5 Parenting Tips for Back-to-School 

As students put away the flip-flops and put on backpacks this back-to-school season, many parents dread the arguments over homework, the amped-up scheduling and other parental stressors. Here are some tips to help parents manage the September Stress:

  1. What homework? My first rule is simple: Stop asking about homework, hovering over your child and checking homework.

From what I hear regularly from patients, parents today seem to be far too involved in “helicoptering” about homework issues.

What are you teaching your child when you ask relentlessly and anxiously about homework? Is she learning lessons about her ability to disappoint you if she gets a bad grade?  Or maybe that you only care about academic success, not about her social or emotional fulfillment? Or that your self-image is defined by her grades?

Importantly, what are you teaching about personal responsibility when you daily remind an older child to do homework? Younger children need structure and direction most of the time. But as kids get along in elementary school these reminders should taper way off.

The way to teach about consequences is to let “natural consequences” occur. If your child forgets to do his homework, the result is he will feel embarrassed by his “0%” and realize he has disappointed himself, his teacher and his parents. He will not enjoy that sensation of shame, so he will likely change his behavior. By protecting him from learning this lesson you are not teaching him what I believe is one of the most important lessons of life — to acknowledge shame and learn be accountable for one’s behavior.

2. What, me worry?

Apologies for the antique cultural reference from my youth, but parents need to stop worrying about a child’s academic success.

Sure you want your child to be a “success.” But be honest.  Consider the real reason for your worry. Is this worry more about YOUR fears of looking like a failure as a parent if your child does not do well in school? Is this worry largely due to YOUR fear of getting the call from the teacher or principal about a forgotten book report or a poor behavior? Do you have high expectations for yourself and are you passing those perfectionistic traits to your child?

While it is easy to believe that your child reflects on your self-worth as a parent, let go of this belief. Free yourself and your child. Let your child be his own person and make his own path.

3. Put away the tech.

Studies have found that too much exposure to gadgets and games in childhood causes cognitive delays, attention problems, increased tantrums, sleep deprivation, increased impulsivity and more.

Two studies by the University of Southern Maine showed that college students who merely had a cell phone sitting on their desk while doing a simple cognitive test performed 20% worse than students who did not have technology nearby. Just the mental distraction of thinking about the cell phone seemed to worsen performance, even if the students didn’t actually use it.

If kids are working on a computer, have them shut other tabs to social media sites.

4.  Model your values.

You push your child to study and succeed academically. But when was the last time you read a book that was educational? Do you attend community education classes, visit museums or master a musical instrument? Do you watch PBS or educational TV shows? Do you discuss politics, current events, philosophy or religion at the dinner table or in the car?

5. Nix “How was your day?”

This article has 30 conversation-starter questions to use to replace that tired standby, “How was your day?”

In general, parents should focus on reducing anxiety surrounding school and making it a relaxing, enjoyable topic, so that kids experience learning as stress-free and maybe even fun!

What Dogs Teach Us About Yawning and Anxiety

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yawning-puppy

A young patient of mind yawns regularly in session — and big yawns that she doesn’t cover with her hand… but manners are a topic for another post. Many therapists might either be offended at her boredom or check on how much sleep she is getting. I knew that it was just a sign of her anxiety.

While yawns can signal a need for oxygen or sleep, they can also signal that a person is feeling uncomfortable or in a fear state.

Arousal or fear travel two ways in the body. The brain can send out signals to the body, as in, “Hey that looks like a snake on the trail. Get ready to run.” Many don’t know that this also works in reverse. The body can also send signals to the brain to be on guard. A person who fidgets a lot or carries tension in her shoulders can also trigger the brain to become aroused and fearful based only on the physical actions. So yawning could also be seen as the body’s way of signaling the brain that it needs to calm down: “There is nothing to be worried about, because I am yawning, a sign of sleepiness.”

I remember when in my early 20s I would yawn a lot in certain settings, not realizing the implications related to anxiety. I now only yawn when I am truly tired.

Anxiety ranging from low-grade to panic attacks also can cause shallow or rapid breathing, which can reduce the amount of oxygen that gets to your lungs. Yawning can be the body’s way of signaling to your brain to slow down the breathing rate. Most of us when we get over a stressful event take a big breath of air and let out our stress with the exhale. A yawn may be a similar attempt by the body to achieve this stress reduction.

But yawns also have interpersonal significance. In the animal world, we know that yawns are a means of communicating anxious states between animals. When a calmer dog is around another more-anxious dog, he may yawn to communicate that he senses the anxiety and to signal to the anxious dog that he should calm down. I’ve heard many dog owners assume that their dog is tired when he yawns, when really the dog is anxious due to the owner’s anxiety or due to a stressful situation. The dog is signaling the owner to calm down, but the owner does not understand this communication.

Observe your dog. Does he yawn a lot in your presence or in certain situations, such as when the kids are acting out? Don’t assume he is tired.

Be sure to check with a physician if you find yourself yawning a lot. You may have sleep quality problems or other medical issues that need to be ruled out. Or you may just be anxious.

Anxiety: An Evolutionary Approach Disses the DSM

With the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5th Edition set to publish in May, I have been doing a lot of research on the DSM and writing an essay on it (coming soon to a blog very near here!). I just finished an excellent book entitled, “All We Have to Fear: Psychiatry’s Transformation of Natural Anxieties into Mental Disorders,” by Allan V. Horwitz, PhD, and Jerome C. Wakefield, PhD, DSW. I was intrigued by this book because the title seemed to parallel some of my theories in Pack Leader Psychology, that humans have natural fears and reactions to those fears. And one of my main complaints about the DSM is that is pathologizes what are actually normal, adaptive behaviors.

This book did not disappoint and I would highly recommend it to any clinicians interested in anxiety “disorders,” evolutionary psychology, the philosophy of psychology, or the DSM and its troubled history.The authors do a very thorough job of defining anxieties per the DSM and presenting a brief history of anxieties in the psychiatric field.

The meat of the book begins in Chapter 2: An Evolutionary Approach to Normal and Pathological Anxiety. (It’s not as dreadful as it sounds!  Actually, the book is quite readable and accessible, with a down-to-earth approach and tone.) This chapter has an excellent summary of five philosophical approaches to differentiating between “normal behavior” and “mental disorders:”

– Are disorders caused by brain malfunctioning?

– Are they the result of learned experiences (conditioning)?

– Are they defined by changes in social values (homosexuality used to be considered a mental disorder!)?

Are disorders defined by statistical rarity?

Are disorders judged as such when they are “clinically significant” or “impairing” to the patient?

After critiquing each approach, the authors offer an evolutionary approach to anxiety. (An approach I believe that also works for most other psychological “disorders.”) Quite simply: “Psychological functions arose to respond to prehistoric, not contemporary, conditions.” (p. 35)

Emotions developed over thousands of years of human evolution to help us survive. Each emotion has a natural function, with related physiological, psychological, and behavioral processes, to allow humans respond to social and environmental situations.

Fear helped us survive by sensitizing us to dangerous people or situations. It prepared us to attack or retreat, to placate a dominant tribe member, or taught us to avoid a dangerous watering hole or a poisonous berry. Considerable research has proven that we have innate fears of heights, snakes, spiders, darkness, strangers, public humiliation, and social ostracizing. These fears were survival enhancers when we lived in caves and tepees and with a small group of protective tribesmen.

Horwitz and Wakefield have irrefutable evidence, as well as significant common sense logic, that most anxieties, phobias, PTSD, and obsessions/compulsions, as defined by the DSM, are really normative, expectable reactions that should not be labeled as disordered. Horwitz and Wakefield note that today’s anxieties are “mismatched” with today’s environment. In essence, we are using primal survival emotions and behaviors to try to live in a world that is very different from our hunter-gatherer forebears. “Many natural fears are not grounded in responses to any current environmental danger but are manifestations of ancestral fear mechanisms.” (p. 76)

The book then goes into a history of anxiety diagnoses and the DSM’s changing definitions of and criteria for anxiety disorders, using their evolutionary perspective to point out inconsistencies and errors in logic.

For example, after explaining that fear of social exclusion is innate in humans and one of the strongest primal fears, they note: “Perhaps the oddest thing about the DSM-IV definition of social phobia is that it classifies as disordered those people who are afraid in exactly those situations in which fear is most natural… Unfamiliar people are inherently more threatening than familiar ones, and humiliation is a potent threat to people when others  — especially, say, their bosses or competitors — evaluate them.” (p. 132-3)

They then critique several large-scale studies of the rates of mental disorders in the population. Among other complaints, the authors note that the studies fail to take into consideration the context of a person’s anxiety. For example, studies of people following natural disasters or the 9/11 terrorist attacks found very high rates of “mental disorders” such as PTSD and anxiety.  “It is hardly imaginable that a clinician would consider ‘mentally ill’ a patient who has recently survived a major disaster that destroyed her home, ruined her possessions, forced the relocation of her family, and bankrupted her finances and then affirmed that she is feeling anxious and depressed. Calling half the population of a major metropolitan area ‘mentally disordered’ after a natural disaster based on such feelings is inconsistent with any sensible concept of mental disorder.” (p. 167)

Overall the book was very thorough and well researched, and I wholeheartedly agree that the DSM should incorporate an evolutionary approach. However, I believe that Pack Leader Psychology makes some additional connections that further explain human behavior. While anxiety is a normal reaction to fears, I do believe that people today suffer from more anxiety than they ought to. This is largely due to the fact that we our fears of social exclusion are too highly sensitized. Because we do not have strong, stable “packs” or social groups, as we did in the past, we do not have an inherent feeling of safety and social acceptance. This may have resulted because we were raised by parents who were insecure and emotionally unstable, causing us to fail to develop strong self-worth. Consequently, when we go out into the world, we search for social acceptance because we lack internal self-acceptance. A baseline of low self-worth predisposes us to anxiety, depression, personality disorders and the like.

Lots more is in “Pack Leader Psychology.” Watch for my anti-DSM essay with more on this topic as well.

Horwitz, A. V., Wakefield, J.C. (2012) “All We Have to Fear: Psychiatry’s Transformation of Natural Anxieties into Mental Disorders” Oxford: Oxford University Press.

PTSD: A New Phenomenon?

Mindhacks.com recently had a post on post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, titling the post “A very modern trauma”. I was intrigued by the headline because I also believe that PTSD is likely to have increased in prevalence recently. They review some research that looked back at PTSD rates in past wars, even going back centuries. (Disclaimer: It is, of course, very difficult to reconstruct the psychological condition of people who are long gone.) Yet some researchers agree with me and think PTSD, at its current levels of prevalence, is unlikely to be a “universal timeless disorder.”

My perspective, using the Pack Leader Psychology paradigm, is two-layered.

First, as a psychologist, I am convinced that most people who are diagnosed with PTSD came into the trauma with already-high levels of anxiety/fear. (Would be a fascinating research project.)

A commenter (JenJen) on the Mindhack blog wrot that she was diagnosed with PTSD after her mother committed suicide. But she noted that this trauma followed a lifetime of being raised by her mother, a “paranoid schizophrenic.” Her father also committed suicide. These facts make me conclude that she was raised by very anxious, fearful people with low self-worth. She did not have balanced, secure parents providing an emotionally safe environment. In short, she did not have a stable pack and strong pack leaders providing her the security she needed to feel safe.

A child raised by such fearful, self-absorbed, non-pack-leader parents will, quite naturally, learn to react to the world with fear. It’s as if she was “thrown to the wolves” at an early age, forced to fend for herself emotionally, and so failed to learn resilient emotional behaviors.

Then when a trauma hits this type of person, they don’t have the skills or resources or self-worth to respond appropriately. Their only response is: fear, resulting in fight, flight or avoidance.

I explain how a balanced person with strong self-worth is more resilient in my new book “Pack Leader Psychology.”

To me, Pack Leader Psychology explains one of the conundrums of PTSD.  How else do you explain how two people can experience the same situation (hurricane, war, crime) and one shows no long-term symptoms of stress and the other is fearful and anxious for months or years?  If PTSD were a universal “condition” then everyone who experienced a specific event would react the same, which is clearly not the case.

While it is always difficult to parse out influences and causes, I believe that the lack of competent parents serving as calm, assertive pack leaders to children, is one factor for establishing this baseline of anxiety.

The second layer to my theory is that the overall lack of social structure (aka “a pack”) that we have in society now. The Mindhack blog discusses war as a cause of many PTSD cases. Back in the distant past, when a young man went off to war, he probably went with other young men from his same village. They stuck together and supported each other. Even in the civil war, units were formed by town and state. Ancient battles were also fought to protect or advance the cause of a specific tribe or clan. Any trauma experienced could be justified as being in the name of a very worthy cause. And was also probably celebrated when the warriors returned home.

Now, we have the opposite:  Warriors going off individually to fight sporadic battles in obscure places for unclear reasons. Then coming home randomly and without fanfare. For Vietnam era veterans, they even came home to hatred and protests.

If we had more pack leaders and more balanced followers and secure “packs” in society today, I believe we’d see less PTSD.  And less of every other kind of “mental illness.”

What do you think causes PTSD?

The Dog That Taught Me About Leadership

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Reilly, the Muse for “Pack Leader Psychology”

As I say in “Pack Leader Psychology,” a growl instantly moved me from pack member to pack leader with my dog, Reilly. But if I hadn’t had a dog that understood how to be a pack member, I might never have learned this lesson. And I might never have made the connection that being a pack leader to people might also be a good thing for my interpersonal relationships as well.

The story begins when I got Reilly as an eight-month-old dog. She had grown up in an outdoor kennel with her birth pack and several adult dogs. Living for so long with this normal dog pack taught Reilly how to recognize and honor the pack leader or leaders — probably her mother and father.

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