Category: oppositional defiant disorder

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

What to know about psychiatric residential treatment

What to know about psychiatric residential treatment

residential centerHave you been searching for psychiatric residential treatment for your child?  Do all the programs sound wonderful?  Ads include quotes from happy parents, and lovely photos and fabulous-sounding activities.  But what’s behind the ads?  Residential treatment programs are diverse, but there are important elements they should all have.  Here’s how to avoid low quality residential treatment.

Psychiatric residential treatment is serious stuff–it’s difficult to do–especially when troubled children and teens are put together in one facility.

Should you ask other parents for their opinion of a program?  In my experience with a child in psychiatric residential care, and as a former employee of one, word-of-mouth is not a reliable way to assess quality or success rate.  There are too many variables: children’s disorders are different; acuity is different; parents’ attitudes and expectations are different; length of time in the facility is different; what happens once a child returns home is different…  It’s most helpful to ask questions of intake staff and doctors or psychologists on staff.  Quality psychiatric residential care facilities have important things in common.

What to ask about the staff:

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  • What is the training and licensure of staff?  Are there therapists with MSW degrees, registered nurses, psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners, and is a medical professional available on site 24/7?
  • There should be a high staff to patient ratio, and a physically comfortable environment with lots of emotional support.
  • Do the staff seem mature to you?  Do they support each other, are they a team? There is often heavy staff turnover at residential treatment centers because the work is emotionally draining, so staff cohesion is as important as the qualities of each individual.
  • Safety is paramount.  What are the safety and security plans in the facility?  Staff must be able to safely manage anything that can go wrong with troubled kids.  They should be trained in NCI (Nonviolent Crisis Intervention), “training that focuses on prevention and offers proven strategies for safely defusing anxious, hostile, or violent behavior at the earliest possible stage.”

What to ask about programs:

  • Does the program specifically identify parent/family involvement as part of treatment?  Does it emphasize parent partnership with staff?  Ask.  Whether you live close or far from the center, even out-of-state, you should be regularly included in conversations with staff about your child’s treatment.  You should also be included in a therapy session with your child periodically; some facilities can connect with you over Skype.  Your child’s success in psychiatric care depends on their family’s direct involvement.
  • The program should coach you in specific parenting approaches that work for child’s behavioral needs.  While your child is learning new things and working on their own changes, you must know what to establish back home when they return.
  • You should be informed why your child is getting the treatment or behavioral modifications he/she is receiving.
  • Last and most important: when your child leaves, there should be a discharge meeting and a discharge plan.  What this means:  all staff who worked with your child get together with you and discuss what treatment should continue once they go home.  Medication management and therapy is identified in advance, appropriate school accommodations are discussed, changes in the home environment are discussed if needed…  You should never leave without knowing what comes next in the months following care.

Body health is brain health, and vice versa.

  • residential programsMental health treatment will include medication and therapy, but must also include positive activities and an educational program.  The whole body needs care:  exercise, social activities, therapeutic activities (art, music, gardening), healthy food, restful sleep, etc.

Is your child emotionally safe as well as physically safe?

  • You should be able to visit the unit or cottage where your child will live, see their bedroom, and see how the other children interact with staff and how staff interact with each other.

What to ask about the business itself:

  • Can you take a tour ahead of time?  Can your child or teen visit too if appropriate?
  • Are emergency services nearby (hospital, law enforcement) that can arrive quickly?
  • Does the facility have a business license in their state?  Do they have grievance procedures?  Is the center accredited as a treatment facility, and by whom?  In the U.S., the main accreditation authority for healthcare facilities is The Joint Commission.

Psychiatric residential treatment works miracles, but it doesn’t work for all children.  Some need to go into treatment more than once to benefit. Some fall apart a few weeks or months after discharge.  These are common.  What’s important is that staff observations and advice help you and your child with insight and skills for managing his or her unique symptoms, and for communicating effectively.

Good luck.

 

What was your experience when your child was in residential care?  Please share your comment so others can learn.

Is my teen ‘normal’ crazy or seriously troubled?

Is my teen ‘normal’ crazy or seriously troubled?

girl in rear view mirrorA high percentage of teenagers go through a rebellious or ‘crazy’ phase that is normal for their age and brain development. The difference between normal teen-crazy and truly troubled behavior is when the teenager falls behind his or her peers in critical areas.  At a bare minimum, a normal teen will be able to do the following:

  • Attend school and do most school work if they want to;
  • Have and keep a friend or friends their own age who also attend school;
  • Develop a maturity level roughly the same as his or her peers;
  • Exercise self-control when he or she wants to;
  • Demonstrate basic survival instincts and avoid doing serious harm to themselves, others, or property.
  • Enjoy activities that interest them.

boy in baseball capIt is normal for many teens to be inconsistent, irrational, insensitive to others, self-centered, and childish.  Screaming or swearing is normal–regard this the same as a toddler temper tantrum.  Outlandish imagination and ideas are normal in the adolescent phase too. These are behaviors that crazy teens grow out of unless something else is holding them back.  What you’d call troubled behavior, the kind that necessitates mental health treatment, is a matter of degree.

This is your challenge:  How do you tell the difference?  Troubled teens with mental disorders have the same challenging behaviors as ‘normal’ crazy teens… How do you know if they need serious mental health treatment?  Look for pervasive patterns of social and behavioral problems that stand out against their peers, patterns which persist or occur in different settings Look back at how long these patterns have been occuring.  Are the patterns repeating themselves, or are behaviors increasingly worse? Do you You your troubled teen is slipping behind and won’t grow out of it.

screaming boySigns of abnormal behavior

A sudden change in behavior.

  • An abrupt change in friends and interests, and loss of interest in things your teenager used to enjoy.  This might indicate the onset of a serious mental illness or drug use or both.
  • Unusual ideas, or obsessive beliefs, or unrealistic plans, see:  “Unsettling: what psychosis looks like in children and young people.”
  • Others think there is something abnormal about your child.  (e.g., your child’s friend comes forward, their teacher calls, other parents keep their children from your child, or someone checks to see if you’re aware of the nature of his or her behaviors).


Unsafe behaviors
 (“Unsafe” means there’s a danger of harm to themselves or others, property loss or damage, running away, seeking experiences with significant risk (or easily lured into them), abusing substances, and physical or emotional abuse of others.)

  • If a troubled teenager does something unsafe to themselves or others, it is not an accident, but something impulsive, intentional, and planned.
  • They have a history of intentional unsafe activities.
  • They have or seek the means to do unsafe activities.
  • They talk about or threaten unsafe behavior.


How psychologists measure the severity of a child’s behavior 

“Normal” is defined with textual descriptions of behaviors, and these are placed on a spectrum from normal to abnormal (or “severe emotional disturbance” – SED).  Below are a few examples of a range of behaviors in different settings.  These descriptions are generalizations and should not be used to predict your child’s treatment needs, but they do offer insight into severity and the need for mental health treatment.

School behaviors

Not serious – This child has occasional problems with a teacher or classmate that are eventually worked out, and usually don’t happen again.

Mildly serious – This child often disobeys school rules but doesn’t harm anyone or property.  Compared to their classmates, they are troublesome or concerning, but not unusually badly behaved. They are intelligent, but don’t work hard enough or focus enough to have better grades. They could use help from a school counselor, teachers, and possibly a therapist for themselves or the family.

Serious – This child disobeys rules repeatedly, or skips school, or is known to disobey rules outside of school.  They stand out in the crowd as having chronic behavior problems compared to other students and their grades are poor even if they’re very intelligent.  This child needs mental health or substance abuse treatment.

Very serious – This child cannot be in school or they are dangerous in school.  They cannot follow rules or function, even in a special classroom, or they may threaten or hurt others or damage property.  It is feared they will have a difficult future, perhaps ending up in jail or having lifetime problems.  If they cooperate, this child requires intensive mental health and or substance abuse treatment.

Home behaviors

boy looking right

Not serious – This child is well-behaved most of the time but has occasional problems, which are usually worked out.

Mildly serious – This child has to be watched and reminded often, and needs pushing to follow rules or do chores or homework.  They don’t seem to learn their lessons and are endlessly frustrating.  They can be defiant or manipulative, but their actions aren’t serious enough to merit intensive treatment, though a school counselor or private counselor would be very beneficial.

Serious – This child cannot follow rules, even reasonable ones.  They can’t explain or take no responsibility for their behavior, which can include damage to the home or property, or harm to themselves or others.  They need mental health treatment or substance abuse treatment.

Very serious – The stress caused by this child means the family cannot manage normally at home even if they work together.  Running away, damaging property, threats of suicide or violence to others, and other behaviors require daily sacrifices from all.  Police are commonly called.  This child needs intense psychiatric treatment and/or substance abuse treatment, and likely residential treatment.

Relationship behaviors

somber boyNot serious – The child has and keeps friends their own age, and has healthy friendships with people of different ages, such as with a grandparent or younger neighbor.

Mildly serious – This child may seem extra immature.  They will argue, tease, bully or harass others, and most schoolmates avoid them. They are quick to have temper tantrums and childish responses to stress that always require extra attention from parents and caregivers.

Serious – The child has no friends their age, or risky friends, and can be manipulative or threatening. They can have violent tendencies, poor judgment, and take dangerous risks with themselves and others.  They don’t care about others’ feelings, or may readily harm others physically or emotionally.  This child needs therapy and psychiatric mental health treatment or substance abuse treatment.

Very serious – The child’s behavior is so aggressive verbally or physically that they are almost always overwhelming to be around.  The behaviors are repeated and deliberate, and can lead to verbal or physical violence against others or themselves.  This child needs intensive psychiatric and/or substance abuse treatment.

Pay attention to your gut feelings.

If you’ve been searching for answers and selected this article to read, your suspicions are probably true.  Trust your intuition. Most parents have good insight into their child.  If you’re looking for ways to “fix” or change your child, there just aren’t any easy methods or medications or therapies to do this except over time.  Treatment means multiple life changes in addition to medication and therapy, and these can include help for insomnia, a change in diet, treatment for digestive system problems, and household changes to reduce stress.

Mental illness is serious and recovery is a long slow process.  It is  understandable if you want them to recover quickly–your stress can be intolerable.  Avoid pushing for recovery because it will only stress your child and lead you to disappointment.  Instead, cooperate with professionals (teachers, treatment providers), and prepare yourself for a parenting marathon.  What’s the best way to prepare?  Work hard on your own mental health and wellbeing.  Lower your expectations for steady progress.  This advice and wisdom from other parents may help you face this daunting task.

boy in plaid shirtEarly treatment, while your troubled teenager is young, can prevent a lifetime of problems.  Find a professional who will take time to get to know your child and you and the situation, and who will listen to what you have to say–a teacher, doctor, therapist, psychiatrist or other mental health practitioner.

–Margaret

Your comments are encouraged.  Your story helps others who read this article.


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Teachers and Stigma – Judging and Blaming Families

Teachers and Stigma – Judging and Blaming Families

As parents of troubled children, we already know that our child’s disorder or behavior will not work in most classrooms.  Teachers don’t need to tell us this or explain why our child needs to change in order to learn–we already stay up at night worrying how our child or teen will make it in the world.  Most parents have tried everything:  we’ve looked for other educational options (which almost never exist or we don’t qualify), we’ve asked or pleaded for help, we’ve read books and scoured the internet for advice…  When nothing works, some parents and caregivers just give up and try to muddle through.

When it comes to working with teachers, it feels like you can’t win for losing

Those parents who’ve tried everything become deeply frustrated and take it out on school staff.  This reaction makes sense when you’ve been there like I have.  I probably looked bad at meetings, angry, stressed, anxious, and confused—and that’s how I was treated.  I could sense teachers assumed I was this way all the time and thus the cause of my child’s disorder.

Those parents who give up don’t show up.  They can’t face another school meeting to listen to the litany of their child’s problems, feeling nagged with advice given in a tone of impatience, never getting help, hope, or heard.  Not showing up also makes perfect sense.  Who wants another downer?  It’s best to stay home and conserve precious emotional energy.  These parents look apathetic and neglectful at best–I personally know a couple who’ve given up.  I’ve heard school staff wondering aloud if these parents were using drugs, abusive, or criminally neglectful.  I personally knew they weren’t.

Teachers have the same paradoxical attitudes held by the public at large when it comes to troubled children.  They may try to be neutral when they work with parents, but underlying attitudes and feelings still come out:

  • We sympathize but you’re still to blame;
  • You can change things if you want to, but you don’t really care;
  • We know what your child needs, you don’t.

I truly believe teachers care about children and teens which is why they are teachers.  Their professional education centers on children’s development and learning, but not on the intricacies and psychology of family relationships or children’s mental health!  Their qualifications and license are for giving their students a quality education, not for doing social work with families.  Even if teachers recognize that families struggle with their child, there is still a sense that the cause of a student’s lack of achievement “sits squarely on the shoulders of parents”  who simply “don’t care.” *

* Taliaferro, JD; DeCuir-Gunby, J; Allen-Eckard, K (2009).  ‘I can see parents being reluctant’: Perceptions of parental involvement using child and family teams in schools.  Child & Family Social Work, 14, 278-288

> Find out more about this research at the Research and Training Center http://www.rtc.pdx.edu/ – “School Staff Perceptions of Parental Involvement,” August 2009, Issue #164 <

Mixed messages from schools

 

Teachers and schools give mixed signals to families, on the one hand encouraging parents to work with their child’s teacher, and on the other hand becoming “offended when… parents would take the side of their children or question a teacher’s assessment.” *  When it comes to mental health, teachers simply aren’t trained to recognize or diagnose disorders.

Parents with troubled kids in school have additional responsibilities, but their energy and time reserves are the lowest: they have Child and Family Team (CFT) meetings to attend; Individual Education Plan (IEP) meetings; waivers, Releases of Information (ROIs); and many communication attempts to follow through on each of these.

Teachers need to believe in the ability of parents to contribute to their child’s well being and understand parents’ need for support when children have mental or emotional disorders.  And “…schools must change practices so that information can be shared with a socially just approach.  Schools must meet families where they are rather than embracing misperceptions and stereotypes…” *

Let’s change this situation, and here’s how you can help

If you are a teacher, parent, or other education advocate, there’s a program available from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to develop understanding and partnership between schools and parents with troubled children.  It’s called Parents and Teachers as Allies.

This is an in-service mental health education program designed for teachers, administrators, school health professionals, families, and others in the school community.  The curriculum focuses on helping everyone better understand the early warning signs of mental illnesses in children and adolescents and how best to intervene, and how best schools can communicate with families about mental health-related concerns.

The program is also designed to target schools in urban, suburban, rural, and culturally-diverse communities.  The toolkit is being developed to be culturally sensitive and will include a Spanish language version.

For more information about this program, please contact: Bianca Ruffin, Program Assistant, Child & Adolescent Action Center, Email: biancar@nami.org, Phone:  703.516.0698

For Fathers Who Raise Troubled Kids

For Fathers Who Raise Troubled Kids

Fathers are critical to a troubled child’s wellbeing.  Yet in my experience, they aren’t as present in support groups or meetings set-up for a child’s care.  It’s not that they don’t care; they need a different kind of support.

Every year, I attend conferences around the nation that focus on the families, children, and policies associated with children’s mental health.  The majority in attendance are women.  I was a social worker in children’s mental health for 5 years, and a parent advocate for insurance parity in my state.  In every meeting I attended were lots of mothers and female social workers, and one father.  Parents who attend my family support group are also mostly woman:  bio mothers, adoptive mothers, girlfriends, stepmothers, grandmothers, aunts, and sisters involved in caring for a troubled child.  I always encourage moms to bring in the dad, stepdad, eldest son, brother, boyfriend… any male who’s important in the child’s life, and some are able to convince them to attend at least once, and it always seems to help.  I’ll call them all “dads” here,

We need the men.  I know they are out there.  I know they are engaged in raising a troubled child and perhaps alone with their concerns.

At a national “Building on Family Strengths” conference in Portland, Oregon, was a presentation on the subject of dads helping dads.  It was the first time I attended a seminar where mostly men attended.  I asked the panel, founders of Washington Dads, www.wadads.org, “why hasn’t there been a gathering like this before?”  Apparently, panel members tried to find help and it wasn’t there, so they started a support organization for themselves.  They believe it’s the only one like it in the nation.

“We’ve been down on our knees in pain for our kids…”

The messages – One panel member said men feel they are supposed to fix the problem, but since they can’t  they feel like failures.  Another said that “dads are often not the main caregivers, and perhaps they lack experience,” and after trying what they think will work, are at a loss when it doesn’t.  Another, “we want a quick fix, but a clear concrete fix will do… we want to know how to problem solve.”  That’s a big one, men fix things, they want to get together and hash out solutions.  “Men talk solutions right away instead of talking through emotions.”  They said men like rules or instructions such as Collaborative Problem Solving techniques, the use of technology, and concrete, measurable plans such as IEPs. (Here is another story about a father who wants to fix his daughters illness.)

In general, moms tend to feel guilty, but dads tend to be resentful or feel like failures:

  • Their family’s problems are right out there in public
  • Mom is too lenient and easily gives in to the child.
  • The child gets all the attention; other family members are neglected.
  • Quality relationships with all family members are lost.

According to the dads’ panel in the seminar, sad’s emotions are there but expressed very differently.  “Some men need to vent aggressively… blow a gasket, but only other men are OK with this.”  Some want to reveal things to each other they wouldn’t share with their wife or partner; “men need to bond without women present” and with personal face-to-face contact.  Men tend to have custody issues too, and often face challenges to their rights to visit their children or maintain relationships with them.

Gentlemen, trust me, moms want you to have support that works for you.

Can you help me out?  I’d like to find other articles about issues fathers face:

  • custody of the children
  • disagreements with mom
  • their influence on treatment, or placement, or educational issues
  • their need for social support with other men

 

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Research on the very positive influences of fathers

Devoted dad key to reducing risky teen behavior – Moms help, but an involved father has twice the influence, new study finds  [EXCERPT],  By Linda Carroll, June 5, 2009

Teenagers whose fathers are more involved in their lives are less likely to engage in risky sexual activities such as unprotected intercourse, according to a new study.  The more attentive the dad — and the more he knows about his teenage child’s friends — the bigger the impact on the teen’s sexual behavior, the researchers found.  While an involved mother can also help stave off a teen’s activity, dads have twice the influence.

“Maybe there’s something different about the way fathers and adolescents interact,” said the study’s lead author Rebekah Levine Coley, an associate professor at Boston College. “It could be because it’s less expected for fathers to be so involved, so it packs more punch when they are.”

Dad’s positive effect
Parental knowledge of a teen’s friends and activities was rated on a five point scale.  When it came to the dads, each point higher in parental knowledge translated into a 7 percent lower rate of sexual activity in the teen.  For the moms, one point higher in knowledge translated to only a 3 percent lower rate.  The impact of family time overall was even more striking. One additional family activity per week predicted a 9 percent drop in sexual activity.

Child development experts said the study was carefully done and important. “It’s praiseworthy by any measure,” said Alan E. Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University.

Why would dads have a more powerful influence?

“Dads vary markedly in their roles as caretakers from not there at all to really helping moms,” Kazdin said. “The greater impact of dads might be that moms are more of a constant and when dads are there their impact is magnified.”  Also, Kazdin said “when dads are involved with families, the stress on the mom is usually reduced because of the diffusion of child-rearing or the support for the mom.”

In other words, dad’s positive effect on mom makes life better for the child, Kazdin explains.

The study underscores the importance of parental engagement overall, said Patrick Tolan, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois in Chicago.  “For one thing, the more time you spend with them, they’re going to get your values and they’re more likely to think things through rather than acting impulsively.”

Coley hopes that the study will encourage both moms and dads to keep trying to connect with their teenage children, even as their kids are pushing them away.  “…it’s normal for teens to want to pull away from the family, [but] that doesn’t mean they don’t want to engage at all,”

Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney.

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The Father-Daughter Relationship During the Teen Years – Ways to strengthen the bond  [EXCERPT],  by Linda Nielsen

According to recent research and my own 30 years of experience as a psychologist, most fathers and teenage daughters never get to know one another as well, or spend as much time together, or talk as comfortably to one another, as mothers and daughters.  Why is this bad news?  Because a father has as much or more impact as a mother does on their daughter’s school achievement, future job and income, relationships with men, self-confidence, and mental health.

When I ask young adult daughters why they aren’t as comfortable sharing personal things or getting to know their fathers as they are with their mothers, most make negative comments about men.

  • “Because he’s a man, he doesn’t want to talk about serious or personal things.”
  • “Because men aren’t capable of being as sensitive or as understanding as women.”
  • “Because fathers aren’t interested in getting to know their daughters very well.”

If a daughter grows up with these kinds of negative assumptions about fathers, she will not give her father the same opportunities she gives her mother to develop a comfortable, meaningful relationship. As parents, we strengthen father-daughter relationships by teaching our daughters how to give their fathers the opportunities to be understanding, communicative and personal.

Creating more father-daughter time alone – Regardless of a daughter’s age, the most important thing we can do is to make sure fathers and daughters spend more time alone with one another.  Since most fathers and daughters haven’t spent much time together without other people around, they might feel a little uncomfortable at first.  If so, they can start by taking turns participating in activities that each enjoys.  One idea:  The father could choose 15 or 20 of his favorite photographs from various times of his life — as a little boy, a teenager or a young man — and then use the pictures to tell his daughter stories about his life.  The key to the success of this father-daughter time is that they alone are sharing this experience.

Staying involved during dad’s absence – Teenage daughters and fathers can strengthen their relationship during dad’s absence through e-mails, letters, pictures and a touch of silliness.  Before dad departs, for one example, father and daughter can talk about how much their relationship means to each of them and agree to write or e-mail at least twice a week.

Linda Nielsen is a psychology professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. Her most recent book is Embracing your Father: How to Create the Relationship You Always Wanted With Your Dad. For more information on father-daughter relationships visit www.wfu.edu/~nielsen/.

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Early Father Involvement Moderates Biobehavioral Susceptibility to Mental Health Problems in Middle Childhood

Boyce, W. Thomas; Essex, Marilyn J.; Alkon, Abbey; Goldsmith, H. Hill; Kraemer, Helena C.; Kupfer, David J.;  Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, v45 n12 p1510-1520 Dec 2006

[my summary in everyday English:  When fathers are engaged in nurturing and parenting a child from infancy, the child develops healthy responses to social situations when they reach the middle childhood years ~age 9.  The father’s engagement actually improves brain function on the emotional level and reduces activity in the stress area of the brain.  If a father is not involved, the child is at a high risk of behavioral problems.  Also, if a mother is depressed in their child’s early years, the child is at an ever higher risk of behavioral problems.]

Stigma is prejudice, and harmful to children

Stigma is prejudice, and harmful to children

Stigma victimizes the victims

“Misconceptions based on perception rather than fact have been shown to be devastating to children’s emotional and social well-being.”
–Dr. Bernice Pescosolido

Stigma, blame, judgment… It only takes a few individuals to harm a child or family with their words, but it takes a whole society to allow it.  In this article, I’m going to present recent research on the negative stereotyping of families and children with mental disorders, and share stories from families I know.  I hope readers will be empowered to speak out against this form of prejudice and mobilized into changing our society’s attitudes.

Puckette(c)2007

Stigma takes many forms.

The most common scenario of stigma is when you are seen as a bad parent, perhaps even an abusive one, or your child is seen as stupid, spoiled, attention-getting, or manipulative.  Another form of stigma is having others show disrespect to parents who seek help from the mental health profession.  Psychologists are “flakes,” and families  who see them are “wackos.”  “Where’s your faith?”, some say, or “why don’t you quit making excuses for your child and give them real consequences?”

One of the more destructive forms of stigma is the condemnation parents receive when they “drug their child to fix them.”  Too many believe drugs turn children into “zombies” (see research study below).  Because of the stigma of treatment, I’ve seen many parents try every alternative treatment possible to help their child, only to have their child struggle year after year in school, fall farther behind their peers, make no progress in therapy, and other setbacks that medicines can prevent.  These parents cling to the belief that they are doing the right thing, yet some children really need medicines, and the drugs don’t turn them into zombies.  [In today’s treatment approaches, drugs are always considered a piece of the treatment puzzle, never the complete answer.]

 

A mother’s story about her experience with stigmatization:

This mother lost her best friend of 20 years because the friend got tired of hearing the mom talk about her very troubled 10-year-old son.  In frustration, the friend wrote her a letter saying the mom was neurotic, and that she should quit trying to control her son, that her son’s behavior was a cry for help.  The friend said she needed to set her son free and get help for her emotional problems, and that she wasn’t going to “enable” this mom anymore by being her friend.  The mom was stunned and hurt by the letter.  She intellectualized that she didn’t need a friend like this, but her heart was nonetheless broken by the betrayal.  The son turned out to have brain damage from a genetic disorder and it was getting worse.

It’s hard enough to be reminded over and over again how our children don’t fit in, and how we may never  have the same joys as parents of mentally healthy children.


Ideas for what you can do when you’re blamed and judged.

First, resist defending yourself; it can attract more unwanted attention and disagreement.  You don’t have the time or emotional energy to explain or teach someone who will challenge everything you say.  Do everything you can to avoid people like this—many have had to cut off some family members and friends, and even their clergy or religious communities.

My story:  when my child was diagnosed with a serious mental disorder, I stood up in front of my church congregation, explained what was happening, and asked for prayers for my family.  At the end of that service, people started avoiding me.  There were no more hello’s.  There wasn’t even eye contact.  The abrupt isolation from people I knew was devastating and I stopped attending.  What did I say?  Why did this happen?  I thought if my child had a ‘socially acceptable’ cancer others would know what to do or say to ease the isolation and grief.

Second, actively seek supportive people who just listen.  You need as large as possible a network of compassionate people around you.  You may be surprised how many people have a loved one with a mental or emotional disorder, and how many are willing to help because they completely understand what you’re going through.

Third, politely and assertively say thanks but no thanks.  Try something like this:  “Thanks for showing interest, but we are getting the help we need from doctors we trust.” Or simply, “please don’t offer me advice I didn’t ask for.”  No apologies.

It’s hard enough to be reminded over and over again how our children don’t fit in, and how we may never get have the same joys as parents of mentally healthy children.

–Margaret


Public Perceptions Harsh of Kids, Mental Health (excerpt)

May 1, 2007   (USA TODAY)

Though the subject has been analyzed in adults, until now there has been limited research illuminating how the public perceives children with mental disorders such as depression and attention deficit disorders, according to experts from Indiana University, the University of Virginia and Columbia University.  The findings are published in the May 2007 issue of Psychiatric Services.

The study, based on in-person interviews with more than 1,300 adults, indicates that people are highly skeptical about the use of psychiatric medications in children.  Results also show that Americans believe children with depression are more prone to violence and that if a child receives help for a mental disorder, rejection at school is likely.

“The results show that people believe children will be affected negatively if they receive treatment for mental health problems,” says study author Bernice Pescosolido, director of the Indiana Consortium for Mental Health Services Research, in Bloomington.  “Nothing could be further from the truth.  These misconceptions are a serious impediment to the welfare of these children.

According to the study:

  • Those interviewed believed that doctors over-medicate children with depression and ADHD and that drugs have long-term harm on a child’s development.  More than half believed that psychiatric medications “turn kids into zombies.”
  • Respondents thought children with depression would be dangerous to others; 31% believed children with ADHD would pose a danger.
  • Respondents said rejection at school is likely if a child goes for treatment, and 43% believe that the stigma associated with seeking treatment would follow them into adulthood.

Pescosolido and her colleagues say such stigma surrounding mental illness — misconceptions based on perception rather than fact — have been shown to be devastating to children’s emotional and social well-being.

Population studies show that, at any point in time, 10% to 15% of children and adolescents have some symptoms of depression.  About 4 million children, or 6.5%, have been diagnosed with ADHD, only 2% less than the number of children with asthma.

“People really need to understand that these are not rare conditions,” says Patricia Quinn, a developmental pediatrician in Washington, D.C.

To banish the stigma linked to mental health problems in children, the public has to get past labels and misconceptions, Pescosolido says.   Normalizing these conditions would help too, Quinn says.  “We need to view depression and ADHD like we do allergies,” she says. “They are very treatable.”

Things that protect troubled girls from delinquency

Things that protect troubled girls from delinquency

 

Both boys and girls get in trouble with the law.  Boys are in the majority for arrests for crime, but statistics indicate that girls’ arrests are increasing:  “…between 1996 and 2005, girls’ arrest for simple assault increased 24%.”  Of 1528 girls studied over a period from 1992 and 2008, 22% committed serious property offenses and 17 % committed serious assaults.  (Girls Study Group, U.S. Department of Justice, 2008. www.ojp.usdoj.gov).

  

Troubled girls easily become criminal, but also risk being a victim

 

Girls who have behavioral disorders, from addictions or past trauma or emotional disorders, begin to have delinquent or criminal behaviors as early as middle school.  What makes a girl’s criminal activities different from boys is that girls put themselves at high risk of being victimized themselves.  How can a parent or caregiver prevent their daughter from engaging in criminal behavior, and trapping themselves in a social world where their stresses and disorders can worsen?

 

The Girls Study Group quoted above studied which factors protected girls from becoming criminal, or helped them stop and reengage in activities that improve and stabilize their lives.  Protective factors did not prevent all criminal activity however, yet the first one has been shown to be the most effective.

 

  • Support from a caring adult.  THIS IS THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR in preventing girls from criminal activities of any kind.
  • Success in school helped prevent aggression against people, but not property crimes.
  • “Religiousity,” or how important religion was to troubled girls, meant they were less likely to be involved with drugs.

Risks to girls that are different from boys: 

    

Early puberty is a risk if the girl has a difficult family and comes from a disadvantaged neighborhood.  Biological maturity before social maturity causes more conflicts with parents and more negative associations with older boys or men.

 

Sexual abuse, which girls experience much more than boys, including sexual assault, rape, and harassment.  But abuse of any kind affects both boys and girls equally.

 

Depression and anxiety, which girls tend to suffer more from than boys.

 

Romantic partners.  Girls who commit less serious crimes are influenced by their boyfriends.  But for serious offenses, both boys and girls are equally influenced by a romantic partner.

 

Once she’s regularly breaking rules, it’s not easy to turn things around for a troubled girl.  It requires constant, persistent efforts to:

  • Keep her away from risky associates.
  • Keep her in school and up with studies. 
  • Keep telling her what’s great about her, what’s special, what’s powerful and good.

If you are a parent or caregiver, and you are lucky enough to have a strong mentoring relationship with your troubled daughter, keep it up despite any occasional law-breaking activities.  She’ll need consequences, but they should be obstacles to overcome rather than punishments—such as earning back privileges by having good behavior for a period of weeks or months.

 

If you don’t or can’t have a mentoring relationship, find out who can (or already does).  Admit you might not be the sole support for her success, and work in partnership with a caring adult.  Find out who believes in her already.  Find out who she asks for help if she’s feeling fearful or down about herself.  Listen to her if she talks about someone she’s grateful for for helping her through difficulties.  Girls respond really well to someone who believes in them.

 


Teen girls can be turned around and it’s always worth the effort.  She might be hard to take sometimes, but find something, anything, that’s good about her and let her know.  Over time, you’ll start noticing more and more great things about her, and then she’ll start noticing them too.