Plan B

I am very, very hopeful that, when I leave the office this evening and get into my Ford Fiesta, it will start when I first turn the key and that all four tires will be inflated. It gets regular maintenance and I expect it to start. My plans, including the amount of time I schedule for various commutes, revolve around the expectation (Plan A, as it were) that the little car will be ready to roll.

Sometimes, she is NOT ready to roll. She might have a flat tire, or a dead battery (Florida heat is rough on batteries). So, just in case of various emergencies, I have a jack, spare tire, some tools, a can of tire-inflator, a quart of oil, some water, jumper cables, a fire extinguisher, an owner’s manual and my AAA card. I also have a Bible and Rosaries for other sorts of emergencies. I would vastly prefer not to resort to any of these Plan B’s alone in a parking lot at night, but every so often I have been happy to have them readily available.

On a much more critical scale, military and police personnel have to have plan B at the ready in case of a worst-case scenario. Let’s say you are a special operator and you and your comrades are supposed to slip in silently, extract an American hostage or two, and slip out with the same seamless, silent efficiency. That would be Plan A: no one on your side gets hurt and maybe not even too many of the enemy. If enemies have to be hurt, they cooperate by succumbing very, very quietly. Plan B, entailing air support and extra personnel and a whole lot of messiness, is far from optimal. Plan A is effective if nothing goes wrong. If anything goes wrong, then you need Plan Bs. Plan Bs have a higher likelihood of success in the case of an uh-oh situation than Plan A, but are far less desirable.

Most of us don’t have to worry about extracting hostages or inflicting deserved mayhem on an enemy. We have to muddle through, discerning our purpose and doing our best to live rightly. Do we, who don’t have any expectation of being caught in a gunfight, need a Plan B? It’s become quite popular, especially in the business school world, to assert that a Plan B is an excuse to let Plan A fail.

I would argue that Plan B is part of the backbone of successful planning. Consider, for example:

You have promised your small children that, if everyone cleans up their bedroom by 9 AM Saturday, you will all go to the zoo! Yay! You had better have a Plan B already presented to them, too, in case of rain (as in, if it rains, we will postpone the zoo and have lots of fun doing “X” at home). You do not have control over whether or not it rains on your zoo day, but you have control over creating alternatives that account for circumstances beyond your control. Would you rather have Plan A – a sunny, fun day at the zoo? Absolutely; but if it’s wet, cold and dreary, kids who are able to be disappointed but know that all is not lost are easier to deal with than children who are whining because “you promised we could go to the zoo,” and claim they care not that it is raining and all the animals will be hiding inside, out of the weather. You promised.

There are thousands of possible examples: the college application that is Plan B if the desired, and worked-for, scholarship at your Plan A school doesn’t materialize; the back-up work plan if it takes longer to get a job in your field than you’d expected; the gift you will get for your child if the most popular toy that holiday season is out of stock. Would you rather get a full scholarship to an Ivy League school, a great job that starts exactly two weeks after graduation and be able to score Tickle Me Elmo, the latest Transformer AND the talking pony? Yup, yup and giddy-yup…but those are not all within your control.

The business school model against Plan A, very interestingly researched by Doctors Shin and Milkman, focuses on short-term goals with brief time periods. One test, for example, was that some participants were asked to consider a Plan B if they failed at the brief task while doing the brief task. If you have 10 minutes to unscramble sentences, and the reward for success is a free snack and some are warned up front that, hey, you might want to think about where else on campus you can score some free food in case this doesn’t work out for you, those participants might be a bit distracted from the task at hand. You have given them two tasks. That doesn’t mean they were not motivated for Plan A (the free snack) but rather they had to do two tasks at once: the task for the free snack and figure out where to get free food if the buzzer went off before they finished the first task. This is one of several experiments in their research. Other business writers have emphasized the belief that asking people on a project to have a plan B is like giving them permission to fail at plan A.

This is an interesting perspective and very narrow in its focus. There are risks in over-generalizing the findings of any particular piece of research, something Doctors Shin and Milkman know. Unfortunately, readers who see a non-academic’s cheerful, “Hey, if you develop a plan B you plan to fail,” misstated summary of Doctors’ Shin and Milkman’s work might leap to the conclusion that Plan B means Bad Plan. That is not what the researchers concluded.

I would propose that there are a few common reasons for a bias against adequately thinking through a Plan B when preparing to execute Plan A. These are by no means comprehensive –

  1. “I have done everything that success requires and so I am entitled to success.” Ah, the entitlement myth, in which a benign and biased-towards-you universe bestows what you have earned even though there is far less of whatever you want available than there are hard-working and deserving candidates. Hundreds of people might apply for that scholarship, and all of them have great GPAs, hours of non-mandated community service and glowing endorsements from their local Mother Teresa. Yet the committee (and its computer program) can only give the scholarship to one applicant. Scholarship, job, internship…failing to achieve that one, ideal Plan A doesn’t mean you personally failed. It means that you didn’t get Plan A, probably for many reasons outside of your control.
  2. “I am terrified of not meeting the expectations of those close to me (parents, often) and so most pour everything into Plan A. Anything less than absolute success means I have failed them – and myself.” This speaks to the narcissistic parent (“I am a perfect parent and you, my ought-to-be-perfect child, are the Exhibit A in proof of my perfection”) projecting the need for boundless success and admiration onto the child. Spouses can do this to one another, and children might fall victim to Pygmalion coaches or teachers.
  3. “If I have a Plan B, it will surreptitiously make me turn into a lazy slug who will fail to put in the effort required for Plan A.” This is the, I can’t trust my own strength of character theorem, and one can only say in response to this, “Know thyself.” However, lack of a Plan B is not going to singlehandedly turn an unmotivated sloth into a laser-focused, goal-oriented powerhouse. If you know you need to work on your intrinsic motivation strength, now would be a good time to start.
  4. “Plan A is my heart’s desire and I cannot bear to consider life without it…so I will just not consider the fact that Plan B might be necessary.” This is idealistic and romantic, and if you are not a good-hearted male under age 21, you probably need to accept a teaspoon of reality. If you are a good-hearted male under age 21, I will cut you some slack. That is the healthy age range for passionate idealism with a dose of immortality myth. The rest of us have to deal with the reality that life changes constantly. Your robust good health, your vision and hearing, the career you love, your neighborhood…will all change. If there is not a Plan B, you will have the alternative of crushing despair on top of the burden of grief, time after time after time.

I began this essay, spurred by a friend’s report of an adult daughter who, failing to get the job she’d applied for after college, is moving back home without any particular plan. Apparently, there was no Plan B. This led to curiosity about the “Plan B” issue in general, and discovering Shin and Milkman’s research. Not long after I began this essay, the book Option B, by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant was released. I am looking forward to reading Option B and have no idea of its contents other than it was born within the heartbreak of unexpected grief and the part of the grieving process that requires that we shift to an alternative vision of our future.

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.

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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.

Too busy!

People brag about the strangest things.

Not getting enough sleep is one; are Americans in some sort of dysfunctional competition to see who can get by on the least possible sleep – regardless of the effect on their mental and physical health?

Another is being busy – so very, very busy – that one could not possibly do anything healthy, or creative, or refreshing in any way.

Is it real busy-ness? It’s hard to say, but I have my suspicions that it often comprises some combination of underestimating how much time is frittered away on time-wasters, taking on a lot of extra and unnecessary tasks, and, sometimes, more than a hint of pride. You know, the people who find out you actually read books in the evening or squeeze in a date night with your spouse and give that little smile and a hint of a sniff when they say, “Well, it must be nice…” Well, yes, actually, it is. Very nice.

Pride, or arrogance, aren’t necessarily obvious. Healthy humans have a normal, natural need to feel needed and wanted. This is a good, but the fear that somehow your absence will cause all of creation – or at least your workplace or the kitchen at home – to immediately crumble into dust is not good. Even Jesus and Moses sometimes sneaked off for some very necessary R&R, either to be alone with God or also with some of their most loved, trusted friends.

Some people are going through a stage of life that is very busy. People with school-aged kids who each  participate in one extra activity will indeed be temporarily overly busy, driving to practice or lessons. They check homework, look under the sofa for shin guards, and use their vacation time for pediatric appointments for yet another ear infection. This stage is transient. Even too-busy parents, though, often hide time-wasters into their day.

When someone asserts always being “too busy” to do things they claim they really want to do, then I suspect that perhaps they don’t actually want to do those things. It would be better to say, “Oh, no – last thing I want to do is be stuck in a gym five mornings a week,” then to dodge exercise by pretending they are just too, too busy. Once they are honest about the issue (apparently they would rather do something else than spend hours on the human version of a hamster wheel) they are free to figure out how to meet the essential need (enough exercise to stay healthy) and stop dodging reality with brag-worthy busy-ness.

It’s hard to give up the busy excuse to oneself. It might be a polite dodge to other people (but remember that “let your yes mean yes and your no mean no” admonition?) but it’s just pointless to lie to oneself.

 

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.

A little out of sync…

Intellectually gifted children are a challenge for grownups.

Their ability to learn and apply information may be far ahead of their peers but their emotional and motor skills may be completely normal (read: average and right on schedule). So your highly gifted six-year-old, who can visualize Johnny Depp’s pirate ship but whose little fingers can only manage 5-year-old’s motor skills, will be angry and frustrated to the point of tears over a boat that looks perfectly fine to you. Your gifted twelve year old will, with the emotional fragility of a middle-school-aged heart, grapple with the existential questions peers more often face in college.

This kind of asynchronous development is hard for the child, too…and will continue to be so, until adulthood. It’s easier for adults to find a few intellectual peers with whom to deeply connect. The more gifted the child, the harder this will be, simply because of the mathematical odds. Intellectual giftedness comprises only 2% of the population. Highly gifted persons are less than 1/1000 of the population; for them, the odds of finding someone on par, or, an even happier event, encountering someone sharper in intellectual terms, is slim. It’s important for grownups to be aware of the interior struggles gifted children face and provide opportunities for support, encouragement and sometimes some careful education on why they feel so different from other kids.

Add to this gifted kids’ tendency to need a little less sleep, be a little more bouncy, be in a hurry to learn and do, ask a lot of questions…or, conversely, be very quiet, observant and introverted, and the challenge for parents and teachers becomes clear.

Interested in learning more? There are a lot of resources out there: American Mensa and SENG are two excellent sources of information and support for the gifted child (or grownup) in your life.

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.

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.