Practical Psychology

My second book, 31 Ways/31 Days: Practical Psychology for the Frazzled Faithful, has just been published and is available via Amazon and other retailers, in both softcover and eBook. In it, I present information from the field of psychology as clear, simple action items for normal, busy people who want to make positive changes.

I love to turn psychological research into something a non-therapist can use, right now, to make relationships and life better.

Sometimes, research sounds ridiculous by the time it hits your news feed. Gleaning the nuggets that can change your life – today – is challenging. Consider, for example, that a cluttered environment contributes to parental stress to the point where it interferes with consistent parenting styles. Of course work, chores and piles of stuff to do covering every flat surface are stressful…but who knew that the clutter added enough stress to interfere with parenting? It’s easier to reduce stress by cutting a little clutter than figuring out what other source of stress to eliminate (hmmm…change jobs? quit working? send the kids to boarding school in Antarctica?) Implementing a manageable, meaningful change makes psychology, with its seemingly arcane tidbits of scientific research, useful to you. It’s not magic or a complete overhaul, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Another useful application of psychological research: even looking at pictures of nature helps reduce stress for everyone, and can improve cognitive skills in people with dementia. Whether it’s you at work, or your beloved elderly family member at home, some photos of nature to fill the eyes from time to time can help. It’s not going to make a miserable job a happy job, or reverse dementia, but it can ease the burden a bit.

If psychology doesn’t make life better and improve our understanding and relationships, it’s not very practical…and if it’s not practical, what good is it?



Dr. Lori Puterbaugh, LMHC, LMFT, NCC

© 2017

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

Internet Gaming Disorder? Is that a thing?

Yes, it’s a thing.

Are you (or someone you love) hooked on internet gaming?

An excellent recent article on parenting in Real Simple, “Parenting Against the Internet,” cited a statistic that the average adolescent male spends 20 hours a week playing internet games, and the average adolescent female spends 10 hours a week.

The internet can be great: I can look up all sorts of research, read the news, check the weather, contact family and friends around the world, find obscure used books in a mom-and-pop used book store somewhere across the country…

But for some people, the something good turns into a real problem. The American Psychiatric Association, in its 2013 update on diagnoses, the DSM-5, named Internet Gaming Disorder as a “condition for further study,” rather than an official diagnosis with its own billing code. Tune in within a few years; no doubt, that will change.

Twenty hours a week is a lot of time to spend doing something that teaches little, if any, useful knowledge; isolates a person from contact with real people and real life; is sedentary; and creates a world that is not real but full of very real gratification in terms of the brain’s dopamine system. That’s the average; that means for some people, there’s little or none and for some, it’s the equivalent of a full-time job, absorbing time, energy and mental space that could be dedicated to learning real-life skills, creativity, and other parts of life. Please don’t bother emailing me with examples of games where prosocial behavior is rewarded or you have to know useful stuff to be successful; I know. I also know that at some point it’s unhealthy to live in an artificial land of make-believe, instead of taking that pro-social behavior and useful knowledge and using it to make the world, and yourself, better.

What are the warning signs of this disorder that warrants further expert study? Persistent preoccupation; withdrawal symptoms such as irritability when the games are taken away; tolerance (more time playing games as time goes by); unsuccessful attempts to control the amount of time playing (for example, promising to cut back now that school has begun and sliding right back into excess); losing interest in other activities; continued excessive use of games in spite of problems in relationships, job, school, etc.; lying about how much time is spent playing; using games to deal with other problems (the game is a drug to feel better at this point); jeopardizing or already lost significant relationship, job, educational or career opportunities because of involvement in playing internet games (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Note that these are games – gambling on the internet is already an official diagnosis when carried too far.

Most people can easily see the degree to which these signs are awfully similar to what we would use to assess a problem with alcohol or drugs: preoccupied with drinking? Cranky or shaky when they can’t get their “fix?” Unable to cut back; getting behind in life in all sorts of areas; lying about how much is used…so why are parents apparently turning a blind eye to how much time their kids spend in this world?

Some theories:

  1. Some parents are as active in gaming as their children and have convinced themselves that those excessive hours are better than other things their child might do. Well, yeah; I suppose you could also argue that it’s better for your child to get drunk than to inject heroin, but that doesn’t make getting drunk a desirable behavior.
  2. Some parents are unaware. They do not realize what their kids are doing in their rooms, on their phones, half the night, or when they’re supposedly doing homework, or when they are in a college classroom, not paying attention.
  3. Some parents think it will be outgrown…although the social skills deficits these young addicts have will often interfere with their ability to successfully navigate college, trade schools and work.

Of course, it’s not just teens. There are adults who sometimes work full time, or part-time, and spent 30+ hours gaming each week. They tend to have marital problems, job problems, or both. Perhaps they have neither a relationship nor a job, but do have angry parents who want very much to be empty-nesters, any decade now.

Don’t think this applies to your child, or to you? Try cutting it off for a week. A week’s not that long. No exceptions. Notice what happens. If you’re afraid to even bring it up because you “don’t want to deal with it,” you have just told yourself something very powerful, and somewhat frightening, about your confidence as a parent and your child’s relationship with gaming.

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh, LMHC, LMFT, NCC

© 2016

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.


Why is your child so unreasonable?

Kids! They’re so irrational! Unreasonable! They’re…well, kids.

Toddlers are usually not able to understand that the ideas in your head are different than the ideas in their head. Learning that other people don’t know/see/hear/think all the things you do is called developing a “theory of mind.” Before this, kids think everyone knows what they know. If you hide a toy with Joey while Sarah is out of the room, and invite Sarah back in, 3-year-old Joey will not understand how Sarah can not know where the toy is. Joey is still developing a theory of mind. You will know when your child has developed a theory of mind when he or she tries to lie. This usually happens relatively late in the preschool years. Until then, if they know what they want (and are regrettably incoherent) and you fail to understand and comply, they can only reasonably assume (from their perspective) that you are being mean on purpose. They know what they want – how can you NOT?

As children develop a theory of mind, they also develop other signs of brain maturity. One is the ability to “conserve.” This doesn’t mean the Greenpeace/Sierra Club type of conserving. It means that they understand that, whether you break it into four pieces or leave it whole, it’s the same puny graham cracker for snack. The golden days of breaking it in two so they think that there is now “more” are behind you.

As they develop their theory of mind and the ability to understand a bit more about the physical world, they stay very literal for a while, or what cognitive scientists call “concrete.” They are in the real world. This makes it difficult for them to consider multiple aspects of a problem at one time, and makes abstract concepts – like algebra – just about impossible. They might fixate on one aspect of a project or task despite your efforts to get them to consider other aspects. They might memorize things to make you happy, but until their brain reaches a certain point of development (and sooner doesn’t necessarily mean smarter, it just means sooner) algebra and other abstract concepts don’t really “click.”

While, for example, a 15-year-old can be on a debating team and argue in favor of a point with which he or she personally disagrees, a bright 7 or 8 year old would have a great deal of difficulty doing so. This is a function of brain maturation – a process that continues into the early 20s.

So…that’s why your child seems so unreasonable. It’s because their brain is a child’s brain – growing, amazing, absorbing information at lightning speeds. It’s our job to meet them where they are and go with them as they grow.


Dr. Lori Puterbaugh, LMHC, LMFT, NCC

© 2016

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

What can it be, besides ADHD?

Your child is bouncy. He doesn’t seem to pay attention; she forgets to follow through on tasks. The book bag is a disaster area; necessary books never seem to make it home; and you regularly have to turn around and go home to pick up shin guards or ballet shoes.

Well, what can it be, besides ADHD – the psychiatric diagnosis of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, diagnosed off a checklist and sometimes suspected of being over-diagnosed?

The symptoms associated with ADHD can be due to a wide variety of issues; here are a few:

  1. Stress at home or in the environment. If you are having marital or other family difficulties, your child is stressed – whether you know it or not. Research indicates that a, adults are pretty lousy of telling when children are anxious or worried and b, the children of adults with marital problems, when tested in research studies, have high levels of stress chemistry metabolites in their urine.
  2. Maybe it’s not at home; maybe it’s the environment. Live in a noisy and/or high crime neighborhood? Is your child bullied or afraid of being bullied at school? Sources of ongoing stress will interfere with the parts of the brain that are important to focus, attention and memory.
  3. Insufficient sleep. Is your school-age child getting 9 or 10 hours of quality rest per night? Falling sleep by television, computer, or with a cell phone close at hand? These will all interfere with quality and quantity of sleep.
  4. What are overtired kids like? You know what you do when you’re driving late at night and you are too tired to be driving – so you bounce in the seat, sing too loudly and pretend having the windows open will magically keep you alert? Yeah, well…meet the 3rd grade kid who is up too late because of football or soccer practice a few times a week and fidgets around looking dazed in class.
  5. Insufficient exercise. The recommendation for children is two hours of physical activity a day – real activity, not standing-around-hoping-coach-lets-me-play-this time activity.
  6. Boredom. Brains + boredom = either shutting down and not trying at all OR driving grownups and other kids bonkers. Look out for the introverted or shy child who may shut down and go into dreamland; a lot of gifted children are very introverted and self-contained, and unlikely to be overtly disruptive. They simply tune out.
  7. Frustration. A child who is having difficulty – perhaps an undiagnosed or insufficiently supported learning disability – will often give up and stop trying. Remember that children personalize things; if they are struggling and the grownups act like they “should” be able to “get it,” the child assumes the adults know best and that the child must be flawed/”stupid” etc.
  8. Your (or some other involved grownup’s) inconsistency. If you flipflop on rules, fail to follow through, and run an unpredictable life for yourself and your child, it’s not fair to look at the child who seems scattered or (more likely) is gambling on this being one of those times when you are too stressed or preoccupied and let things slide, and blame the child.

You’ll notice that none of these issues can be blamed on the child. These are all grownups-need-to-pay-attention flags, not “naughty kid” flags. So, before you assume your child has a brain disorder, rule out the many factors that we grownups often unwittingly inflict on children and see if, with a few months of more consistent attention to these risk factors, your child’s behavior and morale improve.

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh

© 2016

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.


Mental Health, Well-Being, and Responsibility

More about personal responsibility in regards to mental health and well-being…

Have you noticed how often people talk about things they do as if they were events that happened. It’s as if “stuff happened,” and they were just hapless victims of circumstances. Note, I am talking about the things people actually DO – not things that really do happen to them.

“I got to work (or class, or church, or wherever) late.” A more accurate description would be, “I decided to do (some category of activity) rather than leave on time.” Maybe it was staying in bed, maybe it was “one more chore,” but the person decided to do something and thus the lateness.

Someone complains, “I woke up with a hangover,” when, of course, the reality is, “I decided to drink to a point where I knew I would feel lousy today but last night it seemed like a really good idea.”

“The (whatever task – homework, a chore, etc.) didn’t get done.” What really happened? The person decided to do something else, or a whole bunch of something elses, rather than that pesky task.

So, one way to improve one’s well-being is to simply start taking responsibility for choices. I might decide to have a brownie ice cream sundae for breakfast, and if so, I should say I am deciding to have this instead of scrambled egg whites with cheese. The brownie sundae, in all its wonderful deliciousness, will not just happen to me by accident, without warning.

I can decide to sit and stew about something that bothers me or I can decide to try to focus on some other activity and decide that I will figure out what to do about a particular problem when I’m in a better frame of mind. I get to decide; an hour spent stewing is something I can choose, or maybe I can choose to do something else instead.

You can decide to be in a relationship with someone who is toxic and mean, or not.

You can decide whether to seek help in parenting strategies, or throw up your hands in despair, or try the consequence-of-the-week approach except for when you’re too tired to argue.

You can decide whether to join a grief support group or suffer in silence and loneliness.

The act of owning a decision gives a greater sense of control, because if you decided one thing today, you might decide something else in five minutes, or tomorrow, or next week. If stuff just happens to you, you have no control, and thus must sit around being helpless, hoping for better luck next time.

Luck is an iffy plan.

It would be better to decide.



Dr. Lori Puterbaugh

© 2016

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

Letting Children be Children

Is having a healthy, happy childhood a good thing? Is it important to have that foundation in order to be a productive, healthy and happy adult? All of us would agree that, “Well, duh. Of course.” Well, of course…yet, around the world, it seems that the short-lived glorification of childhood as a separate, sacred stage of life (in many ways a 20th century movement) is crumbling away.

In some European nations, 14 year olds have attained the age of consent to sexual activity with adults. Here in the US, they aren’t expected to remember their homework and thus teachers must dutifully post assignments on a school website so parents can check. For the record: 14 year olds can remember homework. Try breaking a promise about a privilege and see how good their memory actually is. The same child, however, is not capable of informed consent. They are not equipped to really understand long-term consequences due to brain development.

In the Netherlands, a 12 year old who is seriously ill – and consider that here, an awful lot of parents don’t expect 12 year old children to do chores or remember their own shin guards for soccer – can petition a judge to be euthanized due to illness. Their parents get to choose whether to grant permission up until age 16. That means that a 17 year old can petition to be medically killed. The same child might not be able to follow through on a college admission essay, or otherwise exhibit normal responsibility, but somehow their request to die ought to be treated as a perfectly normal legal procedure.

In our own country, about 9% of children have been diagnosed with ADHD and are being treated with medications, most often powerful stimulant medications – a rate that dwarfs much of Europe’s less-than-1% rate for medicating children.

Psychologically and physically, children aren’t miniature adults, as was so often the view in the past, due to the physically challenging, dangerous life most humans lived over much of history. They need love, secure boundaries, and guidance in learning to make good choices as they mature. Where these needs are unmet, adult dysfunction, emotional distress and physical illnesses are apt to follow.

They definitely don’t need to make life-or-death decisions, or be exploited by bad adults, or otherwise be treated with an expectation that they are fully rational, insightful grownups.


Dr. Lori Puterbaugh

© 2016

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.


Review: The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grownups, by Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D.

A friend recommended this book and this past weekend I read a large portion of it. It’s aimed at parents and others who are directly involved in raising children, and cites some pretty striking research about the negative outcomes of giving children more freedom and flexibility than they can handle. Children being given the control over their lives that ought to be reserved for responsible adults are far more likely to develop anxiety, depression and obesity; they have less attachment to their families and adults in general, and are more likely to turn to peers for advice. Their peers, of course, are not apt to know any more than them about making wise choices about life.

It’s a conundrum for some: after all, kids have to learn how to make choices, but they can’t handle the full variety of options that many parents want to give them. Learning how to present a narrow, fair range of choices is, apparently, a challenge for parents who are desperate to be liked. This craving for their children’s approval underlies a lot of dysfunctional, but seemingly well-intended, parenting. I described a parent’s style as a “democracy” (the children are school age) and the parent took it as a compliment…as if being democratic with children, where no one is really in charge and knows best, was a good plan.

Do kids need choices? Absolutely. Do they need – or can they even handle – the full range of options that an adult might handle? Absolutely not.

For parents, teachers, grandparents and others who work with children, this book is a friendly, accessible but thoroughly footnoted guide.

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh

© 2016

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

Decisions, decisions!

Choices are good, right? Until they’re bad.

Too many choices becomes overwhelming. We can see the results of seemingly endless choices and information when we, or someone we know, gets lost in hours/days/weeks-long process of sorting through online reviews and information in the attempt to make a decision that might have been made over a dinner conversation twenty years ago. Grownups have problems with this, and yet so many parents inflict too many choices on their children.

It’s important for children to learn to make choices and endure the consequences in small, safe, age-appropriate doses. It’s also important for children to feel like the grownups are running the show. Offering opportunities to make choices – within defined parameters – and then sticking with those choices, are great learning experiences for children.

Consider asking a five-year-old:

“Would you like applesauce or yogurt for a snack?” versus, “What would you like for snack?”

What are the odds the child isn’t going to go for fruit or low-fat dairy and will instead choose something the parent wasn’t planning to provide? With so many modern parents afraid of upsetting their children and overly eager to have their children’s approval, children are left without anyone big and safe to place limits around their world. Temper tantrums, anxiety, and entitlement are often the results.

Children benefit from parameters and calm grownups being in charge. A calm, in-charge grownup can offer safe, appropriate opportunities to learn decision-making skills and learn to live with the consequences.

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh

© 2016

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

Bigger kids, bigger headaches: When big kids misbehave in public

A few weeks ago, I made some suggestions for handling little ones and their misbehaving in public. Ultimately, little kids are easy: if all else fails, they’re portable, and you can carefully carry them out if they are truly having a meltdown. Bigger kids have more ways to be upsetting. Whether they refuse to put down their phones during a restaurant meal or behave in a whiny, inappropriate way on shopping outings, it’s more embarrassing because we like to think they’re old enough to know better and if they don’t, maybe it reflects on us! It’s also annoying because we are sure we’ve had this conversation all-too-many times already.

Our consequences should make sense in a real-world sense. The closer our consequences reflect the real world in which our children will have to survive as adults, the better. We grownups also have to stay calm; if we “lose it,” they feel as if they’ve won.

Let’s take a typical early-teen child who, at a family outing for dinner, refuses to put down the phone or, when pressed to do so, acts as if we are being totally ridiculous and unfair. Eye-rolling and sarcasm abound; responses are grunts or rude. Stay calm, grownups.

Consider this three-step process:

  1. When you arrive home, calmly state you are disappointed in (describe particular choices the child made, avoiding global criticism) and will decide what to do about this at another time. For example, instead of berating your child’s generic “rudeness” calmly delineate the offenses: grunted at the wait staff; refused to put down the telephone when asked; rolled eyes during Grace, etc. Then let it go. Refuse to engage in further discussion and do not yield to pressure to make a consequence now. Your child wants to act now because you will be behaving out of frustration, which means that the effort to anger you was successful, and, in your anger, you are apt to give a harsh consequence which you will soon retract. Double victory for youth!
  2. Plan another, similar outing soon. At the time it happens, let your child know she is not invited to come along. This is a natural consequence. If your romantic partner, or friends, or boss, took you out for a meal and you grunted, rolled your eyes and were sarcastic, you would not be invited again. You don’t have to make a big speech: just say the child was not fun company last time and you intend to have fun this time.
  3. Step 3 is harder: your child has demonstrated (via the behavior last time you had an outing together) an inability to make good choices. Therefore, your teenage child cannot be left home alone. This means hiring a baby sitter. It is unfair for you to pay for the sitter; you, after all, are not the one misbehaving in public. So, extract the payment from your child. If he doesn’t have cash on hand, take custody of some prized possession, render the child a pawnshop type receipt, and let him earn it back later. This is a natural consequence. If I incur an expense, I have to cover it.

Your child will be very unhappy with you. S/he will say you are mean, or this is stupid. Oh, well! The folks at the Love and Logic Institute would suggest you sort of agree, with a calm, cheery, “Maybe so!” Refuse to get mad; your refusal to get angry keeps you in charge.

Then go out for dinner. Enjoy your meal without cell phones, eye rolling, etc. Do NOT bring home a takeout meal for the child left at home. Do not rub it in; just be matter of fact. This is the real world. Our job is to prepare our child to cope with reality. This is a soft version of the lost jobs, lost relationships, arrests or unpleasant reactions from friends that await the adult who cannot behave properly in public.

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh

© 2015

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

Checkout Lane Tantrums: Quick, Easy, Healthy Fix (seriously!)

Oh, those checkout line tantrums. Parents dread them. Your child starts making demands, you say no, and suddenly you feel trapped between giving in and standing your ground. Everyone seems to be staring at you with disapproval. Your heart is pounding and you start to fear you are going to lose control. You wonder if you will see yourself on the 10 o’clock news as some sort of example of “worst parent of the year,” and meanwhile, your beloved child is on the floor, turning purple and announcing, loudly, how much you are hated.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a near-magical approach that helped you feel more in control, and helped your child develop necessary psychological skills, like having words for feelings, delaying gratification and enjoying anticipatory pleasure?

First, don’t worry about most of those gawking fellow-shoppers. Either they haven’t raised children (in which case, they can’t know what it’s actually like) or they empathize, so let that go.

Second, put yourself in your child’s place.

You: “I could really go for a steak.”

Other adult: “No, it’s Friday. You don’t want a steak. You want a tuna sandwich.”

You: “Seriously, I really, really want a steak.”

It’s annoying to have someone tell you what you want. Of course you know what you want. You may also know (as in the case of steak on Friday) that it’s not going to happen; that doesn’t negate you wanting it. Just so, the fact that it’s not convenient, or it’s almost dinner, or any other perfectly sound reason not to have candy right now does not make your child’s desire magically disappear.

Third, apply.

Child: “I want candy!”

You: (no sarcasm) “Really, right now?”

Child: “YES!”

You: (calm, maybe coming down to child’s level by squatting, and using a gentle voice), “I know you want candy. I want candy, too, but it’s not time for candy right now.” (You are acknowledging the feeling rather than telling the child how s/he feels)

Child: “But I like candy.”

You: (still calm, still empathetic): “Yeah, it’s sad (or disappointing, or whatever word suits) when I can’t get what I want. I bet it makes you a little sad, too.” (You are helping label the emotion and normalizing it: other people feel it, other people can understand)

Child: (maybe more disappointed than mad at this point) “But I really, really want candy.”

You: (still quiet and calm) “Me, too! So…on Friday, when it’s payday and REAL grocery shopping day, we should each pick out candy. When we come on Friday, what kind of candy will you pick?”

Most of the time, children respond well to this, just as we would to someone understanding our disappointment in not being able to have what we want. We wouldn’t want someone telling us we “didn’t want that job, anyway,” or, “that house/car/college wasn’t right for you, anyhow,” and kids don’t appreciate having their feelings dismissed, either.

It takes practice and consistency to make those checkout lane tantrums disappear. A kid with a healthy memory and strong willpower (both excellent traits that are challenging to learn to manage) may persist in demands, or occasionally, after a period of no problems, suddenly restart the behavior. This is normal; just go back to the acknowledge/label/normalize/teach process and be patient. Another time, we’ll talk about how to handle the situations where a bigger child – older than four or five – becomes super-difficult in public.

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh

© 2015

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.