Category: troubled teenager

How to manage defiance and oppositional defiant disorder

How to manage defiance and oppositional defiant disorder

Troubled children and teenagers who are pathologically defiant have a brain condition with many possible causes or diagnoses.  Whether they are overtly aggressive or “passive-aggressive,” parents have options for reducing defiance and limiting the stress they bring into the household.

anterior cingulate gyrus
In a healthy brain, the pink region doesn’t light up quite like this when a person is confronted with a limit or rule. A healthy child starts considering options and ways to work around.

If your child is defiant to a degree that affects their life functions, this is what it looks like in their brain.  The pink color of this curving central region indicates intense electrical activity.  This is the brain scan of a 13-year-old boy with severe oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).  Hyper-charged activity in this region can also be responsible for obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), unstoppable rages, pathological gambling, chronic pain, and severe PMS.

It is called the anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG), which allows a person to shift attention to different subjects and think flexibly–something defiant kids don’t do well.  Nor do they regulate emotions, something the ACG also does.  Children with a hyper-charged ACG have “a pattern of negativistic, hostile, and defiant behavior lasting at least 6 months, during which 4 or more of the following are present:

  • Often loses temper
  • Often argues with adults.
  • Often actively defies or refuses to comply with adults’ requests or rules.
  • Often deliberately annoys people.
  • Often blames others for his or her mistakes or misbehavior.
  • Is often touchy or easily annoyed by others.
  • Is often angry and resentful.
  • Is often spiteful and vindictive.” 

–From the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition,” published by the American Psychiatric Association, 2000.

Typical traits of defiant children.

  • screaming teenage girlThey act younger than they are. Don’t expect them to mature quickly.
  • They live in the here and now, and can’t think about the past or future.  They don’t see how their actions result in a series of consequences.  They can learn sometimes, but only if it is pointed out immediately after an incident.
  • They don’t notice their effect on others.  Sometimes you can ask one of the others how they feel immediately after an incident, or you can gently report how it makes you feel.
  • Their brain is easily overloaded, and they have a hard time with changes.  And yet, you can use this overloading problem to your advantage (more below).
  • They cannot follow your reasoning, so don’t try.
  • Defiance may be a strength in their future. With mature skills, they’ll better resist negative things they’ll face in life.

Unrelenting defiance is a true disability that negatively affects a child’s life and future.  I’ve seen highly intelligent defiant or ODD diagnosed children experience academic failure or enough suspensions or expulsion to hold them back a grade.  This is a can’t-win-for-losing path that really sucks, doesn’t it?

Two different psychiatric approaches to defiant behavior and ODD

  • Treating it as a form of attention deficit disorder;
  • Treating it as form of depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The attention deficit approach uses therapy in combination with medications, such as Straterra (chemical name is atomoxetine), Ritalin (methylphenidate), Risperdal (risperidone, an antipsychotic), and Depakote or divalproex (a mood stabilizer).  This is not a complete list because new compounds are being formulated to reduce side-effects.

The depression & obsessive-compulsive approach combines therapy in combination with serotonin-based antidepressants such as Prozac (fluoxetine) or Zoloft (sertaline), and Anafranil (clomipramine, for anxiety). Again, this is not a complete list.

Treatment must also include holistic or ‘lifestyle’ approaches.

These are absolutely essential.  No amount of medication or therapy will help a child whose physical body is in poor shape!  The brain is an organ too, like the heart or liver, and needs the right nutrients and oxygen delivered through the blood.

  • avocadoEat brain food that includes nutrients and minerals listed in these articles:  The best vitamins for your child’s brain, and The brain diet for troubled kids.
  • Avoid foods that cause mood extremes and limit cognitive functions (such as memory and processing speed) such as:  food fried in oils other than olive oil, refined sugars and starches (flour, white sugar), saturated and hydrogenated fats, diuretics like caffeine, and any other foods that have dyes or nutrients removed by processing (for example, apple filling in pastry instead of actual apples).
  • Get more sleep and exercise – these have an immediate and direct impact on brain health!  In even one day, a brain will under-perform if there’s been inadequate sleep or exercise.  Sleep restores brain function and memory, and exercise pumps oxygen to the brain and causes the release of positive hormones and neurotransmitters.
  • Drink water (sports drinks are OK too if they don’t have caffeine)

Defiance and ODD often include symptoms of other disorders

  • 50-65% of defiant children also have ADD or ADHD
  • 35% develop some form of depressive disorder
  • 20% have some form of mood disorder, such as bipolar disorder or anxiety
  • 15% develop some form of personality disorder
  • Many also have learning disorders

Anthony Kane, MD 

Other conditions can cause defiant and disruptive behavior

  1. Neurological disorders from brain injuries, left temporal lobe seizures (these do not cause convulsions, no one can tell these are happening), tumors, and vascular abnormalities
  2. Endocrine system problems such as a hyperactive thyroid
  3. Infections such as encephalitis and post-encephalitis syndromes
  4. Inability to regulate sugar, resulting in rapid ups and downs of sugar in the blood
  5. Systemic lupus erythematosus, Wilson’s disease
  6. Side-effects of some prescription medications:  Corticosteroids (anti-inflammatory and arthritis drugs such as Prednisone);  Beta-agonists (asthma drugs such as Advair and Symbicort)
    –From Peters and Josephson.  Psychiatric Times, 2009
  7. Autism spectrum disorders
  8. PANDAS – an acronym for a strep infection-caused disorder that can make a previously normal child violently resistant.  (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections)
  9. Dehydration

If your child has these traits, it will be easier to reduce defiant or ODD behavior

  • A normal IQ
  • A first-born child
  • An affectionate temperament
  • Positive interactions with friends their age
  • Nurturing parents who can consistently set clear behavioral limits

–From the Journal of American Academic Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2002.  Author J.D. Burke.

Choose your battles
Let’s face it, consistently enforcing limits isn’t possible 24/7.  It’s exhausting.  Take a break; let some things go.

Parenting that works for ‘normal’ children does not work for defiant children or teenagers.

First, be kind to yourself; this is hard.  Get enough sleep, maintain your supportive relationships (spouse or partner, children, friends), schedule breaks and getaways, and guard your physical and emotional health.  Don’t expect quick results because success may take weeks or months. 

Address just one issue at a time, then strengthen yourself for running a marathon.

Find something positive to do together.  Your child needs for closeness and appreciation and joy, like everyone.  Ask your child what positive activity interests them most, or try new activities until one brings about a good chemistry between you and your child.

Praise is a powerful tool for managing disruptive behavior.  Make an effort to inject positive energy into your relationship with your child or teen.  It’s likely that this relationship has become mostly negative over time.   Caution: don’t expect thanks when you praise your child.  They are typically self-absorbed and not thinking about you.

Set limits – “Consistent limit setting and predictable responses from parents help give children a sense of stability and security.  Children and teens who feel a sense of security regarding the limits of their environment have less need to constantly test it.”
–Webster-Stratton and Hancock, Handbook for Parent Training, 1998

ignore childActively ignore – This works for best with children between the ages of 2 and 12.  It involves purposefully withdrawing your attention away from your child when they are misbehaving, such as a temper tantrum, whining or sulking, baiting or teasing, or making continuous demands or loud complaints.  Pretend you don’t care and even turn your back if possible.  Give attention only after their behavior is ending or over.

Make the behavior uncomfortable.

  • Example:  If your kid swears, test them, “C’mon, you can do better than that, be creative, I’ve heard all those things before.”  They can get frustrated when they aren’t getting the reaction they want from you, and defy you by giving up.
  • Another example:  Your teen refuses to get out of bed for school.  Don’t nag or repeat, repeat, repeat.  Remove the bed covers and set them far enough away that your child has to get out of bed to retrieve them.  (“Managing Resistance,” John W. Maag)

Give multiple instructions at once, where at least one of the instructions is what they want to do, and one is what you want them to do.  “Close the door while you’re yelling at your sister and don’t forget the light.”  Your child will be overloaded as they try to figure out which thing they’re supposed to defy.  Kids tend to get flustered by the mental effort and comply without knowing they’re doing it. (from “Managing Resistance,” Maag)

Use reverse psychology: it’s a good kind of manipulation.  Insist or pressure your child to do something they think you don’t want them to do, so they will defy you and do it… which is indeed what you wanted in the first place.  Pretend to agree or disagree with a behavior or choice so that you get the outcome you want.

A mother I know did this with her 14 year old daughter who’d threatened to cut off all her hair and self-tattoo her face.  The mother said she “went ballistic” over the idea of her beautiful hair being cut (even though she knew it would grow back, whereas a tattoo would be permanent).  The results were exactly what the mother wanted.  Her daughter totally butchered her hair, and the tattoo idea never came up again.

Offer unexpected rewards – On random occasions, reward appropriate behavior with something they like.  They are more likely to do a desired behavior if they expect something they want and aren’t sure when it will be offered.

Redirect their attention.  If you’re entering a situation where you know your child will become defiant, distract them.  Make yourself a list of actions or behaviors you can do that are distracting during times when their defiance should not be tolerated, such as when there’s a threat to safety.

Keep your power. Claim your throne as ultimate decision maker and boundary setter.

Don’t treat your home like a democracy or try to be fair and equal.  Be a benevolent dictator.  A troubled child should not have an equal say in how things are done.  To keep your authority and power in the household, tell your defiant child that you’ll listen and consider compromise, but make no promises.

Never justify your decision or provide reasons.  Reasoning does not work; it only promotes endless arguments. As your child ages into adulthood, an adult child will continue to require limits, and limits will still need enforcement. To a parent, it will feel like you’re treating your adult offspring as a child. YOU ARE and you should be, and this is the interesting part:  they won’t notice.

Allow some aggression.  When it’s appropriate and safe, ask your child to do more of what they’re already doing so that they turn around and defy you by stopping the behavior. Example: your child refuses to take a direction and throws a book on the floor in anger.

  • Parent:  “There’s only one book on the floor. Here is another one, now throw this on the floor.”  (Child throws book down.)
  • “Here’s another one. Throw this down too.”  (Child throws book down.)
  • “And here’s another, throw this down, too.”  (Child stops throwing books in defiance.)

Be a marshmallow.  Show no resistance.  Instead, listen and respond to how they feel, not what they say.  Show them you are open talk later when the stress dies down.

  • Teen:  “I hate you f- -king b- -ch!”
  • Parent:  “Sounds like you’re really angry.”
  • Teen:  “Shut up you stupid c – -t!”
  • Parent:  “Can you tell why me you’re angry so I can do something about it?”
  • Teen:  “Leave me alone f- -k face!  Stop patronizing me!”
  • Parent:  “OK, I hear you don’t want me to patronize you.  I feel this is stressful for both of us, so let’s take a break and talk about it later.”
  • Teen: F—k you!  I’m not talking to you ever.  (Well that’s not true, but they may ‘defy’ you by avoiding the behavior.) 

Call their bluff.

  • Child:  “I’m going to run away!”
  • Parent:  “OK, if you do, call me, and I’ll bring your stuff and maybe a snack.  Here’s the runaway hotline phone number if you don’t want to call directly.”  Then walk away.  If they do run and call, you’ll know where they are and can fetch them or call the police.
  • Child:  I’ll kill myself!  (This rarely true if shouted in anger and defiance. Your child may be throwing out threats to see how you react and get you to back down.)
  • Parent:  “If you really mean that, this is serious and means we need to get you to a hospital!  Let’s get ready and go because you need to get assessed.”

Warning, once you make progress regaining authority and reducing defiance, a honeymoon phase will be followed by a huge backlash… but this is a good sign! 

It’s proof your work is having an impact.  Extreme resistance to behavioral change is a common response called an “extinction burst;” see diagram below.  Pressure builds because it’s exhausting to try and control an urge to misbehave, and they eventually explode.  This as predictable so plan ahead.  The extreme “burst” is evidence the ingrained behavior is ending or going extinct.  There may be more bursts that test your resolve.  Eventually, your child likely stops defying at least one rule.  Pick the most critical behaviors that need extinguishing and keep up the effort.  Eventually, they back off again, and the pattern continues until it’s just not worth it to defy these rules anymore.

extinction burst

–From “Behavioral Interventions for Children with ADHD,” by Daniel T. Moore, Ph.D., © 2001, http://www.yourfamilyclinic.com/shareware/addbehavior.html .  The author requests a $2 donation through PayPal to distribute his article or receive printed copies.

Some rules for you

Don’t blame your child.  It’s easy to think they’re being bad on purpose because they’ll act like it, and show amusement when they’re bad or belittle you. Keep in mind that their behavior is no one’s fault, and your child would not choose to behave like they do if they understood what it meant.

Don’t ignore other challenges that might be responsible for their behavior.  They may face bullying at school, lack of sleep, or stress from things at home for example.

teenage mouse
Seriously, defiant teenagers think this way, and can’t see the obvious right in front of them.  I got this cartoon from a therapist who treats teenagers with criminal convictions, who are required by juvenile court to get counseling.

Always enforce your rules as immediately after the fact as possible.  Why:  If enforcement comes later or only occasionally, the child does not connect the broken rule with the punishment. They really don’t, even when you explain it quite clearly.

Don’t direct anger at your child.  If you do, apologize.

  • They can use your reaction against you, and tease or bait you to get you angry again
  • Don’t model that anger is an OK response to stress.
  • Do model that apologies are a proper response

Avoid explaining and justifying rules. Defiant children and teenagers are not able to reason once their emotions take control. They will only resist harder and pelt you with arguments. (What’s interesting is I’ve observed parents trying to reason with young children (4 or 5), too young to be reasonable in the first place, or with young adults (early 20’s) who have a long track record of being unreasonable.

Don’t interpret everything as pathological defiance or ODD.  Some rebelliousness is normal for children.  It’s especially so if parents are over-controlling.

Don’t keep trying the same things that still don’t work.  Like yelling or repeating yourself over and over (Don’t be embarrassed; we’ve all done this).

It helps to lower your expectations for your child’s behavior and progress.  What you want may be totally unrealistic, and more than you and your child can handle.

I once saw a bumper sticker that said “I feel much better now that I’ve given up hope,” and found it strangely comforting. 

Don’t jump to conclusions that demonize the child.  I often hear parents say:  “Why does he keep doing this?, or, “Why doesn’t she stop after I’ve told her not to, over and over again.”  Then they answer their own questions:  “It’s because he always wants his way,” or, “She’s doing this to get back at me.”  As they tell their story, I hear them taking things personally:  “He does this just to make me mad;” “She manipulates the situation because she wants more (something) and I won’t give it to her.”  Is this really what you want?

Two training approaches that help parents like you: 

Parent Management Training:  this is an intensive educational program that has been proven to help parents handle extremely difficult children, including those defiance and ODD.  PMT teaches parents precisely how to assert consistency, keep interactions predictable, and promote pro-social behavior in their child.  A good explanation can be found at this link: Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders.  Examples of parent management training include:  the Total Transformation and the Incredible Years.

Collaborative Problem Solving:  CPS teaches how to negotiate with a defiant or resistant child.  This may seem like giving in, but it depends on how one negotiates or comes to a compromise.  If defiance is a result of something the child needs but can’t express appropriately, a CPS approach helps the parents hone in on the  underlying need, which may be simple and easy to address.  A great place to find out more is on the Think:Kids website.

Find the energy and doggedness to be consistent, and the compassion and forgiveness to be nurturing.
This is a heroic endeavor.


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The best vitamins for your child’s brain

The best vitamins for your child’s brain

avocadoThe vitamins listed here are absolutely essential for your child’s brain, and it’s highly likely your child doesn’t have enough.  People with psychiatric disorders commonly have physical problems that are symptoms of vitamin deficiency.  Take digestive problems, for example–low levels of B vitamins cause digestive disorders, especially B12.

“One of the most common deficiencies seen in patients with mental disorders is B vitamins”*

B1 – Thiamine helps neurons to send electrical signals.  A proper level in the blood stream wards off depression. B1 is found in beans, asparagus, beef, oranges, sunflower seeds, oats, and green peas.

canteloupeB2 Riboflavin is also needed for neurons to send electrical signals.  B2 is found in sunflower seeds, fish, poultry, bananas, leafy greens, and sweet potatoes.

B6 prevents memory loss, improves memory, and helps reduce depression, and increase hemoglobin in the blood which supplies oxygen to the body and brain.  B6 is found in sunflower seeds, fish, poultry, bananas, leafy greens, sweet potato

B9 – Folic acid helps in formation of nerve tissue, or the neurons in the brain.  B9 is found in spinach, asparagus, beans, avocado, lentils, and broccoli.

kiwisB12 is needed for the myelin sheath that covers and protects neurons, and signs of deficiency are bowel and stomach problems. Probiotics for gut health are helpful, but so is sufficient B12.  It is found in seafood, eggs, cheese, leafy greens, milk, and red meat.

Vitamin CAscorbic acid regulates the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine, and protects the brain against oxidative stress, which is when there are too many “free radicals” (one kind of chemical), and too few “antioxidants” (another kind of chemical).  Vitamin C is found in citrus, tomato, kiwi, strawberry, mango, pineapple, cantaloupe, and green vegetables.

strawberry

Calcium is an actual nerve cell messenger.  It controls how signals pass between neurons.  Calcium is found in dairy (milk, hard cheese, and yogurt), sardines and salmon, beans and lentils, almonds, collard greens, tofu, and figs.

Magnesium is essential for many chemicals in the brain and body. It promotes the metabolism of B vitamins as well as signal transmission between neurons.  Magnesium calms people.  It is found in nuts, pumpkin seeds, black beans, avocado, brown rice, and leafy green vegetables.

Zinc helps regulate the electrical signals between neurons.  It is found in pumpkin seeds, beef, shrimp, nuts, chocolate, wheat germ, and oysters.

chardVitamin D is essential because it directs the production of neurotransmitters, nerve growth, and nerve connections.  Lack of Vitamin D is a common problem in people with psychiatric disorders.  The best form is from sunlight or the full sun spectrum.  Supplements have some benefit, but sun is best.

All vitamins are best obtained through food, not pills.

*“Essential Vitamins and Minerals for Brain Function”

See additional brain foods in this article, The Brain Diet for Troubled Kids.  Did you know that ~75% of individuals who are hospitalized for mental illness have very low Vitamin D?


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Welcome to the 911 Club for Parents of Troubled Kids

Welcome to the 911 Club for Parents of Troubled Kids

Let’s start a 911 Club, a community for parents who depend on emergency services for managing their mentally ill child. Our T-shirts would be black and blue like bruises. Only people raising a mentally ill child or young adult could join. Club rules would be simple:  1. No one is ever judged. 2. We keep things confidential. 3. Everyone is made to feel like a hero. 4. Everyone accepts that they are not guilty or failures, and neither are their children.

Every day, an emergency is just around the corner.

Parents with troubled children, no matter the age or diagnosis, are forced to make difficult decisions and take extreme actions… like calling 911.  It’s not something they choose, and they’ll avoid it if possible.  They are like any other parent with a severely disabled or physically ill child—they will do anything to help their child, but instead of wheelchairs or chemotherapy, they need emergency responders.

Most parents with normal children will never need to do the following 10 things that parents of troubled children often do:

  1. Call police
  2. Call an ambulance
  3. Or call a crisis line repeatedly
  4. Search a child’s room, especially if the child is a teenager or may be suicidal
  5. Spy on their child: read their email, texts, social media or search histories, read their journals
  6. File criminal charges or get a restraining order
  7. Lock up common household items (matches, knives, scissors, fuel, and anything conceivably dangerous in the wrong hands)
  8. Participate in endless meetings, appointments, and therapy sessions. Complete dozens of forms and continually pursue financial or community mental health resources
  9. Block out people who used to be friends
  10. Never share our stories with ‘normal’ people lest we get bombarded with uninformed and unsolicited opinions.


Parents can see an emergency coming, but can do little to prevent it.

All parents of troubled children have barriers to getting help, even when it’s blatantly obvious that the child needs it.  Why?  The aftermath of a recent high school shooting in Florida by provides details:

  1. The tragedy has to happen first: “A neighbor warned the sheriff’s office …and begged them to intervene. She was told there was nothing deputies could do until Cruz actually did something.”
  2. Mental health professionals don’t take history into account; and they are ignorant that children can behave well in their presence: “An investigator … spoke to Cruz, and advised that he was “not currently a threat to himself or others” and did not need to be committed.
  3. Family and other eyewitnesses are ignored by the people and institutions they depend on. “Lynda Cruz’s cousin warned deputies Cruz had rifles and pleaded for them to “recover these weapons.”


Policymakers, mental health professionals, and emergency responders out there:  fix this!

Part of the reason parents or family of the mentally ill person can’t get timely help is because of civil rights laws.  To those in the mental health community, start talking about how to handle this.  The present situation is unacceptable!  Stop protecting an acknowledged dangerous person’s rights over those of innocent victims.  It’s not OK.  This is just like some gun advocates who think it’s more important to sell assault rifles to protect their personal rights over those of innocent victims.

True Story

An upsetting thing happened in my city about 10 years ago that could have been my story. A man took his grown son to the emergency room because the son had been insisting he was going to stab someone—he suffered from untreated schizophrenia. When there, the staff found no reason to hold the son despite his history of violence and his father’s testimony. The father pleaded with them to put his son in a 72-hour hold and they refused.

Within minutes, the son ran off into the surrounding neighborhood, and within an hour, had stolen a steak knife from a restaurant, and ran out and stabbed a man walking on the sidewalk. (The victim lived, fortunately.) The father told the reporter that he’d been trying every possible means to stop this from happening in the hours before the event. Getting the son to go with him to the ER was an extraordinary feat in and of itself. He was beside himself with frustration and sadness and anger.  Now his son had aggravated assault and attempted homicide charges, and faced prison instead of a hospital.

–Margaret

 

U.K. needs to be a “999 Club”; Germany needs a “112” Club; a “110 Club” in China…

School Shootings, Guns, and Child Mental Illness

School Shootings, Guns, and Child Mental Illness

Up until recently, news of devastating school shootings swerved to public fights about gun control.  I had hoped past shootings would stimulate discussion of mental health treatment (see Guns and Mental Illness: the Debate from a Parent’s Perspective,” written 5 years ago in 2013). After this recent shooting in Florida, it now is.  But be careful what you wish for.  Mental illness is on the radar, but the subject swerved off into mental illness as a significant lethal threat to the public.  (I think this is compounded by a morbid fascination with psychopaths. The lurid TV series “Criminal Minds” plays to this–the entire plot line equates mental illness with psychopathy, torture, and murder.)  Damn it.

Look at the raw numbers below.  Shouldn’t the other deaths caused by children’s mental illness be on the table too?

Deaths by school shootings in elementary, middle, and high schools in the U.S.:

2000-2018 – Deaths by school shootings:  110 children*

2000-2018 – Foiled attempts at school shootings:  19 schools*

Child deaths by suicide in the U.S.:

2014-2015 – Between the ages 10-24:  17,304**

2013 – Suicide by firearm between the ages 10-19:  876***

*(Wikipedia, based on contemporaneous news reports)
**National Institute for Mental Health (latest available numerical data)
***Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (latest available numerical data)

Effective advocacy for preventing suicide (via mental health treatment) requires effective ‘marketing.’

Parkland, Florida, image from metro.co.uk

I wonder about the marketing aspect–the campaign that tells a gripping story that motivates others to act.  Let’s compare:  School shootings are public tragedies, with images of ambulances filmed from helicopters, and wrenching quotes from the anguished.  But suicides happen alone; they are private self-inflicted tragedies.  No helicopters, no candlelight vigils.  People keep their distance.  Money doesn’t pour in to support the victim’s family or increase the availability and use of treatment.  And then there is this awful irony:  if vulnerable children hear the news of a peer’s suicide, it risks suicide contagion.

Maybe the activism of the student survivors in Florida are symbolically opening a door.

Dublin, Ireland, in 2014, irishtimes.com

Maybe there’s a way if victim’s families and friends are willing to tell their anguished stories, too.  I don’t know how it feels to be you–my child made suicide attempts but didn’t succeed (insert deep sigh of gratitude here).  How do you feel about telling your stories to cameras in a large group?  Could you carry signs with photos of your precious lost ones?  or bombard the Twitter-verse to get to the hearts of the public?

Be prepared for the next round of horror, and be prepared to go public.

Our mental health professionals have been warning the public and lawmakers about the magnitude of child suicide for years–the psychiatrists and psychologists and all the other caregivers.  But they use facts, which don’t count in the public eye, whereas personal stories do.

Your comments are encouraged.

–Margaret

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

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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

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

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