Psychologists have a thing for mice. We love to test those little guys. We put them in water, in mazes, in cages, and on lush, grassy fields.
Our bodies are made up of traits that are good for our survival and the survival of our species. Every part of us has a function, a purpose. For example, the function of eyes is to see. The function of taste buds is to determine the nutritional value of food and avoid eating poisons.
Our emotions evolved right alongside our bodies. What is the function of emotions? To answer this, think about good ol’ Uncle Caveman. How did fear keep him alive? That’s easy, when he saw a Sabertooth tiger, Uncle Caveman got scared and ran away! Fear gave him the adrenaline, energy, and focus he needed to stay alive.
How did anger keep Uncle Caveman alive? It helped him bargain for his interests better. When another tribe tried to move into his cave, anger created the right motivation for Uncle Caveman to keep his cave (good thing too, what with all those Sabertooth tigers running around). Anger helped Uncle Caveman protect his interests.
What about shame? Shame is a very social emotion, more so than other feelings. When Uncle Caveman did something that disgusted, disappointed, or angered his tribe, he felt shame. Being part of a tribe was critical to Uncle Caveman’s staying alive. The formula is: Alone = Death, Part of Tribe = Survival. Shame helped Uncle Caveman act in pro-social ways so his tribe would not kick him out. (So he had to stop tagging the wooly mammoths).
Sadness for Uncle Caveman was caused by a loss of some sort. I hope one of his children wasn’t eaten by a Sabretooth tiger, but I can’t promise that. Say it happened. Well, sadness did two important things for Uncle Caveman’s survival, and the survival of his tribe. 1) He never forgot that Sabertooth tigers can kill. He told everyone he knew. And he never again asked a Sabertooth tiger to babysit his kids. 2) It made him yearn for his child, and for connection to others. Guess what, this story ends well. Uncle Caveman’s baby actually was hiding that whole time, and since sadness had motivated Uncle Caveman to search for his kid…they lived happily ever after.
Emotions helped Uncle Caveman make decisions that helped him stay alive. The function of emotions is to help us make good decisions, so we don’t get hurt, used, ignored, or run down.
Evolution is a SLOW process. In fact, our bodies are very alike to our cavemen ancestors. Sure, we know a lot more. And we use Facebook and soap. But our bodies—and our brains—are not so different from good old Uncle Caveman!
Emotions evolved in humans like everything else; what was adaptive to the species remained. Emotions are critical to our decision making! That’s why therapists tell people to “understand your emotions.” If you did that better, you’d made better decisions. I promise.
If we all had perfectly tuned emotions, life would be good. But, we are individuals within a species, and we each have different characteristics. That applies to our eye color, height, IQ, athletic ability, and—of course—emotional experiences.
Many mental disorders are characterized by too much—or not enough—of certain emotions. Depression is too much sadness. Anxiety Disorders are too much fear. Personality Disorders may be too much shame and anger. When you notice your feelings remain far beyond their function (remember, they help you make good decisions), they can seriously interfere with your life. If your emotions have outlived their usefulness, talk to a trusted adult (p.s., Sabertooth tigers are not good confidantes). It’s time you had some help.
Mental health professionals have long urged parents to limit kids’ TV time. Excessive TV watching has been linked to ADHD symptoms, and other concerns. Now, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended even stricter measures on TV. As in, no TV for children two years old or younger. Young children who watch TV have higher chances of developing sleep problems and speech delays. Beyond the speed of the frames (which seem to train young brains to attend only to super-fast stimuli), the content of programs is impossible for most babies to understand. In fact, according to Rachel Rettner’s new article, studies have shown that 18-month-olds “have the same reaction to a TV program regardless of whether it’s going forward or backward.” Yes parents, this would even be true for “educational programs” like Sesame Street. Likewise, the Baby Einstein shows have not been shown to help IQ.
What’s more, toddlers who watch TV miss out on an ultra-serious, critical event: play! Good, old-fashioned play is the developmental task for small children. It helps them build interpersonal skills, problem-solving techniques, and enhances creativity. Even having TV on “in the background” appears to have negative effects on children. Parents who watch TV while young children are around don’t interact with children as often. Solid development in speech, social skills, and emotion regulation happens when children engage in real-life dialogue with people around them. Play-dates, sports, clubs, social activities, and especially one-to-one time with parents are the best ways for children to learn and grow, and to develop into smart, effective, and well-adjusted adults.
Best friends are great for kids. Pediatrics professors out of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center released results of a study about childhood friendships. They found that having a best friend–not just any friend, but a best friend–was related to less stress in kids. The professors checked kids’ thoughts, emotions, hormones, and their spit. Results (yes, even from the spit) indicated that kids with a best friend feel less stressed, and better about themselves. Child psychologists know that one of the best indicators of pediatric mental health is the ability to form and sustain meaningful interpersonal relationships. Mommies, keep scheduling those play-dates! This article on TodayHealth by Linda Carroll discusses the study. BFFs are Good for Kids.
According to a 2007 Columbia University study, about 1 in 70 preschoolers take psychiatric medications—including stimulants, antidepressants, mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, and antianxiety drugs. It is not possible to say—without knowing these children personally—if medications are appropriate. But we do know that psychiatric drugs are not approved by the FDA for children under 6. There is simply not enough information to know how very young brains and body will respond—over time—to these medications.
As a child psychologist, I have worked with hundreds of children on psychiatric medications. In many cases, medications were necessary for the children’s safety and well-being. Almost every parent I’ve worked with has agreed to their child’s taking medication because they really believed it was the best way to get back on track. Few parents are excited about medications, but look instead to outweigh the downsides of out-of-control behaviors, moods, and urges.
But, here’s the thing. Medication is not the only option. It should never be the first option. The fields of child psychiatry and child psychology have solid, evidence-based research that shows the effectiveness of non-invasive treatments—therapy, sensory integration, parent/teacher education, and coaching.
If you’re wondering if your toddler is “abnormal,” see a child psychologist. This doctor should spend time with your child, you, and get a detailed history of the problem. Child psychologists can conduct standardized measures that have been validated to use on very young children. Mental illness is hard to characterize in preschoolers. You need an expert. There’s a national shortage of child psychologists and child psychiatrists, but it is worth the wait to see one. There is nothing less at stake than the health and welfare of the one you love most—your child.
This CNN article by Kelley King Heyworth is a thorough dialogue about the dilemma of putting toddlers on psychiatric medications.
A CNN article reviews the role of electronic media in children’s lives—the good, the bad, and the narcissistic. The research was conducted by Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D., professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and technology researcher. Below is a summary of the major trends observed by Dr. Rosen. Social Media Effects on Children.
– Social media is a great tool for engaging and captivating children
– Online networking can teach socialization
– Online users show more “virtual empathy”
– Social Media can help children establish a sense of self
– Students using social media during study breaks received lower grades
– Children who use social media tend to be more narcissistic
– Research suggests social media can increase anxiety and depression in children
Dr. Weller suggests that parents stay up-to-date on social media trends. Become familiar with what sites your child uses. (St. Charles school district has recently offered teen-led classes to parents for help with this). Like anything done in mindful moderation, social media can play a role in a well-balanced life.
What is a child and adolescent psychologist?
Clinical psychologists have doctoral-level training to provide therapy (including coaching) and consultation, and psychological testing. They are the only providers who can administer psychological tests to diagnose mental illness. Training at this level allows for expert knowledge in “psychopathology”–mental illness. Child and adolescent psychologists have advanced training and backgrounds in providing psychological services to young people.
Just as you take your child to a medical doctor who specializes in children (pediatrician), you should look to a child psychologist if your child needs help with emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. A child and adolescent psychologist is an expert in developmental psychology—so she knows what is normal and abnormal for children from birth to young adulthood. It also usually means that she is “good with” kids. In order to get better, your child should enjoy (even while working hard) spending time with the psychologist. The psychologist should see the many strengths in your child—since these are the building blocks for improvement. Feedback about parenting strategies is critical when working with young people, and this is part of a psychologists’ duty, too. A child and adolescent psychologist should have strong lines of communication with parents and caregivers.
Therapist, psychiatrist, psychologist…who does what?
• Clinical Psychologists provide psychological assessments and therapy to different types and ages of people. They usually advertise their specialty. They may also obtain advanced training in types of therapeutic interventions. They do not (in Illinois) provide medications. Clinical psychologists with a Psy.D. have more clinically-based training. This means their studies focused on how theories and therapies actually impact clients. Psychologists with a Ph.D. have more research-based training. Providers with doctoral-level training have typically spent between 5-7 years in graduate studies. No matter the degree, psychologists treating clients should be licensed. This means the state government has certified that the practitioner has met educational and knowledge requirements to provide mental health services.
• Therapists include a variety of folks, and most of them have at least a Bachelor’s Degree and some training in helping people. It is more common for therapists to have a Master’s Degree. Therapists are also called counselors, coaches, mentors, and advisors. They cannot conduct psychological testing or provide medications. They provide talk-based and activity-based therapy to a range of populations. They usually advertise a specific area of interest or specialty. Providers with master’s-level training have typically spent 2 years in graduate studies. However, they must attend regular trainings to keep their license active. Licensed therapists have been certified by the state to have met basic educational and knowledge requirements to provide mental health services.
• School psychologists usually obtain Master’s Degrees (though some have a doctorate), and have extensive training in schools and educational systems. They can conduct IQ testing, but particularly Illinois schools have done away with this. They provide counseling and advice to children and academic support teams as to how best to help children at school. They are part of the gatekeeping team that determines what (if any) school supports can be used to optimize a child’s learning. They cannot provide medications.
• Psychiatrists are medical doctors that have advanced training in mental illness. They are the only providers (in the mental health field) who can determine if/what medication may be helpful in addressing psychiatric issues. Psychiatrists are also able to provide in-depth mental health counseling, although they do so less often than psychologists and therapists.
• Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists have advanced training in working with young people. Although pediatricians can write prescriptions for psychiatric medication, they do not have the advanced training and licensure of a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist. Since they are so specialized, it can be difficult to get a short-notice appointment with a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist. However, the appointment should be well worth the wait.
Of all mental health providers, it’s good to know: no matter the training or title, there are excellent–and not so excellent–providers at every level. A mental health provider should be a good fit for your family. You should feel informed, motivated, and comfortable with them. The provider should be implementing evidence-based treatments, where goals and benchmarks are defined as early as possible in treatment. If, after 3 months of regular services, your child has not shown reasonable improvements, it may be time to find a new provider.
Sleep is an integral part of children’s health. Amazing things happen while they sleep, including bursts in physical growth and solidification of learning. Studies show that a good night’s sleep helps buoy moods, improve cognitive performance, and build the body’s resilience against illness and accidents. Problems with sleep are parts of major mental illnesses, including mood disorders. Some scientists suggest that depression is linked to prolonged REM sleep. There is also a growing body of evidence suggesting that ADHD may stem from “a sleepy brain.” Specialists have said that as many as 40% of children who meet the diagnostic criteria for ADHD also meet criteria for a sleep disorder.
An article from the Wall Street Journal reviews findings that link sleep problems with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, aggression, learning problems, and obesity.
Good sleep hygiene is a must. It is also the first place to start when you notice patterns of childhood misbehavior or under-performance. Sleep hygiene includes:
- Routine: Regular, predictable soothing activities cue the brain that sleep is on the way. Reading, baths, relaxing music, calm activities, low lights, soft pajamas—integrate these into a pattern for your child. Start 1 hour before sleep is to begin.
- Children need more than 8 hours of sleep per night. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends the following sleep guidelines:
- Infants: 14 to 15 hours
- Toddlers: 12 to 14 hours
- Preschoolers: 11 to 13 hours
- School-age kids: 10 to 11 hours
- Teenagers: 9 to 10 hours
- Turn off electronic media 2 hours before bed. Studies show that children with TVs and video games in their rooms get less sleep. Cell phones (including texts, email, games, and other apps) can also rob many teenagers of a good night’s sleep.
Children’s brains are not fully developed (and won’t be until they are about 25 years old). This means that they do not solve problems like adults. Younger children tend to be:
- Concrete (“If Grandma died and went to up to heaven, then I could totally take an airplane to see her”)
- Impulsive (Karate-kick a houseplant)
- Inquisitive (“Would my dog like chocolate pudding?”)
- Magical-in-thinking (“If I think a tarantula is under my bed, then it absolutely is.”)
- Under-Informed (“Sponge Bob can see me through the television.”)
- Hypothesis-Testers (“What will mom do if I put my hand on the power outlet…again?”)
- Repetitious (“Anything worth doing once, should be done ten more times”)
- Distractible (Attention spans are limited, getting longer over time)
- Unreliable cause-and-effect understanding (“Mom and Dad got divorced because of me.”)
- Hyperactive (Most 3-year-old boys would meet criteria for a diagnosis of ADHD, but very few actually have it.)
- Imbue innate objects with sentience (“My stuffed animal needs a hug.”)
- Emotionally reactive (“Since I didn’t get ice cream, this is the worst day of my life.”)
With age, children’s reasoning becomes more sophisticated (but may not yet be rational). Then, bodily changes (including hormones and changes in neurochemistry) play a bigger role in the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of older children. Older children tend to be:
- Convinced of their uniqueness (“No one has ever felt this way, and no one can ever understand me.”)
- Egocentric (“Everyone in the world is looking at my zit.”)
- Easily influenced (peer pressure)
- Peer-focused (social life is more important than family life)
- Variable in identity (try on different “selves” to answer critical questions about who I am, what I like, what I want to be)
- Rebellious (challenging social, familial, and cultural norms)
- Judicious (sensitive to “unfair” behaviors)
- Impulsive (Diving into a shallow pool)
- Under-Informed (starting a romantic online relationship)
- Emotionally reactive (a break-up is the end of life)
- Limit-testing (seeing how far parents’ rules can be bent)
For more information about normal childhood development, visit this website (it’s an offshoot of American Academic of Pediatrics):
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) includes styles of thinking, feeling, and behavior that can interfere with a child’s ability to do well at home, with friends, and at school. Children with ADHD usually have a poor sense of time, are hyperactive, disorganized, impulsive, forgetful, and do not like to do things that require sustained mental effort (such as homework). For these and other ADHD problems, there are evidence-based assessments, treatments, and strategies that can help improve functioning dramatically. These are good things about having ADHD—the available aids.
But the best parts of ADHD are these:
- Great sense of humor
- Creative, out-of-the box thinking
- Rarely bored
- Periods of hyperfocus—really paying close attention to the task at hand
- Fast thinker
- A whiz at starting projects
- Desire to be and do better
For ADHD diagnostic criteria see: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/diagnosis.html