Category: teenagers

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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Marijuana is uniquely dangerous for troubled teens

Marijuana is uniquely dangerous for troubled teens

Marijuana’s effect on adolescents is more serious than many realize, especially for those with behavioral disorders.  This is no exaggeration; marijuana can lead to psychosis and long-term cognitive impairment for your troubled child.  Numerous recent research studies show that marijuana has a more damaging effect on the young brain than is generally understood. The THC in marijuana is psychoactive, which means it can affect your child’s unbalanced brain chemistry more than the general population. Serious depression, anxiety, paranoia, and psychosis can be triggered in children with latent psychiatric vulnerabilities. (Additional marijuana research going back to 2004 is at the end of this article).

Just because marijuana is plant-based does not mean it is safe.  It has dangerous side-effects like any other psychoactive drug.

Marijuana legalization has deeply concerned pediatric psychiatrists and other specialists in child, adolescent, and young adult mental health treatment.  Up until the their early 20’s, young people’s brains undergo radical changes as part of normal development.  Neurons are “pruned” to reduce their number (yes indeed, one can have too much gray matter to function as an adult). Pruning occurs rapidly in teenagers–think about it, in addition to puberty, a lot of nonsensical teenage behavior can be explained by this.  The THC in marijuana, the part responsible for the high, interferes with the normal pruning process.

When marijuana is ‘medicinal,’ a doctor determines a safe dose.  When it is ‘recreational,’ there is no such limit… teen users don’t realize there should be.

Let’s talk about a safe “dose,” which is different for each person.

THC is known to relieve anxiety in smaller doses and increase it in larger; this is due to its bi-phasic effects, meaning it can have two opposite effects in high doses. Furthermore, some people are genetically predisposed to experience anxiety with cannabis as a result of brain chemistry.”
–What are the Side-Effects of High THC Cannabis. Bailey Rahn, 2016

Recent evidence that marijuana leads teenagers to harder drugs

“The study of the lives of more than 5,000 teenagers produced the first resounding evidence that cannabis is a gate way to cocaine, amphetamines, hallucinogens and heroin.” Read the full story

“Teenagers who regularly smoke cannabis are 26 times more likely to turn to other drugs by the age of 21.  It also discovered that teenage cannabis smokers are 37 times more likely to be hooked on nicotine and three times more likely to be problem drinkers than non-users of the drug.”
–Steve Doughty and Ben Spencer, Daily Mail, London UK, June 7, 2017

Now let’s talk about long-term.  Our troubled children are already slipping behind their peers in important ways, which can include school; emotional maturity (certainly); and physical health (such as gut and digestive problems).   Marijuana will add to your teen’s problems by causing lethargy, impaired memory, and cognitive delays.

We can’t pretend or assume marijuana is safe anymore, regardless of its legality or medicinal uses.

I found this research result extremely worrisome:

“Increasing levels of cannabis use at ages 14-21 resulted in lower levels of  degree attainment by age 25, lower-income at age 25, higher levels of welfare dependence, higher unemployment, lower levels of relationship satisfaction, and lower levels of life satisfaction.”
–Cannabis use and later life outcomes.  Fergusson DM, Boden JM, Addiction;  Pp: 969-76;  Vol: 103(6), June 2008

I worked with adolescents in residential care and in the juvenile justice system who regularly used marijuana when they could.  A young man on my caseload grew noticeably depressed after he started smoking regularly, and his anxiety, irritability, and paranoia increased.  He said that smoking helped him feel better, but he couldn’t observe what I and other social workers observed over time. Smoking marijuana, ironically, was temporarily relieving him of its own side-effects.

A clarification about the two substances in marijuana – The plant Cannabis sativa has two chemicals of interest:

  1. Cannabidiol (CBD) = Medical marijuana:  the molecule is safe for a variety of treatments, such as relief of pain and nausea, and it is approved by the American Medical Association;
  2. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) = psychoactive “high”:  in those who are vulnerable it, triggers psychotic symptoms, paranoia, depression, anxiety, and memory loss.

Your troubled child’s future is already at-risk, why worsen it with marijuana use?

All children need the same warnings that we give about alcohol and street drugs to include marijuana.  Whether you live in a jurisdiction where marijuana is legal or not, teens can and will find it.  It may not be possible to completely prevent your troubled child from using, but your caring persistence can reduce or end its use.

marijuana infographic

Please share this information with other parents.  

–Margaret

What will happen in your troubled child’s future?

What will happen in your troubled child’s future?

Are you scared for your child’s future? Is he or she is falling behind? On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is “Normal” and 5 is “Worst Case Scenario”, what will your child’s future adulthood look like?

This chart depicts a spectrum of outcomes of mentally ill children when they become adults.  No matter how ill your child is, if he or she gets support and treatment early, their future adult life could end up in the NORMAL column, and out of the RED column.  A network of family, friends, and professional staff can keep them from the worst-case scenario in the far right column, and move them in the direction of normalcy.

“Wellbeing” is possibly the most important.

This is a checklist of childhood problems that lead to poor future outcomes as adults.  Jump on them one by one.

  • Friend problems:  they have inappropriate friends, or no friends, or they mistreat friends (and siblings).
  • Behavior problems:  they do or say disturbing things (swearing, hurting, breaking, manipulating, sinking in depression, attempting suicide…). Everyone is stressed.
  • School problems:  disruptive behavior; poor grades (or a sudden drop in good grades); bullying or being bullied.
  • Health problems:  physical health problems become mental health problems, and vice versa:
    • trouble with sleep
    • digestive system and gut problems
    • poor diet and lack of exercise
    • epilepsy or neurological disorders
    • hormones during puberty
    • substance abuse.
Age 16, starting mental health treatment

We designate legal adulthood between the ages 18 and 21.  That’s too young.  Many normal healthy young people at this age are immature and irresponsible, but your son or daughter may lag well behind them.  Your child may need support and rescuing well into the 20’s or early 30’s–this is not unusual.

You’ll survive the marathon of tough years by pacing yourself, finding support for yourself, and protecting your mental health.

There is reason for hope.  Your child may take many horrible directions in their teens and 20’s, and you may feel hopeless about their future, or helpless as you witness their life nosedive.  If you can hang on and marshal support, your child will find a circuitous path to recovery.  It will have sharp turns and back steps and falls, but they’ll find it… and enter stable adulthood.

Age 20, after consistent mental health treatment

Some parents and families have seen the worst.  They’ve endured violence due to their child’s addiction; sat in court when their son or daughter was convicted of a crime; or they waited in the Emergency Room when their son or daughter was admitted for psychiatric care.  They also lived to see their child achieve the sanity to finish their education, support themselves, develop good relationships, and get that future you always wanted for them.

How two parents handled a “worst case scenario” and supported their child’s wellbeing:

These are true stories of mothers who stuck by their very ill adult children and provided what little they could to bring a bit of wellbeing.  These mothers found some peace by simply doing what they could.  Their child still had hope.

One had a grown son with schizophrenia and a heroin addiction who lived in squalor in supported housing.  He spent all of his disability assistance money on heroin and nothing else.  Her efforts to help him met with verbal abuse and threats of violence, and she feared for her safety.  What could she do, witness his slow suicide by starvation or overdose?  She arranged to visit him once a week in the parking lot, and brought 2 sacks of groceries in the trunk of her car.  He was to come out and get the groceries while she stood at a safe distance.  This worked.  He was still verbally abusive when he got the groceries, but he got food and she stayed safe.  Did he have wellbeing?  Was his life humane?

He lived indoors
He had enough food and clothing
He had encounters with social services and police, which led to some health care
A support system was available if he was ready for help.

One had a son addicted to methamphetamine who was lost to the streets. One day, she discovered a nest of old clothes and rags in an overgrown area behind her garage, and instinctively knew it was from her son.  “Good,” she thought, “He’s alive; I can keep him safe.”  She rarely saw him come and go, but she replaced the rags with clean blankets and a sleeping bag, and put out food for him, and provided a tent.  She couldn’t free her son from addiction, but she could keep him safe from the streets and its desperate people, and fed and sheltered in a way he accepted.

Like in the previous story, her son had a modicum of safety and support, and ongoing monitoring if he was ready for help.

 

–Margaret

Please share your story.

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