This short film about Gratitude shaped Everyone Matters by Louie Shwartzberg. It’s a great reset for your day, your week, your life.
At least here in Colorado, but really, everywhere. I guess it always has been, and that didn’t seem to be that big of a deal. As a clinician, it comes as a relief if a teenager prefers weed to alcohol; less car accidents, less non-consensual sex, a culture of kind, maybe even philosophical friends.
Meanwhile, it’s a becoming a huge problem. Edibles, vape pens, dabbing. Marijuana is available in intensely high doses and can be undetectable by parents and teachers. Some teens are high 24/7. Literally. Some use it to self-medicate, saying it helps their anxiety. That might be true, at least at first. But different strains act differently in the brain; most teens are happy to get their hands on any weed and don’t know what they are smoking. One day they feel good, the next they feel paranoid and antisocial. One day, they might take a test high and pull it off. They try to replicate that, and fail the next one. Coming down from being high, people are irritable, tired, and might have rebound depression, anxiety, stress. Some people can’t control how much they eat when they are high, then feel guilty, compounding body image issues. Most people are lethargic on weed, so they exercise less, too. One big problem with marijuana is it seems so versatile; every situation is a reason to get high. Movies, get high. Going out to eat, get high. Boring class, get high. Weekends, high. You get the point.
Regardless of whether marijuana seems to be “working” or not, there is compounding evidence that it’s bad for young brains. As with all drugs, the rule is, wait till you’re 25. This is laughable to teens, who strive to party pretty hard and to plan not to be concerned about their brains for several years. They feel invincible. And apathetic. Oh, did I mention weed makes people more apathetic?! But unfortunately, it doesn’t make them invincible.
What’s the solution? Let’s begin with, who needs to be high 24/7? That’s a clear signal that something is wrong. Real life, sober life, needs to be tolerable, enjoyable. Get to the bottom of that. Smoke less. Way less. Or, just wait. Every day, month, year later a teen starts smoking, the better. If a teen has real anxiety or stress, get professional help. Of course, there are larger policy decisions to be made, including this one. Sorry for the constant NYTimes references, but, hey, it’s a good resource! Read this:
Oh, Procrastination. So ubiquitous. So simple yet so, not simple. Yet another article to address it, this one from the New York Times:
I liked this one because it reminds me of one of my favorite interventions. To back up: the best known, state-of-the-art treatment for most psychological symptoms is CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which was popularized in the 80s and 90s in response to the stream of consciousness, tell me about your mother, lay on a couch method that just hadn’t helped that many people. It is so great because, as it turns out, there are things you can DO to change, rather than just wait for you or your therapist to have some revelation about your mother. One great thing you can do is realize your cognitive distortions or dysfunctional thought patterns that set you up for failure, depression, self-loathing, all that fun stuff your brain automatically manufactures. You can look up lists of cognitive distortions and get to work on how to replace them with more accurate and effective thoughts.
One of the lesser known but important cognitive distortions is Emotional Reasoning, or assuming negative emotions reflect the way things really are. For example, “I feel guilty. I must be a terrible person.” Or “I feel angry. This proves I am being treated unfairly.” One of the best examples of Emotional Reasoning relates to procrastination and avoidance. Such as, I feel overwhelmed by how much I have to do, so I guess I can’t do it. I don’t feel like doing my work, so I will wait until I feel like doing it later. I don’t feel like I can focus now, therefore I can’t focus now.
One of the qualities of successful, satisfied people is doing what needs to be done and what you have deemed important to your overall life and goals, even when it’s not what you feel like doing. And, as your mother has told you so many times before, the things you feel like doing feel especially great when you have gotten the other things out of the way. See, moms don’t just cause our mental distress, they solve it! (Now if we would just listen to them).
Two other very relevant, moderately psycho-babble terms that relate to procrastination are frustration toleranceand delay of gratification. It’s what we aim to teach kids but can be the hardest things to actually teach our kids. We want to give them what they want, and we hate to see them suffer. They hate it too, but some of it is good for them. And some kids have a harder time with delaying gratification and tolerating frustration no matter what we set up for them. It has to do with their nervous systems, temperaments, and subjective levels of distress they truly feel when frustrated, when confronted with negative emotions, and when tempted by impulses.
So, procrastination is real. It’s probably why I found that article and am writing about it rather than attending to the other less desirable things on my list. But I can rationalize it, since I feel like I am helping you and doing something good for the world, and that, obviously, makes me a good person!
Lori Gottlieb, a writer and psychotherapist (a writer first, which explains why she writes so much and so intimately about psychotherapy- clients sign a disclosure form allowing her to write about them before beginning therapy), recently published Maybe You Should Talk to Someone about her experiences as a client and a therapist. I have not and might not read it (single parents don’t get to read a lot, and even then, I gravitate first to more professional texts, then biographies, and in a rare moment of luxury, some delicious fiction). Sometimes it actually hurts to think of all the books I have not read, and music I have not heard. So, maybe you can let me know if I really should read this book.
But I found this Fresh Air interview interesting and I thought you might, too, especially if you have wondered how (some) therapists feel about their clients and the therapeutic process. I will say, I disagree on a few things. For example, I never find my clients boring, actually!
Also this week, Ms. Gottlieb wrote a follow up article on how much a patient should know about their therapist, and in light of the blog my clients can access due to the extraordinary circumstances of my family’s life, this might also interest some of you.
I have been so touched by recent suicides, both in our community and around the nation, if not the globe. The stories keep rolling in. An almost constant theme: the suffering person does not feel they can keep up, or prove their worth, or fulfill society’s expectations of what it means to be a good or functioning or contributing member of their family, school, community…
In psychology, the word narcissism is usually reserved for people with “personality disorders.” This diagnosis suggests they were raised without the necessary affirmation from healthy adults to develop a sturdy sense of self, one that can operate confidently and with healthy relationships. Narcissists need to surround themselves with people that constantly build their egos, that make them feel special and even superior to others, that insist on the illusion of grandiosity to feel worthy.
There are different kinds of narcissism, like “infantile narcissism” which is relatively unsophisticated… they throw lots of tantrums and remind me of certain world leaders. I digress. There are much more sophisticated narcissists, like those who are super high functioning and earn all the accolades they need. They might seem and act like sincerely effective parents or friends or professionals, feeling genuinely great about themselves. It’s usually in times of stress or conflict that their narcissism becomes more pronounced and confusing to others. Such as, if such a great parent, why do situations suddenly seem to be more about looking good than showing true empathy toward their child?
You can look up different kinds of narcissists online. These categories are mostly made up by lay people. It’s kind of interesting to look them up, but none of them describe what I am talking about today. You might even learn about how narcissism leads to depression, because we can’t always feel great about ourselves, and that’s depressing to a narcissist. But what you don’t hear is how depression sometimes leads tonarcissism. Enter the wrecking ball.
Forgive the frequent reference to Mike. I am not interested in diagnosing Mike with anything (other than his evident depression). Which is why he is just such a perfect example. He was the LEAST narcissistic person I knew. He was humble, hardworking, surrounded himself with people that challenged him, took feedback to heart, and worked on being a truly good person. He had several chances to be “big.” He was an award-winning writer with several books up his sleeve, but he never quite published them. He was a little shy. He never tried to be the center of attention. He liked asking questions more than talking about himself, and when talking about himself he would defer to other experts- philosophers, usually, but also leading neuropsychologists and any great thinkers he could find. He was the most empathetic person I have ever met. He felt sad for socks that were half-sticking out of a drawer, and he would tuck them in every time. He was even better with his kids and clients, and don’t even get me started on his pets.
Still, we all have some dormant narcissism. We all want to know that we are good and special. This is where the depression can go awry. People with depression often feel crushing self-consciousness. Self-consciousness becomes humiliation, then guilt. It consumes them. As psychologists, it’s one of the first things we try to do away with, because guilt is so detrimental to getting better. Depressed people often feel they aren’t living up to expectations, they won’t ever give enough to the world. When they realize that other people have it worse, they feel even worse about being depressed. They may fear they will not be accepted or will not be good for those around them. They begin to feel like a burden, like they are taking up too much space and not giving enough back to be worth even the air they breathe.
A depressed person can’t think clearly, can’t plan their way out of things, can’t see the future. It’s easy for us to tell them it will get better. And it almost always does. But to give it a chance, they have to agree to just be human, to just face each day with whatever they have to offer, to fend off the bullies and jerks telling them they are not good enough. They have to find people and circumstances that resonate with them. Or music or animals or mountaintops or purposeful jobs.
Mike resonated with so many people and places and things, but in the end, he was too afraid he might lose them. He was so used to being good at life that he came to depend on it. He couldn’t just be the guy that does an okay job. In the end, he was trying so hard to feel good about himself that he began to feel terrible. He was a truly great person, and he set the bar too high. He only had to be here and to take care of himself long enough to get out of his funk. People do it, even though it’s hard. It takes real humility, not humiliation.
In the end, there was no amount of reassurance to fill him up, which sounds a lot like a narcissist.
Remember: we are all special, we are all worthy. We don’t always feel it, and we panic. It’s ok. It’s a matter of time, practice, reassurance. More practice. More humility. Real actions. Little ones, day by day. Finding resonance, the right circumstances, the right environments. Buying some time, believing in yourself. Tolerating your flaws and remembering that we all have them. It’s ok. It’s not great, but it’s ok. We are all doing the best we can every day, and that’s enough. If you wonder if you could do more for yourself or the world, think about what you want to do, what you can do, and do it, whenever and however possible. That’s all.
I was recently reminded of this article on falling in love… it is a great read whether you’re trying to fall in love or not. I especially like the last part where you stare into each other’s eyes. It’s true that we almost never stare into a person’s eyes unless we are falling in love (or as a newborn infant bonding with a trusted caregiver, still only briefly before averting their gaze to self-soothe).
In graduate school, we endured a similar rite of passage—we had to sit knee to knee and stare into the eyes of a stranger for about 20 minutes. We weren’t trying to fall in love, but it was really something. Pretty profound.
No matter whose soul you are diving into, this article reminds us to look at each other, to truly know each other, and to remain intimately attached.
Are our loved ones communicating with us from the other side? What are they saying? What do we need them to say?
With Mike, I don’t need much. Sometimes, it’s because I am angry. I don’t reassurance that he is watching over me or sending us love. I just want him here with us, alive. I wish that was a choice. Other times, I just worry about him, and wonder what happened to his beautiful soul. I feel relieved because I already know he is in less pain, hopefully no pain, by definition of having left his body and this life, or at least that mind at that time in that body in this life.
But mostly, I miss him so much and I see signs of him everywhere. I am a skeptic, so I assume I am making these up. But some of them really stick with me. Mike was a man of words, poetic ones. So it makes sense that he tends to show up in words. Like music lyrics. Once, I was driving home from Red Rocks on Father’s Day, the first one after his death, and I had my music on shuffle. I don’t listen to any of those music apps, I like to buy music and a lot of it. I have a pretty huge collection of music on my phone. Sometimes when I don’t know what to play I just shuffle through the songs and it’s quite a crapshoot. That night, on the way home in a torrential rain storm, 9 or 10 songs played in a row, each one an uncanny memory and a specific message from Mike. Let’s just say, if he were trying to reach me, these are the exact songs he would play.
Months after Mike died, I finally got the courage to turn a city corner towards what had been our favorite museum, one that we loved so much that our kids basically grew up there… soaking in events on the rooftop lounge and mastering the vast elevators and nooks as if it was their own castle. This is what I saw:
I actually laughed, it was so ridiculously obvious or at least ridiculously apropos.
The first Halloween we navigated without Mike was practically unbearable. I would say it was totally unbearable but apparently, life did go on. The kids and I sat in a parking lot at one of those pop-up Halloween stores, and I didn’t think I’d be able to go in. After all, this was Mike’s THING. Like, I had not even been in one of these stores because Mike did this every year. He lived for Halloween. He was always trying to bring home more holiday stuff. Often second-hand Halloween decorations (and Christmas decorations, any decorations). He liked to give peoples’ old decorations new homes, I think he actually felt sorry for them. Honestly, I hated most of that stuff. The plastic, the clutter. I never liked Halloween, either. Anyway, it was hard. I felt paralyzed. I wasn't sure I could go in. Then my most stoic child said, “You got this. We got this.” And we went in.
It became my mantra and our family motto.
This summer, we finally returned to what had been another very special family place. We had a lot of these… we tried to create rituals and meaning with the kids by making them feel at home at a few great places and returning to these places time and time again. This is so hard to reflect on, because it means 1. Mike went out of his way to design amazing experiences for his beautiful daughters, then he just left (I guess this one is obvious, but it still just stuns me every time) and 2. now I have to figure out what to do about all these awesome places that the kids call home. Meaning, I have to get up the guts to take them back there. To reclaim these beautiful places and even the memories.
So, I got up the guts to take them to our favorite hot spring (that’s saying a lot to pick a favorite, we basically travel by hot spring… especially with little kids, it’s the best). Again, it was hard. We brought friends. It was special and worth it. One morning, I went to one of the revered pools and looked around and saw this new sign installed on the wall:
Later that same day, I went to a nearby town for some marshmallows. There is one co-op in this one-street town that indeed housed organic marshmallows, strange animal products, and this rack of greeting cards:
I’ll take the signs when I can get them. Halloween is right around the corner. Again.
A few weeks ago, I was surprised to learn that my graduate students, some of whom are near completion of their doctorate, had not heard of, much less learned about, post-traumatic growth. To be fair, it is a relatively new concept. But such an immensely important one. We discussed it in reference to several of our clinical cases, but I know the most about it because of my own kids.
I remember hearing a story about post-traumatic growth on NPR. I had an a-ha moment, because I had been trying to consider the ways that my children are growing from losing their dad. This line of thinking feels traitorous to me, and I think to most people. We are expected to be devastated and miserable. And that is true. But everyone also hopes we will at least be ok. Their hearts pour out to me but even more so to our kids; they know that young minds can’t be expected to handle the immensely convoluted event of their loving father’s suicide.
So it’s pretty amazing to watch them, as they prove what they can handle. I never take it for granted. Every day they are happy and thriving, I feel that they are on the other side. I know that, at any moment, the tragedy will grip them, and at times it does. It will take decades to know just how hard and sad and strange it will feel. How abandoned or betrayed or confused or angry or even depressed they might become.
But with all those hard and yucky feelings, some great things are happening. I can’t speak for my kids, but from the outside, they seem pretty bullet-proof. They are not just getting through this, they are positively, explosively crushing it. And not with just the outside stuff, like grades or things like that. I mean the real stuff. They are genuine, vital, connected. Although so different from each other, they both seem immensely compassionate (maybe that has more to do with our pets or some Barney episodes on making friends?). They aren’t trying to be great or perfect. They aren’t perfect, not even close. They are allowed to grieve and to be messy at it. As if growing up wasn’t already messy enough.
But something is happening, and, ironically and sadly, it’s related to their huge, awful loss. Post-traumatic growth is seen when victims of trauma experience “enhanced relationships, greater self-acceptance, and a heightened appreciation of life.”
Yet, in order for this kind of outcome to be experienced (yes, noted, my kids are not “outcomes” yet), people need support from those around them. They need to be loved and listened to in order to grow. Not rocket science. But just a reminder. Love them up, people!
Some cool links to information about post-traumatic growth:
So great to hear Science Friday nerd out to some positive psychology! This is Yale’s most popular class, which is offered FREE, online. Listen to the Science Friday episode with Dr. Laurie Santos, professor of Psychology and Head of Silliman College at Yale University. Here is the segment:
And here is the class:
But honestly, prepare for some homework and tests, this stuff takes real practice. And it’s not just for fun, the statistics on depression and anxiety in college students are both depressing and anxiety provoking.
However horrific the many tales of the #MeToo movement, us moms and women know these stories are as old as time. And it's not just women and girls, as we know. Yesterday in the car, my daughters and I were listening to a Radiolab episode on immigration from Mexico, as one aspiring immigrant described having been raped multiple times while trying to cross the border, never making it across and being deeply traumatized along the journey (I tried to mute this part, but the kids insisted they were ready for the story). Of course, he experienced other, countless traumas of families being separated, dying, and going missing along the route. As we listened, we drove past the homeless shelter where, on a hot, holiday weekend, bodies poured in and out, slept on the sidewalk, or glanced vigilantly to protect their space, their food, their opportunities. We had picked up pizza and drinks, headed to a friends' house for a night of fun and food, oh, the contrast.
In a way, my kids are highly protected. They have escaped unbearable brutalities of so many's human conditions. But we are all vulnerable. It's just a question of when and how we will get hurt. What we will learn and what we should have known already. Personally, we are learning a lot about suicide. This also fits in the category of what we should have known already, but we almost never recognize that category until we are already there.
In other ways, I feel a little more prepared to protect my girls, including thanks to the #MeToo movement. I am so sad for everyone who went through it, including some still to come, no doubt, but this has also been a great time to educate my kids. I often protect them from the news, but not this news. They have heard countless stories that I know will impact their self-advocacy, their ability to speak up for others who might not feel empowered, and their ability to carve out workplace and societal reshapes, marking the beginning of a forever-different era.
By coincidence, I had recently read the book Girls and Sex, by Peggy Orenstein. It describes the changing landscape of girls/women's sex lives in the "hook up" culture that seems "post-feminist" but is not at all. It is as patriarchal and sexist as ever, and we are complicit, especially in the US. There are some European countries that can teach us about how to talk to our girls about their bodies, their sexuality, what they are allowed, what they don't have to compromise, and how to build their sense of value from the inside out. I highly recommend it. I have spoken to my kids differently since then, and I am glad to be prepared, at least in this category.
Every day, every single day, I think about how to prevent suicide. I think of this in two categories. How to prevent suicide and how to prevent Mike’s suicide. Yes, from a mile away you can clearly see my Bargaining, which is its very own stage in Kubler-Ross’s famed Stages of Grief model. In my case, Bargaining involves every convoluted twist and turn in the already-finished plot that might have saved Mike, no matter how impossible or unreasonable. It goes something like this:
1. Acquire a time machine.
2. Go way back.
3. Teach all the bullies on the playground to leave Mike alone. To leave everyone alone for that matter.
4. Teach each little kid’s parents to listen and love more.
5. Teach each child and person that they count, they are seen, they are heard, they are loved, they are surrounded by love. Show them by example.
6. Get people help when they need it and don’t stop until they get the right help.
There is a new book that my friend Tim turned me onto, it’s written by Ned Halloway but it won’t be out till the summer. It's about why he prevailed despite so many risk factors. Here’s Ned talking about it:
Man, this story makes me think of Mike, and he could have written a book like this if 1. He stayed alive to write it and 2. He could finish things like books (not his forte). Luckily, Dr. Halloway has written tons of books, and I do look forward to reading this one. I guess I would add to my Bargainers List: Ask Dr. Halloway to climb into the time machine with me and mentor Mike for months or years or, preferably, decades.
Regarding how to prevent other people’s suicides, which is what still deeply matters, that list might work. There would be some better, specific objectives like noticing when a person really does need help but isn’t getting it or stops asking. Also, noticing a person’s depression and anxiety before it even gets to that point. Finding better medications and better understanding the medications we already have. Finding and implementing alternative treatments that reflect our growing understanding of neuropsychology and neurochemistry.
Even loftier, finding better lifestyles, at least for us Westerners, that don’t constantly demand product (doing, doing, doing) over process (being…). This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have jobs or be productive (we should, and depressed people need basic productivity as much or more than the rest of us). This is just a comment on a society-wide mis-prioritization of self-sufficiency and self-worth at all costs. It leads to constant self-evaluation, self-evaluation relative to others, self-judgment, judgment of others. Why do you think the bullies are on the playground in the first place? Because someone (or even their own brains) made them feel bad about who they are. Because in our society, we feel better when we climb up ladders, stepping on other people’s heads to get there. It is a fundamentally faulty system and I spend a great deal of time every day trying to help people find better, more sustainable life philosophies.
Meanwhile, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves but we are not great at self-care. In better times, Mike touted the importance of self-care and he did things every day to protect and care for himself. In the end, his depression still became insurmountable.
The kindest, wisest people in the world can have depression. Lifelong pain accumulates and takes a lot of forms. Not all depression is treated by life philosophies, and Mike is proof of that.
Back to the bargaining table.
I have no idea. I have heard this is a great way to bond. I have changed my whole schedule just to be sure to drop off and pick my kids up from school. And my kids seem to want me to, too.
But all the effort seems to amount to little. They might go on their phones to check their Instagram (yes, they are only 12…). We’ve all been told, don’t let your kids use their phones in the car (something about how you can’t see what they are doing, total transparency, yada yada). But they actually don’t use their phones almost any other time throughout the day. Checking your phone as a passenger of a car is a pretty natural thing to do. They also use them to check in with their schedules, the weather. Hard to say no.
Other times, I notice them just staring out the window. This seems like a pretty great use of time, too. We all need that time, just to wake up or slow down and decompress.
Then, a funny thing might happen. One of them gets excited and starts telling me a story. Then the other one immediately interrupts them to try to tell their version of the story or something else entirely. Suddenly airtime is sacred and scarce, even though I have been sitting there, ready to listen, for minutes.
I guess this is the classic thing about just being around for your kids, when they need you. Just be available and don’t structure it. Feel honored when they come to you. Feel graced by their love. Feel grateful that they need you. Feel patient when they don’t.
Luckily, I love music, so rather than the radio or the news, we always have some soundtrack playing in the car. If they don’t have something they want to play, I gladly fill the space with what I want and think is good for them. Maybe it’s jazz, maybe its funk, maybe it’s something rowdy (as long as I turn it down before we roll into school; one of them is especially self-conscious). Anyway, they almost always have something they want to play, and of course, as soon as one of them wants to play something, then the other immediately wants to play something else, so then they fight over that for a while. Quality car time.
Many of the families I help have different car time challenges. It’s a great opportunity for kids to be mean to each other, cramped in with one another, no parent to witness the overt or covert abuse. Everyone’s either tired because they haven’t woken up or because they already had a big day. Probably late too. Also, has anyone else been driving in Denver lately?! Disasters abound. In this climate, there has to be a No Fighting policy. Seriously. Like, when-you-start-fighting-I-pull-over-and-wait-cause-it’s-just-unsafe policy. Even if you’re late. I remember sitting in front of a strip mall with my kid in time-out on the grass. That was a long time ago. See, it worked!
Probably the funniest use/misuse of car time I have heard of is using it for conversations like the Sex Talk. The idea being: captive audience, no eye contact, just have at it. I wouldn’t recommend it.
Update: I drove my kids around so much recently that I actually got a repetitive motion injury in my foot! I affectionately named this Soccer Mom Syndrome (SMS). I then learned to drive with my left foot. Not as hard as I thought. I’m nothing if not intrepid.
This seemed impossible. If it were not synonymous with a phone, I probably would have thrown the camera into a deep ocean by now. But in fact, there’s a camera at all of our fingertips 24/7. Still, that doesn’t mean I’m gonna use it. What for? What’s worth documenting now? Family tragedy? There is no photograph there.
I have the last photos that Mike ever took. He loved photographs. He is the only person I’ve ever heard of who actually took a photo in the courtroom when we got divorced. He was pretty jovial and said he thought it was a moment worth documenting. I am sure this sounds pretty strange. He also meant it when he turned and thanked me for keeping our last name; the judge asked for the record.
But Mike took the most pictures of his kids. All the adventures. Every performance. I guess like most people and certainly many dads. With the strange exception that, even on the day he died, he took pictures, knowing he was going to die very soon, probably even that same day.
Who does that? I thought people take pictures to share with their family. I thought people take pictures to make an album. I thought people take pictures so that much later, when we are very old, we can remember. So we can stretch time out for as long as possible. So that we can savor the precious moments forever.
I don’t know why Mike took pictures at the end. Probably because many people who might die of suicide might also live another day. And if they can live that one more day, then they might live many more days. They really don’t know. For a truly suicidal person, just about every day or even every other moment in a day is a discussion with themselves about whether to die that day. Whether to plan to live or to plan to die. Well, the pictures he took that day were for the Planning to Live Mike. The last ones he took were at his last birthday party, which was the last thing he celebrated.
Then no more photos.
At times, I would have preferred that all the memories went away, too.
Because now, good memories are bad just because they were so good.
Over the years, I remember taking pictures in pure awe that my life was so darn beautiful (to me). My kids and Mike, my family, were in the so darn beautiful category. Before the depression.
So, what next? When does one dig out the camera and start memorializing again? I wondered this for a long time. It felt like it would be forever. I just couldn’t do it.
Then, one day, it happened, out of habit. I guess I realized things are still happening… important things, special things. Life is so darn beautiful. It is so good to be here. It is so good that my kids are here, that we are healthy, that we are alive. It is such an obvious gift and it insists on being documented.
This is the title to my kids' school's sort of "assigned reading" for parents this year. Last week, the author, Julie Lythcott-Haims, presented to the students and parents, at times mollifying our over-achiever skepticism of her obviously dubious advice. Don't worry about where your kids go to college. Let them drop a class after you caught them cheating in it. Really?
Yes, really. So often, we allow these aspects of our kids' lives to define US just as much as them. Maybe more. In fact, with all of our over-parenting, how can we even know what's ours and what's theirs? Who are our kids, when we have shaped them into who we want them to be? And at what cost?
Well, young adults are more depressed, despondent, and dysfunctional than ever before. Its all about the helicopter parenting, the over-homeworking, the resume-building, and the quest for the name-brand college, followed by the Best Possible Life. The good news and the bad news are, it doesn't really work that way. It turns out our children are actual human beings that we have to get to know, teach, and challenge in some counter-intuitive ways.
Personally, I am not the "helicopter parent." But I am definitely the "concierge parent," doing things to make my kids' lives more comfortable, delicious, special, etc. Sometimes I feel like a tech crew for a big production; I do all the behind-the-scenes stuff, then my kids just roll on stage for their lead roles.
This is all quickly tempered by the fact that, now, I am a single parent. I am often trying to make things nice or easy for my kids so that they won't notice their missing parent, they won't see me over-stretched (also known as saying no) and either be mad at me or sad for me and mad at him or all of the above. Basically, I feel they have suffered sufficiently and now we should roll out the red carpet for them. But ultimately, that would mess things up even more. They are just real, basic kids who need a real life. Real life involves the future, and the future involves becoming adults.
Actually, my kids are like mini-adults already. I tribute Mike with so much of this, and I encourage you to read Love and Logic if you want to know his early childhood system (try to disregard the religious affiliation if this irks you). Basically, it's about critical thinking and personal responsibility. In fact, the Love and Logic guys coined the term helicopter parent back in 1990. There are so many things my kids can do and problems they can solve, they kind of blow me away.
So, why do I still do a bunch of stuff for them? (I feel guilty, etc.) Why do I still cut them off when they are solving problems (I am tired, etc.) I am working on it. A couple of days ago (after the Lythcott-Haims talk), I actually rehearsed and then announced that I would like to teach them how to do the dishes. They both quipped that they know how to do the dishes. Then why aren't they doing them?! Because I am doing them. But I am working on it.
In short. Lythcott-Haims's advise to our high school students: Be kind. Try hard. Think and do for yourself. Widen your options (colleges, professions). Study and become what you love.
Her advise to us parents: See your kids, listen to them. Let them struggle and solve their own problems. Take your ego out of it. Model being a kind and productive person. Have your own purpose. And remember, at the end of the day, all of it boils down to two things: LOVE and CHORES.
Ps. sometimes I summarize books so you don't have to read them. I didn't bother with hers, because it's too packed full of great information, so get the book! It combines everything I love and preach about grit, resilience, learning, parenting, and becoming a truly fullfilled person.
Man, am I glad to be parenting post-millenials. I am also grateful for many millenials I know that don't fit the stereotype.
I love it. Some people have asked how I do it now, or if it’s fair or right for me to listen to others and help them when I have suffered this deep, strange loss that I have to face daily. I understand and respect that question, and it is very kind of others to try to feel what my family might be going through and not to want to burden me. Or to wonder if I can help them. Anyone who has been to therapy knows that, as one prepares for their therapy meetings, they think about how their therapist will react, what they will say, maybe even how they will feel about their client’s story. This is called transference.
Well, I see that my situation is a real transference dilemma for some people. But people who know me and work with me know that I know how to focus on each person. I know how to compartmentalize. I don’t compare one person’s pain to another, including my own. I never have.
Ever since I began my job, I started a ritual where I envision my client and what their week might have been like, the space (like real, physical space) they might have come into the meeting from, the mental space, and the events that might have impacted them. It’s a mini-meditation that allows me to get into their world. Honestly, having hourly mini-meditations in the effort of becoming another person, understanding them, and helping them is a very good practice. At least for me.
More generally and even spiritually, sometimes I wonder what it means that the tragedy of suicide happened to a psychologist, to his wife, who is also a psychologist, and to his kids, whose parents are both psychologists. I used to joke... everyone assumes that kids whose parents are psychologists are either totally perfect or destined to be totally pathological. I have always known that my kids were neither of these extremes. I wonder what it will mean to them that I am a psychologist, one who specializes in families, development and growth. It all seems so ironic. Or, maybe it’s destiny… like, I was going to have to care for these kids and I needed a lot of skills. Sometimes I think I had twins for that reason, too. So they can have each other through this terrible tragedy that no one else can understand. Either that or to help finish each other's math problems.
Anyway, in the meantime, I really like my job. For some reason, I was destined to be a psychologist, and I am here to reassure people that the work still can and will get done. It’s sad but true that no one can relate completely to any other person. What happened to Mike was unique, what happens to all of us is unique, and that’s how I enter every meeting.
You know how you always plan to read books that you never get to? Tell me about it. So when I have the chance, I like to summarize books for friends and clients so you can feel smart without all the work! I am getting through a few great ones, but for now, here's an oldie but goodie for the archives:
NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children
By Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
NurtureShock (2009) is really a social psychology book that takes a stab at several different parenting phenomena and upends assumptions we have about how to parent. It references advancements in neuropsychology that change the way we understand child development. if you really get into the science-y parts, you will want to read the whole book!
Merryman and Bronson remind us that what is true for adults is not necessarily true for kids, and that “good” and “bad” are “not opposite ends of a single spectrum.” Kids can often seem like “walking contradictions.” It is in learning about these contradictions that we develop a deeper understanding of our kids and what they need from us.
Brief Chapter Summaries and Daily Applications
Chapter 1: The Inverse Power of Praise:
- Large percentages of gifted kids underestimate their potential
- Giving kids the label of “smart” actually causes underperformance: “I am smart… [therefore] I don’t need to put out effort”
- Kids who cheat typically do so because they have not learned strategies for handling failure
- Over-praised kids can become more competitive and compelled to tear others down
Emphasize effort over aptitude (praise the “process” not the “person”). Praise also has to be sincere, as kids recognize fake praise. Find praise regarding moments in which kids are engaged, motivated and making strides relative to themselves (such as, “I notice that you really took initiative on…” or “I see that you are concentrating really hard”). Teach kids that intelligence can be developed and that the “brain is a muscle.” The harder you work it out, the smarter you become. Also, don’t over-praise. Let kids have space to develop their own self-conversations.
Chapter 2: The Lost Hour:
- Kids are not getting enough sleep! “A loss of one hour of sleep is equivalent to [the loss of] two years of cognitive maturation and development” in one study of several cited.
- Some of the many neurological implications of too little sleep include: a lesser ability to recall pleasant memories, a negative impact on hormones, and a powerful contributor to obesity
- In one study, kids who slept more scored 156 points higher on the verbal section of the SAT
Make sure your kids get enough sleep. Notice when your kids are fatigued and prioritize rest. Do not over-schedule your kids. Work with your community to encourage your middle and high schools to consider later start times.
Chapter 3: Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race:
- Kids are prone to categorizing race, and do so earlier than we might expect
- There are “developmental windows” of opportunity within which to teach children essential lessons about race
- Diverse schools typically lead to less cross-race friendships; the more diverse the school the more kids self-segregate by race
- America encourages individuality, and as a result, kids see differences through which they can distinguish themselves, resulting in more “subgroupism,” or race-based exclusion
By first grade, make sure you talk to your kids about race, for example, that doctors can be any race (just like you might have already reminded your kids that doctors can be any gender). Don’t assume that exposing your kids to diverse races/ethnicities is enough. Explicit conversations about race work best. When developmentally appropriate, teachers and parents should teach about discrimination, such as lessons on Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.
Chapter 4: Why Kids Lie:
- We have misconceptions about who lies. In truth, girls and boys lie in equal doses, older kids lie more than younger ones, and extroverts (kids with strong social skills) lie more than introverts
- In most kids, “four year olds lie once every two hours” and six year olds lie about once per hour
- Kids learn that some types of deception are ok, even often learning this from their parents (“white lies” or lies that maintain social rules)
- Lying is actually a developmental milestone (!) and is related to intelligence
- Kids lie to avoid punishment, to support their friends/siblings, to increase power, and as a coping mechanism to vent frustration or get attention
- Kids are taught not to tattle on others, which becomes a form of lying
- Parents tend to “entrap their kids, putting them in positions to lie and testing their honesty unnecessarily” (such as, “Did you draw on the table?” when it is already clear that the child did)
Kids care about making parents/teachers happy and remaining in their good graces. They need to be rewarded and acknowledged for truthfulness, independent of the original infraction (such as, “I appreciate that you told truth about who broke the lamp” or “I will be really happy if you tell the truth”). No matter how small, lies should not go unnoticed. Do not entrap your kids in lies. If it is clear that they broke a rule (drawing on the table), just remind them not to draw on the table, and work with them to clean it up.
Chapter 5: The Search for Intelligent Life in Children:
- Testing for “giftedness” in young children (ages four, five, and even six) is highly inaccurate. By third grade, 73% of kids id’d as gifted in kindergarten would no longer qualify for giftedness
- IQ tests become more accurate by third grade and are most accurate by middle school
- Third grade is also when most curriculums leap in difficulty in that they require more reasoning and abstraction as opposed to rote learning
- “Emotional intelligence” (EQ) has become an important concept and practice in psychology and is related to IQ in that IQ leads to a correspondingly higher EQ
- Varying learning styles and temperaments correlate with IQ and school performance differently over time. For example, extroversion is helpful in early elementary, but by middle school, introverts are the highest achieving.
Work not to pigeonhole and label your kids. Do not set up self-fulfilling prophecies regarding aptitude. Allow your kids to develop at their pace and appreciate that neurodevelopment occurs differently over time. Emphasize conscientiousness and reinforce intrinsic motivation by allowing kids to develop passions and to explore different ways of learning.
Chapter 6: The Sibling Effect:
- Much research has addressed concerns about the possible negative impact of having only one child, but having siblings is not necessarily better. In fact, siblings learn as many poor social skills from each other as those that are pro-social.
- One of every eight sibling conflicts ends in compromise or reconciliation, while 7/8 end in withdrawal, usually by the less powerful child
- Helpful sibling skills programs focus on prevention (such as coaching siblings to initiate play on terms they both enjoy) rather than resolution once fights have already begun
- “Educational” books that “teach social skills” show as many negative as positive behaviors, and kids learn both
- The most predictive factor of sibling relationships is the relationship the oldest child has with his/her best friend
Focus on teaching pro-social skills to children, regardless of their ages and personalities. Encourage shared fantasy play in which children “emotionally commit to one another and pay attention to what the other is doing.” Help them to develop scripts in which both children’s fantasies can coexist and create shared storylines. Recognize and allow for times when a child is busy or wants to play alone. Identify scenarios in which all siblings find common enjoyment and encourage kids to see their siblings as friends that need to be treated with respect and reciprocity.
Chapter 7: The Science of Teen Rebellion:
- Teenagers lie often and object to “emotional intrusiveness,” such as parents asking if their child is in love, etc. They often omit relevant details about their lives or just avoid conversations with their parents about personal matters.
- Teens cite that they lie because they do not want to disappoint their parents
- Permissive parents do not learn more about their kids’ lives than those who are strict
- Teens believe that asking for help from a parent is a sign of weakness or immaturity
- Oppressive, overly strict parents tend to have obedient but depressed kids
- Controlling parents who fill their kids’ free times end up with teens that are quick to boredom
- Neurologically, teenagers’ brains are prone to boredom, are relatively unable to gauge risk and foresee consequences, and are driven by their relatively under-stimulated “reward centers.” Yet, teenagers are not prone to all kinds of risk. They remain quick to embarrassment and often overly self-conscious.
Parents should establish consistent, enforceable rules and limits. Still, they should treat their teens as important and allow them to have a say when warranted. Moderate conflict with teens is better than none or lots. It is a sign of respect in the relationship and a wish for teens to appeal to their parents as people, rather than to just pretend to go along and then go behind their parents’ backs. Respect what kids argue about and at least hear them out. Allow concessions (such as a one-time later curfew) if earned.
Chapter 8: Can Self-Control Be Taught?
- Programs that attempt to improve teenagers’ self-control often fail (such as driver’s education and D.A.R.E.)
- Some programs do work; Tools of the Mind, a Vygotsky-inspired learning program is an example. It targets self-regulation (a.k.a. executive function) and fosters complex, interactive, sustained play. Kids master the “intellectual process of holding [and integrating] multiple thoughts.” This results in improved attention and impulse control, which leads to improved goal setting.
- Children need to learn how well they are doing and how accurate their completed work is in the moments that the work occurs (such as self-correcting tasks of the Montessori method)
- When children are intrinsically motivated, dopamine is “spritzed” throughout the brain, which enhances the signaling of neurons and facilitates better overall brain function
- When it comes to successful outcomes, being mentally disciplined is more relevant than being smart (although, with both executive functioning and intelligence, students perform 300% better than students with high IQ alone!)
Ask your child to find errors prior to pointing them out. Have students repeat instructions aloud while they work. Ask kids to find the best examples of their work (such as their most accurate/legible handwriting). Write up plans with your child, even just about what you will do on a free day. “Buddy read” with your child (read a book, then have them read it back to you, allowing creativity). When engaging in pretend play, offer prompts to extend kids’ play.
Chapter 9: Plays Well with Others:
- “Educational” media increases relational aggression. Shows spend most of their time establishing social “conflicts” and very little time resolving them. Especially young children don’t connect the overall lesson with the preceding behaviors.
- Spouses express anger toward each other 2-3 times more than they express affection
- Children often see their parents fight, but don’t see any resolution
- Corporal punishment is actually less correlated with aggression when it is used as a regular discipline for everyday misbehavior than for when it is “saved” for the worst offenses, which results in strongly negative self-perceptions
- Any child can show mean behavior reflecting lapses in judgment, which is typical for developing kids. “Zero tolerance” approaches mis-target kids.
- Bullies are usually “popular, well-liked, and admired.” Many of these kids are just socially busy on both ends of the good/bad spectrum. These kids tend to be successful in life overall, and are therefore rarely studied.
- Girls are as likely to be bullies, using relational rather than physical aggression
- Our children basically raise each other, knowing that it is “cool” to defy authority and even to bully, if bullying maintains social power
- One study on progressive dads, traditional dads, and disengaged dads showed that, while progressive dads are really involved in their children’s lives, they also have poorer marital quality and overall family functioning. Greater involvement leads to potentially greater conflict over parenting practices. Progressive dads also tend to utilize inconsistent discipline.
Teach your children about healthy friendship patterns, starting very early. Do not assume that just because your child is popular and has lots of friends, that they and their friends are immune to bullying behaviors. Be consistent with rules and discipline. It is ok to let your children see you fight with your partner, as long as the fighting is productive. Let your children see that your fights resolve (or at least circle back around and tell them that you worked it out, reiterating your common goals and mutual respect), and remember to show affection toward your spouse.
Chapter 10: Why Hannah Talks and Alyssa Doesn’t:
- Baby Einstein and other, similar TV programs do not stimulate language development
- Babies learn language best from live, human interaction. They are genetically, highly sensitive to interactive human speech.
- It is not how much language a baby receives that matters (“receptive language”). It is the verbal reactions that they receive to their own vocalizations (encouraged, “expressive language”).
- “Intermittent reinforcement” patterns are strongest. Over-responsiveness is experienced as over-stimulation to babies.
- Grammar teaches vocabulary, not the other way around. Grammar creates “frames” of reference within which new vocabulary can be established.
- Many kids with early language delays do catch up over time. They might be shy or not have motor control over their voice, but they continue to benefit from language used around them.
- When kids do have strong early language skills, this correlates highly with long-term spoken language skills and other verbal tasks, not with some kinds of math or other non-verbal tasks.
Notice what your baby is trying to communicate, through their mouth, eyes, and gestures. Respond rapidly and accurately. Associate objects with words (such as saying “fruit” slowly while holding a piece of fruit for the baby to eat) and label the objects they show interest in. Even affectionate touch while kids vocalize increases vocalizations, and eventually, vocabulary. Still, don’t do this all the time. Don’t intrude with your agenda for your child; follow their lead, and attune to what they are trying to communicate. Expose your child to many different people’s uses of language, including varying pronunciations, etc.
I have received SO much feedback from people that truly knew and loved Mike, they say this blog has helped them as they grieve. None of us really chooses to grieve; it’s not like we think, hey, I wonder what we should do tonight? I know! Let’s sit around and grieve some more! In that vein, I realize that for me to linger on and on about Mike, about his life, about his death, all of it, it can only go on so long for the rest of you, although those of you who knew and loved Mike will surely grieve some more. So, maybe just a couple more posts that do some justice to both his wonderful spirit and epic challenges.
Mike’s memorial service happened on a bright, beautiful day, at one of his favorite places. It strangely and certainly felt a little celebratory despite the undeniably tragic and untimely circumstances. So many wonderful people loved Mike, so that energy was a shared gift to us all. And so many of my daughters’ beautiful friends were there to support them. I found this remarkable, as I imagine many parents might struggle with how and whether to have their children attend an event such as this. Nonetheless, they were there, and they were absolutely adorable.
Clearly, no one would think to take pictures at a memorial service, either, except that one of our favorite family friends is also a stunningly talented photographer. She brought her camera that day and asked if I’d like for her to take pictures. Of course, she lost Mike, too, and I said I hoped she would get through the service in whatever way felt best to her. As are many photographers often most comfortable behind the lens, she captured photos that day that I have already realized I will treasure forever. It’s almost impossible to get through a service like that, so the last thing I could do was remember it.
I think the best way to communicate a sense of Mike’s memorial service is to share a few words that some of his amazing friends said about him. He was remembered for being generous and universally compassionate. His passion for learning was described as “tremendous curiosity crossed with a deep desire to help people.” He influenced people with his kindness.
The fact that he was “not fully equipped for this life” was precisely what made him perfect for his life of helping other people. He was always searching, always outside the box, asking hard questions. He was always looking for new ways to understand things. Wondering what could be possible.
Mike was remembered for his seriousness about life, but equally for his “states of reverie.” He spent most Halloweens dressed as a wizard, which personified his notions of transformation and magic. One friend astutely pointed out that, because we have lost him, Mike’s search is now our search, and we carry him with us as we ask ourselves all the hard questions going forth.
Here are a few excerpts from another friend’s eulogy; his words are better than mine, so:
How many times did you pull into a troop meeting as he was single-handedly wrangling some convoluted project with a dozen high-pitched girls buzzing from one corner of the room to the other? No one else paying attention to anything but this magic he'd unleashed, and Dr. Mike barely containing the madness, determined not to squelch any ounce of exuberance. Him just sopping it up. All the chaos. He loved it. He empowered all of us to be innocent and free and our best.
Everyone in our wacky multicellular community depended on him in a million different ways -- not just because he was so easy to take advantage of if you needed a Girl Scout troop leader or a chaperone, but because he was so fundamentally good. You'd talk to him and know that at his core he just wanted to help.
Everyone. And anyone. It was his life's work, and you could talk to him and just feel it.
Clearly, there were gaps in his life that he was trying to fill in. He was adopted and sought out his biological parents, but he was too late. He joined the navy after high school, because he didn't have a home. Did you know that he coded military computers back in the day and could still have probably built a machine from scratch if he had to?
For all of his awh-shucks humility, he was brilliant. And the danger of delivering a eulogy for Dr. Mike is that you could summarize all of his accomplishments, and that would be enough because his accomplishments were prodigious.
Not just professionally where he was revered for his gifts as a psychologist. Right, he went into psychology late in life to heal other people, because he deep-down understood their pain. He was famous for jiu-jitsuing suffering and turning that pain into strength. He could do this because he was so sensitive to it.
But as a father and as a friend, he never failed to be there for everyone else. Everyone else.
But that leaves me wondering why he couldn't be there for himself, and why it was so hard for him to understand how incredible he was and necessary and needed and loved.
It honestly beats the hell out of me, but it makes me think of To Kill A Mockingbird and Atticus Finch's pronouncement that you can't judge a man ‘til you've walked a mile in his moccasins.
Now that he's gone, though, there a million sparkling ideas he isn't gonna share with me anymore, so I'm going to try, and I am trying. Because there's this Dr. Mike-sized hole in my life, that it's left to me to fill in with his grin that rippled from his belly and stretched across both cheeks and his eyes that listened deeply.
Now it's on all of us and on each of us to be that much more for each other. Our great and good friend Mike inspired us to be more, and we owe it to him. And we owe it to ourselves to keep him with us.
Harry Baker. The man's a genius. I just got my kid a book of his poems, cause you need to read them to have time to digest the words, and he is her favorite.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, this blog is really just a love letter to my daughters. It’s the kind of letter that I can’t just leave on their pillow. It’s the kind of letter that’s hard to read. Plus, they are too young. It would be wrong for me to crowd their brains with my own ideas and words about their terrible loss.
But here’s why it belongs in a blog. They can’t talk about it with almost anyone. They know that other people don’t understand what they went through. They hear the word suicide thrown around throughout the day, often incorrectly and insensitively. They understand this. They know better than to try to correct people or to explain.
So, nothing happens. In our family, we talk a little, we share memories. But, sort of on purpose, not much more happens.* They don’t want to carry it around every day. They don’t understand it, and they don’t want to, yet. So these words are for their archives, for when they are ready to look back. So I can get the words out before they change or get lost. Mike was a special soul and his life deserves to be remembered.
These words are a statement about why we ALL need to talk about suicide. Not just Mike’s. These words are proof that we can talk about it and still hold our heads high, still walk with some grace through life, knowing that we don’t need to be ashamed of mental illness.
You see, everyone associated with a suicide feels pretty awful about it. First of all, we feel guilty. We should have saved them. Also, we feel hurt and angry. Does it say something about us that they were willing to leave us, that they were absolutely compelled to leave?
I can’t answer these questions for anyone else, and I am barely scratching the surface for myself. But there is one thing I know, which is that my beautiful, perfect daughters didn’t deserve any of this (none of us did). Their magical life was bombed into oblivion one humble summer’s day, and that’s that. We have to address that, and these words are a start.
This story is about serious pain. It's about realizing how hard it was to live in Mike's depressed, suicidal body and mind. It is about the rest of us feeling lost and abandoned and betrayed and stigmatized. It is about the trials of single parenting. Which is hard enough for anyone. Then add the goal of constantly distracting my kids from the biggest abandonment they also must experience. Trying not to over-compensate but also trying to be totally there for them.
The bottom line is, the bigger their community of support, the better. Speaking of which, a special shout out to all of you who are there for us every day, you know exactly who you are. And for those of you who have reached out to me because of this blog, I appreciate every one of you for listening and showing your love and maybe even sharing your own stories.
*Actually, one especially big thing did happen, and that’s Judi’s House. So much gratitude for that awesome resource. If you suffer a terrible loss but are lucky enough to live in Denver, you will know what that place is about.