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.