The Child Mind BlogBrainstorm

  • What Drives Teenagers to Suicide?
    Sept. 9, 2013 Caroline Miller

    Months after a brutally bullied gay teenager named Jadin Bell hanged himself in  a small town in eastern Oregon, a Portland novelist named Pauls Toutonghi was moved to investigate. The father of 3-year-old twins, Toutonghi found that he couldn't stop wondering what Jadin had been feeling and how his parents were dealing with his death.

    He was moved by the sheer number of young people who commit suicide—4,600 of them a year, according to the CDC—but also by the fact that he, too, had tried to commit suicide as a teenager. Toutonghi isn't gay, but he was teased in school for being overweight. That, coupled with stress at home, contributed to what he calls "a toxic cocktail of self-loathing."

    Toutonghi writes in Salon that he doesn't remember climbing out the window of his bedroom with the intention to jump, but he does remember vividly his inability to manage his emotional anguish, though the reasons for it, in retrospect, seem insignificant. "I could not calm it, could not control it, could not find relief," he writes. While he panicked at the last minute and changed his mind about jumping, he slipped and fell the 20 feet to the concrete driveway, and was lucky to be alive. In the emergency room, he was able to cover his suicidal intentions with a flimsy story, and he believes no one in his family was the wiser.

    I recommend the story for the details about Jadin's life and death, and his parents' efforts to come to terms with their loss, but also for Toutonghi's awareness of how vulnerable teenagers are to emotional pain, despite loving and supportive parents.  Jadin's father, Joe Bell, accepted his son's sexuality and admired him for coming out. "What Jadin did took enormous courage," he told Toutonghi. "But it destroyed him."

    And Joe Bell, too, was no stranger to the suicidal feelings of teenagers-he tells Toutonghi of his own close brush at 17. "In the middle of the night, he'd taken his dad's .22 caliber pistol to his bedroom," Toutonghi writes. "He'd held the gun in his hands, willing himself to raise it to his temple and pull the trigger. He'd cocked the hammer. But then his determination had faltered. He'd slipped the gun beneath his pillow—and gone to sleep."

    The piece is moving on all counts—not only about the teenager who died, and the thousands like him who take their own lives ever year, but about those who come painfully, frighteningly close.  

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  • A Sandy Hook Mother Thanks Teachers
    Sept. 9, 2013 Beth Arky

    With New York City students returning to public school today, we can't think of a timelier, or more touching, tribute to those who work with our children than this letter by Nelba Marquez-Greene, one of the parents who lost a child in the Sandy Hook Elementary School rampage. Marquez-Greene's 6-year-old daughter, Ana Grace, died on December 14, 2012, in the mass shooting; her son survived.

    In the letter that appears in Education Week, Marquez-Greene writes eloquently of her admiration for the courage, faith, and love with which teachers and other school employees returned to Sandy Hook after the shooting. "When I asked my son's teacher why she returned," she writes, "she responded, 'Because they are my kids. And my students need me now more than ever.' "

    Marquez-Greene notes that it's courageous teachers who support children like her son, who have "lived through traumas no child should have to," as well as "students who are left out and overlooked, like the isolated young man who killed my daughter."

    She would like to see teachers get more credit for the work they do. "Real heroes don't wear capes," she writes. "They work in America's schools."

    She encourages teachers to "have faith that your hard work is having a profound impact on your students." At a time when teachers are often demoralized, we hope educators and parents alike will take in this mother's message to heart.

    Marquez-Greene writes that sending their son back to the school where their daughter died was excruciating: "We sent him because we didn't want him to be afraid. We sent him because we wanted him to understand that while our lives would never be the same, our lives still needed to move forward."

    His teacher sent daily updates on their son's progress, from his behavior to what he'd eaten for lunch. "And four months later, when my son finally smiled one day after school, I asked him about it," Marquez-Greene writes. "His response? 'Mom. My teacher is so funny. I had an epic day.'"

    We wish all students, teachers, and parents equally epic days.

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  • Study Finds Yelling at Teens Makes Behavior Worse
    Sept. 6, 2013 Caroline Miller

    A new study out this week confirms what we've known—but haven't always believed—that yelling at misbehaving kids isn't an effective way to reduce problem behavior. Instead, it makes it worse.

    Researchers at the Universities of Pittsburgh and Michigan followed almost 1,000 families with 13- or 14-year-old children, using parent and child surveys to rate the parents' use of harsh verbal language and the kids' behavior, moods and feelings about their parents over the following year. They found that shouting at kids actually increases disruptive or oppositional behavior, and the kids who were on the receiving end of the harshest verbal discipline were more likely to develop symptoms of depression.

    Adolescence is a very sensitive period when kids are forming identities, one of the co-authors of the study tells the Wall Street Journal.  "When you yell, it hurts their self image. It makes them feel they are not capable, that they are worthless and are useless."

    Of course, notes NPR, the link between parental behavior and the behavior of their offspring is complex. As Dr. Alan Kazdin, the director of the Yale Parenting center, explains:  "Some adults are genetically more inclined to screaming and harsh behavior, and it's likely that their children will be, too, totally aside from how they're treated."

    For a more detailed look at the negative effect of blowing up at kids, check out Beth Arky's story "Stop Yelling!" We'll give the last word to Dr. Melanie Fernandez of the Child Mind Institute, who spells out some more effective alternatives: "We know that modeling has a profound influence on behavior, whether we're a child or adult. When parents practice healthy self-regulation, it teaches kids how to self-regulate better."

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  • Living Up to the Potential of Dr. King's Dream
    Aug. 28, 2013 Harry Kimball

    Today is the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. I was going to write that we are "commemorating" it today, but that word rings wrong. We commemorate what we feel we should remember. But when I hear that speech, it is fiercely present. In my mind the legacies of Dr. King and all the fellow travelers of the civil rights movement require a proactive re-engagement—because the story is not over. Not by a long shot.

    In one major way this is clear. Race relations in this country have come far since the dark days of...well, most of our history. Black and white children are free to hold hands, as Dr. King hoped. A black man holds the highest office in the land. However, we know that the journey is not over. A cursory look at the news will tell you as much. I don't know if there will ever be a "post-racial" America, but we certainly aren't there yet.

    But even as we continue to struggle with the lines of color that still divide us, let's not forget that the message of Dr. King and the civil rights movement was not only about racial equality. It was about equality, period. It was about respect for our fellow citizens and our fellow human beings. It was, as we all know so well, about a dream of a country where children "will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

    I propose that that statement applies beyond differences of skin color. It applies to differences of opportunity, of gender and sexuality, of opinion. And it applies to the different inherent challenges our children may face because of illness, of the body and of the mind. That phrase means to me that the potential that lies within every child is the most important thing, and that impediments to the nurturing of that potential are the enemies of a just and vibrant society. And I think it is important to remember that even when Dr. King made that speech fifty years ago, there were laws on the books guaranteeing equality to black Americans, even as now there are laws on the books guaranteeing parity to those who struggle with mental illness. Law is not enough. The heart of this nation also needs to change.

    Listening to the radio this morning I was reminded of the link between Dr. King's speech and Langston Hughes famous 1951 poem "Harlem." "What happens to a dream deferred?" Hughes wonders. "Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?" Or, he ends pointedly, "does it explode?" Hughes was hinting at the possibilities of stymied potential-withering, on the one hand, and rage, on the other. We see these same possibilities in our underserved, forgotten children. But, like all of us, they have a dream. They just need some help moving towards it. I am thankful today that Martin Luther King and all the marchers from 1963 are still showing us the path.

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  • Getting Kids to Put Down the Phone
    Aug. 20, 2013 Rachel Ehmke

    Dwight Garner, literary critic for the Times, took an unusually personal assignment lately—trying to figure out how to wrest his children away from the various technologies that they seem increasingly addicted to. This is a perennial issue for Garner and his wife, who apparently try to introduce ambitious new rules restricting the children's technology usage at the beginning of every school year, only to watch these rules routinely fizzle out by the second week of school.   

    Like many frustrated parents, Garner turned to books written on the subject, hoping they might have the answer he's been looking for. The subsequent review he produced was as amusing and depressing as you might expect it to be. He didn't get any answers, but he did get some laughs. One of the books discusses "tweeting mindfully," for example.

    The truth of the matter is that Garner is pretty aware of what he needs to do to limit his kids' technology usage, starting with not abruptly issuing mandates that he's unprepared to enforce. But his dilemma is a common one for many parents. We're in a new era of technology, and parents don't want their kids to get left behind. Garner writes, "I like that they are comfortable and alert in the wired world, able to fish in it like young bears in a salmon stream." (Really the last thing parents should be worried about is wired literacy, since kids do a pretty good job taking care of that themselves, even without unfettered access.)

    Like Garner, many parents also feel uncomfortable setting boundaries with children, even though he knows limits are important. This is true especially with kids, but it's also true for ourselves. In part Garner's essay is also about his own immoderate technology usage. "Without my iPhone in my palm, I feel bereft," he writes. "I'm fairly obsessive. I must change my life a bit." But it doesn't really sound like he wants to.

    One commenter noted that his essay was reminiscent of one that Adam Gopnik wrote for The New Yorker about his daughter's imaginary friend Charlie Ravioli, who was always too busy to play with her. She'd call and get Ravioli's machine, or he'd answer and say he's too busy working to play. He frequently canceled their imaginary lunch dates but sometimes they'd manage to grab coffee. Eventually Ravioli acquired an assistant, named Laurie, who screened his calls for him. It was obvious that his daughter was mirroring the glamorously ultra-busy lives of the adults around her, and having some fun while doing it, but it was disturbing to witness.

    That essay was written in 2002, but the point that it raised is only getting more applicable. Until we start modeling the values that we want to see in our own children, we shouldn't be surprised if, like so many Charlie Raviolis, they don't have any time for the things that happen outside their phones. 

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  • A Sweet, Sensitive Film About Kids in Foster Care
    Aug. 20, 2013 Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz

    I recently attended a screening of Short Term 12, a wonderful movie about a foster care facility for at-risk teenagers in Los Angeles, told through the eyes of a twentysomething mental health director, Grace. It was inspired by the real experience of the writer-director, Destin Daniel Cretton, who worked in the foster-care system, and it shows in its insight into the struggles of both the residents and the staff.

    It's an affectionate, thoughtful look at the challenges of being these wounded, complicated kids, as well as the challenges of helping them, of reading their behavior and responding effectively. It's an emotional film but not a sad one, because it's really about resilience, and the healing power of being open about painful experiences and the feelings they generate.

    The kids who come to live at Short Term 12 have been abused or neglected, but they're not sensationalized or stereotyped. Right in the opening sequence the tone is set when a young resident comes screaming out the front door, heading for the gate, beyond which the staff is legally not allowed to touch him. Grace and her coworker (and live-in boyfriend) Mason swiftly and gracefully intersect the boy, who's shouting obscenities but also clearly relieved to be caught, and ready to "de-escalate," as Mason puts it, inviting him to come back on the unit and take a nap. They react with insight born of seeing plenty of kids act out, and not being either impressed or frightened by the behavior.

    The plot of Short Term 12 is as much about Grace and Mason as it is about the kids. There's a marvelous scene in which we discover that Mason was raised by foster parents, and he has a chance to toast them, with the other children they took in. "You took in a punk kid and taught me how to love," Mason tells them, and we have seen the power of their teaching in Mason's way with both the kids and Grace.

    Grace struggles with her own past, and the powerful connection she makes with a new resident named Jayden, who has serious problems with her father, helps her begin to come to terms with very difficult feelings. A good deal of Short Term 12 is a sensitive depiction of the ways in which we acknowledge and express things that have hurt us—sometimes in very small increments—and how expressing them allows us to live more fully, and let other people into our lives.

    None of the residents of the home called Short Term 12 are "bad" kids or "good" kids—they're kids with vulnerabilities and weaknesses, who by acknowledging them are able to achieve some degree of transcendence. We don't know how many of them have psychiatric issues and how many are just damaged by abusive or neglectful environments—and of course we do know that kids with psychiatric issues often attract abuse in very troubled families.

    The backdrop to the film is the system, which sends kids to Short Term 12, highlighted when newbie staffer Nate asks on his first day,"How long do they stay here?" Grace unflinchingly responds, "Less than a year, but we have a few that have been here a little over three—we just keep them until the county figures out where they are going to go next."

    In my years as a child and adolescent psychiatrist I have seen many kids fall through the cracks in an overwhelmed mental health care system. But what kids get at Short Term 12 is really a substitute family; an ad hoc family that shows how much can be achieved, despite daunting odds, with mutual trust, open-mindedness, and patience.

    Short Term 12 arrives in theater August 23rd in New York and LA. For more on the film visit ShortTerm12.com

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  • Autism Linked to Induced or Augmented Labor
    Aug. 19, 2013 Caroline Miller

    A new study made headlines last week with the claim that induced and/or augmented labor might increase a child's risk of developing autism. It was the latest in a steady stream of what I think of as studies linking autism to ... anything and everything.  Typically, these studies take batches of records—in this case North Carolina birth and education department records—and mine the data for correlations.

    In this sample of more than 600,000 kids, those who were born after induced and augmented (speeded up) labor were 23% more likely to be identified in special education records as having autism. The group with induced labor alone were 13% more likely, and those whose labor was augmented but not induced were 16% more likely.

    Of course there's no causation shown here and you don't have to be a doctor to wonder, if there is actually some kind of meaningful link here, it might instead be to one or more of the things that can cause labor to be induced or augmented, such as fetal distress or maternal diabetes, both of which have previously been linked to autism. Other things that have been linked to autism in this kind of study, with varying degrees of credibility, include mother's flu during pregnancy, obese mothers, mothers taking antidepressants, and, stepping away from the usual suspects, older fathers.

    I mention this study mostly to draw attention to an analysis by the terrific Forbes science blogger Emily Willingham, who shows you how little meaning there is to this correlation and others of its ilk. These studies usually attempt to exclude factors that might influence the findings, but the relevant data is often not available.

    What was apparently was available, if overlooked, in this data set was the mother's educational level. Willingham notes with some amusement that per this study mothers who have a college education are more than 30% more likely to have a child with a special education label. "That is two or three times the odds linked to induction or augmentation," she writes, "and greater than the odds of labor and induction together. But no headlines."

    I recommend the whole post, which gives you questions to ask next time you read one of these studies. It also might bring some comfort to parents agonizing over the ever-increasing laundry list of risks associated with autism, often including things that they can't avoid. At least some reports on the study noted that inducing labor can be a life-saving technique for an endangered child, and nothing in this research suggests that a change in procedures is warranted.

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  • Ninja Warriors Tackle Mental Health Obstacles
    Aug. 15, 2013 Jessica Kashiwabara

    My guilty pleasure this summer is American Ninja Warrior, a competition series airing on NBC and G4 that follows a diverse group of competitors as they attempt to get through a series of fairly brutal obstacle courses. The show is pretty physical: Competitors leap, hang, and suffer dramatic fails from obstacles like the Spider Climb (climbing 30 feet wedged between two walls) and the Salmon Ladder (hanging and moving a bar up a series of notches). So I was surprised when the profile of two competitors brought up mental health issues not often spoken about—Tourette's and selective mutism. These stories highlighted two individuals who have gained a lot from the show, one as a competitor and the other, a young fan.

    Two-time competitor Justin Walcker was diagnosed with Tourette's Syndrome at the age of 5. He describes the frustration and stress he experienced as a child having to deal with vocal and physical tics that at times were so bad they caused him pain. But when he found parkour, the popular, acrobatic extreme sport, the intense focus required to jump and move with ease and speed helped him to control his tics. Justin encourages others with Tourette's to persevere and his positive attitude is inspiring. It's great that he is equally proud of who he is and what he's accomplished as he states on his Facebook page: "I'm a traceur with tourettes and love competing in American Ninja Warrior."

    In the backstory of another  veteran competitor on the show, we learn about a fan named Lenny , who suffered from selective mutism. At 5, Lenny wouldn't speak to his teachers, his sisters or even his mom. When he met John "JB" Douglas, who was teaching gymnastics at his preschool summer camp, he felt so comfortable with JB he started to speak. Lenny's mother said it was his first step to his opening up and being able to speak to others. And the bond is important to JB, too. As he says: "When Lenny's mom tells me how much of an impact I've made in his life, it means so much more than winning American Ninja Warrior would."

    Both Justin Walcker and JB Douglas have made it to the final rounds, and I'll definitely be cheering these two on as they show us that inspiration can come from some pretty surprising places, even for a ninja warrior.

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  • Soaring Use of Antipsychotics in Young Children
    Aug. 12, 2013 Caroline Miller

    The Wall Street Journal broke a story today about a federal investigation into the use of antipsychotic medications to treat children with disruptive behavior. The particular concern is kids in the Medicaid system, and the statistics are fairly alarming. The number of kids under age 20 with Medicaid-funded prescriptions for antipsychotics is said to have tripled between 1999 and 2008. And in 2008 they included 19,000 children under the age of five—more than twice the number in 1999.

    These medications, which are called atypical antipsychotics, can be very helpful for children with extreme emotional dysregulation, especially those who are unable to remain with their families without them. But the worry here is that they're being given to lots of kids whose behavior problems are prompted by common underlying issues that deserve treatment—trauma, anxiety, depression, ADHD, learning disorders. These are problems that respond more effectively to behavioral therapy, school supports, and medication targeted to them. But those responses assume expert diagnosis, patience, and other resources that a lot of kids don't have the benefit of, especially kids in the foster care system.

    The Journal quotes Dr. Fernando Siles, a Dallas pediatric psychiatrist, who says that antipsychotics may be used to keep kids prone to aggression from being kicked out of their foster homes. "The antipsychotic is to stabilize the behavior of the child, to keep him from being moved and moved again." Dr. Siles notes that there's "no budget" for behavioral therapy.

    This is a very disturbing trend and one of the reasons we think it's urgent that more parents have enough information about children's mental health to know when the care they're getting is not good. It's why we wrote our Parents Guide to Getting Good Care—to help weed out clinicians who aren't giving your child the careful attention he needs and deserves before pulling out the prescription pad. We need to try to understand behavior in order to respond to it most effectively, especially when children are young and the right intervention can change the course of their lives.

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  • When Stomach Aches Indicate Anxiety
    Aug. 12, 2013 Rachel Ehmke

    A study published today in the journal Pediatrics links childhood stomach aches with future anxiety disorders in adulthood.

    The long-term study followed over 300 children who experienced recurring stomach aches without any apparent medical explanation (called functional abdominal pain) throughout adolescence and young adulthood. Researchers at Vanderbilt University found that the kids with functional abdominal pain were more likely to develop anxiety disorders and depression later in life than the almost 150 control children without stomach aches. In fact, in most cases an anxiety disorder was already present before the children were evaluated for functional abdominal pain. This despite the fact that the study's lead author, Lynn S. Walker, PhD, told the New York Times that the majority of kids "had not seen a mental health professional, ever." Which isn't much of a surprise. Anxiety is often overlooked in kids because it tends to have quieter consequences than some other childhood disorders. Anxious kids are often more introverted and, as Dr. Walker says, preoccupied with doing a good job.

    This new study is a helpful reminder that the mental health disorders that affect adults often begin in childhood, where they are typically overlooked. Not only does that mean that many kids who are suffering don't get support, it also means that families are missing out on the opportunity to help kids when they are younger and treatment can be most transformative.  

    Anxiety tends to grow with us—the more time we spend with overwhelming anxiety, the more we learn to contain our discomfort with maladaptive coping techniques that we devise ourselves. This means that anxious kids learn early to close themselves off from things that make them nervous, so they miss out on many of the academic, extracurricular, and social opportunities that their peers get to experience.

    Recurring stomach aches, something that kids might be more vocal about, can be a good warning sign for families. 

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