Category: Family Dynamics

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What if Your Father Were a Pedophile?

00Embarrassment, Family Dynamics, Featured news, Psychiatry, Punishment, Relationships, Trauma August, 18

Source: Feature: enki22 at flickr, Creative Commons

“Between You and Me,” a documentary by director Chase Joynt, examines what it feels like to discover a family member has done a terrible thing. In this short film, Chase accompanies his friend Rebekah Skoor as they travel to visit Rebekah’s father, Michael, a convicted pedophile.

Michael Skoor, a pastor and family man, was convicted of repeatedly molesting an 11-year old boy. After contemplating suicide, he confessed the abuse to a psychiatrist, who reported him. Michael turned himself in, pled guilty, and was sentenced to 29 years in prison. For many, the story ends there, but for Rebekah and her family, the story just begins.

After her father’s revelations, Rebekah and her family faced social ostracism and stigmatization from their community. And, they felt their own feelings of shame. These repercussions often fall on families of sex offenders. “It was a really scary time,” Rebekah recounts to Chase in the film, as they prepare to travel to see her dad in prison.

A study by Professors Jill Levenson and Richard Tewksbury reported on data from family members of sex offenders. These families experienced financial hardship, housing displacement, and psychological distress. They also met with social repercussions, such as ridicule and teasing, as a result of their loved one’s actions.

In addition to feeling humiliation and shame, family members feared for their personal safety. Of all participants studied, 44% reported they had been threatened or harassed by a neighbor. Children of offenders suffered from depression and anxiety due to being bullied at school by both teachers and fellow students.

The public’s animosity toward these families may have its roots in the belief that family members know about the relative’s crimes, and could have intervened to stop them. It’s not uncommon for some members of law enforcement, the media, and the helping professions, to voice such assumptions, which may influence public opinion.

In an opinion piece by psychologist Seth Myers, he portrays the wife of disgraced football coach Jerry Sandusky as a guilty party to her husband’s crimes, even though she was never charged for any part in the assaults. And, Myers had never clinically assessed Sandusky’s wife. The assumption of guilt-by-association is a dubious claim to make, and may be at the heart of stigma faced by family members of sex offenders.

In an interview with the Toronto Star, psychiatrist Paul Fedoroff refers to the family members of sex offenders as “secondary victims.” These people are often abandoned and left reeling in the aftermath of the crime.

Families must also deal with their own personal feelings and internal conflicts. In the Toronto Star article, Scott Woodside, of the Sexual Behaviours Clinic at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, explained that children of sexually abusive fathers “don’t like that their father did this to them but they love their father… and do not want their father to be taken away because no one will replace him.” The same can apply when parents abuse outsiders.

While acknowledging the seriousness of the crimes committed by these sexual predators, their families are confronted with the difficult task of trying to reconcile their good memories with the knowledge of the terrible act the relative committed. They are caught in the middle.

And to them, the offense is hard to integrate. In a deleted scene from “Between You And Me,” Rebekah explains her difficulty in trying to convey this dichotomy to others when speaking about her father:

“I feel called to give the back story of the 21 years of awesomeness that was in my life. Not perfection, but good intentional fathering. Before I land this heinous offense on people… I want them to be able to hold with me my dichotomy, that he is in some part hero and in some part this fallen man.”

Rebekah wants to illustrate both sides of her father, the man she knew, and the crimes he committed. Recognizing these two seemingly incompatible aspects leaves Rebekah feeling she is caught between loving her father and condemning his actions. Rebekah’s recollection of his sentencing illustrates the issue well.

“It felt very divided… the people with the ribbons who were there for the [victim] and the people without ribbons who were there for my dad. I really felt this profound sense of, ‘I also want a ribbon. I’m not pro sexual violence. I’m not endorsing my father’s actions.’”

She does not approve of what he did. And yet, “The terrible things don’t undo the love.”

– Stefano Costa, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

-Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report”

“Copyright Robert T. Muller”

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

Robert T Muller - Toronto Psychologist

Parkinson’s Takes its Toll on Family Caregivers

20Caregiving, Family Dynamics, Featured news, Health, Neuroscience, Parenting, Stress January, 18
Source: Lesia Szyca, Trauma and Mental Health Report Artist, used with permission

Her hands and legs trembled, she could no longer drive. Cognitively, she declined. Her balance was affected, and she often fell. My grandmother Anna (name changed) had Parkinson’s Disease. It took over her life.

As a vibrant and independent woman, Anna had always been eager to help her family. Then, as the disease progressed, roles began to shift, and younger family members had to care for her.

Anna battled Parkinson’s Disease (PD) for more than 15 years. A degenerative neurocognitive condition, it is caused by a gradual loss of dopamine producing cells in the brain that worsens over time leading to tremors, cognitive impairment, and emotional changes.

To date, there is no cure, so a combination of medication and therapy is the only treatment. Anna battled this debilitating illness with no chance of recovery.

As she declined, so did her capacity to be self-sufficient. Her motor abilities drastically decreased, and her memory continued to diminish. She required supervision the majority of the day, and was unable to perform her favorite activities, such as baking, making crafts, sewing, and gardening.

Before Anna was admitted to a long-term facility in 2015, caring for her became a full-time job shared by my mother, my sisters, and grandfather. For my mother Charlotte (name changed), seeing her mother’s deterioration was particularly difficult. Unexpectedly shouldering the role of primary caregiver took a toll:

“At times on my own, I would go in the shower and cry. At other times too, the circumstances made me short and impatient with people. I would be intolerant and lose my temper due to the frustration.”

A study by Laurence Solberg and colleagues examined the emotional and mental health of adult children who are primary caregivers to ill parents. In administering a survey to identify stress levels, the researchers found that caregivers had heightened levels of negative feelings, such as anxiety, while caring for a parent. They found that being a caregiver of an elderly, sick parent adversely affected personal health. However, caregivers balancing the needs of an ill parent with those of their own children did not experience elevated stress compared to individuals without children.

But my own mother’s experience was different. She found it demanding to balance caring for an ill parent and caring for her own children.

“If you only have to balance an elderly parent and a job, it’s much easier than if you also have a family. With children, there’s additional responsibility. Anna required some priority, but I couldn’t lose focus on my children.”

When researchers Caroline Kenny and colleagues examined the experiences of family caregivers, many expressed distress over feeling unprepared for the role. My mother felt the same:

“We didn’t know how to properly care for Anna. We didn’t know how to lift her correctly, or how to deal with her frustration. On top of having the responsibility of caring for her, we had the added stress of not knowing how to handle her properly.”

And finding time for herself was not easy for my mother either. Solberg’s research supports this predicament: three quarters of caregivers reported decreased time for personal hobbies and interests. Charlotte said:

“I do think these responsibilities cause you to neglect your usual pastimes. I went from work to Anna’s home to my home. There wasn’t time for myself.”

In a study by Vasiliki Orgeta and colleagues, published in the International Psychogeriatrics Journal, the authors reported on the importance of social support for coping with the strain of becoming a caregiver.

For me, it was painful to see my grandmother’s decline alongside my own mother’s struggle to care for her. But consistent with Orgeta’s findings, I’ve found that relying on friends and family, and my social support system, has helped alleviate the anxiety of seeing my family in distress.

No one’s experience is the same; people cope in their own ways. For my mother, the situation has been heartbreaking:

“Seeing a person who is loving and vibrant, such a nurturing mother, become a person who is not nurturing anymore, not strong, whether emotionally or physically, is agonizing. It’s a part of life, but it’s hard to accept.”

–Alyssa Carvajal, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report. 

–Chief Editor: Robert T. MullerThe Trauma and Mental Health Report.

Copyright Robert T. Muller.

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

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Parkinson's Takes its Toll on Family Caregivers

00Caregiving, Family Dynamics, Featured news, Neuroscience, Parenting, Stress January, 18
Source: Lesia Szyca, Trauma and Mental Health Report Artist, used with permission

Her hands and legs trembled, she could no longer drive. Cognitively, she declined. Her balance was affected, and she often fell. My grandmother Anna (name changed) had Parkinson’s Disease. It took over her life.

As a vibrant and independent woman, Anna had always been eager to help her family. Then, as the disease progressed, roles began to shift, and younger family members had to care for her.

Anna battled Parkinson’s Disease (PD) for more than 15 years. A degenerative neurocognitive condition, it is caused by a gradual loss of dopamine-producing cells in the brain that worsens over time leading to tremors, cognitive impairment, and emotional changes.

To date, there is no cure, so a combination of medication and therapy is the only treatment. Anna battled this debilitating illness with no chance of recovery.

As she declined, so did her capacity to be self-sufficient. Her motor abilities drastically decreased, and her memory continued to diminish. She required supervision the majority of the day, and was unable to perform her favorite activities, such as baking, making crafts, sewing, and gardening.

Before Anna was admitted to a long-term facility in 2015, caring for her became a full-time job shared by my mother, my sisters, and grandfather. For my mother Charlotte (name changed), seeing her mother’s deterioration was particularly difficult. Unexpectedly shouldering the role of primary caregiver took a toll:

“At times on my own, I would go in the shower and cry. At other times too, the circumstances made me short and impatient with people. I would be intolerant and lose my temper due to the frustration.”

A study by Laurence Solberg and colleagues examined the emotional and mental health of adult children who are primary caregivers to ill parents. In administering a survey to identify stress levels, the researchers found that caregivers had heightened levels of negative feelings, such as anxiety, while caring for a parent. They found that being a caregiver of an elderly, sick parent adversely affected personal health. However, caregivers balancing the needs of an ill parent with those of their own children did not experience elevated stress compared to individuals without children.

But my own mother’s experience was different. She found it demanding to balance caring for an ill parent and caring for her own children.

“If you only have to balance an elderly parent and a job, it’s much easier than if you also have a family. With children, there’s additional responsibility. Anna required some priority, but I couldn’t lose focus on my children.”

When researchers Caroline Kenny and colleagues examined the experiences of family caregivers, many expressed distress over feeling unprepared for the role. My mother felt the same:

“We didn’t know how to properly care for Anna. We didn’t know how to lift her correctly, or how to deal with her frustration. On top of having the responsibility of caring for her, we had the added stress of not knowing how to handle her properly.”

And finding time for herself was not easy for my mother either. Solberg’s research supports this predicament: three-quarters of caregivers reported decreased time for personal hobbies and interests. Charlotte said:

“I do think these responsibilities cause you to neglect your usual pastimes. I went from work to Anna’s home to my home. There wasn’t time for myself.”

In a study by Vasiliki Orgeta and colleagues, published in the International Psychogeriatrics Journal, the authors reported on the importance of social support for coping with the strain of becoming a caregiver.

For me, it was painful to see my grandmother’s decline alongside my own mother’s struggle to care for her. But consistent with Orgeta’s findings, I’ve found that relying on friends and family, and my social support system, has helped alleviate the anxiety of seeing my family in distress.

No one’s experience is the same; people cope in their own ways. For my mother, the situation has been heartbreaking:

“Seeing a person who is loving and vibrant, such a nurturing mother, become a person who is not nurturing anymore, not strong, whether emotionally or physically, is agonizing. It’s a part of life, but it’s hard to accept.” 

–Alyssa Carvajal, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report. 

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

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When a Sibling Dies by Suicide

00Depression, Family Dynamics, Featured news, Grief, Health, Suicide October, 17

Source: Clair Graubner and Clair Graubner at flicker, Creative Commons

“As far back as I can remember, Michael was always good at being silly. He could make me laugh harder than anyone. He was very creative, and always had a good ear for music.”

In an interview with the Trauma and Mental Health Report, Samantha (names changed for anonymity) shared her experiences living through the suicide of her older brother, Michael, when she was sixteen years old.

Michael’s battle with mental illness began as a teen. He struggled with low self-esteem and clinical depression, and consequently self-medicated.

“After my parentsdivorce, his mental health took a turn for the worse. He was always getting stoned and was generally depressed… After he took LSD with his friend, he was never the same. He was in a psychotic, suicidal state from the drug, so my parents took him to a mental hospital one night… He stayed in the hospital for a week, and was moved to a rehab facility to learn coping skills to become less dependent on marijuana. He was in an extremely dark place during his stay there, and came home in September to start school. He committed suicide on October 15, 2007.”

Samantha’s experience is not uncommon. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people aged 15 to 34. And according to a report published by the National Institute of Mental Health, depression and substance abuse (often in combination with other mental disorders) are common risk factors for suicide.

“Words could never express how I felt when I found out. I fell to the ground in absolute hysterics. It’s such an out-of-body memory for me… to go from having an older brother and having visions of our future together, to then in a second having all of that taken away from you.”

Samantha also experienced dissociative thoughts after her brother’s suicide.

“I remember thinking that maybe we were being ‘punk’d’, and that this was all part of a twisted social experiment to show the devastating effects suicide has on a family. That probably lasted a year or so in order to protect my brain from feeling too deeply and to help me focus on other things, like getting into college.”

Samantha began using marijuana and alcohol regularly to numb feelings of anger and loss. Her transition to college was challenging—she had difficulty balancing school work with partying, and often felt isolated.

“I felt like I couldn’t relate to most of my peers, and was extremely lonely. I was always getting high by myself, and reflecting on the past. While all of this was going on, my dad got remarried and had a baby during my freshman year of college. It was really hard for me to watch him start a new family while I was still grieving the loss of our old family.”

Samantha’s decision to self-medicate to deal with her unresolved grief is common among adolescents who lack strong social support.

“I think about Michael every day… but finally I have the relationships and living environment to really dig deep and process what I’ve been through. Yoga and meditation have also played a huge part in my healing process, as well as hula hoop dancing.”

In fact, yoga and meditation can help the healing process. Research by psychology professor Stefan Hofmann and colleagues at Boston University describes the benefits of mindfulness meditation for anxiety and mood symptoms. In their meta-analysis of 39 research studies, individuals who practiced mindfulness meditation experienced reduced anxiety, grief, and depressive symptoms.

Everyone grieves in their own way, and moving on doesn’t have to mean leaving the loved one’s memory behind. As for Samantha: “Michael continues to live on with all of those who knew him.”

–Lauren Goldberg, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

–Chief Editor: Robert T. MullerThe Trauma and Mental Health Report.

Copyright Robert T. Muller.

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

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When a Sibling Dies by Suicide

00Depression, Family Dynamics, Featured news, Grief, Health, Suicide October, 17

Source: Clair Graubner and Clair Graubner at flicker, Creative Commons

“As far back as I can remember, Michael was always good at being silly. He could make me laugh harder than anyone. He was very creative, and always had a good ear for music.”

In an interview with the Trauma and Mental Health Report, Samantha (names changed for anonymity) shared her experience living through the suicide of her older brother, Michael, when she was 16-years-old.

Michael’s battle with mental illness began as a teen. He struggled with low self-esteem and clinical depression and, consequently, self-medicated.

“After my parentsdivorce, his mental health took a turn for the worse. He was always getting stoned and was generally depressed… After he took LSD with his friend, he was never the same. He was in a psychotic, suicidal state from the drug, so my parents took him to a mental hospital one night… He stayed in the hospital for a week, and was moved to a rehab facility to learn coping skills to become less dependent on marijuana. He was in an extremely dark place during his stay there, and came home in September to start school. He committed suicide on October 15, 2007.”

Samantha’s experience is not uncommon. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people aged 15 to 34. And, according to a report published by the National Institute of Mental Health, depression and substance abuse (often in combination with other mental disorders) are common risk factors for suicide.

“Words could never express how I felt when I found out. I fell to the ground in absolute hysterics. It’s such an out-of-body memory for me… to go from having an older brother and having visions of our future together, to then in a second having all of that taken away from you.”

Samantha also experienced dissociative thoughts after her brother’s suicide.

“I remember thinking that maybe we were being ‘punk’d’, and that this was all part of a twisted social experiment to show the devastating effects suicide has on a family. That probably lasted a year or so in order to protect my brain from feeling too deeply and to help me focus on other things, like getting into college.”

Samantha began using marijuana and alcohol regularly to numb feelings of anger and loss. Her transition to college was challenging—she had difficulty balancing school work with partying, and often felt isolated.

“I felt like I couldn’t relate to most of my peers, and was extremely lonely. I was always getting high by myself, and reflecting on the past. While all of this was going on, my dad got remarried and had a baby during my freshman year of college. It was really hard for me to watch him start a new family while I was still grieving the loss of our old family.”

Samantha’s decision to self-medicate to deal with her unresolved grief is common among adolescents who lack strong social support.

“I think about Michael every day… but finally I have the relationships and living environment to really dig deep and process what I’ve been through. Yoga and meditation have also played a huge part in my healing process, as well as hula hoop dancing.”

In fact, yoga and meditation can help the healing process. Research by psychology professor Stefan Hofmann and colleagues at Boston University describes the benefits of mindfulness meditation for anxiety and mood symptoms. In their meta-analysis of 39 research studies, individuals who practiced mindfulness meditation experienced reduced anxiety, grief, and depressive symptoms.

Everyone grieves in their own way, and moving on doesn’t have to mean leaving the loved one’s memory behind. As for Samantha: “Michael continues to live on with all of those who knew him.”

–Lauren Goldberg, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

–Chief Editor: Robert T. MullerThe Trauma and Mental Health Report.

Copyright Robert T. Muller.

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

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Divorce an Unreliable Predictor of Aggressiveness

20Anger, Child Development, Divorce, Emotion Regulation, Family Dynamics, Featured news, Parenting, Self-Control August, 16

by Afifa Mahboob, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

“Tomorrow is the day of retribution, the day in which I will have my retribution against humanity, against all of you.”

Elliot Rodger spoke these words in a video he recorded before stabbing and shooting fellow students at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) in May 2014. After killing six and injuring 14 others, Rodger took his own life.

In a 140-page manifesto called “My Twisted World,” Rodger explained that he was seeking revenge for being a virgin at 22 years of age. Tormented by loneliness and rejection, he detailed many painful experiences that helped push him over the edge. In a final video, he threatened the life of every female student in UCSB’s most popular sorority house and anyone else he saw on the streets of Isla Vista.

Rodger sent this manifesto to his parents and therapist before the killing spree, blaming them for his sexual frustrations. His father, Peter Rodger, later explained that his son began dealing with mental health problems at a young age, following his parents’ divorce. In an interview with Barbara Walters on ABC’s 20/20, Rodger’s father spoke about Elliot’s fear of interaction with other children in high school:

“He felt the inability to get along with them. And this is when we realized that he had a real fear of other human beings, of other kids his age.”

Stories like those of Elliot Rodger lead us to seek explanations. We try to understand how something like this can occur. In the 20/20 interview, one explanation advanced was the idea that Rodger’s life changed when his parents divorced.

Source: Yuliya Evstratenko/Shutterstock

The idea of divorce being profoundly damaging to children offers a compelling explanation when it is otherwise difficult to understand certain individual actions. Research shows that children who experience divorce at a young age may develop separation anxiety and dependency. When they do not receive equal attention from both parents, they may become sensitized to rejection and react strongly to this same type of rejection in social situations. Over time, they may develop lower self-esteem and negative expectations regarding intimate relationships.

But even among this small fraction of children, severe aggression is rare. In fact, most children of divorce are able to cope relatively successfully with their situation and go on to develop close relationships, experiencing few behavioral problems. Yet it remains common to view divorce as being destructive for children.

Janine Bernard of Purdue University and Sally Nesbitt of the Counseling and Psychological Services Center in Texas both found no significant differences in levels of anger, aggression, and passive-aggressiveness between children of divorced or disrupted families and children of intact families. In their two-part study, they found that while all children are affected by the quality of their parents’ relationship, environmental and sociocultural factors are just as important in determining individuals’ temperament. Similarly, internal levels of maturity, personal coping styles, and other relationships can and often do counterbalance the negative impacts of divorce.

Bernard and Nesbitt note:

“For generations couples have been disillusioned by the marriage myth, which promised life happily ever after. The more recent divorce myth is equally dogmatic and suggests that divorce has inordinate powers to hurt people regardless of the mental health and maturity of the adults and children involved.”

People with such views tend to expect children from divorced families to become socially isolated and develop behavioral problems. Bernard and Nesbitt explain that this is a common hypothesis among researchers conducting divorce studies. The bias may impact their judgment and cause stilted reporting of results, with more focus on a child’s negative behavior and less on their positive qualities.

Eva Bennett on flickr

Source: Eva Bennett on flickr

Elliot Rodger is an example of one individual who was psychologically disturbed and viewed his parents as responsible for his suffering. But he is certainly not a typical example of a child of divorced parents.

His social isolation may have felt unbearable to him, and he and his family sought an explanation for his violent actions, just as we all do when we hear about tragic stories like this. But our best explanations can be misguided. Reliably predicting violent behavior is still difficult to do.

Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

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When Adolescents Claim the Right to Refuse Treatment

20Child Development, Decision-Making, Family Dynamics, Featured news, Parenting, Therapy April, 16

Source: UnitedNotions Film, Used with permission

In a personal essay in the Hartford Courant, 17-year old Cassandra C. recalls her legal battle when she refused to undergo chemotherapy after being diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.

The Connecticut Superior Court ruled that as a minor, Cassandra did not understand the severity of her condition. She was taken to Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford, where she was forced to undergo chemotherapy.

In her essay, Cassandra wrote:

“I should have had the right to say no, but I didn’t. I was strapped to a bed by my wrists and ankles and sedated. I woke up in the recovery room with a port surgically placed in my chest. I was outraged and felt completely violated.”

When Cassandra’s mother did not bring her to medical appointments, the Department of Children and Families took Cassandra into custody. She was medically examined and placed into foster care.

A month later, Cassandra was allowed to return home once she agreed to continue chemotherapy. After reluctantly undergoing two days of treatment, Cassandra claimed that it was beginning to take a toll. Feeling trapped, she decided to run away to evade treatment, only returning home out of fear her disappearance would land her mother in jail.

It is common for cancer patients to experience adverse side effects while undergoing chemotherapy. In addition to physical side effects, patients often experience a range of psychopathologies, including depression, fear, anxiety, and hopelessness.

In court, Cassandra argued that she cared more about the quality of her life than the duration. Yet she was told that undergoing chemotherapy would increase her chance of survival by 85 percent. Without it, doctors said there would be a near certainty of death within two years. Although Cassandra acknowledged this risk, she maintained that she had the right to make decisions about her own life and body.

In an interview with the New York Times, Cassandra’s mother supported her daughter’s decision to refuse chemotherapy:

“She knows the long-term effects of having chemo, what it does to your organs, what it does to your body. She may not be able to have children after this because it affects everything in your body, it not only kills cancer, it kills everything in your body.”

Both Cassandra and her mother denied that Cassandra’s decision was anyone’s but her own. But there is some concern that Cassandra’s opinion on medical treatment could have been influenced by her parents. This issue is especially important given the far greater chance of survival offered by treatment.

A study by psychiatrist Paola Carbone in the Journal of Child Psychotherapy describes how young cancer patients may have trouble accepting treatment because of its severe effects on their developing bodies. Adolescent girls often express dissatisfaction with their bodies and lower self-esteem. The side effects of chemotherapy, such as weight loss, may negatively affect their fragile self-confidence.

The right to independent decision-making at this age is also a factor. In her essay, Cassandra writes:

“I am a human—I should be able to decide if I do or don’t want chemotherapy, whether I live 17 years or 100 years should not be anyone’s choice but mine.”

Researchers, Coralie Wilson and Frank Deane, suggest that it is important to teach adolescents’ that part of being more independent and autonomous is being aware of when and how to seek the support of others.

An extreme need for independence can result in self-imposed isolation, which is why Carbone maintains that adolescents are particularly in need of familial support. Other studies have also found that family involvement in discussions about the side effects of chemotherapy improves social support and decision making, lowers physical and mental distress, and increases emotional wellbeing.

Carbone explains:

“Chemotherapy refusal by adolescent patients should not be considered an obstacle to be eliminated at all costs, but rather a message to be welcomed and worked on.”

Cassandra was discharged from hospital last April, after completing treatment. Prior to being released, she wrote on Facebook, “I have less than 48 hours left in this hospital and I couldn’t be happier!”

She reported that she was grateful that she responded positively to the drugs and was predicted to survive cancer-free. But she also added:

“I stood up and fought for my rights, and I don’t regret it.”

– Khadija Bint Misbah, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

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Teaching Children about Trauma: The “River Speaks” Series

00Child Development, Emotion Regulation, Family Dynamics, Featured news, Grief, Therapy, Trauma March, 16

Source: Freaktography on Flickr

In her latest series of children’s books, River Speaks, author Sandy Stream conveys the emotional turmoil that children and families go through when dealing with trauma.

Children who have undergone loss, abuse, and other traumatic experiences are often unable to fully understand or express their feelings. Their inability to verbalize the emotional impact the crisis had on them makes it difficult for therapists to determine how to best help them heal.

Although research has shown children’s literature to be a helpful tool in therapy, its use is still not particularly common.

The stories found in Stream’s books are meant to help therapists provide relatable experiences for children to help them come to terms with their own trauma. They revolve around a baby bird, Sparky, who is snatched away from his family. In dealing with his captivity, escape, and eventual return, Sparky and his family learn to articulate the complex feelings they experience.

Sparky does return home, but the series does not employ the conventional happily-ever-after ending. Instead, the stories address the turmoil felt by everyone both during his captivity and after his return.

The seven books in this series, Sparky Can Fly, Sparky’s Mama, Tweets and Hurricanes, Feathers, Flex, Roots, and The River, all feature a different main character, retelling the narrative from the perspective of the victim, the parents, the siblings, and the therapist. Each book also deals with different emotional themes, including grief, loss, isolation, and acceptance.

Many of the communication strategies seen in River Speaks can be linked to Jean Piaget’s work on child development. According to Piaget, healthy coping and a sense of self cannot exist without establishing trusting relationships during childhood. Trauma can interrupt this process, and the River Speaks series is intended to restart and re-establish healthy connections.

Research, including that of psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, professor at Boston University, shows that children must understand the emotions caused by trauma. This research emphasizes that therapists should teach children to regulate emotional distress, with the first step being acknowledgment of the distress’ severity.

Stream’s metaphorical approach helps children grasp the complex concepts that make the healing process. Comparing Sparky’s inability to express anger and grief to “hurricanes” and “tweets” helps make the abstract more tangible.

This strategy allows the River Speaks stories to personify complex psychological issues such as emotional defense mechanisms like denial, fear of abandonment, and Stockholm syndrome, making her books well-suited to children as young as three or four years of age.

Stream’s stories are accompanied by illustrations from Yoko Matsuoka. The colourful drawings were designed to keep the oftentimes-dark subject matter child-friendly, and work well in conjunction with Stream’s metaphorical portrayals of emotions and trauma.

Such illustrations are a common tool in dealing with childhood trauma. The use of visual art to depict emotional reactions has been found to benefit children during the normal grieving process. A paper by Cynthia O’Flynn at North Central University explains that art therapy can be especially beneficial for children suffering from serious traumatic grief.

The article cites numerous other studies reporting that art allows children to bypass the language and vocabulary needed to explain their grief or loss, making self-expression much easier. The children are able to perceive greater control over their emotions and feel safe while reflecting upon their experiences.

Alexa S. Rabin of Alliant International University reinforced these findings in 2012, stating that art is an exercise which allows children to assert themselves and their boundaries. Rabin explained that such therapy significantly decreases acute stress symptoms, noting that the purpose of trauma treatment is to help children find a way to cope.

Stream’s books bridge the two sets of findings—using both art and language to reach out to children and better their self-expression across both media. A therapist using Stream’s books would be more flexible in tailoring the therapeutic style to the child’s age and individual needs.

Feedback from psychologists such as Jacqueline A. Carlton and fellow author Cheryl Eckl, applaud Stream’s attempt at tackling such difficult subject matter. And while research would be needed to gauge the helpfulness of her specific stories, existing research suggests that her books may ease therapy for both clinicians and children.

– Olivia Jon, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

Overpraising May Reduce Self-Esteem in Children

Overpraising May Reduce Self-Esteem in Children

10Confidence, Family Dynamics, Featured news, Parenting, Personality, Self-Esteem December, 15

Source: Vinicius Zeronian Mattoso on Flickr

Spend five minutes at a park, and soon you’ll hear enthusiastic parents reinforcing their kids with, “you did so amazing” and other statements as a means of encouragement.  To the nurturing parent or guardian, praising a child for performance seems like a no-brainer.

But recent research suggests that overpraising may not be such a confidence booster for some children, particularly those with low self-esteem.

Developmental psychology researcher Eddie Brummelman at Ohio State University says that using inflated praise can actually backfire.  In his research, children were asked to draw a famous painting, Wild Rose by Vincent van Gough.  One group of children received inflated praise such as “you made an incredibly beautiful drawing,” while a second group received non-inflated praise like “you made a beautiful drawing,” and a third group received no praise.

In a later task, children were asked to copy a picture of their own choice.  For example, they could choose to copy a simple picture, where the child would likely make few errors, or a difficult picture with more detail.

The results showed that children with low esteem were more likely to choose easier drawing tasks after receiving inflated statements of admiration.  In an interview with Research and Innovation Communications at Ohio State University, Brummelman said, “if you tell a child with low self-esteem that they did incredibly well, they may think they always need to do incredibly well.  They may worry about meeting those high standards and decide not to take on any new challenges.”

Children with low self-esteem may interpret high praise as expectation, making them afraid of failure and disappointment, and consequently, afraid to take on novel tasks.

Elizabeth Gunderson and colleagues at the University of Chicago found that parents who praised with a focus on the child’s personal characteristics (e.g. “you’re so smart”) implied to the child that their ability was fixed and unchangeable, resulting in a lack of motivation to tackle challenging tasks.  But when parents highlighted their child’s efforts (e.g. “you worked hard”), children often used positive approaches for problem solving, and believed that their abilities could be improved with effort.

Researchers often refer to this constructive encouragement as process praise.

Psychology professor, Lisa Marie Tully, from the University of California states that process praise might be especially beneficial for children who are generally more motivated and persistent.  Those children are more likely to ask for help when faced with experiences of failure after attempting challenging tasks.

Interestingly, Gunderson also found that the amount of praise that the child received from the parent had no apparent effect on motivation or self-esteem.

Consistent with these findings, Michigan State University Extension (MSUE) suggests ways to give constructive encouragement to children, to promote self-confidence and competence.

MSUE advises that supporting the child’s effort, whether or not they are successful in accomplishing a task, is important.  So instead of using personal and exaggerated praise in an attempt to boost esteem, let the child know that you recognize their determination.

Letting the child know exactly what they are doing well and noticing the detail of their work is critical.  Trading ambiguous praise for detail-oriented questions lets the child know that their work is interest-worthy.  When children are explicitly told what they are doing right (e.g. “good job at cleaning up the blocks”), it’s more effective in changing future behaviours and promoting improved effort.

– Khadija Bint-Misbah, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

Parental Pressure Takes a Toll on Young Athletes

Parental Pressure Takes a Toll on Young Athletes

00Child Development, Family Dynamics, Featured news, Parenting, Resilience, Self-Esteem November, 15

Source: Jim Larrison on Flickr

Two young Jiu Jitsu fighters battle for position, and all I hear are the parents, “Ref, you missed those last two points!” “Jeffery, you’re doing it wrong!” Jeffery gets caught in a dangerous hold, and I end the match to spare him risk of a broken arm.  Afterward the parents approach me, angry I ended it so soon.

As a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu referee, many parents appreciate my concern for the welfare of trainees, but all too often, I’m forced to address those parents who try to motivate their children through put downs.  They call them names, yell, compare them to others, and stress the importance of being number one.  The pressure has a detrimental effect on child health, and leaves them feeling distressed and deflated.

According to Frank Smoll, Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington, parents play a pivotal role in determining whether sport is a fun learning experience or a nightmare. Smoll calls it frustrated jock-syndrome for parents who attempt to re-live their own past successes.

Smoll’s research found that children respond most favourably, not to coaches and parents who punish undesirable behaviours, but to those who sincerely reinforce behaviours that are desirable. For example, instead of yelling at a child for fumbling a ball, a parent or coach should congratulate the young athlete for the assist they made earlier in the game.  This encourages the child to try their best.

The money that parents spend can be a factor too.  Financial investment in sport has been associated with parental expectations. Travis Dorsche, a Utah State University professor and former football player, recently told The Wall Street Journal that “when parental sport spending goes up, it increases the likelihood that either the child will feel more pressure or the parent will exert it.”

As parents spend more on private coaching, equipment and travel expenses, the sport becomes less enjoyable for the child, and the child’s sense of personal ownership over their athletic career weakens.

Parent support is necessary for child success, but there is a fine line between supportiveness and pushiness.

Long term negative effects of overbearing sports parents are seen in two of the most successful athletes of all time, tennis player Andre Agassi, and baseball player Mickey Mantle.  In his international best seller, Open: An Autobiography, Agassi writes that he hates tennis with a “dark and secret passion” because of his overbearing father, and that when he won his first Grand Slam title, his father responded with, “You had no business losing that fourth set.”

Throughout their professional careers, both Agassi and Mantle developed problems with substance abuse.

Agassi turned to methamphetamine because it “swept away every negative thought in [his] head.”  Mantle, who had also been under intense pressure from his father, struggled with alcoholism and contemplated suicide.

According to Northern Illinois’ department of education, pressuring children too much in athletics can result in low self-esteem. These children are also at risk for physical injury, often pushed to perform regardless of pain complaints; they return to the field before fully healing.

For parents with children who play sports, about.com suggests encouraging your child to play the sport he or she enjoys, and supporting your child’s desire not to play a particular sport. Paediatrician and youth sports medicine specialist, Paul Stricker, argues that emphasis should be placed on a child’s effort.  Additionally, this should be modeled by parents and coaches, so children can learn the positivity of competition and effort, regardless of winning or losing.

As a coach and referee, safety is imperative.  Standing by my decisions and explaining that I’m not willing to risk safety may help some parents realize that there are things more important than being number one.

– Andrew McColl, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today