Lauren ParkesOver the past year, several notable research studies have shed light on some of the biological influences that contribute to anorexia, and have pointed the way to potential new treatment approaches and underscored the fact that this and other eating disorders may be more common than we may think. As much as I have wanted to cover this topic for Mom Psych, the task seemed to require someone who knows a lot more about it than I do—and today’s guest blogger does. Lauren Parkes, the niece of dear friends in Australia, is very intimately acquainted with the challenges of living with an eating disorder. We are privileged that she is willing to share her experience with us in the following post.

___________________________________________

Last week was mental health week, and I wanted to do something to raise awareness about something really important, but I was scared of what people would say. In fact, I was so scared of this that I changed schools, changed my name. I retracted from the social sphere because I wanted to disappear; to not be judged. I hoped I’d find happiness in places where traces of me did not exist. I wanted to get smaller and smaller until I stopped stealing oxygen from the rest of the population, to suffer through this thought-pattern in silence.

But I know now that that doesn’t help anyone; it means I went through this for nothing, which in retrospect I don’t believe to be true. Now I’m tired of denying I have suffered from acute anorexia for the last year, and lesser so in the years leading up to it, in fear of seeming whiny and attention-seeking (when I’d much rather dig a hole and hide in it). Why? Because it’s just making people continuously think—just as the media suggests—that living the way I and other anorexics do is okay. Normal. That we are healthy. I’ve been sick of girls telling me, when at a forced-hospitalisation weight, that I had an enviable figure. Even the nurse that was supposed to be looking after me said she wished she had my problem, whilst she inserted my nasal-gastric tube to pump food into me (I know. Messed. Up.)

I have to say something because it’s just not okay for people to want to live the way myself and other sufferers do in order to achieve a “look.” Society will give up everything for aesthetic, and its so sad that we get pulled into this whirlpool of self-worth being connected to numbers on scales or the reflection in the mirror. Type in “how to” into Google and you get the suggestion: “How to be anorexic.” Perhaps a year or so ago I would have clicked on this, like so many insecure people in pursuit of confidence in their physical selves as a means to attain inner-confidence, when confidence is the last thing anorexia gives you.

People who haven’t suffered from this illness will have trouble grasping that this isn’t about weight and food at all (that’s the result, not the cause), and furthermore that it isn’t a choice. I got it without wanting it, and it took me to hospital and psychiatric wards and back to realise something important that the world never teaches enough. Firstly: skinny isn’t all it’s made out to be. I was turned down jobs, told to eat a bigger breakfast from strangers, and even had someone spit at me when she drove past, yelling “EAT SOMETHING.” I broke down and cried, a heap of bones on the sidewalk, wanting nothing but to be accepted.

Secondly: Measurements, food-management, exercise or anything that’s abused to create a physical manifestation of how fragile you may feel inside (cuts, muscles, bones—take your pick); they’re not adequate means of finding content in oneself, nor is it a coping mechanism that delivers lasting comfort or sense of control. In fact, comfort and control are what it takes away from you, amongst countless other things. Achieving something physically does not awaken a self-contentedness that you never developed previously. If you don’t feel happy within yourself NOW, that’s the issue that needs dealing with, because trying to reinvent yourself physically or how you appear socially, is a separate matter—you’ll still be the same unhappy person on the inside.

I learnt that the hard way. Anorexia persists because whilst you still have variables in your life that can be more restricted and controlled, there is still hope in personal perfection. Perfection = supposed peace.

But in reality there are no montages, no gallant orchestra soundtracks, or video-edited camera pans that magically come together and form this moment when perfection is reached, to make you feel confident and strong. So you keep going, and going, and the mindset becomes exponentially perverted and deceived from the malnourished state of your brain, so that you lose sight of everything else. I did. All because I couldn’t deal with insecurity and because I lacked the resilience to tackle the everyday obstacles that life catapulted towards me. I couldn’t muster the courage to do anything but determine my worth by how people treated/mistreated me, what they said/didn’t say about me, when everything could have been different if I had learnt that your worth is only determined by YOU. That is the only steadfast sense of self-worth that remains a lifetime; mere comments that people say from day to day will change like the wind, and will leave you feeling like you have no concrete identity. But it’s there.

All of this may seem so commonsensical to you, as it does me now, but recognising logic when you currently reside in rigid illogicality of thought, doesn’t mean you are able to stop your ill outlook and behaviours. I can empathise with the mentally non-affected in this way, because I too was like you. I’d seen all the psychiatric ward documentaries and had not understood how they couldn’t simply fix themselves—that mental illness was not just people not wanting to change how they felt and making everyone else have to deal with them. But it’s REAL. What a terrifying revelation it has been for me.

I knew throughout my anorexia that I had a serious problem. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but at the same time it seemed so REAL to me, and I forgotten how to live any different. It made so much sense because over time, I’d biologically rewired my neurological pathways so that my body could run on the lack of food and excessive exercise I was doing, accommodating a thought pattern that pervertedly makes sense of defying life’s basic instinct: to eat and LIVE. That’s why anorexia is an extremely nature-defying problem, and why you can’t just “stop” when you want to, because your brain is physically not the same one you had before. And society often embraces its mindset.

I got onto various extreme diets during my problem; raw foodism, veganism, gluten-free-ism for the non-gluten-intolerant, etc. and I was championed for it. I never knew I had anorexia until it was too late, because my friends, family, every magazine to date, were praising me for having “so much self-control,” when many of these diets are actually used as a disguise for socially-accepted eating disorders. I wasn’t doing it “for the animals,” “for the environment,” or even why I thought I was doing it: “to be the healthiest person I can be.” It was for control, and it never gave me that.

Anorexia is the biggest killer out of all mental illnesses (20% die). Even though I’m still alive, I’ve lost friends, bone density, muscle-mass, the ability to have children (temporarily, hopefully), have scars on my wrists, have bald patches on my head, been in lock-down rooms on suicide-watch, had parkinson/epileptic-looking panic-attacks, and wasted my high school years to insecurity—with the cherry-on-top: a whole year of anorexia and suicidal pre-occupation.

All of this happens, around the world, all the time. On and on. In silence. With a false smile to hide the pain. I’m sick of my poor friends having cuts on their arms. Of primary schoolers throwing up their meals. Of people praising others who have lost weight when they were healthy before. Of guys enslaving themselves at the gym because they feel “puny.” Of hearing stories like several of my friends having been raped by their fathers and relatives when they were a child (the ward I went to is a very, sad place) and being forever shaken from the aftermath. I’m sick of people saying to depressed people: “just be happy” and to those with eating disorders: “why don’t you just EAT?”

Try telling a cancer patient to cure themselves, and you’ll see how helpful statements like that are. I’m sick of boys having to act like emotionless statues at school to fit in, only to cry silently in their beds at night, wanting to disappear. I know, because I hear their stories. I’ve held them when they cried.

No matter if you are heterosexual, homosexual, a schizophrenic intellectual. A white man, brown girl, green, blue, purple or black, an LSD-tripping insomniac. If you’re an anorexic perfectionist, an OCD receptionist, suicidal atheist, an alcoholic therapist—Yes, okay, I’m not going to feature in an Eminem album. What I mean is, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from; you ALL have a voice and a story, and you are entitled to feel not okay. We’re only human: and society has to stop teaching us that we shouldn’t possess things that make us a member of our species, having to shove all the emotional baggage, all our unique traits, in the cupboard under the stairs like they’re Harry Potter hiding from the Dursley’s. It shouldn’t have to be this way.

Please, if you’re suffering, seek help. You deserve happiness. Recovery is possible; take it from someone who thought it wasn’t. If you are suffering from an eating disorder, depression, anxiety, whatever it is you carry on your shoulders, it’s okay to lean on those around us for support. If you are a parent/friend/family member looking for someone with personal insight into any of the above-mentioned issues, please don’t hesitate to contact me or leave me a question.

Remember: you are not a college admission rank, a statistic, a grade, a measurement, the number of friends you have, the amount of boys/girls who like you, the classes you’re good at, what you eat, the compliments you receive, the criticisms that come your way, nor are you the things you do or fail to do. NOTHING can encompass all that you are, and when you try to fit into these types of categories, or determine your worth by them, you’re reducing yourself. You’re so much more.

LAUREN PARKES

teen mental healthBefore we quite leave September’s topic of suicide prevention to focus on Bullying Prevention Month in October, I wanted to offer up this informative guest post from Dr. Jesse Viner, Founder and Executive Medical Director at YellowbrickDr. Viner is a recognized expert in the treatment of eating disorders, difficulties resulting from trauma and abuse, and bipolar disorder. He has served as Director of Adult Psychiatry Inpatient Services for Northwestern University Medical School; Medical Director of Four Winds Chicago and Director of University Behavioral Health. A Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, he is currently on the faculty of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis and The Family Institute at Northwestern University. 

Mom Psych is pleased to support organizations that respect the developmental, neurobiological and psychosocial underpinnings of mental health in their efforts to help teens and young adults. I hope you will connect with Dr. Viner on Google+.

While no parent wants to believe that their child would ever consider taking their own life, suicide is actually the third leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 10 and 24, according to the CDC. It’s vital for parents of young adults to understand and recognize the warning signs of depression, the potential health impact of a suicide attempt, and how to seek help if their child is having suicidal thoughts. That’s why Yellowbrick, a Chicago-based treatment center for troubled emerging adults, has put together an infographic highlighting some of the key things parents need to know about depression and suicide. Learn some of the key facts and view the original graphic below.

Identifying Warning Signs and Causes of Suicidal Thoughts

While research has shown that there is no reliable indicator of an impending suicide, there are certain behaviors that may mean your child is at risk for a suicide attempt. Symptoms of depression, such as withdrawal from other people, a loss of interest in activities that once brought joy, expressions of despair, keeping secrets, and abnormal sleeping patterns may be signs that your young adult is having suicidal thoughts.

Unfortunately, certain mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, also have a higher risk for suicide. Anorexia nervosa puts young people at a greater risk for suicide because starvation affects mood and impairs decision-making abilities. Other factors that may increase the risk for suicide include a genetic predisposition to mental illness or substance abuse, familial influences, peer influences, and one or more previous suicide attempts.

How a Suicide Attempt Affects Mental Health

The CDC reports that more young people survive suicide attempts than die, and an estimated 157,000 people between the ages of 10 and 24 receive medical attention for self-inflicted injuries every year. However, physical injuries aren’t the only type of harm associated with a suicide attempt. Because there is a gateway affect for the risk-reward center of the brain, carrying out one suicide attempt makes it easier to carry out another, according to Yellowbrick. Additionally, a suicide attempt is often followed by feelings of guilt and shame, which can cause increased actual or perceived social isolation. This in turn can heighten existing emotional tensions and cause a young adult to believe that they have no support network or meaningful connections in their life.

Getting Help for At-Risk Young Adults

Parents of young adults who have attempted suicide are often unsure of the best way to talk to their child or seek help. One of the key issues that Yellowbrick points out is that young adults often experience deep shame after a failed suicide attempt, so it’s important for parents to demonstrate acceptance and a lack of judgment. Parents can offer their support by empathizing with their child, even if what their child is primarily feeling is anger. Young adults need to be able to feel that they have a safe outlet for their emotions, since bottling their emotions up may lead them to hide future suicidal thoughts. Parents need to remember that they can’t read their child’s mind and shouldn’t make assumptions about what he or she is thinking, but should rather establish open communication.

Because depression is a serious mental illness and suicide is a serious public health problem, a young adult who is at risk for suicide may also need to seek help and support in the form of counseling and treatment. Treatment programs like Yellowbrick can help young adults build meaningful and self-affirming connections, work through difficult transitional periods, learn valuable life skills, and develop emotional resilience.

teen mental health

Infographic courtesy of Yellowbrick

World Suicide Prevention DaySuicide is a widespread public health problem, albeit one that many people find it difficult to talk about, whether they are at risk themselves or have a loved one who is at risk. To combat the stigma that encourages silence, World Suicide Prevention Day was established by the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) in partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO) on September 10, 2003.

This year’s theme for World Suicide Prevention Day is “One World Connected,” chosen in order to emphasize how important connectedness is to those who may be at risk for suicide.

“Studies have shown that social isolation can increase the risk of suicide, and, conversely, that having strong human bonds can be protective against it.” writes the IASP, “Reaching out to those who have become disconnected from others and offering them support and friendship may be a life-saving act.”

That said, many of those who complete suicide do have strong connections with loved ones. It is important to recognize there are multiple factors that increase the risk of suicide, and perhaps the most influential of these is mental health. Approximately 90% of those who die by suicide in Western nations suffer from at least one mental disorder, so prevention efforts must include connecting people to the mental healthcare services that can help them reduce their risk.

Connecting, of course, requires communication. Unfortunately, a common belief is that asking someone if they are thinking about suicide may encourage them to do so. This unfortunate myth can do much more harm than good. “The truth,” says the Mayo Clinic, is that “when someone is in crisis or depressed, asking if he or she is thinking about suicide can help. Giving a person an opportunity to open up and share their troubles can help alleviate their pain and open a path to solutions.”

This doesn’t mean that all forms of communication are equally beneficial, however. In its first-ever report on suicide prevention, released for World Suicide Prevention Day 2014, the WHO cautions against media coverage that sensationalizes and glamorizes, leading to an increased risk of “copycat” suicides. “Media practices are inappropriate when they gratuitously cover celebrity suicides, report unusual methods of suicide or suicide clusters, show pictures or information about the method used, or normalize suicide as an acceptable response to the crisis or adversity,” says the report. While one man’s gratuitous report may be another’s informative news brief, the WHO describes responsible reporting as “avoiding detailed descriptions of suicidal acts, avoiding sensationalism and glamourization, using responsible language, minimizing the prominence of suicide reports, avoiding oversimplifications, educating the public about suicide and available treatments, and providing information on where to seek help.”

There is still much to learn about suicide prevention, but the good news is that the past few decades have seen great leaps in understanding some of the factors that increase risk for, as well as those that provide protection from, suicide. The awareness message of World Suicide Prevention Day, obviously, is that suicide is preventable. There are therapies that have proven effective, but unfortunately, the stigma associated with mental disorders—and with suicidality—can be a major barrier to seeking help.

An important myth to eradicate is that suicidal thinking is an enduring characteristic. “Heightened suicide risk is often short-term and situation-specific,” writes the WHO. “While suicidal thoughts may return, they are not permanent and an individual with previously suicidal thoughts and attempts can go on to live a long life.”

For more information:

Mom Psych: Suicide and Self Harm Index

Preventing Suicide: A Global Imperative ~The World Health Organization 2014

International Association for Suicide Prevention: Resources

Liebster AwardInformation is like oxygen, it has been said. It can’t be stopped by walls or barbed wire, and it has the power to wake the groggy and revive the listless. Not everyone uses it well, of course. But anyone who has read The Onion‘s recent report that “Most of Earth’s Oxygen Is Used for Complaining” will be glad to know there are people who use oxygen for higher purposes, recirculating it back into the community in the form of social support and education. In my view, whenever someone lives and breathes to help others, they stand as examples of people who use the oxygen of information for a positive purpose. And if they do that through their blog posts, which—thanks to the nature of the Internet are likely to be around for a good, long time—they are planting seeds for forests that will freshen the air for years to come.

That’s why I’m honored to have the opportunity to showcase some particularly oxygenating blogs as I nominate some of my favorites for the Liebster Award. There are, of course, a number of awards that are shared among bloggers, and each has its distinctions. What I love about the Liebster award is that it’s intended for up-and-coming blogs of value: the kind that have the potential to breathe new life into the blogosphere by offering the kind of information that can be life-giving, life-changing.

The blogger who nominated me for the Liebster certainly belongs in this category herself, and I’m honored to think she feels the same way about me. We’ve never met, but I have been following her blog and Twitter feed for some time. She is Sam Ross of Teenage Whisperer. What I love about this blog is that it drills very deeply into one area that I cover, but Sam covers it in far more depth than I’m able to from my birds-eye view. While I talk about attachment, relationship-building, and child development in general—sometimes touching on adolescent issues—Sam’s life work is to help troubled, disengaged, challenging teens (and to teach others how to help them effectively too). This is a group of children who are often thrown away by a society that tends to assume there is no hope for them, no help—a society that doesn’t believe in personal change after a certain stage of development. They need people like Sam—and they also need for people like the rest of us to read Sam’s post “My Consumption, Your Compassion.” Thank you so much for this post, Sam, as well as for the nomination.

Now it’s my turn to fulfill part of the responsibility that comes along with this nomination. To be eligible to display the award, of course, you have to pass the love along. If you are one of the nominees I’ve listed below, here’s how to accept this award before displaying it on your blog.

My Liebster Award Nominees, 2014:

A Canvas of the Minds

This is a collaborative effort by a number of bloggers dedicated to fighting the stigma surrounding mental health issues. These writers, who candidly share their own struggles and epiphanies, share Mom Psych’s passion to cut through the myths and misconceptions to educate the public about mental health and support healing and understanding. For example, I offer this post from a Canvas blogger, titled “In Loving Memory,” which addresses some of the misconceptions about suicide.

Attachment and Resilience

Apart from genetics, the parent-child attachment bond is a key environmental influence on mental health and well-being, and Colby Pearce—a clinical psychologist in Adelaide, South Australia—writes about this topic with passion, insight and experience. One of my favorite posts from this blog is “Kindness is Magic,” because it illustrates why I place such a high value on the information Colby shares here. “The way adults treat any generation of children shapes the way those children will, in turn, treat the next generation when they are adults,” he writes. “It follows that if we are seeking to create a more gentle, humanistic world we adults need to pause and reflect on how we interact with the current generation of children.” This information is not only for parents. It’s for everyone who hopes to contribute to healthy communities and a kinder world.

No Points for Style

I go to this blog whenever I feel myself beginning to slip into “Easy-Button” perspectives toward complex mental health issues. Written by Adrienne Jones, who studied sociology and creative writing at The University of New Mexico, NPS addresses mental health from deep in the trenches. “I created No Points for Style so that I would have a place to write and share my experiences raising a child who has a serious mental illness,” Adrienne writes. “Over time, No Points for Style has become a place for me to write about much more than mothering Carter. It’s a memoir-in-progress where I share life as it is happening now, and also life as it used to be, exploring my experience as a bully victim, my first marriage, and my aunt’s violent suicide when I was 8 years old, among many other things.” Adrienne’s approach is honest, straightforward and unapologetic. Her blog will expand your capacity for empathy in ways you’ve never dreamed about. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to meet Adrienne at Blogher ’13 in Chicago. She’s as genuine in person as she is in her writing.

Creating a Family

Perhaps not (strictly speaking) a “Psych” blog, Creating a Family nevertheless works toward supporting mental health by educating the public about infertility and adoption. “We admit up front that we would love for every child in this world to have a family,” write the authors, “and we would especially love to help find homes for older kids and kids with special needs. But, we know that this is not the right decision for every family, and we want to help every family find their right path to parenthood.” If you only read one post from this blog, I recommend one that shoots down one of the most common misconceptions about adoption: “Adoption Is Not the Same as Having a Child of Your Own.”

Aunt Psych

If it seems self-serving for me to nominate a sister-blog—or quite literally, a sister-in-law blog—the simple truth is there really is no other blog that I could find that illustrates so well the vital importance of aunts, uncles and extended family to the well-being of children. (I did try to find one). Few blogs focus on these often-neglected family members, and certainly not with the humor and rapier wit of the woman my brother married. As proof, I offer two of my favorite posts from Jo. “Sneakiness Is Not Genetic . . . RIght?” and “Teaching Friendship through Physical Contact and Body Language.” You’ll definitely want to bookmark this one.

I got you on the “how to live forever” part, didn’t I? Okay, it depends on your interpretation of forever, but let’s just say “longer than you might otherwise expect,” especially when you consider your other life habits. But what does health and longevity have to do with the residents of Roseto, Pennsylvania? You probably have a general idea of where I’m going with this, but pull up a chair and pour yourself a glass of (red) wine anyway. If you haven’t heard this story before, you’ll find it a cool little piece of Italian-American history.

                                    

The Roseto Effectnce upon a time in America, as long ago as the 1950s, there was a physician named Benjamin Falcone who practiced in Pennsylvania near the small towns of Bangor and Nazareth. During the 17 years he had been treating patients in the vicinity, Dr. Falcone noticed that older residents from a third nearby town, called Roseto, hardly ever needed to be seen for heart problems, even though the rate of heart attacks within the other two towns, and across the United States in general, were increasing steadily.

Could it have something to do with their relative seclusion? The inhabitants of Roseto had emigrated almost en masse from an Italian village called Roseto Valfortore, located in the province of Foggia. Hoping to escape poverty in their homeland, about 1,200 inhabitants of Roseto Valfortore had been issued passports bound for America by 1894. After they arrived, existing cultural pressures and social restrictions prevented them from scattering and melting into the local populations, so they eventually built their own community on a rather confined hillside, essentially separated from nearby English, Welsh or German immigrants. By 1912, Roseto’s population had exceeded 2,000 and it incorporated to become the first American municipality governed by Italians. By the time Dr. Falcone began to notice the extraordinary heart health of its residents, Roseto was a thriving town, accepted and even admired by neighboring Bangor and Nazareth, and served by the same doctors and hospitals.

One day, Dr. Falcone attended a local medical society talk given by a visiting physician from the University of Oklahoma, Dr. Stewart Wolf, who frequently spent summers at a nearby farm. Dr. Falcone invited Dr. Wolf out to a local pub for a beer and in the course of their conversation, mentioned the strange phenomenon he had noticed in the Roseto residents.

It was now 1961, and Wolf was intrigued enough to engage some of his colleagues from the University of Oklahoma in taking a deeper look at the Roseto effect. Along with sociologist John G. Bruhn, the research team began to compare medical histories, physical exams, and lab tests in a large sample of Rosetans—as well as the inhabitants of Bangor and Nazareth—hoping to find the key to the apparent health and happiness of this unusual community.

What they found stymied them. Yes, the evidence confirmed it was true that coronary heart disease and death from myocardial infarction (heart attack) was strikingly lower in Roseto than in its neighboring towns. Importantly, mental illness (including senile dementia) was also much lower: half the rate of Bangor, and only a third the rate of Nazareth. But at first, no one could understand why.

“The findings were surprising because of a greater prevalence of obesity among the Rosetans,” wrote Wolf and Bruhn in their report, published in 1979 under the title, The Roseto Story: An Anatomy of Health. “A meticulous study of dietary habits established that Rosetans ate at least as much animal fat as did the inhabitants of Bangor and Nazareth.” This was reflected, not only in the high obesity rates of Roseto, but also in the fact that the town’s rates of hypertension, diabetes, and measures of serum cholesterol concentration closely matched those of the other communities. Smoking and exercise habits were also similar, and the researchers were able to eliminate ethnic and genetic factors from the mix. After all, inhabitants who left Roseto to live in other communities soon became subject to the higher death rates that plagued the rest of the nation.

What, then, could explain Roseto’s strange effect? (And no, people weren’t drinking from a special communal well or making mysterious concoctions from South American miracle plants). Having already ruled out diet, exercise, genetics, and other factors that the medical community has long believed to be “risk factors” for heart disease, the researchers turned to studying the way Rosetans lived.

What they discovered was that their initial rejection by outlying communities had forced Rosetans to turn to one another for support and mutual help. Ultimately, the researchers found, the only real differences between Roseto and its neighboring communities were social ones. Roseto’s citizens enthusiastically took on the responsibility of being their neighbor’s keeper.

The researchers described the character of the townsfolk as buoyant, fun-loving, enterprising, optimistic, cohesive, and mutually supportive. “Our first sociological study of Roseto revealed that crises and problems were coped with jointly by family members with support from relatives and friends,” wrote Bruhn and Wolf. “Following a death in the family, interfamilial differences were forgotten, and the bereaved received food and money from relatives and friends, who at times temporarily assumed responsibility for the care of the children of the bereaved. When financial problems arose, relatives and friends rallied to the aid of the family, and in instances of abrupt, extreme financial loss the community itself assumed responsibility for helping the family.”

In addition, families weren’t secretive. Their problems were shared—and then worked out with the help of the local priest or family “pillars.” Pillars were often older single women in the community who had taken on the responsibility of aging parents and who were highly respected and valued for their role in maintaining cohesive family and community ties.

In Roseto, nearly everyone had a vital role to fulfill—whatever their age or gender. At the end of the day, they gathered together in each other’s homes, social clubs or the local diner. But the cornerstone of life in Roseto was the family. “Family traditions provide a buffer in times of crisis and a source of stability for the community,” wrote the researchers in their 1979 report.

Of course, even in Roseto life wasn’t always rosy, and a good study wouldn’t be complete without taking a look at the “outliers,” or those whose circumstances were remarkably different from the main sample. There were some who were marginalized in Roseto, either because they had no ethnic or social ties within the community or because, for whatever reason, they had been excluded or had excluded themselves from the community’s social culture. Like their neighbors in Bangor and Nazareth, these marginalized Rosetans showed a higher incidence of illness and myocardial infarction than the general population. Indeed, in one case history, a seemingly healthy “Mr. F.” commented to the researchers (five years before he died of a heart attack) that “I don’t fit in the town—I don’t live like they do—I’m not like the Rosetans.”

He was not the only marginalized inhabitant who missed out on the health benefits of living in Roseto. “Hard work and family and personal problems were common to most of them,” wrote Bruhn and Wolf. “In addition they emphasized self-reliance and responsibility for their own actions and hence enjoyed little or no family or community support in times of crisis.”

With these observations in hand after two years of study, it wasn’t difficult for the researchers to predict in 1963 that, “If and when Roseto’s traditional close-knit, mutually supportive social structure began to crumble . . . the town’s relative immunity to death from myocardial infarction would gradually come to an end.”

In fact, that is exactly what happened. As Roseto gradually became Americanized, adopting what the researchers called “materialistic and individualistic values,” mortality from heart attacks shot up, reaching the prevailing rate in Bangor by 1975. Unfortunately, the study didn’t follow up on mental health effects, but there is no shortage of more recent research linking mental health and well-being to social support—or indeed linking physical health to mental health.

Can materialistic and individualistic values really do so much harm to the health of a community? Isn’t independence one of the greatest gifts we can give our children?

It’s a valid question. As parents we certainly want our children to grow up knowing how to dress themselves, regulate themselves and exercise a great deal of the trait that we call “independence.” But as you consider independence in terms of community, also consider that the human brain is not only itself a mass of connections that feed the health of mind and body, but the stability of these connections is maintained and supported by reliable interconnectivity with other human brains. And contrary to the fears of some, you can’t have “too many” connections. You may not treasure them all equally, but all serve a purpose and contribute to the larger safety net that is community.

That said, I wouldn’t dream of arguing with Monty Python: “We’re all individuals! Yes, we ARE all different!” But we are individuals who, because we are human, are pro-social beings. Whether we like it or not, this makes us interdependent, and that’s not so bad—in fact, it’s actually the way of all living things.

Of course, if you prefer, you can try to do “forever” on your own . . . but the odds aren’t going to be stacked in your favor.

 

 

RELATED RESEARCH:

Humans Are Happier when They Do the Right Thing; It Also Helps Them Overcome Difficulties

June 12, 2013—Communities that stick together and do good for others cope better with crises and are happier for it, according to University of British Columbia researcher John Helliwell and colleagues. Their work suggests that part of the reason for this greater resilience is the fact that humans are more than simply social beings, they are so-called ‘pro-social‘ beings. In other words, they get happiness not just from doing things with others, but from doing things both with and for others. The paper is published online in Springer’s Journal of Happiness Studies.”

Heart Disease Risk Linked with Spouses’ Social Support

February 6, 2014—Matters of the heart can influence actual heart health, according to new research. A study from researchers at the University of Utah shows that the ways in which your spouse is supportive—and how you support your spouse—can actually have significant bearing on your overall cardiovascular health.

People Who Are Socially Isolated Experience More Pain after Hip Replacement

October 27, 2013—Could being socially isolated affect how well you do and the amount of pain you experience after surgery? Researchers at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) set out to test this hypothesis. They found that people who lacked good social ties were much more likely to experience serious, ongoing pain following total hip replacement surgery two or more years after the procedure.

People Mean Most for our Collective Happiness

October 7, 2013—Swedish soccer star Zlatan is associated with happiness, but not iPhones. A new study at the Sahlgrenska Academy and Lund Universitysuggests that our collective picture of what makes us happy is more about relationships, and less about things.

PeopleWho Needs Them?
 Nov 2, 2011 … As much as our inner cowboy might like the idea of riding off alone into the sunset, real people cannot thrive that way.

Young father helping her daughter with her school project at homMy almost-17-year-old daughter is in China on a school trip, which prompted me to search out some of the week’s news from that country. Unfortunately, one of the first stories to cross my screen was a tragic piece that could have happened anywhere, and demonstrates how confused the public is about how to respond to problem behavior in children. A great deal of the confusion seems to center on punishment—not only on how to use it, but how to define it.

As the reporter relates the story, a security worker known as Mr. Zhang, tried to punish his daughter for academic cheating, but accidentally killed her in the process. This was not the first time the young girl had cheated in school. According to the reporter, Zhang explained that he had beaten his 11-year-old daughter because she had copied a classmate’s homework “again.” On finding out, her father was furious and “dragged her to the bicycle shed to beat her” on the evening of May 19th. Zhang says he “hung her up with a rope,” beat her legs with another rope for a short time, and left the bike shed. When he returned half an hour later, his daughter was near death. The girl was pronounced dead shortly after being brought in to the hospital. The father, “contrary to much speculation,” says the news report, loved his daughter and “spoiled her from time to time.” No specifics were offered to describe what he had done to spoil her, but perhaps we are meant to believe that the beating would not have been necessary had it not been for the spoiling. The photo accompanying the story shows Mr. Zhang prostrate on the floor, weeping over his daughter’s death.

In a strange way, I am sorry for the father. I’m sorry he was never taught more effective ways of dealing with problem behavior. But I’m much sorrier for his 11-year-old daughter. Tragic examples like these illustrate why it is so important for parents to understand how behavior change works and to consider constructive interventions and strategies as a replacement for “default technologies,” however embedded they may be in a culture. Default technologies are the “tried and survived” behavior-change tactics that worked enough of the time that they provided reinforcement for our parents (and for us) and now we believe they are the “best” ways of changing behavior. Keep in mind that we survive many things that aren’t necessarily the “best” options at our disposal. Yes, maybe you survived the era of no seatbelts . . . but many others didn’t. The fact that you survived doesn’t mean we should go back to the days when they weren’t required. Survival doesn’t prove efficacy, contrary to popular Facebook memes. People survived the Holocaust, for instance. What are we to make of that?

When we become dependent on default technologies, we become rusty at using more creative ones like reinforcement—a strategy that is surprisingly effective and doesn’t leave us open, as parents, to taking things dangerously far.This is not to say that punishment doesn’t have a place. It certainly can work, approached in the right way. But what is punishment? And how is it best used?

In its most precise sense, punishment is something that decreases the future frequency of a behavior. Positive punishment means “adding something,” while negative punishment means “taking something away.” For instance, if you walk carelessly into a dark room and stub your toe, you’re unlikely to make the same mistake again. Stubbing your toe has decreased the future frequency of walking into a dark room without turning on a light—and it’s “positive punishment” because it has added a stimulus: the stubbed toe. On the other hand, when you get a speeding ticket, you have to pay money. You lose something that you like. That’s “negative” punishment (the math kind of negative), because something has been taken away (money), and you’re going to think long and hard about speeding again. On the other hand, if you don’t blink at writing a $300 check to city hall, a ticket might not decrease your behavior. If it doesn’t, the consequence intended as a punishment is not a punisher. Rather, something else is reinforcing the behavior (probably the consequence of getting to your destination faster) and the intervention has no effect.

To avoid repetitive, ineffective attempts at punishment, it’s important for parents to clearly understand what is reinforcing the behavior we don’t want to see. Until we know how the behavior is “helping” our child, any attempt to change it is unlikely to succeed. Another key principle is that we can’t simply teach a child what not to do . . . we also have to teach him or her what to do as a replacement. Punishment works best if you are reinforcing alternate (positive) behaviors at the same time. This is a principle well demonstrated by research.

Using a child’s cheating as an example of a behavior we want to change, the first order of business would be to determine what is reinforcing the cheating behavior. If it’s simply avoidance of work, why doesn’t the child just skip the assignment? More likely, the child also wants to avoid her father’s displeasure at the bad grades that would certainly result from neglecting her homework. By copying a friend’s homework, she avoids her parent’s displeasure (because she gets a good grade on the assignment) but she also avoids doing the work. Maybe she doesn’t believe she’s capable of doing the work. Either way . . . certain consequences have been avoided. Unless, of course, her father finds out.

When he does find out, one way a parent in this position could apply positive punishment (in other words, add something to decrease future cheating), would be to require the girl to do the homework assignment over again each time she copied her classmate’s work. If one of her goals is to avoid work, this is a potentially valid punisher. But remember that punishment works best when paired with reinforcement for an alternate behavior. What alternate behavior would a parent want in this case? Well . . . they would want their daughter to do her homework without copying from a friend. One way to reinforce that would be for a parent to be present while she did the work. The parent could then monitor her progress while also being available to answer any questions she may have and offer social support as she works.

Does this seem like a “reward”? Think again. It’s positive reinforcement, which is rather different. Having a supportive parent in the room to answer questions is reinforcing the current behavior of doing the homework herself . . . not the already past behavior of copying her classmate’s homework. This kind of immediate reinforcement is especially important at the beginning stages of behavior change. But, of course, if the child receives good grades as a result of her parent’s help, the preferred behavior is going to be even further reinforced by her accomplishment, as well as by her parent’s approval.

A bonus side-effect of using a constructive behavior-change approach is that the child is more likely to trust the parent’s future responsiveness and less likely to resort to lying, sneaking around, or other problem behaviors often employed in the aim of circumventing physically painful punishments. It’s a natural, human reflex to want to avoid pain. Of course, that doesn’t make lying or cheating right. Simply “natural,” like a parent’s tendency to go further than necessary when caught up in the throes of emotion.

Why is it so tempting for parents to rely on risky default technologies when it comes to addressing children’s behavior? One reason is that we receive automatic reinforcement for using them, because they seem to work in the short term, and the short-term consequence is what we associate most strongly with our action. We may be aware of the fact that there are long-term side effects to some types of punishment—such as the potential to stir up strong, destructive emotional responses in the learner. And we may be aware of the danger in modeling undesirable behavior ourselves. But it’s not always easy to see that we have other, more effective options.

Yet we do. And it’s well worth adding some of them to our parenting repertoire.

_______________________________

SEE ALSO:

Bye-Bye Boot Camp: Positive Parenting for Challenging Kids

April 1, 2014—Having children is not a prerequisite for having strong opinions about childrearing, so it’s not remarkable that when we do have children, we can be a bit defensive about our parenting style. This is true even when it seems to be working well; but what if our child’s behavior seems particularly challenging? Because we take our responsibility seriously, we may focus on who or what is to blame, rather than on what we can do to improve the situation. We may even wonder whether it can be improved. Is a noncompliant toddler doomed to become a challenging adolescent? Worse, if we have a defiant teenager—one who refuses to comply with requests or follow rules of conduct—do we have any real chance of producing the result we want for him or her?
(Full story . . . )

_______________________________

MOM PSYCH RECOMMENDS:

You Just Broke Your Child, Congratulations

To Build (or Break) a Child’s Spirit

Sister and brother stick out tongues to each otherI don’t care how perfect you are as a parent, there are going to be some occasions when your children squabble. This is why Erma Bombeck’s timeless wisdom resonates: “Never have more children than you have car windows.” But as this warning also suggests, with a little mindful planning, parents can influence—to a great degree—how well children get along.

Most parents do try to encourage good relationships among their children, but even so, some siblings seem incapable of spending even a civil second in one another’s company, and there may not be clear reasons for this at first. If this describes your family, it’s worth considering that some of the following unconscious habits might be undermining your efforts.

1. Playing Favorites

When parents are surveyed on the subject of favoritism, nearly all respondents say that despite their best efforts to the contrary, they have favored one child over another at least occasionally. They also typically admit that they know favoritism is hurtful to children and that they try to avoid it as much as possible—and there’s good reason to do so. Unfavored children are vulnerable to depression and aggressive behaviors, and a reduced sense of self-worth and social responsibility. But favored children also suffer from harmful effects. They may feel empathy, or even guilt, for the “underprivileged” sibling’s experiences; or feel the loss of what might otherwise have been a close sibling relationship. Of course, just because parents may treat children differently does not mean their actions are necessarily “preferential.” But when differential treatment is necessary, it helps for parents to explain why it’s necessary.

2. Viewing sibling conflict as “normal” preparation for “real life.

Many harmful stereotypes could cloud parents’ understanding of the boundary between healthy and unhealthy sibling relationships, but this may be the worst offender. It’s true that children can learn a great deal about how to resolve conflict as they interact with their brothers and sisters, but the necessary skills are not automatically absorbed. Without clear boundaries and parental intervention, “ordinary” conflict can develop into chronic aggression, which in turn can escalate into violence. It may not always be easy for parents to recognize the line between normal developmental conflict and abuse, but researcher and psychologist John Caffaro offers a helpful guideline: “Violent sibling conflict is a repeated pattern of physical or psychological aggression with the intent to inflict harm and motivated by the need for power and control,” he says, noting that psychological attacks are frequently at the core. “‘Teasing’ often precedes physical violence and may include ridiculing, insulting, threatening, and terrorizing as well as destroying a sibling’s personal property.” Often one sibling (not always the oldest or biggest) consistently dominates in these conflicts, and the weaker or more passive child, having failed at all attempts to stand up to the aggression, will cease to resist in what researchers call “learned helplessness.” A common manipulative tactic among children is to say, “I won’t play with you if you don’t . . . [fill-in-the-blank].” This is not harmless teasing, says researcher Laurie Kramer. Rather, it’s full-fledged bullying.

Bullying perpetrated by brothers or sisters can be considerably more traumatic to children than peer bullying, because it occurs within the home on an ongoing basis and there is often no way of escape—and very little respite—for the sibling on the receiving end.

3. Tolerating conflict as a normal part of the general family atmosphere.

A retired professor of social sciences at Swansea University in Wales, Robert Sanders has extensive experience in working with children and families. In his 2004 book on the subject of sibling relationships, he summarizes that“factors such as the child’s temperament, the level of positivity in the relationship between the parent and children, differential negativity in the relationship that the parent(s) has with the children, and the level of conflict between the parents, all combine to influence the quality of the relationship between siblings, which may prove quite consistent over time between middle childhood and early adolescence.” While all these factors could, in theory, be modified, often they are not: patterns of behavior in dysfunctional families tend to persist unless someone or something becomes a catalyst for change.

4. Believing that it’s enough to discourage negative interactions between siblings.

Just because children don’t lash out at one another doesn’t mean they feel warmth in their relationship—and it’s the degree of warm feelings rather than the absence of negative ones that predicts children’s well being. This isn’t to say that children who feel warmth toward one another will never experience conflict, of course; but the goal for parents is to help children increase their ability to resolve conflict reasonably quickly and restore an atmosphere of active support. This may require parents to change their expectations: instead of brushing off hitting, name-calling and shunning as harmless behaviors, parents ideally would make it clear that they expect their children to treat each other with warmth and affection, and would reward such behavior when it occurs spontaneously. Positive reinforcement works wonders.

5. Neglecting to talk to kids about the “bonus benefits” offered by good sibling relationships.

Sibling relationships are likely to be the most enduring they will have in their lifetime. Like our parents, siblings are party to our early experiences, but barring unnatural death, they are likely to remain part of our lives much longer, outliving parents by 20 years or more. In addition, if siblings share both parents with us, we will typically have about 50 percent of our DNA in common. That means they are genetically more like us than anyone else on earth other than our parents. Considering that these relationships can contribute tremendously to the stores of resilience that will help carry us through the adverse events that are an inevitable part of life, it makes sense to ensure that they are as supportive and nurturing as possible.

With these 5 considerations in mind, what do you think the chances are that the siblings in this video will grow up to have close, supportive relationships in adulthood?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,132 other followers

%d bloggers like this: