePix and it only works on faces, which is bad news for bikini season but good news for those of us who are looking for silver linings in this otherwise depressing story.

    Of course we're already used to seeing manipulated photos, even if we don't realize it. Page Six recently reported that Lady Gaga made photographers covering an event "smooth out her jaw line and thin her arm" and "smooth out and thin her legs" before she let them release any photos of her. Besides being a disappointing request—Gaga has previously positioned herself as a role model for girls with body image issues—it illustrates how pervasive photoshopping has become. Even the "candids" of celebs have been passed through the digital wringer.

    So it makes sense to market a DIY app for us non-celebs. Selfies are addictive, particularly to young girls who are already spending a lot of time crafting the perfect online identity for themselves. An app that makes you skinnier is going to be a no-brainer for a lot of girls.

    Which is too bad because when everyone looks fifteen pounds lighter online—or feels like they should—it's going to make it even harder for girls to feel good about who they really are. 

    Read more about teens, self-esteem, and the impact of social media here

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  • Parenting, Lost at Sea
    April 8, 2014 Harry Kimball

    It seems everyone has an opinion about the actions of the Kaufman family—Charlotte, Eric, and daughters Lyra, 1, and Cora, 3who were recently rescued by the Navy after their sailboat Rebel Heart floundered in the Pacific 900 miles off the coast of Mexico. We note that their predicament illustrates, on a grand scale, a choice parents make every day and everywhere: to be risky, or not to be risky?

    The Kaufmans were headed from Mexico to New Zealand under sail. Charlotte and Lyra had just recovered from salmonella poisoning before they left, and when they were rescued Lyra had a severe rash and a fever. Were they foolhardy, or were they responsibly trying to introduce their young children to a life rich with adventure?

    A family's job is "to be prepared and to have a backup plan," a doctor tells the New York Times. "It sounds like they needed their backup plan and executed it." But others wonder if the Kaufmans lost sight of their kids' needsand even their basic capacity for adventure. "It's not as if a 1-year-old is going to remember an experience, whether it's positive or negative," a parenting author says. We should stress that developmentally, infants and young children need security and attachment; the benefit of taking risksand learning to be independent and resilientcomes later.

    The Kaufmans are sticking by their decision. For the rest of us it's a lesson in being honest about what we do for ourselves, and what we do forand toour children. At some point, kids take risks; but parents shouldn't ever take risks with kids.

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  • Disney Approach Excites Autism Researchers
    April 8, 2014 Beth Arky

    Ron Suskind was able to reach his autistic son, Owen, through the boy's fixation on Disney movies. Now scientists want to see if there are larger applications.

    Researchers from Yale and Cambridge looking to get inside the mind of an autistic child are taking a page from Suskind's new book, Life, Animated, which tells the story of how the family was able to harness Owen's affinity for animated characters to draw him out into more social engagement and interaction.

    Suskind says he invented the term "affinity therapy" to describe how he, wife Cornelia and older son Walt spent countless hours inhabiting characters from movies like "The Jungle Book" and "The Little Mermaid" to connect with Owen, who has gone from a nonverbal 3-year-old to a 23-year-old student with a girlfriend.

    Suskind says there are probably about 12 affinities that parents could use to reach their children; they include Thomas the Tank Engine and anime. According to the New York Times, he approached the researchers to put together a clinical trial based on the idea that "some children can develop social and emotional instincts through the characters they love."

    The researchers have written a proposal to study the approach, which calls for a 16-week trial involving 68 autistic children, ages 4 to 6. The scientists plan to submit their proposal to the National Institute of Mental Health for funding. We'd love to see those results.

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  • All 'Big Data' Is Not Created Equal
    April 7, 2014 Harry Kimball

    Yesterday, the New York Times published an op-ed taking the faddish obsession with "Big Data" to task. Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis rightly point out that not every pattern revealed by supercomputers crunching numbers is significant. They are worried that, because we are historically quick to attach meaning to coincidence, that "the risk of too many correlations" posed by huge data sets already has and will continue to lead us astray.

    "A big data analysis might reveal," they write, "that from 2006 to 2011 the United States murder rate was well correlated with the market share of Internet Explorer: Both went down sharply. But it's hard to imagine there is any causal relationship."

    Well put. But the authors also understate a crucial distinction and threaten to sour readers on a valuable new approach to scientific observation. They allow that "big data can work well as an adjunct to scientific inquiry but rarely succeeds as a wholesale replacement." Of course it is a tool, and not a magical answer machine. Just as we shouldn't blindly accept computer-generated correlations as truly connected phenomena, we should not confuse what big data analysis is—a new and powerful observational toolwith what it isn't: an end in itself.

    If data analysis reveals a correlation that intrigues a researcher, that is when a hypothesis is formed and tested, as always. Big data is a new lens with which to view the world, but we still don't need to believe everything we see.

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  • The Case for Risky Play
    April 1, 2014 Caroline Miller

    The Atlantic has a terrific, provocative piece by Hannah Rosin about the negative effects of parenting that tries to take all the risks out of childhood. Rosin takes us on a visit to a British playground that looks more like a junkyard: Kids are busy building structures with old tires and wooden pallets, jumping on dirty mattresses, starting a fire in a tin drum, and sliding down a muddy hill—into a creek if they get going too fast. Grade-school age kids. Without their parents.

    It's a startling scene, reminiscent (for those of us of a certain age) of the many unsupervised hours we spent as kids, poking around outdoors, while our parents were inside doing whatever parents did back in the day when they didn't spend most of their free time taking kids places and supervising their activities. 

    The larger point is that kids who don't get a chance to take riskswhat feels like risks to themdon't learn to tolerate and manage fear in a healthy way. Our fear of their being harmed makes them more fearful. And it's backed up with a lot of interesting data that despite our perception of living in more dangerous times, actual risks to children have not increased.

    Risky play, Rosen notes, is essentially what psychologists do with anxious children when they use what's called exposure therapythey face fears in tolerable doses in order to learn to manage those feelings. As Steven Kurtz, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, puts it, "helping kids get comfortable with being uncomfortable." 

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