Talking to Children About Personal Safety

Published on August 22, 2012 by

Confident parentAs recent media attention has refocused its lens to the tragic shootings in our own Intermountain back yard, we are reminded that peril doesn’t just stalk faceless foreigners in war‑ravaged netherlands.  Neither does it confine itself to drug addicts caught in the crossfire of a drug deal gone bad.  Deranged and heartless criminals can strike a movie theater and a high school just as easily as they can a ghetto, transforming innocent bystanders into unfortunate victims.

Yet danger does not always dress in army fatigues or gang‑style trench coats; more often, it wears a boy scout uniform, speaks in a soft, deceptively kind voice, or orders its victims to keep quiet without uttering a word.  It masquerades as an uncle, a piano teacher, or the 11‑year old boy next door.  Less frequently, it appears in the form of a stranger or an overly aggressive peer at school.

The danger I refer to is Abuse . . . Child Maltreatment . . . the Endangerment of Children.  Talking to children about personal safety issues is incumbent upon all parents.

At the outset I wish to make two points unmistakably clear: 1) our communities are comparatively safe places to live, and most people we meet and interact with are not intent upon harming our children, and therefore 2) child maltreatment should be viewed as the exception, not the rule in the lives of children.  The statistical likelihood that our children will experience some traumatic event is unlikely, but since God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust we are wise to prepare our children against the day of peril.

Reminders of child maltreatment are constantly before us: we learn about it on TV from the six o’clock news or on John Walsh’s America’s Most Wanted program, in the newspaper when we read of a child abduction or a pedophile who is sentenced for sexual abuse, at family gatherings when whisperings of “what Uncle Bill did” are circulated, or from our children themselves when they come home with stories of having been pressured, coerced, or threatened.  Some of us ourselves may have experienced maltreatment as children, and data suggests that it is not as uncommon as once thought.

A key point to remember is this: in 90% of maltreatment cases the child knows the perpetrator; therefore, educating children about strangers represents but a small part of self‑protection.  A child is much more likely to be sexually abused by a neighbor boy or a relative, for instance, than to be abducted by a stranger or become the victim of a shooting at school.

A primary concern shared by many parents wishing to teach their children about personal safety is:  How do I approach a safety issue and teach my child self‑protection without unduly scaring him?  How do I insulate my child against vulnerability without setting him on edge?

Clearly, we don’t want to alarm our children, make them hypervigilant or untrusting, nor give them the impression that their world is an unsafe place.  On the contrary, we all want our kids to be carefree, spontaneous, and exuberant . . . qualities bred by a safe environment.

But they simply must be alerted to the reality that there are those people who would hurt them, given the right opportunity.  There is value in critical thinking, in acknowledging a less than perfect world, in being appropriately skeptical.  Knowledge is indeed power, the kind of power that can prevent unforeseen trauma.

I would also assert that children are more resilient than the above questions give them credit for.  Approached in the right way (see below), most children will be empowered rather than unduly burdened by the information and skills they’re given.  Those children most likely to be troubled by a discussion of safety are those who already have a predisposition for worrying.  Such children will undoubtedly require extra doses of reassurance, but I believe the training to be well worth the trade off.

Children need an understanding of and skills related to four basic areas of self‑protection:

1.  Children must clearly be able to distinguish appropriate from inappropriate behavior in others.  They must feel empowered with the conviction that they have the right to protect their own physical and emotional being.  For instance, parents should openly address the issue of sexual abuse with their children, telling them that no one has the right to touch their private parts (e.g., the parts covered by your swimming suit).

2.  Children must understand how to avoid situations where harm could come to them more easily.  That is, they must understand the value of preventative measures in reducing the chance that they could be taken advantage of.  Rules about approaching and interacting with strangers are a good example of preventative education.  Equally critical, role-playing should be used to teach a child what to do when someone — yes, even someone they know — does something that makes them feel sad, scared, or uncomfortable.

3.  Children must possess the assertiveness skills to be able to reject or fight off unwanted advances when they do occur.  They must be prepared to take action to protect themselves, such as running away, screaming, or fighting.  Again, simulating threatening or potentially abusive situations can be especially helpful in allowing the child to practice his responses to scary situations.

4.  Children must have confidence in adults who will believe and support them when an abusive or otherwise personally threatening incident is reported.  It is sobering indeed to realize that, even with a perfect repertoire of self‑protection skills, a child cannot always avoid being molested, abducted, or otherwise harmed.  The best we as parents can do is help our children reduce the likelihood of such incidents occurring.  As parents we must convince our children, through both word and action, that we are a sure source of safety and protection to them.

I suggest that parents view educating their children about personal safety as a process rather than an event; that is, once taught the topic should be periodically revisited.  Since Naivete is the mother of Vulnerability, the education of the many provides the best insulation against the cold‑hearted, selfish acts of the few.

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                          Steven M. Gentry, PhD., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialistsin American Fork, Utah

Of Hand Washing, Snow Forts and Homeruns: Child’s Play is Hard Work!

Published on July 11, 2012 by

Happy kids on ocean beach having fun

It was once common to think of children as ‘miniature adults;’ that is, children were believed to have similar needs, views, and potentials as adults, perhaps only in more limited quantities.  The enlightened view that children experience life in a different way than adults is a relatively recent phenomenon (i.e., the 20th century) and one which is still, at worst, widely resisted and, at best, hard for many adults to deal with.

Take, for instance, the example of a father who asks Tommy to wash his hands and come to dinner.  After a couple of minutes have passed and Tommy has not come to the kitchen table, dad shouts, ‘Tommy, come for dinner!”

“I’m washing my hands!” Tommy hollers back.  After another (eternal) minute with no sign of Tommy, dad rises from the table, heaves a big sigh (now the rest of the family knows his irritation is official), and heads for the bathroom.  He observes Tommy playing in the water, completely engrossed in the task.  Exasperated, dad grabs a towel, barely brushes his son’s hands against it, and herds him to the kitchen.

In contrast to adults, children tend to value the means of a task more than the ends.  In other words, whereas children are easily taken in by the process, adults are more likely to focus on the product.  This interest in the journey rather than the destination stems from the child’s curiosity about and exuberance for the wide spectrum of experiences life offers.  I see the child’s means orientation as a highly desirable one; however, this is not to say that children should not be taught to follow through on tasks (or Tommy will never eat).  Indeed, perhaps largely for adaptive reasons (i.e., for survival, efficient use of time, organization of society, etc.), adults learn to focus on task completion, on the end goal itself.

Naturally, spending too much time at either extreme (means or ends) is unhealthy, for if a child becomes too engrossed in catching the frog hopping about the pond, she could fall in and possibly drown; likewise, a child running after a ball must not run in to the street without considering the possibly dangerous ‘end.’  On the other hand, an adult who is ‘too busy’ to play in the rain or make an ant farm with his child is truly living a stoic existence.

Most adults would do well to try and focus more on the ‘means’ of life, since the ‘ends’ seem to be our default modus operandi.  I know I struggle to enter (and remain in) my children’s world on a consistent basis.  I remember one winter several years ago when I was teaching a Parenting Skills class and gave myself and the participants what seemed like a simple assignment.  Each of us was to pick a time and activity in which we would put forth an out-of-the-ordinary effort to fully engross ourselves in our child’s world, if only for 10-15 minutes.  I decided to try my experiment with my son, Benjamin, who was six at the time.  He expressed an interest in building a snow fort, and as I pulled on my gloves and boots, I kept muttering to myself, “Means, means, means.  Fun, fun, fun.”  I had forgotten how hard it was to be like a child and have fun.

All went well as we began our work…err, fun.  There was plenty of snow and it packed well, so I envisioned quite a fortress.  That was my first ‘ends’ thought; my second followed shortly after when I caught Ben playing in the snow (a.k.a., having fun) instead of working on the fort.  I couldn’t help it…it just slipped out.  “Ben, you’re not working on the fort.”  My fatherly intent was to redirect him to where the real fun was, fun that I had methodically and carefully planned.  Realizing my error, I quickly reversed myself and followed Ben’s lead, playing in the snow with him.

It wasn’t long, though, before I stumbled once again.  The walls of the fort were nearly complete when I observed Ben carving out holes in the walls where he could place his plastic army men.  What followed was my coup de gras.  “Ben, snow forts don’t have holes in them,” (after all, I was the adult; I know how real snow forts are made).  This one experience taught me just how far I’d come from my carefree days of childhood.  I was embarrassed that I was directing my son on how to play and have fun, rather than flexibly, spontaneously, and imaginatively joining in with him.

I believe parents generally try to impose structure (read: ends ) upon their children, and this is certainly appropriate much of the time.  However, if anything, I believe concerned parents do too much of this.  Even Little League baseball coaches are guilty.  This past summer, I observed five-and-six-year old boys and girls clamor at their T-ball coach to pitch the ball to them rather than having them hit it off the tee.  The children seemed interested in the challenge and fun of trying to hit a moving ball, “just like the big kids.”  Their coach resisted on several logical counts, then tried to coax them out of their request by pointing out that they probably wouldn’t get as many homeruns from a pitched ball as from hitting the ball off the tee.  To his surprise, the kids in unison replied, “So?”  To me this was a prime example of how the adult saw the end (home runs) whereas the kids saw the means (trying to hit a moving ball) as most desirable.

            Becoming childlike certainly has multiple meanings, and the innocence, vivaciousness, and exuberance with which children approach their experiences is undoubtedly one of them.  We adults would do well to ‘stop and smell the roses,’ to enjoy the simplicities of life as they come to us.  We can join with our children in paying attention to the means of tasks and activities (but beware of having fun!).  Entering the world of our children is crucial (but yes, frustratingly fun) to helping them enjoy life to its fullest.  And, who knows…perhaps we’ll spark some dormant exuberance in ourselves in the process.  Notice how you can make the water trickle off your fingers faster, then slower, then faster…how it can drop off the ends of two fingers, not three…and watch what happens when you add soap (or better yet, dirt) to the mix!

Steven M. Gentry, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

New Diagnosis for an Old Problem: ‘Mother’s Day Talk‑Induced Depression’

Published on May 9, 2012 by

Mothers DayEach Mother’s Day, the sanity of mothers is dealt a blow by the last thing you’d ever expect.  Ironically, far too many find the second Sunday in May to be discouraging rather than uplifting or relaxing.  There are a variety of explanations for this, but I wish to highlight one that keeps resurfacing among church‑going mothers: the That’s‑Not‑Me‑So‑What’s‑Wrong‑With‑Me? syndrome.

Although I have been peripherally aware of the syndrome for some time, my mother recently reminded me of it when I told her of an upcoming Mother’s Day talk I was preparing. A saint (in my unbiased opinion) if there ever was one, my mother said she often feels frustrated and depressed by Mother’s Day sermons.  (One of my mother‑clients was more blunt: “They should just ban the stuff!”).

Claiming that they tend to paint a false picture of who mothers really are, my mom noted that such eulogies typically describe angelic acts of kindness rather than painful feelings of inadequacy; they capture the woman‑in‑church‑dress, not the maid‑servant in rags; speakers like me often gloss over the struggles of motherhood, instead emphasizing saintly patience and unending virtue.  Comparing her own failures and inadequacies against such a perfect backdrop of motherhood, many a mother is apt to conclude:  That’s not me . . . so what’s wrong with me?

The answer?  Nothing is wrong with you.  You’re not perfect, and it’s high time you’re given credit for this.  You simply want your reality understood and validated, a reality that includes losing your patience when mudpies are carelessly left out on the kitchen floor, your teenager teases your toddler, and your husband (click, click) remotes himself into oblivion while you separate the whites from the darks.  It seems a true appreciation of all that mothers do and are is beyond the grasp of most of husbands and children; we are indeed well‑insulated from the stresses of your world.

Mothers take the lead in fulfilling children’s physical and emotional needs.  This includes performing the daily rituals of cleaning, cooking, shopping, and doing the laundry; ensuring that schoolwork and extracurricular activities are attended to; and helping kids with the ups and downs of daily life.  The sheer amount of time spent with children means that, compared to us fathers, you mothers are bound to deal with more conflicts, problems, and emotions with the kids.  If the roles were reversed, I’m convinced that fathers would experience a similarly disproportionate weight of children’s complaints, frustrations, and misbehaviors.

To a husband who cavalierly asserts that his wife simply needs to be more organized, patient, firm, or consistent, I would remind:  “We should be lenient in our judgment, because often the mistakes of others would have been ours had we had the opportunity to make them.”

A mother lives at work, putting in “overtime” every day of the week.  She receives no pay, no promotions (that is, until she becomes a grandmother), no holidays, gets limited vacation days, and is even at work on sick days.  Praise from “co‑workers” varies from family to family.  Faced with God‑like expectations, a mother is the MVP of the home, yet often it is only in the absence of her acts of service and stabilizing influence that her true value as a mother is appreciated.

Mothers who work outside the home must juggle household tasks and other responsibilities (e.g., school, outside employment).  For them, leaving work only means a second job awaits them.  Full‑time homemakers face different challenges.  For instance, a day with diapers, Legos, and whining often creates a hunger for adult conversation and attention.

Such mothers may experience times when they feel trapped, isolated, and “lost” in the endlessness of their mundane tasks.  The adage, “A woman’s work is never finished” is an understatement.  Imagine having a textbook that you must continually re‑read but that you never finish.  That is laundry.  That is cooking.  That is cleaning.

On rare occasion, my wife takes a vacation (defined as a weekend free from the children and me).  I used to think that such vacations allowed me a chance to experience life in her shoes.  I soon realized, however, that I’m not even close, for a number of reasons.

First of all, when things get stressful, I can fall back on a very reassuring thought:  My homemaking venture is temporary.  Relief is just a Monday away. Second, I’m typically fresh and geared up for the task.  Because her “vacations” typically occur on the weekend, there’s not a rush to do homework, and the kids and I often spend time getting out of the house or doing novel activities.

Third, do I touch the laundry?  Do I take time to clean the toilet?  Do I cook more than Ramen, hot dogs, or Taco Bell for the kids?  I’m not so noble.  Nor so bright.  Nor so daring. Finally, I am invariably showered with praise for my valor, sensitivity, and chivalry in “allowing” my wife a reprieve.  Whereas I am heralded for being a responsible parent, similar efforts by my wife are seldom noticed.  If I leave on a business trip, it is unlikely that my wife will be showered with praise and admiration for staying home with the kids.

Now lest anyone think the world of motherhood is without its rewards, I admit that my focus here has been skewed towards the challenges of it.  Clearly, the choice to become a wife and a mother is enticing, since so many women choose it.  The number of moms the world over attests to the appeal women find in creating and maintaining a comfortable refuge for their families.

It’s just that, taking a cue from my own mother, I thought it prudent that the rest of us take a cursory stroll down the path most of our wives and mothers walk.  As for you mothers who genuinely do resemble perfection, you know who you are.  I have recommended that you both be quarantined with a group of ADHD children for the summer.  Please check your Prozac at the door.

In spite of your mortality, the rest of you wives and mothers really are pretty neat stuff. Your maternal instincts cannot be taught, the bond between you and your children is non‑transferable, and no one understands or soothes like you do.  Fluent in the language of love, you are simply among the best of God’s creations.  Truly, as an old TV commercial states, you don’t have to be everything . . . to be everything to us.

No, there’s nothing wrong with you mothers.  It’s speakers like me that need the help.

 

Steven M. Gentry, PhD., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of
Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

Weathering the Storm of Childhood Depression

Published on March 21, 2012 by

Alone  Most Children are cheerful, energetic souls who navigate life’s seas with only occasional difficulty.  True, they have their stormy times, but they work through the ups and downs of life without taking on too much water.

            Those who experience childhood depression are not so fortunate.  Their storms are accompanied by a prolonged rainy season of frustration and despair, often punctuated by sharp and dramatic bursts of lightning and thunder.  Such children frequently lash out at others or find their energy (and for some, their will to live) depleted.

Until the early 80’s, little attention was paid to depression in children.  Indeed, it was commonly believed that children lacked the psychological wherewithal to experience depressive disorders.  Yet recent research suggests that anywhere between five and ten percent of children under the age of 13 suffer from depression.  Moreover, while the rates for boys and girls are essentially identical up to age 14, thereafter the rates increase dramatically for girls.

A family history of depression increases a child’s likelihood of experiencing a depressive episode two to three times, and one recent study suggests that children with a parent who suffered from childhood depression are fourteen times more likely to suffer from the illness themselves before the age of thirteen!

The combination of two factors: that depression is often triggered by a stressful event, and that people who have a genetic predisposition for depression often struggle to cope with stress – puts children prone to such circumstances at high risk for developing depressive symptoms.

Their ability to ward off a dysphoric condition may depend largely on secondary factors that serve as buffers from stress.  Factors such as the child’s personality, the quality of family life, the support network available to the child, and his/her ability to apply healthy coping skills can, to some degree, serve as insulation against depression.  In some cases, however the child’s biological makeup is such that the development of depression may be unavoidable even with such buffers.

In spite of the increased attention given to childhood depression within professional circles, it remains largely undiagnosed (or misdiagnosed) within the community.  One reason this occurs is because childhood depression does not always mimic the depressive symptoms commonly seen in adults.

For instance, while children may experience some of the classic signs of depression, they are equally liable to ‘speak a language all their own.’ This language consists of both internalizing and externalizing behaviors.

The former include irritability, somatic complaints (most commonly, headaches and stomachaches), complaints of boredom, withdrawal, and low self-esteem.

Children who externalize their distress are often said to be ‘acting out,” exhibiting excessive anger or aggression, extreme mood swings, and drug or alcohol use.  Such children have never met an argument they didn’t like, and tantrums are second nature to them.

Because they lack both the knowledge of and insight into their condition, children are unlikely to complain of depression…if they admit to personal struggles at all.  More common will be the telltale signs of withdrawal or complaints of fatigue, of chronic grumpiness and poor frustration tolerance, or of episodes of which they ‘fly off the handle,’ or are constantly hurting others.

Understandably, parents often miss and dismiss such symptoms, and are only cued in to the gravity of the situation when their child starts making negative self-statements (e.g., “I hate myself!”) or suicidal references (e.g., “I’d be better off dead.”)   Less obvious cues can be seen as an adolescent son or daughter begins ‘medicating’ dysphoric feelings with drugs or alcohol.

While it is normal for children to experience transient periods of sadness, the depressed child has a hard time shaking (as one child put it) “my lousy feelings.”  Many parents, believing their child’s depression to be volitional trouble making, may become only more frustrated as they do their best to solve the problem.

            It is true that comparatively few children will need professional help to deal with ‘the blues,’ but when the blues begin turning a darker shade of grey, then to black, and hope for change begins to fade away, it may be time to do more than simply row further into the stream.

 Steven M. Gentry, PhD., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

Loving is What Life is All About…Happy Valentine’s Day!

Published on February 8, 2012 by

Dr. Steven Gentry

Of life’s many lessons, perhaps none is so instructive as that brought on by the loss of a close friend or family member.  The death of a loved one tends to soften our hearts, realigning our perspective concerning those things which hold most value for us.  Losing someone so dear reminds us that loving each other is all that really matters in life.

My grandmother’s recent passing led me to reconsider some of my own priorities and to reflect on ‘the weightier matters’ of life.  I was pleased to see it also stimulate some healing between family members who had become estranged over time due to petty differences and perceived offenses.

I am convinced that, among the many challenges of mortality, none is more critical – yet more difficult – than learning to get along.  Yet we all, to a greater or lesser extent, struggle to maneuver our way through the dips and bumps of interpersonal relationships without getting high centered.  For some, carrying a ‘chip on their shoulder’ becomes a way of life.

Naturally, few of us consciously set out to carry this excess baggage through life.  We all have more sense than to say, “My life’s just not hard enough; I think I’ll go out and find some bitterness and resentment to keep me occupied.”

There are those, however, who are quick to take offense, who perceive hurt even when it is not intended.  Others of us get all tangled up in unjust treatment by others, allowing the hurt to fester and clip at our heels.  In a word, we collude with the accused, justifying our negative feelings or behavior by dwelling on how we’ve been wronged.

I know my own pride can get in the way and trip me up.  I’m guilty of trying to control and change others rather than, as my dad always used to say, “Watching out for number one.”  I’m not immune from getting caught up in ‘the thick of thin things,’ and I can play the martyr role as good as the next guy.  I’ve learned that seeing others as the problem often IS the problem.

From a purely psychological perspective, a major problem with holding a grudge is that you can never quite be yourself.  Your actions become tainted by calculated moves.  “Ah!  Becky’s home…ooooh, I hate her!  I’ll avoid her so she’ll know I’m still mad at her.”  It takes considerable energy to hold a grudge.  We begin to censor our actions, and often become consumed with fantasies of what we’d like to say or do to the accused.

The world of resentment is a cold one where hearts become easy targets for emotional frostbite.  And the longer or more frequent you go there, the more likely you are to become numb to what’s really important in life…loving.

So what’s the alternative to numbness and frostbite?  What would life be like if we refused to collude?  How would things be different if we refused to take offense?

Clearly, we’d be faced with the prospect of taking responsibility for ourselves.  We would be forced to freely and unconditionally forgive (which is not synonymous with, for instance, choosing to continue to associate with someone who is bent on hurting others).  Rising above and moving beyond the hurts caused by others would give us greater peace and happiness.  In short, it would free us up to be ourselves again.

In such a world, we would learn to let go.  Better yet, we would un-learn to hang on.  I say that because I believe that much of the changes we all need to make involve more un-learning of bad habits than learning new ones that are unknown to us.

To those who would say “But Dr. Gentry, you just don’t understand!” it is true; I do not understand your particular situation.  But neither do I understand your desire to sentence yourself to more of the same.  I do not understand how hanging on to the pain and anger is going to help you love others, nor to be happy.  At some point, to find peace you must leave anger behind.  The invitation is ever there to choose the ‘good part,’ the ‘more excellent way.’

All that really matters in life are feelings and relationships; everything else is ‘fluff.’ Letting go of excess baggage can be a challenge, for sure, but you can do it when your heart is right.  If, however, you begin to wonder if it’s all worth it, stop to consider the alternative…more of hatred, resentment, and disaffection.  These feelings will simply eat you up if you continue to associate with them.

            My grandma is gone to a place where I’m sure love reigns supreme.  May she rest in peace, and may the rest of us all likewise learn to live together in peace.