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Postpartum Depression and Its Treatment

Posted on by Dr. Annie Abram

Postpartum depression, (PPD), is both much more common and much more severe than many of us realize. According to Postpartum Support International, 1 in 8 women suffer from PPD. Some experts think it is more like 1 in 5. To help us better understand postpartum, and to debunk some of the misinformation surrounding the illness, I invited expert Carly Snyder, M.D, onto my radio show this week. Dr. Snyder is a psychiatrist in New York City with a focus in Reproductive Psychiatry.

First off, what is postpartum depression? According to Dr. Snyder, it is a far broader phenomenon , and much more multifaceted, than originally thought. Now, the medical community uses the term perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, which encompass depression, anxiety, bipolar diroder, ODC, PTDS, and panic disorders. Many of these disorders interact and overlap – for example, 2/3 of women with depression also suffer from anxiety, and 25% of women diagnosed with PPD will eventually be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

So how do we identify and treat women who are at risk of – or are already suffering from – perinatal mood and anxiety disorders? Because of the public misunderstanding of the illness, there are many obstacles a woman must overcome to recognize that she needs help and seek it out. Probably the largest obstacle is the shame and guilt that arise when a woman does not become the happy, glowing mother she expected to be. All women experience a great shock to their systems when they become moms. As Dr. Snyder put it, new motherhood is like jumping into freezing water that no one warned you was cold. Many women find themselves asking: Why did I do this? What was I thinking? Some women fantasize about getting rid of their baby, about running away, about somehow escaping. This experience is so very common, but rarely verbalized. I had an overwhelmingly positive experience of new motherhood, and still it took me many years to open up about the darker thoughts that went through my head at that time. Having fleeting dark thoughts is not PPD.  If only we could normalize these experiences, so women would know that they are not alone, that we all experience this, we’d be in a much better position to diagnose those women suffering from PPD.

Another obstacle to diagnosing PPD is that pregnant women and brand new moms are expected to have mood swings, so a woman and her loved ones might write off her symptoms as “normal” even when she is suffering severely. Most people think that PPD occurs right after birth, but that’s not true. Symptoms occur as early as pregnancy and as late as four months or even a year after the baby is born. When women experience symptoms either earlier or later than expected, they often don’t recognize what’s happening. And, as Dr. Snyder pointed out, some women don’t seek help simply because they do not have the motivation: they are just too sick and exhausted. Some women suffer so deeply from PPD that they no longer believe that help is a possibility.

But help is out there! 85-90% of women who seek treatment for PPD get better. And there are many resources women can use to get help. You can always talk to your OBGYN, or your baby’s pediatrician: there is a growing awareness of perinatal anxiety and mood disorders in that field. Postpartum Support International, (PSI), is dedicated to helping women who suffer from mood anxiety disorders and offers a wealth of resources. There’s a hotline that ensures you will receive a call back within 24 hours. There are monthly conference calls with experts and other women, as well as a conference call for dads. PSI can connect you with a local coordinator that can help you find support and let your voice be heard. Visit their website, postpartum.net, or call 800 944 8766 to learn more.

If you are suffering from a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder, you are not alone. But social support is crucial to your and your baby’s wellbeing. As hard as it may be, try your best to reach out. A close and trusted friend is often a good way to start. But remember you need medical help as well. And for those of us with loved ones who are experiencing new motherhood, lend an ear, keep an eye out, and know that if you or your loved one is suffering, there are people waiting to help!

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What is Surrogacy?

Posted on by Dr. Annie Abram

If I learned one thing during my talk radio show this week, it is that surrogacy is a deeply complex issue. It is also an extremely important one. As gay marriage sweeps the nation, gay and lesbian couples are starting families in record numbers. Overseas adoption has all but come to a halt, so more heterosexual couples are looking for alternative ways to have children. I wanted to host an expert that would be able to give us a timeline of surrogacy law and offer a nuanced perspective about its legal and philosophical implications.

Michele Zavos gave us that and more. A pioneer in the field of legal rights for the LBGT community, and a premiere representative for gay and lesbian couples who want to have children, Ms. Zavos is a partner in the Zavos Juncker Law Group, PLLC. She is also a selected member of the National Family Law Advisory Council for the National Center for Lesbian Rights and an elected Fellow of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys and of the American Academy of Assisted Reproductive Technology Attorneys.

According to Michele, the science of pregnancy has grown exponentially over the last thirty five years, and with it, significant shift in the cultural attitude concerning surrogacy. Michele explained that there are two types of surrogacy. The traditional model, which is hardly used anymore, is when the carrier’s own DNA helps create the child (along with the sperm of a donor, the carrier’s husband, or the intended father). The newer model, termed gestational surrogacy, or gestational pregnancy, does not involve the carrier’s genetic material. Instead, a fetus is created from the genetic material of the intended parents and is implanted in the carrier’s womb.

From a legal perspective, both models of surrogacy spark an important question: who is the parent of this child? Is it the birth mother? The biological mother? The sperm donor? The couple for whom the baby is intended? Michele explained that every state has its own law concerning surrogacy: in some states, it’s a felony; in others, there’s no law at all; still others have very specific statutes concerning the practice. So, legally speaking, there really is no clear answer to this question.

We had two callers join our conversation, and both had very adamant opinions on the matter. The first caller brought up something that troubled her deeply: the child seems to have no legal choice in the matter- no right to be nurtured by the parent that brought them into this world, whether they be a sperm or egg donor, a carrier, or an adoptive parent. The caller brought up divorce law, which makes it very difficult to revoke a child’s right to remain connected to both parents. But what about adoption? Children do not have a right to choose between birth and adoptive parents. What about children raised by relatives other than birth parents? Or children raised in foster care? Ultimately, no child has the right to choose how they are raised or to whom they are born. And yet, one can see how the issue of surrogacy complicates the definition of parenthood and raises the question of a child’s right to stay connected with the people who created him or her.

It is also an extremely polarizing issue in the feminist community. We had another caller phone in who identified herself as a feminist leader with expertise in third party reproduction, who brought an international perspective to the table. She saw surrogacy as the commodification of a woman’s body, compared it to prostitution, and cited the European Parliament, which passed a resolution in 2011 banning surrogacy commodifies women’s bodies.

And yet there are other feminists that would link surrogacy to abortion and say that it is a woman’s right to choose. Surrogacy was recently banned in India, but for a long time, a woman in India who decided to be a surrogate would make enough to buy a home for her family. Should she have this right? There is also the matter of what is termed compassionate surrogacy, which is when the surrogate (usually a family member),  do not ask for payment. Are they commodifying their bodies? There is no clear answer. What is clear is that the issue is complex and multifaceted; there is no one-size-fits all solution.

For anyone who is interested in surrogacy, Michele had one crucial piece of advice: consult a legal professional with extensive experience!

You can reach Ms. Zavos with any questions at: Mzavos@zavosjunckerlawgroup.com

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Honoring Gay Pride Month

Posted on by Dr. Annie Abram

June is gay pride month. To honor the LGBT community and its continuing struggle for equality, I invited Andy Humm – a long time gay rights activist – to discuss the movement on my radio show. Mr. Humm helped lead the fight for New York City’s gay rights bill that passed in 1986, thanks to the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights. As director of education at the Hetrick-Martin Institute for LGBT youth, he fought to get explicit AIDS education into public schools in the 1990s. Since 1985, Mr. Humm has hosted the national, weekly television program “Gay USA.” He writes regularly for the Gay City Newsand and the Gotham Gazette. His work has also appeared in the The New York Times, The Daily News, The Post and numerous other publications

As Mr. Humm pointed out, even Orrin Hatch (Republican Senator from Utah), has publicly admitted that gay marriage will eventually pass, nation-wide. That battle has been won, but we still have a long way to go before we have truly eliminated discrimination. So what’s next?

Transgender rights have certainly gotten a lot of press lately, and Mr. Humm agreed that the gay community is an ally of this movement – (and, he hopes, of all subsequent social justice movements). Mr. Humm pointed one challenge that the transgender movement faces: how to rally its constituency. “Coming out” – for gay and lesbian folks- is a powerful way to claim one’s identity, stand in solidarity with the community, and move forward on the road toward marriage and family. Transgender people, on the other hand, do not want to be recognized as transgender; they want to be acknowledged as the new gender which they have embodied. So “coming out” is not a step that makes sense. Because of this difference, the movement will take a separate shape, but it is certainly coming along. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has already ruled that the transgender community is protected under sex discrimination laws.

Another important battle that we have yet to fight is that of the homeless youth of our nation, over half of whom are LGBT. According to Mr. Humm, there are approximately 150 beds available for homeless kids in New York City – a shockingly inadequate number. In Mr. Humm’s words, we are not taking care of our kids.

Mr. Humm also reminded us that even as we are enjoying real progress here in the states – more kids than ever before are coming out in high school and are accepted by their communities – we cannot forget what is occurring on the International stage. Countries like Russia, Uganda, and Nigeria are passing draconian anti-gay laws that are supported by large majorities of their populations. It is a deeply troubling reality.

The phrase “civil rights” in connection with the LGBT movement makes some people bristle, because it is so tightly connected with “The” civil right movement of the 1960′s. Mr. Humm reminds us that there are many groups of people fighting for civil rights, and at their root, they are the same fight. As the LGBT community gains more ground than ever, we hope that it becomes a powerful ally to other marginalized groups, both globally and here at home. We all have the right to equality and to be respected in our communities regardless of differences. Anything short of this reflects a lack of humanity. As Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail on the 16 of April 1963:  “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

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Is Children’s Education Related to Parental Involvement with School?

Posted on by Dr. Annie Abram

If you are a parent who is deeply involved in every aspect of your child’s life, including school, you are doing exactly what most parents feel obligated– even pressured – to do. But new research indicates that you may be doing more harm than good.

This week on my radio show, I was honored to have Drs. Angel Harris and Keith Robinson discuss their new book “The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement with Children’s Education.” Their research turns our traditional beliefs about the relationship between parental involvement and academic achievement right on its head: it suggests that parental involvement is not nearly as beneficial as we often assume.

When I started reading their book, I had quite a reaction to it. Their argument seemed to go against everything I’ve learned as a parent and as a therapist. In my experience, parental involvement is of the utmost importance! But then I saw the crucial distinction they make between parenting – that is, helping your child development socially and emotionally – and direct involvement in academic life. Drs. Harris and Robinson are not critiquing parents. Their work is not prescriptive; they are not providing advice as much as sparking a dialogue. Their research shows that more involvement is not always better. So it prompts us, as parents, to look at the quality of our interactions rather than the quantity.

The most important message that we as parents ought to take from this research is that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to helping your child succeed. Dr.’s Harris and Robinson monitored 60 different parental behaviors in different racial and socio-economic groups and got a wide range of results. For example, with whites, there was a positive correlation between parent’s participation in school events and academic success. For Mexican families, that correlation did not exist. This is not at all to say that Hispanic families should not join the PTO! This simply demonstrates that school systems affect some communities differently than others, so what might will help one child might hurt another.

One extremely compelling finding held up across all socio-economic backgrounds is that helping your child with her/his homework will not increase her/his achievement: in fact, it may lower it. On my radio show, we speculated as to why this is so. We discussed how we parents often lack the skills necessary to guide our children through their studies. Even if we do understand the material, we may not understand how to teach that material to our children effectively. This finding suggests that the stress that parents and children experience when battle over homework doesn’t necessarily pay off: it might strain not only on the parent-child relationship but also on the child’s ability to succeed.

Drs. Harris and Robinson measured how parents respond to a child’s poor performance by distinguishing between punitive and non-punitive reactions. Punitive reactions – taking away privileges, grounding, shaming – worsened academic performance. However, non-punitive responses – talking to the teachers, talking to the child, providing support and encouragement – increased achievement levels.

How can parents help children succeed in school? The answer is complex. It seems to be more important that we “set the stage” for our children, and then leave it. In other words, we need to provide a framework for success by sending the message that school is important. We need to help our children conceive of a future self and see how success in school builds a bridge to that future. We need to support them, through success and failure. And maybe we can leave the teaching to the teachers.

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The Newest Research on Autism

Posted on by Dr. Annie Abram

1 in 68 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This is an alarming statistic- it’s grown significantly over the past decade, and scientists still don’t understand exactly why.

To learn more about the most up-to-date research on ASD, I turned to Dr. Paul Wang, the SVP and head of medical research at Autism Speaks, a not for profit advocacy organization devoted to understanding autism from all perspectives.

Lot’s of people ask if the spike in ASD is simply due to a rise in a awareness. Dr. Wang says that, at most, about half of the increase in diagnoses could be due to greater awareness, but there are definitely other factors we don’t understand yet. Environmental toxins is one guess; people having children later is another. But we still don’t know.

Okay, so what do we know about autism that we didn’t know before? Well, one extremely important finding is that the early intervention is critical. The earlier a child is diagnosed and treated, the more likely it is that she will grow up to be an independent, active member of society. It used to be assumed that autism cannot be diagnosed until a child displays obvious symptoms, which usually occurs between 10 and 20 months. However, one study recently showed that eye contact in infants as young as two months old could predict whether or not they would develop ASD. This study helps dispels the myth that autism appears when the child begins to lose their language skills: we now know that it begins much earlier.

One important fact is that ASD exists on a very wide spectrum. There is no stereotypical manifestation of autism: symptoms vary widely. Not all people with ASD are intellectually disabled. Those on the lighter end of the spectrum can be completely functional, thriving people, and Dr. Wang made a point to emphasize that no one is trying to “fix them.” The medical community does, however, want to find the best ways to treat those who are severely impaired and need intensive behavioral and medical therapies.

Another important finding is that ASD affects the entire body- not just speech and cognition. For example, many with ASD display gastrointestinal symptoms, which are difficult to monitor when language skills are severely impaired. As Dr. Wang pointed out, pediatricians must be trained to watch out for these “whole body” symptoms; otherwise, they may sedate children with meds without addressing the source of their discomfort. Indeed, Autism Speaks is in collaboration with the American Pediatric Society to spread ASD awareness and to instill more rigorous and regimented screening processes that will help to catch autism earlier. Dr. Wang made an excellent point when he noted that parents have a much better understanding of autism than researchers, so if you think your child is displaying symptoms, visit autismspeaks.org/signs.

Though there are still more questions than answers, Dr. Wang seemed hopeful, particularly in the genetic research that is underway. The same gene that expresses autism can also express ADHD or schizophrenia, depending on the person; so it’s clear that genetics is part of the equation but not the whole story. That being said, Dr. Wang is hopeful that when we figure out what exactly the gene does to cause ASD, we can see what pathway is going awry, and we might discover a definitive treatment.

If you would like to learn more about ASD, read up on current research, or connect with communities of families that are living with autism, visit autismspeaks.org.

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Living With An Autistic Sibling

Posted on by Dr. Annie Abram

Sometimes, fiction offers us a safe lens through which we can examine our own lives. This week on my radio show, I spoke with Stasia Ward Kehoe, author of The Sound of Letting Go, a poignant young adult novel about a teenager named Daisy who lives with and cares for her autistic brother Steven. Ms. Kehoe’s work helps us understand the many challenges faced by families with children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Here’s a quick summary of the story. Daisy, a musical prodigy, has been the “perfect” sibling to her brother Steven. In fact, to a large extent, her life is organized around his needs. Not only is she responsible for “baby sitting”, which constricts her teenage schedule; it’s also her “job” to be sensitive to his many special needs. For example, certain tonal sounds – noises too loud or not loud enough — can lead Steven to self-harm, including wringing his hands until they’re bloody. Sometimes he can be physically violent, leaving Daisy and her parents vulnerable to physical harm. At one point in the novel, Daisy decides to give up her trumpet, because she is not able to juggle both her music and the many parent-like responsibilities that fall on her shoulders at home. However, when Daisy’s parents decide to place Steven in an institution without consulting her, she is devastated. The narrative then chronicles how Daisy re-adjusts to a “normal” life – one with more age appropriate concerns, like friendships and her personal interests – while grappling with the guilt and loss of Steven’s institutionalization.

This may sound like a very specific narrative, but Ms. Kehoe and I spoke at length about how Daisy’s experience applies to so many of us. When Ms. Kehoe would mention her autism research to friends and acquaintances, she was shocked at how often she received the response: “Yes, that’s my life.” Developmental and emotional disabilities are quite prevalent in our communities. But we often don’t hear about them. It can be extremely difficult to find safe forums for expressing the frustrations of living with a family member’s disability. I would go even further and suggest that if you live in partnership or raise children, you can deeply relate to the love/hate relationship that Daisy and her brother share. It is impossible to live in intimacy without sometimes experiencing “dark feelings.” Ms. Kehoe’s work is so powerful because it neutralizes and normalizes the shame we feel about the mixed emotions that we all harbor toward the people we love.

I would of course recommend this book to anyone raising a child with ASD, especially if you are considering institutionalizing that child. This is, of course, a very difficult and personal decision. As Ms. Kehoe’s book clearly demonstrates, this decision has nothing to do with how much you love your child and everything to do with what is best for your family. Sometimes, it is simply a matter of safety. When you have a fourteen-year-old boy at home who is larger than you are and cannot control his violent impulses, you simply do not have the resources to keep him, yourself, or your other family members safe.

One silver lining that Ms. Kehoe discovered in the course of her research is that many siblings of people that are diagnosed with ASD grow up to work with people with disabilities. When you are raised with a sibling with a disability, you are gifted a certain perspective – you naturally develop an insight and level of compassion that others have to learn.

It is so powerful to feel like your story is being told, and that is the reaction that Ms. Kehoe has received from many of her readers. However, she took care to emphasize that her book is not prescriptive. It is, after all, a work of fiction. For those who would like more support and information about raising children with ASD, Ms. Kehoe recommends Autism Speaks, which you can visit at http://www.autismspeaks.org.

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Seeking Help For Sexual Assault

Posted on by Dr. Annie Abram

Every victim/survivor of sexual assault responds differently. Some common emotions are anger, fear, guilt, loss of control, powerlessness, embarrassment, depression, isolation, denial, shame, disbelief, self-blame, and emotional shock. (http://www.connsacs.org/seeksupport/assaulted.htm) And when victims/survivors do not receive the support they need to heal, these feelings can last a lifetime.

On my radio show this week, I was honored to have as my guest a woman who has devoted her life to helping sexual assault survivors get the help that they need. Laura Cordes is the executive director of the Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services (CONNSACS), the coalition of the state’s nine community based sexual assault crisis services programs and Connecticut’s leading voice to end sexual violence. An advocate and organizer for over twenty years, Laura has worked on numerous women’s health public policy initiatives. She has spearheaded the effort offering emergency contraception for rape victims in all of Connecticut’s hospitals. She’s also helped develop the state’s Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner Program, which allows women immediate access to specialists that can deftly perform the invasive procedures necessary to collect evidence of rape. She is also a statutory member of the State of Connecticut’s Criminal Justice Policy Advisory Commission, the Commission on the Standardization of the Collection of Evidence in Sexual Assault Investigations and the newly created Governor’s Victim’s Rights Enforcement Advisory Commission.

Generally speaking, according to Ms. Cordes, about 20% of the population will experience sexual assault in their lives. The President released a report that found that women and girls are the vast majority of victims, and that about 22 million women have been raped in their lifetime. It also looked at specific populations and found that marginalized communities experience higher rates of sexual violence: people with disabilities, the LGBT community, the homeless, prison inmates, and undocumented immigrants all fall into this category. Here in Connecticut, CONNACS serves over 7,000 people a year—women, boys, and girls—most of whom were assaulted by someone they knew.

Most of us are aware that the majority of sexual assault victims are women and girls, but I also wanted to share some troubling statistics about boys. 1 in 4 boys that are abused are under the age of 12 at the time of the assault; 1 in 7 are under the age of 6. Thanks to widely reported in the media high-profile scandals such as the Sandusky tragedy, and the ongoing cover-up of the Catholic Church, we are finally beginning to raise awareness about the commonality of very young boys being sexually assaulted. Fortunately there’s a silver lining, here: people are beginning to speak out as they never have before, and our communities are listening. Ms. Cordes noted a rise in rape occurrences according to national statistics indicating that more cases are being reported. This is due to an important change.  In 2012 the Department of Justice announced a major change in how it categorizes rape. Up until then, the definition hadn’t changed since the 1920′s: rape was defined only as vaginal penetration of a woman by a man. Now, the definition includes a wide spectrum of physical violation.

But this isn’t just a legislative battle. It is a cultural one. As Ms. Cordes put it, victims don’t just have to survive the attack; they have to survive the aftermath. An astonishing number are re-victimized and re-traumatized when they disclose their assault to loved ones. This isn’t because these family members are bad people, but because society has taught us to ask questions like: “Well how late were you out?” Or: “Why were you drinking?” Or: “Why do you wear outfits like that? That’s why it happened, you know.”

Responses like these can be deeply damaging to the survivor; moreover, the assumptions that they reveal are deeply inaccurate. As Ms. Cordes noted, perpetrators of sexual assault are attempting to assert their power and control. They use sex, but it isn’t about sex: it is about shame, humiliation, and control. Remember, the majority of instances are pre-meditated; sex offenders build relationships with their victims with the knowledge that this relationship will make their victim look complicit. And it only takes one poor response to re-traumatize a victim – and that trauma, if it is not addressed, will most likely follow them for decades.

If you are victim of sexual assault and are secretly struggling, please reach out. Even if the assault happened decades ago, you are absolutely entitled to support, and that support is out there! CONNSACS supports victims as they navigate the police station, the hospital, even the courtroom. Call one of the free, confidential hotlines, by dialing this number:

1 888 999 5545

To learn more, or to donate your time or money to this extremely important issue, visit connsacs.org

And to the many of us, who have experienced sexual violence, please remember that you are not alone, and you are not at fault. If you would like help, reach out! Laura Cordes and everyone at CONNSACS are here for you.

“Healing may not be so much about getting better, as about letting go of everything that isn’t you – all of the expectations, all of the beliefs – and becoming who you are.” – Rachel Naomi Remen

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How Can We Remain Connected to our Children in the Digital Age?

Posted on by Dr. Annie Abram

I began my radio show by playing Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle”, a song which my guest, Catherine Steiner-Adair, EdD, references in her book The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. I asked Dr. Steiner-Adair – an internationally recognized clinical psychologist, school consultant and author – about the song, and she shared a story with me. A woman in one of her focus groups referenced the song while expressing her fear that her relationship to technology modeled unavailability to her children: she was always half-listening, always glued to a screen. She worried that when she and her husband aged, their children would, in turn, be unavailable to them.

This is one of the most important conundrums of our time. Technology has never before been such a presence in our daily lives, and we must think very carefully about how it affects our relationships. As Dr. Steiner-Adair so eloquently asks in her book, “The digital world is here to stay, but what are families losing with technology’s gain?”

Unfortunately, at this time, families are at risk for losing quite a lot. Many parents don’t understand how technology affects their daily interactions with their children. As Dr. Steiner-Adair noted, when we are interfacing with a screen, we are cognitively absorbed, and the part of our brain dedicated to empathy dims. If your child comes into the room and asks you something, you are much more likely to respond with a curt and agitated tone of voice if you are engaged with a screen because your brain is trying to accomplish something versus i.e. cooking or raking the yard. Dr. Steiner-Adair interviewed over 1,000 children, ages 4 – 18, about how this type of interaction with their parents makes them feel. She was shocked to discover that the reaction was very similar across the board, regardless of age – they even all used similar language: mad, sad, and lonely.

As Dr. Steiner-Adair pointed out, many of the behaviors we consider socially acceptable today—glancing at your phone at the dinner table, for example—would have been considered extremely rude ten years ago. But the world is now a different place. Technology is certainly not going away, so we have to make sure we use it to improve our relationships as opposed to depleting them. And right now, it looks like we as a society are falling victim to the “siren call” of technology; we are not mindful of how we engage with it or how this engagement affects us. Take early childhood development for example. One young child told Dr. Steiner-Adair that her favorite game was dress-up, then proceeded to describe an iPad game. The cognitive development of young children ages 0-5 absolutely relies on “deep play,” which is any play that engages a child’s imagination by prompting them to design their own rules. Deep play in groups is also extremely important: it teaches children how to interact with others in safe and rewarding ways. Children are spending less and less time engaged in deep-play, and their social-emotional development is suffering for it.

Luckily, at least three states have already included social-emotional intelligence in their core curriculums, and, in Dr. Steiner-Adair’s opinion, it is only a matter of time before social-emotional intelligence is recognized as a crucial skill that must be at the heart of our education system. Thanks to developments in the field of cognitive psychology, it is now undeniable that social-emotional intelligence is essential to success in a way that rivals math and literacy.

Technology, like any tool, can greatly help or hurt us: it all depends on how we use it. So let’s take a good look at how we operate as parents and as people, and decide if this is who we want to be.

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How to Help Girls Understand How Social Norms Can Affect Their Self Esteem

Posted on by Dr. Annie Abram

The problems faced by middle school girls struggling to look good and fit in are, in many ways, timeless. But the digital playground that our girls are navigating is brand new. To discuss the problems that parents and their pre-teen daughters are facing in this age of social media, I invited Dr. Tara Cousineau onto my radio show.

Dr. Cousineau is a clinical psychologist, self-esteem coach, and social entrepreneur who has many years of experience working with adolescent girls and women. She founded Moxie Moms coaching, which helps mothers of tween and teen girls build skills that strengthen their relationships with their daughters. She also received grants through the National Institute of Health to found BodiMojo Inc., which develops evidence-based and innovative solutions to help youth take control of their health by leveraging the digital playgrounds they reside in.

Adolescents are at a stage of development where they are naturally preoccupied with social comparison. But as Dr. Cousineau explained, social media has greatly heightened the time our kids spend comparing themselves to one another. Kids today are ranking, rating, and “liking” each other constantly. They have access to immediate and constant feedback as to where they fit in on the social ladder—and not just in an abstract sense. They’ve got numbers. How many followers do they have? How many likes they’ve received? How do we as parents—who are, in the words of Dr. Cousineau, “digital immigrants”– guide our children through this landscape that is so unfamiliar to us, and which they so fluidly and constantly navigate?

Dr. Cousineau very much emphasized that parents need to take responsibility for their children’s social media usage right from the start. Family phone plans make it so easy to just tack on that extra smartphone that your youngest child has been begging for, but we parents need to think carefully before we hand a smartphone to a ten-year-old. An online presence is a public persona that follows you for the rest of your life, and most ten-year-olds do not have the capacity to consider the implications of what they say; they react impulsively and emotionally. So think it all the way through before you give your child unlimited access to the Internet. Dr. Cousineau also advised that you create rules right from the start. How many hours a week is your child allowed on her device? Where is his phone kept? (The answer should probably not be his bedroom). Before you get your child a device, work together to set out a list of guidelines that you both feel good about. Make sure the rules and the consequences are clear. If you establish this right off the bat, it is much easier to maintain a conversation about your child’s media consumption as time goes on.

But what about parents for whom this is not an option? What if you have an adolescent girl who has had a phone for years, and with whom you don’t have a strong relationship? How can you instruct her about social media when she knows more than you do, and doesn’t want to hear anything you have to say anyway? Dr. Cousineau brought up an excellent strategy for dealing with this– a strategy we can all use, because most adolescent girls don’t want to hear from Mom. With her own daughter, Dr. Cousineau watched a ted talk by Dr. Caroline Helman, called The Sexy Lie. (http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/The-Sexy-Lie-Caroline-Heldman-a). Without opening her mouth, she was able to give her daughter great information about the internalized sexual objectification of women. And her daughter thought it was pretty cool! Moral of the story? We can use media to our advantage.

But what about the many moms for whom sitting down to share a video is out of the question? Expand your network. Reach out to other family members, friends, or people in your community that could be good role models to your daughter. An aunt, a neighbor, or perhaps a girl only a few years older can help. Whatever you do, don’t give up! The rapidly evolving digital landscape is like the Wild West, and our daughters need guidance, whether they know it or not.

For more tips on responsible media consumption, visit: commonsensemedia.org

For more information on Dr. Tara Cousineau’s work, visit her website: http://www.taracousineau.com/

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The Legacy of Violence and a Healing Curriculum for Children, Their Families and Communities.

Posted on by Dr. Annie Abram

Earlier this month, I took a trip to Northern Ireland to observe some of the early childhood development techniques that I’ve discussed previously on my radio show. My guest this week, Erin Forgay, was also on this trip, and agreed to discuss it with me last week on my radio show. Erin is a senior at Wheelock College in Boston, where she studies performing arts and education. Erin has extensive professional experience working with youth ranging from birth to age 18. She helps run a camp for children with special needs and she supervises youth and teen theater companies at the Springfield Jewish Community Center. She has over 10 years of experience in the theater world, and she is thinking of entering the field of drama therapy, particularly for kids in crisis.

During our time in Northern Ireland, we worked with Early Years, the largest organization in Northern Ireland working with and for young children, through their Media Initiative for Children, (MIFC). The goal of the Media Initiative is to help young children develop positive attitudes about physical, social, and cultural difference. Erin and fourteen of her peers were chosen from Wheelock College to go to Ireland to receive training by the Media Initiative and to observe classrooms in which the program is implemented. I was lucky enough to join them!

One shocking fact that the Media Initiative unearthed in their research is that children as young as three years old have already developed prejudices: they know the “good guys” from the “bad guys” in their community, based on information they’ve picked up from their family. The Media Initiative created 1 minute videos featuring persona dolls that demonstrate how people with differences can work together. The videos feature puppets like Jim, a Protestant; Tom, who is both Catholic and physically disabled (he has an eye-patch); as well as other dolls representing different minority groups in the community. The videos provide concrete scenarios that young children can process. For example, in one video, Jim’s baton gets stuck in a tree. Tom approaches and he is afraid, but then Tom helps him by using his hurley stick to get the baton down.

The Media Initiative has also been quite successful in providing programming for parents, which is of course crucial, since all sorts of prejudices and unprocessed emotions are passed on intergenerationally, particularly in nations that are healing from violent conflict.

Perhaps the most incredible thing that Erin and I witnessed in Northern Ireland was young children at play. Here in the U.S. we expect our kindergarteners to be acquiring skills like reading, writing, and arithmetic. According to the latest research in cognitive development, this is a major mistake. The brains of children that young are geared to learn through creative play: this is how you set the foundation for learning later on. Here in the U.S, children have forgotten how to play: they are easily bored without instruction and/or technology. They imitate rather than create. In Northern Ireland, however, we witnessed the beautiful sight of young children collaborating and creating naturally, without any prompting or instruction.

Let’s hope that programs like the Media Initiative find their way to the U.S.  We have our own prejudices and traumas to deal with, like bullying, gender issues, and our wars overseas.  We need to teach our children tolerance, and we need to let them play.

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