The SPED Classroom: COVID-19 Edition

As an academic, I find comfort in relying on the expertise of others. Facebook is filled with teachers, mothers, and therapists with wonderful, color-coded ideas. But, we are in crisis. I need more. I need high-level experts with a following that traverses over space and time. Right now, I’m looking to the muses:

  1. Mr. Rogers, the social-emotional muse, is famous for his tagline: look for the helpers. That’s no help for me. I live with one who is a great help to the community as a paramedic but not the most helpful co-teacher for e-learning. What is helpful is the decrease of anxiety that comes from Mr. Rogers’s habits of greeting me at the door, changing his sweater and shoes, and starting the day.
  2. Maria Montessori, the educational muse, created an entire system based on naturalistic learning.
  3. Tim Gun, the creative muse, motivates amateur designers to tap into their creativity in order to figure out how to use the unconventional materials of plant fronds and chainmail with chiffon to make a red carpet look. His tagline: make it work!

Mommy Title Mash-Up

I have written a lot about being a working mom and having a special needs child to keep it interesting. When the days all run together, and my time at home is also my time at work, I need to find ways to have more impact while doing less. Here are some ideas that help satisfy SPED goals that relate to occupational therapy (OT), speech/language therapy, and social work.

  1. Post-it Note schedules: you can get as colorful as you want. You can designate yellow for foods to eat, pink for outdoor activities, green for Daddy’s tasks, etc. The goal is for each family member to participate by writing words, phrases, or pictures of what needs to get done on a daily basis. Older kids can arrange their “sticky schedule” while grimacing through brightly colored additions parents include.
  • OT: writing/drawing, pulling off one post-it note for fine motor, rearranging post-its to cross the brain’s mid-line
  • speech: “wh-” conversations to understand what goes first? why? where does the post-it go? where should the schedule go? where should the work get done?  
  • executive functioning: organizing the day, prioritizing activities
Jacob cleaning the kitchen floor at 3!!!

2. Household chores: anything that makes my back, neck, and shoulder ache is a great new task for Jacob. At an early age, we recognized the need to keep his engine running in a productive direction. He works the products in the Swifer family like an Olympic curling champ. He also learned to put clothes in the hamper, bring it down to the washing machine and load it. Now that Jacob is older, he helps unload the dishwasher and puts his clean clothes away. Frankly, little orphan Annie had it easier. I joked I was making him earn his keep, but it turns out I have been a closet Montessori teacher. The nice thing is how all of these chores target Jacob’s IEP goals in some way or another.

  • OT: pincer grip required to empty the dishwasher or pull one sock at a time from the washer builds the hand muscles needed for writing , cross the brain’s mid-line by requiring him to reach across his body to grab the silverware, forcing kids to put things away top left to top right and then progressing down mirrors how the motor plan for their eyes for reading
  • speech: more “wh-” conversations to understand what goes first? why? plus sequencing what to do first, sweep the floor before attaching the wet wipe to mop, is needed to develop skills for reading, 
  • executive functioning: putting the silverware away categorizes the brain
  • social work: whose turn is it? how do you cope with the frustration of not being able to get your fingers and arms to do the right thing?

3. Dance! If you have read my blog before, you have come to understand that our mental health is rooted in relishing our childhoods while embarrassing our children. You have also read my growing fascination of neurobiology and how music does more “than save our mortal soul” (pause to love Don McClean’s “American Pie”). So many of our SPED kids get movement breaks in school, but we limit them to Cosmic Yoga or painstakingly slow breathing exercises. Moms, it’s time to break out the bar mitzvah videos and Electric Slide (boogie, woogie, oogie). Then, Cha-Cha Slide before you level up to the Cupid Shuffle and dare to judge your physical health to see if you can Tootsie Roll. (Reward yourself with many candies of the same name if you pull that off without pulling a muscle.)

  • OT: motor planning is key to all of these dance moves, plus they repeat giving kids a chance to practice a motor plan over and over
  • speech: a receptive speech challenge for sure, but with corresponding video or Mommy-model resources, kids are using a real life Boardmaker app. 
  • social work: modeling it is okay to look and feel silly is key for our kids who struggle with nuanced emotions like embarrassed or uncomfortable

Spark Note Summary

The COVID crisis has given us more questions than answers. My goal is to let that discomfort be okay. The beauty of everything being different and new is everything HAS to be different and new, like a “make it work”moment with Tim Gunn. E-learning is not education. Shelter in place is not an opportunity to try being a stay-at-home mom, Pinterest mom, or mom who masters the work-life balance. Shelter in place means to accept YOUR place. Continue to do the best you can, with what you have, at any given time. I’ll follow Mr. Rogers in creating the habit of sending you ways to live and learn…

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.

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.

Learn How to Scrawl: A Book Review

Click here to read reviews on Amazon!

Welcome to the first book review from Lessons Learned! From time to time, we need a brain break, a way to escape the facts of our life by exploring fiction. Books can be a great way to learn some lessons while relaxing. My first recommendation is Scrawl by Mark Shulman. Before you raise your eyebrows, or close the blog, let me prove how a book marketed to tweens and teens has a few lessons for all of us to learn.

From Cover to Cover

As we read the first line in the novel, we read the first journal entry of Tod’s detention journal: “Think about a pair of glasses for a second.” 230 pages later, Tod’s journal ends with an exchange between himself and the guidance counselor who has been reading and commenting in his journal for the 5 weeks he was in detention: ” ‘Was that all that kept us from getting kicked out of school?’ And you smiled back at me. ‘Yes.’ ” What we learned between the first and last pages, is how we all judge without knowing, watch without seeing, and speak without listening.

  • Who? The book is formatted as a journal written by Tod, a bully, who is serving detention under the supervision of Mrs. Woodrow, a guidance counselor. But, the more you read, the more you question what you know about bullies. For example, Tod explains his environment to Mrs. Woodrow by explaining, “Every neighborhood downtown has its own violent Neanderthal troglodyte hell-raisers” (8). He also plays euchre at lunch with his friends. Euchre, not poker. And, helps his blind lab partner. Questioning your facts on bullies, yet?
  • What? Punishment. The journal is a punishment for getting caught. (You don’t learn what he got caught doing until the near-last page…and I’m not spoiling that for you.) Tod’s friends are outside completing their more typical, juvenile delinquent punishment of picking up trash under the supervision of the head custodian. But, who hasn’t inflicted punishments upon themselves? True story: my mother accidentally ran a red light. (It was one of those that is only for a small strip mall.) When I pointed this out to her, she literally pulled HERSELF over! This is not a serious example, but it is a serious issue. Instead of listening to me, listen to Tod: “The more important you treat yourself, the more you’re worth” (41).
  • When? Let me be a typical therapist, here, and answer a question with a question: Which events in your life mark the difference between then and now? There are the usual markers in life, births, deaths, weddings, and graduations. Traditionally, developmental psychologist have stopped there. 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. We see Tod accidentally enter the spelling bee only to come in second when a teacher cheats, and we question what we know about bullies. We admire the large statue created by Luz, and we question what we know about the goth/artist. How long does it take, how old do we have to be, for stereotypes to be broken? Changed?
  • Where? The longer you read Scrawl, the more it reminds me of a house of mirrors where each turn reveals a different, exaggerated version of yourself and surprises you each time. You realize that Tod is more complex than the school bully. You see what he is like at home, a not-surprisingly poor house where he wears layers of clothes to sleep in order to combat the lack of insulation in his “bedroom.” Tod surprises us in the auditorium as he becomes a reluctant accomplice in creating the costumes for the original play written by the stereotypical school freak. In detention, Tod writes much more than is required and is more honest than is expected.  reflection.
  • Why? It is surprising that, as a therapist, I loathe this question word. After reading Scrawl, are we supposed to long for after school specials? Do the readers labeled as bullies feel vindicated? Do we donate more to the Salvation Army in case a ne’er-do-gooder needs to help a friend? Sure, why not. Or, maybe we just needed some perspective on how far we have come. Or, maybe we just needed a way to talk to our children about how to treat others.

…And How?

How do you take the lessons learned from Scrawl and use them to make yourself stronger? First, let go of the memories of high school that have flooded you for 238 pages. Second, make an impromptu book club with your kids (ages 10 and up are fine) to discuss how they feel about the characters and if anything is similar in their lives. Third, it’s never to late to start a journal. It is infinitely more healthy to get any thought or feeling out than to “suck it up.” Last, start now to be who you want to be regardless of who you were then or who others think you are now. Like scrawling, life can be messy, unconventional, and unpredictable. Enjoy!

LeVar Burton, Accidental Therapist Extraordinaire

Click here to bask in the nostalgia of the theme song!
Before the costume designers of Star Trek: The Next Generation chose an 80s banana clip for a futuristic visor, LaVar Burton was the host of Reading Rainbow. Each episode had a theme similar to ones that my son has in his pre-K class…space, animals, transportation, etc. Books were read to us by famous celebrities like Kermit the Frog. LeVar Burton took us on “field trips” to a fire house or farm. But, the best part of each episode was at the very end. A child just like me, a cute, book-loving precocious child, would tell us all about a favorite book. These were heartfelt testimonials that always ended with the phrase, “But, you don’t have to take my word for it.” No? But, I do! You love books…I love books! We are virtual book club buddies!


Bibliotherapy is a real, accepted modality for treatment of some mental health issues. It started with the turn of the century when soldiers were given medical books to learn about their injuries. In the 1960s, bibliotherapy became an official modality under the American Library Association, and psychotherapists mainstreamed the practice as an additional tool during more traditional therapeutic treatment. As Lessons Learned begins adding an occasional book review, it is important to understand the mental health benefits of reading.

  • Pacing: Shakespeare wrote in poetry, iambic pentameter, for his audience to get caught up in the music of his words. Before you twitch into a mess of
    Click here to hear modern day iambic pentameter.
    horrible memories of school, it may help to understand that iambic pentameter is exactly the same cadence as the theme song from Gilligan’s Island. Prose also has an intentional rhythm. Short, choppy fragments mirror the mood of the character. Endlessly long sentences (see anything Faulkner wrote) drone you into a lull; “what did I just read in those two pages that were three sentences long?” Mental health practices of mindfulness and meditation help suffers of anxiety and PTSD, for example, use careful control of breath as a self-healing tool. Being whisked away into an author’s linguistic pacing can have the same benefits. 
  • Guided imagery: All of my students will tell you I have a hard and fast rule about movie adaptations of books. I refuse to watch a movie in which I’ve read the book. I refuse to read the book if I’ve seen the movie. Case in point: I’ve seen all 8 Harry Potter movies without cracking the spine on any of the 7 novels on which they are based. My snobbery is based on protecting myself from dashed expectations. As I read any book, I imagine what the characters look like, how they speak, how they dress, etc. I like to use my internal CAD programming to design their homes and neighborhoods. Getting lost in the story is why reading a book with Fabio on the cover can be more healing than one with Dr. Phil on the cover. One of the most preeminent medical facilities, the Cleveland Clinic, has concluded: “Imagery can stimulate changes in bodily functions such as heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory patterns. It can help you tab inner strengths to find hope, courage and other qualities that can help you cope with a variety of conditions.”
  • Empathy: One of the major impacts of bibliotherapy is to see yourself, including your challenges, in a character. It is also extremely cathartic reading how someone just like you works on fighting mental illness without stigma or despite of it. This process, forming a bond with a character that reminds you of yourself, builds empathy. It also allows you to have empathy, not sympathy or pity, for yourself. Now that you are starting down the path of empathy for yourself, you have made the most difficult step in self-care: appreciating who you are without apology. Not sure what the difference is between empathy and sympathy? Watch this remarkable animated short.Spark Note Summary

Bibliotherapists are most often English majors with a depth of knowledge about “who” and “what”. Therapists are most often psychology majors with a depth of knowledge about “how” and “why”. As a woman with a bachelor degree in English Education and a master’s degree in psychology, I am your unicorn. As this blog takes on an occasional book review, have some faith in the magic of some more of the lessons I have learned.

Fly Your Geek Flag High

Let’s start with a riddle:

  1. If you see one, it is safe to assume there are dozens you cannot see.
  2. They can subsist on garbage yet grow to amazing heights and weights.
  3. The minute you outsmart them, they find four more ways around you.

The answer: Mice? Vermin? Pestilence?….TEENAGERS!!!

There is some form of instinctual survival skills that causes adults to cross the street, or hallways in the mall, when a gaggle of teenagers looms closer. I have spent more than 20 years as the Jane Goodall of teenagers. I have been accepted in their tribe. I have learned to adapt to their unusual language patterns and ever-changing forms of communication. I have studied their behavior in the hopes of sharing this vital information with others.

Your Teenage to Adult Translation Guide

Every once in a while, I feel validated when a prestigious, well-researched journal documents their years of research only to conclude something my work in the trenches has already learned. Recently, there was an article in an academic publication that revealed the key strategies for working with teenagers in a therapeutic setting. I am admittedly “borrowing” the organization of the article (Holliman, Ryan P. and Foster, Ryan. (2016). Emodying and Communicating Authenticity in Adolescent Counseling. Journal of Child and Adolescent Counseling, 2:1. 61-76). These experts list 7 strategies for creating an authentic relationship with an adolescent client.  I’m going to shorten the list and give you my usual, humorous, everyday insights to help you manage the teenagers in your life. Warning: most of the experts cited in this blog will be directly from the real voices of my favorite fictional geeks.

  • Personal confidence: It is a teenagers job to win at “gotcha”. They look for inconsistency between what you say and what you do as justification for not trusting you. Your job as a counselor, or even a parent, teacher, or any role model for a teenager, is to demonstrate the strength in being yourself.  Nobody explains this better than Mr. Stand By Me, Wesley Crusher actor and nerd king, Wil Wheaton.
  • Modifying language and speech: You can easily make the mistake of zigging or zagging. This is not the time to throw out slang you’ve heard on TV. (Zig.) Please don’t answer the question, “What did you do last night?” with, “Netflix and chill.” You haven’t created a bond with your client; you have either revealed an intimate detail about your private life or your desperation to be liked and accepted. This is also not the time to demonstrate your expert vocabulary or practice your parenting tone. (Zag.) Conversation is the start of communication. An effective counselor is using these conversations to model healthy word choice. Start building your client’s emotional IQ by working together to properly identify emotions. This is an exceptional way of feeding into the natural tendency of teens to correct all of us ignorant, out of touch people who were birthed as adults.
  • Dissipating tension: Teenagers are similar to dogs and babies; they can smell fear. Maybe because they are fueled by trying to make sure nobody else detects their own fear. It is helpful to remember that teenagers are still children. Engaging their bodies will loosen their lips. I often play cards (which may or may not resemble Vegas tables) in my first session. The ease of the activity helps build what person-centered therapists call congruence, an overly academic way to explain that a therapist should be a person, not a caricature. Whether it’s board games, card games, or drawing, the activity that releases the tension is also the best to return to when therapeutic gains are released. Remember: the best salve for growing pains is childhood fun.
  • Investment in the process: Teenagers grant access to their thoughts and their feelings to very few people. Even then, the time you have access is limited.
    “You see just seeds, but I see the trees.” Photo by

    Therefore, the role of a counselor is to plant a seed. Create a relationship that serves as a fond memory for a healthy, trusting relationship with healthy boundaries. Make it easy for the next coach, life or sports, to continue the work you begin.

Spark Note Summary

Being authentic simply means being yourself. What is not so simple is embracing that self. When counseling, parenting, or mentoring a teenager, it is essential to have worked out your adolescent issues FIRST. We want our teenagers to LOVE who they are, not SHAME who they are. Especially if they grow up to be sci-fi fanatics who use sarcasm and wit to educate others about some lessons learned.

Ivory Soap Can Kiss My A*#@!

The image of soap in a child’s mouth is not just a humorous scene in a 24-hour Christmas movie marathon. It is a vivid memory of my mother’s solution to saying bad words. Interestingly, the words that left a taste of Ivory in my mouth were not the usual f-bombs or poop-synomyns. In fact, my mother loves to tell the story about baby Amy, snuggled into a stroller shopping in Lord and Taylor with my grandmother. My mother remembers running into a woman who was friends with my grandmother. At the prompting, “What does Gigi (my nickname for my grandmother) say?” I loudly replied, “Ahhhh…sh**!” Needless to say, swearing was not exactly forbidden; context was the exception to rules that bore punishment. My mouth was only forced to be 99.44% pure when I said the words “shut up” or “sucker”.

“I want my clean as clean as Ivory.”
We have an inexplicable fascination with dirty words. The first parlor trick you perform when you learn any new language is how to swear. (I can fluently swear in Spanish, French, Romanian, and American Sign Language.) My 8th grade students have permission to Shakespearean insults throughout the unit we study Romeo and Juliet. Some psychologists have even studied the positive effects of swearing.

The Top 3 Worst Swear Words

Before you guess which swear words are the most common or the most effective, consider which swear words are the most damaging to both children and adults.

  • “Shut Up”: I cannot tell you how much it irks me that my mother got this one right. This phrase earned students 10 push-ups in my room, a legacy of our beloved Army music teacher. Healthy self-esteem and self-respect begin with the ability to express your individuality. Words, and the opinions that they hold, are powerful. In an article written to guide parents about building a respectful relationship with teens and tweens, developmental psychologist Marilyn Price-Mitchell Ph.D explains 11 categories of words that help grow a healthy relationship during the years your child challenges you the most. Because we all continue to grow up as we grow old, these lessons are invaluable at all stages of life.
  • “Stupid”: That’s another 10 push-ups. Limiting speech with the first bad word is bad; judging that speech with this one is worse. “Stupid” is the gateway insult for verbal and emotional abuse. I hear this word more often in conversations amongst adults than I do with children. In fact, researchers have found that 75% of workers have been bullied with the use of repeated demeaning or insulting words a hallmark of the epidemic. 
  • “Should/Shouldn’t”: Shame, shame, shame. Albert Ellis made this word, and its deletion from everyone’s vocabulary, the premise of his Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). Judgment of self and others is the consequence of saying “should”.  For example, your sweet baby boy asks for a lollipop (filled with powerful antioxidants – Mom wins) after he has already had his dinner, juice, and a cookie. You ask yourself, “Should I let him have (what he thinks is) another treat.” Your judgmental self is what answers, “I don’t want him to have a sweet tooth” or “I don’t want him to always get what he wants” or a litany of other emotional reactions to one behavior, a request for a lollipop. The moral here is to ACCEPT the action/behavior without judging it. 

Spark Note Summary

We all grew up singing about sticks and stones doing more harm than words. Then, we all became grown ups who knew that words do more harm than any sticks or stones. Cleaning up your language just might clean up your relationships, at least 99.44% of them…

“Take Care, TCB”

When I was in elementary school, my best friend and I shut ourselves up in her basement to beat Super Mario Brothers. super-mario-brosWe spent hours listening to Beatles albums (yes, albums…there was a fantastic turntable in that room) while entering secret rooms for unlimited lives to rescue Princess Toadstool from King Koopa. Double whammy of disappointment for my poor mother: I was becoming a gamer and singing every Beatles song I learned. As my mother said, “I didn’t like them when I was a kid; I don’t want to listen to them, now!” Her punishment was my education in Motown. Well played (literally), Mom. Sorry, dear readers, Motown is way better than the Beatles.

aretha-franklinAs I grew into my sassy teens, my mom responded with sassy Motown. See also: Aretha Franklin. Interesting fact: legendary Motown artist Otis Redding wrote one of Aretha’s greatest hits, “Respect.” More interesting fact: Aretha vamped some additional lyrics to put her own stamp on the song, including the oft-misspoken “Take care, TCB”.

TCB, Taking Care of Business

Respect becomes one of the most important values in the life of tweens and teens. Respect, or lack thereof, is the reason venom seeps out of your sweet child’s mouth and anger drips out of their noncompliant bodies. Moms and dads, what are our responses? Show some respect”  or “Respect your elders.”  My response? Take care, TCB:

  • Two-way street: Like all parenting, you have to model appropriate behavior.
    My boys walking, talking, and filling my heart the same way.
    My boys walking, talking, and filling my heart the same way.

    You have to show respect to your tweens and teens by starting to see them as their own, growing individual, separate from your husband’s sense of humor or your facial expressions. You have to shed all stories that start, “When I was your age,” and end, “I did the same thing when I was your age.” It is important to start talking and listening to your tween and teen to meet the new person they are becoming. This will deepen your relationship and earn respect, a necessary step when you have to play the “Mom card” or “Dad card” to prevent your growing child from making a life-changing mistake.

  • Consistency: Respect is a feeling of admiration for someone based on general behaviors or achievements. Becoming a parent is achievement enough to elicit respect from your children, your family, strangers, animals, etc.
    Definition of trust
    Definition of trust

    It is a hard job. Parenting tweens and teens means living your life under a microscope powered by your children. It becomes your job to say what you mean, mean what you say, and behave in a way that is consistent with those words.

  • Boundaries: Don’t get mad, but somehow in showing your child you are a person and learning who they are as a person, you have to maintain clear boundaries. You are still the parent. You are still the top dog, head honcho, and benevolent dictator of their lives. While your tween and teen is behaviorally toddling around, they need your no-nonsense rules and expectations to stay the same as they were when he was a toddler. This is no time to be friends.

Spark Note Summary

As a mom, I give myself a daily medal for keeping my son alive and happy. I am stockpiling all unused treasures to create a monument worthy if I achieve the next level, helping nurture a young man who is kind, observant, empathetic, and respectful. Because these values are crucial to the goodness of our children, it is really hard work. Using these tips to take care of business will help the job.

Opening Pandora’s Box

img_1410 When Jacob was four months old, he was obsessed with the color blue. He grabbed anything and everything blue. He also gravitated to anything that was Mommy’s. We got him to eat fish, chicken, spicy foods, etc. by putting HIS food on MY plate. So, the combination of Mommy’s cup and the color blue gave us this adorable picture. Then, the clever makers of Budweiser came up with a delicious, cheap, beer with double the alcohol. img_1413Problem: the bottle was blue. That is how we got this other adorable picture. The parental challenge we face is how to explain to this sweet boy (one day too soon) that drinking is not cute….or fun…or cool…or anything permissable until he is 21 years old.

I am writing this blog on the precipice of Oktoberfest, the gateway holiday for the season of playing with friends and family. That season is also a time of overdoing and undersupervising. Fifteen years of teaching and eight years of counseling have given me a front row seat to substance use and abuse. Here are the secrets I have learned from the mouths of addicts and the families who love them.

Welcome to Drugs 101

There are some common physical and/or behavioral clues that you have a loved one who is building a relationship with an illegal substance. The illegal substances we are talking about include tobacco and alcohol because of the legal ages required to consume those products. Take a breath, moms and dads…here we go:

  • Tobacco: In 2011, the National Institutes of Health published a study that qualified tobacco as a gateway drug. The study talks about the changes in the brain caused by nicotine.joe-camel The piece of the puzzle that I have seen is how many of my clients started smoking at the ages of 8 or 9 before they wind up facing a charge of marijuana possession. The connection is a straight line. Teaching your lungs how to inhale tobacco smoke will allow kids to hold in the smoke, and addictive chemicals, of marijuana and heroin. Now who misses Joe Camel?
  • Alcohol: I confess. I was so drunk at my sister’s bat mitzvah (when I was 16 years old) that I forgot to duck to allow the garage door to open when I left the house the next morning. My explanation is a cultural double-whammy: in the Jewish faith, you are an adult after your bar/bat mitzvah (traditionally at 13 years old), and it was common in my family to “not mind” when a teenager drank as long as it was with family. Sound familiar?
    Some states have laws that permit a child younger than 21 years old to drink

    The worry for parents is binge drinking. It should take approximately 4 hours, one drink per hour, to reach the legal limit of .08; binge drinking means you have been able to reach that level in half the time. Here is something you didn’t want to know: in order to avoid consequences from parents who use a breathalyzer regularly, I have had clients who snort alcohol or soak tampons in alcohol to put in their rectums to get drunk quickly. If we  an only harness that kind of clever ingenuity for good, world hunger, cancer, and global warming would be fodder for history books

  • Marijuana: IT’S NOT THE SAME! If you learn nothing else, please accept that whatever you smoked in your youth is not nearly as potent as what is currently available. The incredible scientific advancements that enhance crops to feed poor communities and create generic medications that save all of our budgets were used by less honorable businessmen to engineer highly potent, increasingly more addictive marijuana. And, forget trying to remember the nicknames and codes you may have used to monitor what your child knows about this drug. You will not be more clever than they are. What you should remember is how thirsty you were, how lazy you were, and how badly your eyes burned. Then, when your child blames allergies and overwork at school for those symptoms, you will be appropriately curious. Fun factoid: children that suffer from ADHD often behave more hyperactive when under the influence of marijuana.
  • Heroin: Thanks to the rise in our insurance co-pays, economics drew tweens and teens to the street to chase their prescription pill highs with a more affordable drug. The average street price of “oxy” ranges from $10 to $25; a $2 balloon of heroin gets you the same high. This phenomenon is not new. Finding more affordable replacements for upper class drugs, like cocaine, is what led to the crack epidemic. Your kid is afraid of needles? No problem! Heroin can be smoked or snorted. It is a versatile drug that shows no signs of decreasing in popularity. The federal government is just starting to address the national epidemic by limiting the amount of scripts and refills doctors write for injury. Sorry, parents, but if your sweet boy or baby girl is an athlete, watch what happens after an injury. Gross factoid: opiates like heroin cause intense constipation. Complaints about stomach cramping or lack of success in the bathroom may be an indicator. hand-full-of-pills
  • Adderral, Ritalin, Xanax, Percoset, Etc.: Name brands or generics, their prescriptions or  yours, there is no problem with availability or opportunity for these drugs. My clients refer to “skittles” parties, friendly gatherings where everyone brings whatever pills available to put into a communal bowl for anyone to gamble with a handful. The concern for medical personnel is waiting for blood work in order to treat an overdose. That wait time can be lethal. Sadly, grandparents are the number one unwilling accomplices to this form of drug abuse based on the amount of pills they have in their homes and the amount of love they feel when their grandchildren visit.

Spark Notes

There are hundreds of articles, books, and expert opinions on the topic of teen substance abuse. There are more drugs to discuss and tricks to spotting addiction to learn. It is important to know that you don’t need a family history to raise a child struggling with drug use or abuse. You just need a child to make a bad decision. Like most family problems, substance use and abuse are nobody’s fault and everyone’s responsibility. You can help correct that mistake like our mythological friend, Pandora…hope.