Posts

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.

 

when nice words don't help

When Nice Words Don’t Help

Your daughter cries, “I wish I were pretty.” Your son mutters, “I’m stupid.” Or any variation: I’m fat / a loser / the worst player.

Reflexively, you exclaim: “That’s not true! You are attractive / smart / popular / talented!” Your intentions are good. You mean it. But, instead, your compliments seem only to irritate them. Why?

It’s not that your opinion doesn’t matter (although, to your teen, it probably doesn’t). It’s that your child does not believe you. And, your nice words don’t help. They may even hurt.

Most teens I’ve worked with seriously doubt the motives behind their parents’ compliments. Some explain:  “My mom says I’m pretty because she feels sorry for me,” “My dad says I’m smart because he has to. He’s my dad,” “My parents say I’m good just to make me feel better.” These teens can twist warm parental encouragement into a shaming experience.

He doesn’t accept himself. Against this intensely negative self-focus, your compliments don’t stand a chance.

Think of it this way. Imagine (or remember when) your son fell off his bike at age 5, and you announced cheerfully: “You’re fine! Just keep going!” But he actually didn’t feel fine. He was really hurt. Your encouragement may have invalidated his experience. He did not feel understood or supported.

The child who puts herself down does not accept herself. When you insist that she is thin, etc., it invalidates her. She wasn’t understood or supported.

You’ve heard of “vicious cycles…” When you respond with emotional warmth and encouragement to your child’s self-criticisms…you may actually be rewarding her non-acceptance of herself. He learns that he gets flattery and reassurance (even if it’s not totally believable and certainly not enduring) for putting himself down. In a low mood, in a time of self-doubt, she may increasingly berate herself, unconsciously expecting warmth and encouragement. As she negatively judges herself, you amp up compliments, she judges more negatively, and so on.

Self-Criticism through the Ages: How to Respond

Ages 3-4: Surprise: even youngsters this age can come down pretty hard on themselves. Many times, it takes the form of self-harm, such as banging their head on a wall or smacking their face when upset or frustrated.

Ages 5-6: Fit and active children as young as this (boys and girls) have told me they’re “fat.” Body image is no longer just a teen thing. However, self-criticism at this age is more often related to (1) negative mood, (2) frustration, and (3) fears that he/she has disappointed others. Some children may hurt themselves physically. Others use words: “I can’t do this,” “I’m stupid.”

TRY THIS:

  • Be aware of modeling. Assuming you do not hurt yourself (please don’t do that), your child may be picking up on your self-criticism or overly rigid self-expectations.
  • Respond to your child as follows. Imagine he has hit another kid, to get you into this mindset.
    • Adopt a “stop-the-press!” attitude. Stop what you are doing. Look squarely at your child. Without being harsh, be firm. Wear a stern face. Matter-of-factly say, “You are being a bully to yourself. That is not ok. If you do it again, you will get a time out.” If your child repeats it, follow through on time out. If your child stops, wait 1 minute. WAIT. (You do not want to accidentally reinforce self-bullying).
    • After 1 minute (or after time out): Warmly approach your child and explain what happened: “You spilled the juice on the carpet. That was a mistake. You feel bad about it. I’m pretty irritated, too. But mistakes happen. I really like that you care so much to do the right thing. That’s a nice thing about you. You may not bully yourself. Nobody bullies my kid! Help me clean up this mess now.”

Ages 7-9: The developmental task for these kiddos is to develop industry, to decide if they are skillful, motivated, driven, and productive individuals. This is often decided as they compare themselves to others. This age is where self-esteem starts to solidify. Your opinion as a parent is still very important to your child. Self-criticism at this age may stem from viewing peers are more successful/able/capable/attractive/popular, etc. You may expect unflattering comments related to these.

Ages 10-14: The focus turns more and more toward friends and peers.  Your opinion matters less and less. Self-criticism that starts at this age can be a sign of depression and low self-esteem. Ongoing self-loathing has dire social consequences; it is hard to make friends if you don’t like yourself. Occasional self-doubt may be common. It will most often relate to how she sees herself compared to others of her age and gender. A likely source may be peer comments and bullying. Particularly girls who enter puberty early are at risk of negative attention.

TRY THIS:

  • It is very uncommon for children this age to self-harm. If this happens, immediately consult a mental health professional.
  • Respond to your child as follows:
    • Do not let comments go unacknowledged. Giving full attention to your child, say matter-of-factly: “That was a mean thing to say to yourself. Wow.”  Your child will probably reassert her self-criticism. Avoid the impulse to correct her or praise her.
    • Say, “Help me understand that. How are you fat?” Walk your child through a step by step evaluation of his thought process. Continually ask, “What is the evidence?”
      • What if there is evidence? What if your child is fat? Then, you problem-solve with her. Make an appointment with her pediatrician. Discuss diet and exercise, revising grocery lists, family walks, etc. Make a plan and follow through. All the while, support your child’s self-esteem. Tell her not to bully herself.
        • Be aware of the validity in your child’s statements. He is probably not the best player on the team. So, what can he do about that? If he wants to improve, help him develop a self-guided practice routine. All the while, support his self-esteem.
      • You will probably find what’s called a “cognitive error.” It may sound like this: Because I don’t understand algebra, I’m stupid. Explain that error to your child.
        • Change your tactic. Say, “You are good friend. I notice that you encourage, support, and are gentle with your friends. If your friend did not understand algebra, would you tell him he’s stupid?” You will likely discover that his self-rules do not apply to others. Follow this line of reasoning, with the goal of helping your child develop insight into his overly-high self-standards. “Why are the rules different for you?” Explain that he is bullying himself, and that it won’t be tolerated. Offer to assist him with homework or to find academic supports for him.

Ages 15-19: Self-criticism at this age probably stems from a history of failed attempts at relationships, tasks, or improvements. With teens, there can be a range of triggers for self-criticism. Even if your child only occasionally states self-loathing, it’s probably true that she has chronic negative self-statements in her psyche. Depression may be very likely. Children this age are capable of deeper reasoning, understanding, and dialogue. The self-bullying speech will probably interest him, but not have much effect on curbing self-criticism.

TRY THIS:

  • It is very uncommon for children this age to self-harm. If this happens, immediately consult a mental health professional.
  • Respond to your child as follows:
    • Do not let comments go unacknowledged. Giving full attention to your child, say matter-of-factly, “Whoa. That was a tough thing to say about yourself! Are you okay?”  Avoid the impulse to correct her or praise him.
    • Initiate a dialogue, the goal of which is to show how the self-criticism is mood-dependent—it comes from your child feeling sad, anxious or irritable.
      • If the comments are not mood-dependent, and made in a cavalier, joking way, say, “That is not acceptable or funny. And it’s not a good habit. Please stop that.”
      • More likely, the comments are mood-dependent. Help your child identify what triggered the statement, what the mood is, and what she can do to improve her mood. Help her generate coping skills to feel better: listen to music, watch TV, go for a walk, call a friend, read a book, play with the dog, take a shower…
        • Your child may admit, “Even if I were popular / thin / smart/ athletic, I still would not like myself.” If so, make an appointment with a mental health professional.

4% of Teens on Antidepressants

The Centers for Disease Control reported recently that about 1 in 25 teenagers take antidepressant medications, writes the Huffington Post. Depressive episodes in adolescents can look different from adult depression. For one, teens tend to show more irritability than sadness. Another difference is that teens are not as adept as adults in articulating issues associated with depression. Teens who meet criteria for a diagnosis of depression also usually have at least 4 of the following symptoms: (1) loss of interest in activities that used to be pleasurable to them, (2) changes in appetite or weight–either increases or decreases, (3) sleep problems, including troubles falling or staying asleep, or sleeping too much, (4) seeming either physically slowed-down or physically agitated and restless, (5) feeling fatigued or out of energy often, (6) feelings of guilt or worthlessness, (7) problems concentrating or making decisions, (8) recurrent thoughts of death or suicide. Depression is more likely to affect females. It also runs in families. Children who have not yet reached puberty are more likely to have depression in conjunction with other disorders–such as ADHD, Anxiety, or Disruptive Behavior Disorders.

If you suspect a teenager you know may be depressed, you should take action. Schedule an evaluation with a child psychologist. There are evidence-based treatments for depression, most of which are based in cogntive-behavioral therapies. You should notice symptom improvement after 12-16 weeks of treatment. If improvement is slow or nil, consider making an appointment with a child psychiatrist to discuss medication that may be appropriate as an adjunct to therapy.

Social Media Effects on Children

Social Media Effects on Children

A CNN article reviews the role of electronic media in children’s lives—the good, the bad, and the narcissistic. The research was conducted by Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D., professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and technology researcher. Below is a summary of the major trends observed by Dr. Rosen. Social Media Effects on Children.

Positive Results

– Social media is a great tool for engaging and captivating children
– Online networking can teach socialization
– Online users show more “virtual empathy”
– Social Media can help children establish a sense of self

Negative Results

– Students using social media during study breaks received lower grades
– Children who use social media tend to be more narcissistic
– Research suggests social media can increase anxiety and depression in children

Dr. Weller suggests that parents stay up-to-date on social media trends. Become familiar with what sites your child uses. (St. Charles school district has recently offered teen-led classes to parents for help with this). Like anything done in mindful moderation, social media can play a role in a well-balanced life.

Sleep Hygiene

Sleep Hygiene

Sleep is an integral part of children’s health. Amazing things happen while they sleep, including bursts in physical growth and solidification of learning. Studies show that a good night’s sleep helps buoy moods, improve cognitive performance, and build the body’s resilience against illness and accidents. Problems with sleep are parts of major mental illnesses, including mood disorders. Some scientists suggest that depression is linked to prolonged REM sleep. There is also a growing body of evidence suggesting that ADHD may stem from “a sleepy brain.” Specialists have said that as many as 40% of children who meet the diagnostic criteria for ADHD also meet criteria for a sleep disorder.

An article from the Wall Street Journal reviews findings that link sleep problems with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, aggression, learning problems, and obesity.

Good sleep hygiene is a must. It is also the first place to start when you notice patterns of childhood misbehavior or under-performance. Sleep hygiene includes:

  1. Routine: Regular, predictable soothing activities cue the brain that sleep is on the way. Reading, baths, relaxing music, calm activities, low lights, soft pajamas—integrate these into a pattern for your child. Start 1 hour before sleep is to begin.
  2. Children need more than 8 hours of sleep per night. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends the following sleep guidelines:
    • Infants: 14 to 15 hours
    • Toddlers: 12 to 14 hours
    • Preschoolers: 11 to 13 hours
    • School-age kids: 10 to 11 hours
    • Teenagers: 9 to 10 hours
  3. Turn off electronic media 2 hours before bed. Studies show that children with TVs and video games in their rooms get less sleep. Cell phones (including texts, email, games, and other apps) can also rob many teenagers of a good night’s sleep.