The Child Mind BlogBrainstorm

  • 'Bell Rung': NFL Players Discuss Concussions in a New Documentary
    Oct. 4, 2012 Michael Rosenthal, PhD

    I attended the premiere of Bell Rung, a provocative documentary co-produced by retired football player Dorsey Levens about concussions in the NFL. Mr. Levens interviewed several players and friends of his who experienced multiple concussions and now, several years later, are feeling the ill effects of these injuries. Many complained of persistent headaches, problems with attention and memory, and heightened emotionality and mood swings in their personal lives.  

    To many kids, Dorsey Levens and the players featured in Bell Rung are heroes and their words and actions carry an enormous amount of influence. This is important, because all too often they hear their favorite NFL players minimizing concussions as "dings" or "just part of the game." And when an idol talks nonchalantly about routinely playing through his injuries, this approach to the game can easily become internalized. In contrast, the players in Bell Rung were not shy opening up about their experience with concussions—some claimed to have suffered 20 to 30 over their NFL careers—and talked introspectively about their decisions to play through injuries, their limited awareness of risks, and the toll it may have had on their health. One of the players discussed his reaction to the suicide of NFL star Junior Seau and wondered if he might be heading down a similar path. The film provoked a strong reaction in the audience, many of whom had questions about how to safeguard their own children. 

    The answers are many and promising: New state laws have been passed mandating concussion education for coaches and other school personnel, and rules put in place dictating when a student-athlete should be pulled from play and when he or she is cleared to return. Youth sports organizations are adopting new system-wide policies designed to reduce exposure—Pop Warner has made changes to the way practices are run to limit amount and intensity of contact, US Lacrosse is exploring headgear options for its female athletes, and USA Hockey has eliminated body checking in 12 and under male players. Kevin Guskiewicz and his colleagues at the University of North Carolina are teaching football players at many different levels of play how to tackle safely using proper technique. The CDC has partnered with several organizations to create free tools designed to educate parents, coaches, athletes, and other health care professionals about concussions. And a number of researchers, educators, and clinicians around the country are exploring new technology that could help identify concussions early and treatment techniques designed to shorten recovery times.

    With Bell Rung Mr. Levens is certainly playing his part in keeping kids safe, too. I hope more role models step up to influence a younger generation of athletes that it's smart to take care of your brain.

    Dr. Rosenthal is a pediatric neuropsychologist who is an expert in identification and treatment of children with concussion or mild traumatic brain injury.

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  • Porn OK, Malware Not So Much: Dad to Teen
    Sept. 28, 2012 Harry Kimball

    For the past few days the internet has been buzzing over a letter, posted to the social news site Reddit, that a dad wrote to his 13-year-old son after finding pornography on his computer. The gist of the note, left on the son's desk: It's cool. Be careful about computer viruses. I won't tell your mom.

    People have been more or less supportive of the anonymous dad, who seems particularly concerned about his investment in the $1800 machine. "I'm not mad or anything," Dad writes. "It's life and I did it too. I just want you to know that most of those sites are places that can and will ruin your computer...There are viruses and other scamware that can completely ruin a computer and I can't afford to buy you another 1800 dollar machine because you went to a site that fried it."

    Instead, the dad offers a few suggestions for "safe" porn sites and a tacit offer of an open door, judgment-free. "I won't tell your mom and I'm not gonna make a big deal out of this. In fact I'm not gonna make any size deal out of it. If you don't wanna talk about it that's fine and I completely understand." (Perhaps one of the most contentious parts of the letter, at least to online readers, is the decision to exclude Mom from the discussion. "The husband / father made the unilateral choice for his wife / mother of their child," one Huffington Post commenter protests. "Only she can state whether or not it's important to her." Not so fast, says another. "If a man can't side with his son, who can he side with?")

    Another red flag that went up for commenters was the missed opportunity to discuss how far from reality both the sex and the people in pornography are, and how this disconnect can encourage inappropriate sexual attitudes, a point CMI psychiatrist Al Ravitz made yesterday in an appearance on Huffington Post Live. The author responded to this criticism on Reddit. "I also talked to him about porn not being like real life and that women aren't objects like they are portrayed in porn."

    It's tempting to focus on the pornography and weigh the response—enlightened? Naive? Unfair? But this misses the point the dad brings up almost in passing at the end of his letter. "I would like you to not be back here so much though. You literally spend all of your time back here." Excuse me?

    Let's put aside the issue of pornography for a moment and focus on a larger one: screen time. There are debates over the effects of almost everything a kid—or an adultcan do on a screen: watch frenetic TV shows, play violent videogames, interact on social networks, text, sext, you name it. But we know one thing for certain: when kids are tied up by a screen, they aren't doing other things critical to their development. This includes hanging out with friends, getting physical exercise, and being part of a family.

    "I'd like to see you more often," Dad pleads. "I like doing stuff with you and miss it." There are a lot of things going on with a 13-year-old, and this father deserves applause for being open, honest, and practical about sexuality, and for realizing that his son naturally desires some independence and autonomy from his parents. But these words above indicate that Dad also knowsmaybe unconsciouslythat spending your young life in front of a screen isn't great for his kid or for the family. I hope that this issue comes up in their next conversation. It's not as sexy a topic as porn, and maybe even harder to talk about, but it is a critical one for families to address.

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  • Lady Gaga Fights Bulimia (and the Fat Police)
    Sept. 27, 2012 Caroline Miller

    Lady Gaga has put on some weight, and, not surprisingly, she's catching flak for it. The Daily Mail, among others, published a bunch of unflattering photos of her on stage at a recent show in Amsterdam, and quoted a fitness expert who had calculated, from those photos, that Gaga was about 30 pounds "meatier."

    The stories were obviously, if not surprisingly, crass—"The fat Lady Gaga sings," read one headline—and Gaga countered with some pictures of her own, only slightly more exposed than she is on stage, but appealingly defiant: "This is what I look like off stage and out of costume," they seem to say. " Here's the real thing. Take a good look."

    But what got (and deserved) more attention than the photos was the caption: "Bulimia and anorexia since I was 15." Gaga has talked about bulimia before, but what is different this time is the tense: Unlike almost every celebrity who talks about having an eating disorder, she's not talking about something comfortably in the past. She's not telling us that now she feels great about her weight and her healthy relationship with food. Eating disorders don't go away overnight, and by acknowledging her reality Lady Gaga is helping to legitimize anyone who has ever struggled—and is struggling—to recover from one.

    In true Gaga fashion she's also launching an offensive against the fat police and asking fans to join her by posting similarly raw photos of themselves. The goal, as she puts it, "is to inspire bravery and BREED some M$therf*cking COMPASSION." Or, to put a little Gaga gloss on it: "May we make our flaws famous, and thus redefine the heinous."

    I can't say whether the love fest and outpouring of photos on her site will really help others struggling with negative feelings about their flawed (ie, normal) bodies. But we love Gaga's creative efforts to use her over-the-top celebrity to help her young fans. And, of course, we love her honesty.

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  • Back to School with Live Facebook Talks
    Sept. 20, 2012 Child Mind Institute

    Whether kids are in kindergarten or away at college, it's important that parents have all the knowledge and resources they can get to help guide their children as they grow and develop.

    To help prepare parents, we hosted a live event today on Facebook called "A Parent's Guide to Bullying" with Dr. Jamie Howard. The talk included tips on what might put your child at risk for being bullied or bullying others, warning signs that your child might be getting bullied, and what parents can do to stop bullying and cyberbullying. The talk included a Q&A segment at the end, giving parents and teachers the opportunity to write in about their particular obstacles.

    If you missed the talk, watch it here:

    On Monday, September 17th we also hosted a live Facebook talk called "Is it Depression or Teen Angst?" with Dr. Natalie Weder. As parents of high school students know, it can be hard to tell what is normal teenage moodiness and what might be something more serious. In this talk Dr. Weder discusses the warning signs of adolescent depression, risks associated with depression, how parents and schools might be able to help, and what treatment options are available.

    Watch the talk followed by a Q&A session :

    Stay tuned for more live Facebook talks!

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  • 'Parenthood' Goes to the Dogs
    Sept. 20, 2012 Beth Arky

    When I settle in for my weekly fix of Parenthood, I'm always prepared for an emotional roller-coaster ride. But this episode was particularly wild. As an over-the-top dog lover, I knew I was in for it as soon as I saw Kristina cooing over puppy websites on her laptop. When husband Adam registered his skeptical but admittedly legitimate concerns—"I love dogs but I also know what a royal pain in the ass having a puppy can be"—she responded readily that "research shows that this dog would be good for Max," their Aspie son. "They're compatible with kids on the autism spectrum." 

    Max and a puppyI know I feel happy around furry friends who are always excited to see me, provide unconditional love, and—this is key, now that I'm a mom—don't talk back. And Kristina's right, there are studies saying pets, and dogs in particular, help those on the autism spectrum in a wide range of ways, from improving socialization skills to providing comfort and decreasing anxiety. Learning to bond with a cat or dog may, for example, help an autistic child interact with people. A child or teen like Max, accompanied by a dog, is bound to draw other kids, and potential friends, while the pet provides a natural topic of conversation.

    Jean Winegardner, who blogs at Stimeyland, doesn't need to see statistics to be convinced. "I think animals can be a really great, low-pressure way for people on the spectrum to connect with another creature," says the mother of three boys, including autistic son Jack, 9. "I've watched my son bond strongly with his pets, especially our late cat, Izzy." Winegardner, who wrote recently about coming out about her own autism, says, "I know that I have always felt a kinship with animals as well. They can be both family and friend without all of the complicated social interaction."

    There were some twists and turns along the way, but by the end of the episode Max and his formerly leery father had adopted an adorable black and white puppy. I'm sure I wasn't the only viewer thrilled to see the often remote-looking boy so overjoyed by his new pet. But based on the jolting finale—no spoiler here, other than to say I could have passed on this particular cliff-hanger—Max isn't the only Braverman who will be seeking comfort from an always-loving friend.

    Stay tuned for an upcoming piece by Beth Arky exploring how companion, service, and therapy animals can help children with psychiatric and learning disorders. 

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  • Moms Need (and Deserve) Help Too
    Sept. 17, 2012 Caroline Miller

    Several mothers of special needs children have written painful posts recently about "losing it" with their kids—one wrote about hitting her six-year-old and another about calling the police when she was being attacked by her son, who is 8.  The woman who dialed 911, Christina Shaver, is a Chicago mom who wrote that her son Evan had been upset by the disruption in his school routine caused by the teachers' strike.

    Here's something I haven't done in a long time: I called the cops on Evan tonight. I have a bruised hand, sore forearm, and who knows what condition the back of my knee will be in once it stops throbbing. He just snapped tonight. It is not usual for him to snap. He's nearly as big as I am, and I can no longer fend for myself against him.

    The woman who hit her son, Alexis Magnusson, was describing  an incident two years ago that upset her deeply. She writes that she had been up with a sick baby for days, and her son Casey had been screaming for three hours. "In that time, he had bitten, kicked, punched, and thrown chairs and shoes at me and both of his brothers—and was then threatening to hurt his baby sister." Stunned by what she had done, she described buckling him into his car seat "because I did not know what else to do. He's safe. Safe from himself, and so much worse, safe from me."

    Magnusson writes about the incident not to justify it—quite the contrary—but to make the point that mothers (and fathers) who are overwhelmed by the challenge of coping with violent and injurious behaviors need to be able to talk about it and get help, rather than hiding their anger and frustration and feeling that they have to be perfect, and perfectly understanding of their kids.

    Even as I write this I feel the pressure to choose my words carefully to make it clear that empathizing with the stress and suffering of parents under duress does not mean minimizing the humanity of their children. The pressure they're under is much greater than mine: Moms (it's still mostly moms) who talk about how bad things can be in their homes risk being criticized by autism self-advocates for elevating their needs and rights over those of their kids.

    Happily Landon Bryce, a self-advocate I respect, but who can be very, very tough on parents, responds positively to Magnusson's honesty: "I hope that, rather than judging her, we will remember our own imperfections and get the help we need if we are in danger of hurting ourselves or others."

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  • Back to School: A Parent's Guide to Bullying Tweetchat
    Sept. 14, 2012 Child Mind Institute

    Yesterday, Dr. Jamie Howard was joined by Caroline Knorr, Parenting Editor of Common Sense Media and Dr. Sheldon Horowitz of the National Center for Learning Disabilities for a tweetchat on how to recognize and prevent bullying and cyberbullying. If you missed it, read the conversation below.

    Also join us for: A live Facebook talk on Monday, September 17th with Dr. Natalie Weder presenting "Is it Depression or Teen Angst?" and Thursday, September 20th for a follow-up Facebook talk on "Parent's Guide to Bullying" with Dr. Jamie Howard.

    View the full event details for more about the Tweetchat.

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  • 'Parenthood' Back With Big Changes for Max
    Sept. 12, 2012 Beth Arky

    Parenthood fans who had been anxiously awaiting the return of the Bravermans weren't disappointed by this week's Season 4 premiere. As Ken Tucker wrote in his review for Entertainment Weekly, the NBC show "demonstrated once again how engrossing this series can be, in no small part by dramatizing how irritating family members can be."

    The episode revolved around Haddie's departure for her first year at Cornell and her complicated, increasingly stormy relationship with younger brother Max, diagnosed with Asperger's. A family going-away lunch out turned disastrous when the sandwich Max ordered was no longer on the menu; change-averse Max, already angry over his lost lizard, yelled at the waitress and tried to get up from his seat inside the booth. (The restaurant's sensory overload couldn't have helped, either.) At one point, an irate Kristinawho also had to contend with Haddie's arguing and baby Nora's screamingordered the guy in the next booth to "please turn around; this is not your family." 

    ParenthoodThe scene hit home for many special-need parents who have had to endure onlookers' stares. "Oh yes, been there," says Judy, whose 12-year-old son has a dual diagnosis of Asperger's and ADHD. "Last week, he was doing his 'I have to sit in my favorite seat on the bus' thing, and after deciding to pick my battles, I let him go to the back of the bus. A woman near me was saying to her friend that if that were her son, she'd be giving him a whooping. I had to restrain myself from saying what I was really thinking." Lisa Quinones-Fontanez, who blogs at AutismWonderland, says she loved Kristina's reaction—"she's getting feisty"because "it shows how she's evolved. In the beginning, she was all weepy because of Max's diagnosis, which is why so many [autism] parents dislike her. But it's also appropriate because Max got his diagnosis late; he was not a kid who went through Early Intervention. Her telling the stranger to mind his own business showed that she's learning to accept Max and his diagnosis."

    Later, Haddie visited Max in his room for a private goodbye. She told him she'd miss him and his complete honesty before handing him a very thoughtful gifta weighted blanket, which some with sensory issues find calming. While Max clearly liked the blanket, he never said thank you. So when did she get her "thank you"? When she told Max she loved him. And Haddie does love Max, but her brother's less-than-typical behavior clearly wears on her. Patty Porch-Hooper, who blogs at pancakesgoneawry, says the Haddie-Max relationship mirrors that of her neurotypical daughter, Charlotte, almost 7, and her autistic son, Danny, 9. " Some days after school," she says, "Charlotte just wants to play with Danny but he needs a lot of space after a stressful day, so he blows her off, leaving Charlotte crying, heartbroken. I have had to explain to her that he needs space. She isn't old enough to really recognize their differences, but the way Max responded to Haddie is so similar to how Danny has responded to me and other family members. It is so hard not to take it personally, especially when you are trying so hard to connect. I worry about the future when my daughter expects a little more give and take from your relationship."

    But the final straw came when Haddie discovered Max tearing through her luggage in search of his missing lizard. She screamed at her brother to stop, to no effect. She stormed out with these parting words, dripping with sarcasm, for Kristina and Adam: "And by the way, I had my bonding time with Max, and it went really great, and we're closer than ever, and he's totally normal!" 

    With Haddie off the show, at least for the time being, a new storyline involving Joel and Julia's adoption of Victor out of foster care is bound to present some difficult issues. As creator Jason Katims told TV Guide, the boy "shakes it up in a big way. Especially when you adopt a child who is a little older, it's one thing to say you're going to become a family and it's another thing to have that actually happen." Julia spoke to those challenges when she revealed to Joel something most parents, biological or adoptive, are loathe to admit: "I feel like I'm waiting to fall in love with our son." Tootsiepop6 tweeted to executive producer Ron Howard that the line was "so real. so raw... HONEST."

    Some on facebook and twitter say they have a love/hate relationship with Parenthood, yet they often speak of the Bravermans as if they're real people. We're likewise engaged, and look forward to spending more time with them. 

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  • Nightmare in a Seclusion Room
    Sept. 11, 2012 Rachel Ehmke

    This weekend the New York Times ran an alarming op-ed written by Bill Lichtenstein, a father who found out that his kindergartener was being locked inside a closet at her Massachusetts public school for up to an hour as a disciplinary measure. This might seem to be illegal, but many schools actually consider so-called "seclusion rooms" a valid strategy for punishing and isolating kids who are displaying problematic behaviors. Seclusion rooms are used disproportionately with kids who have learning, behavioral, physical, or developmental needs. This includes Lichtenstein's daughter Rose, who has speech and language delays.

    Lichtenstein began noticing tell-tale signs of trauma in Rose at home, but he couldn't get an explanation for the change in her behavior until he saw first hand exactly how her teachers were disciplining her. What he learned was horrifying:

    At school, her mother and I found Rose standing alone on the cement floor of a basement mop closet, illuminated by a single light bulb. There was nothing in the closet for a child - no chair, no books, no crayons, nothing but our daughter standing naked in a pool of urine, looking frightened as she tried to cover herself with her hands. On the floor lay her favorite purple-striped Hanna Andersson outfit and panties.

    Later he explains that she was naked because she needed to use the bathroom while she was locked inside the closet and didn't want to soil her favorite outfit. When people at the school discovered she was naked they called her parents but did not offer to help her. Now, six years later, Rose tells her father that the people involved "weren't bad people; they just didn't know about working with children."

    Seclusion rooms were first used in special needs schools and then followed special needs students as they were mainstreamed into public classrooms. According to an expert interviewed by Lichtenstein, this often happened without proper staff training, introducing new students that schools didn't know how to care for and new techniques that schools didn't know how to use.

    Rose's story is especially painful for parents in New York City, where massive special education reform is happening right now. Starting last week, the vast majority of special needs students in the city were required to leave their specialized programs or schools and enroll in mainstream classes at their neighborhood school. The Department of Education hopes this placement will provide a more individualized education and improve graduation rates for kids with special needs, but many parents are worried that local schools are unprepared for the influx of new students requiring new supports. A recent study found that the Department of Education did a good job getting ready for the transition. We hope so. 

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