Category: troubled children

The Dysfunctional Family and the “Black Hole” Child

The Dysfunctional Family and the “Black Hole” Child

Many families living with the proverbial “black hole” child start to cope in unhealthy ways. Everyone gradually alters their normal behavior to avoid stress, frustration, anxiety, or anger, but these behavioral accommodations actually make things more chaotic. It’s unintentional, but parents, siblings, extended family and friends take on psychological roles, and the resulting dynamics are harmful. This is the “dysfunctional family,” and these are some common roles:

    • Protector is the emotional caregiver and defends the child regardless.
    • Rulemaker wants Protector to stop enabling the child and set boundaries.
    • Helper smooths over conflict, calms others, and sacrifices for others.  They become “parentified,” and miss important childhood experiences, like play.
    • Escapee stays under the radar for safety, and finds ways to stay away from home to avoid the stress.
    • The Neglected shows a brave face but hurts. They need nurturing but don’t ask for help because the parents are so distracted.  They become depressed.
    • Fixer has all the answers and keeps trying to make everyone do things ‘right’.  They repeatedly jump into everyone’s lives and stir up chaos.
    • Black Hole Child devours everyone’s energy, and gets trapped in their own black drama. For complex psychological reasons, they learn to manipulate, split family members against each other, and blame their disorder for behaviors they can control. Due to insecurity, they act out repeatedly to test if those they depend on still care.

If this is your family, it’s not your fault. Forgive yourself and everyone else. Families living with an alcoholic or addict behave similarly, but they have specialized 12 Step programs like Al Anon and Narc Anon to help them become functional again.  Their 12 Steps would help you too!  I’m not aware of a similar 12-Step approach specifically for families living with mental illness, but I strongly recommend a support group.  Look for one near you (in the US or Canada) at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (www.nami.org) or the Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health (www.ffcmh.org).

For a child to be well, each person around the child must be well.

First:  A stress relief meeting.  Meet together without the “black hole” child present… now is not the time to include them.  Meetings might be held with the guidance of a family therapist or support group to keep emotions safe. The goal is to ease everyone’s fears by bringing them out into the open. Each member vents their true feelings.  Brace yourself.  You may hear upsetting things, but once feelings are out in the open people will feel better.  There will be more problems to solve, but now everyone knows what they are.  No more secrets.  All everyone needs is to feel heard and understood.  Clearing the air helps people move on.

It is a relief to tell your story and have someone listen and understand.

Check in with family members (perhaps not the troubled child yet… use your best judgment).  Ask everyone how they‘re doing. What is working well? and what isn’t?  Be prepared to hear more complaints and venting.  Just listen and ask clarifying questions until they get it out of their system. (It’s like vomiting, and feeling so much better afterward.)  Brainstorm solutions together.  Ask for ideas on what needs to happen differently.  You don’t need to agree or comply, just listen.

At some point, the troubled child’s own opinions and needs need to be woven into the new family system.  This can be very tricky.  If you feel things will get out of control, get help from a therapist or counselor for yourself or for your family.  The methods for doing this are too lengthy for covering in this article, but you can find out more by exploring books or websites on family interventions for an alcoholic or addict.

Warning:  Once family teamwork improves, prepare everyone for an explosive defiant backlash. This is actually a good sign, so plan for it in advance.  It is a sign you are regaining your authority.  Visualize standing shoulder-to-shoulder to keep everyone safe while the child explodes.  Stick together.  The child may blow-up multiple times, but stick together.  The explosions fall off over time.  This article explains the reasons for these explosions, called “Extinction Bursts” by psychologists. They are the  final act of defiance when limits are firmly enforced and the child loses power.

Ultimate goal:  The child’s behavior improves!  The child stabilizes; they are surrounded by a caring but firm team that locks arms and won’t be shaken by chaos. Surprisingly, this actually helps the child feel more secure and less likely to cause distress.

How it might unfold:

  • Protector steps back; cares for themselves; and accepts that Rulemaker has some legitimate reasons for boundaries.
  • Rulemaker steps in to help Protector as needed and gives them a break. Rulemaker and Protector work out acceptable structure and make two to three simple house rules for everyone that are fair and easily enforced.

Rulemaker and Protector also make two to three simple agreements between themselves.  Number one:  no fighting or disagreements in front of the child.  Next, checking in with each other and agreeing on a plan or strategy.  Ideally, their relationship improves, and trust and safety is reestablished.  This can happen between parents who are divorced too.

  • Helper gets a life of their own, accepts they are not responsible for everyone, and is encouraged to spend time with supportive friends or doing activities they really like.
  • Escapee and The Neglected need lots of support and comfort and emotional connection to a nurturing adult. They are at risk of mental health problems in the future, especially depression and addiction.  They may suffer from PTSD as adults, from enduring years of emotional distress or neglect. Both may need mental health treatment such as therapy and relaxation skills.
  • Fixer: withholds judgement and realizes there are no simple answers. Their education or experience does not necessarily apply to this family. They should ask how to help instead of trying to make people change, and they should be gracious and supportive.

Helping a troubled child means helping the family first, and family teams are the best way.  As each member strives for a healthier role, each gets support from other family members and hears things like, “Atta girl!”, “You rock!”, “Go Mom!”. Teamwork creates therapeutic homes and strong families. Research proves that strong families lead to better lifetime outcomes for the child.

–Margaret

Your comments, questions, and stories are encouraged because they help others


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12 Ways Dogs Reduce Depression & Anxiety

12 Ways Dogs Reduce Depression & Anxiety

Most people know that dogs are good for one’s wellbeing, but these creatures literally improve one’s physical and mental health.

Dogs are medicine.

1. They lower our blood pressure

Research has proven time and time again that dogs significantly lower heart rates and blood pressure, before and after performing strenuous tasks. Blood pressure drops when one pets a dog. Petting dogs have also been known to ease pain and improve one’s immune system. It is like a dog’s mere presence is beneficial for pet owners.

2. They offer a soothing presence

Pets, particularly dogs, offer a soothing presence when one is performing tasks that take up a lot of mental energy. This goes a long way in helping speed up recovery of mental conditions.  It is well-known that some children will only respond to animals due to trauma or autism or intense anxiety.

3. They offer unconditional love and acceptance

Dogs are incapable of criticizing, judging or voicing their opinions. They snuggle up next to you even if you smell like poop.  Two reports describe the medical benefits of pets.  According to a 2013 white paper from the American Heart Association “…owning a pet, particularly a dog or a cat, is associated with decreased cardiovascular risk factors.”  The November 2015 Current Gerontology and Geriatrics Research published research showing “pet therapy programs have been shown to be effective in helping improve socialization abilities, lower blood pressure, and combat loneliness.”

There are other great therapy pets : “Benefits have been seen in owners of pets ranging from dogs, cats, birds, and fish to goats, chimps, and snakes.”  Be sure the right animal is matched to the owner.

4. Dogs alter our behavior

You or your child could come home annoyed at a million little problems that happened during the day, and maybe even taking anger out on someone. But imagine that before this happens, a smiling, tail-wagging dog walks up for attention.

Imagine, you or your child kneels and pets her, she licks your face and you smile. Just like that, your behavior is altered and chances that someone will become a casualty of frustration are now much better. People calm down in the presence of a dog, and don’t anger easily or use curse words.  Dogs make us slow our minds and our speech.

5. Dogs promote touch

There is no disputing the healing power of touch. An article published on Huffington Post cites that a 45-minute massage can reduce the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and build white blood cells which optimize one’s immune system. Hugging floods human bodies with oxytocin, a hormone that lowers heart rates, blood pressure and stress levels.

A study conducted at the University of Virginia showed that holding hands reduces stress-related activity in the hypothalamus region of the brain, which makes up part of the emotional center. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that stroking a dog can boost dopamine and serotonin levels while lowering heart rate and blood pressure.

6. Dogs distract us

It’s not a problem but a benefit! Dogs take us out of our heads and plunge us into another reality – one that involves affection, food, water… and scratching doggie butt for as long as we allow it. Distraction is sometimes the only thing you or your child needs when you have lost mental or emotional control. It is tough to ponder feeling awful when your dog is breathing in your face.

7. Dogs make us responsible

Owning a dog comes with responsibility and research has shown that responsibility promotes mental health. Psychologists assert that applying our skills to a job and taking ownership of a task helps build our self-esteem, which is why dogs are the most common therapy animals. When your child nurtures a happy healthy dog, it reinforces confidence and a sense of competence. This is especially important for troubled children who are often overtaken by their own thoughts and emotions.  Finally, pet care helps kids and teenagers learn independence and brings structure to their day.

Dogs pull a depressed or anxious child (or parent) out of their troubled head.

8. Dogs increase social interaction

Staying connected to other people or creatures is good for our depression. Starting a conversation is particularly scary for people suffering from depression. That isn’t true with dogs. They are natural social magnets that help pet owners connect with other people and maintain positive social contact.  Walk a dog, and people come up to meet the dog.

9. Dogs help one get into physical shape

Other than grooming, dogs need physical stimulation. This means taking walks and going out to a park to play. In the process of tossing a Frisbee or hiking with your pup, you get to exercise and enjoy nature simultaneously.

The energy boost consequently boosts your mood or blow off some steam.  Blood flow and oxygen to the brain is good for depression. When outside with a dog, your skin synthesizes vitamin D from the sun, which helps fight symptoms of depression.

10. Dogs are great listeners

The most effective way to release stress is to talk about it with someone. But what if you don’t have the courage to approach a friend? What if the idea of talking about your innermost worries makes you anxious?  Pet owners, particularly those who own a dog, will share their wishes and thoughts with a caring partner, with the guarantee that they won’t be disclosed to someone else. Even better, you can talk about your worries knowing that you won’t be judged

11. Dogs provide sensory stress relief

Movement and touch are some of the most effective ways to manage stress. Dogs offer the need for touch such as in grooming, petting and exercising them. Such tasks also help with sensory stress relief, which is particularly important for people suffering from depression.

12. Dogs help you find meaning and joy in life

Taking care of a dog can help lift morale and increase a sense of self-worth, optimism, and fulfillment.  If you’ve adopted a shelter dog, it’s also fulfilling to know you (and your child) provided a home to a dog that may have otherwise been euthanized.

Take care of your dog and your dog will take care of you.

Conclusion

The physical and mental health benefits of owning a dog for children, teenagers, and even the elderly are proven by research.

Note: Owning a dog is not a miracle cure for a family and child coping with anxiety and depression. Dogs are for those who appreciate and love domestic animals, and those who invest money and time to keep their dog healthy and happy.

By Andy McNaby

Founded by animal lovers, we provide honest reviews of pet products. We review products hands-on and we test products side-by-side, so you know you’re getting good honest reviews.

Use the “S” word: talk openly with your child about suicide

Use the “S” word: talk openly with your child about suicide

Don’t be silent on the subject of suicide, even if there’s no evidence your child has considered it.  Bring it in the open, especially if you have a hunch something is wrong and they may have suicidal thoughts.  This article addresses:

  1. Why you should talk about suicide with your child
  2. How to respond if there’s been a threat
  3. How to respond if there’s been an attempt

Parents talk about many uncomfortable subjects with their child; and suicide must be one of them.

Don’t let suicide become a ‘sensitive’ subject.  Your child needs to hear about it from you.  They should feel safe talking about it.  Don’t expect them to bring this subject up.  They may fear you will overreact, and worsen their depression, or you could under-react or dismiss it because you’re uncomfortable.  Neither response helps.

Won’t this give my child ideas and encourage suicidal thoughts?

No.  Children usually know what suicide is and will have wondered about it—even young children. Ask what your child thinks. Children as young as 7 and 8 have asked about suicide or communicated they had suicidal thoughts.  Children as young as 10 and 11 have attempted or completed suicide.  The ages of highest suicide risk are between 10 to 24.

Talk with your child. Don’t leave him or her alone with thoughts or questions about suicide.

An 11-year-old boy died of suicide a couple of weeks before this article was written. There had been no prior signs.  He killed himself after receiving a prank text saying his girlfriend had committed suicide. He told no one beforehand.  His parents had no idea he was even at risk.

Why might my child become suicidal?

Mental health professionals assess risk by using the Biopsychosocial Model.  The more negatives in the biological, social, and psychological aspects of one’s life, the higher the risk of suicide or other mental health problems.

The major risks of suicide are in the central part of this diagram: drug effects, temperament, IQ, family relationships, trauma.

From Pinterest and the blog, Social Workers Scrapbook

What can you control and change at home?
What do you and family members need to reduce these risks?
Communicate about these with everyone. (Can be hard to do, but try.)

What can trigger suicidal thoughts?

Examples from two states that did the research:

Oregon: Survey results for an exceptionally high suicide rate among 10-24 year olds by population, 180 individuals in one year (“Suicide circumstances by life stage, 2013-2014”).

  • 62% – Current depressed mood
  • 53% – Relationship problems
  • 47% – Current mental health problems
  • 43% – Current/past mental health treatment
  • 42% – History of suicidal thoughts/plans
  • 31% – Recent/imminent crisis
  • 22% – Family relationship problems
  • 21% – Non-alcohol substance abuse problems
  • 8% – School problem

New York: Life situations of children completing suicide, 88 individuals; (“Suicide Prevention, Children Ages 10 to 19 Years”, 2016)

  • Feeling hopeless and worthless (often because of bullying at school, home, or online)
  • Previous suicide attempt(s)
  • Physical illness
  • Feeling detached and isolated from friends, peers, and family
  • Family history of suicide, mental illness, or depression
  • Family violence, including physical or sexual abuse
  • Access to a weapon in the home
  • Knowing someone with suicidal behavior or who committed suicide, such as a family member, friend, or celebrity
  • Coping with homosexuality in an unsupported family, community, or hostile school environmental
  • Incarceration (time in juvenile detention or youth prison)

What if my child has threatened suicide?

A threat opens a door for a discussion.  A good approach is to interview your child about their feelings, plans, needs, and reasons.  Listen earnestly without input.*  You might be surprised to find their problem is solvable, but their depressed mood paints it as hopeless.  Listening helps them get clarity and feel heard and respected.  Once you understand their problems, you assist them in identifying options and provide emotional support.

* I have a friend who worked for a suicide hotline, and he said the job wasn’t difficult at all.  He said, “All I did was listen and show understanding of their feelings and just let them talk. “

After a frustrating discussion about my teenage daughter’s suicidal threats, I gave up and said “No.  I’m telling you not to commit suicide.”  She was incredulous; “You can’t tell me what to do!  You can’t stop me!”  I responded, “Don’t commit suicide. You’re important to us.  You have important things to do in life.”  She made a few attempts in the following years (they were always public… as if she wanted to be discovered and prevented), and she always reached out to her family afterwards for support.  Did my words make a difference?

What if a threat is just for attention?

It’s hard to tell. It could be genuine  or manipulative.  Some children use threats to prevent parents from asserting rules.  Angry children, especially teens, use threats to blame and hurt parents emotionally.  If you think a threat is not genuine, open up the suicide discussion.  “Talk to me about this”, “It seems like an extreme reaction to something we can fix.” “What needs to change?”  “How can I help?”  Focusing on the threat will either expose the ruse or draw out important information for addressing an underlying problem.

What else can I do if my child threatens suicide?

  1. Observe and investigate.
  • Do they have access to unsafe objects or substances?  You can legally search their room.
  • Do they frequent unsafe places or spend time with people who encourage drug use?
  • Do they have extreme mood swings (up or down), or a chronic dark mood?
  • Do they take dangerous risks and seek dangerous activities?
  • Are there any other danger signs?
  1. Build a network of eyes–choose people who will observe your child and keep you advised of risk, e.g. a mature sibling, a teacher, your child’s friend or the friend’s parents, your child’s boyfriend or girlfriend, a relative, or a trusted person who knows your child.
  1. Make changes you have control over, and solidly commit to these changes. Bring the whole family along on the plan.  FOLLOW THROUGH.
  • In family life – reduce chaos, fighting, blaming, or bullying; express appreciation; neglect no one including yourself; create 2 – 3  house rules that are easy to enforce and everyone follows, even you.
  • In social and online life – learn as much as you can about the nature of your child’s relationships, whether romantic or social. Support them if they distress your child. Can they remove themselves from a toxic relationship? or cope effectively with anxiety? Can you help them address bullying at school or online?
  • Biological health – Sleep, Exercise, Diet.  Limit screen time at night because blue light inhibits sleep.  Pay attention to digestive health, which affects mental health. These are some natural approaches.
  • Psychological health – Ask a school counselor about your child.  Seek a working diagnosis and mental health treatment.  Help your child find outlets for personal self-expression:  journaling, music, art, poetry, or a website such as this one, where teens help teens.  Mind Your Mind is an excellent example.

What if my child attempted suicide?

He or she is still very fragile, even if in treatment!  They have taken the action, they’ve been there, and have the option for taking it again—a high percentage try againSuicide attempts are long-term emergencies. You need to be on alert in the following days, weeks, months, and possibly years.  In addition to intensive mental and physical health treatment, ensure your child gets regular deep sleep, exercise, and a good diet.  Ask them if they’ve had suicidal thoughts if you sense something is wrong.  Don’t be shy about checking in.

Pay attention to events that trigger suicide.

Check-in with your child when something traumatic happens or might happen, especially if someone he or she knows attempted or committed suicide, or a suicide was in a TV drama or covered in the news.  Triggers are an emergency, act immediately.

You have the power to prevent a child’s suicide.
Be strong. You can do this. 

Take care of yourself.

–Margaret

Take this parenting skills test if you have a troubled child

Take this parenting skills test if you have a troubled child

So how are you doing in your difficult parenting job?  Score your parenting skills on a test designed for parents of children ages 11-15.  This is intended for parents of ‘normal’ children, so you may skip 5, 6, and 7. (If you are brave, have someone else score you too and compare results.)

Parenting Skills Test – printable form

Don’t be hard on yourself if you score low.  Only a “perfect” parent will have an excellent score… and they wouldn’t need to read this blog!

What did you learn?  What are the skills where you scored lowest?  Focus on them.  Troubled kids need to be parented differently.  What you’ve learned by watching skilled parents may not apply to you.  You might be thinking:  “I agree these are good parenting skills, but practicing them is impossible with my child. They hate/defy/scream/fill-in-the-blank constantly.” Suggestion:  Work on one skill at a time, and take the test again in few weeks to see if you’ve improved your score. 

Be and kind forgiving of yourself if you score low

When my child was young and I was stressed, I would have had a low score and fallen in the “Keep trying” group.  My child’s mental health so poor, and she was so at-risk, I could only focus on safety and live one day at a time.

Why 3 of the items don’t apply for parents with mentally ill children, IMHO

#5  “I let natural consequences do the teaching whenever feasible.”  In my case, natural consequences could always be serious and unsafe.  This would have been very unwise.
#6  “I am confident my child has everything she/he needs to make good decisions.”  No way.  They cannot make good decisions when they are irrational–that’s the problem.
#7  “I allow my child to do his/her chores without reminding.”  I gave up on chores.  It was one battle I didn’t have to fight.  It was much easier doing them myself and knowing they’d be done.

Please add a comment if you have found other skills to be effective,

–Margaret