The Child Mind BlogBrainstorm

  • A Child's Illness, a Mother's Reality
    Aug. 2, 2011 Caroline Miller

    One thing I hear a lot from parents of children with serious psychiatric illnesses is that other parents don't have any idea what it's like. They're on the receiving end of a lot of criticism, and skepticism, about the decision to medicate a child, and it's often implied—if not stated outright—that disruptive behavior is the result of poor parenting.

    A new guest post in the Motherlode blog offers an important dose of reality. It's a mother's account of a charming, delightful 4-year-old—"a sweet, kind, creative, engaging, cuddly little boy"—who intermittently turns into a radically different child who his mother is terrified will hurt someone terribly. This other child is "cold, fierce, frightening and frightened," and he can't be left around anything that could be used as a weapon. The family has tried everything from diets to anti-psychotics and mood stabilizers. "He continues to get worse. And better. And then much worse again, all over the course of the first five minutes he is awake in any given day."

    When very young children are medicated it's often because they are violent—and if you don't think a 4-year-old can be dangerous, to himself or someone else, read this piece. A friend who has a child on the autism spectrum said the other day she'd like to get a therapy dog for him, but she thinks it might not be safe—for the dog.

    Like many mothers I've met, this mom is literally working around the clock to help her child and save her family. What she needs is for others to recognize that this kind of thing happens to "nice people" and "nice children." The fact that this mother posted anonymously speaks to the stigma she feels in revealing her child's illness and her family's reality.

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  • What Even Extraordinary Teachers Can't Do
    Aug. 1, 2011 Caroline Miller

    A teacher named Ellie Herman has a riveting essay in the Los Angeles Times about the notion, which seems to be in vogue, that the only thing that's needed to make struggling schools better is extraordinary teachers—not smaller class size.

    She gives us a snapshot of some of the 31 kids in her classroom: "two with learning disabilities, one who just moved here from Mexico, one with serious behavior problems, 10 who flunked this class last year and are repeating, seven who test below grade level, three who show up halfway through class every day, one who almost never comes." She also mentions one who hasn't done any homework since she was assaulted at knifepoint, one who is sleeping, head on his desk, because he works the night shift at a factory, one who is quietly weeping, and "the brainiac who's so bored she's reading Lolita under her desk."

    It's a heartbreaking picture, because packing all these kids in one classroom is setting up someone who might very well be an extraordinary teacher to fail, not to speak of setting up kids to fail, too.  Good teachers are tuned into kids with psychiatric and learning disorders, and often play a critical role in getting them connected to help. But not if they're so overwhelmed they don't have time to pay real attention to their needs. As Herman puts it, "To teach each child in my classroom, I have to know each child in my classroom." Sacrificing kids like these, and teachers like these, is a very short-sighted way to close a budget gap.

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  • Does Your Kid Read the News?
    Aug. 1, 2011 Rachel Ehmke

    From NPR's Monkey See blog we recently learned about several online news sites written specially for kids. With easier words and more kid-friendly content, the sites seem like a great resource. Take stories like "Should Dogs Wear Seat Belts?" (it comes with awesome pictures of dogs in harnesses) and "Holland's Commuter Slide"—they're a shoo-in for a younger audience, and the stories are also a great way to introduce important subjects and debates to kids. 

    Of course, even if a news organization is committed to avoiding ghoulish or sensationalist topics, extra care needs to be taken when talking to kids about news that isn't G-rated, such as the recent tragedy in Norway. Some kids' sites chose not to cover the story at all. Claudia Heitler of Here There Everywhere explained that she didn't think her own son needed to know about the tragedy, so she wasn't about to tell other children. In her words, the news site "is not meant to be comprehensive. It is meant to start conversations."

    It's good to hear that parents have some allies in the newsroom.

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  • 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?

    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. 

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

    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.

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  • 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.

    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.

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