The Child Mind BlogBrainstorm
A Family's Uprooting and a Pleasant Surprise
July 29, 2011 Maria Xia
"Having a family means constructing an equation," writes Lisa Belkin on the New York Times' Motherlode blog. "Every choice, each conclusion, means shuffling all the factors, deciding how much weight to give to each." Parents of children with special needs are most aware of that balancing act, the child becoming the major player in each equation, the reason for a family's compromises and sacrifices. Right?View Comments | Add Comment
Apparently, not always. In the guest post, Lydia Denworth surprises us with the story of her family's move to China, and what that meant for her first grade son, Alex. He is almost entirely deaf, and his family calls upon a vast network of caregivers to support him. Denworth herself stopped working for several years to focus on him, and the family gave up on quite a few dreams of how they might live.
So when Denworth's husband suggested moving to Hong Kong, she thought immediately of Alex. Will the schools have teachers for him? Can the kids stand the shock of relocation? But she was "floored" by Alex's response. When he heard the news, he exclaimed that they were the best parents ever. "I want to see the Great Wall. I want to learn Mandarin," he said. I'll even try some Chinese food."
This is an inspiring story of the resilience of children — even those we treat with special attention-and the ways in which parenting can be a forgiving as well as a demanding activity. All parents want more for their children, and for Denworth this was a reminder that all along their efforts were aimed at letting Alex "exist in as wide a world as possible." Sometimes it's prudent to step lightly when it comes to surprises, to err on the side of safety and routine. But occasionally—and happily—our children show how much they want to grow up, and surprise us with the gifts.
Doubt, Love, Medication, and Autism
July 27, 2011 Harry Kimball
NPR's On Being website draws our attention to a piece by the father of a boy with autism that's a must-read in light of all the debate about whether too many kids are being given psychotropic medications.
Paul Collins, who wrote the piece in 2006 for the New York Times magazine, describes his distracted, happy, harmless 5-year-old who suddenly flew out of control. "I retreated across the hall and snapped on the bathroom light," he writes. "Blood was flowing from my nose. Behind me Morgan thrashed on his bed, pounding and kicking the bedroom wall, screaming."
A fascinating and fascinated boy was becoming overwhelmed by rage. "Nothing in particular was setting him off," Collins continues. "Just being conscious enraged him. Just existing." So he and his wife reluctantly visited the doctor and returned with a prescription for an anti-depressant. Collins wasn't happy about it—as he puts it so eloquently, "medicine always has one unavoidable side effect: doubt"—but "after a week or two the familiar outlines of our son re-emerged from the depths."
"Really? You medicate your son?" Collins imagines the disbelief. And while the family's choice, he writes, "required no explanation to parents of disabled kids," he understands the "suspicion" that so often accompanies medication, particularly psychoactive medication. "But I don't have the luxury of distrust," Collins concludes. "I do not love that it came to this. I do not love drugs. I do not love the companies that sell them. But I love my son."
For a first-person account of the bravery parents exhibit when confronting disorders like autism, this piece can't be beat. Please give it a read.View Comments | Add Comment
Cyberbully Debate Escalates to Real-Life (Fake) Hostage Situation
July 26, 2011 Harry Kimball
The internet prankster group 4chan—"trolls" if you like—is not known for the highest level of discourse. They are suspected (at least by Adrian Chen on Gawker) of being behind a very real prank targeted at cyberbullying advocate Parry Aftab. On Saturday, 30 police officers "surrounded Aftab's house after receiving a call from an unknown man claiming that he had killed four people at the home and had another hostage," writes Chen. "Police shot tear gas through the window, but when they entered found only Aftab's cat at home." Classy.
So what is 4chan's problem with Aftab? A 4chan-related site calls her a "threat" because she wants "to restrict the very tool that we use to fight oppressive governments" to ensure that "kids don't get called names on the internet."
It's way beyond the purview of this space to wonder what effect internet security measures would have on, say, the Arab Spring, or free speech in China. But we can point out that cyberbullying can go far beyond name-calling and have disastrous consequences which we are seeing with alarming frequency. You would think that 4chan, which may have organized what could easily have turned into a bloodbath, would get that. But then, these are people who accept blame for nothing and just say, "What? It's the internet." Until it isn't.View Comments | Add Comment
For Sallie Mae, Mental Illness Only 75% Real
July 26, 2011 Caroline Miller
Student lender Sallie Mae is guilty of a stunning lapse in a new tuition refund insurance program the New York Times reported on the other day: "If a student withdraws because of a physical illness or injury, a family gets 100 percent of its money back. People who leave because of mental health problems, however, get only 75 percent back."
This discriminatory policy is particularly outrageous because of the special vulnerability of college-age children to psychiatric illness, especially depression. The company that underwrites the Sallie Mae offerings (as well as some non-discriminatory policies of its own) admits that they get more claims for withdrawal for mental health reasons than for physical injury or illness. So the Sallie Mae policies are specifically designed to withhold coverage where it's needed most.
If tuition refund policies were considered health insurance, the double standard would likely be illegal under federal law mandating parity for mental and physical health coverage. As it is, it appears to be only offensive and out-of-date. And not surprising; we may wring our hands over the suicides of college students, but then we turn around and make, or tolerate, policies that refuse to take psychiatric illness seriously because of a nagging doubt of its "realness." Given that an overwhelming percentage of people who commit suicide are depressed, that 75 percent starts to look not only insulting but dangerous.View Comments | Add Comment
The Leiby Kletzky Fund Is Soaring
July 26, 2011 Caroline Miller
Don't know how many people saw the gracious and touching statement released by Leiby Kletzky's parents last week, in which they asked people who wanted to memorialize their murdered son to contribute to a fund to perform "acts of unity and loving kindness" for children and families in need. Now comes word that the fund has reached nearly a quarter million dollars in less than a week.
I found it very moving that the Kletzkys—Nachman and Esty—chose to focus on the outpouring of love and support they experienced when Leiby was missing, and to look for a way to pass it on. "Let us perpetuate the feeling of collective responsibility and love expressed during the search for Leiby," they wrote. "An additional act of kindness toward your neighbor, or to those less fortunate than you, can go a long, long way toward perfecting our world."
It's not only generous of them, it's an excellent thing to teach our children: One of the best ways to work through personal pain and loss is to reach out a helping hand to others. Here's the link in case you want to contribute to their effort.View Comments | Add Comment
Getting Help for Yourself Helps Your Family
July 25, 2011 Caroline Miller
Laura Shumaker has a terrific guest blog at The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism about the importance of getting help for yourself when the stress of caring for a child is overwhelming.View Comments | Add Comment
She describes how her chronic anxiety about her son, the relentlessness of the care he needed, and her resulting sleeplessness produced one health crisis after another until she recognized that she needed help. She doggedly refused to admit how stressed-out she was until an anxiety attack after her son bolted from a restaurant finally made it impossible to hide.
There are many, many parents who've been there: You feel the need to keep reassuring everyone that you're fine, that you can handle it, that the child you love isn't making you miserable. You want to protect him from a burden he doesn't deserve. But as Shumaker writes, the best way to do that is not to tough it out but to take care of yourself. Psychotherapy, group support, medication, respite—any or all can make your life, and your parenting, better.
Teenage Sex: Not Under My Roof!
July 24, 2011 Caroline Miller
Teenagers having sex in their bedrooms at home? A provocative opinion piece in the New York Times argues that Dutch parents stay closer to their teenage children and have more influence over their developing sexual values than their American counterparts by allowing kids to do it at home.View Comments | Add Comment
The writer, Amy Schalet, compares the experiences of two sexually active 16-year-olds, one American and one Dutch. The former says she's never discussed sex with her parents, describing the situation as a de facto "don't ask, don't tell" policy. "She'd like to tell her parents that she and her boyfriend are having sex," writes Schalet, "but she believes it is easier for her parents not to know because the truth would 'shatter' their image of her as their 'little princess.' " The Dutch girl, on the other hand, did tell her parents, and while they initially were upset, they came to terms with it, and the boyfriend is now close to her parents as well.
What's most compelling here is the idea that teenagers don't necessarily have to drift off into a parallel universe, leaving their parents out of touch with where they are and what they're doing—and even more important, who they're becoming. As Schalet notes, when children feel comfortable being honest with their parents about something as awkward as sex, it should be easier for them to ask for help when they need it.
The Challenge of Traveling With Kids
July 21, 2011 Caroline Miller
Whenever I'm at an airport I find myself watching parents and kids—that is, strategies parents use to keep children engaged and contained enough to stay in the good graces of other passengers. When kids have ADHD, autism or some other condition that makes them prone to act out, parents have to be super resourceful—and so many of them are. I admire their creativity and focus—whether or not they're successful.
A mom we know passed on a story about traveling with her 5-year-old son, who has Asperger's. Car rides are "torture" for both of them, she writes; flying is marginally easier. But a recent flight to Florida had an unexpected ending.
Because of an accident that snarled traffic en route to the airport, they arrived late, and had to rush to get to—and through—security. It was critical that she keep her son from getting upset, despite how upset she herself was. "It was obvious the amount of stress I was dealing with," she wrote, "and he was having trouble keeping up. l was trying to remain as calm as possible, to be upbeat, laughing, and saying, 'Run! Keep running!' "
They arrived at the gate just as the doors were closing, and they weren't allowed to board. "I just lost it!" she wrote. "It was me who wound up in tears at the gate and he was consoling me!"
It's important to remember that kids facing serious challenges are deeply resourceful, too, and that their skills can pop up at the most unexpected, and rewarding, times.View Comments | Add Comment
Troubling Suspension Trend in Texas Schools
July 19, 2011 Caroline Miller
A whopping 55 percent of Texas students are suspended in the course of their six years of secondary education, a new study of school disciplinary patterns shows.
The most disturbing thing about this report isn't the level of disruptive behavior it suggests—we know that disruptive behavior is one of the biggest obstacles to learning in some of our schools—but the fact that suspension is a very poor tool for improving that behavior. While it may get a disruptive child out of the classroom for a couple of days—an average of two, notes the Texas Tribune—and give the teacher and other students a reprieve, it appears to act less as an incentive to students to perform better than a disincentive to stay in school.
Many of the children who are acting out in our classrooms have unaddressed psychiatric and learning disorders that lead them to find school very frustrating-frustration they aren't likely to overcome without treatment.
But many more have behavior issues that could respond very well to less individualized behavioral interventions. Indeed, this is a perfect argument for programs like Teacher-Child Interaction Training, which gives teachers much more powerful tools for reining in, and, indeed, helping children themselves to rein in undesirable behavior. At the Child Mind Institute we see kids who have been transformed by this kind of therapy-they weren't bad kids, in fact they were bright and talented kids, but they were out of control. There are millions more like them around the country.View Comments | Add Comment
Vets With PTSD Have a Friend in Court
July 18, 2011 Harry Kimball
The New York Times has a hopeful story about mental health care and the military that still manages to harrow and illustrate the real problems facing our society as a whole when it comes to mental illness. Staff Sgt. Brad Eifert returned from combat tours in Iraq to a life in the US that seemed foreign and aggravating. He had nightmares and panic attacks which he tried to drown in alcohol even as he sought help from the VA that was not particularly forthcoming. "It's normal," he says he was told by a psychiatrist. "You'll get over it."
That didn't happen. Instead, he was arrested after a standoff with police where he fired shots. As Erica Goode notes in the Times piece, "such stories often end in death or prison, the veteran in either case lost to the abyss." But through the almost-magical alignment of many factors—compassionate police, cooperative prosecutors, a forward-looking judge and an amenable military bureaucracy—and a new push to keep veterans with mental health issues out of jail, he is neither dead nor incarcerated. Instead, he is completing a rigorous course of therapy. "We're a long way from this being over," Eifert's mentor tells Goode. But "I'll put my money on Brad getting through this O.K."
The takeaway here is that in at least one community in America, people are realizing that prison is not a good therapeutic model, and that if the symptoms of some mental illnesses like depression or PTSD are recognized for what they are, we can help people. "You increase public safety, you don't have a person reoffending," says the judge who created the first "veteran's court." "And hopefully, that person can become functioning and not suffer the invisible wounds of war." Hopefully, too, we can take this model into the general population, and make a serendipitous fluke a daily reality.View Comments | Add Comment