May 2009

When Kids Go Nuclear…

by Dr. Dathan Paterno
“I’m going to kill myself!” Those have to be just about the most terrifying words that a parent can hear from their child. Variations on a theme include:
“I wish I were dead.” “I wish I had never been born.” “Why don’t you just kill me?” “I am going to kill my brother/sister!”
Today, children are suspended from school for saying such intemperate things—or even drawing pictures that depict violent fantasies. They have to go through a mental health assessment to determine whether they are safe to return from school. Most of this is nonsense, since children are prone to “go nuclear” with their language when they are upset and are not being heard with conventional language.
The fact is that the vast majority of children who say these things do not actually wish to commit suicide or otherwise die, wish they had never been born, or wish to murder someone. While this kind of language does require immediate and sincere attention, the fortunate fact is that very few children who make these kinds of statements actually follow through on them.
Please do not think I am so naïve to believe that no child is truly suicidal or does not wish to bring one of these darkest realities to fruition. I have witnessed a good many children attempt suicide; I know first-hand that some children go to that darkest of places. However, even many of those children’s attempts to act out their pitch-black fantasies would have been averted if the adults in their lives had paid close attention to the signs that their children put in their line of vision.
If your child says something like that, it is critical that you avoid acting based on emotionality. The instinctual part of you is highly emotional, protective, and defensive. Tell that part of you to take a back seat for a moment. The first thing you should do is presume that there is a good reason why Junior has elevated the language to the nuclear stage and that if you listen carefully, you and the child can figure it out. “I want to kill myself” is usually a highly creative and effective metaphor for “I am really miserable and I need you understand. When I just say ‘I’m sad’, you don’t listen or understand, so I have to talk suicide for you to really get it!”
Here’s a good response: “Wow, it sounds like you’re trying to get me to see just how upset you are about something. Can you tell me how bad you really feel and what it is about?”
Most of the time, your child will walk right into that open door and will express his/her angry, confused, sad, frustrated, hopeless, or overwhelmed feelings. You can then validate the feelings the child has; what parent can’t understand fright, sadness, anger, overwhelm, and confusion? If you can validate your child’s feelings, then he or she will feel heard and understood, removing the need to use metaphor to describe the pain. Essentially, if a lower level of communication does the trick, the child will not need to resort to more intense metaphor.
Pay attention, parents. Your child is speaking to you. If you do not listen, you will invite your child to raise the ante, or in some cases, go nuclear.

Dr. Paterno is available for appearances, speaking engagements and lectures. For information, please contact ImaginePublicity at or

To Tell or Not to Tell: It Shouldn’t Be a Question

by Dr. Dathan Paterno

One of the factors that determine whether bullying will increase in intensity and frequency is the degree of involvement peers have in the process. Peers can intervene directly by stopping bullying as it occurs, ostracizing the bully, supporting the victim directly, or by telling adult authorities about the bullying. As many of you know, peers tend to stay out of the process altogether, which further reinforces the bully’s behavior. Essentially, their lack of involvement sanctions the bully and says that it is OK on their end.

This must stop. Peers must take some responsibility for their neighbors. Remember the golden rule? In case you missed that Sunday School, it goes like this: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is not a mere suggestion; it is a command. It is a child’s social and moral obligation to stand up to bullies and to stand up for the victim.

Now, I understand that children will be equipped differently to respond to bullying. Stronger, bigger children will be able to intervene directly. The more savvy and trusted children can tell teachers, principals, school social workers, and parents about the bullying. Some can take the victim aside—at any time, not just after an incident of bullying—and offer that child all kinds of emotional support. Some of the more creative children could start a campaign against bullying, by having peers sign a petition, such as “End Ritual Child Abuse! STOP Bullying!” or “Bullies Are NOT Cool! They Are Weak!” Any and all of these can help both curb bullying behavior and, just importantly, support the victims of bullying.

In my work with children, I hear countless stories of children who are afraid to tell teachers and other adults about being bullied and abused. It is incredibly shameful to admit, partly because it is an admission of weakness and an inability to handle the situation on their own. However, there is an additional reason why many children avoid telling adults.

Some schools frown on “tattling”. Wisely and with good intent, many schools take pains to differentiate between tattling and telling. Tattling, they reason, is reporting nitpicky things to adults, like minor squabbling, faces, minor name-calling, bragging, etc. Telling, on the other hand, is reporting serious problems like violence and other dangerous situations. It all makes sense on the surface. One problem is that victims of bullying tend to err on the side of avoiding because they don’t want to be “tattlers”. Who wants to be nicknamed “The Tattler”?

Another problem, as I have previously discussed, is that children do not want to stir up even more trouble for themselves. Children possess enough intuition to know that schools generally do not use their power enough to make a bully stop; they know that the bully will get a minor consequence, then be right back at the bullying. And this time, with more steam. Not only does the bully continue, but he/she has a justifiable reason to seek vengeance—“You got me in trouble! Now I’m going to make you pay!”

If schools want children to report bullying, then they will have to learn to respond with gusto. Until then, expect most children to hide their abuse from the adults who are entrusted to protect them and teach them life lessons.

Peterson Children Become Knockout Victims

written by: Dr. Dathan Paterno

Most people are aware that Drew Peterson was arrested Thursday for the murder of his third wife, Kathleen Savio. The arrest comes more than five years after her death. Understandably, the media pay very little attention to their two teenage children or to the two pre-school children he had with his fourth wife Stacy, who disappeared in 2007 and whom many believe Peterson also killed. While preferring not to drag the children into the media spotlight, it can be useful to consider their plight throughout this ordeal.

How does all of this affect them? Can we even begin to comprehend the trauma that has been foisted on the most unwilling victims of this twisted, evil drama? The combination of emotional and psychospiritual crises that follow are like a defenseless boxer suffering a punishing combination of violent blows, with no referee to mercilessly end the fight.

The first blow for each child was the death of their mother. If this were not traumatic enough, the circumstances surrounding their deaths or disappearance are shrouded in mystery and grave suspicion. Not only does trauma stunt emotional growth, essentially freezing the child at that particular stage of development, but the death of a parent raises all kinds of intense existential questions. Children are ill-equipped to answer those questions or to get themselves unstuck developmentally.

The second blow comes when they realize that a great many people—including their mom’s families, many in the media, and state prosecutors—hold their father responsible for these deaths. They now have to live with the fact that most people perceive their father as a serial wife murderer. Combine this with the developmental fact that children implicitly trust their parents and one can understand how the children are facing a crisis of reality testing:

“How can I believe he is innocent when so many are convinced otherwise?”

“What if Dad really did murder Mom like they say?”

“If my father lied to me all of these years, can I believe anything or anyone?”

At some point, each is likely to descend into an abyss of doubt surrounding their entire perception of reality. It is hard to imagine anything more frightening.

The third punishing blow arrives from the knowledge that their peers know that their mother was murdered and that the prime suspect was just removed from their home. Any volunteers for a play-date at the Petersons? I think not. And what parent would allow their daughter to go to prom with the kid whose dad whacked his mom and his step-mom? These children will likely struggle with unimaginable, albeit utterly undeserved shame and embarrassment.

Fourth, these children will inevitably face the question of their own capacity for evil, even murder. Regrettably, Drew Peterson was and continues to be his children’s primary role model. His boys instinctively want to be like him; they also innately know this to be true. “If Dad was capable of murder, am I too?”

How in the world can these innocent children possibly endure such an onslaught of trauma? First, it is impossible to expect them to survive without significant emotional pathology. Depression, extreme anxiety, confusion, poor school performance, irritability, and even altered states of reality testing would all be utterly normal for children suffering as they are. Everyone around them—including mental health professionals—must avoid diagnosing their suffering and focus on normalizing their experience and set of responses to their traumatic experiences.

Second, many children possess astounding resilience in the face of trauma. Consider the survivors of Auschwitz; many of them are amazingly healthy. There seems to be an innate quality in some people of bouncing back from trauma. Some even rise above their trauma by working with others who experience trauma. One example is Susan Murphy-Milano, whose police officer father brutally murdered his wife in front of her. She has become a fierce defender of victims’ rights and a nationally recognized women’s advocate. Perhaps some of the Peterson children will possess this elusive quality.

Third, these children must have a network of extended family with Herculean strength, resolve, compassion, patience, and wisdom. They must replace both their mothers and their father in modeling justice, truth, love, honesty, and understanding. They must be able to balance the need to offer truth to the children—in doses they can handle—with a fierce instinct to protect them from the depth of the harsh realities involved in this narrative. They must also be prepared to answer the inevitable existential questions that will come. “Why did my dad murder my mom?” “Why did God allow him to do that?”

Finally, someone should suggest to the teenage boys that as soon as they turn 18, they appeal to a judge to change their last name. It just isn’t good for them to be Petersons anymore.

Dr. Dathan Paterno is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Park Ridge, IL. He can be contacted at

He is also the author of the soon to be released Parenting Book,“Desperately Seeking Parents.”

Susan Murphy Milano

Author, Speaker, Consultant

Expert Source of Abuse Exit Plans



Sara Huizenga Lubbers and Peki Jones

New Study: Donuts Cure Depression!

Paterno Research Group, headed by Dr. Dathan Paterno, has concluded an investigation into dietary cures for depression. The prestigious team of dedicated scientists has determined that one of the most effective treatments for depression is the donut. Assistant Lead Researcher Eden Paterno noted that chocolate cake donuts seemed to have the most immediate positive effect, while study volunteer Micayla Paterno’s mood was most powerfully boosted by glaze donuts. 

As with most biological treatments, some subjects responded weakly to one form of DT (Donut Treatment) but positively to another. For example, Dr. Paterno’s depressive symptoms were most effectively ameliorated with a high dose of jelly-filled donuts.

Oh, if it were only true; I’d be the happiest guy on the planet. 

But seriously, diet is one of the most neglected areas of intervention for children with attention, behavioral, or mood problems. Food allergies and sensitivities, blood sugar regulation, and other dietary issues can have an enormous impact on a growing child’s brain and body function.

If your child has mood problems or ADHD-like symptoms, try changing the following to rule out dietary problems that could be the culprit:

Food dyes, such as Red Dye #6 and Yellow Dye #1 are notorious for creating hyperactivity or general goofiness. These unnatural chemicals are found in many sweet foods, particular processed foods with bright colors.

Too much sugar! While most people’s behavior is not affected by sugar intake, many children produce too little of the hormone that prevents blood sugars from dipping too low. When this happens, the child feels sluggish and often attempts to “whip himself up” with silly, hyperactive behavior (the same phenomenon one sees in the overtired child).

Magnesium deficiency. Magnesium is taken out of white sugar, white flour, and table salt, while soda limits the body’s ability to absorb magnesium. Too little magnesium can cause or worsen restlessness and irritability.  Several studies show that ADHD children are deficient in many common minerals, most often in magnesium, zinc, and iron, and that magnesium supplementation significantly decreases the hyperactivity symptoms in these children. Switching to whole wheat, natural sugars, and sea salt can also make a huge difference in some children.

The good fatty acids, such as Omega-3 and Omega-6. These produce essential fats such as ALA, EPA, and DHA. The best places to get these fatty acids are flaxseed oil and fish like salmon and trout. 

It may be hard to believe, but many children have an allergic reaction or a sensitivity to foods like wheat, soy, milk, eggs, chocolate, corn, yeast, and certain juices. Systematically eliminating these foods from the diet can uncover the allergy/insensitivity and make an enormous improvement in behavior and mood.

If Junior is depressed, make sure he eats enough and is not overeating. Either can worsen depressive symptoms. Eating junk food often depresses the body; the mind responds to this by depressing itself. Caffeine or nicotine use can also worsen depressive symptoms, particularly when the stimulating effects wear off. Lean high-protein foods such as chicken, tuna, and turkey, on the other hand, help boost alertness and sustain energy throughout the day. Make sure Junior gets enough of good protein.

If your child is anxious, make sure he doesn’t have food allergies. Also, make sure Junior isn’t sneaking caffeine, as its high-powered stimulant effects can create or worsen the symptoms of anxiety. Finally, a diet rich in complex carbohydrates (e.g., whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables) boosts the production of serotonin far better than simple carbohydrates (i.e., sugars).

Obviously, one of the worst food choices doesn’t involve the type of food but the amount of purpose of eating. Overeating often stimulates negative thoughts, such as “I’m pathetic; I can’t control myself. I’m going to look awful because I keep eating like this.” This induces depressive feelings, which then creates a perceived need to self-sooth, often with more food. This cycle can be quite destructive.

So instead of using food as a pacifier, use exercise, relationships, and other healthy coping mechanisms; I’ll write about those in a future post. For now, eat healthy to feel well, inside and out!

P.S. The Donut Research Study also concluded that exercise should be part of any depression treatment plan—especially to counteract the “widening” side effects of DT.

Stopping Bullying Must Be a Team Effort

I’m heartened to see bullying front and center in the media these days. Oprah dedicated a show this week to the problem, interviewing several families whose children had committed suicide as a result of intense, chronic bullying. She also had an expert focus attention on what children need to do when bullied. This was a good start. I agree that children share in the responsibility of dealing with bullies. Schools and parents have not done enough to help those children to stand up to bullies with assertiveness. However, the experts said nothing about what schools must do in response to the bullies.

Imagine if you went to the park with your children and a large, aggressive man came up to you and started calling you vicious names, threatening to hurt or kill you, and even shoving you or worse. Would you simply rely on your “assertiveness training” to deal with him? What would you do if the man continued to do this whenever you were at the park?

You would call the police. That’s what a sane person would do! Why? Because threatening, harassing, and assaulting another person is a crime and you would likely recognize that the man would be arrested. This is what adults do; they get proper authorities involved, even the lawyers protecting against criminal charges based in Parsippany-Troy Hills involve in such cases. After all, they are there to serve and protect.

Why do we not afford our children the same protection and model the same kind of response? Parents must do this for their children whenever bullying becomes violent. If your school seems unwilling to do their part—and even if they do their part—I say get the law involved. When it comes to situations like drug abuse etc, one can go to for legal help.

Victims also share some responsibility when it comes to being bullied. First, the child must report the bullying, whether it is physical, emotional, sexual, social, or cyber-bullying. Parents can’t help if they don’t know what is going on.

Second, the child must be willing to take responsibility for any behavior he or she is doing that creates or exacerbates the ire of his peers. While bullying is never acceptable and should never be tolerated, sometimes children do things that, well, are asking for it. The child must take steps to remove this factor from the equation.

Third, the child must learn appropriate, assertive responses to bullies. Ignoring mildly annoying behaviors is one thing; kids can’t be so thin-skinned that everything is perceived as a heinous crime. But ignoring bullying is never the right move. Learning how to stand up to a bully—physically and verbally—and say “No more!” is essential.

Let’s get back to the first responsibility of the child: reporting. This is extremely difficult for children to do, because they are often intensely ashamed of the bullying and are afraid of the repercussions of “tattling”. Many children I know who have been bullied tell me that they know the school will not do anything significant to the bully, so they choose to stay quiet. They believe that the only effect of telling will be that the bully will mock the child even more or seek vengeance for whatever punishment followed. The most important factor, which I have written about before, is the response of the adults. If a child reports bullying early in the bullying sequence, the school MUST take it seriously and respond swiftly and weightily.

Wrist-slaps will serve only to convince the child that he will not be protected. This invalidates the school as an authority and forces the child to remain silent. I hope I need not convince anyone how tragic this is.
Schools must respond swiftly with resolve and with serious consequences. They must not only punish the child, but they must communicate the gravity of the situation with the bully’s parents. They, in turn, must be held accountable for their child’s behavior. Again, parents of bullies cannot intervene if they are unaware of their child’s behavior. In certain other environments there are people that take advantage of the law and falsely accuse a person and these cases call for falsely accused sex crime attorneys to provide legal help.

Finally, other students have a smaller but significant responsibility to the victim and the bully. They must be able to report bullying with sufficient confidence, to assure that no vengeance will be sought on them.
Let’s start building teams that can effectively fight bullying and create civil, loving, just, and moral subcultures in our schools.

Bullying Can Drive a Kid Nuts!

Author of Desperately Seeking Parents
As the deluge of studies on the effects of bullying pours into the mainstream, it becomes increasingly clear that bullying poses a threat to our children’s well-being equal to the swine flu, lice, and any number of health concerns for which schools have strict policies. It is time our public schools act, rather than talk.
A recent study from England suggests that being bullied during childhood doubles a child’s likelihood of developing psychotic symptoms in early adolescence. They discovered that the longer and more severe the bullying, the greater the risk. The authors of the study conclude in the Archives of General Psychiatry that “Reduction of peer victimization and the resulting stress caused to victims could be a worthwhile target for prevention and early intervention efforts for common mental health problems and psychosis.”
As I have previously written, schools cannot hope to stop children from beginning a pattern of bullying. Even the most intentional “civil behavior” classes cannot stop or screen potential bullies and stop them before they start. This focus is admirable, but grossly insufficient.
The focus instead should be on the response to both the bullies and the victims. The primary response to bullying should include adequate justice. Providing justice to the victims communicates empathy, compassionate, and most importantly, a validation of their perception of reality. Without this, victims will begin to question their reality testing and create their own alternative perceptions of reality. This extreme but understandable coping mechanism can indeed grow into future, more insidious symptoms.
Justice is equally important for the bully. It may seem counter-intuitive, but exacting swift, significant punishment is more loving and compassionate to a bullying child than sending him or her to therapy or punishing with a mere “slap on the wrist”. The bully needs to know that society (including the school, law enforcement, and victim) do not and will not tolerate his/her behavior. It is not simply unacceptable, but it is not tolerated.
Swift and significant punishment teaches that child that behavior has significant consequences that will hurt. Choosing not to give bullies this message creates a cognitive template for the child that can be catastrophic: “I can abuse other children and the punishment will be minor” is the message. Spare the rod, spoil the child indeed.
Overall, 46 percent of the children reported having experienced victimization — including either direct bullying or “relational victimization” such as being excluded — at age 8 or 10, while 54 percent weren’t “victimized” at either age.
I understand that some children are punished by peers as a method of peer justice. For example, some kids deserve to be ostracized for grossly inappropriate behavior. Not all conflict between children should be regulated by adults; children need to learn how to navigate through their social conflicts on their own. But when peer justice becomes bullying, the adults need to step in and step in swiftly.

Candy Land is Not the Devil. Really, It’s Not…

A majority of my clients are children, and as any child psychologist can attest, we have to play our share of children’s games, like Sorry, Yahtzee, Candy Land, and Battleship. Not only does it build relationships, playing games with a child gives me a glimpse into the child’s social, cognitive, and emotional skills, and often convinces the child that I actually like being with him/her. 

On the other hand, one of the reasons why I don’t exclusively work with children is the scientifically established fact that playing too much Candy Land can cause dementia. Or cancer. Or something really bad; I can’t remember.

One of the things I’ve noticed over my 18 years working with children is a decline in Game Time or Game Night. Families don’t play as many board games as they used to. Sure, a lot of it has to do with video games. But I also think that too many families are so busy with homework and extracurricular activities that they don’t carve out time to be together for fun activities during the week. This really needs to change, because Game Night can really provide a family with a great deal of value.

First, setting a Game Night communicates the message that your family is a cohesive group that really enjoys each other. Because of today’s harried schedules, families tend to become disparate, disunited pieces, rather than a tightly-knit organic group. Game Night can help create that sense.

Second, this is where you teach your children some valuable social lessons, such as sportsmanship, taking turns (patience), teamwork, truthfulness (not cheating), and dealing with disappointment.

Third, many games can teach or enhance important cognitive skills. It can also illuminate for parents if your child is struggling in a certain area. Here are several games and the corresponding skills that they utilize:

Skill Game

Arithmetic (e.g., counting by 5’s and 10’s) Monopoly, Yahtzee

Money (e.g., making change, investing) Monopoly, Pay Day

Calculating risk Sorry, Life, Careers

Increasing vocabulary Scrabble

Impulse control Chess, checkers, Monopoly

Strategy Almost any board or card game

Graphomotor skills Pictionary

Deductive Reasoning Clue

Cooperation Clue, Risk, Monopoly

Fine Motor Skills Operation, card games (shuffling, holding)

Visual-Spatial Processing Battleship, Connect Four

Verbal Skills Charades, Taboo, Scattergories

Last but not least, Game Night is fun! Rather, it should be fun. Let me be clear: Game Night can be competitive, but competition is not the central goal. Do not let excessive competition get in the way of fun and relationship during your Game Night, or it will lose value for your children. I’m all for competitive spirit, but children need to know that they needn’t always perform at a competitive level to have fun. This is a valuable social skill.

So try to carve out that time: for you, for your family, for your children!

If any of you would like to share your ideas for Game Night, please feel free to share them.