The Child Mind BlogBrainstorm

  • The Real Luxury of the Holidays: Downtime
    Dec. 22, 2011 Caroline Miller

    My mother was a talented homemaker, in the style of the '50s and '60s, when there was a great deal less outsourcing of family life. The holidays now upon us always make me think of her, with my sister and me as eager assistants, making cookies with colored sprinkles, decorating wreaths with spraypainted pine cones, and, especially, wrapping presents. She'd cover a ping pong table in our suburban basement with a dizzying array of papers and ribbon, and we'd spend hours there, laboring with scissors and tape over our childish creations. The gifts I got and gave in those years have faded in my memory, but I vividly recall the thrill of learning to make "grown-up" bows.

    A lot fewer of us are full-time moms now, and whether we celebrate Hanukkah or Christmas, both, or neither, we have a lot less time to spend on conjuring up holiday magic for kids. But it's also true that as time together becomes scarcer and scarcer in family life, holidays become more and more valuable, not for the expensive presents, but for the luxury of relaxed time spent together.

    With all the talk on parenting sites about how many gifts to give kids, how to achieve gift parity, and how to teach kids to enjoy giving as well as receiving, I think it's worth focusing instead on what you can do with this gift of extra downtime. What are the most fun and memorable things you can do with kids over this holiday week? Make something together, cook together, read together, watch movies or TV together, ice skate together, swim or take a walk on the beach together? Whatever your family's favorite activities, I predict that over time what you do with your kids during the holidays will be as memorable for them as what you give them. And the gift of that undiluted time and attention is one that your family can share—so at least in this case you don't have to worry about "parity" under the tree.

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  • Fighting Two ‘Monsters,’ One Day at a Time
    Dec. 21, 2011 Harry Kimball

    Sophie, a patient at the Child Mind Institute, describes her battle with OCD on our website, and how she overcame "LEAF," her name for the disorder. "I fought LEAF," she says of the "big cheese" that "makes me feel like I want to die." In the end, "I beat LEAF." 

    We're reminded of this fight by a recent article in the New York Times' ongoing series on people living, and often thriving, with severe mental illness. Antonio Lambert landed in prison at the age of 21 after nearly a decade of hair-raising drug use, gangbanging, and violence on the streets of Portsmouth, VA. It was only in prison that he received a diagnosis of depression, but he didn't seem to improve on antidepressants. "I was incarcerated even when I was free," he says in an accompanying video.

    Later, the article and Lambert appear to suggest, the diagnosis was changed to bipolar disorder. Out of prison and trying to help others with dual diagnoses—psychiatric disorder and drug addictionhe does well on mood stabilizers, but also has a crucial understanding of the severity of his situation.

    "I know my own mental illness and my addiction are real," he tells Benedict Carey. "I feel like they're out there right now, doing push-ups, getting ready to take me down again. That's why I got to have my own system for staying strong."

    Lambert's "system" is a bit idiosyncratic; in addition to medication, he treats his illness with peer support, religion, and by talking to himself. But he's very aware of when his system fails, like it did last fall when he got high and stole from his workplace. He immediately checked himself into a hospital and faced up to his problems, which is the first step in getting better, and something that is very hard for kids with mental illness. "I know when it's time to reach out for help," Lambert says. And that's an important message to take away, no matter who you are.

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  • 'Parenthood' Meets '24' in New Fox Show
    Dec. 20, 2011 Caroline Miller

    Word went out today about a new Fox drama called Touch debuting in January. The news sparked the interest of both Jack Bauer loyalists and parents of children on the autism spectrum—an odd coupling occasioned by the fact that the show stars Kiefer Sutherland as the single father of a nonverbal boy who has autism. 

    TouchParenthood meets 24? Not too far off. While the boy, Jake, doesn't speak, what he does do, we are told in the preview, is see patterns others can't see and communicate via numbers—if only dad can figure out what he's trying to say. Make that: If dad can figure out what he's trying to say in time to stop something really bad from happening. Today at 3:18. It seems that his special talents allow him to see the future.

    Jake is about the same age as Max on Parenthood, and looks a bit like him. But judging from the preview, Touch seems to be less a drama that includes a child on the spectrum than a thriller that gives Sutherland a costar who's cute but hard to communicate with—oh, and he has superpowers.

    Touch runs with the notion that some children on the spectrum have unusual gifts—in this case, to quote Fox, "of staggering genius"—and that they may be open to experiences not accessible to the neurotypical. Someone tells Sutherland in the preview: "Imagine the unspeakable beauty of the universe he sees." I'm eager to see how parents and people with autism feel about what the Touch press materials call a "hopeful" blend of "science and spirituality."

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  • A Baseball Player Fights ADHD at the Plate
    Dec. 20, 2011 Caroline Miller

    Andres Torres, the New York Mets' new center fielder and leadoff batter, has a pretty dramatic personal story. For more than a decade Torres languished in the minor leagues, just not able to put his game together, despite obvious potential. At some point he was diagnosed with ADHD, but for five years he blew off treatment. Andres TorresFinally he was persuaded by a coach that his ADHD could be seriously undermining his performance. He took the medication that had been prescribed. Within a season, his batting average soared. He was signed by the San Francisco Giants, where he helped win the World Series in 2010. 

    "With the medication, everything started clicking," Torres tells the New York Times. "From then on, it changed." He was traded to the Mets last month.

    The interesting point here is not that ADHD medication can turn a weak batter into Babe Ruth. Stimulant medications, by the way, are illegal in baseball, unless you are diagnosed with ADHD. The point here is that school is not the only arena in which kids with ADHD who don't get treatment are likely to flounder. Focus, concentration, follow-through, impulse control—the functions kids with ADHD need help with—are important in the rest of life, too. 

    Too many people think ADHD is a disorder that only affects school. But it affects all kinds of endeavors, from sports to arts, from starting a career to sustaining good relationships with friends and family. We need to empower kids to corral their talents effectively in whatever arenas they want to participate, out of the classroom as well as in it.

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  • Parenting and Autism: Uncommon Empathy
    Dec. 19, 2011 Caroline Miller

    We hear that one of our favorite websites, the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism, has a new book out today, a collection of pieces by their thoughtful and emotionally astute writers. You can buy it here, and they say the Kindle edition will be available soon.

    It's a good excuse to try to describe what's so valuable about the voices collected on TPGA.  I think it's the power of personal experience combined with hard-headedness about information. It's the combination of warmth and realism: you feel the love the writers have for their kids (and other people's kids) even while (or exactly while) they are telling the truth about how difficult it is be to be a parent to those kids, and how imperfect we all are at it. 

    An excellent example is a post from Friday by Deanna Shoyer, the mother of 5-year-old twin boys, both on the autism spectrum, called "I'm Not a Bad Parent ... Right?" Shoyer writes about struggling to respond effectively to one twin's aggression towards the other. She agonizes over what in her parenting arsenal she could use to diminish the behavior.

    Then one day it happened; I cracked. I came out of the bathroom and Oliver was pulling Owen's hair and kicking him. I shouted at Oliver to stop but then I found myself yelling, "Why? Why are you doing this to Owen? I don't understand!" I was holding Owen and crying and then the look on Oliver's face made me cry more. I knew I couldn't handle this behavior effectively any longer and to avoid getting upset with Oliver again I started putting him into time out.

    You can read the piece to see what response did prove to be effective—no, it wasn't time-outs—but Shoyer wasn't satisfied just to see the aggressive outbursts diminish. She wanted to understand what was making Oliver lash out at his brother, and she wasn't going to feel right about it until she found a way to feel what he might be feeling. That's the kind of insight that goes much farther than just tips for how to manage problem behaviors.

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  • James Durbin Sings at Atlanta Falcons Game
    Dec. 15, 2011 Caroline Miller

    James Durbin's fans and supporters want you to know that he'll be singing at the Atlanta Falcons football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars tonight.

    You already know that Durbin, the American Idol rocker who has both Asperger's and Tourette's, has an album out, Memories of a Beautiful Disaster, which our source, Patti, urges you to buy or give as a gift for the holidays. If a killer scream and incinerating guitar riffs aren't right for anyone on your list,James Durbin but you want to support the passionate young man who's become a hero to a lot of kids challenged by psychiatric disorders, she suggests you donate a CD to the troops serving overseas. Here's a link to Tunes 4 the Troops.  

    Speaking of screaming, there's a lovely interview with Durbin in Psychology Today in which  Kymberly Grosso, the mom of one of those kids who idolizes Durbin, asks about a song on the album called "Screaming." Durbin describes coming home from school as a kid, after a day of frustration and bullying, and screaming as loud as he could into a pillow. How lovely that that practiced scream is making him a rock star.

    "There is a reason he is a role model," writes Grosso. "He experienced adversity yet he prevails with exceptional music and riveting, live performances. "

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  • Suicide Hotline Goes Digital on Facebook
    Dec. 14, 2011 Harry Kimball

    Everyone who uses Facebook, young people and adults alike, should be aware of a welcome new feature aimed at suicide prevention. Well, it's not all new—Facebook has been partnered with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline since 2006, according to CNN, and this past summer the social networking site began allowing users to flag suicidal content. After a review by Facebook staff, the at-risk person receives an email with NSPL information and the phone number: 888.273.TALK

    But now the government service and the site have opened a new line of communication between users and trained suicide counselors: chat. Users who have had their comments flagged and evaluated are given the option of a live instant message conversation with a crisis worker.

    Before anyone accuses us of gigantic-Internet-company favoritism, Google is also on the bandwagon and provides links to the NSPL and the hotline phone number when suspicious search terms are entered. So, kudos to these companies for trying to help their most vulnerable users, and doing it in the lingua franca of the 21st century. Of course, there is so much more to be done.

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  • Cyber Schools: Godsend or Scam?
    Dec. 13, 2011 Harry Kimball

    The New York Times today published a scathing expose on cyber schools in the US, particularly those run by a company called K12, Inc. According to the paper's data, K12 is making investors and executives rich by taking public funds to provide sub-standard online public education, inflating the rolls to pocket more taxpayer dollars while kids who actually log on score dismally on standardized tests.

    The comments section on the Times website is the host of a lively debate. On one side, those who feel corporations are stealing from the public trough while doing a great disservice to kids. And on the other, the parents of kids who are enjoying, even thriving in the cyber school environment. I strongly urge you to read the article and familiarize yourself with the issues at hand.

    And whenever kids and government and technology and business meet, people are going to have different positions, even different perceptions of reality. Some basic facts are painfully clear.  First, the cyber-schooling "requires strong parental commitment and self-motivated students," two conditions that clearly aren't met when hundreds of thousands of kids are recruited by promotional campaigns that offer free computers.

    But it can be great for some. "Many educators believe there is a place for full-time virtual learning for children whose pace is extremely accelerated or those with behavioral or other issues, like teenage mothers who need to stay home with their babies," writes reporter Stephanie Saul. Or, as the Child Mind Institute's Susan Schwartz puts it, "it depends on the child, his age and stage, and his strengths and weaknesses."

    Kids need support from parents even if they get on the school bus every day, but if they're sitting at a desk in the living room, they're not likely to prosper without it. As one K12 teacher tells Saul, "when you have the television and the Xbox and no parental figure at home, sometimes it's hard to do your schoolwork." To put it mildly.

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  • Jimmy Buffett Rocks the Benefit
    Dec. 9, 2011 Caroline Miller

    Last night was a pretty amazing one for the Child Mind Institute. Several hundred friends and supporters gathered to celebrate the fantastic strides kids with psychiatric and learning disorders can make when they get the right treatment, and to raise more than $5 million to help more kids get the attention they need.

    Matt Lauer, the evening's host, eloquently sang the praises of the evening's honorees, Jane and Jimmy Buffett, but happily he left the singing itself to Jimmy,gala performance Jimmy Buffett who rocked the house with "Song for the Little Children" and "Volcano." In a video message Amy Poehler and Will Arnett toasted the Buffetts, who were receiving the Child Advocacy Award, saying they'd personally give them an award for "the best fake Southern accents for real New Yorkers, the best collection of flip flops for a CEO," and for being "the coolest rich people on the planet." Getting slightly more serious, they noted that "wealth is measured by kindness and generosity," and on that score the Buffetts richly deserve the evening's honor.

    For his part, Jimmy noted that the crowd at Cipriani was a little overdressed for one of his concerts, but if the night could be summed up by one moment, it was hundreds of people waving glow sticks to Jimmy's music, all rallied to a common cause. 

    The evening segued from mellow to moving as we watched a terrific video of parents and children talking about how their lives were turned around when they got treatment for psychiatric and learning disorders.

    Eric Kandel, the Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist, was awarded the Child Mind Institute Distinguished Scientist Award for his life's work in the biological, chemical, and physiological bases of brain functions like learning and memory. Dr. Kandel spoke memorably about the amazing plasticity of a child's brain: "One can think of no greater wonder in nature than the mind of a child. It's a creativity machine. It's a learning machine. It's absolutely extraordinary what the mind of a child takes in and how plastic it is." Because so many psychiatric illnesses start in childhood, he concluded, "research in mental health of children is one of the most important tasks facing society."

    View photos of the event:


    Photos by Ann Billingsley

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  • The Most Important Research This Year
    Dec. 8, 2011 Caroline Miller

     Given the barrage of studies that come across our radar screen—seems like there's one or more in the news every day—we could use some help sorting the serious from the silly. Along comes Richard Rende, who has picked the six most important pieces of research in child development this year.

    On parents.com Dr. Rende runs down what he thinks are the most influential studies, explains the findings, and tells you what the takeaway is. Some of the studies he's chosen have to do with disorders, like the one that demonstrated that environment, and not just genetics, plays a role in who develops autism. Others are broader, like one that found that school kids who were chronically tired during the day, because of trouble sleeping, lagged significantly behind their peers in cognitive development.

    One study we found particularly interesting found that poor self-control in toddlers and young children is linked to lots of problems in adulthood: health, financial and even criminal. Poor self-regulation is of course linked to a number of psychiatric disorders, including ADHD, but the findings held up even when kids with ADHD were filtered out. The compelling suggestion here is that helping kids learn to manage their emotions and behavior, which interventions like Parent-Child Interaction Therapy can do very effectively, could be important to their long-term prospects.

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