Paleolithic (Caveman) Feelings, and You!

Paleolithic (Caveman) Feelings, and You!

Our bodies are made up of traits that are good for our survival and the survival of our species. Every part of us has a function, a purpose. For example, the function of eyes is to see. The function of taste buds is to determine the nutritional value of food and avoid eating poisons.

Our emotions evolved right alongside our bodies. What is the function of emotions? To answer this, think about good ol’ Uncle Caveman. How did fear keep him alive? That’s easy, when he saw a Sabertooth tiger, Uncle Caveman got scared and ran away! Fear gave him the adrenaline, energy, and focus he needed to stay alive.

How did anger keep Uncle Caveman alive? It helped him bargain for his interests better. When another tribe tried to move into his cave, anger created the right motivation for Uncle Caveman to keep his cave (good thing too, what with all those Sabertooth tigers running around). Anger helped Uncle Caveman protect his interests.

What about shame? Shame is a very social emotion, more so than other feelings. When Uncle Caveman did something that disgusted, disappointed, or angered his tribe, he felt shame. Being part of a tribe was critical to Uncle Caveman’s staying alive. The formula is: Alone = Death, Part of Tribe = Survival. Shame helped Uncle Caveman act in pro-social ways so his tribe would not kick him out. (So he had to stop tagging the wooly mammoths).

Sadness for Uncle Caveman was caused by a loss of some sort. I hope one of his children wasn’t eaten by a Sabretooth tiger, but I can’t promise that. Say it happened. Well, sadness did two important things for Uncle Caveman’s survival, and the survival of his tribe. 1) He never forgot that Sabertooth tigers can kill. He told everyone he knew. And he never again asked a Sabertooth tiger to babysit his kids. 2) It made him yearn for his child, and for connection to others. Guess what, this story ends well. Uncle Caveman’s baby actually was hiding that whole time, and since sadness had motivated Uncle Caveman to search for his kid…they lived happily ever after.

Emotions helped Uncle Caveman make decisions that helped him stay alive. The function of emotions is to help us make good decisions, so we don’t get hurt, used, ignored, or run down.

Evolution is a SLOW process. In fact, our bodies are very alike to our cavemen ancestors.  Sure, we know a lot more. And we use Facebook and soap. But our bodies—and our brains—are not so different from good old Uncle Caveman!

Emotions evolved in humans like everything else; what was adaptive to the species remained. Emotions are critical to our decision making! That’s why therapists tell people to “understand your emotions.” If you did that better, you’d made better decisions. I promise.

If we all had perfectly tuned emotions, life would be good. But, we are individuals within a species, and we each have different characteristics. That applies to our eye color, height, IQ, athletic ability, and—of course—emotional experiences.

Many mental disorders are characterized by too much—or not enough—of certain emotions. Depression is too much sadness. Anxiety Disorders are too much fear. Personality Disorders may be too much shame and anger.  When you notice your feelings remain far beyond their function (remember, they help you make good decisions), they can seriously interfere with your life. If your emotions have outlived their usefulness, talk to a trusted adult (p.s., Sabertooth tigers are not good confidantes). It’s time you had some help.

Newton's 3 Laws of (e)Motion

Newton’s 3 Laws of (e)Motion

First Law of (e)Motion: Every emotion tends to remain in that state of emotion, unless an external force is applied to it. If you want your emotion to change, you have to do something to change it. Or else, it stays the same.

A lot of teens tell me that when such-and-such happens, they’ll be happy. When they graduate. When the semester is over. When parents stop worrying about them. When they lose 10 pounds. And, actually, the teens are sort of right. These events act on emotions in a postive way. The problem is, the events don’t sustain happiness. What’s worse, they are often not within a teen’s control (how do you “make” parents stop worrying about you?).

You can apply external force to your emotions, all by yourself. You don’t have to wait for life to affect you. Just understand and follow the next couple laws of (e)Motion.

Second Law of (e)Motion: The relationship between feelings, ideas, and behaviors is (Feelings = Ideas x Behaviors). Your thoughts and behaviors create how you feel, even if you’re not trying to create any feelings.

Your ideas are in fact powerful messages to your physiology. They create neurochemical events that generate feelings. When you sit in class thinking, over and over: “This is so boring,” you are refiring the emotion of irritability. If you tell yourself how awkward you are at a party, you create anxiety. If you focus on all the things you “need” but don’t have (e.g., better clothes, better body, higher grades, cooler friends, nicer parents), you sustain sadness.

Behavior also plays a role in creating emotions.

  • For example, there is such a thing as “acting depressed.” This doesn’t mean faking depression. It means behaving in ways that are consistent with depression. Sleeping a lot. Over-eating. Not exercising. Seeking out sad movies/songs. Isolating yourself. Not showering. You’re depressed, so why bother, right?
  • There is such a thing as “acting anxious,” which is basically avoiding things that make you uncomfortable or nervous. So you don’t try out for the team. And you don’t tell your classmate to stop putting you down. You don’t go on the rollercoaster with your friends. And you don’t tell the Starbucks barista she messed up your $7 drink. You’re anxious, after all, and those things are pretty uncomfortable, right?
  • Irritability can be created by not getting enough sleep and by skipping meals. It can be sustained by stomping around the house complaining, giving mean looks to people around you, and trying to get through the day as quickly as possible. Irritability can be strengthened  by procrastinating on homework you know you have to do, and by bickering with siblings. You’re grumpy, and it’s the world’s fault, right?

You don’t even have to try to create emotions. You’re already doing it. You probably do it most of the time. Like now, how are you feeling and what are you thinking/doing to sustain that feeling? If you want to create happiness, follow the Third Law of (e)Motion…

Third Law of (e)Motion: For every idea and behavior, there is an opposite and equal idea and behavior. When you act and think opposite to how you feel, you will change your feeling.

Emotions won’t hurt you. They can be unpleasant. So what: they don’t last forever! If you can successfully tolerate and manage your feelings in the moment, you’ve mastered the Laws of (e)Motions!

When we’re upset, we often think and act in ways that make things worse. The master of (e)Motion does this: act and think contrary to how you feel. Do the opposite thing. If you don’t feel like going to the gym…go to the gym! If you are afraid to ask for help…ask for help! If you are thinking about all your flaws…think about all the great things about you!

When you think and behave opposite to how you feel, you change your emotion. It really can be that simple. You are not at the mercy of your feelings. Apply force with your thoughts and behaviors, and start to feel better.

Newton’s 3 Laws of (e)Motion

Disclaimer: Isaac Newton didn’t actually write or say any of this.


Oh, Behave!

Once upon a time, a scientist named B.F. Skinner was playing with rats and pigeons. He had this idea, that all behavior had to do with consequences. Wait! This story gets better. Mr. Skinner invented a fancy box for the animals. The box had levers, lights, loudspeakers, food–the works. The box’s floor was an electrical grid. After a series of experiments, the animals did what Mr. Skinner wanted them to do (like press the levers) when they were rewarded. If the animals did something wrong, the poor little guys got electricuted. The animals learned, over time, to do the “right” thing and to avoid doing the “wrong” thing. And everyone lived…happily?…ever after.

Well, Mr. Skinner did anyway. His work is famous in psychology. He showed us that rats, pigeons, and people are motivated by consequences. Our behavior is shaped by our environment. When a behavior is rewarded, we do it more. When a behavior is punished, we do it less. Mr. Skinner shrugged off Freud’s ideas about mysterious, inner drives and urges. Behavior is as simple as A-B-C: Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence.

Understanding Skinner’s work can save you hundreds of dollars in child therapy. If you want your kid to behave, then use consequences.

This is SUPER important: ld  When you reward a desired behavior, they’ll do it more. Punishing a bad behavior works, but not as well as rewarding a good behavior.

So what’s a reward? Giving them something they actually want, or removing something they don’t want. Rewards are as unique and individual as your child, but most kids feel rewarded by: more leisure time, less chores, more freedom, less demands, more praise, less criticism, and so on. If you reward kids consistently, their behavior will get better. Also-once in a while-going above and beyond with rewards works too.

It’s pretty common, after a few sessions with a therapist, that parents are given instructions on how to use a behavior chart at home. (Thank goodness no one recommends Mr. Skinner’s electrical box.) Behavior charts can be very simple or pretty complex. Start with a simple one. You can do this with your child. Decide how many behaviors your child will work on. Kids ages 2-5 should have only about 4 chart behaviors. Kids ages 6-10 can have 8 chart behaviors. The limit for older kids should be 10 chart behaviors. The behaviors should be specific, but simply stated. For example, “If I use it, I clean it.”

Get a piece of posterboard. Make 8 columns from top to bottom. Leave the leftmost column blank. In the second column, at the top, write “Monday.” Moving left to right, write the remaining days of the week-one in each column. Leaving room at the bottom of the page, make as many rows (lines from left to right, under the days of the week) as you need for the chart behaviors. Write each behavior in the leftmost column, one per row.

At the bottom of the chart, write the exchange rate. How many daily stickers does your child need to get the reward? To start, shoot for about 80%. Same for the weekly stickers reward. Then, as behavior improves, make the ratio of behaviors-to-rewards higher, so that the child will eventually need 100% stickers to get rewards.

What’s the deal with the stickers? Once a day (about 2 hours before bedtime), you and your child will review the behavior chart and discuss how he did. He gets a sticker in the day’s chart behavior, only if he did it. He does not get a sticker if he did not do the behavior. Apply or withhold the reward as appropriate.

Stick to your plan, mom and dad! If your child did all the chart behaviors, then he gets the reward. Period. Even if later he misbehaves or you feel angry with him, he still gets his reward. Same goes for withholding the reward. If your child did not do the chart behaviors, no reward. Not even if you feel sorry for your child. Not even-especially not even-if your kid is throwing a tantrum about not getting the reward.

A behavior chart should be used consistently for about 3 weeks, before you can determine if it’s effective or not. Use Mr. Skinner’s research to mindfully reward your little rats and pigeons! This stuff really works.



Are ADHD Stimulants Working?

A common ADHD treatment is stimulant medication. Methylphenidate is popular, with trade names of Ritalin, Concerta, Daytrana, and Metadate. An amphetamine salt (trade name Adderall) is also used quite a bit.

Dosages are typically prescribed based on a child’s size. It is not uncommon for these dosages to be too high. Parents may notice a trade-off in symptoms, for example, when their child’s attention is improved but he is more physically agitated. This is one clue that the dosage may not be appropriate. Or, an “over-medicated” child might be sluggish, less creative, and (while medications are active in his system) lose his spunky personality. In other words, too much medication can smother the best parts of ADHD.

Stimulant medications take effect quickly. Within about 30 minutes, medication impacts thinking and behavior. Measuring the impact of stimulant medication has historically been difficult. Parents are left to their own observations, the hard-to-read self reports of their child, and input from teachers. With detailed behavior observations (such as how long a medication takes to act on the child, and what happens as the medication wears off), some gains can be made.

But, there is a better way to determine if a stimulant medication is effective. It’s called the Test of Variables of Attention (TOVA). It’s simple, short (about 20 minutes), and accurate. This test can be repeated time and again. A recommended use of TOVA is to compare a child’s “baseline” (performance without medication) against a medication trial. For example, baseline results can be compared for how a child does with 5mg methylphenidate. Since results are ready as soon as the test is finished, physicians and parents have real-time information to consider dosage or prescription adjustments.

A common finding from the TOVA test is that dosages are too high–meaning that unnecessary side effects can be reduced with the lessening of medication, while positive effects can remain. Test results can be very helpful for prescribing doctors. They also give parents clear directions on next steps in treatment and help with peace of mind.

The TOVA is also used as a standard part of ADHD assessments. From 2003 to 2007, there was a 22% increase in kids with parent-reported ADHD, according to the CDC. Research continues to find higher rates of ADHD. There is no single cause of ADHD, but some factors are known to contribute to it.



Can Your Child’s IQ Improve?

IQ–what an elusive subject! What is it? What does it mean? How is it measured? What is a normal IQ? What does “gifted” mean? Where does IQ come from? Does it change over time? Can IQ be improved? Read on, reader.

IQ is a number that represents a person’s ability to make use of knowledge: acquisition, comprehension, storing, analyzing, synthesizing, reasoning, producing, and communicating. There is a long history of debate about the definition of IQ.  Even while the debate continues, psychologists administer standardized tests to measure IQ. What’s being measured? Visual-spatial skills. Speed of thought. Reasoning and inference abilities. Fund of knowledge. Capacity to use “mental scratchpad” to hold and move images and concepts. Adeptness at communicating what you know. Fine motor skills. Common sense. IQ tests define IQ as composed of these many skills…rather than one global ability. But, one overall score is yielded by a mathematical formula that combines many subtest scores.

IQ scores range from below 70 to over 200. Beyond 200, it’s difficult to measure; these are IQ scores of geniuses who can graduate from ivy league schools before they can drive a car. Over 80% of the population has an IQ between 80 and 120. Scores of 80-89 are considered to be in the Low Average range of intellectual functioning. Scores of 90-109 are Average. Scores of 110-119 are High Average. An IQ of 125 is considered by many schools to be “gifted.” Scores of 120-129 are Superior. And scores above 130 are Very Superior. IQ scores are based on a person’s test performance compared to others their age.

This is important: To do well on IQ tests, a child must be engaged, focused, emotionally regulated, and motivated to do well. This means that children with mental illness sometimes do pooly on IQ tests. Does this mean they are “stupid?” Not at all. A child with Asperger’s Disorder, for example, may simply not be motivated to follow the instructions. A child with ADHD may not have the ability to pay attention when necessary. But these kids are often, in the real world, just as smart as their peers. A child can do poorly on IQ test for a number of reasons, but can do well only if she is truly able. Therefore, it is possible for IQ tests to underestimate a child’s intellectual abilities. But, an IQ score can never overestimate a child’s smarts.

An IQ number is handy, especially in academics. While IQ tests do not directly measure a person’s capacity to learn, they do show how well a child is likely to do in school. A child’s IQ score(s) helps parents and teachers form reasonable expectations for a child’s academic progress. IQ scores are the foundation of knowing, truly, if a learning disability is present. (Even though, in Illinois, schools have moved away from using IQ in this way). IQ tests can outline a child’s specific strengths and weaknesses. Although they are not diagnostic (e.g., they do not in themselves show ADHD), IQ tests can point parents in the right direction for next steps in treatment.

How does a child “get” his IQ? Hard to say. There’s a genetic component, linking especially the child’s mother’s IQ to his. There are also very strong environmental correlates to IQ. Love. Diet. Sleep. Safety. These are foundations that help support brain growth. Studies have shown that the amount of brain growth in early infancy is linked to IQ.

IQ tests are available for very young children. There are even ways to guess an infant’s IQ (hint: duration of stare). Standardized IQ tests are available for children as young as 2 1/2. IQ tests are sometimes required for admission into elite or private schools, where tests are given when children are 5 or 6 years old. In the psychology biz, we say that “IQ is generally thought to be stable after about age 12.” This means that whatever score a 12 year old achieves, he is likely to get roughly the same score when he’s 15, 20, 30, and so on. (In middle age, IQ scores tend to change: speed scores go down, knowledge scores go up). Age 12 is the magic number for a child’s cognitive development, the age when he can reason with relative sophistication.

Yet, psychologists know that a child’s IQ can change over time, even after 12. Most times, the change is not significant. A new study found that significant changes do occur, and concludes that changes in IQ reflect changes in ability. Remember that IQ is measured by tests that look for certain things. If a child has been skipping school, he’ll do poorly on parts of the tests that measure fund of knowledge. If she took cold medicine on the day of the test, and is a cognitively “fuzzy,” she may struggle in speed tests. Environmental factors can always play a role in changing IQ scores. But that is not what the researchers are saying. They’re saying that, based on changes in brain development, children’s intellectual abilities change. The sample size in the study was small, but it is an interesting observation.

So, if IQs change  (significantly or not) can you improve your child’s IQ? You can sure help her improve IQ test skills, so she’ll score higher.

  • From ages 0-2: Read to your child. Often. Talk to him, using direct and sustained eye contact. Turn off the TV. Don’t buy the “education-based” video games. Love and praise your child. Play music you like for her (it does not have to be classical music). Explain everyday things to him. (Tell her why orange juice can sting a cut on a lip. Tell him why a hot stove must not be touched.) Praise your young scientist for repeating things over and over. Play peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek. Enforce a healthy diet, and try for organic foods if possible. Use routine, with predictable consequences for behavior. Introduce math concepts. Sing the ABCs. Make sure your baby gets enough sleep.
  • From ages 2-7, a child should be exposed to new things-music, sports, subjects, activities. Keep reading aloud to your child, and praise her efforts to read to you. Talk to your child about why people behave as they do. Who makes the rules in society? Why? Buckle down on homework, establishing high expectations for work habits. Extra work (school worksheets during summer) is recommended in reasonable doses. Homework should not be a fight. If it is, talk to school teachers or a child psychologist. This is the age that learning disorders can start to show. Get a handle on them early. If you have the opposite issue–your child wants to learn more than you can possibly teach–try to connect her to an expert in her field of interest. Perhaps a college professor would be willing to tutor your child for a couple hours on a weekend. Schedule playdates. Continue healthy sleep and diet activites. At this age, children are scientists. Conduct fun and interesting household projects that help your child explore their world. Play guessing games such as, “I spy”, and “I’m thinking of something…” Do puzzles and card games.
  • Children 8-12: Encourage independent reading and books-on-CDs. Enforce healthy sleep and diet. Limit TV and video game time. Be an active participant in your child’s academics, remembering that you are doing him no favors by completing homework for him. Teach work skills, including: organization, time management, scheduling, focus. Praise your child for good report cards, but avoid monetary rewards for them. The goal is to help your child internalize the value of good grades, and not simply work for an external reward. Use intermittent reinforcement. Listen to teacher’s feedback about any problematic academic or social behaviors. Listen to your child. Encourage her to pursue her intellectual passions (which may not be theoretical physics or advanced mathematical theory). Institute a “family game night,” where you play cards, puzzles, or other games that help build reasoning skills. Introduce your child to newspapers and have easy chats about what is happening in the world. Talk about governments, nationalities, and cultures. Explain real-life issues like, “why do we keep our money in a bank?” “what should you do if a bully picks on you?” and “why does the guy from the gas company read our meter?”
  • Ages 12-18: Children become increasingly independent. The foundation for IQ is already set, but test performance can improve for some children. There is no substitute for attending school regularly, paying attention in class, and doing homework. These are musts. Keep a close watch on your child’s use of electronics. Phones, video games, and computers can interrupt sleep, cause social disruption, and distract children from work. Help your child link her academic performance to her long term goals. Consider hiring a peer tutor, someone your child can actually tolerate. Help your child continue to build work skills such as organization, time management, avoiding procrastination, and breaking down big assignments into small “do-able” parts.

Our kids may not become Albert Einsteins or Stephen Hawkings, but they can learn and improve skills that help them get higher IQs.


Pesticides Linked to ADHD Symptoms

Pesticides Linked to ADHD Symptoms

The “organic movement” has roots (pardon the pun) in studies about harmful effects of pesticides. Pesticides Linked to ADHD Symptoms. A new study (conducted by Canadian researchers used data collected from nearly 1,140 children participating in the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) suggests more bad news about pesticides. There seems to be a link between level of exposure to pesticides and the development of ADHD symptoms. This MSN Childhood Health article (by Leah Zerbe Rodale) states that “this study is the first to look at everyday exposure levels in children from around the country. And as it turns out, U.S. kids are exposed to harmful levels of pesticides in their food, day in and day out.” The take-home message is: avoid using pesticides around your own lawn, and–if possible–try to buy organic foods.

Catch Your Child Being Good

Catch Your Child Being Good

As parents, we almost instinctively react to our child’s unwanted, negative behaviors. When our child acts out, we revoke their privileges (no more cell phone today), punish them (extra chores), and remove attention (time out). These can all be effective ways to reduce acting out behaviors. But an even more effective way is to also reward positive behaviors. Exactly when the child is doing the right thing, provide praise that is as specific as possible (name the behavior you like). Catch Your Child Being Good. Examples of rewarding positive behaviors:

  • “Great job picking up your toys the first time I asked”
  • “You are waiting patiently while I finish my work, thank you.”
  • “One thing I really like about you is how you pet the dog nicely.”

Tie even and especially your impulse purchases (a small toy, for example) to your child’s past or present good behavior (“OK, buddy, I will buy you that matchbox car. You can have it because you tried your best at piano lessons today and I was proud of you for that.”). In the psychology biz, we call this “intermittent reinforcement.” It is THE BEST way of getting good behavior from your children in the future. Click the link for nice article about intermittent reinforcement.


Mental Illness in Children and Adults

Mental Illness in Children and Adults

Even beyond childhood traits (such as impulsivity, emotional reactivity, hyperactivity, etc), kids’ brains and bodies seem to experience and certainly to express mental discomfort differently than adults. For example, when adults are tired they tend to be lethargic and sleepy. Tired children often become agitated and irritable.

Children with mental illness behave differently than adults with mental illness. When adults are depressed, they tend to be characterized by sadness, slowing down, and gloominess. Depressed children tend to be grumpy—not sad—and they may have extra energy and agitation. While adults with ADHD are usually just restless, most children with ADHD cannot sit still for more than a few moments. Adults with PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) usually use words to relive trauma, while younger children with PTSD show their trauma in play and behavior. Adults with Bipolar Disorder tend to have discrete “cycles” of moods that last for long periods of times. But children with Bipolar Disorder tend to have many mood changes each day.

Helping children with mental illness hinges on the understanding that most children do not have the vocabulary or concepts to accurately describe their internal experiences. They almost never know “why” they behave as they do. They are often unaware of how events link together—for example, how an argument with mom in the morning led to poor test performance in their first period class. Children tend to be more resilient than others would suppose, and each child has strengths and resources available to them on their road to a happier, more fulfilling life.

For more information about childhood and adolescent mental illness, visit the website for National Institute of Mental Health.


ADHD Resources

ADHD Resources

As ADHD becomes better understood, many resources have become available. The most succinct, accurate, and effective resources that Dr. Weller has used include:

  • This website has evaluations that folks with ADHD (children and adults) have found very helpful. Evaluations clarify each person’s unique modus operandi in dealing with the world. It is a strength-based model that can help families better understand how to make the most of ADHD.
  • “Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder from Childhood Through Adulthood,” by Dr. Edward Hallowell. Dr. Hallowell is a national expert in ADHD (he calls it ADD) and his books are easy-to-read, strength-based, and practical. They suggest cutting edge and real world strategies to manage ADHD.
  • “Overcoming ADHD: Helping your child become calm, engaged, and focused—without a pill,” by Stanley Greenspan. This book is a must-have for parents of children with ADHD. Even if children are on medications, it offers lifestyle and relationship suggestions to optimize the ADHD family experience.

More recommendations and ADHD resources can be found here.