The Pain of Pain

Dear Mr. Dad: My son is a freshman in high school, and until the beginning of this school year, he was a happy kid, with lots of friends and plenty of extracurricular activities. But over the past few months, he’s changed. He’s lost a bunch of weight, is sullen most of the time, and has taken to wrapping himself up in an oversized, floppy hoodie that covers everything but his face. After school, he goes to his room, and barely communicates with me or my husband. He also seems to have lost all contact with his friends. We’re really worried that he’s doing something self-destructive, like cutting himself. What can we do?

A: I appreciate your email, but you really need to contact your son’s pediatrician or family doctor. Sudden weight loss, mood changes, secretive behavior—including major wardrobe changes—are huge red flags, and your doctor will be able to put you in touch with an appropriate mental health professional.

Your next call should be to your son’s school. You want to find out whether any of his teachers have noticed the same kinds of behavior changes as well as whether he’s being bullied.

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of data on the percentage of kids who deliberately hurt themselves, largely because they tend not to tell anyone. But studies I’ve looked at estimate that between 10 and 25 percent of adolescents and teens engage in some kind of self-injury at least once. Girls are thought to be a little more likely than boys to self-injure, but that might be because some of what boys typically do (such as punching walls, getting drunk, and engaging in risky behavior) isn’t always seen as self-injury. But both boys and girls cut, bite, or burn themselves—and baggy clothes are a good way to hide the evidence.

How much do you know about your son’s social life? Did he recently break up with a girlfriend or have a major feud with friends? According to various surveys, many teens self-injure to get reactions from someone, to feel more in control, to express depression or anxiety, and to stop bad feelings.

Maybe the most horrifying part of this is that many kids who injure themselves learn how from websites that actually encourage self-harm and even suicide. What a revolting thought. The good news—if there is such a thing—is that, according to Dr. Mathilde Ross, a psychiatrist at Boston University, most self-injurers aren’t suicidal and generally outgrow the behavior in their 20s.

Whether your son is harming himself or not, though, he needs help right now. And again, even though you and your husband are clearly concerned, neither of you is the right person for the job.

While you’re waiting for an appointment with the pediatrician, spend some time reading some of the resources at selfinjury.com. At the same time, pay very close attention to the way you’re responding to your son. It’s not going to be easy, but try to stay calm. Showing concern is fine, but expressing shock or horror, making threats, or getting angry will only drive him further away than he already is. He needs to know that you love him and that he can trust you. Engaging him in even the smallest conversation is a good sign that you’re on the right track.
An important part of a teen’s development is pushing boundaries and making mistakes. If your son knows he has a safety net, he just might use it.

Becoming the Model Parent

Dear Mr. Dad: People are constantly talking about how parents should be good role models for their kids, and that makes good sense to me. But everywhere I look, I see parents behaving in horrible ways. Maybe I’m confused about what “good role model” really means. What are good role models supposed to do?

A: We all know that our kids are watching our every move (even when they’re ignoring us). And most of us have banished the phrase “do as I say, not as I do” from our vocabulary. So there’s no question that what we do is important and that our behavior can have a big influence on how our children will turn out as adults. But for me, setting a good example is much more about the being than the doing.

If you want your child to be an ethical person, treat others (and themselves) with respect, and make the right choices even if they’re not the easy ones, you’ll have to do more than demonstrate behavior. You’ll have to talk about the issues and point out examples of good—and bad—behavior around you, and in movies, TV shows, and books. And you’ll need to discuss with your child why people make the choices they do and what your child would have done instead. The goal is to lead your child to a point where he or she will make good choices even when you’re not there.

That said, being a role model isn’t all in your head, and how you behave is still important. Here are a few ideas:
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Zero Tolerance for Zero Tolerance, Part II

zero tolerance bullying policies do more harm than good

zero tolerance bullying policies do more harm than goodA few months ago, I wrote a column entitled “Why We Need Zero Tolerance for Zero Tolerance,” which talked about how the current practice of suspending or expelling chlidren from school may be doing more harm than good. In a new policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) agrees, adding that removing a child from school should be a rare last resort and not a routine punishment for bullying, drug use or other infractions.

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Making Changes + Achieve the Extraordinary + Protect against Bullies

[amazon asin=B00AHF87QM&template=thumbnail&chan=default]Jeremy Dean, author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits
Topic:
Why we do things why we don’t, and how to make any change stick
Issues: Where do bad habits come from? Why it can take weeks or months to create and implement new behaviors and weed out old ones; avoid frustration and learn to navigate habit-forming pitfalls and successfully build new, long-lasting practices.

[amazon asin=0385520557&template=thumbnail&chan=default]Bill Strickland, author of Make the Impossible Possible
Topic:
One man’s crusade to inspire others to dream bigger and achieve the extraordinary.
Issues: A successful life is not something you simply pursue—it’s something that you create; how to stop going through the motions of living and how to savor each and every day; how the way we treat people and ourselves influences the kind of life we have.

[amazon asin=0470407018&template=thumbnail&chan=default]Allan Beane, author of Protect Your Child from Bullying
Topic:
Advice to help recognize, prevent, and stop bullying before your child gets hurt.
Issues: Tell-tale signs that your child is being victimized; understanding the characteristics that make a child an easy target; how to give your child a solid foundation for dealing with bullying situations; why not to teach a child to physically retaliate against a bully.

New Approaches to Bullying

[amazon asin=0062105078&template=thumbnail1&chan=default]Guest: Carrie Goldman, author of Bullied.
Topic: What every parent, teacher, and kid needs to know about ending the cycle of fear.
Issues: Eye-opening stats on the prevalence of bullying; the harmful effects of bullying on the brain; creating a home environment that produces neither bullies nor victims; why typical school anti-bullying/zero tolerance policies do more harm than good.

Bullies and the Cycle of Fear + Child Safety + The Benefits of Risk and Danger

[amazon asin=0062105078&template=thumbnail1&chan=default]Guest: Carrie Goldman, author of Bullied.
Topic: What every parent, teacher, and kid needs to know about ending the cycle of fear.
Issues: Eye-opening stats on the prevalence of bullying; the harmful effects of bullying on the brain; creating a home environment that produces neither bullies nor victims; why typical school anti-bullying/zero tolerance policies do more harm than good.


[amazon asin=0964004224&template=thumbnail1&chan=default]Guest 2: Paula Statman, author of Raising Careful, Confident Kids in a Crazy World.Topic: Teaching kids to be safe and strong.
Issues: Striking a healthy balance between safety and panic; turning nice kids into safe kids; why scare tactics don’t work; what parents and kids need to know about sex offenders; much more.


[amazon asin=077108708X&template=thumbnail1&chan=default]Guest 3: Michael Ungar, author of Too Safe for Their Own Good.
Topic: How risk and responsibility help teens thrive.
Issues: Adolescents are safer now than at any time in history—why are we overly protecting them? How bubble-wrapping kids stunts their healthy growth and puts them at harm; the benefits of experiencing manageable amounts of danger.