The Child Mind BlogBrainstorm

  • 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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  • Model Behavior: Heidi Klum Helps Out CMI
    Dec. 7, 2011 Harry Kimball

    The Child Mind Institute has a lot of friends, and they are all equally important to us and vital to our mission.

    And then there is Heidi Klum. The supermodel and TV host (among other pursuits) was kind enough to design one of the Radko christmas ornaments benefitting the Child Mind Institute and on sale now at Bloomingdale's. She describes the partnership below. So, thank you, Heidi. Thank you, Bloomingdale's. And in this season of thanksgiving, a huge thank you to everyone who keeps the well-being of children close to their hearts.

    Read more about Heidi Klum's ornament on her website.

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  • Lady Gaga's Art Therapy
    Dec. 6, 2011 Charlie Gross

    Perhaps you've been too distracted by the Justin Bieber paternity scandal to catch the latest Lady Gaga offering, but you should: her 14-minute self-directed "Marry the Night" video is equal parts Girl InterruptedBlack Swan and Flashdance, and it encapsulates what makes the pop provocateur's work so titillating and challenging. At best it portrays resilience in the face of despair—Gaga recovering from some kind of trauma (the gossip sites say it was rejection by her record label). At worst it romanticizes suicide and pokes fun at psychiatry. Either way it is helpful to understand the controversy that surrounds her and what makes her such a compelling role model to her fans.

    Lady GagaThe video opens with Gaga having survived a suicide attempt and being wheeled into a harrowing but uber-fashionable psychiatric clinic where the nurses are in "next season Calvin Klein." At face value, this certainly does not help to destigmatize mental health treatment, as it is really a hypermodern, ironic version of the alienating institutions of the past.

    But Gaga is quick to make her point—that her art and her dreams are the path to rehabilitation. As she narrates: "clinical psychology tells us arguably that trauma is the ultimate killer. Memories are not recycled like atoms and particles in quantum physics; they can be lost forever. It's sort of like my past is an unfinished painting, and as the artist of that painting, I must fill in all the ugly holes and make it beautiful again." By the end of the video, indeed, she triumphs; through dance, music, art and deadpan humor—"You may say I lost everything, but I still had my BeDazzler....so I wreaked havoc on some old denim." 

    Lady Gaga recently told Financial Times that her latest album is "about rebirth in every sense. Its about being reborn again and again until you find the identity inside yourself that defines you best for who you are and that makes you feel like a champion of life."

    While some may take issue with her persona, who could argue with her message, especially for adolescents? 

    For a look at how young kids see Lady Gaga check out this video from gothamist.com:

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  • Has Sexting Been Exaggerated?
    Dec. 5, 2011 Caroline Miller

    Sexting isn't as prevalent among teenagers as you thought, finds a new study getting a lot of attention today. Which of course leads to the question: how prevalent did you think it was? It's not the "pervasive scourge some reports have suggested," is how USA Today puts it. Or the New York Times version: "Sending of Sexual Images by Minors Isn't as Prevalent as Expected."

    I don't know what you expected, but I didn't really think everyone was doing it, nor do I think everyone who is doing it is likely to tell the researchers the truth about it. It turns out just 2.5 percent of kids 10 to 17 say they have sent partially nude pictures of themselves to others, and 7.1 percent said they had received sexually provocative images from someone else.

    But the issue here is really the notion that any disturbing behavior, thanks to sensational news coverage, seems to get blown up into an epidemic. I can't help thinking of a hilarious bit Stephen Colbert did a couple of weeks back on a local news report that Phoenix high school students were soaking tampons in vodka and then inserting them to get drunk. Riffing off of a school security cop telling the reporter, "this is everywhere," Colbert has a lot of fun inflating it into a national emergency. The joke isn't on the kids who are doing this (and I hope this "trend" disappears as fast as others of its ilk) but the ridiculous way alarming behavior is magnified.

    What really counts is that for those kids who are sexting, it can have terrible unintended consequences (I'm not going to say anything more about vodka tampons). And of course kids who think "everyone is doing it" may be more likely to make poor choices for themselves. Teenagers already tend to think their peers are a lot more sexually active than they really are. Any information that reflects the more modest reality can be good for them to know.

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  • Heading Off Depression and Suicide Early
    Nov. 29, 2011 Harry Kimball

    Some sobering statistics from a recent University of Washington study: almost 40% of young people who attempted suicide in adolescence did so before high school age, with some reporting attempts as young as 9. In the study, the university reports, 9% of a sample of 883 adolescents aged 18 or 19 followed since childhood had tried to kill themselves at least once, a frightening statistic that is nonetheless in line with other research.

    But the study did more than count suicide attempts: It matched the suicide attempts kids report in retrospect with assessments of their mental health and mood done in the years surrounding and including the attempt. And what the researchers found is encouraging: there are signs.

    Lead author James Mazza found that young people who attempt suicide score higher on standard scores of depression than their peers who do not make an attempt, an unsurprising result. He also found that the same child had a higher depression score the year of the attempt than the year before or after, which is quite striking. "This study suggests that implementation of mental health programs may need to start in elementary and middle schools," Mazza says, "and that youth in these grades are fairly good reporters of their own mental health."

    It's not as if Mazza's research can eradicate the vulnerability of adolescents to depression and suicide. As he says, "adolescence is a time when kids are preparing to be more independent from their parents or guardians, but lack the experience of how to do this.  And their support network—their friends
    doesn't have the experience either, especially in crisis situations." But it does make it clearer that caring adults can determine when a young person is heading for a crisis, even when the distress signals that kid is sending to peers or parents are getting lost in the busy, messy noise of growing up.

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  • Flashback: Blocks Rule in School, Again
    Nov. 28, 2011 Harry Kimball

    A variety of concerns about children's education seem to have conspired to bring simple wooden building blocks back into vogue, at least in the upper echelons of New York City schools. Worried about too much "screen" time? Blocks. Worried about motor skills and clumsiness? Blocks. Worried your first-grader isn't learning enough corporate team-building skills? You guessed it: Blocks.

    BlockAre massive "block centers" with thousands of dollars worth of maple simply a cure-all fad, a panacea for a variety of modern ills? To be sure, Kyle Spencer notes in the New York Times, "as in fashion, old things often come back in style in education." But many progressive preschools and grammar schools have been faithful to blocks since their original popularity in the early 20th century.

    Spencer paints a picture of a Luddite-ish resurgence of simple wooden blocks "amid worries that academic pressure and technology are squeezing play out of young children's lives." (Even the present block revival is not immune to these incursions; Spencer describes photodocumenting block projects, making documentaries, and even pulling design ideas from online photos and videos. One teacher describes this as a sort of "low-tech/high-tech" synergy.)

    Is it just good, clean evidence-based fun? (Studies show a variety of benefits to block play, from better coordination and spatial reasoning to higher math scores and increased ease of language acquisition.) Not for everybody. At one school, kindergarten and first-grade students "toiled together on a grocery store and a fancy hotel," Spencer writes, "beneath a sign that read: 'When Partners Disagree They Try for a Win-Win Solution.'" Not necessarily a bad lesson, but one that seems more "boardroom" than "classroom."

    But the pleasures of blocks, of trial and error, and of spending time with children can be straight out of the most up-to-date parenting guide. "Don't rush to help them with structural challenges," one "block consultant" tells Spencer. "You don't have to ask them a million questions. Just sit with them and notice." And you're on the way to setting the foundation for a great relationship—between you and your child, and between your child and the joys of learning.

    Photo Credit: Flickr user Hans and Carolyn

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  • Sexy Education
    Nov. 18, 2011 Harry Kimball

    When I was attending New York City public schools in the 80s and 90s, I thought that the sex education offered was pretty good—which is to say uncomfortable, frightening, and often informative. Even looking back on the experience, it comes through as comprehensive: We were told that the only truly "safe" sex was no sex, we were taught about anatomy and contraception, about STDs and pregnancy, and in one memorable class a male friend of mine claimed he had no refractory period.

    But now I am faced with twin realizationsthat sex ed for my generation was woefully inadequate, and that the meager but still uncomfortable, frightening, and informative experience that I thought was a rite of passage for all children is almost nowhere to be found. These shocks come courtesy of a must-read in the upcoming New York Times Magazine by Laurie Abraham called "Teaching Good Sex." It's mostly a profile of an English teacher in suburban Philadelphia, Al Vernacchio, who also teaches an elective class called "Sexuality and Society" to seniors.

    "Grand slam," "orgy," "grass on the field," "landing strip." Vernacchio shies away from no topic or euphemism. This may seem shocking to some readers, but what's even more shocking is that seemingly every parent of the students heartily approves. True, Friends' Central is a progressive Quaker private schoolbut remember, sex ed of a similar quality was available when I was in middle and high school not so long ago. But do we need this sort of honesty?

    We recently wrote about the declining prevalence of teenage sex. So how is this happening if the kind of sex ed that Vernacchio teaches is rare, verging on extinct? Abraham tells the other side of the storyteachers skirting abstinence-based curricula, using "code" and guerilla tactics to teach young adults what they need to know but aren't allowed to learn.

    But what Vernacchio offers is something more, encouraging his students to think about sex as more than just a mechanical transaction. Just because more teens are abstaining from sex doesn't mean they have better attitudes about it. My experience with sex ed didn't teach me to be more compassionate or to really respect other people, other genders, other orientations. But listen to what one of Vernacchio's students tells Abraham about learning a salient fact he probably wouldn't have gotten anywhere else. "It's almost like a wake-up call. To not just please yourself."

    Sex has emotional consequencesgood and badin addition to physical ones. So talking about sex clinically (or not at all) misses the mark.

    Abraham describes a talk Vernacchio gave to parents. He "didn't imagine that his audience, who gave him an enthusiastic ovation when his presentation ended, wanted their 14- and 15-year-olds to go out tomorrow and jump into bed or the backseat," Abraham writes. But "sex education, he and others point out, is one of the few classes where it's not understood that young people are being prepared for the future." This is real life, with real consequences. So let's educate our children.

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  • Why Don't We Trust Teens About Sex?
    Nov. 16, 2011 Harry Kimball

    In the New York Times, KJ Dellantonia casts a suspicious eye on new numbers from the Centers for Disease Control indicating a significant decrease in the sexual activity of teenagers. (42% of boys and 43% of girls aged 15-19 say they've had sex at least once, down from 60.4% and 51.1% in 2002.) Dellantonia writes that she might be a little "caught up in that difficulty with the self-reported data. Maybe I'm cynical, but I put more credence in a truly anonymous Internet survey than in one that involved an adult sitting in your bedroom."

    Or maybe the message is getting through to kids. Perhaps sex education (where it is available) is working. Though Dellantonia isn't particularly impressed, these days the second most important reason boys don't have sex is because they haven't found the right person; it used to be that they didn't want to risk getting someone pregnant.

    Humbug, says Dellantonia. "That's either very sweet," or more likely just evidence that teens "have the birth control thing down." (As the Times reports in its article on the CDC study, contraception use is rising steadily while the birth rate for the age group is the lowest ever recorded in the US.)

    OK-but that's a start, right? As we've pointed out, teenagers are sexual beings. Of course, every parent, teen, and family is different. But, as we've suggested before, the only way to pass your values about sex on to your children is by talking to them, early and often and in ways they can understand. That's why it's heartening when one commenter on Dellantonia's post offered a corrective to what another called the "apocalypse" of adolescent sex that leads to psychic disaster. 

    "I think it would be useful to challenge the misguided and unhelpful myth that teenagers having sex automatically equates to 'emotional mess,'" writes Bill Randle. "The way to avoid that is for parents to have frank, wide ranging discussions with their children about sex and sexuality so they're not surprised by the ramifications, be they emotional or physical. Unfortunately, however, many parents just can't bring themselves to talk to their kids about sex."

    Of course, many parents do find it difficult, but wishing and pretending these conversations away is the surest road to "apocalypse." As Randle so eloquently puts it: "How is it that some adults managed to get through adolescence and yet still pretend that teenagers aren't sexual?"

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  • Brain Differences in Kids With ADHD
    Nov. 14, 2011 Caroline Miller

    Two compelling pieces of research about ADHD have been released by neuroscientists in the last couple of days. Using scans that show a picture of brain activity, a study at Wayne State University found that an area of the brain that helps organize mental activity works unusually hard in children with ADHD. It's called the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, and the findings suggest that differences in this region's functioning could be an underlying cause of the inattentiveness and impulsivity that characterize the disorder. "Our findings suggest that the function as well as the structure of this brain area is different in children with ADHD," the biologist who reported the team's findings told the Wall Street Journal. "It might explain the cognitive problems we see in the classroom."

    Another study, also based on functional magnetic resonance imaging, showed that adults who were diagnosed with ADHD as children still have less grey matter in the outer layer of the brain, the cortex. The areas that show thinning are involved in the regulation of attention and emotion, said Dr. F. Xavier Castellanos, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at New York University Langone Medical Center and a member of the Child Mind Institute's Scientific Research Council. Dr. Castellanos noted that these brain differences persist into adulthood even for those who have taken stimulant medication to help control the symptoms of ADHD.

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  • Angry Parents and Unpredictable Children
    Nov. 11, 2011 Caroline Miller

    Kids, especially kids with psychiatric disorders, respond unpredictably to anger. Lisa Belkin, on her new blog over at Huffington Post, makes an important point about three young children recently killed by their parents. These cases have been linked by the fact that all had used the book To Train Up a Child, which advocates spanking children with rubber tubing and other disturbing forms of corporal punishment.  As we noted earlier, all three children were adopted, and all the families had six or more children.

    Lisa wonders whether adoptive children are more at risk for the kind of horrifying treatment these kids suffered. She notes that kids who are deprived as infants may develop what is called reactive attachment disorder, which makes them unable to bond, but also to feel. Her hypothesis is that the kind of punishment these parents had meted out to other kids in their very large broods might not have produced the kind of cooperation they were looking for from these children. So the parents may have escalated, until they were enraged and out of control.

    I don't know how common RAD is, but it points to a larger issue that's very important in raising kids with psychiatric disorders: Children vary a great deal in how they respond to negative reinforcement. If you raise your voice, one child might immediately fall into line, but a child with ADHD might barely register the change, and might ignore you. Or he might escalate, and yell back at you. Anger directed at an extremely anxious child might cause her to shut down completely, rather than comply with your commands. When you lose your temper and yell at a child on the autism spectrum, rather than yield, he might go into a violent tantrum.

    All of which is why positive reinforcement and consistent, unemotional consequences for undesirable behavior is a much more solid basis for raising children.

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