Making Humans

When I worked in inpatient psych the stories people would tell me were always a mix of sadness and joy, brokenness and resilience, the ways family can heal and hurt, sometimes simultaneously, back and forth across generations.  Drugs, what we call -- for lack of a better term -- mental illness and plain old human hurt wound together so tight the divisions between them become indistinguishable, the things that bring people into hospital are always part of a story of a family, trying, failing and succeeding in various ways to hold a human soul.  The CBC radio documentary "Tragedy Builds a New Family" from the Sunday Edition took me back to that. 

Burkhard Bilger's piece about kids riding bulls, "The Ride of their Lives" in Oklahoma and Texas in this week's New Yorker provides a fantastic illustration of how kids can grow and thrive in all sorts of lives and how our ideas about what childhood 'should' be are circumscribed by our tribe.

I thought about a playground near my house in Brooklyn, in Park Slope. A couple of years ago, it was beautifully renovated by the city, with a rock-lined stream meandering through it and an old-fashioned pump that children could crank to set the water flowing. The stream was the delight of the neighborhood for a while, thronged with kids splashing through the shallows and floating sticks down the current. Yet some parents were appalled. The rocks were a menace, they declared. The edges were too sharp, the surfaces too slippery. A child could fall and crack her skull. “I actually kept tapping them to check if they were really rocks,” one commenter wrote on the Park Slope Parents Web site. “It seemed odd to me to have big rocks in a playground.” Within two weeks, a stonemason had been brought in to grind the edges down. The protests continued. One mother called a personal-injury lawyer about forcing the city to remove the rocks. Another suggested that something be done to “soften” them. “I am actually dreading the summer because of those rocks,” still another complained.

The parents at the camp flipped this attitude on its head. They valued courage over caution, grit over sensitivity. They revelled in the raw physicality of boys. The mothers sat in the bleachers taking videos and hollering advice—“Wyatt, just ride the way Daddy taught you!” The fathers straddled the chute, leaning over their sons to cinch the rope and shove the calf into position: “Are you ready?” “Yes, sir!” “You’ve got to take the fight to him.” “Yes, sir!” “You’ve got to want it.” When the gate blew open, they leaped up on the rail and watched their sons with clenched fists and narrowed eyes. They weren’t stage parents, for the most part. They just took following your bliss to its logical extreme. “I’d let my kid do whatever he has a passion for,” one mother told me, “even if he wanted to be a piano player.”
— New Yorker

"Even if he wanted to become a piano player" instantly become a piece of shorthand at my house. 

Finally, I have been thinking about that stupid bromide "It takes a village to raise a child," because of the reaction that has been prompted by two similar law-suits filed by people who have left hasidic communities, one just outside of Montreal (Mike Finnerty conducted a really thoughtful interview with Yohanan Lowen, the man formerly of the Tosh community; you can get there if you follow the link to audio).    I don't write about it much, but I have spent a lot of time working with ultra-Orthodox Jews in various settings.  One thing that the reaction to these two stories illustrates to me is how confused we (by that I mean everyone who isn't an ultra-orthodox Jew or part of some other tight-knit, small traditional community) are about 'community.'  We value 'community' in the abstract, we love to say "it takes a village to raise a child" but we have little experience of the travails of living in a village.  Someone I know who grew up in Grenada told me that if he did something wrong at school he would get spanked by the teacher and then when he walked home, the neighbour-ladies on his street would see him come by, crying, and each in turn would call him by name up to their front porch and each one would give him yet another spanking because they knew why he was crying "You didn't listen to the teacher?"  To me this is a perfect illustration of the mixed-blessings of growing up in a village.  Tight-knit communities are tight-knit because people feel responsible for one another and entitled to enforce compliance to community standards, in particular when it comes to kids.  They coerce people to act right.  They are conservative; they do not value change and are wary of outside ideas and different people.  Some communities are more like this, some less but you can't have maximum individualism and still eat the cake of a shared set of values and communal responsibility.  There is a reason people are leaving villages all over the world; we live in an age where personal expression and individualism are more important than adhering to norms set by the past and our neighbours. 

Three angles on how those around us grow us up into who we are. 

Friendship, kids and mental health.

A researcher from Ste. Justine here in Montreal, Mara Brendgen did a really interesting piece of research about friendship as correlated with depression in children.  You can read the article (if you have academic access) or a nice summary of it at BPS Research Digest by Christian Jarrett.   By studying kids who have an identical twin with depression and kids with a fraternal twin with depression Brengdan and her colleagues were able to identify kids who were genetically pre-disposed to depression but not depressed themselves.  Then she looked at those kids and looked at the quality and quantity of their friendships.

Genetic vulnerability to depression in girls was less likely to manifest if they had at least one close friend. Stated differently, the apparent protective effect of having at least one close friend was magnified in girls who were genetically vulnerable to the condition. This means that for girls there was an interplay between genetic risk and the protective effect of friendship.

There was a beautiful piece on This American Life last week about a girl who had something like Asperger's.  Her stereotypical conversation and poor social reciprocity get in the way of friendships.  But she still wants friendships.  Eventually she becomes angry and aggressive because she is so lonely.  Her moms take her to all sorts of specialists (a humbling note for those who work with kids with learning and/or developmental disorders) and none of it really helps until... she makes a friend, a friend who is interested in the same things as her.   (It starts at about 41:00 minutes)

A question I have about Brengden's research (or Jarrett's summary, not sure which) is cause and effect.  While kids who are genetically pre-disposed towards depression may have fewer friends or friendships they value less, is that a cause or an effect or are they related through some other factor such as personality type or attachment style? 

There is a correlation between people with schizophrenia and social isolation which has lead to the recommendation (here, for example) that people at high risk of schizophrenia make a conscious effort not to self-isolate.  But we all know that correlation doesn't mean causation or else we would all demand more importation of Mexican lemons until highway deaths were eliminated (link to this and other bizarre correlations). 

Nurturing a kid's positive friendships and encouraging him/her to view friendships as worthy of investing some time and energy in seems to me like a good idea whether or not they are at elevated risk of mental illness.  Of course, for a kid who is less good at friendship or less interested in it placing a lot of emphasis on making friends can backfire by making him/her feel more incapable.  Socially awkward kids often view friendship as an ability akin to drawing or music that relies on a high degree of innate talent (it is interesting that many kids who feel bad about their ability to make friends do so around the age of nine or ten when they also start to notice that other kids are way better than them at some things without having to try hard).  It may be true that some combination of genes and very early wiring can make a person better at social situations than others, but I tell kids that friendship is more like riding a bike than playing music; it is something you can learn at just about any age, something you can always get better at by persevering and something you will never be able to learn do by watching others.  You need to try it, fall down and try again. 

What trauma leaves behind

Trauma impacts mental health especially trauma in childhood.  In a previous blog post I wrote about how kids who are poor are more likely to be exposed to trauma than wealthy kids.  Now there is research that indicates that the effects of trauma can be biologically transmitted across generations.  The researchers subjected mice to trauma in the laboratory in the form of electrical shocks.  When baby mice were conceived using the sperm of the traumatized mice, the babies had a stress reaction to stimuli that were associated with their parents trauma, in this case a particular smell, and the effects seem to stretch over several generations.  The theory put forth by the scientists to explain this is epigenetics, that certain genes are 'turned on' or 'off' by experiences creating heritable traits as a result of what happens in the environment. 

If this carries over to humans, it could mean that a kid whose grandmother or grandfather experienced trauma could still carry the impact of that trauma in his or her body.  My clinical experience is that trauma does seem to pile up in families.  Sometimes the people who come into my office will describe three generations of abuse.  It can be hard to get out from under that.  Now we have another indicator of why that might be the case.  Not only can there be a cultural inheritance of trauma in a family, the genetics of one's descendents can be marked by traumatic experiences. 

On a more hopeful note, epigenetics may work to undo some the hurt of previous generations.  Researchers here in Montreal, at the Douglas Hospital, have looked at the effect on an epigenetic level of nurturing by a parent on mediating stress (more traumatized rodents).

Baby rats that are licked often by their mothers—with licking in rats fulfilling the same function as cuddling in humans—are calmer than rats that are not licked enough. Michael Meaney and his team delved further into this idea by tracking the imprint left by maternal care in the brain of young rats. They were able to do this because the action of licking influences the activity of a gene (called NRC31) that protects rats against stress; when activated, this gene produces a protein that helps decrease the concentration of stress hormones in the body. A specific part of this gene must also be activated via an epigenetic switch.

According to this theory loving cuddling can help kids deal better with stress than they might even if they have an epigenetic inheritance of trauma.  So why are you still reading?  Go hug your kids. 

Teen use of internet porn. When is it time to panic?

The ubiquity of pornography has got to be one of the biggest changes in society in my lifetime.  An acquaintance asked me what I thought the long-term effects of total access to porn would be for shaping the sexuality of kids growing up today and I really had no idea how to answer.  There is much heat and little light on the subject because sexuality in general and kids' sexuality in particular is such a fraught topic.  

On the one hand, today's nearly unlimited access to pornography via the internet is part of the demystification of sexuality which has been building steam over the last one hundred years.  It is connected -- at least in a six-degrees-of-fornication kind of way -- to changes which I view as absolute social goods, like decriminalizing miscegenation and homosexuality, allowing women (and everybody) a greater degree of control over reproduction and generally removing some of the shame from sexuality for everyone, male, female, gay, straight etc.  It is worth remembering that lynchings of non-white men for sex with white women, death by back-alley abortion and 'curbing' of gay people are pieces of North American history that happened within living memory (and are practices some would like us to return to).  The impulse to curb sexual freedom, including the freedom to view porn, can be an instrument of sexual repression and shame.  A lot of the conversation about pornography and young people -- any sexual topic and young people for that matter -- seems to smack of a old-person's cocktail of wistfulness and resentment ie. "If I can't have lots of crazy sex, then nobody should."  

On the other hand, pornography has to own some of the criticisms made of it; it is hugely male-oriented and at least some significant portion is downright anti-women.  It seems pretty intuitive that a barrage of woman-degrading porn would do anybody's developing sexuality harm.  More generally, porn is, by definition, commercial sexual objectification.  Young men and women who grow up viewing sexuality (and we are talking largely about women's sexuality) as an object for purchase or trade, rather than a subjective experience seem more likely to generalize some of those lessons to non-porn sex.  These are both arguments that can be made about any type of pornography.  There is also a particular techno-bent to some anti-porn writing that makes the argument that a quantitative difference of the internet makes for a qualitative difference. 

What happens when you drop a male rat into a cage with a receptive female rat? First, you see a frenzy of copulation. Then, progressively, the male tires of that particular female. Even if she wants more, he has had enough. However, replace the original female with a fresh one, and the male immediately revives and gallantly struggles to fertilize her.
You can repeat this process with fresh females until he is completely wiped out.
This is called the Coolidge effect—the automatic response to novel mates. It’s what started you down the road to getting hooked on Internet porn.

Digression:  Perhaps 2014 should be the year that nobody says "The area of the brain that lights up when..."  Regular readers will know that I am sceptical of some of the claims of 'brain science'.  The next post on "Your brain on porn" has fMRI images showing how sections of the brain "light up" when exposed to porn which proves that the subjects of the brain scans are addicted much as people get addicted to heroin. ( A primer on fMRI goofiness. )  Here is a picture of a dead fish in a fMRI with its brain lighting up when asked to imagine humans in social situations.


End digression:  There is a growing set of men who say that they are addicted to internet porn and/or incapable of erections with actual humans as a result of using porn regularly.  This is a tough claim to verify since it is so subjective.  Men may experience less frequent erections and attribute that to the use of porn; that doesn't necessarily mean that was the primary cause.  That is what is known as the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.  It does seem to make intuitive sense that if you don't masturbate for a long time you are more likely to experience an erection in a particular circumstance.  It also seems like it would be pretty hard to look at a lot of porn and avoid masturbating, so the two do go hand in glove (as it were). There is a whole online Nofap community where people, mostly men, pledge to stop masturbating and/or viewing porn.  They support one another to achieve goals in days.  When does this shade over into shaming a normal and healthy sexual behaviour that has already been the target of a lot of shame?  I wrote a blog post a while ago about Marty Klein's argument that the term "sex addiction" is a way for people living in a sex negative culture not to address their sexual desires about which they feel incredible shame. 

There are a couple of things I am pretty confident about in all of this. 

1.  The whole "erectile dysfunction" piece of the conversation about porn and masturbation needs to get scaled way back.  Men are easily goaded into thinking that a rock hard penis is the only legitimate route to sex.  That's false and it isn't good for men's sexuality (or for their partners).  Start having sex without an erection and you may get one.  Keep having sex after an erection goes away, and it may come back.  But if you make having and maintaining an erection a prerequisite, that can mean a lot of heart ache.  Paradoxically, lots of porn and lots of nofap both seem to perpetuate the myth of no sex without an erection. 

2.  Porn is not sex education.  Teens need to know that what they will see in porn is not what happens between most people's sheets. Talking to teens about what porn is and isn't is part of the job description of every parent, and that needs to go beyond telling them it's bad or women-hating.  Porn:Human Sex::2Fast2Furious:Driving.  A fantasy. 

3. Teens will try to make their own porn.  Not every teen but plenty of them.  Maybe not your kid but plenty of kids your kid knows.  As Dan Savage has pointed out, smart phones are -- among other things -- mobile porn production and distribution suites.  And parents hand them over to kids without thinking about or talking about that.  If you must give your teen a smart phone, disable the camera.  Tell your kids you will search through the contents of their phones and then follow through.  Millions of adult Americans use their phones this way, should we expect teens to act any more maturely? 

Important Parenting advice! Ignore Parenting advice!

When did "parenting" become a word?  When a publisher realized that there were millions to be made from telling anxious, well-off parentingers about all the things that can go wrong with kids.  (And a guy named Stan, in marketing, suggested they move away from the term "child rearing").  Nobody ever sold a book called "If You Can Afford the 30$ to Buy This Book Then Your Kid Is Doing Better Than 99% of the Humans Who Ever Lived."  21st century Canadians live in an age and place where most of us can provide our children with nutritious food, shelter, education, clothing and medical care that most of our ancestors (and many people around the world today) would have been delighted to be able to give to their kids.  That and love will go a long way.  We live in an age and circumstance of tremendous blessing.  So why do we consume parenting advice books and lectures by the SUV-load?

I work with a lot of families in difficult situations and I have seen some pretty bad parenting (by today's standards).  I can tell you that very little of what I have seen happens because people didn't read a book on parenting.  Occasionally, I will meet parents who honestly did not know better.  I tell them to stop and, usually, they do.  Twice in my career I have told parents not to threaten to hit their kids with a belt.  These parents felt overwhelmed by out-of-control kids and thought that threatening such a beating was better than actually following through.  I told them that, for a kid, the fear of such a beating can be almost as devastating as the beating itself.  They thought about it and saw that what I was telling them was probably true.  We brainstormed some better ways to deal with their kid's behaviours and they never resorted to that kind of threat again.   

I see parents who want to stop doing things they know or suspect are bad for their kids but they can't because they have mental health issues or are struggling with the ghosts of their own past or trouble in their present.  Just about everybody knows that parents should keep their marital acrimony away from their kids.  There are dozens of books that will tell you that.  But I have seen a lot of parents who tell me that in their particular circumstance, because their soon-to-be-ex wife/husband is such a poisonous viper, it is absolutely critical for the kids to know everything.  Or they make every effort to hold back only to find themselves pouring out all their hatred to a kid who is caught in the middle.  A book may help re-inforce a message in such a circumstance but I think that person needs supportive friends, a caring community and probably counselling.  

The people who buy books on parenting are often the worried well; parents who lack confidence in their own ability to parent.  That is where I have the biggest issue with the parent-advice-industrial complex.  By turning something that humans have done pretty successfully for our whole history into a gerundified 'parenting' with classes and manuals and DVDs, it makes parents feel less confident in their own judgement rather than more confident.  Ron Taffel wrote a wonderful piece in Psychotherapy Networker a few years back called "The Decline and Fall of Parental Authority... and what therapists can do about it."  He wrote about some of the forces undermining parental confidence and what that does to people's lives.

[A] chronic sense of being held hostage by kids and the culture at large helps explain why parents so often show up in our offices looking and sounding like spineless wimps. With so little time to bond with their children, parents are afraid to take even one step that could drive them farther away, undermine their already shaky school performance, and ruin their chances for social success when little else seems to matter. Not surprisingly, a multibillion-dollar public and private enterprise monetizes these insecurities by selling a raft of social modules and remediation services—including tutors and homework helpers for the well-heeled and supplemental educational materials designed to jack up reading and math scores. The issue isn’t just parental abdication, but what I call the “merchandising of childhood,” based on a deep-rooted fear of failure.

Taffel sees economic difficulties as the driving factor in parental lack of confidence.  I would go one step further;  I think we live in a fear culture.  We are encouraged to be fearful rather than generous and open towards people and the world around us and we are especially encouraged to transmit those signals to kids.  Engagement in community organizations has plummeted in North America over the last 50 years.  People don't join clubs, religious institutions civic organizations.  In Robert Putnam's famous phrase, today people are "Bowling Alone."  And people are 'parenting' alone as well.  Living in a more mobile, deracinated society that is fearful and highly individualistic means people don't have great social networks for parenting.  There are fewer norms for parenting and the norms that exist are harder to learn than they once were.

That makes for a lack of what social scientists call self-efficacy among parents; basically the feeling that you know what to do and are able to do it.  That is a problem because self-efficacy in parents correlates highly with good outcomes for kids.  (Obviously, if you are convinced that the way to deal with a kid is by threatening to hit him/her with a belt or to dis your ex to the kids, that's not good.  But it is better to parent with confidence than to parent without confidence, even poorly, and parents who feel confident in their parenting are less likely to parent badly.)  Researchers don't know exactly why that is the case, whether confidence comes from success, or if it comes from shared norms and those things generate success in parenting or maybe that kids perceive confidence in their parents and feel a sense of safety because of that.  Or a combination of those things.  But it is clear that feeling that you can manage being a parent without getting post-doctoral training in child development and arts and crafts is good for families.  

This doesn't mean that parenting books can't be helpful for everyday kinds of problems with kids.  I have mentioned "How to Talk so Kids will Listen, How to Listen so Kids Will Talk" before which I think is great.  But I actively discourage parents from trying to anticipate and preparing a fully developed response to every potential disaster of childhood and adolescence.  Now if you'll excuse me I have to go work on the next chapter of my parenting book.  The working title is "1001 Things That Will Definitely Go Wrong With Your Kid That Only This Book Can Fix."