#makeitrealmonday, Suicide Prevention* for the Holidays

‘Tis the season where some adults are giddy with child-like excitement about the holidays. They choose to replace the annoyance and ick of the musty smell of the attic with the joy and yay of the Christmas ornaments and decorations that sent them into the crawlspace. Screaming at kids to put away their toys is hushed to avoid hypocritical glances from sed children as you steal all available shelf space to set up Christmas village. 

Other people are unaffected by yuletide greetings. The media spends some of their valuable air time making sure that those people are cared for by airing Public Service Announcements (PSAs) about suicide prevention. What’s wrong with that? The rate of suicide during the holidays is at its lowest all year.

Myths About Suicide

The Annenberg Public Policy Center revealed that 65% of stories during the holiday season “perpetuated the holiday-myth”. In order to help those in need ANY time of the year, it is important to dispel some myths of suicide. Each myth about suicide can best be combatted with a bright beacon of truth. 

  • Myth: Suicide rates are the highest during the holidays. I blame the lovable Jimmy Stewart and NBC’s annual presentation of the family classic, It’s A Wonderful Life, a movie that revolves around a seasonally depressed family man contemplating suicide. The CDC study of suicide shows the average number of death by suicide is highest in MAY and JULY; it is the lowest in December and November. Perpetuating this fiction means that family and friends who can help a loved one with suicide ideation aren’t receiving the tips needed when they are most useful. 
  • Myth: Only depressed people die by suicide. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports only 54% of deaths by suicide are by people with diagnosed mental illness. Not only are diagnosed friends and family members receiving help, but they are being constantly assessed by their mental health professional to make sure that the right level of treatment is provided if suicidal thoughts plague their client. Divorce, loss of employment, or diagnosis of serious illness are more likely to foreshadow a suicide attempt because of a shared public sense that seeking help from a mental health provider is reserved for “more serious issues”. These acute stressors, ones that are event-based, should rally friends and family to make sure life’s unpleasant surprises are manageable.

Spark Note Summary

Our social media accounts are populated with our doppelgängers, smiling pictures of our kids making sweet messes while designing art projects to be posted later. Where are the pictures of those same kids screaming at red-faced, exacerbated, overtired parents about how they “don’t wanna play arts and crafts!”? Let’s be brave and post a picture of real life on social media tagged #makeitrealmonday

*If you, your friend, or family member is contemplating suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24 hours a day, 7 days per week, every day of the year: 1-800-273-8255.

A New National Holiday

Special Lesson: Professional counselors are careful with self-disclosure. Only when the benefit is to enhance the therapeutic relationship is the boundary crossed. This blog is personal, but the hope is the conversations that ensue help enhance all of our relationships.

I have a vivid memory of being a child and asking my parents where they were when Kennedy was shot. It was a common assignment for children of Boomers. We had it easy! There was ONE major event noteworthy enough for all students to explore. If replicated today, my son’s assignment is more like a multiple choice test, the Challenger‘s explosion or the fall of the Berlin Wall. As I publish, today is September 11. My TV and Facebook are littered with memes telling me not to forget or always remember. As I’m told to be respectful and solemn, all I can feel is frustration that there is no “lesson learned”.

Never Forget….

My 9/11 story starts with a routine drive to my job as the HR manager of Borders Books. I heard a snippet on the radio with key words “plane” and “New York”. I changed the channel and shook my head.

La Guardia has two runways, each 7,000 feet long, compared with those at JFK Airport, which are up to 14,000 feet, and Newark Airport, where they are up to 11,000 feet.

I grew up in NJ with the Manhattan skyline outside of my window. It was common to hear a broadcaster in Chicago appalled about a plane crash in New York; they simply didn’t grow up knowing how short the runway is at LaGuardia. So, I went back to the offices and started to count cash for the registers while brainstorming a snarky comment to deliver to a coworker with whom I bet on Monday Night Football. As I started wheeling the cash drawers to the register, that same coworker was walking towards me asking me if I heard what happened. Nope. I was not going to let him beat me to the punchline. I quickly quipped some friendly antagonistic comment and tried to wheel to the front of the store. This coworker was a better friend than I gave him credit for because he took me by the shoulder, took me to the stockroom, and put me in front of the TV we use to sneak peaks at football games. I sat on two crates grasping at a box of tissues watching in disbelief with the rest of America for the next few hours.

Me and my big brother

I wish watching the landscape of my childhood be destroyed was the only way I passed the time that morning. It took me an hour or two to realize that neighborhood that I watched crumbling was where my big brother went to work daily. Thankfully, he was late to get off the subway that day. Not too late, however, not to be stuck in a nearby building watching the day become soot-covering night. The cell phones weren’t working as everyone with loved ones trying calling out or calling in. I learned from my mother that he had reached his then-pregnant wife just long enough to say he was safe but stuck. I remember musing that my brother, who is 6’1″ with a personality twice the size, must be going crazy thanks to a small case of claustrophobia. He made it home safely hours later, but I don’t need a running news story to remind me what it felt like to watch in fear that I was going to be the oldest one in my family if those terrorists won.

Always Remember…

Shortly after the building were cleared, the next line of heroes went to Ground Zero. In the same breath, our country banded together and started the two decade trip of falling apart.

EMS salary info from the Bureau of Labor
  • I remember how the Patriot Act went after my library card in case I recently checked out the Catcher in the Rye.
  • I remember how while saying “thank you” to EMS and firefighters with our mouths, we let them collect government benefits to offset the poverty that defines the working poor.
  • I remember how my best friend’s stepfather (who through time and space has always been an extra parent to me) grabbed his old pipe fitter tools and went to help adding mesothelioma to Agent Orange on the list of unreimbursed lethal consequences of his patriotism.
  • I remember how the prevalence of children experiencing PTSD from the perpetual news coverage hit record highs as parents accidentally traumatized a generation who didn’t understand that planes weren’t constantly flying into buildings.
  • I remember how we reached into our country’s history of ethnic hatred to be afraid of Muslims, or anyone we thought looked like one.

Spark Notes Summary

My husband and I are friends whose son, one of their four, was born on September 11. He is the living symbol of what we should remember. Barrett is always happy and optimistic. He loves to spend the morning with his mother dancing to Britney Spears with freshly painted nails before taking the afternoon to go fishing and learn gun safety with his dad. To truly honor and respect what was lost, we should make September 11 National Barrett Day. The holiday would be centered around celebrating our best selves and accepting the beauty of seemingly contradictory ideas. Feel free to decorate your home with pink dollhouses and fishing poles as you carpool with your neighbor to the EMS parade featuring the men and women whose pay has met their esteem.

The Feral Children of Fortnite®

I confess. I’m a gamer. Not WAS a gamer…AM a gamer. I didn’t grow up this way (unless you include a stubborn determination to beat Mario Bros on Nintendo). In fact, it wasn’t until college that I fell deeply in love with computer games. Picture this: it’s a hot summer day in Chicago. My boyfriend, his crew, and I hit the sand beach volleyball courts of the North Shore park districts for hours. After a quick round of showers, we all gathered in an apartment lugging 90’s Apple computers, an ethernet hub, a duffel bag full of cords, and a 6-pack. That is where I was when the Bulls grabbed championship after championship, and I watched live coverage of the deaths of Princess Di and Mother Teresa. Needless to say, when families try to convince me that gaming is ruining their children, I work hard to remember I’m an objective professional. Fears of Grand Theft Auto® and Call of Duty® have come in and out of my practice without a mental note much less a blog. Fortnite® is different

Out of the Mouths of Babes…

My husband and I still sneak in some gaming time, but neither of us has ever played Fortnite®. So, I conducted some field research to learn about the basics of the game. Here is what I’ve learned from a 14-year old expert gamer and a 25-year old social gamer. Fortnite® resembles what children of the 80’s would call a Wrestlemania Battle Royal combined with the Hunger Games.

Wrestlemania’s Battle Royal

Players are randomly placed on a map with resources. These resources can be cool, high powered guns, or lame, pile of wood.As the timer signifying the outer layer of the world disappearing ticks down, the player must gather resources to survive. Resources can only fill 5 slots of a player’s cache. Concurrently, a player can erect structures or barriers while trying to kill their way to the center. Confused, yet? I’ll give you the cheat sheet: poor randomized placement on board? DEAD; poor randomized gift of starting resources? DEAD; poor strategy balancing defense and offense? DEAD. This is how our children are having fun.

Out of the Mouth of a Family Therapist

The mental health profession studies the effects of gaming constantly. But, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental disorders, DID NOT add gaming to its latest version in 2013. Research continues investigate whether excessive video gaming has the same effect on developing brains and neurotransmitters as substance abuse (making gaming an addiction) or obsessive compulsive behaviors (making gaming an anxiety disorder. When the experts’ research comes in, therapists will know how to help families navigate this modern maladaptive behavior. Let’s not wait for them.

What Gets Lost When Your Kids Try to Win

I mentioned some basic ways a player’s game can be cut short in Fortnite®. Here is what MAY be happening to your player when that happens.

  • Self-efficacy: Sometimes used synonymously with self-esteem, self-efficacy is the belief that you are a powerful individual who can solve problems and accomplish tasks. It is also the best way to combat anxiety and depression. The random placement of player and allocation of resources work in direct opposition to healthy development of a strong sense of “I can do it!”

    The final straw…

    This randomness also feeds the “It’s not fair” button vital to moral development.Children playing Fortnite® cannot be talked out of their honest assessment that falling off the shrinking map after the game placed them on a board with no good resources making fighting to stay alive harder than peers is unfair. They are right! It is unfair. But, providing more examples of how the world (fictional or real) is designed against them sends the message that tweens and teens are powerless.

  • Empathy: Despite the amount of hits on Google, Empathy Deficit Disorder, is not a real, psychological condition. Empathy is a learned skill. It is developed over time organically, as the brain branches out, and behaviorally, as you increase your social interactions. (This would be a great transition to a rant about social media or acceptable amount of screen time for children, but that’s for a different blog.) What makes Fortnite® dangerous, is it’s design that attributes tremendous amount of value to everything..and nothing. Let me explain. A player starts the game with some level of advantage or disadvantage of location and resource randomly. There is no skill or strategy, no concrete or intrinsic value, from the moment the game starts. Trying to win means determining how to blend building defensive structures while attacking other players. The immediacy of conjuring a wall or detachment of killing an opponent make it impossible to build value into using those methods to win.
  • Emotional regulation: Do you know why you can’t explain to your child why to accept the loss that came in 4 minutes when they lasted 4 hours in the game yesterday? You are talking to a feral animal. Yes, they know nobody is really dead. Their brains, however, do not develop the ability to put things into perspective until they are in their college years. (Talk about unfair!) Their brains are being fed stimuli from the game that trigger survival responses. “Hurry or you will die!” is the message of the game. Are you surprised when your sweet little boy or girl cannot interact like a human after gaming? Their brains are still on high alert! You may be offering to cook dinner, but their primal brain is thinking you ARE dinner. When Katniss won the first Hunger Games, she got to live in a fancy house away from the poor village. That wasn’t because she was a winner. It’s because even in fictional worlds, survivalists aren’t expected to return to normal life.

Spark Note Summary

The treatment plan for Pervasive Fortnite® Personality Disorder (not a real psychological disorder…unless my colleagues use it for future research), is ironically what makes the game so dangerous, TIME MANAGEMENT. Help your tween and teen transition back into the real world by giving them tasks that are designed to be routine and control breathing. Chores like setting the table, activities like jigsaw puzzles, or completing their reading minutes for school will bring the humanity back to your home.

Parenting Inside Out: Raising a Child on the Spectrum

North Shore Moms. Working Moms of the North Shore. Mommy Needs Vodka. My Facebook feed is a mini-map of my top priority, surviving motherhood. It’s hard for everyone. We question every decision we make starting from the first labor pain! Natural labor or C-section? Breastfeed or bottle feed? Stay-at-home or working mom? We face all of those life-changing decisions before we even see our precious baby’s face.

My favorite pastime is now my only exercise.

So, we put up human bumpers to give us comfort that our parenting decisions won’t send our kids to the gutter. Our mothers, our friends, pediatricians, and the entire parenting section of  Barnes and Noble give us peace of mind that we are not alone in our parenting paranoia. There is a comfort in our mommy networks; we are all following the same path. Until, of course, your child catapults you to a whole different kind of path.

Turning Things Inside Out

Going UP the slide. Autism or silliness? Neither. It’s Jacob!

First, he stopped saying, “Bless you,” after we sneezed. Then, he flicked lights in every room and stared at the ceiling. I didn’t need to compare Jacob to his peers to notice he wasn’t a typical two-year-old. The diagnosis of autism wasn’t a shock. But, since there are countless shades of the autism spectrum, the shock comes from a constant bombardment of experts, and those with expertise, getting it all wrong. You know who gets it right most often? The dynamic duo of Mommy and Jacob! Jacob has always had an incredible, creative way of combating the overwhelming sensory noises and challenges expressing himself. It just took me some time and education to translate those skills. The trick: balancing the world inside and outside.

The Pull Inside

Many autistic kids spend their lives in their own world in fierce opposition to our drive to drag them out. (Insert anecdote about Jacob’s lack of interest in being born in direct contradiction to my need to evict his 8 lb., 4 oz stubborn body.)  It turns out that Jacob’s insistence on crawling under a table or in my lap was his way of coping with a stressor from the outside world. My job wasn’t to drag him into, what he perceived to be, a dangerous place. I learned that I just needed a passport into his world to assure him he would be safe, so he could grab my hand, and join my excitement into our shared world.

But choosing which world is safe, the inside or outside, is not easy or consistent. Parents with autistic children tend to sequester ourselves in our homes because there is a tremendous amount of emotional pain when we give in to our natural tendencies to compare our children to the others. Jacob and I love the playground! But, it’s hard to maintain focus on his shining, smiling face when he is only swinging for hours to get his sensory needs met. It’s also hard not to wince when there is a toddler baby-splaining the design of the playground to his parent when your four year old has yet to tell you his favorite color.

There is also an autistic insider’s secret world of experts with strange language and letters after their names. Suddenly, a typical kid’s demand for cookies is an autistic child’s goal of “manding for a specific item” that must be graphed and documented. (Truth be known: the autistic kid is always going to get the cookie because they have impressed you by asking for “cookies in the blue box” when the speech goal is still trying to use 3-word sentences.) Sadly, the secret language of autism and ABA therapy, added to the specialized school staff and rules governing an IEP make you feel like YOU, the most intimate warrior for your child, is the outsider. It’s hard, but it is precisely in those moments when you have to use your Tiger Mom roar to get through to those on the outside.

Giving the Outsiders Inside Information

It doesn’t take long to remember that, diagnosis or not, you are the expert on your child. It does, however, take a long time and an unrivaled well of emotional strength, to make sure that message is received. You spend hours cycling from angry tears to irate emails trying to get the world to see YOUR child. On good days, I joke that at least I have a reason for my son’s behavior where other moms just roll their eyes and blame their child’s poor decisions on paternal DNA.

Jacob’s memories are in movies and music.

Now, I challenge everyone’s conclusion that my son’s behaviors are “because he is autistic.” The common autistic behavior of scripting, medically defined as echolalia, was a great example of a teachable moment for Team Jacob. Singing during nap time got Jacob kicked out of his preschool. The outside experts in early childhood became concerned that Jacob’s inability to stay quiet while peers napped was a consequence of his autism requiring a level of care the facility did not feel they could offer. I confess: I deferred to their outside expertise. Then, I listened to the songs and movies my son was scripting. They were all about Jacob’s thoughts and feelings! When he wasn’t singing songs like “Happy and You Know It,” he was changing the lyrics (of “Down By the Bay”) to “If you ever see a Jake, eating some cake.” A typical kid may have been babbling aloud about being happy at a recent birthday party. My son sings about it!

Spark Notes Summary

You know how they say you become a new person every 7 years because you  shed a layer of skin? We look the same on the outside, but we have grown immeasurably on the inside. Jacob is only 6 years old (I’m an overachiever), but  I’m a new mom. I’m Jacob’s mom. Yes, Jacob is autistic. He is also a huge fan of Blaze and the Monster Machines, can identify each planet by picture, and enjoys a dance party with his mother every day after camp. If you want to know anything else about my autistic son, ask me. I’m the expert.

A Reaction to Another Tragedy

Despite my better instincts, I have been reading a lot of the posts about yesterday’s school shooting in Florida. The posts are the same as they have been for every awful violent event that we have watched. The ones that shock me the most are the ones that echo the reports on television that blame the school and the parents for not intervening before it was too late. As a teacher with 15 years experience and a professional counselor with extensive experience treating kids who had behavior problems in school, here is my plea….

Understand that this shooting is nobody’s fault.

Nobody could have known that this child would become a mass murderer. Getting in trouble at school, to the point of expulsion, is not an indicator of the capability to commit horrific acts of violence. As someone who ran an alternative school for students that were all considered “undesirable,” I can honestly say that “bad” kids are not de facto terrorists or mass murderers.

“If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” – Maria Teresa

The shooter in Florida is protected by confidentiality. So, we will never know what the school or his parents did to help this boy. You may not like that protection for him, but it is the same law that protects you. I worked as a court mandated counselor for juvenile delinquents. We worked with the kid, his/her parents, and their peers to help heal the traumas that enabled poor decision making. We were lucky their treatment was court ordered because it was difficult for well-intentioned parents to get past internal shame and external judgmental communities to get help for a child who was headed in the wrong direction.

It’s natural to demand answers. It’s admirable to spin our wheels to find out what we can do to prevent such tragedies. I share your anxiety about sending my son to school every day. I implore you:

Smile, don’t spy, at your neighbor.

Support, don’t shame, those who act differently and need help.

For more help about how to talk to your children about these issues, check out our blog post, A Minute of Action.

You Don’t Need a New You for the New Year

If you have been frustrated that “Lessons Learned” is not loading fast enough on your iPhone, it’s not my fault. The Uber Powerful Wizards of Technology, see also Apple, recently confessed they were deliberately slowing down our “old” iPhones. This announcement seems tonally appropriate for the time of year where we all take a harsh look at who we are and what we did over the past 365 days to make resolutions to be a newer, better, smarter version of ourselves when the clock strikes midnight on December 31. Umm…why?

The calendar gives us several excuses to create a brand new you: the Jewish New Year, birthdays, or my favorite, the beginning of the school year. Somehow New Year’s Eve cornered the market with the invention of New Year’s Eve resolutions. But, it is just a gimmick capitalized upon by gyms, weight loss programs, the vitamin and supplement industry, and well-intentioned Jewish mothers. Resolutions are a premium form of self-shaming. You spend valuable psychological and emotional energy asking yourself, “What did I do wrong that I need to change RIGHT NOW?” Save your energy for dealing with your kids who are STILL on winter vacation. If someone could make up resolutions, I thought I would invent my own New Year’s term, “the resolution cycle”.

It’s a Vicious Cycle

A perfect example of the “resolution cycle”

The “resolution cycle” starts with a time period of emotional self-flogging, harshly judging yourself for a series of decisions you have made. Then, a boost of optimism! This year will get different! With a tweak of your attitude here and some changes to your outward appearance there, you will be much happier in the days to come. It all ends when life does its thing and lands you on a chute instead of a ladder causing you to run back to the old you who knows how to survive those events. This cycle is the reason I prefer not to see clients this time of year when they seemingly need help the most. Who wants to shake up your coping mechanisms, your survival skills, when you are about to spend the next few weeks back in the family jungle that made them necessary?

Good For You, Good “To-Do”
It is easy to beat yourself up regardless of the time of year. The new year should be about celebrating you and setting goals. 2018 will be your best year ever by remembering what you did in the past and setting a path for the future.

  • No task is too small to applaud: There must have been days this year when you finished the laundry without several cycles of wrinkle release. (I can’t think of those days, myself, but I have much more faith in you, my dear readers.) How about the other small victories: getting your child to complete homework without a fight, getting praise for a project completed at work, getting to enjoy a date night with your partner. These events are all worthy of a celebration. You need to remember these magical confluences of events were actually possible because of you! You figured out a new way to prioritize your time or tapped into a new source of patience. Your 2017 self had some great moments! It is that YOU, not some holiday imposed version of a new you, that will get you through the next 12 months. So, when 2018 bites you in the butt or slaps you in the face, you have the skills necessary to react like a setback is more of a tickle than a trauma.
  • Vegetables aren’t the only things to finish: Our parents never had to succumb to hiding vegetables in desserts. They simply gave us a choice, eat your vegetables or you don’t get your reward (dessert). While rewinding your internal home videos to applaud yourself, make a note about things that you started but didn’t finish. I’m not talking about things you never started, like past years’ resolutions that are on your internal “Empty and Broken Promises” shelf.

    I love Reader’s Digest! This gem is entitled, “I will be happy next year if I can…”

    I mean the books you started to categorize and alphabetize but didn’t make it past the first cube in your bookshelf. (Come on, that can’t just be me…) I mean the photos you started to organize in your computer and send to Walgreens or Shutterfly to print but still have your son’s diaper free lap around the kitchen amidst his first day of kindergarten picture. Then, choose which one or two to complete in the upcoming year. Like our beloved iPhone batteries that are drained by background apps, we are drained by the anxiety produced by unfinished tasks. (It’s also a great cheat for next year’s “‘Atta Girl” list.)

Spark Note Summary

We know we should say, “I Love You” as often as possible instead of waiting for Valentine’s Day. Well, we don’t need to wait until New Year’s for healthy introspection. Like switching lanes in traffic, change is never easy and not always good. Change needs to start from a place of strength and proceed in baby steps. Sometimes that even means looking back in order to plan how to move forward. You know, just like how I’m going to have make sure to back up my old iPhone before giving into my husband’s resolution to get the new one.

‘Tis the Season…

…to de-clutter. Fa la la la la, la la la la. And to teach our children values…ya ya ya ya ya, ya ya ya ya! Whatever the Scrooge equivalent is for Hanukah, you are reading her blog. My husband is thrilled I am no longer forcing our family to buy my son educational or sensory toys for the holidays. After five years, I’ve lost the battle. In the next few days, my house will be filled with Paw Patrol, Mickey Mouse Roadsters, and some other random toys that help Target and Amazon make their fourth quarter sales quotas. So, to warm my cold holiday heart, I will take the opportunity to share some holiday hints that are not on a Pillsbury cookie sleeve or Pinterest post.

Pay It Now, Pay It Later, Pay It Forward

Parents are always looking for a way to direct the moral compasses of their kids. moral compassWe are successful in teaching the rules of morality, holding doors open, saying “please” and “thank you”, and taking turns. But, these successes are only in one-on-one relationships. Without fail, my clients consistently ask me how to teach their growing children how to be moral members of a group, their family, their school, their community. The answer is to set up a system of “paying” for things now, saving for later, and donating to others.

When talking about a lifelong lesson, it is best to start young. Here is how the morality code system works for toddlers, the youngest age you can effectively begin to mold morality. Consider each step using the commodity of toddlers, toys.kids in playroom

  • Pay It Now – Setting priorities: Every parent has suffered through the nightmare of turning down the wrong aisle in Target and landing smack dab in the sightline of the seven aisles of toys. At that moment, we all become Monty Hall and make deals with our toddlers. Getting one of the toys asked for during that shopping trip is a great experience for our young ones because they needed to decide which toy was too special to leave on the shelf.
  • Pay It Later – Understanding patience: Psychologist Lev Vygotsky introduced the idea of providing children the opportunity to achieve goals just beyond their reach with the help of a caregiver. zpdHe called this the zone of proximal development, or ZPD. Most of us practiced this theory instinctively when our infants’ hands couldn’t entirely grasp their spoon off the feeding tray, so we propped it up for them to snatch it. Buying, or better yet, allowing doting grandparents to buy, toys they are targeted for the next age bracket achieves the same goals. Toddlers love “work-for” toys targeted for big boys and girls; parents love watching them learn how to wait for gratification.
  • Pay It Forward – Learning empathy: The best trick I learned from another mom was the concept of a bag or bin of “non-sharing” toys for playdates. The idea is for your child to identify toys that are so important and special that nobody else is allowed to touch them. (When you “pay it now,” they have already internalized that decision-making skill.) kid donatingParents can take this one step further, especially during holidays and birthdays, by working with your child to sort through toys that no longer hold interest or develop advanced skills. A quick car trip to the Salvation Army or donation to CASA gives our little ones big feelings of empathy and pride.

Spark Note Summary

The reason why parenting is unanimously considered the hardest job is because its goal is to make the world a better place, one moral person at a time. We cringe at words like “bully” and “apathy” and lose decades of sleep hoping they don’t apply to our kids. The earlier we start to teach our kids what good morals look like, the earlier they will know what good morals feel like. And aren’t those warm feelings what the holidays are all about?

Why Does It Still Feel Like High School?

Based on a high level of interest and comments on social media, this is the first of a THREE PART series of articles on bullying.

For years, I thought it was just me.

My fellow teachers and I would gripe to each other that we felt the faculty ACTED like the kids we taught.

Gossip? Check

Body shaming? Check

Bullying? CHECK

Forbes recently published an article which shared the research from the Workplace Bullying Institute, 75% of workers are the subject of bullying in the workplace. One of the reasons bullying in the workplace occurs is because the office is physically and socially designed the same way our schools are.

Schools Teach Offices How to Judge Others

  • Location, location, location: School tracks, advanced placement or remedial, is a well-known example of institutional bullying. Kids’  labels on their schedules and transcripts easily translate to “dumb” or “gifted”. But, as someone who has walked the halls of dozens of schools, there is also geographical bullying. Special ed classrooms are most often clustered at the end of a wing on the bottom floor while the AP classes enjoy the natural light and open windows of the top floor. Anyone think offices are different? Who doesn’t mentally decorate the CORNER office or the one on the top floor, the offices synonymous with power and status?
  • Darwin Did It: Strength, agility, and strategy help predict who wins in a fist fight. Friendliness and sensitivity seem to predict who loses that fight. Not according to Social Darwinian researchers who concluded that personality traits of bullies were adaptive skills of survival just as much as physicality. Researchers gave children identified as bullies, students involved in three or more referrals for name calling, aggression, or defiance, the Eysenck Personality Inventory — Junior. Results showed that bullies had pro-social traits like friendliness and sensitivity. Not a surprise when you consider that bullies are only successful if there are bystanders to cheer them on. Bullies were also measured as passive aggressive, dependent, and “histrionic”. (Histrionic on this personality inventory is defined by suggestible or easily influenced by others.) Climbing up the corporate ladder calls upon the skill set of the bully.

Spark Note Summary

The reason there is bullying at work is because your offices are designed the same way your schools are. Bullying is not “boys will be boys” that have a slug fest or “girls will be girls” that tease and exclude. It is literally a social construct. Schools and offices are designed to feed into our natural instincts to compete for survival. The good news is trite but true: knowledge is power. You can take a mental ride in a Dolorian, armed with the information gained here, and choose a new, better way to navigate the halls of life. The best way to survive and be the fittest, is always to live the lessons you have learned.

A Monster Calls: Let Our Kids Answer

Young adult literature is my guilty pleasure. (OK, one of them. I’m a sucker for the Real Housewives of Wherever You Are.) When I worked in a bookstore, I got the same questions as when I was an English teacher: What do you recommend for a young person who is a good reader? When that girl was me, I was “forced” to read the classics, Little Women, or adult fiction, like the Clive Cussler series. The good news is the stories we love in the movies originated from young adult books. The bad news is the content is not something that is emotionally or psychologically friendly for tweens and teens to read alone. I’m here to help.

 From Cover to Cover

Click here for the link to Amazon to read reviews.
Our fears are ignited with the first sentence of the book, “The monster showed up just after midnight” (1). In a little more than 200 pages, Conor found out how to stop the monster and free himself, “And by doing so, he could finally let her go” (205).

On the surface, a monster born from a yew tree, taunts Conor during the nights after the cancer killing his mother tortures him all day. Conor isn’t as afraid of the monster as much as he is the nightmare that wakes him nightly.  A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness teaches parents what Conor learned in school: “Don’t think you haven’t lived long enough to have a story to tell” (23). Conor’s true fear is one we all share, regardless of age: having the courage to speak YOUR truth aloud without shame.

  • Who? Conor is dealing with getting beat up by bullies in middle school while his mother is getting beat up, again, by cancer. He gets help getting back and forth to school from his grandmother and less-than-helpful advice from his estranged father.
    The yew tree in Conor’s backyard becomes the monster.
    The monster is the character who provides the best guidance for navigating the anger, fear, and powerlessness that Conor faces as the cancer steals his mother.
  • What? Jewish folklore explains the reason Jewish people tell so many stories (guilty) is because nobody knew the true name of G-d, so their stories were prayers that granted miracles. The monster explains he will disappear after three stories are told: the monster will narrate the first two stories, and Conor must tell the third story, his nightmare, to the monster. Conor learns some lessons about the human condition to help his relationship with his grandmother and father. Rather than his grandmother being good or evil, we all learn with Conor that the world is gray. Our judgement of others as good or evil reflect our morals. The monster’s second story follows the lesson of “The Hangman,” doing the right thing when you are not personally affected.
  • When? Traditionally, developmental psychologists only address common markers in life, births, deaths, weddings, and graduations. But, since late in the first decade of the new millennium, we are starting to understand that the life span has markers in adulthood, too. By the time we meet Conor and his mom, we are beyond learning about life before and after cancer. The line is drawn between before and after the “little talk”. BEFORE Conor was being bullied and stopped being friends with Lily, he didn’t need to think about processing his mother telling him she may not survive the latest experimental treatments. AFTER their “little talk”, Conor had no privacy because everyone knew he was going to lose his mother.
  • Where? A Monster Calls lives where children do, at home and in school. It doesn’t take long for the monster to wreak violence in both settings. He destroys parts of Conor’s grandmother’s house. He beats up Harry, the school bully, who has been punching and kicking Conor for weeks. The more Conor tries to be invisible, to live nowhere, the more the monster causes destruction everywhere.
  • Why? There is a purity in children because they do not understand nuance. Asking “why” isn’t annoying repetition. It’s taking a firm stance in what you know to be the truth. Some parents use a child’s insistence of understanding to reminisce ye olden days where children were seen and not heard. Conor’s nightmare, the story he tells the monster, the story he needs to tell in order to accept his mother’s death, is the perfect example of the damage of silencing children. Conor tries to get control of his heart and home to help his ailing mother which summons the monster. Conor tries to be perfect, tries to be invisible, which causes the monster to destroy places and people. Conor acts out to earn punishments worthy of the guilt he feels in his nightmare. But, being visible is not the solution to being invisible; for Conor, the nightmares became more frequent. Telling the monster his nightmare, sharing HIS truth aloud, chased the monster away.

…And How?

Patrick Ness finished this novel for another author, Siobhan Dowd, who died before she could decide where her characters would go. Ironically, the poetry of a story about disappearing due to death reminds us to make sure our children don’t feel invisible. We need to indulge in their passionate arguments about why a purple sky makes sense in their 6 year old drawings and why they are certain they are in love in their 16 year old relationships. Our insistence on teaching them “the truth”, will create monsters that will stop them from sharing their truth.

On the Road to Change With Father Time and Gandhi

When I was in college, I got really bored with how my room looked. Changing the colors of my comforter or posters was not enough to make my restlessness go away. So, I rearranged my 3 pieces of furniture each quarter. This is a bigger deal than you think. As a smart control freak, I prepared for each move by cutting Post-It notes to represent each piece of furniture and placed it on a graph paper blueprint that I had drawn to scale. (No, I’m not kidding.) I have repeated that behavior in the 7 places and 6 classrooms I’ve lived in since then.

But, that doesn’t mean I’m good at accepting change or easily ready to make changes to myself. Anxiety and depression are characterized by the overwhelming feeling of being stuck, being unable to change how things are now in order to make things better later. Change is not easy. Maybe that is why there are just as many steps to change as there are to grief.

Cracking Open the Window to Leap Through

Johari’s window

Grad school provided me with two memorable frameworks with which to approach counseling. My homeroom-esque class with the best professor and mentor a loud, know-it-all needed (shout out to the one and only Dr. Victoria Junior) came with an introduction to Johari’s Window. In my practice, it is common for clients to reach out for help for problems that border panes 1 and 2. My clients know there is something not right but just can’t quite articulate the problem. In order to crack that window wide open, we work to crawl, walk, run, retreat, and regroup through the stages of change. (The names of the stages are mine, not the clinical terms.)

Substance abuse and addiction training required the ultimate textbook for understanding all change. This is literally the textbook on the stages of change.

  • Problem? What Problem? There are not enough examples, videos, PowerPoint presentations, or tantrums to get you to see there is a problem. The bad news? Your loved ones must continue to beat their heads against the wall and fill the air with their voices despite its apparent lack of efficacy. The good news? Something is getting through at a subconscious level that is prepping you to proceed to stage two.
  • Oh, That Problem? It’s Not a Problem. Deaf ears are now more like selective hearing. You have gotten the message that there is something in your lives getting in the way of an angst-free existence. But, at this stage, the problem is YOURS; your loved one believes it is manageable.
  • OK, My Problem is a Problem. Time to buy colored pencils, Post-It notes, and erasers.

    Hiro from Heroes when he learned to stop time

    Lots of erasers. You are ready to put a plan in place. We have one stage left before the plan is put into action, but we have a plan!

  • I Did It! Despite the fact that change has been working, albeit at an uncomfortably slow pace, it is clear to everyone that you are making new choices. New behaviors are obvious and should be applauded by all onlookers. Don’t be surprised if physical exhaustion accompanies all of this psychological and emotional change.
  • That Worked..Kinda. Although change may vastly improve your physical and mental health, it is not always easy to maintain. People need to meet the NEW YOU. You need to see how the new you interacts with your old friends and family. An occasional appearance from your stage 1, 2, 3, or 4 self is to be expected, not shamed.

Spark Note Summary

Just because you seek out doing things differently, doesn’t mean you are ready for a change. Anxiety and depression don’t start overnight or disappear in the daylight. There is a process to learning how to see your problems even before you start to address them. Your best friend on this journey is time. Just ask Gandhi, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”