Grown Up Fears



In a recent post I wrote about a therapeutic technique in which children are prompted to draw their deepest fears. By coincidence, this weekend the New York Times Magazine published an article about 8 artists who were asked to…draw their deepest fears. From the NYT:

“The editors asked eight artists to draw a monster that embodies their deepest or most irrational fear — a creature that belongs not to the monsters of history but to their private horrors.”

Insecurity, financial ruin, violence, disease, generalized anxiety, and, perhaps worst of all, the “monster inside” that you can never escape. These are the fears that haunt grown-ups, and they are depicted vividly in these too-realistic drawings. For a few pre-Halloween frights, click here to see the entire gallery.


Weekly Roundup 10-28-12

School: College speech codes squash free speech and open debate. A 2010 study found “that only 35.6 percent of the students — and only 18.5 percent of the faculty and staff — strongly agreed that it was “safe to hold unpopular positions on campus.””

Psychology: Humans tend to be cooperative, even though a major weakness of a cooperative social system is that some people will try to cheat and exploit it. As a result, social guidelines have evolved to punish the freeloaders among us. “Reputational signals” such as gossip are used across cultures to “name and shame” cheaters, thus establishing moral codes.

Scholarship: New research suggests that children have a more advanced sense of morality than previously thought. Whereas Piaget believed young children only looked at outcomes to determine whether an action was “good” or “bad,” a recent study finds they actually take into account intentions as well.

Unscaring the Scary

Scary spider by Ted, age 17.

With Halloween around the corner, I wanted to share a useful tool for helping children confront – and perhaps overcome – their fears. This one comes from Dr. David A. Crenshaw, director of the Rhinebeck Child and Family Center in Rhinebeck, New York. It is a projective drawing technique called Party Hats on Monsters, and is designed “to address multiple fears, phobias, frightening dreams, nightmares, and PTSD symptoms in children.”

Party Hats on Monsters involves two steps. In the first step, you ask the child to draw something they are afraid of, and to make it as scary as possible. In the second step, you then ask the child to draw the scary thing again, but this time have fun and make it funny or silly and not scary anymore. From the website:

By the very act of trying to reproduce on paper the frightening image and discovering that no matter how hard they try they are unable to make it as scary as the image in their mind, they discover the power of defusing the fear by putting it out on paper and getting it out of their head…Also when you change the monster, shrink him, or put a party hat on him, he is no longer scary at all. The most amazing thing that children discover is that when they change the image out here on paper they can also change the scary image in their head.

For the full directions and more information, click here.

Love Letters to Sons

For all that we talk about special needs children in our work and practice, the truth is that, as school psychologists, we generally see children in one environment: school. As such, other than what parents tell us as it relates to their child’s school life, it is rare to get a behind-the-scenes look at what daily life is like for parents raising children with special needs.

I recently read Priscilla Gilman’s book The Anti-Romantic Child, which centers around her first son, Benjamin (“Benj”), and the story of his development from birth to about age seven. Gilman calls the book a love letter to her son, which seems apt as she weaves a fair amount of poetry by the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth throughout her tale. I can’t say more about Benj’s disability since the mystery behind it takes up the first quarter of the book and I don’t want to give anything away. But I will say Gilman’s day-to-day descriptions of raising her son and working with his schools to help him succeed were compelling, touching, and informative. I may write a more detailed review at a later date, but overall I recommend The Anti-Romantic Child.

Coincidentally, I recently saw a commercial that features a real mom and her special needs child. It’s an ad for the MassMutual Insurance company, but it is so touching. I did a little Googling, and the mom in the ad is an actress named Katherine Norland. Her son Timothy has cerebral palsy, and the commercial shows the two of them going through some of the routines of daily life. It’s only about a minute long, but a lot is conveyed in that short amount of time.

In their own words, both of these moms tell us what they have learned – and gained, perhaps unexpectedly – from raising a child with special needs. Gilman: “…Benjamin has put me in touch with my deepest values, my deepest sense of what’s important and meaningful.” And Norland: “Everything that you thought was important to you changes, in light of having a child that needs you every moment…I wouldn’t trade him for the world.”

Special, indeed.

Also, because many of you will want to know, the song in the ad is Flume by Bon Iver:

Update 11/2014: I recently discovered that the song is actually not Flume, but was commissioned by Mass Mutual specifically for the campaign. It may be Bon Iver singing, but I haven’t been able to find a reliable source on that. At any rate, enjoy Flume by Bon Iver:

Weekly Roundup 10-21-12

School: A Los Angeles teacher who previously spoke out against standardized testing decides to use the test data to help her students, with great success. She says test data and metrics can be just as much of a tool for students as it is for teachers: “[W]hy not help our students become makers and masters of their own data, and help them use it to propel their own learning forward?”

Psychology: Using what we know about the psychology of rewards and how the brain works to better manage your email, rather than letting your email manage you.

Scholarship: A new study adds a slight twist to the classic marshmallow experiment. Whether or not the children trusted the researcher impacted how long they were willing to wait before eating the marshmallow. The researchers are calling this “beliefs about environmental reliability,” and the implication is that if a child doesn’t trust that the next marshmallow will appear, she will eat it while she can. Put another way, in some situations failing to delay gratification is the rational choice.

Relevant to the Situation

Earlier this week my child & adolescent therapy class discussed an unfortunate situation involving multiple children being take in by relatives after their mother was arrested. The question was how best to help children in a situation like that, and help them cope with a suddenly chaotic existence infused with grief, loss, anger, and fear. At one point I wondered aloud where the father of the children was in all of this, and a person who was familiar with the family said, “It’s not relevant to this situation.” If that’s true, then I feel even worse for these children.

Of course fathers are relevant, and their absence in a child’s life can be a predictor of a host of negative outcomes including sexual promiscuity, increased risk of incarceration, emotional and behavioral problems, and increased risk of poverty. And even though there is a growing body of research on the importance of fathers, as a society we still tend to marginalize fathers and in some instances assume they have less interest in parenting their children than do mothers.

If you’d like more information, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has put together an extensive resource list called Resource Listings of Selected National Organizations Concerned with Fatherhood and Child Maltreatment. There are programs to get fathers involved in schools, information for stay-at-home dads, resources for low income fathers, minority fathers, incarcerated fathers, parenting groups, and more.

And last but not least, a list.

20 Reasons Why Your Child Needs You to be an Active Father:
1. Lets your child know that you love her. Love involves more than saying the words, “I love you.” Fathers who love their children demonstrate their love by spending quality and quantity time together. Children who feel loved are more likely to develop a strong emotional bond with their father and a healthy self-esteem.
2. Provides your child with greater financial resources. Research clearly indicates that families with an active father are “better off” financially. This means that children with active fathers will be more likely to have access to resources that facilitate healthy development (e.g., food, clothing, shelter, quality medical care).
3. Provides your child with a positive male role model. Children, regardless of gender, need positive male and female role models. Children tend to model behavior (positive and negative) that they witness on a consistent basis. Active fathers can promote positive behaviors by setting a proper example for their children.
4. Provides your child with emotional support. In addition to financial support, children also need emotional support from their parents. Active fathers listen and support their children when they experience joy, sadness, anger, fear, and frustration. Fathers who support their children emotionally tend to raise children who are more in-tune with the needs of others.
5. Enhances your child’s self-esteem. Self-esteem refers to how a person feels about himself. Children with high self-esteem tend to be happier and more confident than children with low self esteem. Active fathers promote their children’s self-esteem by being fully involved in their lives and letting them know that they are highly valued.
6. Enhances your child’s intellectual development. Children who are raised with actively involved fathers tend to score higher on measures of verbal and mathematical ability, and also demonstrate greater problem-solving and social skills.
7. Provides your child with guidance and discipline. From infancy, children need proper guidance and discipline. Active fathers play an important role in teaching their children proper behavior by setting and enforcing healthy limits.
8. Gives your child someone to play with. One of the primary ways that fathers bond with their children is through play. According to researchers, there are qualitative differences in the ways fathers and mothers play with their children. Fathers tend to use a more physical style of play (e.g., wrestling) that offers a number of benefits to children, including enhanced cognitive ability.
9. Provides your child with someone to talk to when she has questions. Young children are full of questions. This natural curiosity helps them learn about their environment. Active fathers can be a valuable source of information for children who are seeking answers to life’s important questions.
10. Increases your child’s chances for academic success. Children whose fathers are actively involved in their lives are more likely to achieve academic success than children whose fathers are not actively involved. These academic benefits appear to extend into adulthood.
11. Provides your child with an alternative perspective on life. Research indicates that men and women often differ in their parenting styles; however, one style is not necessarily better than the other. Instead, it can be healthy for children to be exposed to different perspectives on life, such as a father’s.
12. Lowers your child’s chances for early sexual activity. Children with actively involved fathers are less likely to engage in early sexual activity, thus reducing their chances for teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
13. Lowers your child’s chances for school failure. Children with actively involved fathers are less likely to drop out of school than children with uninvolved fathers.
14. Lowers your child’s chances for youth suicide. Children with actively involved fathers are less likely to commit suicide than children with uninvolved fathers.
15. Lowers your child’s chances for juvenile delinquency. The benefits of having an active father throughout a child’s early years extend into the teen years as well. Children with active fathers are less likely to commit juvenile crimes than children with inactive fathers.
16. Lowers your child’s chances for adult criminality. The chances that a child will commit crimes as an adult also diminish when he grows up with an actively involved father.
17. Provides your child with a sense of physical and emotional security. One of the major benefits that fathers can provide to their children by being actively involved is a sense of security (physical and emotional). By being actively involved in a child’s life, a father promotes a trusting relationship. The child does not have to worry about being abandoned.
18. Facilitates your child’s moral development. Children need a moral compass to guide them when they face difficult moral choices. Fathers, like mothers, help children to develop a sense of right and wrong that serves as a foundation for establishing moral character.
19. Promotes a healthy gender identity in your child. Boys and girls benefit from having healthy role models from both sexes. Research points to the fact that mothers and fathers socialize their children in different ways. Fathers can help their children, especially boys, to develop a healthy sense of what it means to be a male.
20. Helps your child learn important life skills. Most of the essential life skills that children need to survive are learned within the home. Fathers have a unique opportunity to teach their children valuable skills that will enable them to grow up to be healthy and productive adults.

Weekly Roundup 10-14-12

School: Classroom yoga helps improve behavior of children with autism. A 17-minute routine of daily yoga reduced incidents of aggressive behavior, acting out and social withdrawal.

Psychology: Researchers at Northwestern University have discovered a variety of lifelong benefits when children learn to play a musical instrument at a young age.

Scholarship: Evidence shows psychological biases can influence analysis of DNA evidence in forensic cases.

National Coming Out Day

To honor National Coming Out Day, first a quote from Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy: Wounded Spirits and Healing Paths by David A. Crenshaw (dictated exactly as written, grammatical and punctuation errors intact; these are unfortunately pervasive throughout the book, but otherwise I recommend it):

“Gay, lesbian and transgender youth are often silenced in damaging ways by the dominant culture. Both overt and covert forms of homophobia is pervasive in schools, churches and other community places, not to mention families and exerts a powerful silencing force that has a profound deleterious psychological impact on these youth.”

By coincidence, a recent personal essay in the NY Times provides a heartbreaking example of the “silencing” Crenshaw refers to. Written by Puerto Rican author Luis Negrón and titled The Pain of Reading, the essay is poetic and nuanced and offers a child’s-eye glimpse into what it feels like to keep one’s self hidden while at the same time suffering devastating rejection by a parent.

Finally, another article from the NY Times about helping children come out of the closet. It is a delicate proposition, and the consensus is that even if parents suspect their child is gay – even from a young age – they should not force them to come out before they are ready. Rather, the most important thing is for parents to establish a general atmosphere in which it is known that they love the child unconditionally and are there to support them no matter what. One interesting piece of advice (given to a parent by a gay friend) is to “work references to gay life into our daily conversation instead of treating it as a touchy subject best left alone.” This makes a lot of sense. It is so much easier for a child to open up about something they perceive actually exists in their parents’ frame of reference, rather than bear the burden of having to educate their parents about something perceived as mysterious and unknown.

Fake It ‘Til You Make It

Research has shown that the simple act of sitting up straight can improve confidence. In a recently posted TED talk, social psychologist Amy Cuddy takes this idea a step further and introduces us to the concept of the “power pose”: feet planted firmly on the ground about shoulder-width apart, knees locked, arms akimbo. Power pose! Or, as Cuddy calls it, “A free no-tech life hack.” She goes on to say that our body language is a form of communication:

“…[W]hen we think of nonverbals, we think of how we judge others, how they judge us and what the outcomes are. We tend to forget, though, the other audience that’s influenced by our nonverbals, and that’s ourselves…

We are also influenced by our nonverbals, our thoughts and our feelings and our physiology. So what nonverbals am I talking about? I’m a social psychologist. I study prejudice, and I teach at a competitive business school, so it was inevitable that I would become interested in power dynamics. I became especially interested in nonverbal expressions of power and dominance.

And what are nonverbal expressions of power and dominance? Well, this is what they are. So in the animal kingdom, they are about expanding. So you make yourself big, you stretch out, you take up space, you’re basically opening up. It’s about opening up.”

Cuddy explains that her studies have shown that not only do we change others’ perceptions of us when we power pose, we also alter our brain chemistry such that we actually start to feel better about ourselves. In animal studies, alpha leaders tend to have high levels of testosterone (for dominance) combined with low levels of cortisol (reduced stress; you can’t be an effective alpha if you’re both dominant and overwhelmed by stress). To study whether this hormonal interplay also occurs in humans, Cuddy and her fellow researchers had subjects pose in either strong or weak positions, let them gamble, and had them fill out a questionnaire about how powerful they felt. The researchers then took saliva samples from the subjects. As it turns out, the “high power” group had reduced levels of cortisol and the “low power” group had increased levels of cortisol. Cuddy’s conclusion? “Our nonverbals govern how we think and feel about ourselves.” Something to keep in mind next time you head to a job interview. So maybe rather than ‘fake it ’til you make it,’ the more accurate conclusion is ‘fake it and you WILL make it.’

And while the way in which this research was conducted may be new, judging by this 1953 video, it seems we’ve been concerned about posture for quite a while. What we now understand as cortisol and testosterone and brain science used to simply be called “health.” Sometimes you can’t help but think, the more things change, the more they stay the same. [click on image below to go to video].