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Is Your Child a Bullying Victim? Read this Mother’s Story

When Maria’s daughter moved to secondary school (*middle school), she was bullied by a group of girls who had been her best friends at primary school (*elementary school).

Halfway through the school year, Maria** became aware that her daughter Sam** wasn’t being invited to her friends’ houses anymore.

mother's-bullying-story“She doesn’t always tell me what’s going on at school, but I noticed that she was biting her fingernails a lot and sleeping badly. She seemed quite upset.

“I talked to her about her friends and why they weren’t meeting up. Eventually, she told me that they didn’t get on anymore. I found out that her old friends were excluding her.

“For example, when she bumped into them in the street, one of the girls said directly to her, ‘This is the one we’re not talking to anymore’.

“They were also really nasty in the playground. They left her standing on her own. She was still trying to be friends with them but they just ignored her. She was very upset.

Bullying Incident

“Then I witnessed an incident one Saturday afternoon.

“Two of her old friends phoned her. They asked her if she’d started her periods. She said it was none of their business, but they kept her on the phone. She wasn’t strong enough to end the conversation.

“They were laughing and shouting, ‘We want to know, we want to know’. I was standing next to her, and felt disgusted. I felt really sorry for Sam. Afterwards, I thought of calling one of the girls’ mums, but I decided not to because I thought it might make things worse.

“I was very upset because I used to spend a lot of time with these girls, but now they didn’t think my daughter was good enough for them.

“I was worried about Sam because I thought it must be horrible to believe you’ve got really good friends and then they suddenly turn against you.

How Sam got Help with Bullying

“I told Sam that she should talk to Nicole, a learning mentor at her school. I knew that Sam liked Nicole, whose role was to sort out this kind of issue.

“Soon after, Nicole contacted me. Both she and Sam’s form teacher had noticed that Sam was being bullied.

“I found out that she wasn’t only being bullied by this group. Sam is half-Polish, and another girl was calling her a ‘Polish sket’ in class.

“The school intervened quickly. They cracked down on the racist comments and the use of the insult ‘sket’. After that, the problem with that particular girl was completely resolved.

“Nicole, the learning mentor, also set up a friendship group to understand the dynamic in this circle of girls who’d all moved up from primary school together. She asked the bullies and a few other pupils to talk together about friendship, boyfriends, fashion, puberty and growing up. A lot was revealed.

“It seems that Sam’s primary school (*elementary school) friends got to know other girls at secondary school (*middle school) and became more interested in fashion, make-up and boyfriends. Because Sam was more childlike, they didn’t want her in their group anymore. She wasn’t cool enough.

“Sam was different. I think that’s often what bullying is based on. She has her own style and doesn’t follow everyone else.

“Nicole had several chats with Sam, and helped to strengthen Sam’s self-esteem. When she was picked on, Sam used to get quite upset and would try to defend herself, but now she’s able to ignore it.

“When I spoke to Sam about the meetings with Nicole, I could see that things were improving. At home, I explained to her that friendships change, and primary school (*elementary school) friends don’t necessarily stay friends for life. I didn’t want to suggest that Sam was the victim because that can make you feel weaker.

“Sam has finally found a new set of friends and is really happy with them. She’s become more confident, and she no longer tries to be friends with girls who don’t want to be friends with her.”

**The names in this article have been changed.

Bullying: Information and Support for Parents

To find out more about how you can help your child if they’ve been bullied, read Bullying: advice for parents.

 Editor’s Note: *clarification provided for our US readers.

How to Reframe Your Child’s Negative, Anxious Self-Talk

Anxious-child-with-negative-thoughtsDo you have a child who is often emotional or moody – or prone to anxiety or depression? If so, you might be familiar with the negative self-talk that often contributes to these conditions. And, actually, any child – or adult – is subject to these thoughts on occasion.

Negative or anxious self-talk – sometimes also called “automatic negative thoughts” – is unhelpful, often skewed thinking that tends to drive negative emotions and behaviors. For example, your daughter might react to a friend who gets angry while playing and goes home, by thinking “I’m no fun to play with….nobody likes me” – and might avoid inviting any other kids to come over and play.

I learned about the concept of negative self-talk years ago through cognitive behavioral therapy while dealing with issues from my childhood. But I was surprised when I first began noticing examples of this thought pattern in my young son. When Elliott was in his first couple of years of elementary school, he would often come home at the end of the day and report that his day was “terrible”.

After digging a little I would often find out that one “bad” thing had happened each of these days – which then tainted the whole rest of the day. This overgeneralization / all-or-nothing thinking is an example of negative self-talk – and caused Elliott to have negative emotions about school and resist going in the mornings.

There are several different types of negative or anxious self-talk. A good reference book on anxiety for teens and kids – My Anxious Mind: A Teen’s Guide to Managing Anxiety and Panic (by Michael A. Tompkins, PhD and Katherine Martinez PhD) – gives an interesting classification for these unhelpful thoughts (a summary is listed at the end of this post). This book was recommended to me by a child and family psychologist and is well worth a read.

As the book title suggests, there are ways to deal with and manage such unhelpful thinking – and it’s useful to start early with kids who are prone to negative thoughts. At a minimum, it helps to start by identifying and unpacking the negative thought.

For example, with my son Elliott and his “terrible” days at school, I started asking him if anything good happened during the day. This got him to go over all the events of his time at school and put the “bad” experience into context – and I suggested that one or two bad experiences might not make a whole day terrible. Pretty soon, when I asked him how his day was, Elliott would outline how different parts of the day went (great, so-so, neutral, awful, etc) – and this pattern has persisted for more than five years! Even better, he has generally been much more positive about his school days ever since.

Additional exercises for recognizing and dealing with negative self-talk are provided in My Anxious Mind. Another practical book, with useful exercise to help teens cope with negative thoughts and other drivers of anxiety, is The Anxiety Workbook for Teens, by Lisa M. Schab, LCSW.

Types of Anxious Self-Talk  (from My Anxious Mind: A Teen’s Guide to Managing Anxiety and Panic)

Book Ends

This is anxious thinking that assumes there are only two possible outcomes of a situation – both at opposite extremes, with no possibilities in the middle. So, the child in the earlier example might be focused on how the play date with her friend needed to be perfect, and if that didn’t happen it would be a disaster.

Binocular Vision

In this unhelpful thought process, your child will “magnify” the effect of something bad – like failing a test – and assume that he won’t be able to go to college as a result. Or he might “shrink” the importance of something good, like all his excellent grades in other classes.

Fortune Telling

This type of self-talk involves your child thinking he or she can predict the future – usually thinking something bad will happen. For example, your child is engaging in fortune telling if she decides to audition for a part in the school play but spends the weeks leading up to the audition thinking “I’m not going to get the part”. Maybe she will, maybe she won’t – but she doesn’t know, and anxious self-talk won’t help the outcome either way.

Mind Reading

In the earlier example, the girl whose friend got angry and went home assumed that she could read her friend’s mind; that the friend thought she wasn’t fun and didn’t like her anymore. This is the mind reading track – and it’s important for the girl to know she isn’t a psychic and her friend will probably be back to play the next day.

Overgeneralization

With overgeneralization, similar to binocular vision, your child will focus on something small (usually bad) to make broad conclusions or sweeping statements – like, if one friend gets angry at me then no one likes me. Or if your son has one bad soccer game, assuming he’s no good and will get cut from the team.

End of the World

With this anxious track, your child is always expecting something terrible to happen. This could be at school or in relationships with friends, but it could also be thinking that every noise around the house is a burglar.

Should-y/Must-y Thinking

Too many thoughts with “shoulds” and “musts” can set the bar for performance and life experience way too high – and make your child anxious and less confident.

Mind Jumps

In this type of unhelpful thinking your child will jump to conclusions (usually negative) without all the facts – like when hearing that he isn’t invited to a party at a friend’s house, your son assumes his friend doesn’t like him. Getting the facts might tell him otherwise, especially if he finds out it’s a family-only affair (for example).

 

How to Support Your Child’s Development Through Boredom

We have heard the stories in the news all the time—some say kids are “overscheduled” and need more time to play. On the other side, parents of the “tiger mom” variety tend to want their children constantly in activities and lessons to encourage their growth and development.

overscheduled or boredomUntil recently, the one voice you hadn’t heard on this topic was the one of science. Child development researchers are now trying to delve into this topic and understand the relationship between structured activities and children’s development.

In one of the first studies of this kind, researchers at The University of Colorado (CU) looked at the connection between how kids spend their time (structured vs. unstructured activities) and the development of executive function.

As you may know, executive function is one of the key regulatory skills that develops during childhood and is crucial to children’s success and well-being later in life. Executive function includes things like planning ahead, goal-oriented behavior, suppression of unwanted thoughts or behaviors, and delaying gratification. These skills have been shown to predict children’s academic and social outcomes years down the road. Based on this, you can see why researchers (and parents) are interested in understanding anything related to how executive function develops.

In the recent CU study, scientists asked 6-year-olds to record their daily activities for a week. They then categorized these activities as “structured” or “unstructured” according to a classification system previously developed by economists.

For example, activities such as sports lessons, religious activities, and chores were classified as “structured activities.” In contrast, activities such as free play (alone or with others), sightseeing, or media use were considered “less structured.” Routine activities such as going to school, sleeping, or eating were not classified in either category.

The researchers then analyzed the relationship between children’s time activities and their level of executive function. The results showed that there was, indeed, a correlation between these factors. The more time children spent in structured activities, the lower their scores on the assessment of executive function. In contrast, the more time children spent in less structured activities, the higher their assessment of executive function.

First of all, it’s important to note that this is just one study in what I hope will be a whole line of research in this area. In social science, you cannot base recommendations on one study.

Secondly, this study was small (70 children) and was only correlational, meaning we do not know if structured vs. unstructured activities cause a change in executive function or if there is something else going on here. What this study does show is that there is some relationship between these factors that deserves further study.

Boredom and child developmentWhat does this really mean? How could unstructured activities help in the development of executive function? Although researchers do not know for sure, it seems like this may be related to the research on boredom. More and more studies are showing how “boredom” or what adults would simply call “downtime” is related to a variety of positive mental states.

For example, boredom is likely associated with people being more creative. Boredom also allows for the development of new interests, self-reflection and goal-setting.

Additionally, some would argue that a lack of downtime or time for boredom allows kids to become so accustomed to a fast-paced lifestyle that anything less-than-exciting seems uninteresting. One philosopher put it this way,

“A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure.”

All of this is definitely food for thought in terms of parenting. While we do not know for sure how these factors impact each other, it looks like there is some relationship between level of structured activities and the development of executive function. This is something to consider as you plan activities for your child.

The next time your child says, “I’m bored” consider looking at it as an opportunity to support their creativity and problem-solving abilities.

 

Study: Does Screen Time Really Make Kids Naughty?

kids-TV-and-naughty-behavior“Watching TV for three hours a day will not harm your children”, The Independent reports. However, The Daily Express contradicts this, saying “Too much television turns children into monsters”. In this case, The Independent is closer to the truth.

It has long been said that too much TV or video games could be bad for children. The study reported in the news set out to discover whether there is any truth in this belief.

It was a large UK study, tracking children aged from five to seven years of age, to see what – if any – effect TV viewing and video game playing had on their behaviour, attention span, emotions and peer relationships.

  • Researchers found that regularly watching three hours a day was linked to a tiny increase in ‘conduct problems’ (essentially ‘being naughty’) after adjusting for many factors. This was just one of many outcomes the researchers examined. There was no evidence that TV viewing affected other issues, including hyperactivity, emotions and peer relationships.
  • Interestingly, there was also no association between time spent playing video games and any emotional or behavioural problems.

Unfortunately, this research can’t conclusively tell us if there’s a link between watching TV and psychological and behavioural problems. From these limited results, it seems that any such link is likely to be small. Other influences are very likely to play a more significant role in children’s developing emotions and behaviour.

How much TV should my child watch?

Unlike some other countries, including the US, there is no official UK recommendation on how much TV a child should watch. (Editor’s Note: click here for US screen time guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics)

A common sense approach suggests ‘everything in moderation’. Many programmes aimed at children are now designed to be stimulating or educational, so you may want to think about what programmes your kids watch, as well as how much. However, other activities such as regular exercise, playing with others, and reading are also important to their development.

Read more about exercise guidelines for children and play ideas and reading tips for children.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the Medical Research Council/SCO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit at the University of Glasgow. It was funded by the UK Medical Research Council.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Archives of Disease in Childhood. This article was open-access, meaning that it is available free online.

The media reported this story from two opposing angles, with headlines either suggesting that watching TV does not harm children (The Independent, and BBC News), or concentrating on the small increase in conduct problems and suggesting that TV watching is linked to behavioural problems or that children are naughtier (The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail).

While a case could be made that the Telegraph and Mail’s headlines are accurate at face value – there was a very small increase in naughty behaviour – the tone of their headlines are not really a fair reflection of the findings of the study. However, the Daily Express claim that TV turns ‘kids into monsters’ is totally inaccurate.

What kind of research was this?

This was a cohort study. It aimed to determine whether there was a link between the amount of time spent watching TV and playing computer games at five years of age, and changes in psychosocial adjustment at seven years of age.

Cohort studies are the ideal study design for this type of research, although they cannot show causation. For example, in this study we cannot be sure that TV watching causes the increase in conduct problem score, as it could be that other factors, called confounders, are responsible for the link.

What did the research involve?

Mothers of 11,014 children in the UK Millennium Cohort study (a study of a sample of children born between September 2000 and January 2002) were asked questions about their children’s behaviour.

They were asked the typical time during term-time spent watching television and playing electronic games when children were five years of age. This was categorised into:

  • None
  • Less than one hour per day
  • Between one and less than three hours
  • Three hours to less than five hours
  • Between five hours and less than seven hours
  • Seven hours or more per day

Using the ‘Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire’, when children were five and seven years of age, researchers assessed:

  • Conduct problems
  • Emotional symptoms
  • Peer relationship problems
  • Hyperactivity/inattention
  • Prosocial behaviour (helpful behaviour)

The researchers collected information on maternal characteristics, family characteristics and family functioning (potential confounding factors), including:

  • Mother’s ethnicity, education, employment, and physical and mental health
  • Family’s household income
  • Family composition
  • Warmth and conflict in the mother-child relationship at three years of age – as assessed by interview
  • Frequency of parent-child joint activities at five years of age
  • “Household chaos” – a psychological term used to describe how chaotic or not daily life in the house tends to be in terms of issues such as sticking to set routines, household noise and how crowded the house is

The researchers also collected information on the child’s characteristics at five years of age, including:

  • Cognitive development (assessed by the researchers)
  • Whether they had a long-term illness or disability (reported by the mother)
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • The amount of physical activity they performed
  • Negative attitudes at school

The researchers then looked to see if there was an association between time spent watching television and playing electronic games and psychosocial problems, after adjusting for maternal characteristics, family characteristics and functioning, and child characteristics.

What were the basic results?

Almost two-thirds of children in this study watched between one hour and three hours of TV per day aged five years old, with 15% watching more than three hours of TV and very few children (<2%) watching no TV. The majority of children played computer games for less than one hour per day, with 23% of children playing for one hour or more.

Initially, the researchers found that exposure to either TV or games for three hours or more was associated with an increase in all problems, and three hours or more of TV with reduced prosocial behaviour. However, after maternal and family characteristics, child characteristics and family functioning were adjusted for, the researchers found that:

  • Watching TV for three hours or more per day at five years of age, compared to watching television for under an hour, predicted a 0.13 point increase (95% confidence interval (CI) 0.03 to 0.24) in conduct problems at seven years of age (after adjusting for the amount of time spent playing computer games).
  • No association between time spent watching TV and emotional symptoms, peer relationship problems, hyperactivity/inattention and prosocial behaviour was found.
  • The amount of time spent playing electronic games was not associated with any emotional or behaviour problems.
  • When television watching and time spent playing electronic games were considered together, it was again found that three hours or more per day of screen time was associated with a 0.14 point increase (95% CI 0.05 to 0.24) in conduct problems compared to scores for those who watched less than an hour, but that screen time was not associated with emotional symptoms, peer relationship problems, hyperactivity/inattention or prosocial behaviour.
  • There was no evidence that screen time had different effects on boys and girls.

The researchers report that the relationships remain the same when current (at age seven years) screen time was adjusted for.

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers concluded that “TV but not electronic games predicted a small increase in conduct problems. Screen time did not predict other aspects of psychosocial adjustment.” The researchers go on to add that further work is required to establish the cause of these relationships.

Conclusion

This large UK cohort study has found that watching TV for three hours or more daily at five years predicted a small increase in conduct problems between the ages of five and seven years compared to watching TV for under an hour (0.13 point increase, on average). However, the time spent watching TV was not linked to hyperactivity/inattention, emotional symptoms, peer relationship problems, or prosocial behaviour.

The time spent playing electronic games was not associated with any emotional or behavioural problems.

Strengths of this study include the fact that it was large and well designed. It also accounted for many of the potential “confounding” factors (although there may still be others that weren’t accounted for), and examined TV/video/DVD watching (considered passive activities) and playing computer games (active activities) separately, which many previous studies have failed to do.

However, this study does have a significant limitation in that it relied on the mother’s reporting of both watching TV or playing computer games, and the child’s emotional and behavioural problems.

Although increased television watching was associated with an increase conduct problem score, it is not known whether the minimal point increases in average score for this sample between the ages of five and seven would actually make any noticeable difference to an individual child’s overall functioning and behaviour.

The study also suggests that family characteristics and functioning, and child characteristics also play an important role in the development of emotional and behavioural problems and that it may not be down to TV viewing alone.

Adjusting for confounders such as family composition, mother-child relationship and child’s activity levels had a significant effect on the initial results. This arguably suggests that these types of factors may have a considerable influence on how a child develops, rather than TV watching.

Given the lack of significant associations found between TV viewing and game playing and child psychosocial problems, no conclusive answers can be drawn from this study alone.

Further work is required to examine the child and family characteristics which could be targeted to improve outcomes.

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on Twitter.

Summary

“Watching TV for three hours a day will not harm your children”, The Independent reports. However, The Daily Express contradicts this, saying “Too much television turns children into monsters”. In this case.

Links to Headlines

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Teen Suicide: How to Explain Your Grief to Your Child

My son is now fourteen and a Freshman in High School. Within months of starting the new school year, his high school marching band community suffered tragedy: the suicide of one of its members. And despite the large number of kids in the band – this tragedy was close. The boy who died, Patrick, was the head of my son’s instrument section.

teen suicide - my griefI didn’t know Patrick well, but the impact of his death on me was surprising.  Both the fact and the nature of it were a profound shock when I first heard about it – via text from my son when he arrived at school one Friday morning.

The next several days were a painful procession of events and rituals: gatherings at homes of the kids, a candlelight vigil at the school stadium where the band regularly practiced, visitations and funeral mass at the local Catholic Church.

I was concerned for my son, but I was also in pain. I cried a lot. I wanted to know what happened. I wanted to know “why?”  I kept picturing Patrick at practices. He was extremely alive, outgoing and very good looking. None of this should matter, but somehow it did. When we learned he had shot himself in a moment of despair over getting in some trouble, I thought about his parents. I was sick at the thought. I was also angry. Angry that he thought this was his only option. Angry that he had access to a gun.

My son was surprised by my grief. He kept saying that I hardly knew Patrick, and he didn’t expect me to want to attend the various gatherings. I began to feel that he might think I was “muscling in” on a situation that was personal to him. Certainly he and the others in his small instrument section were closing ranks and I let him go out with them a lot, and had a couple of boys stay for a sleepover after the vigil. He was crying a lot too and talking with his peers seemed to help.

But I was pretty sure my son couldn’t see past his own confusion and grief to know that I was also genuinely in pain. I couldn’t find a lot of resources for parent grief when a child’s friend dies, but one website – the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide (SPTS) – gave some good advice: First deal with your own feelings.

“It is critical for you to take time to deal with your own feelings before you approach your child.  Remember the directives from air travel about the use of oxygen masks – you must put on your own mask before you can help anyone else with theirs!”   SPTS

I thought about all the reasons why I was so upset: the senseless loss, empathy for his parents, concern for the impact on my son, even worry that some incidents between my son and Patrick (which I spoke to the Band Director about)  might have contributed to the suicide decision. Bottom line, I think it was just that it felt so wrong for a boy of just 17 to die like this. Thankfully, my son is a fairly good communicator – and so, finally, I talked about how I was in pain too and I asked if he had thoughts on why I was grieving even though I wasn’t close to Patrick. He was quite perceptive since he understood that I didn’t want the same thing to happen to him. But he didn’t realize how much I was identifying with Patrick’s parents, feeling at least some of their pain. And I couldn’t let things return to “normal” right away. The police officer who led the long snaking line of cars to the cemetery gave out large stickers reading “funeral” for our windshields. I kept the sticker on my console for a few weeks afterwards. It felt right to have a visible reminder of what had happened, and not to “move on” too quickly.

In the end, talking about my grief gave us a shared experience for coping with the ordeal. It also made it possible to talk about suicide in general and how, as someone I know put it: “suicide is a terrible and permanent solution to a temporary problem” – even if it doesn’t feel that way at the time.

Resources for dealing with teen suicide:

A New Perspective on Our Kids’ Attention & Movement Crisis

Our kids' movement crisisIf you have a youngster at home, you probably notice they like to move…A LOT! I have two young boys and in recent months I have especially begun to notice how much they like to fidget and move. My older son is seven years old and I was beginning to worry about his ability to focus in class. Then I came across this great article that has been floating all over the internet entitled, Why Children Fidget: And What We Can Do About It. Given that it was written by a pediatric occupational therapist, I felt pretty good about the validity of its content.

The author makes the point that many children today have a very difficult time sitting still in classrooms. They are constantly fidgeting. Some teachers or parents start to think many of these children may have ADHD due to their inability to sit still. According to this article, there may be something much more basic and simple going on in these situations—the children need to move much more in order to adequately develop balance and strength. This movement, as the author describes, helps “turn on their brains” so they can focus on academic topics.

Here’s how the author describes it:

“Children are going to class with bodies that are less prepared to learn than ever before. With sensory systems not quite working right, they are asked to sit and pay attention. Children naturally start fidgeting in order to get the movement their body so desperately needs and is not getting enough of to “turn their brain on.” What happens when the children start fidgeting? We ask them to sit still and pay attention; therefore, their brain goes back to “sleep.”  

Wow, what an eye-opener. I had a sense of this issue before but I never thought of it in these terms before. Have you ever noticed how much better your child sits still or focuses on school work (or similar task) after they have played really hard? I certainly have noticed this with my son and this makes think this issue is really at work for many children.

We have known for years that there is a “movement crisis” in the United States. Rising child obesity rates is some evidence of this (although multiple factors may be at work), but now it seems that rising rates of ADHD diagnosis may be related to a lack of movement and open-ended play time. Of course, there are children who have clearly-defined and diagnosed ADHD, but this article makes me wonder if some kids may just need much more exercise and movement in their lives to help them focus better.

This recognized need for more movement for our children is not new. At least one recent pediatric study showed the benefit of recess time (even 20 minutes) for improved classroom behavior.

Recently a study from Finland showed similar results, particularly for boys. This research showed that, among boys, lower levels of activity and greater time in a sedentary situation was related to poorer reading skills in first grade. Interestingly, this relationship between movement and academic skills was not as strong for girls.

Hopefully, as more research of this type comes to the forefront, more schools will maintain or perhaps expand recess or break times to allow children more time to move.

 

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