Like many parents, you might go to extremes to control situations so they won’t get out of hand. You might not intend to go overboard, but so much frustration has built up that any little irritation sets you off like a warrior on a battle for control. Or a battle to make things stop now.  Overreactions are emergency alarms without the emergency.

You can’t see it coming, in an instant you are on an unstoppable mission to fix, contain, punish, or halt anything that upsets your sense of well-being, imagined or not. Overreactions are sure signs of stress, you need a break!  Overreactions may also come from the fear of losing the day you planned, or the life you planned and came to expect.  If you are overreacting to gain control, you are actually losing control.  Your parenting choices need considered, thoughtful decisions instead of an automatic 911 call. When your blood boils, you’re not aware how your behavior creates a toxic environment around you and the rest of your family… nor how it worsens a troubled kid’s behavior.

  • Are you so stressed and traumatized that you just can’t stand it anymore and want your child to stop misbehaving now, immediately, yesterday?
  • Is every little minor thing a reason to pull out the heavy artillery and throw a fit?
  • Do you play a victim or martyr to get sympathy?  You probably deserve sympathy, but this is not the way to get it.
  • Do you overwhelm difficult situations with your own explosions?

It’s common for parents with really difficult kids to get stuck this way, so forgive yourself if you overreact, and stop and look at what this does to your relationships and interactions with your troubled child.

  • If you’ll do anything to make your child stop a challenging behavior, might you go too far with little things? Will you call the police because they slammed the door, or will you strike them because they slammed the door?
  • If you need sympathy and attention, will you share so much personal information about your child, that your child starts hearing about it from others? How will this make them feel? When others hear you constantly complaining, might they consider that the problem is you?
  • Do you mirror your child’s bad behavior to show them what it looks like? Are they interpreting this the way you hope, or are you lowering yourself?

Overreactions sabotage opportunities for improvement. They terrify everyone (all family members); your family may start to hide things from you, or downplay things, just so you won’t overreact. When family members feel a need to keep secrets, they don’t speak their minds. Someone takes sides against you to counterbalance the negativity. Now you feel less in control and receive less of the support you need for your own well-being.

If you feel exhausted and hopeless, or lash out as a way of coping, you are carrying significant stress and/or depression. Before you completely lose control, and lose your self-respect and rightful authority as a parent, take care of yourself and get help for both your physical and emotional exhaustion . Always, always make sure you are emotionally centered and healthy, or you will never be able to help your child become healthy.

Remember, your child and family needs you to be 100% together.  Let some things go for the greater peace.  Center yourself so you can notice when your child is doing well and offer praise.  When centered, you are flexible, patient, compassionate, and forgiving.   This draws people towards you, to look after you and care for you.  Go ahead, aim for sainthood.  Just starting down that path would start to make things wonderful and healing for everyone.


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Animals that make good therapy pets

Dogs, cats, and “pocket pets” like ferrets, birds, or lizards are therapeutic for children who struggle with any disability: physical, behavioral and developmental. A calm smiling dog, an affectionate cat, or a small pet they can hold is a great therapist. The right animal offers unconditional love and affection, and the right animal makes your child feel special. If you are considering animal therapy or a pet for your child, strategically pick the right animal. If your child will attend an animal therapy program, or you plan to select their own pet, monitor your child’s interactions when they are first introduced to the creature. Be honest with yourself, the animal you like may not be the best for your child. Hyperactive and barking dogs, aloof cats, fearful hamsters, and noisy birds don’t work and can be outright stressful. Pay attention to this—people are too often unaware how much negative energy fussy pets generate and how distracting and chaotic they can be.

Criteria for the right animal

  • The animal’s natural manner fits your child’s emotional needs.
    • Quiet, if child easily experience sensory overload;
    • Uplifting and affectionate, traits that help a withdrawn or anxious child;
    • Interactive, if your child needs to be drawn out or receive attention: a bird that speaks, or a dog that follows instructions;
  • The animal bonds with your child and likes to be with them for long periods. The animal has a preference for your child.
  • Your child is able to treat the pet humanely. Animals can be abused consciously or unconsciously by troubled children.
  • You appreciate the animal too, and aren’t concerned about mess, smell, hair, or feathers in your home. You should consider yourself the one responsible for its care. This pet is a therapist first, not a lesson in responsibility for your child. They can learn responsibility later.
  • The child’s pet should still be welcome and cared for if it doesn’t work out for your child. If it’s not wanted, consider a rescue shelter or humane society that can find another caring owner.


Most people are familiar with therapy dogs. Their natural affinity with humans, even untrained, is a reason that dogs are the most popular of pets. If you are interested in getting a puppy to train as a therapy dog, you can find instructions on how to train certified therapy dogs, and modify them to fit your home. Certified dogs need significantly more training because they can be used in nursing homes, hospitals, and schools. “How to train a therapy dog”


The parrots and parrot-like or hooked beak birds have marvelous personalities and bond for life. These colorful birds prefer not to fly, but instead spend their time socially with people, other birds, even dogs and cats! The best low-cost option is a parakeet, extremely low maintenance, and happily chirpy, easily tamed and easily trained to talk.

“Patients hold and stroke cockatiels so tame that they often fall asleep in a human lap.” Maureen Horton, the founder of “On a Wing and a Prayer” tells of “non-responsive patients in wheelchairs who suddenly begin speaking again while petting a cockatiel as their relatives weep at the transformation.” She described bringing her birds to visit a group of violent teenage delinquents who clamored to touch a cockatoo named Bela. “For a few minutes,” Horton says, “these hardened criminals became children again.”
— “On a Wing and a Prayer,” a pet-assisted therapy program, uses birds to visit patients.” Connie Cronley,


Fish can’t be held, but few things beat the visual delight and serenity of a beautiful aquarium. Fish do have personalities and form interactive communities in a tank, which are fun to watch, and individuals are fun to name. There is a reason aquariums are commonly placed in waiting rooms and clinics, lobbies, and hospitals.

“Pocket pets”

These are usually mammals that like to be cuddled and carried around, often in pockets: ferrets, mice, rats, gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, and very small dogs. It is best to select a young animal that is calm and won’t bite, and handle it gently and often so that it becomes accustomed to being held. Challenges with many pocket pets include running away or escaping their enclosures, urine smell, and unwanted breeding. As the main caretaker, you will want to be comfortable with their needs.


Lizards are also excellent pets and demand little attention, and they are readily accepted by children. My bearded dragon, Spike, comes with me to my support groups. Dragons are a very docile species–safe with young children and popular with teens and parents. Other good species are anoles (often called chameleons), iguanas, and geckos.

“I’d have to say my Leopard Gecko Mindy is very much therapy for me. She really is my therapy lizard, she wants to sit with me when I’m upset and tolerates me, which even my two dogs and cat won’t. She’ll just find a place on me and curl up and be like “I’m here, I won’t leave you.””
–User name “Midori”, Herp Center Network


Properly trained horses are extraordinarily healing. certified horse therapy programs are considered medically effective treatment and often covered by health insurance. Horses benefit disabled children and teens across the board: those with physical disabilities such as paralysis and loss of limbs, mental/cognitive disabilities such as development disabilities and retardation, and children with mental and behavioral disorders. The horses are selected for their demeanor and trained to reliably respond appropriately to children who may misbehave. Therapists are specially trained also to collaborate with the horse as a team. Horses have a “large” serenity and a lack of concern with the child’s behavior. They are also intelligent and interactive like dogs, provide a warm soft hide to lean on, and they empower their riders. A child on a horse will connect with the animal’s rhythmic bodily movement, which stimulates the physical senses and keeps the child physically and mentally balanced. According to parents and children in these programs, horses change lives.


How has your child’s pet improved mental health? Your comments help others who read this article.

The science behind animal therapy

Are dogs man’s best therapist?
Psychiatric Times. H. Steven Moffic, MD. February 29, 2012

Note: this is an excellent article by a psychiatrist who moved from disbelief to belief that dogs have a genuine therapeutic value, healing some of the most psychiatrically challenging children.

Children’s best friend, dogs help autistic children adapt (summary)
Journal: Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2011, Universite de Montreal

Dogs may not only be man’s best friend, they may also have a special role in the lives of children with special needs. According to a new study, specifically trained service dogs can help reduce the anxiety and enhance the socialization skills of children with Autism Syndrome Disorders (ASDs). The findings may lead to a relatively simple solution to help affected children and their families cope with these challenging disorders.

“Our findings showed that the dogs had a clear impact on the children’s stress hormone levels,” says Sonia Lupien, senior researcher and a professor at the Université de Montréal Department of Psychiatry and Director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress at Louis-H. Lafontaine Hospital, “I have not seen such a dramatic effect before.”

Pet therapy: how animals and humans heal each other. (summary)
by Julie Rovner, March 5, 2012, National Public Radio

“A growing body of scientific research is showing that our pets can make us healthy, or healthier. “That helps explain the increasing use of animals — dogs and cats mostly, but also birds, fish and even horses — in settings ranging from hospitals and nursing homes to schools, jails and mental institutions.”

“In the late 1970s that researchers started to uncover the scientific underpinnings animal therapy. One of the earliest studies, published in 1980, found that heart attack patients who owned pets lived longer than those who didn’t. Another early study found that petting one’s own dog could reduce blood pressure.

“More recently, says Rebecca Johnson, a nurse who heads the Research Center for Human/Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, studies have been focusing on the fact that interacting with animals can increase people’s level of the hormone oxytocin. “That is very beneficial for us,” says Johnson. “Oxytocin helps us feel happy and trusting.” Which, Johnson says, may be one of the ways that humans bond with their animals over time.”

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Your rights as the parent of a teen with a mental disorder

You really do have more rights than you think. Here’s some background: In a previous blog article on the subject of rights, I described how parents and caregivers can be shocked to learn that their troubled teenager has the right to refuse treatment, Teen rights versus parent rights when the teen has a mental disorder. As a consequence of the teen refusing treatment, they get worse, sometimes much worse. Tragically, some untreated disorders damage the brain, or reduce the effectiveness of future attempts to treat.

If a teenager had any other illness besides a behavioral disorder, withholding treatment would be considered child abuse and grounds for removing the child from the home.

Not only are parents denied their responsibility for caring for their teen, they cannot prevent him or her from failing at every step in their development. The young person won’t benefit from (or attend) school. They won’t learn the critical social and safety skills they need as an adult. When the parents’ authority is undermined by professionals who protect the teen’s rights, the teen can ‘run’ the home, which forces the family to endure chaos and extreme stress.

Laws in many countries err on the side of protecting a person’s civil rights, but a teenager is simply not ready to take the responsibility that goes along with these rights. An excellent site covering laws pertaining to Special Education Law is Wrightslaw. Click on “Topics from A to Z.”

You have many rights you probably haven’t been told about.

  • For safety and health reasons, you can search your teen’s room and remove or lock-up risky items like drugs, weapons, razors, pornography, or anything affecting health (rotten food, unclean garments, chemicals). Caution: this can destroy trust if done inappropriately! Inform your teen only if you find and remove unsafe items but otherwise leave everything else alone! If you call the police regarding illegal items, and if your child is charged, their criminal record can be expunged by age 18.
  • You can set any curfew time you think appropriate, and you do not have to adhere to curfew times used by law enforcement. Suggestion: compare with other parents’ curfews. Your teen will more likely follow rules that his or her peers follow.
  • You can monitor everything in your home, and on your computer and phone. You can limit cell phone services, and get GPS tracking on the phone and in the car. Prevention is more effective if your teen is informed about this, and it prevents others from taking advantage of your child, too.
  • Report your concerns about your child’s safety to teachers, other parents, and the local police precinct. You can search for your child by calling them, or visiting their friends’ homes, or searching public places where your child might be.
  • You can and should call the police if your runaway child is being harbored by someone who wants to ‘protect’ them. This is illegal and subject to criminal charges.
  • You can and should notify anyone who encourages your teen to run away or stay away from home, or who takes your teen with them without your permission, that this is custodial interference and also subject to criminal charges.

Legal rights to parental involvement in treatment

“Communication between providers and family members needs to be recognized as a clinical best practice.”*

  • You have the right to contact any mental health professional directly, and provide information relevant to your child, your family (e.g. marital conflict), and your family’s needs (e.g. bullied siblings). The professional can legally receive and document this information.
  • You have the right to communicate freely with a practitioner or teacher about anything you already know—no confidentiality exists.
  • You have the right to schedule an appointment with a professional without your teenager, and ask for information about how to get help for yourself and your family, and what kinds of help you may need. You have the right to get information about your child’s diagnosis and behavioral expectations, the course of your child’s treatment, and how you should change things at home.
  • You have the right to a second opinion. And you have the right to change treatment or refuse treatment based on that second opinion.
  • You have to right to participate fully in decisions regarding your child. For example, you have the right to ask a doctor to stop or change medication or treatment that is creating behavior problems or side effects that harm your ability to manage your teen.
  • You have the right to “information about the treatment plan, the safety plan, and progress toward goals of treatment.” *

“While confidentiality is a fundamental component of a therapeutic relationship, it is not an absolute.”*

“Medical professionals can talk freely to family and friends, unless the patient objects after being notified of the intended communication. No signed authorization is necessary.”

–Susan McAndrew, Deputy Director of Health Information Privacy, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Teachers and mental health professionals have leeway with confidentiality Providers often misunderstand the Health Information Privacy and Portability Act (HIPPA), which defines what must be kept confidential. Many also misunderstand the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and state laws that govern confidentiality, so they tend to err on the side of confidentiality. However, the American Psychiatric Association states: “Disclosures can sometimes be justified on the grounds that they are necessary to protect the patient. For instance, it is generally acceptable for a psychiatrist to warn a patient’s family or roommate when the patient is very depressed and has voiced suicidal thoughts”* or plans to harm others. Professionals can also provide explicit information about safety concerns: such as the warning signs of suicide; the need to adhere to medication and other treatment; an explanation of how your teen’s disorder can impair judgment; an explanation of reasons the teen must avoid substances like alcohol and drugs (including some over-the-counter drugs); and the need to remove the means for suicide, especially firearms, sharp objects, matches, chemicals, etc. How doctors and therapists manage confidentiality Their basic philosophy is to do what is in the best interest of their patient. For example, if the teen is in an abusive family situation or seeking care only on the condition of confidentiality, their privacy will be protected. “The default position is to maintain confidentiality unless the patient gives consent… However, [family members or friends] may need to be contacted to furnish historical information…” If the practitioner determines that the teen is (or is likely to become) harmful to him- or herself or to others, and will not consent, then they are “justified in breaking confidentiality to the extent needed to address the safety of the patient and others.” –The American Medical Association, 2001, “The Principles of Medical Ethics With Annotations Especially Applicable to Psychiatry.” A good professional will be transparent, and tell your troubled teen that they will communicate with you based on what you already know. They will also tell your child that suicide or violence risk will always be communicated to you. From everyone’s perspective “It is always better to defend an inappropriate disclosure than to defend a failure to disclose with bad outcome (e.g. injury or death).”* Choose your battles Giving a teenager with behavioral problems the sole right to make critical medical decisions is crazy! I hope that families and mental health advocates can someday agree on how to maintain civil rights without letting a person control their future when they are not in their right mind. Until then, work with the system as best you can. I find that teachers and practitioners do their best to help families despite the restrictive civil rights and confidentiality mandates. Good luck.

How am I doing? Please rate this article, thanks. Margaret

* Reference“The Clinician Should Maintain a Confidential Relationship With the Child or Adolescent While Developing Collaborative Relationships With Parents, Medical Providers, Other Mental Health Professionals, and Appropriate School Personnel,” developed by Jerry Gabay JD and Stewart S. Newman MD. The authors would like to acknowledge the support of the Oregon Council of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry for their support of this effort.


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Five-minute wisdom for parenting difficult children and teens

From many years of assisting and supporting parents with extremely difficult children, I’ve found the following bits of wisdom help the most to clarify a caregiver’s concerns, improve their understanding, and help them take the next steps.

You are not alone. All families experience the same fears no matter what the child’s challenges: guilt, anger, frustration, failure, and mental and physical exhaustion.

There is a way. The steps to finding peace in the home are the same for all families.

You can start now. You can improve behavior without having a diagnosis, and the techniques work for the majority of difficult children.

There is reason for HOPE. They have the capacity to do better. With support and treatment, difficult children improve.

Have realistic expectations: They may not be ready for adulthood, and may need extra support into their 20’s… but that’s OK. There’s time to catch up with their peers.

Plan ahead for a crisis, brainstorm options for an effective response and create a checklist. We can’t think clearly in a tension-filled moment.

GOOD Things to do for Your CHILD or TEEN

Pay attention to STRENGTHS not weaknesses. Always find something great about them.

Guide them to their gifts. Give them ample opportunity to do what they are already good at.

GOOD Things to do for YOU

o Be your own cheerleader. Silently think, “I can handle this;” “I’m the one in control.

o Regularly talk through your feelings with others who understand and won’t judge.

o Get a life, maintain personal interests, and set thoughts of the child aside without guilt.

o Commit to doing the best you can, and own that this enough – plan to let go someday.

You’ve done a good job when they are able to take responsibility for their own care. This is a monumental personal achievement!


In a neutral patient voice, give directions or requests . You will need to repeat yourself, calmly, several times. Your voice should not communicate strong emotions. Tone of voice, not words or volume, is what creates a bad response.

Don’t rush calm. Give the child plenty of time to unwind and settle. Calm is more important than quick.

Ensure there’s a calm place to go – a time-out space, even for you.

Get an appropriate therapy animal – a calm and durable creature unlikely to be harmed.

Reduce chaos in your home: noise, disorder, family emotional upheavals, the intrusive stimulation of an always-on TV, etc.

Ideas for MANAGING resistance

You want your child to be resistant to the negative things they’ll face in life. It represents willpower, and is a strength to cultivate.

o Be quiet and LISTEN. If you respond, address how they feel, not what they say.

o Use reverse psychology-ask them to do something you don’t want them to do, so they can defy you and do the opposite.

o Choose your battles. Let them think they’ve won on occasion.

o For an ODD child, give multiple instructions at once, including things they do and don’t want to do. It becomes too much work to sort out what to defy.

o Actively ignore – Stay in the vicinity but don’t respond, look away, act like you can’t hear. They eventually give up. Works best for ages 2 – 12.

o Mix it up – Be unpredictable. Give a reward sometimes but not all the time. Try new ways to use incentives or set boundaries and structure.


1. Treat your home like a democracy, let your child have an equal say in decisions.

2. Find fault with them and tell them about it repeatedly. If they do something positive, it’s not good enough.

3. Pretend your child has no reason for their behavior. Ignore his or her needs or challenges. Are they being bullied? Are they having a hard time sleeping? Is your home too chaotic?

4. Make rules and only enforce them once in a while, or have consequence come much later.

5. Don’t treat your child appropriately for his or her age. Make long explanations to a 3-year-old about your reasoning. Assume a teen wants to be just like you.

6. Expect common sense from children who are too young (5), or from young adults with a long track record of not showing common sense.

7. Keep trying the same things that still don’t work. Repeat yourself, scream, show how frustrated you are with them.

8. Jump to conclusions that demonize the child. “You are manipulative and deceitful,” “You don’t listen to me on purpose,” “I’m tired of your selfishness…”

9. Make your child responsible for your feelings. If you lose your cool, insist they apologize.

Problem SYMPTOMS, not problem children

– Does not show common sense and is not influenced by reason and logic;

– Has no instincts for self-preservation, and poor personal boundaries;

– Has no well-adjusted friends; has friends who are risky or troublesome;

– Doesn’t respond to rewards and consequences;

– Has limited character strengths: honesty, tolerance, respect for others, self-control;

– Does not make plans they can realistically achieve, hangs on to fantasies;

– Acts younger than their peers. Will not be ready for adulthood by 18;

– Lives in the here and now; doesn’t think about the past or future;

– Does not notice their effect on others.

Your PRIORITIES in Order

1. You and your primary relationship(s)

2. Basic needs and responsibilities: housing, clothing, food, income, health

3. Your challenged child or teen.


Filed under ADHD, behavior, bipolar disorder, Borderline personality disorder, children, mental health, oppositional defiant disorder, parenting, teens

Good messages for siblings (and parents) of a troubled child or teen

Your other children already know something is terribly wrong, and they deserve to hear the truth from you.

Most are old enough. They see other children in school and discover other families are nicer, so they don’t talk about their own. They are afraid to bring friends over to visit because of how their troubled brother or sister behaves–pestering them, upsetting them–then those friends talk about it with fellow students and their own parents. Word gets out about your family and people form opinions, especially teachers.

Siblings also feel unsafe and insecure. They never know what’s going to happen! Tell them the truth and trust them to understand and appreciate your candor.

  • You cannot cure a mental disorder for a sibling.
  • No one is to blame for the illness.
  • No one knows the future; your sibling’s symptoms may get worse or they may improve, regardless of your efforts.
  • If you feel extreme resentment, you are giving too much.
  • It is as hard for the ill sibling to accept the disorder as it is for you.
  • Separate the person from the disorder.
  • It is not OK for you to be neglected. You have emotional needs and wants, too. The needs of the ill person do not always come first.
  • The illness of a family member is nothing to be ashamed of.
  • You may have to revise your expectations of your sibling. They may never be ‘normal’ but it’s OK.
  • Acknowledge the remarkable courage your sibling may show when dealing with a mental disorder. Have compassion, they suffer and face a difficult life.
  • Strange or upsetting behavior is a symptom of the disorder. Don’t take it personally.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your sibling if he or she is thinking about hurting him or herself. Suicide is real.
  • If you can’t care for yourself, you can’t care for another.
  • It is important to have boundaries and to set clear limits. You should expect your sibling to show respect for others.
  • It is natural to experience many and confusing emotions such as grief, guilt, fear, anger, sadness, hurt, confusion, and more. You, not the ill person, are responsible for your own feelings.
  • You are not alone. Sharing your thoughts and feelings in a support group has been helpful and enlightening for many.
  • Eventually you may see the silver lining in the storm clouds: your own increased awareness, sensitivity, receptivity, compassion, and maturity. You may become less judgmental and self-centered, a better person.

Excerpted from “Coping Tips for Siblings and Adult Children of Persons with Mental Illness,” from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 2001,


Filed under behavior, mental health, parenting, teens, therapy

Bullying and how to stop it – for parents and teachers

Most of us have bullied someone and have been bullied at some time in our lives. We have an aggressive trait that helps us stand up to a threat. We are emboldened to fight when we fear for ourselves or family, or simply when we’re “not going to take this anymore!” Mature people don’t do this without cause, but children and teens lack maturity and can engage in bullying throughout their school years. (Even the nicest children can bully another person.) Victims of bullying usually don’t have the power and skills to prevent it or to protect themselves.

“This is a huge problem in the schools… it’s particularly common in grades 6 through 10, when as many as 30 percent of students report they’ve had moderate or frequent involvement in bullying.”
–Dr. Joyce Nolan Harrison, assistant professor of psychiatry, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Bullying occurs when others aren’t paying attention… or when there is an audience
In schools, bullies target victims where and when authorities can’t see, isolated but in crowds: hallways, the school lunch room, the playground or gym, and the bathroom or dressing room, not in plain sight of others who might report an incident. Or they have an audience that supports the bully or ignores the situation and doesn’t want to get involved… or tell.

Bullies target those they consider “weak” or simply “different”
What makes a target child “weak” could be so many things. Bullies seize on anything: a physical, emotional, or mental vulnerability–children with learning disabilities or autism spectrum disorders are often targets. But any “different” child is at risk: a child from another culture is different, a boy who seems effeminate or a girl who seems masculine. The list of reasons children are bullied is so long that it is impossible to proactively avoid attracting the attention of a motivated bully or bullies: physical features, small stature, younger age, shy or meek personalities, bad fashion sense (or perfect fashion sense), even being a Straight “A” student is cause for being victimized. A child’s family member might be perceived as an embarrassment that elicits bullying (a brother is in prison, a father lost his job). Or a child might be a member of a group that’s hated by the parents, who teach their child to hate the group. Some victims are chosen simply because they are at the wrong place at the wrong time:

A teen walks his usual route home from school. He is reasonably well liked but doesn’t stand out. Ahead are three troublesome youth he doesn’t know. No one is around. He’s still at a distance, but starts to feel uncomfortable. They stand side-by-side on the walk ahead of him and stare.

What would a street-wise kid do?

He crosses the street without breaking stride, but also watches them—they have to know he sees them. If he pretended to ignore them it could inflame their anger. They start taunting. Meanwhile, the teen has been thinking of ways to protect himself just in case: there’s a store is nearby or within running distance, there’s a neighbor who’s usually at home. If he has a phone, he pulls it out and is ready to dial 911. He stays alert and looks confident, and they eventually drop the effort and let him move on.

Bullies punish kids who try to stop the bullying

Those who “snitch.” Victims who ask for help are often targeted by the bully more intensely, and often joined by associates who simply jump the bandwagon (curious behavior described as “the madness of crowds”). The culture of tweens and teens has low tolerance for those who tell on others. Those who join the bullying episode against the victim can do it without thinking, or perhaps they feel empowered to vent anger on someone, or just want to fit in.

Those who try to stop them. A heroic bystander steps in to stop a bullying episode and becomes the target themselves.

Those who want to leave the bullying group. Some kids have second thoughts and feel uncomfortable about the bullying and try to leave, but they can’t. Leaving attracts intense, relentless bullying for “voting with their feet”—this is a hallmark of gang behavior

Sadly, some children appear to “set themselves up” for bullying. This victim is a child with a fatalistic attitude and low self-esteem, who doesn’t recognize when others take advantage of them. They feel they must endure and don’t take steps to protect themselves out of excessive fear of drawing retribution. These are the kind of children who can become victims of physical or emotional domestic violence as adults.


If your child is a victim, be aware that they live between a rock and a hard place. Be careful that your involvement doesn’t make things worse for them

Armor your child with multiple skills
There is no one way to handle every bully situation so flexibility is key. Together, develop a list of multiple options:

  • Ask friends to accompany them
  • Go to a place where people are and find an adult to help. Walk the other way, walk down different hall, walk to other side of street, use a different bathroom.
  • Request loudly “LEAVE ME ALONE” when there’s an audience to witness the bullying, such as on a bus or standing in line.
  • Use body language to project a firm stance. This can be the way your child stands or the loudness of their voice when the bully is present to show confidence, alertness, and empowerment.
  • Let your child know you take them seriously and will do something about it. Give them emotional support.
  • Let your child know you will back them up by working with the school.
  • Use the situation as a learning opportunity to help your child develop a backbone and inner strength. Even with your support, this will not be easy for your child to handle. Be a model of strength and resolve rather than of vengeance or anger.
  • Consider mental health issues that might be making things worse for your child: ADHD, ODD, depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, chaos and stress at home, PTSD, substance abuse, and others.

Help the bullied kids find each other. If there are a bunch of them together, they can stand the bully down. They don’t have to beat the bully up. They just have to say, ‘Why are you treating my friend this way?’ The bully will often move on… Parents can appropriately take matters into their own hands. You need to enlist the help of all the other parents of bullied children… Parents have to work as a group. One parent is a pain in the [butt]. A group of parents can be an educational experience for school authorities.”
–William Pollack, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry, Harvard Medical School


  • Don’t tell your child to “let it go, ”or “it’s no big deal,” or “it happens, deal with it.”
  • Don’t tell your child to be tough. What does “tough” mean? What do you want them to do?
  • Don’t punish or dismiss a child who complains too much, or blame him/her for setting themselves up and asking for it. Ironically, a victim is sometimes treated as the problem child.
  • Don’t bully your child at home! Are you doing this? Think. Your child learns to accept the inevitability of bullying because he or she is accustomed to it at home.

How things can go wrong: A boy is in the shower after PE class and gets slapped on the butt most days. He is too proud/embarrassed to tell his parents, or he tells and they react poorly. Perhaps he’s blamed for not standing up for himself, or a parent shows up outraged at school and yells at the bully or school staff. Now the boy’s parent is the problem and may be suspected of bullying their child. Or school staff overreact with swift punitive actions to the bully. Time passes and the bully starts up again bit by bit, only much more subtly. The boy is afraid to report it again because the encounters are more secretive. The bully denies his behavior and recruits others to advocate for him. They jump on the bandwagon because they don’t know the history, and the boy doesn’t want to tell everyone he is being sexually harrassed. It’s a vicious cycle.

Teachers and schools

“You can’t learn if you’re being bullied, if every day you’re frightened of how you’re going to be treated.”
–William Pollack, cited above

Teachers, pay attention to signs that there’s a skilled, secretive bully at the school.

  • Notice who others avoid.
  • Notice a child coming into the class who’s upset and ask them about it later, promise you’ll protect their anonymity if you can get them to reveal a bully, but don’t pressure them.
  • Observe the problem kid and their subtle interactions with others.
  • Allow a victim(s) to have distance from bully, permission to use a different bathroom, to have their desk placed farther apart, to have a locker farther apart, or even a different class if possible.
  • Inform the parents of your concerns in addition to the principle and school counselor.
  • Focus your behavioral interventions on the bully (not the victims)

Avoid diagnosing the situation. You are not the expert. You don’t know why a bully is a bully, or why a victim is a victim, or anything about their parents. Ensure a school counselor is involved in any discussion about how to manage a bully problem in the school.

Avoid jumping to conclusions! Your actions can unintentionally undermine or harm either the child or their parents. You don’t know until you know.

“Bullies are like the lion looking for a deer that’s left the herd,” says Patrick Tolan, director of the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois. “They try to single out the weakest kid. The best way to stop this is to work on increasing inclusion by helping the bullied kids with social skills.”

Bullies are usually bullied themselves (see another article Bullies like their victims, are also at risk). Only very small percentage are sociopathic, or who are intrinsically cruel and without empathy, perhaps 1 in a 100. How do you tell? If someone sets a clear boundary with punitive consequences, the disturbed bully will relentlessly target a victim regardless of how much trouble they get in.

I wish to personally thank Barry Diggs, probation and parole officer for the Oregon Youth Authority, for his insights into bullying behavior, which helped me develop this article. Margaret

If you have helped a child effectively cope with bullying, please share your story in the Comments below so others can learn from your story.


Bullying Linked to Violence at Home
April 2011

Bullying is pervasive among middle school and high school students in Massachusetts and may be linked to family violence, a new study finds. In a survey of 5,807 middle-school and high-school students from almost 138 Massachusetts public schools, researchers from the Massachusetts Department of Health and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that those involved in bullying in any way are more likely to contemplate suicide and engage in self-harm compared to other students. Those involved in bullying were also more likely to have certain risk factors, including suffering abuse from a family member or witnessing violence at home, compared to people who were neither bullies nor victims.

Cyber Bullying (this is a superb and comprehensive article by an expert on cyberbullying)

Survey: Half of High Schoolers Report Bullying or Teasing Someone
“Ethics of American Youth Survey”, Josephson Institute of Ethics

Half of U.S. high schoolers say they have bullied or teased someone at least once in the past year, a new survey finds. The study also found that nearly half say they have been bullied during that time. The study surveyed 43,321 teens ages 15 to 18, from 78 public and 22 private schools. It found 50 percent had “bullied, teased or taunted someone at least once,” and 47 percent had been “bullied, teased or taunted in a way that seriously upset me at least once.” The survey asked about bullying in the past 12 months: 52% of students have hit someone in anger. 28% (37% of boys, 19% of girls) say it’s OK to hit or threaten a person who angers them. “There’s a tremendous amount of anger out there,” Michael Josephson says. (Founder of the Institute of Ethics)

Victims of Cyberbullying More Likely to Suffer Depression than Perpetrators:
ScienceDaily, September 2010

Young victims of cyber bullying, which occurs online or through cell phones, are more likely to suffer from depression than their tormentors, a new study finds. Researchers at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child and Human Health Development in the US looked at survey results on bullying behavior and signs of depression in 7,313 students in grades six through 10. Victims reported higher depression than cyber bullies or bully-victims, which was not found in any other form of bullying. Researchers say it unclear whether depressed kids have lower self-esteem and so are more easily bullied or the other way around.

Cyberbullying Teens and Victims More Likely to Have Psychiatric Troubles
Archives of General Psychiatry, July 2010

Teens who cyberbully others through the Internet or cell phones are more likely to have both physical and psychiatric problems, and their victims are at heightened risk for behavioral difficulties, a new study finds. Researchers collected data on 2,215 Finnish teens 13 to 16 years old. The survey found that teens who were victims of cyberbullying were more likely to come from broken homes and have emotional, concentration and behavior problems. In addition, they were prone to headaches, abdominal pain, sleeping problems and not feeling safe at school, the researchers found. Cyberbullies were also more prone to suffer from emotional and behavior problems, according to the survey.

Bullying And Being Bullied Linked To Suicide In Children
International Journal of Adolescent Medical Health; July 2008

Being a victim or perpetrator of school bullying, the most common type of school violence, has been frequently associated with a broad spectrum of behavioral, emotional, and social problems. According to international studies, bullying is common, and affects up to 54 percent of children. Researchers at Yale School of Medicine reviewed studies from 13 different countries and found signs of a connection between bullying, being bullied. and suicide in children. Suicide is third leading cause of mortality in children and adolescents. Lead author of this report, Young-Shin Kim, M.D. said “the perpetrators who are the bullies also have an increased risk for suicidal behaviors.”

Kids with ADHD more likely to bully
Linda Carroll, MSNBC, reporting on the Journal of Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, February 2008

A new study shows that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are almost four times as likely as others to be bullies. And, in an intriguing corollary, the children with ADHD symptoms were almost 10 times as likely as others to have been regular targets of bullies prior to the onset of those symptoms.

A study followed 577 children for a year. After collecting data on bullies and victims and identifying those children ADHD, there was a corollary between ADHD and bullying. Study co-author Dr. Anders Hjern, a professor in pediatric epidemiology at the University of Uppsala in Stockholm said “These kids might be making life miserable for their fellow students. Or it might turn out that the attention problems they’re exhibiting could be related to the stress of being bullied.”

Unfortunately, treating ADHD won’t remedy the bullying because drugs for the condition impact a child’s ability to focus, but not the aggression that leads to bullying, says Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry and director of the Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic at Yale University, and president of the American Psychological Association.

Bullying Tied to Sleep Problems
Sleep Medicine, June 2011

Children who are aggressive and disruptive in class are more likely to have sleep-disordered breathing than well-behaved children, according to new research. Conduct problems, parent-reported bullying, and school disciplinary problems were all associated with higher scores on a measure of sleep-related breathing disorders, according to researchers. The study collected data from parents on each child’s sleep habits and asked both parents and teachers to assess behavioral concerns. The findings suggest that bullying may be prevented by paying attention to some of the unique health issues associated with aggressive behavior.


Filed under ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder, Borderline personality disorder, children, depression, Education, oppositional defiant disorder, parenting, teaching, teens

Therapy types explained: DBT, CBT, CPS, and others

The fantastic news about the brain is that it can heal itself by talking with someone! And there is ample evidence to back this up.

The therapist or psychologist who works with your child or teen will use a type of therapy or “modality” based on their symptoms or diagnosis, because some work better for mood disorders, some work better for defiant children, some work better for borderlines, and so forth. (In thought disorders like autism and schizophrenia, talk therapy has limits. Those on the autism spectrum need specialized interactions due to their processing issues. Those on the schizophreniform spectrum need medication to think logically.)

Therapy models. Each type of therapy follows a model, and five are covered in this article. Your child’s therapist must be trained and practiced in any model they use. Why? It’s a matter of quality control. A therapist who has fidelity to a model (adheres to protocol) will help the most people most of the time, because that model has data to prove that the majority will benefit–the ones in the center section of the Bell Curve. (Therapists include psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychotherapists with MSW (Masters in Social Work), LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) and other licensure.)

Therapy models

CBT – cognitive behavioral therapy
CBT works when the child can examine their own feelings and make sense of them—the “cognitive” part. They learn to understand what affects them and why. The therapist will guide your child to create a list of options for themselves for when they face the next stressful situation that pops up in their lives. CBT helps a person think their way out of the confusion and have plans in place for appropriate actions. It works for mood disorders and anxiety, and some thought disorders if person has ‘insight’ (able to notice when they are behaving or thinking irrationally). CBT is one of the most widely used therapeutic models because it works for people who are relatively stable but enduring a difficult life situation (divorce, medical illness, job loss, and other big stressors).

DBT – dialectical behavioral therapy
DBT is unusual in that it can help anyone for any reason! The term “dialectical” describes how a patient learns to hold two opposing truths in their mind and respond effectively to the discomfort and emotions this causes. DBT is the one therapy model that can work for people with borderline personality disorder, who are considered the hardest to treat. It also helps those with mood dysregulation, those who’ve thought about or attempted suicide, or those with uncontrollable and negative responses to the world, such as oppositional defiant disorder. DBT relies less on personal self-examination and analysis, and instead concentrates on self calming, tolerating stress without overreacting, accurately perceiving the nature of a conflict, and communicating with others appropriately. Anyone can benefit from DBT. Notice how commonly people hear bad news and immediately expect the worst, then act to address the worst possible outcome? Does your child do this, only to extremes?

EMDR – eye movement desensitization and reprocessing
The goal of EMDR therapy is to help a person process extremely distressing memories of trauma and mitigate their torturous subconcious influence so children and adults can adapt and cope when memories are triggered in the future. EMDR is used for people with PTSD (physical, sexual, or emotional abuse) and other traumas such as from war, accidents, and major disasters. The therapy process uses rhythmic stimuli as a distraction during the precise moments when the person relives the traumatic memory—eye movement back and forth (by following a swinging object or a therapist’s hand), clapping, or listening to tones switching from ear to ear through headphones. The person does not have to talk about the horrible memory, so EMDR is less stressful—so important for a trauma survivor! EMDR works but there are no acceptable explanations. It is based on a belief that the memory and associated stimuli of the event must be processed to remove it from “an isolated memory network” where it creates havoc.

Parents as therapists

There are two proven models of therapy that are taught to parents to practice with their children in the home. Like the other models, they don’t work for every child, but they work for most children with a certain range of behaviors, rages, resistance, and physical violence, which can be caused by ODD, ADHD, and depression/bipolar disorders.

CPS – collaborative problem solving
CPS can be learned by anyone to manage an intensely frustrated child who goes into uncontrollable fits or tantrums, and the parent can do nothing to calm them down. The fits may last hours, and must run out of steam on their own. Afterwards, the child is often remorseful. Why? Their brain is “chronically inflexible” and has difficulty with the unexpected, switching from one situation to another or one plan to another. Using CPS, a parent doesn’t enforce rules per se, but negotiates with child so that they together come up with a win-win solution. This is very counterintuitive! The parent does not give away their authority, but offers the child an acceptable choice. For example, if a child can’t get a red jacket because there aren’t any in their size, and they must have red (!), the parent asks the child if they want to order one and wait 2 weeks, or if they will accept another color. This seems fair to the child because they have a say, and much easier on the parent because the child accepts the outcome they’ve chosen.

PMT – parent management training
PMT refers to a proven intensive educational program for parents to teach them skills for managing extremely difficult children, especially those with ODD. PMT helps parents assert consistency and predictability at home and in school, and promote positive social behavior in their child. The parents are also trained to change their own behavior towards their child, and taught how to analyze different home/school situations, “then apply moment-to-moment positive reinforcement or punishment” (called interventions) based on what is happening. The punishments are humane, such as taking time outs. It is hard on the parents, but works for children with serious behavior problems in addition to ODD: Conduct disorder, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorders.

What makes a good therapist? Because multiple models are out there, a really skilled therapist will figure out which model your child needs once they get to know them, and be able to apply parts of different models depending on your child’s individual challenges. That same skilled therapist will also be a cheerleader for your child, helping them feel good about themselves (and you), helping them discover their talents, and helping them to stay committed to their need for self-care. This is the very definition of a good therapist! Therapy is hard to take for anyone, but your child will trust a good therapist if they feel they have their best interests. Chemistry is important. If your child doesn’t like the therapist or make progress, it’s worth spending the time to find someone else who’s a better match. If the therapist has professional ethics; they will recognize they are not a fit and recommend someone else.

I know of a 10-year old child whose therapist dragged out appointments for a year with zero progress or results. From the start, the child didn’t like her and simply refused to talk with her. And this child, now 11, refuses any therapy because “it’s boring and a waste of time.” What an unfortunate consequence!

How you know you have a good therapist. A good therapist will be able to discover something valuable that brings light on your child’s situation after the very first session. They should ask you for background information about your child, and listen to you when you talk about recent problematic situations. They cannot talk to you about your child’s therapy, but they can encourage you to partner with them, and should recognize your need (your family’s need) for your child to function as normally as possible. You can ask to have therapy together with your child if its appropriate. If the therapist can’t connect meaningfully with your child after a few weeks, ask them about this. If you have any doubts about the therapist, share them, and expect to have a thoughtful, respectful explanation.

Which therapy is best for your child?

Seek a therapy provider with knowledge of all of them, and with experience treating children and teens. Ask about a specialty when you make the initial contact, and ask about a model you think fits your child’s behaviors (based on their descriptions). You can get a one-time assessment from a therapist for an opinion on which model to use. The best way to find a good therapist is through personal referrals: your child’s doctor or psychiatrist, support groups, school counselors, and other parents.

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Filed under adolescent psychiatry, behavior, child psychiatry, mental health, parenting, teaching, teens, therapy