Thursday, 31 May 2018

101 Ways to F*ck Up Your Kid

#65: Over Functioning
At the closing ceremony of Woodbadge training in Scouts Canada many years ago, one of our trainers - Troop Scouter Gordon Innes - offered the finest advice I have ever received regarding the development of children; “Pay your Scouts the courtesy of allowing them to make their own mistakes.”
Following this advice, our Scouts were encouraged to think and experiment by being given only the basic information on how to complete a task - such as cooking a meal - and we watched Leaders of other Troops using a hand-over-hand, step-by-step instruction approach.  It became apparent which was more effective as the year progressed; the Scouts in our Troop became ‘bush gourmets’ and regularly turned out creative complex meals, while the Scouters who employed the hand-over-hand/step-by-step method grew frustrated as their lessons didn’t seem to sink in.
I applied this even when teaching Cub aged children how to build and light a campfire.  They were given three pieces of information;
  1. Fire requires fuel, oxygen, and heat
  2. Little things burn easier than big things
  3. Heat goes up
I then pointed out piles of paper, twigs, and sticks and handed each Cub two matches and told them to go build their fires.  In 12 years of instructing campfire safety I never had a Cub ask for a third match.  This minimal teaching method only provided the basic information and resources, it was up to the children to transform those into action; they had to think and experiment to be successful.
Our temptation to over function for children is driven by myriad personal motives; we may be impatient for them to learn; we may want to spare the child frustration; we may want the job done a specific way; we may have a desire to feel needed by our children and we may mistake it for helpfulness.  We have to differentiate between teaching a child and over functioning for them.
Experiencing failure, disappointment, or discomfort after making mistakes are essential life experiences that motivate children to experiment and develop new skills.  To be rescued after each failure breeds learned helplessness in a child, but children who fail and are encouraged by their parent or teacher to try again fare far better in life and improve their self-esteem.
I often give Babe Ruth’s baseball career as an example; During his career, Babe Ruth batted a record 714 home runs, but what many don’t know is that he also set a record by being struck out 1,330 times.  Babe Ruth never gave up, after each failure he returned to the dugout, regrouped, and waited for his next opportunity.
Over functioning for children not only instills that learned helplessness and contributes to low self-esteem, it also lays the foundation for future power struggles.  A parent who helps a young child too much with their homework in their primary years can expect power struggles from that child when they are in their teens through procrastination and resistance.
A colleague once had nightly power struggles with her sons over their bedtime.  She decided to hand all the responsibility to them and told them they could choose when to go to bed on their own.  Their first choices with this new found freedom was to stay up late, but the immediate result was feeling miserable the next day, missing school, getting lower grades, and no longer enjoying their preferred activities.  My colleague offered no comment or judgment on their choices resulting in these obvious outcomes - she remained silent and let the lessons kick in.  In the end, all three boys started going to bed earlier than their previously imposed bedtimes.
If a child forgets her homework, coat, or lunch when leaving for school and the parent brings the missing item to school for them they are denying the child the opportunity to learn.  Getting marks deducted for late homework, being cold during recess, or missing a meal are not life altering experiences, but will provide the child motivation to learn time management, responsibility, and self discipline.
My advice to parents and teachers is this;
  1. Ask yourself why you are performing a function for a child; in other words -whose needs are being met?
  2. Assess if the child is capable of doing this for themselves; if so; teach them how
  3. Ask what would happen if you didn’t do it for them; will it only result in the learning experiences of failure, disappointment, and discomfort?
  4. Create a milieu where failure is a shameless part of life; a way to learn and overcome - we all fail and by failing we learn to adapt and improve

Children have insatiable appetites for exploration, knowledge, and mastering new skills, we just have to get out of their way while loving and encouraging them as they fail and learn and succeed.

Aaron D. McClelland, MPCC-S -

Monday, 5 February 2018

Misguided & Harmful School Officials

As a mental health practitioner who specializes in helping adolescents overcome Non-Suicidal Self-Injury (NSSI), I was appalled to read of an Okanagan/Skaha School District 67 School Board ruling “ordering a grade-nine student to wear long sleeves at all times to cover scars”.  It is short-sighted and puritanical actions like this that continue to vilify those struggling with mental health issues, resulting in those who need help being fearful of reaching out for it.  On the flip-side, I am heartened by the wise and outspokenness of the students who are standing up to this repulsive action.

NSSI is a process mostly used to counter overwhelming emotional and physical distress and only ‘works’ for 16.9% of the population.  A smaller percentage use it to escape feelings of dissociation or depersonalization; feeling numb physically and emotionally.  Most importantly, 50% use it to avoid suicide, so in many cases NSSI is the only thing keeping them alive.

NSSI is NOT ‘contagious’.  In her longitudinal study of self-injury, Dr Mary Kay Nixon of the University of Victoria found that 72% of adolescents who self-injure believe they came up with the idea on their own, while under 10% learned of it through friends, family or television.

Mental health issues are one of the largest crises our society faces today, with 25% of children and adolescents developing an anxiety or mood disorder in their school years; 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys being sexually abused before they graduate high school and the resultant post-traumatic symptoms that go with it.

Our school board needs to wake up to the fact that right now among the 4000+  population of their students between the ages of 12-18 years, 680 are engaging in NSSI and will do so for an average of 21 months; 286 will continue into adulthood and 8 will complete suicide within 15 years of the onset of self-injury.  Only an open dialogue without shame or judgement can help these students come forward to ask for the help they may need.

We look to our educational authorities such as SD 67 to provide education based on current and best practice; to be leaders in the field of helping our young people navigate life; to nurture and promote inclusivity amongst our student population.  Certainly not to vilify and shame a young woman for doing her best to cope.  I applaud the students who are leading the charge to change the outdated and harmful attitudes of SD 67 administrators, and remind them of the words of cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead;

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

Aaron D. McClelland, MPCC-S -

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

101 Ways to F*ck Up Your Kid

#17: Shame & Guilt
“Nothing is more wretched than the mind of a man conscious of guilt.”
~ Titus Maccius Plautus
Instilling lasting shame and guilt in a child is not only emotional abuse, but if successful, can cause mental disorders and brain damage.
As parents, our most important responsibility is to nurture our children, not only meeting their physical needs but their emotional ones as well.  Learning from our past transgressions or poor choices is a good motivator to change our behaviour.  However, shame and guilt is not a practice of learning, it is emotional baggage that we carry that impedes our growth and has a large negative impact on our self-esteem and social interactions.
At times parents employ shame and guilt without even knowing that they are doing so, often in the form of a “feel-bad-game”; a three year old refuses to give a parent a kiss or hug, so the parent pretends to cry or pout.  This causes the child to take on a sense of responsibility for their parent’s emotional state and feel shame to have caused that parent to feel bad.  It also teaches the child that they have no choice whom they hug or kiss because it will hurt the other person if they don’t.
Just let that sink in for a moment; is teaching your daughter that she has no right to resist intimate physical contact with another person the lesson you want her to learn?
Shame and guilt instilled in childhood can cause us to be immobilized in the present for an action in the past.  Far too often, parents use shame or guilt to correct behaviours - and it often appears to work in the short term, however it lingers in the mind of a child and may manifest itself throughout their life span.  Shame and guilt not only impacts children emotionally, it can have a negative impact on brain development.
In a 12 year study conducted by Joan Luby, MD and her team at Washington University School of Medicine - Psychiatry, researchers looked at a part of the brain called the anterior insula, which regulates perception, self-awareness, and emotion. Smaller anterior insulas have been linked to anxiety disorders, depression, other mood disorders, and schizophrenia.
Researchers took brain scans of 145 school-aged children and asked their caregivers whether their kids exhibited any symptoms of excessive guilt, such as apologizing repeatedly for minor misbehaviour or feeling guilty about things that had happened in the past. The researchers found that feelings of extreme guilt correlated with smaller anterior insulas.
"In the kids who had high levels of guilt, even the kids who weren't necessarily depressed, they had smaller anterior insula volume, and that smaller anterior insula volume is predictive of later occurrence of depression," said Luby,  "This research suggests that early childhood experiences impact the way the brain develops."
Michelle New, PsyD, an associate professor at George Washington University Medical School in Washington, DC, praised Luby’s research for helping pinpoint brain anatomy that place shame and guilt-ridden children at high risk of developing mental disorders later in life.
"This research is really new and exciting because you can look at changes in the brain, and it shows that early intervention is really important. Dismissing early symptomatology is dangerous." New said, going on to explain that mental disorders are often latent in children between the ages of four and 12, so being able to identify high risk children through a brain scan can help parents and therapists take preventative measures early in development.

A vital lesson all social beings must learn is how their behaviour impacts others, but being shamed or weighed down by guilt for their actions can echo through an entire life span.
Aaron D. McClelland, MPCC-S -

Saturday, 28 October 2017

101 Ways to F*ck Up Your Kid


‘Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child’ is one of the most insidious axioms ever uttered and one that too many parents accept as a universal truth.
Let me be clear; punishment does NOT work.  It never has and never will.  If punishment worked, we would have no need of prisons because we would have all learned to be good citizens at the hand and belt of our parents.
When we inflict corporal punishment on a child one of two things result:

... will feign remorse and find better ways to hide their crimes.  This child will see corporal punishment as frustrated anger from an impotent parent, disconnected from their own transgressions, and will learn to better hide doing what she wants to do despite the wishes of that parent.  Once successful at this tactic, this child will savour the reward of putting one over on her parent, eroding the parent’s authority and their relationship with each instance.

... will develop a paralyzing fear of further punishment and will be unwilling - or unable - to take even healthy risks.  These are the children we see on the edges of playgrounds hesitantly observing the wild play of other children, remaining terrified of joining in for fear of ‘doing something wrong’ and being punished once again.  Timid children who have been traumatized by corporal punishment will develop a subservient alignment with adults, and spend their lives seeking approval of others while harbouring the deep-set belief that they are incompetent or ‘bad’.

Corporal Punishment is the refuge of parents whose frustration has moved into the realm of anger, and who desperately need more tools to parent effectively.  The generational practice of corporal punishment that has been passed down through the ages, thankfully, is diminishing, but far too many people still rely on it; a 2014 USA study indicated that 76% of men and 65% of women believe that children sometimes need “a good hard spanking”.
I once had an acquaintance who justified using corporal punishment on his children by declaring that; “My dad spanked me and I turned out alright.”  I asked him how he knew that?  Then pointed out that he chain-smoked, was divorced, had strained relationships with his grown children, and had lost every job he’d ever had due to his own anger issues.  He fell into introspective silence as he considered this.
Elizabeth Gershoff, PhD of the University of Texas at Austin and Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, PhD of the University of Michigan conducted a metastudy on corporal punishment that drew data from over 1,500 papers, covering 50 years of research, and studying over 160,000 children.  The outcome of Gershoff’s and Grogan-Kaylor’s research indicated that children who were spanked had poorer relationships with their parents, lower levels of moral internalization (meaning that they did not learn how to judge right or wrong, but how to avoid getting hit), acted out with aggression with their peers, and had higher rates of adolescent criminal behaviour.
Parents who use corporal punishment also have a higher likelihood of escalating their own behaviour into the realm of child abuse.  Corporal punishment itself is on the leading edge of the child abuse spectrum.
What does work with children (and adults) are natural consequences; naturally occurring results of a poor choice.  Touch a hot stove and you burn your hand.  No one imposed it, no one did it to you, it was the result of your own choice.
The second approach that works nearly as well especially with children old enough to develop theory of mind is applying logical consequences.  If a child is difficult to awaken in the morning for school, the logic would be that they are not getting enough sleep, therefore they need an earlier bedtime.  To spank a child for resisting to arise on time in the morning will be viewed by the child as simple cruelty and will illicit feelings of resentment toward, or fear of the parent.

We often instruct children to ‘use your words’.  Parents should follow their own advice.
Aaron D. McClelland, MPCC-S -

Sunday, 23 July 2017

101 Ways to F*ck Up Your Kid

In my private practice, one of my specialties is working with adolescents who self-injure.  When I ask when they started, they typically reply that they started cutting in their teens.  My next question is; “When you were little - as far back as you can remember - what did your parents do when you were having big feelings; anger; distress; frustration that brought you to tears.”  They all respond with the same thing; “I was sent to my room.”
When I inquire what they did to deal with their emotions alone in their room, they report one or more of the following; pull my hair; bite myself; punch the wall; hit myself in the head; bang my head on the floor or wall.  So, in actuality they began to use self-injury when they were four or five years old to handle emotions that were overwhelming them.  It was only when they discovered razor blades in their teens that their self-injury became sophisticated and attracted their parents’ attention and thus became the “designated client” (aka; “the scapegoat of family dysfunction”)
Children need to be taught how to respond and regulate sometimes overwhelming emotions.  Even as the sophisticated social creatures that we are, we’re not born with innate strategies to handle distress - we need to be taught this skill.
Human beings in our present form have existed for about 150,000 years.  Up until the “Rise of Kings” about 8,000 years ago, we lived in multi-generational, multi-branched families within a greater clan or tribe system that was based on cooperation and caring for all members of the group as a whole.
Children born into that caring social culture had four adult caregivers available to them at any time during the day and night; mother and father, grandparents, aunts and uncles, older siblings and cousins.  These caregivers would feed, bathe, nurture, and teach each child.  
Between the rise of the Kings and the industrial revolution, the extended family structure children relied on was degraded and stripped away bit by bit by social evolution driven by power, control, and commerce, yet the hardwired need for it still exists in each of us.  Children have an innate need for those caregivers to teach them how to navigate the world and understand their place in it.
Yet a recent study found that due to both parents needing to work to afford a home, long commutes, and other demands on their time, most parents only spend 34 minutes a day with their children.
Children need us to help them learn, not only about the care and feeding of their bodies and how to navigate a complex world, but about their minds and accompanying emotions as well.
When children are overwhelmed by powerful emotions, far too many adults devalue those emotions; the three year old who has a meltdown because her older sister took a bite of toast before her is told not to be silly; the toddler who falls and is hurt and screams because they think they’re going to feel that way forever is told to get over it; the child who has an outburst over one of the thousands of daily frustrations they face in an unfair world is asked if they want “something to cry about”.
Neuroscientist Daniel J Siegel and parenting expert Tina Payne Bryson’s book “The Whole-Brain Child”, lays out 12 strategies to nurture your child’s development to assist them in both regulating emotion and help their brain organize.  I recommend every parent purchase a copy and follow the strategies in it.
When my first granddaughter was a toddler, I watched my son apply some of these principals when his two year old had run from the living room into the kitchen and tripped (over nothing as toddlers are wont to do), falling face first onto the floor.
  1. My son immediately knelt down and stood her back up (get to the child’s level).
  2. Still holding her gently, with empathy he said; “Ow.  You bumped your chin.” (name it to tame it).
  3. He assured her that it would stop hurting and reminded her; “Remember when you fell in the driveway and hurt your hand?  It stopped hurting right?” (remember to remember).
Her tears quickly faded and he took her to sit on his lap at the kitchen table and engaged her with crayons and paper.  The crisis was over and she began to learn how to navigate an emotional crisis.
Children need what we all need; for someone to actively listen to us; to have what we are feeling validated; and to be offered support.  And please understand that validating someone’s emotions does not validate the cause - if someone does something foolish and gets hurt, they don’t need a lecture or to be dismissed for being foolish, they need validation of their pain.
Even though the events that cause our children distress can seem trivial compared to the challenges we face as adults every day, to the child these are new and upsetting occurrences that are sometimes overwhelming for them.  Their feelings need to be validated and they need to be taught how to navigate them by those they love and trust.
Conversely, parents can continue to dismiss their children’s emotions and pay therapists like me hundreds of dollars to untangle the ensuing emotional wreckage.

I - for one - need one more generation of troubled adolescents to see me through to retirement.
Aaron D. McClelland, MPCC-S -

Friday, 24 March 2017


There is a certain look from religious people as they try to imagine the world of an atheist - a world without belief in their god - their awe, their wonder, their glory.  They do not understand how we can live in a universe devoid of magic and superstition, and at times feel pity for those of us who believe only in scientific discovery and the wonder of the natural universe.  Their pity is unwarranted, because ... we are stardust

In the beginning all was chaos; without form; without shape; without direction - a celestial fog of bits of matter, lost in a timeless expanse of space .  Protons, neutrons, and electrons drifted through total darkness and in total darkness found each other and were compelled to begin a universal dance that would be repeated over and over.  These small bits formed the first atoms - the seeds of all things; the stardust that would shape a universe.  The atoms’ small gravity drew them together to form the first molecules of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen ... microscopic structures that would form the building blocks of the universe.  As they collected each other, heat began to form and - from that heat - time began to creep.

Over billions of years, the small collisions and tugs of minute gravity began to draw this stardust into a grand celestial waltz as natural as the dance of the first atoms - circling, forming eddies, flowing, thickening.  Soon, large clusters in the centre of the eddies attracted more and more molecules and compressed itself to form a solid frozen ball with a gravity well that lighter clusters orbited around in the form of dust and gas, repeating the atomic waltz to form the crucible of galaxies and within those, individual solar systems.  Order was forming out of the chaos; the universe began to resolve in form and shape and motion.

As the centres of the clusters attracted more and more mass, their internal pressure and heat grew and time accelerated.  These centres grew more dense and their gravity compressed them further and reached out to stabilized the eddies of matter that swirled around the centres until they too collapsed to form the planets.

Then something wondrous happened; the compression-generated heat within the great masses at the centre of each solar system reached a critical point and the once frozen balls of matter ignited and sent forth a blast of energy that stripped the atmospheres from the nearer planets and warmed those at mid distance.  This was the birth of light, and over millennia was repeated in a cascade across the universe, and that light held within it an infinite rainbow of colour.

Circling each new sun out past its planets in the farthest reaches of its solar maelstrom, frozen flakes of chemical compounds clustered and formed huge ice balls that fell into the gravity well, and as the new suns warmed them and blasted them with photons, the frozen gasses began to boil and mix as the comet drew perilously close, to calve and break into parts on its violent trip around the sun.  Some of the boiling mixtures formed a rudimentary long molecule of deoxyribonucleic acid, which was delivered to the planets as the comet’s broken parts crashed into their surfaces and reshaped their landscapes.  Strings of this DNA withered and died on rocky planets and joined the soup of gas giants, but on planets with liquid water it thrived and began its evolution.

DNA strands found each other and became longer and more complex, and over time they created single cell rudimentary creatures that at first drifted on the tides of the water worlds, then evolved to have the ability to move on their own.

The great comets continued to grow in the outer reaches and continued to fall into the gravity well and continued to impact the planets.  These massive collisions changed the planets, adding to the chemical mix, reshaping the land, and sometimes creating new chaos. These wet planets would never know calm, but the DNA of the small creatures allowed them to evolve to survive in their ever-changing environment.  Some evolved in place to become algae and later plants, others evolved to swim, to reproduce, to forage and hunt, and to change their local environment to suit their needs.

The branches that grew from the original DNA carried in a comet’s frozen core, spread and life became diverse.  Some branches died by either falling behind in their evolutionary journey or were obliterated through disaster, but those that survived grew stronger and more complex.

As the algae and plants left the water, borne on waves pulled by an orbiting moon’s gravity, they clung to rocks and soils and burrowed their roots deep.  Creatures who fed on these plants followed and evolved to be able to move on land, at first only to visit but eventually inhabit.

Life flourished on these water worlds, and flourishing, evolved and diversified.  These life forms faced many challenges; ice ages; floods; fires; extinctions caused by more comet strikes, yet DNA survived and adapted.  Creatures a billion years deep in evolution developed rudimentary brains to ensure the survival of growing bodies - the brainstem to tend the body’s autonomic systems, then Limbic Systems to promote survival of self and survival of species, and ultimately cognitive cability.

In cosmic time, the evolution of these advancing creatures was but a blink of an eye, but they did advance; forming community and social structure, developing curiosity about the world around them - learning how to make and use tools, to harness the elements, to grow food, to alter their environments in order to aid their survival, and to stare at the glittering cosmos of the night sky and wonder at its beauty.  Like the bright objects they observed, they too were composed of stardust and longed to return to it.

The universal waltz will go on.  Things will change.  One by one, the suns will burst forth in bright agony as they die and collapse, becoming matter so dense that it will absorb what light remains.  The universe itself will slow then halt its expansion, then slowly, over billions, perhaps trillions of years will draw back to its original state; a cold, dense ball composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons in a timeless void, held tight in the grip of its own immense gravity.  And when the last molecule shatters to atoms and the last atoms lose their cohesiveness and join all the other matter held in that quivering mass, the tipping point will be reached and it will explode, sending its microscopic parts outward in a chaotic spray of stardust that will begin this miraculous process once again.

This is my awe and wonder and glory, for we are stardust.

Aaron D. McClelland, MPCC-S -