The Child Mind BlogBrainstorm

  • An Intimate Look at Anxiety
    Feb. 17, 2014 Caroline Miller

    You don't have to be a seriously anxious person, or the parent of one, to find Scott Stossel's new book, The Age of Anxiety, (and the excellent excerpt in the Atlantic) riveting. Stossel's account of his experience with anxiety is so vivid and so candid that it's almost unnerving.

    There's the cocktail of Xanax, Inderal and vodka he consumes before making public appearances, to keep from bolting from the stage—which he says he's done. The panicked search for restrooms on a trip to Rome, including one at a gelateria near the Trevi Fountain, "where a series of impatient Italians banged on the door while I bivouacked there." He describes standing at the altar at his own wedding, drenched in sweat, shaking so badly that he has to hold on to his wife to keep from keeling over.

    Stossel's anecdotes, which the New York Times reviewer calls "bravely intimate," are valuable in a couple of ways to parents of very anxious children. First, they're a powerful reminder of how physical anxiety is, how overwhelming and debilitating it can be whether you're 5 or 45 years old. They're a reminder of how real the anxiety is, even if the fears that generate it—and Stossel's list of phobias is very, very long—seem absurd. They're also a reminder of how many anxious children (and adults) hide their anxiety and manage to function—even function exceptionally well—at great cost in suffering.

    But Stossel also explores all the thorny issues surrounding how we think about and treat anxiety. Is it inherited? Is it learned? Is it a condition of life in the 21st century? In his own family he sees an inherited predisposition to anxiety on his father's side, and in his mother's family, a proudly held conviction that emotion should be avoided at all costs.  "Thus, me," he writes: "a mixture of Jewish and WASP pathology—a neurotic and histrionic Jew suppressed inside a neurotic and repressed WASP. No wonder I'm anxious: I'm like Woody Allen trapped inside John Calvin."

    In writing about Stossel, Donna Wick, a clinical psychologist and founder of Mind to Mind Parent, notes an interesting thing about the heritability of anxiety. What's actually inherited seems to be what researchers call a "highly reactive temperament," but that doesn't always lead to an anxiety disorder. When parents respond to a highly reactive baby by figuring out how to soothe him, it can "have lasting, long term effects, as we now know that relationships can change the way the brain is wired," she writes on the Huffington Post. On the other hand, parents whose highly reactive babies make them anxious can inadvertently escalate the child's anxiety, and there is more suffering all around.

    But Dr. Wick and Stossel both write about the positive effects of anxiety, which can be a powerful motivator towards achievement of all kinds. "So in addition to treating unhealthy levels of anxiety," Dr. Wick writes, "don't forget to appreciate, and even more importantly, teach your child to appreciate the other side of the coin. It will help him understand, value, and ultimately manage aspects of his personality that might otherwise appear 'bad' or negative."

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  • Lindsey Vonn, 'The Biggest Loser' and the Fat Police
    Feb. 11, 2014 Beth Arky

    Attacking women's bodies—and self-esteem—seems to be a sport that's never out of season. The latest salvo (and one of the more unusual ones) comes from American Olympic gold medal skier Lindsey Vonn, who is out of the competition in Sochi with an injury but still in the spotlight for bashing women she deems to be too thin and not athletic enough.  

    In an interview with Self that's getting a lot of attention on tabloid websites, the Olympic gold medalist criticized movie stars' bodies after attending a gala last May with the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Lawrence, Beyoncé and Ann Hathaway:

    "It was hard to go to the Met ball with people who eat lettuce and a Diet Coke for dinner. It's difficult to be at events with a room full of women who weigh half as much as you do. That's always tough. I don't envy them, though, because so many of them are skinny-fat. They have more cellulite than most people. I feel like I need to give them a cheeseburger. It's sexy and beautiful to be strong."

    Vonn may think she's speaking out for being healthy, not model-thin, but what she's really doing is trashing other women for cellulite (!) and for not making the same choices she has. It's too bad because her important message about her depression (she's "normal again, now that I'm on medication") was drowned out by her nasty pot shots.

    The Vonn story comes days after the uproar over the extreme weight loss of Biggest Loser winner Rachel Frederickson, who shed 60 percent of her body weight from her 5-foot-4-inch frame to go from 260 pounds to 105 pounds. The focus on Fredrickson's "scary," "shocking" loss again diverted attention from the more salient point.

    We live in a culture where thin is the goal. Let's be clear here: Loser, which just wrapped its 15th season on NBC, is not a weight loss show, where contestants work to maintain a healthy lifestyle; it's a game show competition where participants battle like Roman gladiators to lose the most weight. 

    As one style blogger wrote: "Therein lies the whole problem not only with the concept of the show, but the whole cultural dieting complex: This shallow obsession with numbers has more to do with appearance than with actual health, despite protests to the contrary. And that preoccupation with and scrutiny of appearance—even when it's well-intentioned, as in the case of all the Twitter users expressing "concern" over Fredrickson's reveal—ultimately undermines healthy weight loss."

    It's a case of your damned if you do, damned if you don't. Don't be too fat but don't be too skinny. And if you think everyone is finding fault with your body, you're right. That's exactly what makes it so hard for girls struggling with eating disorders to recover successfully.

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  • NFL Prospect Michael Sam: I'm a Lineman, Gay, and Proud
    Feb. 11, 2014 Harry Kimball

    The Super Bowl may be past, but now we have the more exciting, potentially groundbreaking story of Michael Sam, a top defensive player for the University of Missouri football team who is widely expected to be drafted by the National Football League. Sam just came out in an interview published yesterday in the New York Times. Though professional athletes have come out after their playing days were over, should Sam be drafted he would be the first NFL player to enter the league as a publicly gay man.

    There are two ways that Sam's actions can help young people and our culture at large. The first is as a civil rights issue. As Joe Posnanski shows brilliantly in a piece on NBC Sports, the situation Sam finds himself in is eerily similar to that of Jackie Robinson in 1947. Many sneakily pragmatic arguments have come from the NFL coaching establishment as to why Sam wouldn't be a good fit in the pros or the clubhouse—they've all been said before, and they were all proven to be not only prejudiced, but ludicrous. The fact is, the inclusion of minorities in our nation's popular pastimes has had real and society-changing outcomes before, and we don't need to wait until "ten years from now," where one GM put the timeline for change.

    But there's one important way in which sexual orientation is not like skin color. Jackie Robinson was not able to be in the closet. And here is where Sam can be another kind of hero—as a role model for kids who struggle with their sexuality and with being honest about it.

    We know that kids who don't feel accepted for their sexual orientation are at risk for depression and suicide. And for many of them it can seem impossible to find a mentor who understands. Without guidance and good information, it can feel like peers are not on the same planet. And isolation can be a young person's very worst enemy.

    Enter Sam. As a public figure, he is aware of the uncertain future he has brought upon himself in a sport that has been hostile to even the idea of homosexuality. "I'm not naïve," he told the Times. "I know this is a huge deal." And he is also aware of how the media can twist your words, even your persona. "I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it," he continued.

    But it is his story about coming out to his teammates, about finding people he could trust and being himself with, that I hope rings true for young people who struggle with a hidden part of themselves. "Once I became official to my teammates, I knew who I was," he said. "I was so proud of myself and I just didn't care who knew."  

    Thanks to Sam it seems inevitable that some people might soon find it easier to believe that a football player can be gay. Others, that a gay man can be a football player. Both are big steps forward. After he came out to his team, he said, "If someone on the street would have asked me, 'Hey, Mike, I heard you were gay; is that true?' I would have said yes."

    That didn't happen, Sam said, for an understandable reason. "I guess they don't want to ask a 6-3, 260-pound defensive lineman if he was gay or not." Here's hoping that it just got a little better for young people of any size who struggle with who they are.

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  • Lifetime Revives Tired Stereotypes About Bipolar
    Feb. 10, 2014 Beth Arky

    For every Silver Linings Playbook, there is, unfortunately, a Girl He Met Online. While the Oscar-winning Playbook destigmatized bipolar disorder as a chronic yet treatable mental illness, Lifetime's recent Girl featured a vilified bipolar character whose "anger knows no bounds."

    It's stunning that a show so regressive would be made at a point when so many people have moved beyond this stereotype. The main character, named Gillian, attracts suitors, then scares them off, then goes ballistic when they dump her. 

    In a post that's gotten a lot of attention,  blogger Elaina J. Martin wrote that Girl was egregious in part because  it's such a tired, clichéd portrayal. "They made Gillian dangerous and they made it appear that her bipolar disorder was the cause of this," Martin wrote. "Don't get me wrong. People like me with bipolar disorder do get irritable. I have admitted to getting angry myself. But I don't kill people. (Obviously). I don't strangle people. I don't drug people with sleeping pills." In fact, people with mental illness are much more likely to hurt themselves than others.

    The character of Gillian brings to mind Glenn Close's bunny-boiling Alex in Fatal Attraction. Some 25 years after making that movie and in Newtown's aftermath, Close said she regretted that her role increased the stigma around mental illness. In fact, Close's sister has bipolar.

    As for Girl, "They portrayed Gillian to be the general population's expectation of 'crazy' and it isn't fair," Martin wrote. "It isn't fair to people like me, who live and thrive with this disorder, to be compared to someone like Gillian. This is the reason there is so much misunderstanding about mental illness—because the media feeds us bullshit."

    It would seem Lifetime is creating something of a franchise based on the dangers of internet dating. We can only hope the network doesn't continue to perpetuate cartoon stereotypes about people with mental illness, who need our understanding, acceptance and help.

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  • Philip Seymour Hoffman and the Long Arms of Addiction
    Feb. 4, 2014 Harry Kimball

    Philip Seymour Hoffman's stunning death on Sunday from an apparent overdose of heroin has been a painful wake-up call not only about the power of addiction, but also the resurgence of heroin use in the last few years.

    There is a complicated story here of the rise of prescription painkiller abuse, the attempts to fight that scourge with stricter regulations, and the resurgent popularity of illicit alternatives like heroin. This shift does not only apply to long-sober addicts like Hoffman, who checked himself into rehab last year after what he said were 20-plus years clean. As a DEA official tells the New York Times, "the addicts you see a lot are young suburban kids starting on prescription drugs, and they graduate to heroin."

    There are also troubling reports that a rash of deaths—including speculation about Hoffman'swere caused by heroin cut with a terrifyingly potent synthetic opioid called fentanyl, greatly increasing the chances for accidentally overdosing. Let's just say that heroin and pills can both ruin lives. As an addiction specialist tells the Times, "It's not easy to get the opioid genie back into the bottle."

    But Hoffman did for a while. According to interviews, including a CBS profile from 2006, he had been sober since he was 22. As a young actor, he said, his taste for drugs was insatiable. "It was anything I could get my hands on." And that scared him. "You get panicked," he said, "and I got panicked for my life."

    It is a testament to Hoffman's strength and to the terrible strength of opioid addiction that he was able to make that decision at that age and maintain it for so long, only to relapse. It is a testament to his strength that he saw what was happening last year and returned to rehab. It is a testament to these dueling powers that he is reported to have had a substantial amount of heroin in his apartment at the time of his death, as well as a prescription for buprenorphine, a drug used to treat addiction.

    It is difficult to extract lessons from the lives of those we've lostlessons they could not benefit from themselves. But like Ned Vizzinni, the author who recently committed suicide after giving hope and advice to so many depressed young people, Philip Seymour Hoffman still has a gift to give beyond his performances. This gift is the knowledge that young people struggling with addiction can take control of their lives if they ask for help, and they can still accomplish awesome things. And that they can never stop being vigilant. 

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  • Why Raising Kids Is 'All Joy and No Fun'
    Feb. 4, 2014 Caroline Miller

     You might think from the titleAll Joy and No Fun—that Jennifer Senior's new book about parenting is basically a long complaint about how tough it is to raise kids these days. But it's not. It's a nuanced and emotionally acute look at how kids affect parents—how they make you feel and why.  

    The title reflects the fact that just because children are rewarding and important doesn't mean they're always (or even usually) fun. But there's a lot more here: It's not the kids themselves that make a good deal of parenting such a pain. Senior's argument is that the particular concept of parenting that's developed since World War II has made raising kids more fraught with confusion and anxiety than ever before.

    Ever since children stopped being seen as economic assets—as cheap labor on the farm or in factories—they've become emotional assets. They don't work for us, they complete us. That means that there is no limit to what we feel we should do to nurture, protect, and perfect them. We're working for them now.  And there's very little time off—except perhaps when we escape into our other jobs.

    The problem, Senior writes, is that we've taken on the responsibility of making them both successful and happy. Instead of sending them outside to play or forage for friends, we now have to arrange play dates or feel we have to play with them ourselves. We need them to do well in school, because we know options are limited for those who don't. Their homework has become our homework.

    With the economy changing so fast that we have no idea what skills will position them best for the future, we find ourselves desperately trying to make them successful at being successful—hence the veritable "arms race" of activities, from athletics to coding to Chinese.  And as for happiness, anyone who has a child with emotional problems knows how painfully elusive that can be.

    All Joy and No Fun is a terrific read because it puts the insecurity and ambivalence we often feel about our kids into a liberating context. And Senior never loses sight of how much we love these kids, and how kids keep us grounded. As Americans in the 21st century we can, and do, change our jobs, our communities, and our spouses. But we can never change our children. "They are the last binding obligation," she writes, "in a culture that asks for almost no other permanent commitments." That might not always be fun, but it may be the best thing about us.

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  • One Teacher Fights Violence by Helping Kids Connect
    Feb. 3, 2014 Beth Arky

     Momastery blogger Glennon Doyle Melton went to meet with her son Chase's fifth grade teacher to get some math tutoring—not tutoring for her son, but help for herself, so she could understand his homework better. The teacher 's willingness to do this was pretty great, but while they were talking Melton discovered something else that moved her even more, and it's moved millions of others since she posted it on Facebook last Thursday. 

    In "Share This With All Schools, Please" Melton writes about the teacher's strategy to make sure that all the children in her class are also learning how to be part of a community.

    Each Friday she has her students write the names of four kids they'd like to sit with the next week and asks them to nominate one student for exceptional classroom citizen that week. After the students have left for the day, the teacher studies the slips of paper, looking for patterns:

    "Who is not getting requested by anyone else?

    Who doesn't even know who to request?

    Who never gets noticed enough to be nominated?

    Who had a million friends last week and none this week?"

    It turns out that this creative teacher is not really looking for exceptional citizens. She's looking for lonely children. "She's looking for children who are struggling to connect with other children. She's identifying the little ones who are falling through the cracks of the class's social life. She is discovering whose gifts are going unnoticed by their peers. And she's pinning down—right away—who's being bullied and who is doing the bullying."

    So how long has this teacher been doing this? Every Friday afternoon since Columbine.

    "As a teacher, parent, and lover of all children," Melton writes, "I think that this is the most brilliant Love Ninja strategy I have ever encountered. It's like taking an X-ray of a classroom to see beneath the surface of things and into the hearts of students. It is like mining for gold, the gold being those little ones who need a little help—who need adults to step in and TEACH them how to make friends, how to ask others to play, how to join a group, or how to share their gifts with others. And it's a bully deterrent because every teacher knows that bullying usually happens outside of her eyeshot—and that often kids being bullied are too intimidated to share."

    The response to the blog has been overwhelming. Since Thursday, there have been nearly 3 million Facebook shares, 15 ,000 tweets and 1,400 comments on the blog alone.  

    On the blog, one mom commented, "My son certainly could have benefitted from a teacher such as this. Too often the children who have social difficulties are overlooked. We need more teachers with this kind of insight and administrators who care about the students as whole people instead of statistics on a standardized test roster."

    One commenter on Facebook wrote: "To me, the beauty wasn't just in the system the teacher created. The beauty was that the teacher identified a problem and found a way that she could address that.... THAT is why teachers are valuable! There are millions of teachers doing little things like that, every day, that we know NOTHING about. Her work and the work of countless other teachers is disparaged often by many who fail to see the value of spreading good."

    This teacher's strategy recognizes that violence like school shootings begins with disconnection, Melton writes. "And so she decided to start fighting violence early and often, and with the world within her reach. What Chase's teacher is doing when she sits in her empty classroom studying those lists written with shaky 11 year old hands is SAVING LIVES. I am convinced of it. She is saving lives."

    I only take exception when she puts the responsibility solely on teachers, calling them our "ONLY hope for a better world." It's also up to parents, clinicians and anyone else who comes in contact with children and teens to have their antennae up to detect the child who is lonely, or angry, or depressed. Only then can we begin the healing process.

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  • 60 Minutes Highlights Lack of Care for Kids in Crisis
    Jan. 27, 2014 Caroline Miller

    Sixty Minutes aired a powerful piece last night about an urgent lack of mental health care for young people in crisis. The figure at the center of the piece was Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds, whose still-livid scars bear witness to the problem. Four weeks earlier, Sen. Deeds' 24-year-old son Gus, who had struggled with bipolar disorder for years, had slashed his father's face and stabbed him repeatedly, just hours after being turned away from the local hospital because there were no psychiatric beds available. Then Gus Deeds killed himself with a hunting rifle. 

    Senator Deeds' frustration was echoed by other parents, including a support group of seven Connecticut mothers of seriously ill children who testified to a similar "revolving door" care since insurance usually pays only when a child is at "imminent" risk of hurting himself or someone else—for no more than 3 or 4 days. And when they are released there's nowhere for them to go but home.

    The lack of beds leaves the ER as the last resort for many. "Every day, we have 10 to 20 kids with psychiatric problems come into our emergency department, kids who wanna kill themselves, who've tried to kill themselves, who've tried to kill somebody else," says a nurse-practitioner at the Yale-New Haven Hospital. "We have 52 psychiatric beds here at Yale. And right now, all 52 are full. And so the seven kids that are here in the emergency room are waiting for an open bed."

    Among those seven when he was interviewed was a 17-year-old who hears voices who had slashed his own face. His father, in tears, said the ER was his only option; he had called a psychiatrist but was told there was a three-month wait for an appointment.

    Creigh Deeds sums up the segment when he says, "There's just a lack of equity in the way we as a society, and certainly as a government and insurance industry, medical industry, with the way we look at mental health issues."

    Or as 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley paraphrases: "Don't want to fund it. Don't want to talk about it. Don't want to see it."

    The segment ends with this fact: "Nationwide, since 2008, states have cut $4.5 billion from mental health care funding." You can see it here.

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  • Avonte’s Law Would Help Track Autistics Who Wander
    Jan. 27, 2014 Beth Arky

    Supporters of new federal legislation believe it would help prevent tragedies like the recent death of autistic teenager Avonte Oquendo. Called "Avonte's Law," the bill sponsored by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) would provide $10 million in federal funds to pay for optional electronic tracking devices for autistic children. It's named for the 14-year-old New York City boy who became the subject of an intense search after wandering away from his school in October, only to have his body found in the East River last week. The device could be worn on the wrist, sewn into clothing or kept in a wallet.

    Schumer said Avonte's Law would be similar to a federal program that tracks missing Alzheimer's patients. Each device costs about $85, plus a few dollars in monthly fees, he said, adding that hundreds of families with autistic children already have paid for their own tracking devices.

    "We can't change the past," said Schumer at a news conference yesterday, a day after Avonte's funeral, "but we can take necessary steps to ensure we learn from this and put in place programs that will ensure that no parent and no child has to go through a similar nightmare in the future.''

    In fact, about half of autistic children are prone to wandering or elopement, according to research published in 2012, and wandering has led to the deaths of more than 60 autistic children since 2008. About 90 percent of the wandering fatalities in recent years have been drowning victims, according to the National Autism Association.

    Investigators are still trying to determine cause of Avonte's death.  

    Tomorrow, the NAA's Wendy Fournier and Lori McIlwain will appear on Voice of America to provide parents with information on wandering prevention.

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  • Will Forte on How OCD Helped Him Get to 'Nebraska'
    Jan. 24, 2014 Jessica Kashiwabara

    Best known for his goofy special ops agent character, MacGruber, actor Will Forte is getting high praise for his dramatic turn in Alexander Payne's Oscar-nominated film, Nebraska.  And he's given us one more reason to love him: his winning openness about living with OCD.

    Though Forte admits it can be challenging, he also embraces his OCD as a part of his personality. For instance, this from  an interview on NPR's Here & Now:

    It really helps because I need closure on stuff, I need completion. And in some ways it creates a real hyper focus, but in other ways I overthink things so I can really stress out about stuff and blow things out of proportion and worry a lot. But more than anything, I think it's - hey, you know, it's who I am as a person. In a lot of ways I don't know that I would have gotten to do some of the things that I got to do if it wasn't for exactly the way my brain has driven me crazy.

    A veteran of SNL, Forte still enjoys playing kooky characters (and recently earned an Emmy nod for playing Jenna Maroney's cross-dressing boyfriend on 30 Rock), but the role of Bruce Dern's son in Nebraska is the one closest to himself that he's played on screen, and he embraced the change.

    For me it's always this wacky character and you can hide behind the character. And this, in a way, was easier because the character was way more like me in my real life, but harder because you feel like you're revealing all your personal moments and secrets, and it made you feel really vulnerable.

    Diving into the world of film festivals and award shows hasn't been without stress, and Forte acknowledges his OCD flare-ups. In a delightful chat with comic Marc Maron (who's had his own struggles with OCD) on the latter's podcast, he discussed his anxiety at attending the Cannes Festival. His biggest obstacle? A linen suit. Having never worn linen, Forte obsessed on awkwardly walking around stiff legged, trying to stay wrinkle free.

    Maron: You're a fish out of water, it's a new experience, you got a lot going on that you've never had to deal with before... I mean, what would you rather think about, how overwhelming that is, or whether you're going to wrinkle your pants?

    Forte: Yeah, I never thought about it like that. There's something to that for sure.

    New opportunities and experiences continue to offer moments of revelation for Forte. While filming in a remote area of Ireland for another dramatic role as a cognitive neuropsychologist in the indie movie, Run and Jump, Forte was away from his family, working with people unfamiliar to him, and alone with his thoughts. In an interview with The Daily Beast, he talked about how this experience forced him to confront his issues with OCD.

    It comes in waves. It definitely affects my everyday life. Mine is a lot of checking locks in patterns, checking stoves that I rarely use to see if the gas is on, or sinks. I don't want to burn my house down or flood my house. But oddly, the experience in Ireland really had a major effect on my OCD. I had so much time alone and so much time to think about stuff that I realized, "Why am I letting this OCD rule my life the way that it does? We're all gonna die at some point, so what if all my possessions burned down in a fire, or my house gets flooded? What am I scared of losing?"

    Forte's comment reminds us that we're all still figuring things out and that's okay because the fun is in the journey to these new, unexpected places.

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