Bullying and Social Media: What is it Doing to Our Children?

When I first became a therapist, children and teens taking their own life was an extremely rare occurrence.  Now, unfortunately, it seems to be a true risk to all of our children!  It’s mind boggling to me that a child can be that distraught that they would go through the process of thought and behavior that it takes to execute a successful suicide.  And yet it happens daily! What must they be feeling and thinking that makes it a viable option?

I think there are multiple issues that contribute to such an act.  Too many to discuss in one article.  But one thing that has definitely changed in recent years that contributes to this issue is social media and cyber bullying.  So many of the young people ending their own lives are leaving notes talking about how distraught they had been over the way they’d been treated on social media, that the bullying became too much.  I think this cry for help must be heard!  It is tragically too late for the youth who have followed through with their suicidal intentions, but if we do something about this, maybe it will save another suffering child.

First, I think we need to look at the age at which children are accessing social media and ask ourselves, is this a developmentally appropriate activity for them to be participating in?  And if so, what should the parameters be?  Social media allows anyone to say anything with the push of a button.  We all know that children are impulsive; they act without thinking.  They also lack the cognitive development to fully understand the consequences of their actions.  All of this makes it very likely that they will post something on social media that they have not taken the time to think through.

Now let’s add to that the insecurity of this age of adolescence and pre-adolescence.  Kids at this age are learning who they are amongst their peers.  They haven’t figured it out yet and are “trying on” different ways of being.  In some ways, middle school and high school has a “survival of the fittest” feel to it socially.  Many children are afraid to be the one that does not fit in or becomes the target of a mean comment or joke, and often times children will say mean things to another in response to that fear.  And again, because they can’t think through all of the potential consequences of th0ese actions, if they have access to social media where their words and actions reach many with the click of a button, the damage can be much more substantial than it would have been before this medium existed.

And what about the person who is having trouble fitting in?  He or she may get on social media hoping to gain some acceptance from their peers that way.  Then that person becomes the latest topic of conversation, being an easy target due to their obvious insecurities.  Something negative is said about them.  The others join in even if they may feel uneasy about it, because “at least it isn’t me!”  In a matter of hours, the number of mean comments and the people laughing at the person have compounded. The targeted person has difficulty escaping it.  The theme of the bullying grows very quickly because of the level of connectedness (most students at the school are connected on the site) and the real time format (as soon as it’s written it shows on the site).  It becomes like a wild fire in the wind, growing quickly and strengthening with each moment that passes, devouring whatever is in its path.

Anyone in this situation would be feeling pretty terrible.  But an adult would hopefully have the life skills to be able to understand that this will eventually pass, that we all have low moments, and then we move on to another stage of life.  But we are not talking about an adult, we are talking about a young person, someone who’s primary developmental task is figuring out the answer to that question, “who am I amongst my peers?”  And this has just happened, that child is the target of the ridicule from his/ her peers.  No doubt feeling terrible.  Development comes into play again.  He/ she lacks the ability to see the bigger picture, to understand that this pain is temporary, to realize that it will pass.  This person becomes distraught, depressed.  He/ she feels worthless.  They feel like nothing amongst their peers; a loser. It feels overwhelming.  In time, this grows to thoughts of suicide.

When we understand the emotional and mental development of teens and pre-teens, I think it becomes obvious that they are not yet ready to navigate the turbulent waters of all that social media has to offer. At minimum, they are not ready to navigate it unsupervised.  They can become caught up in this scenario, either as a bully or as a victim very easily.  It can happen to anyone, and kids of this age are particularly at risk.

But then, as a parent, we all know that social media is how the kids connect.  If they are the “only” kid not allowed to be on snapchat or Instagram or twitter, their social lives will be “over”, or so they would have you believe.  It’s such a complicated issue.  How do we, as parents, navigate it? How do we decide what to allow and what not to allow? If we do allow it, how much do we monitor them? What about issues like “privacy” (a favorite word for my teen clients to use with their parents in session when discussing this issue)?  This is a topic for another article.  Because, like this whole issue, and like parenting in general, it does not have an easy answer.  But I hope this article got all the parents out there thinking.  Because we all need to make mindful decisions when it comes to our youth and social media.  And we all need to teach our children about this issue and how not to get caught in the trap of bullying.  And we all need to talk with our children about options if they ever feel like they are being bullied.  No one has all the answers. None of us can stop this alone, but hopefully together, through lots of conversations and perhaps some parameters and limits, we can do something to deter that next tragedy!

This Year’s Flu: How Do We Manage the Fear?

The statistics are everywhere: 42 people in California under the age of 65 have died this year; 32 in our state in one week; a local boy has died; another is fighting for his life in the ICU.  Many doctor’s offices are out of the flu vaccine.  It’s staggering and very scary!  I’ve seen social media posts from parents considering keeping their children home from school.  Posts about how to protect ourselves.  Posts about questions about the flu shot.  This year, flu and fear seem to go hand in hand!

So how do we not let the fear overcome us? How do we maintain that delicate balance between protection and peace?  To achieve this, we must start with examining our thoughts.  The common belief is that how we feel is due to things that happen.  But the truth is, there is something that occurs between an event and our emotions, and that is how we THINK about the situation.  To demonstrate this point, imagine if it started pouring down rain right now, how would you feel? Some may say happy, another sad, maybe someone else angry.  These emotions are all different for the same rain.  Why is that? It is because of how each individual thinks about the rain.  For the person who is happy, the thoughts may be, “I love the rain and we really need it.”  The person who is sad may think, “I really wanted to be outside today and now I won’t be able to.”  The person who is angry may think, “Darn it, I just had my car washed.”  Their individual thoughts are what causes the different emotional state.  This example may seem juvenile, but when we begin to apply it to other situations, we can quickly begin to see what a difference how we think about things can make.

When it comes to something outside of our control, like rather we get the flu or not, we need to examine our thoughts.  When we focus on something that is not within our control, this is an irrational thought, even if it is a “true” thought.  The reason it is irrational is because of our inability to control it.  It causes nothing but negative feelings for us, but does not change the situation (because, by definition, the situation cannot be changed).

Let’s apply this concept to this current fear of contracting the flu.  If we are consumed by thoughts such as, “what if I get the flu?”, “what if my baby gets it”, “we could die from this flu!” it will cause only one result: fear and worry.  It will not change if we or our loved ones get the flu.  And another important thing it will stop us from doing is focusing on what we CAN control.  Fear is crippling.  It makes us feel helpless.  These thoughts make us feel helpless.  So we need to change them, possibly to: “I can’t control if I get the flu, but I can make sure to wash my hands often and get the flu shot”, “I can’t stop my baby from getting the flu but I can limit his exposure by not going to some of the high-risk areas and by making sure everyone who holds him is healthy and has washed their hands.”  We can say, “most people do not die from the flu, so even if my family gets it, the chances are extremely high we will be just fine.”  Once we give up this focus on things outside of our control, we can take appropriate measures to protect ourselves, we can make rational and informed decisions about how we want to proceed, if we want to keep our kids home from school, if we want to avoid the play area, if we want to get the flu shot, etc.

The truth is, knowledge is power, but if we are making emotionally reactive decisions, then we are not using that knowledge to empower us.  If we reduce our anxiety and emotional reactivity, we can achieve the goal of balance between protection and peace, we can control what we can and let go of the rest.   We can learn not to let this flu have power over us anymore!

“Did you feel safe?”: Protecting children from sexual abuse

I, like most parents out there, want to protect my children and keep them safe from all of the dangers of the world. Due to my profession, I know the realities of the dangers that lurk amongst our children probably more than most. I know that sexual abuse is one of the most real and threatening dangers facing our children. I know that estimates state that one in three girls and one in six boys are sexually abused as children and that some estimates put the number closer to one in four for boys. I know that most children do not disclose their sexual abuse, even to loving and concerned parents. I know that children are much more likely to be sexually abused by someone they know. Much more likely! I know that predators groom their victims and also groom the parents, sometimes for years, before acting on their intentions. This means that someone I trust, someone who is a part of my inner circle, may actually intend on harming my child at some point.

One more scary thing my experience has taught me is that I cannot identify who in my world would want to harm my children. Even with all of my years of experience in this field and dealing with this specific issue, I cannot determine who may be a perpetrator. Sure, I can have an uneasy feeling about someone, and I’m darn sure I wouldn’t ignore that after all my work in this area, but I know I may not get a “feeling” about someone who could be a danger. Because perpetrators can spend years grooming a parent before acting, making them feel comfortable, becoming like part of the family (or even being family), there is really no way for any of us to know who could be a threat.

I also know that I want my children to feel safe in their world. I want them to be trusting and to believe that the world is a good and safe place. I want to preserve the innocence of their childhood as long as possible. I want them to love and trust their community and the people in it. I don’t want them to be scared or paranoid that they could be harmed.

So, these disheartening facts have left me, as a parent, struggling to find balance between preserving my children’s innocence and trust in their community and knowing if they are truly safe. How does a parent ask their kid about their experiences away from them without sounding paranoid? Without freaking out our children or giving them the sense that something bad could happen at any point or that the people in their lives cannot be trusted? I used to ask my kids about their time away from me with questions like, “did you have fun?”, “what did you do?”, “who was there?” and then just watch their reactions to these questions, hoping I would pick up on any change in their demeanor or discomfort about something. To ask more could freak them out! So I didn’t. But it didn’t feel like enough.

Then a few years ago I heard from somewhere something brilliant (maybe TV or an article, I honestly can’t remember the source). A way to ask that will mean virtually nothing to your child if everything is fine, but could make all the difference if at some point your child is at risk or has actually been harmed. Now I ask my kids, along with all of the other questions above, “did you feel safe the whole time?” The responses I get to that question varies from child to child. From one of my children, with a sigh of annoyance that mom is so overprotective and a monotone “yes mom” with a slight eye roll. For another, it is a little laugh with a “mom you always ask that question!” To which I respond that it’s my job to make sure he’s safe, to which he tells me, “well, my answer is always going to be yes!”

These responses give me tons of useful information. Most importantly, I get to know that their sense of safety is intact. As of now, they can’t imagine that they would ever be in a situation where harm is a real possibility (and for that I thank my lucky stars daily!).

It also gives me a way to check in on their experience. It helps me know that not only did they have fun, but all was well in their little worlds while they were outside of my protective wings.

Another thing this creates, and I love this, is a way for them to check in on their own intuition. I am communicating to them that their intuition is important, that any sense of fear or discomfort they may have is something they should pay attention to. (This is something I have discussed with them all at various times).

And the number one thing this question gives me is a baseline. I know how they each respond. Yes, I see annoyance (that is my job, after all), but I also see comfort. This question does not make them withdraw. It does not make them shut down. It does not make them become defensive. If there is any change in that at any point, I will know I need to investigate further.

While I know the dangers out there and I fear them greatly, as I think every responsible parent does, I know I cannot keep my children from experiencing some of the pain life brings. I have to let them go. I have to take a deep breath and trust that they will be OK. I cannot let my professional experiences make me paranoid. I do find comfort, however, that I am doing my part to keep them safe during this short and sacred time we call childhood. I believe that these four little words, “did you feel safe?” is an important tool in my large toolbox of ideas and strategies to keep them safe and to help them grow into well-adjusted adults. If you find it helpful, feel free to add it to your toolbox as well!

Social Media: What are our rights and what are our responsibilities?

We live in an interesting era. Anyone with a computer, or even a phone for that matter, can have a platform to say anything to anyone. There are so many ways that this thing we call social media is positive. It is an excellent way to keep in touch with people. It’s great for sharing information. News of issues like missing pets and amber alerts can get around so quickly. But there is a flip side. What about when something bad happens? What are our rights and what are our responsibilities.

Imagine for a minute, if you will, being a fourteen year old middle school girl. I don’t know about you, but I think middle school can be quite the social jungle. I work with kids this age all the time who are struggling with their identity. Dealing with issues like anxiety and depression, trying to negotiate the social aspect of this age, and attempting the manage the pressures of school, friends, sports, etc. it can be a grueling time in a person’s life.

Now I would ask you to imagine that this fourteen year old girl has just had her world rocked by some major life tragedy within her family. Something so horrible and upsetting that she has been crying herself to sleep every night. Her parents are fighting non-stop and they are at risk of losing everything. The pressure feels unmanageable to her and in her fourteen year old mind, things will never get better. Then she goes to school and the kids there are whispering behind her back, some are pointing at her as she walks by, and some are even coming up to her saying terrible and shaming things. And she realizes that her worst nightmare has come true. That every person at her school knows her family’s shameful secret. That she is now a social outcast! She wants to lean on her friends but finds that most of them have turned their backs on her too. Her anxiety level goes through the roof. She has no escape from this pain. Home is terrible and now school is too. She feels completely alone.

I don’t know about you, but as an adult, I would want my children to be her friend, to go up to her and put their arm around her, to tell her it will be alright, that this is temporary and this pain will end in time. I would want her to have comfort and support. I would want her to feel like her community is in her corner. I would want her neighbors to offer to listen and her team mates to tell her they’re there for her. In this time in her life, she needs it more than ever. In fact, it could mean the difference between life and death, for all of this pressure has made her begin to think that it would be better if she just were not here anymore.

If you’re imagining this, I bet you are feeling bad for this girl. I bet you are hoping someone comes along to comfort her. I bet you’re thinking if you were her neighbor you would reach out, if your kid was her friend you’d tell them to be there for her.

But now let’s imagine that the issue this girl is having, this tragedy, is something shameful that a family member did. Let’s say her father has been arrested for allegations of molesting a child, or her mother for driving drunk driving that seriously injured a family with young children, or maybe her older brother was driving like an irresponsible teen and killed himself and his passenger. What shame that girl would feel. What worry and sadness. How embarrassed would she be, the fourteen year old who is already embarrassed by nearly everything. But now this child has a whole other layer of pain and shame she has to manage, that it feels like her entire community has turned against her. The worst things are being written about her family. People are saying that the mom she has always loved, the one who has taken her to all her soccer games and kissed all her booboos, should have died in that wreck and is a terrible person. People are saying her dad, who has helped her with her homework and tucked her in at night, is an evil man. Her brother, who once stuck up for her against a bully, was a terrible person who should have known better and ruined so many lives. It’s almost more than she can bare, to read those things now when her life is shattered to a million pieces.

When something tragic and avoidable happens, we as a community all feel outrage. This is completely understandable. It’s been that way always. In times past, we might have discuss it with our neighbor over the fence, “that man should rot in jail.” We may talk to another parent about it at football practice, “I’ve always known that woman drinks too much.” We may text our best friend, “that boy was being stupid driving like that; I bet he was high.” But now, we turn to our phones and our computers. We don’t just post it on our personal wall for our few hundred friends to see, we put our opinions and thoughts, our shock and outrage, on public sites for thousands to read about, including that fourteen year old girl.

So let’s stop and think for a moment. Is this the version of ourselves we want the whole world to see, the version that is spiteful and (understandably) angry? Is this what we want to model for our children? How do we expect them to go to school and not whisper and point, not call her a name, when we are essentially publicly shaming her on social media? I think we must remember that we are not talking to our neighbor, our fellow sports parent, or our best friend when we are typing on a public site, we are talking to everyone, including that innocent child who’s world has just fallen apart. I urge each of you, before those fingers touch that keyboard, to stop and think. If this is not something you would knock on that girl’s door and say to her tear-streaked face, it may not be something to write in a public forum.

Do we have a RIGHT to post these things? I suppose the answer is “yes”. But what are our RESPONSIBILITIES?

But YouTube Says He’s A Narcissist: The Dangers of Internet Diagnoses

In this information age, there are positives and negatives when it comes to mental health.

I can not tell you the number of times a person enters my office these days with a diagnosis in mind. Either one for themselves or for another person in their life. “I watched a bunch of videos on YouTube and I now know he’s a narcissist.” “I believe that she’s bipolar because I looked up the diagnostic criteria.” “She must be borderline, everything I’ve read fits that.”

Back when I was in college, we used to call this “medical student syndrome.” It happens when you learn about a list of diagnostic criteria and then everyone you know seems to fit that criteria, often yourself included. I remember this happening to me when I took Abnormal Psych, just as the professor had warned us it would. For months I walked around thinking I was surrounded by every mental health diagnosis there was, including a few myself. The problem is, a person no longer has to get their hands on the latest version of the DSM to look up diagnostic criteria, it’s all right there on the internet with the click of a button.

So what are the positive and what are the negatives to this? Well, one positive is that it has definitely increased awareness about mental illness, which I hope has also decreased some of the stigma associated with it. It also can increase people’s understanding which can help with empathy towards those who suffer from mental illness. And of course, the information can help people understand when they may need to seek professional help.

But like most things, there can also be negatives associated with too much information, especially in the hands of people who have not had the training, education, or experience to know what to do with that information. My biggest concern is that when it comes to diagnosing, it really should be left to the professionals. Diagnostic criteria is only that, it is a list of symptoms that indicate that an individual COULD have a specific diagnosis. It does not mean that they DO have that diagnosis.

How many times have you searched for physical symptoms you are experiencing, only to then not be able to sleep because you are worried it may actually be a brain tumor (or something equally as terrifying), because the Internet said it could be?

To illustrate this point, I just did an internet search for some very common symptoms to see what would come up. I typed in “headache, fatigue, irritability”, things most of us experience from time to time. Several diagnoses immediately came up: sinusitis, insomnia, migraine, chronic fatigue syndrome, and hypothyroidism. One website states that there are actually 126 conditions associated with these symptoms! So how would one know which condition actually applies to them? We would have to go to the doctor and go through a diagnostic evaluation to differentiate between all of the possibilities until a trained professional is able to determine what the correct diagnosis actually is. Most of the time, thank goodness, it is not a brain tumor.

But what are the dangers of this when it comes to mental health? What I have experienced that is concerning is that when people come to believe they or someone they love has a certain mental health diagnosis, then they begin to deal with that person as though that is actually the diagnosis. This can be extremely dangerous. I’ve had young children come into my office telling me that they have diagnoses they should have never heard of and are not even able to pronounce. This labeling is not good for anyone, especially when it is a label not determined through sound diagnostic methods. I’ve had people make the decision to leave spouses believing the person is unchangeable or the situation is hopeless due to an internet search. I’ve had clients do things that exacerbate symptoms, believing they are helping, because someone on the Internet said that’s what should be done.

So I urge everyone to take a moment. Slow down your process. If you think you or someone you love may have a mental health diagnosis, seek professional help. It is not uncommon for symptoms to look like a diagnosis but actually be the result of something else, like family dynamics, developmental issues, emotional immaturity, or even basic conditioning.

It is often the case that people bring their children or teens to me for treatment convinced they have a severe mental health diagnosis, and once treatment is complete, the symptoms have dissipated. It is not uncommon for a couple to begin marriage therapy with the wife telling me the husband is a narcissist and so the marriage can not be saved, and then end treatment with a partner who is empathetic and compassionate. Teasing out, diagnosing, and then treating these issues must be done by a qualified mental health professional with experience with the issue of concern.

So as tempting as it may be, I really urge you to stay off the internet when it comes to concerns of mental health. It really can do more harm than good. And unfortunately it often does. The good news is, he may not be a narcissist after all!