Gun Control versus Mental Health: the Debate from a Parent’s Perspective

Gun Control versus Mental Health: the Debate from a Parent’s Perspective
5 votes

Shortly after the tragic massacre of children in Connecticut, I wrote the following Letter to the Editor to the Oregonian, Portland’s main newspaper:

normal-murderer“Tragic shootings always raise the question, “Why?”, and the response often jumps to guns. Yet guns are tangential to the problem. Those of us with a mentally ill person in our families can answer “why.” We’ve witnessed the behaviors leading to a mental health crisis. There are always signs, but many don’t interpret or take them seriously until it’s too late.

“If you have a loved one at risk of harming themselves or others, but aren’t sure if it’s serious or real, trust your gut. Look for behavior changes that are abrupt or steadily worsen over time. Listen for statements that seem out of character Pay attention to significant overreactions to events or ideas. Never be afraid to ask directly, “Are you OK?” Don’t hesitate to seek help from mental health advocacy or support groups. Whatever the cause, mental illness is treatable; there is hope, and people who can help.”

gun in knotsA couple of weeks later, a reporter from the Oregonian contacted me to help with a story on mental illness in children.  She said she wanted this important longstanding issue brought back into the national discussion.

Perhaps we have finally reached a turning point?

 

gun deaths per 100,000

Sandra Spencer, Executive Director for the National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health, met at the White House with Vice President Biden’s task force on gun control to ensure that the issue goes beyond just gun control.  The following is an excerpt:

“We must deal with the real issue that children do have mental health challenges and parents don’t have support or access to services without fear of losing their children to public scrutiny, bullying, discrimination and even institutionalization. …These children, youth, and families need to know where to go, which treatment is best, and how to access community support.

“The isolation parents feel because of their children’s behavior, due to mental illness, keeps them from reaching out or even knowing who to trust for help.  There should be national outrage at the number of young people who die each year by suicide and drug abuse, or the number of children with a mental health diagnosis that go untreated, and the lengths parents go to just trying to keep their children safe and out of trouble.  This has to change in our nation before we can adequately address the need for an improved children’s mental health care system”

brain-green backgroundThe issue of gun control is important to work through, but not at the expense of mental health and the millions who continue to struggle—the families and their loved ones.  Not again.

 

Your comments are strongly encouraged.  What do other parents think?

–Margaret

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Is my teen ‘normal’ crazy or seriously troubled?

Is my teen ‘normal’ crazy or seriously troubled?
19 votes

photo8A high percentage of teenagers go through a rebellious or irrational phase that is quite normal for their age and brain development.  The difference between normal teen craziness and abnormal behavior is when the teenager falls behind his or her peers in multiple key areas.  At a bare minimum, a normal teen should be able to do the following:

  • Attend school and do most school work if they want to;
  • Have and keep a friend or friends their own age who also attend school;
  • Have a maturity level roughly the same as his or her peers;
  • Exercise self-control when he or she wants to;
  • Have basic survival instincts and avoid doing serious harm to themselves, others, or property.

photo5It is normal for teens to be inconsistent, irrational, insensitive to others, self-centered, and childish.  Screaming, for example, is normal–regard this the same as a toddler temper tantrum.  It is a phase that most teens grow out of unless something else is holding them back.

This is your challenge:  even teens with mental disorders have some normal teenage behavior traits like those listed above.  How do you tell which is which so you can get help?  Look for pervasive patterns of social and behavioral problems that are more serious, and in almost all settings.  The patterns repeat and the outcomes are increasingly worse.

photo2

Some signs of abnormal unsafe* behavior

*Unsafe” means:  there’s a danger of harm to themselves or others, property loss or damage, running away, seeking experiences with significant risk (or easily lured into them), abusing substances, and physical or emotional abuse of others.

  • If a troubled teenager does something unsafe to themselves or others, it is not on impulse or an experiment, but is intentional and planned.
  • They have a prior history of intentional unsafe activities.
  • They have or seek the means to do unsafe activities.
  • They talk about or threaten unsafe behavior.
  • There are others who believe there is something abnormal or unsafe about your child.  (e.g., your child’s friend comes forward, their teacher calls, other parents keep their children from your child, or someone checks to see if you’re aware of the nature of his or her behaviors).


photo7How psychologists measure the severity of a child’s behavior 

“Normal” is defined with textual descriptions of behaviors, and these are placed on a spectrum from normal to abnormal (“severe emotional disturbance”).  Below are a few examples of a range of behaviors in different settings.  These descriptions are generalizations and should not be used to predict your child’s treatment needs, but they do offer insight into severity and the need for mental health treatment.

School behaviors

Not serious – This child has occasional problems with a teacher or classmate that are eventually worked out, and usually don’t happen again.

Mildly serious – This child often disobeys school rules but doesn’t harm anyone or property.  Compared to their classmates, they are troublesome or concerning, but not unusually badly behaved.  They are intelligent, but don’t work hard enough to have better grades.

Serious – This child disobeys rules repeatedly, or skips school, or is known to disobey rules outside of school.  They stand out as having chronic behavior problems compared to other students and their grades are always poor.

Very serious – This child cannot be in school or they are dangerous in school.  They cannot follow rules or function, even in a special classroom, or they may threaten or hurt others or damage property.  It is feared they will have a difficult future, perhaps ending up in jail or having lifetime problems.

photo6Home behaviors

Not serious – This child is well-behaved most of the time but has occasional problems, which are usually worked out.

Mildly serious – This child has to be watched and reminded often, and needs pushing to follow rules or do chores or homework.  They don’t seem to learn their lessons and are endlessly frustrating.  They can be defiant or manipulative, but their actions aren’t serious.

Serious – This child does not want to follow rules, even reasonable rules.  They take no responsibility for their behavior, which can include swearing and damage to the home or property.  They will do and say anything to get their way.

Very serious – The stress caused by this child means the family cannot manage normally at home even if they work together.  Running away, damaging property, threats of suicide or violence to others, and other behaviors require daily sacrifices from all.

photo9Relationship behaviors

Not serious – The child has and keeps friends their own age, and has healthy friendships with people of different ages, such as with a grandparent or younger neighbor.

Mildly serious – The child often aggravates others by arguing, teasing, bullying or other immature behaviors, and friends often avoid them.  They are quick to have temper tantrums and childish responses to stress.  Or they have no friends their age, or risky friends.

Serious – The child is frequently mean or angry to people and animals, and can be manipulative or threatening, or damage others’ property.  They have poor judgment and take dangerous risks with themselves or others.

Very serious – The child’s behavior is so aggressive verbally or physically that they are almost always overwhelming to be around.  The behaviors are repeated and deliberate, and can lead to verbal or physical violence against others or themselves.

photo1If your child’s behavior falls along the spectrum encompassing Serious to Very Serious behavior, get good mental health treatment for them now and spare them a difficult future.

Pay attention to your gut feelings.

If you’ve been searching for answers and selected this article to read, your suspicions are probably true.  Most parents have good intuition about their child.  If you’re looking for ways to “fix” or change your child… all I can say is that this approach will probably not work.  You may need to work on yourself; you may need to change how you relate to your child or picture your situation.  Regardless, seek help.

photo4Early treatment, while your troubled teenager is young, can prevent a lifetime of problems.  Find a professional who will take time to get to know your situation, and who will listen to what you have to say–a teacher, doctor, therapist, or psychiatrist.
–Margaret

Your comments are welcome.

(Tell me how I’m doing. Please rate this article above, thank you kindly.)

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Filed under anger, anxiety, defiant children, discipline, mental illness, parenting, Screaming, stress, teenagers, troubled children

“You’re under arrest!”: Crime and troubled teens

“You’re under arrest!”: Crime and troubled teens
8 votes

You’ve tried everything. Now you watch helplessly as your troubled teenager starts down the path leading to jail, and you wait for that call from the police. But bad news can be good news. This may be the point when things start to turn around.

“Experts estimate that from 40 percent to 70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system suffer from some form of mental health disorder or an illness – anything from ADHD to full-blown psychosis. About 15 percent to 25 percent have mental illnesses “severe enough to significantly impair their ability to function.”” (see “Mentally ill minors put in juvenile hall” at end of this post)

Juvenile crime is considered as serious as adult crime, and juvenile “detention” is full-blown jail, just like jail for adults. Yet there is one critical distinction between teenage and adult justice: teens are given a second chance for a clean record, as well as education and treatment for mental illness or addictions. An adult criminal record is forever a barrier and an embarrassment. It comes up when a former convict applies for a job, a loan, a college degree, military service, a rental, or even a volunteer opportunity.

The juvenile justice system is only partially punitive because society recognizes that the teenage brain is the problem that causes much criminality, whether or not they have a mental disorder or addiction.  Enlightened juvenile court judges want their rulings to be “rehabilitative” or “restorative” justice.  Enlightened agency directors understand the need for additional support services for learning disabilities, addiction, mental illness, and vocational training.

In the system, teen criminals (or adjudicated youth) are required to participate in consequences and treatment; it’s a “carrot and stick” approach.

  • The carrot:  The teens attend school and receive training for vocations such as car repair or catering.  They participate in positive character-building activities such as training dogs for adoption, building and maintaining hiking trails, or constructing homes for Habitat for Humanity.
  • The stick: Teens have a complete lack of freedom, whether in detention or out on probation, intensive monitoring (including random urinalysis), immediate consequences for behavior violations, and physical labor to pay back victims (community work programs).

When a police officer calls to say your son or daughter has been arrested, use this as an opportunity to help your kid. It’s a perfect teachable moment. Not only do you have their attention, you can hand the problem over to the Law to enforce their behavior and treat their disorders or addictions. Your son or daughter cannot refuse—when held or convicted on criminal charges, your child has no rights to anything except humane treatment and an appearance before a judge. You are off the hook. You can step back and relax… and be the Good Guy for once.

How to work with the juvenile justice system:

  • Be an active partner with the court. Cooperate fully with the judge, court counselor or therapist, and any attorney, case worker, or probation officer involved.
  • Show up for everything:  visitation, family therapy, court hearings, and parenting classes even if you don’t think you need them.
  • Stand shoulder-to-shoulder with staff.  If your teen has a probation officer, do what they tell you, even if it means tattling on your kid.
  • Be cooperative with staff, and they will work harder for you and your son or daughter. Support the programs required for your teen, and support your teen when they struggle. Your involvement will someday impress on your child that you’re on their side and care.
  • Change your ways.  If you’ve been too harsh with your teen in the past, go easy on them now and let him or her see your good side. If you’ve been too easy on them or too protective, demonstrate backbone. Show you know what’s best for them and that you will remain in charge once they are released.
  • Stick with your child.  If your teenager becomes a Frequent Flyer in the system, it doesn’t mean they are lost.  Remember, they have that uncontrollable teenaged brain and need more time and lessons for it to reach maturity.

Once they come home on probation you need to set strict limits on their activities, and work with the probation officer or social worker to enforce them. These are harsh at first, but should be negotiated later when behavior improves, with consultation with the juvenile justice staff.

Remove risks:

  • Don’t allow them to stay out late ever. Set an early curfew, and report them to their probation officer if they are late.  When they get angry about this, explain that you are bound by the law, and that they should discuss their concerns with the officer.
  • Ban drugs and alcohol, especially marijuana. Hide prescription drugs and alcohol if you use them.  (Marijuana causes brain damage in adolescents; this is not a myth.)  You have the right to search their room and private things.  If pertinent, hide weapons, matches, or other means of harm to themselves or others.
  • Stop or strictly limit contact with risky friends. This may mean taking away a cell phone and internet access.
  • Reduce their allowance if they get one, and reduce free time. Again, this should be negotiated later if behavior and compliance improves.
  • Build your own network of other concerned parents to track your kid… in other words, to spy on them.  Besides other parents, I even contacted businesses where my teen was known to hang out, such as a mall and cafe.  See  “Gang up on your kids: Parent networks for tracking at-risk children.”

Three house rules: 1) stay at home, 2) stay in school, 3) stay out of trouble. He or she must also continue mental health treatment; show respect even if they’re upset; and be encouraged to seek help from another trusted adult if they need to.

Build their esteem as you would for any troubled child. Guide them to their strengths. Give your teenager something to do that they good at, and allow them ample opportunity to shine. More at  The good things about bad kids.

Extreme measures. I know of three cases where parents took drastic steps to help their son or daughter stay out of trouble, and these worked!

True story – a single father was worried about his son’s gang involvement, especially since the son was still on probation, and additional charges would draw lengthy prison time. Dad sold the family home and bought another one in a neighborhood ‘run’ by an opposing gang. The son was terrified to leave the house except for school—a new school away from his gang brothers. This son graduated high school and left the area for college… with a clean record and new respect for his father.

True story – After a couple of years trying to keep their daughter out of trouble, parents started looking for work in a smaller town.  They wanted to find a safer place with fewer risks and more eyes. After she completed her mandated one year probation, the family moved.  She was upset to leave her friends, but they were the problem friends. Her crime sprees ended.

True story – a single mother was on the edge of sanity and financial ruin trying to manage the world her son created.  While visiting a juvenile justice counselor with her son, the counselor made an off-hand comment about handing him over to foster care so that she could get her job back and sleep at night.  With a heavy heart, she went forward and obtained a “voluntary placement” for him (temporary state custody), and he went to a foster home.  After two years, he was ready to come home and she was ready and empowered to support him.

A note of caution:  You may have seen ads for outdoor programs or “boot camps” for at-risk teens. Some of these programs are extremely inappropriate for troubled youth, even traumatizing. Or some may not allow teens with a criminal history. Get advice about therapeutic programs for your at-risk teenager from a counselor or social worker, not just from the program itself.  Your teen’s providers often know which ones are appropriate.

The people in the Juvenile Justice System

In my personal experience, 99% of employees in juvenile justice are there because they care about teens, they like teens and “get it” about them, and they believe in the power of what they do. My co-workers have many success stories among their cases. Some former delinquents come back to work for the juvenile justice system and use their hard-won experience to help the next generation.  Ironically, it’s the one job where a criminal record helps!

If you are concerned about what your child will experience in the juvenile justice system, just call and ask.  You may be surprised.

Challenges, risks, and potentially serious problems

  • A troubled young person in detention or incarceration is exposed to others with criminal behavior. They may bully or be bullied or both.  They may meet fellow inmates to sell drugs to when they get out, or learn who can supply them with drugs. Depression is common, and presents as anger or self-destructive behavior, such as getting in trouble on purpose.
  • Not all juvenile departments provide mental health treatment, or treatment is inadequate.  And sadly, there are still places where staff and citizens don’t believe in the mental health “excuse” for bad behavior.  You may need to be an assertive advocate for treatment.  Work with your child’s public defender, who is provided by the court, and give them evidence of mental health problems in  medical records.  Your child will need to sign a waiver for the attorney to have the records.
  • Some states have Mandatory Minimums–pray it’s not yours. Certain crimes lead to long prison sentences regardless of the circumstances of the crime or the mental illness of your child. My state of Oregon will incarcerate anyone over age 15 for seven years if they commit one of these crimes. This made sense to the voters who put it into law, but the reality is a worst-case scenario for how NOT to rehabilitate youth.  No one I’ve ever met in our state, from judges to prosecuting attorneys to sheriffs to probation officers, thinks it’s a good idea–the outcomes have been horrible for reasons too lengthy to go into here.
  • Each county and state has a different culture and attitude towards juvenile delinquents. Some are exceptionally harsh, or they neglect the kids’ legitimate needs; some are reluctant to treat kids like individuals with different needs and strengths; some get that right balance of punishment and rehabilitation. It depends on the judges, the county, and the state. Each is different.

Is your child at risk from criminal involvement or charged in a crime?  Please comment so other parents who read it can learn from your experience.  Thank you.

How am I doing?  Please rate this article above, thank you.

–Margaret


Mentally ill minors put in juvenile hall (excerpt)
Daily Bulletin, Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino, June 12, 2010

“Juvenile halls have become catch-all basins for severely mentally ill youth.  Designed as secure holding facilities for minors who are going through the court system, juvenile detention centers now double as a default placement option for youth diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression.   “There is no place for them in [our system],” said a county juvenile court judge in California.  “We can’t just arrest our way out of the problem. Juvenile hall is not a place to house mentally ill.”

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Filed under defiant children, discipline, law enforcement, mental illness, oppositional defiant disorder, Screaming, teenagers, troubled children

Why teens run, and what you can do about it

Why teens run, and what you can do about it
14 votes

It’s an emotional shock when a child or teen runs. The feelings you may have are complex:  anger at his or her rebelliousness; fear for his or her safety; shame that you may be called a “bad” parent, or shame that your behavior caused your child to run.  The reasons teens run are also complex, and may or may not be the parents’ fault.

Why they run

Basic teenage development All teens go through a stage where they define themselves as unique, and start demanding two things: 1. freedom; 2. a say in their life.  These are necessary and important for maturity—some do it gracefully and some don’t.  Even teens with a mental illness will go through this phase.

Rebellion Most rebellious teens do not run away because they usually have better survival instincts.  If a teen is emotionally behind their peers, using drugs or alcohol, and part of a risky crowd that encourages them and undermines their parents’ authority, it’s likely they’ll run.

Mental disorders Mental health problems magnify any or all negative aspects of rebellion and immaturity.  They also disrupt a teen’s thought patterns and cause irrational ideas and fantasies.  They have a high likelihood of running.

Family stress This is the biggest reason: “65% of youth reported running away because of family conflict.”* Think about what’s going on at home that a teenager can’t handle (they are not as strong as they act).  Is there non-stop fighting between members?  Are they being nagged or constantly criticized, and not shown support or love?  Like all children, teens still deserve support and love.  Are they being bullied, or physically or sexually abused?  *National Runaway Switchboard at 1-800-RUNAWAY

What you might observe that foretells running

  • Changes in behaviors or normal patterns mean something is wrong.
  • Teens who suddenly stop eating or begin to overeat, sleep all day or never sleep, spend all their time with friends, or never want to leave their room.  Sudden mood swings mean teens are unsettled and restless, and they’re not coping well with stress.
  • Outward rebellious behavior is often the start of trouble, but not always.  Inward rebellion is also a problem, such as depression and isolating from their family.
  • Falling grades, truancy, school behavior, and breaking house rules are all symptoms that your child is having problems.
  • Substance use, mostly alcohol and marijuana.  Both cause paranoia and depression and aggravate anger.  I discovered many parents believe there’s no problem with marijuana, but scientific research shows marijuana is especially damaging to adolescents!  See Marijuana and psychosis in teens.
  • Disclosure of intentions to run away.  Some teens will hint that they want to run away and some will outright threaten their family with running.
  • Expressing fantasies that it’s easy to get ‘divorced’ from one’s family.  Teens often believe they can be legally emancipated before age 18, get a GED* and a job, and be free.  A juvenile court judge told me otherwise!  The legal test for emancipation is very restrictive.  *Pass a General Educational Development exam, a less valuable substitute for a high school diploma.
  • Accumulation of money and possessions. To survive, runaway teens need resources. Some prepare for their run by saving any money they receive.  They might keep a bag or backpack of clothes and food in the closet to make a quick escape.
  • Risky friends have a very powerful influence on the decision to run away.  Relationships like these almost always include substance abuse.  The risky associates include adults who undermine the parents, and who coach teens how to get away from home. They provide them with cigarettes and drugs, and possibly take advantage of them.
  • Full time access to unmonitored and unrestricted communication, and easy access to transportation, especially a car or an at-risk acquaintance with a car.

What to do if you suspect your teen might run away

“Clearly and calmly let your teen know you are concerned about them, and that their behavior makes you afraid they might run away from home. Invite them to talk with you or someone else about what is troubling them and be supportive of finding positive ways of dealing with their stress.”

Let them know you don’t want them to run away and you’re committed to helping the family work things out, and let them know you are concerned about their safety.

If your teen is intent on running away, give them the phone number of the National Runaway Switchboard* so that they can find safe options while out on their own.”  This does not mean you approve.  A good analogy is informing your kids about contraceptives even though you don’t want them to have sex.  *1-800-RUNAWAY

Give them some facts: Your teen should know the laws, and they should know about youth shelters.  This may help them recognize that you are concerned for their safety… just like you told them.

– – – – – – – – – –

Are you thinking about running away?

Are you worried about staying with a friend and getting your friend or their parents into trouble? Does it matter if you’re reported as a runaway or not? Deciding on whether or not to run away and where to go can be difficult. Here’s what you should know:

  • In most states it is not illegal to run away.
  • If you leave home without permission or stay away longer than you’re supposed to, and you are under the age of 18, your parents can file you as a runaway with the police.
  • If the police find you, you will be taken home or to police headquarters, and your parents will be called to pick you up.
  • If you are staying at a friend’s house or somewhere your parents didn’t give you permission to be, they can face possibly legal consequences.
  • If you are filed as a runaway, your parents can press charges against those allowing you stay with them or abiding you.
  • If you go to a youth shelter, generally they have to contact your parents within a certain amount of time to obtain consent for your stay.  Often, you are allowed to stay only 72 hours (3 days) before you must return home.  This gives you and your parents time to cool off.
  • If you are staying with a friend, in most cases the police are only allowed to do a courtesy check; which means they are not allowed to search your friend’s home without a warrant.
  • It is always best to check with your local non-emergency police hotline or legal aid when it comes to specifics because the law varies.

Hopefully the information listed here answered some of the questions you may have had. If not, you can give us a call and we can help.  1-800-RUNAWAY

(Parent: list the names and addresses of local youth shelters here—not adult shelters)

 – – – – – – – – – –

Get to know their friends and their friends’ parents.  If anyone who knows them is concerned about your child’s safety, they may help you if there’s a problem.  Other parents can keep an eye out for your child as well as their own.

Statistics indicate that most children stay in the same general area that they live in. Some go only as far as a friend or relative.  You must know where and be able to communicate with the responsible adults.

Get to know the at-risk teens and adults that your teen associates with. “At-risk kids hang out together, they know each other’s stories (true or not), protect each other, and keep parents out of the loop.  What if parents got together too, shared stories, and supported each other?  Everyone has the same goal of protecting their child.  Kids’ unsafe plans and activities are no match for the many eyes and ears (and cleverness and wisdom) of all their parents combined.”  Gang up on your kids: Parent networks for tracking at-risk children

If your teen is staying at a friends’, this may be helpful.  You might negotiate with the parent for a friendly arrangement for ‘shelter’ until things calm down.  If you cannot communicate with this parent, they may be guilty of custodial interference.  This is illegal and should be reported to the police.  More often than known, some parents actively encourage other parents’ children to leave home, as well as provide them with alcohol and drugs.

What to do if they run

Notify the police and file a missing persons report.  If your teen has a mental disorder, bring this up on the call and be specific (he needs to take medications, she has a history of assaulting others, he has threatened suicide, she might be out of control and unable to respond if you shout at her…).

Are you worried that your police report will go on your child’s record?  Don’t.  Even if your child is charged and convicted as a juvenile, his or her record can be expunged (erased) at age 18 with good behavior.

Call the National Runaway Switchboard at 1-800-RUNAWAY. NRS operates a 24-hour confidential hotline for teens and their families. Leave a message with the NRS for your child, www.nrscrisisline.org. NRS also provides bus tickets to get kids back home to their families

Spread the word among friends and your child’s friends that you reported your child, and ask them to ask your child to call or give a message to you if they see them.  Also spread the word that protecting a runaway is a crime.

Track.  “Friend” your child on Facebook, or find someone who can and will report to you.  Set your computer up to track and store web search history and email.  Search their room.  Get their cell phone contacts if possible, track their GPS location by cell phone, and get every address and phone number of every friend.  All of this is legal.

Investigate.  This is not a situation where you respect your teen’s privacy.  Besides tracking their activities above, drive around and look for them.  Be sure they and their friends see you because then the risky friends will avoid your child.

Check in with your child’s teachers or counselor for any information that might be useful.

Take care of yourself and your other children. This is a difficult time and you don’t have to deal with it alone. Turn to people you know and trust for support. The NRS is available 24 hours every day and offers information and support for parents too.

Ask yourself the hard questions:  Is life at home that bad?  Is there abuse (emotional or physical)?  What changes am I willing to make to reduce my child’s stress at home or at school.

Good news from statistics

  • 85% parents reported that the issues that led the youth to run away were somewhat, mostly, or completely resolved within a month.
  • Most parents reported that their youth used alcohol or other substances less once they returned (68%).
  • Most reported they engaged in physical fights less (64%).
  • Most reported they broke the law less (66%).
  • Of those who ran once, 75% did not leave home again.

Creative things other parents did that worked

True story.  A father made business cards to give to everyone who was ever in contact with his 15-year-old daughter.  It had her photo, contact information, and the message that he and her mother loved (name) and wanted to ensure her safety and appropriate behavior.  He made a point of personally visiting with her friend parents where daughter went.  She hated her dad for this, but never ran again, and every time she visited a friend, the parents always reminded her to call her own parents and report her whereabouts

True story.  Two 13-year-old girlfriends decided it would be fun to run away and party.  During the week they went missing, their frantic mothers collaborated on a ‘full court press’ to notify others and get their daughters back safe and sound.  They printed flyers with photos of their daughters, their phone numbers, and offered a $25 reward, no questions asked.  These were given to the police, posted at school, at youth shelters downtown, and at business hangouts the girls were known to frequent (a mall, a fast food place, a big box retailer).  Both girls were eventually returned safe and sound, and they were really angry.  Apparently, street kids and risky adults spurned the girls because of the flyers, for fear of attracting the attention of law enforcement.

How am I doing?  Please rate this article at the top–5 stars will be greatly appreciated!

–Margaret

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Filed under anger, defiant children, law enforcement, mental illness, parenting, stress, teens, troubled children

52 votes

This site is for parents of a troubled child, teenager, or young adult, with practical advice on how you can manage at home.

Margaret Puckette  Margaret Puckette, CPSP

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Contact me if you are interested in contributing an article.

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Filed under bipolar disorder, depression

The good things about bad kids

The good things about bad kids
13 votes

Take an average car.  If a salesman calls the car a “cherry”, it means it’s in perfect condition. But if a salesman calls the same car a “lemon”, it means it has expensive mechanical problems.  The name means everything to a buyer, true or not.

See strengths

If you apply the same concept to your child, it will change the way you think about and treat him or her. You’ve been enduring  disturbed or stressful behavior–this is glaringly obvious–but notice the “cherry” behaviors when you are getting relief from the “lemons.”   What’s great about him or her?  Even problematic behaviors are strengths in some circumstances.  For example: resistance and wilfulness are good survival traits for the future:

  1. Your child will need to resist being taken advantage of.
  2. He or she will need to resist ‘friends’ who pressure them to use drugs.
  3. Your child will need to stick with schoolwork or a job without the distractions of parties or alcohol or other time bandits.

Mom carries this in her purse, always.

Make a list of ‘awesome-ness’

What is your child or teen good at?  When is he or she at their best?  What character “flaw” is actually a good thing?  What shows intelligence, nimble thinking, a sense of right and wrong, athletic prowess, social maturity, artistic depth, or compassion for those who are vulnerable?

It’s not important to know why they have problems.   It’s important to know why they will overcome them.

An overwhelmed mom once asked for help with her adult son and daughter. They were still not ready for adulthood, in fact, they were both falling apart.  They needed her more than she could handle emotionally.  After she shared all her concerns, I asked her to list what was great about them.  It took her off guard at first, but she scribbled out a few things and kept the list, and many months later pulled it out to show me that she still referred to it. She said it totally changed her mindset.

Instead of concentrating on your child’s weaknesses, help your child master existing strengths.

Allow your child ample time to do the positive things he or she is already good at, the things that bring out self-esteem and confidence.  Proactively provide the materials and time to attend a class or camp, join a team, write poetry, make art or music, train the dog, style a friend’s hair… anything he or she can be proud of that has value for their future.  Your child’s behavior will improve, and your mutual interactions will improve.

Use the positive power of self-fulfilling prophecy

In her list , my friend wrote that her daughter had compassion for people and wanted to make the world a better place.  What would you suggest this mother do to support her 24-year-old daughter’s interests and strengths?  One idea:  tell her daughter she believed she would be “a natural” at this.  Another idea:  encourage her daughter to get involved in a charity organization.  And the daughter did.

Lets take another situation where your troubled son plays online video games to the exclusion of all else.  What do you see?  Rapid mental processing, hand-eye coordination, focus, a passion for technology.  If you feel you must limit the video-gaming, what can you replace it with?  There are robot kits for kids; he could build a robot and program its behavior.  A remote control helicopter could be given an obstacle course to go through.  Perhaps the obstacles are altered to make them harder to get through.  Perhaps there’s a reward for getting through a really difficult course.  Use your imagination, and ask your son to do the same.  Collaborate.  It’s a better form of interaction and it plays to his natural gifts and interests.

It’s a disability, that’s why they can’t be good at everything

Make a point of noticing the good side. They ALL HAVE A GOOD SIDE.

Let’s be realistic, some children with serious mental health problems may never be well-rounded or competent in the many subjects and skills they need for adulthood.  (It is the tragedy of their disability.)  If this is your child, they’ll probably do better in the long run if not pressured to overcome their weaknesses with extra classwork, homework, or incessant behavioral modifications.  Your son or daughter can catch up later, or if they can’t, they at least have something to carry with them into adulthood.

Now about YOU

What are YOUR strengths as a person and as a parent?

  1. You care enough to go online and learn how to be a better parent.
  2. You admit that you need help, and you know how to find it.
  3. (now add your own… and be generous with yourself)
  4.         “
  5.         “
  6.         “

How am I doing?  Please rate this article above, thanks.

–Margaret

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Finding humor in your crazy child

Finding humor in your crazy child
10 votes

Note of caution: it’s never appropriate to make fun of a child.  The purpose of this article is to help a parent’s stress by finding humor in their situation, private humor–never to be shared with the child or anyone else who will share it with the child.

“I don’t suffer from insanity, I enjoy every minute of it.”

Things can only go downhill so far until you lose it.  Troubles build, going from bad to horrible, and then your child says something so bizarre or silly, and even though it may be politically incorrect, and even though it may seem sick or hurtful or embarrassing, there is absolutely nothing left to do but laugh.

“That boy gave me so much trouble, then one day he said to me, “Mom, why is it always about you?” !
–Mother of an 18-year-old son with mild schizophrenia

Stop pretending your family is normal.

For parents like you, humor is necessary, even “gallows humor.”  Laughter is a legitimate strategy for relieving stress, and brain scans prove it.  An emergency room nurse once told me that ER staff joke about patients to cope with the intensity of their job, but only among co-workers.  They diagnose some victims as “too stupid to live,” or refer to motorcyclists as “organ donors.”  The police joke amongst themselves about knuckleheads.  A juvenile justice therapist told me her team tells youth sex-offender jokes!

“… as high as 94 percent of people deem lightheartedness as a necessary factor in dealing with difficulties associated with stressful life events.”
–David Rosen, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, Texas A & M University, May 2005

Even if you child-proofed your house, they would still get in.

You have permission to laugh at all the crazy, zany, exasperating, nonsensical, and nutball things your child does or says, just never in their presence… or in anyone’s presence who doesn’t understand. It doesn’t mean you don’t love or care your child, but it helps your own mental health. In the support groups I run, a parent will occasionally share a funny story about their troubled child and the room roars with laughter.

The 15-year-old girl had professed suicidal thoughts for so long that no one could remember a time when tragedy wasn’t looming. They had locked up every potentially dangerous item, but the terrified parents were never certain they could keep her safe from herself.  Removing the knives and rope was obvious.  But household chemicals?  Daily life became a quest to guess what else she could possibly use to kill herself, then hide it.  But her mother realized one day that her daughter would probably not ingest household chemicals.  They tasted too bad, and mom knew she would not go through the discomfort.

You can’t scare me, I have teenagers!

At health class in high school, the students saw a film about trauma in children.  Upon returning home from school, a 14-year-old son exploded with fury, berated his mother, then charged off to his room and slammed the door, once, twice, three times.  The mother was accustomed to this behavior and went to his room and attempted to calm him down.  He screamed, “I finally found out why I’m having so many problems!  I learned in health class that I am a ‘feral child’ because you abandoned me when I was a baby!

The 20-year-old schizophrenic son angrily obsessed that his mother spoke with his school counselor when he was 11.  He railed that this invasion of privacy was wrong, immoral, hurtful, illegal, unethical, and stupid, and every other sin he could think of.  Mom learned to let him vent, but one day she became exasperated and said, “That was nine years ago! I apologized a hundred times. What more do you want?” The son stopped for a moment, confused, and said, “I don’t believe you. Did you erase my memory again?

The 16-year-old daughter had bipolar disorder. She also had grandiose plans to become a famous person and lead an “epic” life.  She was immensely proud of having an ‘exciting’ disorder that gave her permission to be crazy.  Once she made an unsuccessful attempt to lose weight, explaining, “I tried anorexia but didn’t have the discipline.”


The main purpose of holding children’s parties is to remind yourself that there are children more awful than your own… or maybe not.

The mother of a violent 10-year-old daughter said “I just bought a gallon of spackle on sale, which is great.  Spackle is my friend!”  Another mother with a violent 16-year-old son agreed.  She said she’d become skilled at repairing and texturing dry wall after all the damage he’d done.  Both moms brainstormed starting a company to repair homes battered by troubled children. “It would help the parents, and we could offer support too… and not judge!”

Several parents with troubled children were sharing their frustration from hearing ‘normal’ families talk proudly about their wonderful children, and the fun things they did together.  Each parent had had similar experiences, which made them feel a mix of emotions–embarrassed, ashamed, left out.  One mom finally blurted, “Those stupid happy families, I hate them!”

Do you have a funny story or quote to share about your child?  Please add it in the comments section–you’ll lift another parent’s day.

–Margaret

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Your troubled child from birth to 18, what to expect and do

Your troubled child from birth to 18, what to expect and do
5 votes

Parents face daily challenges with a troubled child or teen, and easily overlook the future.  I know I did.  What’s going to happen as they grow and change?  What does one plan for?  It helped me to hear from parents who had already traveled this path.  Based on their experiences, these are some things you can expect–and do–before your child  reaches the pivotal age of 18.

Your child may not be ready for adulthood by age 18, but be OK with this.  Collective experience indicates your son or daughter  will continue to need your support and health care management into their mid-20’s.

If he or she reaches young adulthood with the capacity to maintain well-being on their own, you’ve done a good job.

From birth to age ~5

YouConsider yourself lucky if he or she has an identifiable behavior problem early!  You have ample time to understand your parenting needs and prepare, and use the many “special needs” services for young children.  Start a file and keep absolutely every medical and school record and contacts for people and services.  You are about to become a case manager.

Your family

  • Talk with siblings frankly.  Explain that sister or brother has a different brain and will be treated differently.  Inform them you will be distracted by their sibling’s need for appointments and other issues, and that it may feel unfair.  Ask for their patience.  Reassure them you love them very much.
  • Talk with your partner or spouse about revising expectations for your child, and accepting that your life may be harder than you planned .  Discuss how you will work together and share responsibilities, and work through disagreements about parenting the child in the future.

Everyone – Keep friends, activities, and plans the same.  Keep hobbies and interests alive.  Be as inclusive as possible of your special needs child but don’t sacrifice your family’s needs.  It’s a tricky balance.

Ages ~6-11  – young children

If your child’s behavior problems started at this age, read the above.  It still applies, except you may find fewer services, and sadly, more blame.  Seek professional help now.  Early intervention is the key to future mental health.

What to teach your family:

    • Our lives will be different from other families, but this is normal for families like ours.
    • We will support your sister or brother, but we will take care of ourselves and each other, we will have each other’s back.

What you should do:

  1. Make safety a high priority in your home, emotional safety as well as physical safety.
  2. Focus on schedules and planned time for activities every day.  Maintain this structure consistently, including weekends and holidays.
  3. Teach your child skills for managing behavior–they may not be able to stop it completely.
  4. Modify your home to reduce stress: Less noise or over-stimulation.  Better diet. A separate time-out  space.  Lock up valuables or dangerous items.  Consider a therapy pet.  Create a  tradition of whole-family activities:  Wii, playing cards, board games, exercise games, art or crafts, movie night…
  5. Take frequent “mental health breaks.”  Be generous with yourself without guilt.  Let other family members have breaks too.

 Managing resistance: tips and advice

Practical ways to calm yourself, your child, your family

From ~12-18 – ‘tweens and teens

If your child started having problems at this age, most information above still applies, but this may be the most difficult period!

Two things happen in the teen years:

  1. They enter a normal phase of development where they seek their own identity, and want freedom and a social life separate from the family.  But they take more risks, and expose themselves to more risks.
  2. Some mental disorders start at this phase, or get much worse and become quite serious:  major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, anorexia, borderline personality disorder… Risks include school failure, criminal activity, substance abuse, suicide, and assault.

Priorities

Safety – You may need to take unusually strong measures to ensure physical and emotional safety. Many need to lock up all knives, or allow siblings to lock themselves in their own room for protection, or search their teen’s room, or take away the cell phone and internet access.

Your well-being and that of other family members – Assertively seek outside support for your family, such as a support network of friends and family, or a religious community or support group, or mental health treatment for yourself, or all of the above.

Education – This is critical, even if it’s only for one or two classes per day.  If your teen cannot complete high school in time with their peers, it’s not a disaster. They may not graduate now, but they can finish their education eventually.  It’s never too late.

Positive peers and adult mentors – Keep your son or daughter from risky youth or adults.  Encourage activities with anyone they like and trust whom you approve of.

Ongoing mental health treatment –  your child may not believe (or accept) they have a mental health problem but they can at least comply with treatment.

By age 18

mature at 25

At a minimum, this is what your child needs–fundamental criteria for a functional adult life:

  • A steady job and income, or a meaningful activity (volunteering, school)
  • Healthy, stable relationships
  • Maintenance of health and hygiene
  • Decent housing, maintenance of housing and belongings
  • Maintenance of financial stability

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Faith can help, and harm, a family’s mental health

Faith can help, and harm, a family’s mental health
5 votes

When faith helps

Most of the time, people can heal and find peace and self-acceptance through faith. All the world’s great faiths, those that have lasted centuries, are kept alive for this reason. All have common themes of healing and service to others. When things go poorly, meditation and prayer, with others or in private, lead to connection and wholeness. Faith reveals that things are better, and will be better, than they seem.

When families are in crisis because of their troubled child, parents tell me they depend on faith, even parents who don’t profess a faith practice. They say it’s their only source of strength. Most families with a child who is sick, disabled, or mentally ill will go through dark times, when a parent’s world is simply too overwhelming. Most often, no answers are forthcoming, nor any rescue. The only choice is to hand over their burden to a “higher power,” God, the Buddha, Allah, the Great Spirit… This act of “handing over” is a foundation of healing in Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).

Few things help a family more than a supportive community of believers.  There will be one person who listens to a frightened parent on the phone, and another person who takes a traumatized sibling on an outing, and another person who provides hugs and cookies. If a mentally ill child continues to decline, a good faith-based support network will stay on. The child may not thrive, but the family does, and has the strength and forbearance to handle the years’ long task of supporting their mentally ill loved one.

Science shows that faith results in better lifetime outcomes for a child

This writer typically trusts science, but in the depths of my family’s despair, only faith and the prayers of others kept me from falling apart.

There are scientists among the faithful who have asked the question: does faith really help the mentally ill? In another blog post, Spirituality and mental health, some research are summaries of research going back 36 years.  (Follow this link for the research citations.)  The answer?  Yes, faith makes a real and measurable difference in improving mental health.

More recent scientific research shows clear evidence from brain scans that meditation and prayer change brain electrical activity, from anxious or agitated to serene and grounded.  The person actually feels and behaves better.  This article has more information on this, Yoga – Safe and effective for depression and anxiety.

Like prayer, “talk therapy” or psychotherapy also shows improvement on brain scans. Imagine, just talking with someone improves the physical brain. According to the article appended below, “When God Is Part of Therapy,” many prefer therapists who respect and encourage their faith. It just makes sense.

When faith harms

This section is a personal appeal to faith communities who have unconscionably failed families and their children with mental disorders.

Faith communities depend on people, and people have biases and foibles.  Many of ‘the faithful’ hold negative beliefs about others, right or wrong.  Children who suffer, and their families, are identified as possessed, of evil character, disbelievers, victims of abuse, or cruelest:  those who are paying for their sins. Families are repeatedly told these very things today.

“Sometimes, people hide from the Bible. That is, they use the Christian holy book as an authority and excuse for biases that have nothing to do with God.”
–Leonard Pitts Jr., Miami Herald

Stigmatization from a faith community is a cruel betrayal.

A child’s inappropriate behavior is not a choice, it is a verifiable medical illness, one with a higher mortality rate than cancer:  Mental illness more deadly than cancer for teens, young adults.  (A graph comparing mortality rates of cancers and mental disorders is at this link.). Families with sick children need support. From my personal experience, and from parents in my support groups over the past 13 years, our sense of loss is devastating.

Testimonials

Mother with five children, one with bipolar disorder:

“We were members of our church since we were first married, all our daughters grew up here, but when my youngest spiraled down, I was told the sins of the father are visited on the sons. Or we weren’t praying enough. I knew they thought (Dad) had done something bad to her. We left and went church shopping until we found a pastor who understood and supported us.”

Mother of two children, one with acute pervasive development disorder:

“I wish we had a “special needs” church. We’re so afraid our kid is going to say something and we’re not going to be accepted. We haven’t gone to church for years because of this. They just turned their backs on us, it happened to another family with a deaf child. They avoid parents in pain. Deep down in my heart I believe in the Lord, but there are days when I wonder “where is God?” People call out to pray for a job, or a kid’s grades, but we wouldn’t dare ask for us, no one would get it, we’d be told we were bad parents or didn’t punish him enough.”

Mother of two children, one with schizoaffective disorder:

“When I went up to the front to light a candle and ask for a prayer for my daughter, I expected people would come up afterward and give a hug or something, just like with other families with cancer and such. But it didn’t happen. No one even looked at me. I left alone and decided never to go back.”

Some good news

FaithNet

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has recognized the need for the mentally ill to be part of faith communities, and the negative experiences most face when they attempt to participate in a religious community. NAMI started FaithNet to encourage and equip NAMI members to engage with and share their story and NAMI resources with local faith groups, and appeal for their acceptance.

Key Ministry

Key Ministry: Welcoming Youth and Their Families at Church
Stephen Grcevich, M.D., president, Key Ministry and child & adolescent psychiatry in private practice, Chagrin Falls, Ohio

“Key Ministry believes it is not okay for youth living with mental illness and their families to face barriers to participation in worship services, educational programming and service opportunities available through local churches.”

Churches in American culture lack understanding of the causes and the needs of families impacted by mental illness, which poses a significant barrier to full inclusion.

“A study published recently by investigators at Baylor University examined the relationship between mental illness and family stressors, strengths and faith practices among nearly 5,900 adults in 24 churches representing four Protestant denominations. The presence of mental illness in a family member has a significant negative impact on both church attendance and the frequency of engagement in spiritual practices.” When asked what help the church could offer these families, they ranked “support for mental illness” 2nd out of 47 possibilities. Among unaffected families, support for mental illness ranked 42nd.

________________________________________

When God Is Part of Therapy
Tara Parker Pope, March 2011, New York Times

Faith-based therapy is growing in popularity, reports Psychology Today, as more patients look for counselors who can discuss their problems and goals from a religious frame of reference.

Studies show that people prefer counselors who share their religious beliefs and support, rather than challenge, their faith. Religious people often complain that secular therapists see their faith as a problem or a symptom, rather than as a conviction to be respected and incorporated into the therapeutic dialogue, a concern that is especially pronounced among the elderly and twenty-somethings. According to a nationwide survey by the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC), 83 percent of Americans believe their spiritual faith and religious beliefs are closely tied to their state of mental and emotional health. Three-fourths say it’s important for them to see a professional counselor who integrates their values and beliefs into the counseling process.

The problem for many patients in therapy is that many patients are far more religious than their therapists.

Nearly three-fourths of Americans say their whole approach to life is based on religion. But only 32 percent of psychiatrists, 33 percent of clinical psychologists and 46 percent of clinical social workers feel the same. The majority of traditional counselor training programs have no courses dealing with spiritual matters.

When children are hospitalized with other ailments, the family draws sympathy and support from others.  But because of mental health stigma, most families like ours don’t when our child is hospitalized.  If not blame, we are second-guessed, or as bad, met with silence or a change of subject.

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ARE YOU OVERREACTING?

ARE YOU OVERREACTING?
8 votes

angry-girl1

Like many parents, you might go to extremes to control situations so they won’t get out of hand. You might not intend to go overboard, but so much frustration has built up that any little irritation sets you off like a warrior on a battle for control. Or a battle to make things stop now.  Overreactions are emergency alarms without the emergency.

You can’t see it coming, in an instant you are on an unstoppable mission to fix, contain, punish, or halt anything that upsets your sense of well-being, imagined or not. Overreactions are sure signs of stress, you need a break!  Overreactions may also come from the fear of losing the day you planned, or the life you planned and came to expect.  If you are overreacting to gain control, you are actually losing control.  Your parenting choices need considered, thoughtful decisions instead of an automatic 911 call. When your blood boils, you’re not aware how your behavior creates a toxic environment around you and the rest of your family… nor how it worsens a troubled kid’s behavior.

  • Are you so stressed and traumatized that you just can’t stand it anymore and want your child to stop misbehaving now, immediately, yesterday?
  • Is every little minor thing a reason to pull out the heavy artillery and throw a fit?
  • Do you play a victim or martyr to get sympathy?  You probably deserve sympathy, but this is not the way to get it.
  • Do you overwhelm difficult situations with your own explosions?

It’s common for parents with really difficult kids to get stuck this way, so forgive yourself if you overreact, and stop and look at what this does to your relationships and interactions with your troubled child.

  • If you’ll do anything to make your child stop a challenging behavior, might you go too far with little things? Will you call the police because they slammed the door, or will you strike them because they slammed the door?
  • If you need sympathy and attention, will you share so much personal information about your child, that your child starts hearing about it from others? How will this make them feel? When others hear you constantly complaining, might they consider that the problem is you?
  • Do you mirror your child’s bad behavior to show them what it looks like? Are they interpreting this the way you hope, or are you lowering yourself?

Overreactions sabotage opportunities for improvement. They terrify everyone (all family members); your family may start to hide things from you, or downplay things, just so you won’t overreact. When family members feel a need to keep secrets, they don’t speak their minds. Someone takes sides against you to counterbalance the negativity. Now you feel less in control and receive less of the support you need for your own well-being.

If you feel exhausted and hopeless, or lash out as a way of coping, you are carrying significant stress and/or depression. Before you completely lose control, and lose your self-respect and rightful authority as a parent, take care of yourself and get help for both your physical and emotional exhaustion . Always, always make sure you are emotionally centered and healthy, or you will never be able to help your child become healthy.

Remember, your child and family needs you to be 100% together.  Let some things go for the greater peace.  Center yourself so you can notice when your child is doing well and offer praise.  When centered, you are flexible, patient, compassionate, and forgiving.   This draws people towards you, to look after you and care for you.  Go ahead, aim for sainthood.  Just starting down that path would start to make things wonderful and healing for everyone.

 

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