dathan-paterno

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 imaginepublicity@gmail.com or imaginepublicity.com

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. 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.

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.

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.

“Go to Time Out…Of the Car!”

by Dr. Dathan Paterno

Many of you have heard about Madlyn Primoff, the mother of two bickering girls, 12 and 10, who were kicked out of the car and told to walk home when the bickering wouldn’t stop. Even though the mother drove around the block and came back for the girls, she was later arrested for child endangerment. Quite a number of parents have been debating this issue, with most of the debated surrounding whether it was an appropriate consequence.  

I’m not in favor of her decision.  

Before I criticize Mrs. Primoff’s parenting, let me confess that I have great sympathy for her. I will give Mrs. Primoff the benefit of the doubt in presuming that her children’s behavior was ridiculous and not just mildly annoying. I am completely in favor of tough parenting. This includes having no tolerance for ridiculous behavior. So she was right to use tough discipline to shape their behavior. 

However, kicking the girls out of the car was unwise for two reasons. 

First, kicking a 10 or 12-year-old girl out of a car and expecting her to walk home a mile or more in a suburban neighborhood is not reasonably safe. Sure, there are some ten and twelve-year-old girls who are independent enough to walk a mile or even more in safe neighborhoods. But most aren’t. If the children were 14 and 16, I wouldn’t be saying this (unless of course the neighborhood were notoriously dangerous). And if it were two blocks, I might be persuaded to let it slide. But in this day and age, I just don’t trust the world enough to allow two pre-teen girls to walk far without a chaperone. 

My second problem with her decision is that she likely made it impulsively. I highly doubt that she and her husband had had a family meeting with the children and informed them that bickering in the car would result in being kicked out. Rather, this punishment was made off-the-cuff, in a rage, and without much thought of the consequence. This kind of parenting scares children and invalidates that parent’s authority and trustworthiness.  

Again, I’m all for tough parenting with consequences that induce discomfort or pain. But consequences must be reasonably safe; they must also be made calmly with pre-thought and understanding of the possible consequences. 

As always, let me know what you think! If you don’t like her decision either, let me know what you think would be a better consequence for bickering in the car. 

If Drugs are Bad, What is Good?

by Dr. Dathan Paterno

Today, I’m starting a series of posts on alternative treatments to drugs. Supporters of medication as a treatment for childhood depression, anxiety, attention/concentration struggles, and behavior problems often ask a legitimate question, “If you think drugs are so bad, then what do you suggest?”


I aim to answer that question. I won’t pretend to exhaust all of the possibilities, but I want to list and describe as many as possible. As my loyal readership, feel free to offer your own suggestions and thoughts about alternatives in general or any alternatives that you have found to be helpful for your children or a child you know.


For starters, I will list the Top Ten major alternatives to drugging children.

Here they are:

  1. Improving diet
  2. Regular exercise
  3. Proper sleep: quantity and quality
  4. Stop using drugs, like cigarettes, alcohol, and prescription drugs
  5. Get plenty of fresh air and sunlight
  6. Improving relationships (and shedding unhealthy relationships)
  7. Prayer/meditation
  8. Exploring and satisfying spiritual/existential crises
  9. Develop meaningful passions and interests
  10. Psychotherapy: various forms and techniques
    1. Cognitive-behavioral therapy
    2. Supportive, interpersonal therapy
    3. Art therapy
    4. Family therapy, including improving parenting skills

Bullying Doesn’t Kill, Injustice Does…


by Dr. Dathan Paterno


An alarming number of reports on bullying are popping up in the news. A recent report from Georgia described how an 11-year-old boy committed suicide after enduring months of bullying. Parent reports suggest that the school did very little in response to the child’s complaints. In fact, his complaints resulted in further taunting and teasing by his bullies.

 

We all know how awful bullying can be. Besides the name-calling and teasing, many children are threatened with bodily harm, treated with extreme prejudice, emotionally beaten down by rumors and social ostracizing, and even chronically assaulted.

 

But there is something worse than the bullying itself.

 

Bullies have always existed; there will always be bullies, no matter how much grant money schools receive for “Anti-Bullying Programs”. Well-meaning efforts that focus on eradicating bullying may do some good, but it is folly to think that bullies will join the Endangered Species list.

 

What affects children more than threats, name-calling, bumps and bruises is the amount and type of justice that a child perceives after the bullying. Schools that are too weak or afraid to punish bullies—even hard-nosed punishments, when necessary—signal to students that bullying is not only tolerated, but sanctioned. The school might as well say, “We’re going to try our best to convince you not to bully, but if you fall through the cracks and happen to bully someone, we’ll let it go with a little slap on the wrist.”

 

No, a slap on the wrist will not suffice for the victim who has been abused directly under the noses of the school officials. Bullies should be treated like criminals—because they are behaving like criminals. If that sounds harsh, remember what bullies do. Bullying often includes assault, battery, threat of assault, battery, or even murder!

 

If adults did this, they would be thrown in jail, and rightly so. Why do we treat these crimes like peccadilloes that we punish by taking away recess or separating the bully from the victim during P.E.? Or, if we really mean business, we insist on a referral for therapy? Forget that nonsense. Children who bully must be suspended at the very least. If the bullying continues, they should be expelled.

 

Victims of bullying who perceive that justice is done on their behalf heal far more thoroughly and quickly than those who perceive a lack of zeal for or an inability to administer justice. Children who perceive a lackluster or wimpy response to bullying become increasingly frustrated, trust the school less and less, and eventually determine to take matters into their own hands. Literally.

 

On the one hand, this is a perfect solution. Children who learn how to defend themselves physically—give as well as they take—feel quite empowered and often stop the bullying in its tracks. However, most children do not have the resources or time to train how to protect themselves. Instead, they go far beyond self-protection. Some begin plotting radical vengeance. Some take out their combined anger and hopelessness against themselves and take their own lives.

 

Until schools learn how to meet their primary responsibility—protecting the children they are entrusted to teach—parents whose children who have been bullied should continue to call on their school to earnestly seek justice for their child. At the same time, police should be contacted at the first sign of a crime. If the victim has sincerely been threatened with bodily harm or has been maliciously assaulted or battered, make out a police report. If bullying continues without a sufficient response from school officials, contact the state’s Department of Child Protective Services and report the school for neglect. Get it on record. Let the school know that you will hold them accountable for their lack of action. Show them that they should fear YOUR response to their inaction more than the bully’s parent for punishing him/her.

What Psychiatry Never Told You About Your Child’s Soul

by Dr. Dathan Paterno

A new study from the World Health Organisation (WHO) concludes that child depression is more disabling and creates more misery than chronic illnesses such as asthma and even leukemia. The results showed that depression was by a significant margin the most difficult to bear.

 

As a clinical psychologist, this is not much of a revelation; I witness the misery of depressed children in my clinic every day. What was remarkable to me was that the study presumes depression to be an illness—a medical problem. The public hears this kind of nonsense all the time. While childhood depression clearly manifests itself in many bodily symptoms, including lower energy, aches/pains, sleep and eating disturbance, there is not a shred of evidence that depression—even the most debilitating depression—constitutes a medical illness or disease.

 

Thankfully, the overly simplistic biochemical imbalance hypothesis has lost favor in reputable psychiatric literature, mostly due to the fact that billions of dollars of research over several decades have brought no confirming evidence. Despite clever advertising by drug companies, no biochemical imbalances have ever been causally connected to depression–or any other form of emotional suffering—in children or adults. The brain scan evidence bank is similarly bankrupt: no lesions or other brain differences have been shown to cause depression.


The reality that few researchers want to contend with is that children hurt because they are both corporeal and non-corporeal beings. That is, we have bodies and souls; both of these are real components of our humanness. Consequently, either component can be healthy; either can suffer pain. Both require attention to be healthy and/or heal.

 

Because psychiatry desperately wishes to be considered a “hard science”, it subscribes to philosophic naturalism, which acknowledges no reality except the natural realm. As a consequence, psychiatry treats only the body because according to psychiatry (which ironically means “treatment of the soul”), the soul does not exist. Perhaps this is why the treatment success rate of psychiatric medications is so poor (“antidepressants” barely do as well as placebo or fake pills; instead they merely cover up or suppress symptoms).

 

The fact is no medical treatment exists for a child’s soul. There simply cannot be such a thing. One cannot heal a broken heart with a donut—even a really good donut. As long as psychiatrists and other mental health professionals try to conceive of emotional pain as disease, they will continue to perpetuate the misery of millions of children. I applaud the World Health Organisation’s recognition that child depression is extremely painful and debilitating. However, they should be asking what help is available to the hurting, empty, sometimes lost souls of these depressed children. I sincerely doubt they have the tools to answer this question.


100 Ways To Do "Time-Out"


“Go to Time Out!” You’ve heard of Time Out. It’s all the rage for parents who want to discipline some other way than beating the snot out of their kid. When I was a youngster, Time Out meant sitting in a corner with my nose against the wall. Sure, it seemed to help curb whatever heinous sin I was committing that day, but it also advanced my unparalleled expertise in differentiating paint scents.

If you read parenting books or watch any shows that advocate Time Out, you are aware that there are about 100 ways to do it.

But what is the right way to do Time Out? Is there some magic to Time Out that represents the necessary and sufficient kernel? Is it really one minute for every year old? Will your 6-year-old devolve to Unabomber status if you only do four minutes? Can we do without some parts of Time Out to achieve the ultimate goal of changing behavior?

Let’s start with some fundamentals. Time Out is not designed to be a punishment. Huh? Kids hate Time Out; doesn’t that make it a punishment? Well, yes and no. Punishment, by definition, is any stimulus that reduces the frequency of a behavior. If Time Out works to reduce a behavior, then it is indeed a punishment.

But more importantly, Time Out acts as reinforcement removal. This isn’t just a fancy-pants shrink term. It simply refers to the fact that some of the things parents do inadvertently reward or reinforce the very behaviors they want to get rid of. Time Out simply removes the child from that reinforcement or reward.

Yelling, screaming, nagging, threatening, reminding, mocking, teasing, are some of the chief culprits. What parent hasn’t fantasized that if they only give their command louder or with a more serious tone that Junior will listen? But your child isn’t deaf and he isn’t stupid. He’s just busy soaking up the attention. Yes, believe it or not, your angry yelling and reminding and lecturing are all highly reinforcing to your child, because one of the things your child craves is your attention.

If we had to rate your child’s response to your attention, POSITIVE ATTENTION would be a perfect 10 and NO ATTENTION would be a 0. What is surprising is that NEGATIVE ATTENTION would be a 7 or 8! Not a bad booby prize, huh?

So Time Out’s goal is to temporarily withhold attention from the child, because it’s just not a good idea to reinforce bad behavior. So how should Time Out actually be done?

  • First, find a really boring spot in the house. Remember, Time Out should offer as little interest and reinforcement as possible. Sitting on the bed with lots to look at and play with is NOT a good place for time out. A stool or boring chair in a quiet hallway is more like it.
  • Do not give your child any warnings or count “1-2-3” before sending him to Time Out. Doing so only contributes to cognitive/behavioral dependence. It tells him, “I don’t have to behave now; I’ll move when she really means business.” This prolonged interaction reinforces the problem behavior. Remember, any talking with your child is attention and reinforcing.
  • Do not remind your child of what the rules/expectations are before a Time Out. It is his job to remember. Your kid is smart. Treat him like he is.
  • Do not wait until he completes a problem behavior. Intervene with Time Out at the mere hint of misbehavior; this will help increase his vigilance and help him think before he acts. This actually fosters the development of the frontal lobes, which are responsible for planning, organizing, and thinking ahead!
  • Do not bargain or back down once you decide on a Time Out. Doing so teaches your child to obey only when you mean business.
  • Don’t talk to Junior on the way to Time Out. Any discussion or argument reinforces the problem behavior. Just say, “Go to Time Out.”
  • Require immediate compliance with going to Time Out. You are the boss. (I’ll cover what to do if Junior does not go to Time Out another time)
  • Time Outs should be about one minute per year old—according to adults’ watch, not his. It doesn’t matter if your 8-year-old has a 5-minute Time Out, so don’t fret too much about this.
  • There will be no talking, singing, playing, humming, bouncing, bathroom requests during Time Out. You will wait for perfect behavior for the right number of minutes. If he chooses to waste an hour or two while settling into perfect Time Out behavior, so be it. No reminders of proper Time Out behavior. This is very important.
  • “Keester Rule”: the butt stays on the chair!
  • After Time Out, insist that Junior tell you what he did wrong. This necessitates his active vigilance, awareness, and memory, a primary goal for working with a misbehaving child. If he can’t remember or gives the wrong answer, it’s back to Time Out for another round.
  • Make certain he not only tells you the specific behaviors he did wrong, but which principle or rule that was violated. We all brainwash our children; get used to it.
  • Send him back to Time Out if he misbehaves on the way (after the original Time Out is complete). You are the boss, and the typical misbehaving/testing behaviors should not be permitted.
  • Require him to perform the correct behavior after he’s told you what he did wrong. Again, establish yourself as the Parent in Charge.


Remember to reinforce him once he begins to comply with the original request/expectation. This is your chance to give Junior the positive reinforcement that you want to shower on him and that he craves! Be as vigilant with positive and compliant behavior as you are with misbehavior. You want him to thrive on positive interaction and social reinforcement.

So that’s the scoop on the best way to do Time Out.

Who Is In Charge Of YOUR Home?

by Dr. Dathan Paterno


One of the first questions I ask parents when they come to me with family disturbances is “Who is in charge in your home?” Some are taken aback, some smirk and proudly say “I am!”, while others grow a sheepish grin and say, “I’m not sure; maybe my kids are”.

Those who believe they are in charge are often fooling themselves. Many parents would like to believe they are in charge, but when we review the reasonable expectations they should have for their children, it is often revealed that their children are allowed far too much freedom and privileges in their home without earning them.

My first assignment for parents is to ask themselves why they should be in charge–why shouldn’t the children be the masters of the home and family? Who says the parents should be the ones who lead? Usually, parents return with greater resolve when they examine the reasons why they should be at the helm of their family.

So, parents, ask yourselves: why should you be in charge? You might find some interesting answers!