Friday, May 28, 2010

Part 1: Media, models and self-esteem: the impossible dream

Take just a moment to watch this video, it will surprise you. Then read on:

This video, courtesy of Dove, provides a stark glimpse into the unseen world of media advertising and the way the newest technologies can edit and tweak these images in a scarily distored way. In turn, this will distort and create unrealistic expectations of what we "should" look like, and this can have a dramatic impact on the development of self-esteem. Children,and many adults, believe that these models look this way naturally, and feel quite inferior that they do not measure up to this ideal.

A child's self-esteem is made up of their system of beliefs and feelings about themselves. It includes their overall evaluation or appraisal of their own worth. These patterns begin very early in life, based on successes, failures and messages from those closest to the child. Parents, siblings, teachers and, yes, television and the media. As children grow, and experience the succeses and failure of life, their self-esteem can fluctuate and change. This is a very normal part of development. Children with healthy self esteem enjoy social interaction, work through challenging situations, and have an optimistic outlook. When children are constantly negative, saying "I'm dumb", "I'm ugly", "I'm fat", or, most heartbreakingly, "I can't", this can signal a larger problem.

Low self-esteem can lead to greater difficutlies: social problems, lack of achievement, distorted body image, anxiety and depression.

A recent study estimates that an average child will spend 900 hours per year in school. That same child will average 1500 hours in that same year watching television. Is it any surprise that our children are developing their image of what they "should" look like from the media? This same study estimates that parents will spend just 3.5 minutes per week engaged in meaningful conversation with their children. These statistic are shocking. And also give clues to the origin of the low self-esteem epidemic.

Based on the video above, do you think that your child is gaining a realistic expectation of what a woman should look like? I think not.

Here are some signs that your child may have low-self esteem:

1. She/he may not want to try new things, and may give up easily when frustrated. "I can't do this!" might be something you hear. They may be overly critical and pessimistic.

2. She/he may put him/herself down, and speak negatively, sayting things like "I'm stupid" or "I am a failure".

3. He/she may avoid social situations or new settings, where he/she feels that others might judge her.

4. She/he may catastrophize small setbacks, saying "I will NEVER be able to do this!" or "Nobody likes me!"

Mark Tyrell outlines signs of low self-esteem in his "Top Ten Facts about Low Self Esteem" (

These include:
"Social withdrawal
Anxiety and emotional turmoil
Lack of social skills and self confidence.
Depression and/or bouts of sadness
Less social conformity
Eating disorders
Inability to accept compliments
An Inability to see yourself 'squarely' - to be fair to yourself
Accentuating the negative
Exaggerated concern over what they imagine other people think
Self neglect
Treating yourself badly but NOT other people
Worrying whether you have treated others badly
Reluctance to take on challenges
Reluctance to trust your own opinion
Expect little out of life for yourself "

What can you do to help your child develop healthy self-esteem? Here are some helpful tips:
1. Watch what you say to your child.
2. Set a positive role model.
3. Set realistic expectation and provide realistic feedback.
4. Praise your child's successes and encourage them when they struggle.
5. Encourage your child to get involved.
6. Balance television and media exposure with conversation and quality time.
7. Expose children to realistic role models and avoid over-exposure to models and extremely thin role models.

Part 2 of this series will focus on self-esteem and it's relationship to body image. It will also discuss dieting, disordered eating and how parents can encourage healthy nutrition and exercise and help their children accept themselves as they are.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Pottstown teen driving tragedies move HB 67 legislation forward

It's every parents' nightmare. The unthinkable. Losing a child is probably the single worst thing that can happen in a parent's life. And it is happening - all too often.

The series that appeared in The Pottstown Mercury "Teens and Cars: Tragedy in Numbers"  (, provided a wealth of information regarding teen driving and highlighted the tragedies that several area families endured when they lost their children to automobile accidents.

Among other new requirements, proposed legislation, HB 67, would limit the number of non-family passengers in the car. This will serve to decrease the level of distraction in the car and assist young drivers in making better choices while they are behind the wheel.

But these tragedies underscore one fact: Adolescent brains process information differently than adults. Research by neuropsychologist Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, Ph.D., at Harvard University, uses neuroimaging to examine the developing brain. What this research found can help explain adolescent qualities, such as impulsive behavior, increased social anxiety and poor judgement.  According to Yurgelun-Todd, teens do not have the brain structures in place to think things through in the same way as adults. The teen's developing brain, in particular, something called the prefrontal cortex, is responsible for decision-making, insight, and judgement. While the researchers acknowledge that these real differences in the brain do not fully account for the reasons that kids make poor judgements, but it does lend some important clues.

What we can take away from this research, and apply in everyday life, is that while teens can seem mature, intelligent and responsible, their developing brains are not fully equipped to respond to the complex situations they confront when they are behind the wheel of a car, with several of their friends, with radio playing, texting and cell phones in use. They can become more anxious, more distracted, and respond in more impulsive ways. This can further be compounded by peer pressure, drug/alcohol use, bad weather and road conditions, sun glare, and other factors.

The website provides information for parents and here you can find a Driving Contract. that you can use with your teens.

Their "Parents Section" provides useful information for parents who are teaching their teens to drive. They stress several important points:

* Know the rules - As a teacher, and mentor, it is crucial that parents know the rules of the road in their state.  Do your reasearch and be prepared for questions from kids when you are teaching them to drive. is a website that provides links to driving sites in the United States and Canada.
* Be a role model - As a driver, following the rules of the road applies to everyone, and sending that clear message to teens is important. Just as our children learn to walk, talk and tie their shoes from parents, they also learn their driving style and habits.
* Set the rules for driving, and enforce them - Just as you do with anything else, there must be rules about driving and you must be willing to enforce these rules. Getting their driver's license is a great thrill, a rite of passage, and also a great responsibility.  Set rules for curfew, number of passengers, approved destinations, etc., and follow up to ensure the rules are followed.
*Talk to your kids about safe driving - Most teens will not approach their parents with questions. No matter how close you think you are to your kids, you MUST start the discussion. Be sure to cover important topics, such as distracted driving (texting, phone calls, radio, makeup, eating), drug/alcohol use, procedures for emergencies, etc).
*Before your teen goes solo, be sure they have the training they need - Driver safety classes and experience on the road, with an adult, cannot be overstated.  As with any other skill:

Practice, Practice, Practice!!!

If you are having trouble with your teen, ASK FOR HELP!

Information regarding Pennsylvania's House Bill 67 can be found at the following:

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Crash victim's father urges: Sign this petition - The Mercury News: Pottstown, PA and The Tri County areas of Montgomery, Berks and Chester Counties (

Stay tuned for this week's blog, which will focus on important reseach about teens and the biological clues to their "quirky" behavior. This has important implications for House Bill 67 that would restrict the number of passengers in cars driven by teens.

Crash victim's father urges: Sign this petition - The Mercury News: Pottstown, PA and The Tri County areas of Montgomery, Berks and Chester Counties (

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

It's 9:15, do you know where YOUR kid is?

Of course I do, she's sitting right here. On her laptop, Facebooking.  But you may not know as much as you think.  Read on...

In January, 15 year old Phoebe Prince of South Hadley, Massachusetts, entered the national spotlight when she committed suicide, it raised a multitude of questions about bullying. How can this happen? Where were the adults? Why didn't anybody DO something?   Others took the another view; come one, it's just kids! Kids will be kids...hey, I was bullied and I never tried to kill myself! Phoebe's story was a sad one. A teenager who suffered for months of constant bullying. On May 3, 2010, anti-bullying laws were passed in Massachusetts. But not soon enough to help Phoebe.

The reality is, there are many factors that contribute to a person making the forever decision to end their life. Phoebe's death was surely tragic and unnecessary.  But this blog is not about suicide prevention. That will be a topic for another day.  What reading this story really made me think long and hard about, is bullying. And the new and horrible ways kids are using technology to bully each other. 

Teens are sometimes the most difficult group to engage in psychotherapy, especially if they didn't ask for help.  I often acknowledge to them that I would not go back to being in high school for "a million bucks" and that they have it so much harder than my generation did when I was in school. Yes, bullying was around when I went to Spring-Ford High School in the 80s.  To be honest, I encountered bullying first hand when I was in 10th grade, when a group of older girls bullied me for - well, I am still not sure why.  I am one of the lucky ones. With the help of my parents and the school, I was able to work things out and it didn't last.  I can't imagine having this day in- day out and having to cope with that type of rejection. And I can't imagine the pain that Phoebe Prince was feeling the day she ended her life.

Being a kid today is tough. Plain and simple. 

The latest generation of kids has found ways to use the latest technology to engage in bullying. This relatively new phenomenon is called, aptly, "cyberbullying".  If you think it's not a problem, think again.

Here's how it happens:  According to the National Organization for Victim's Assistance (NOVA) reports that "kids will commonly send hurtful text messages to others or spread rumors using cell phones or computers. Kids have also created web pages or profile pages on social networking sites making fun of others. With cell phones, adolescents have taken pictures in a bedroom, a bathroom, or other locations where privacy is expected, and posted or distributed them online. More recently, some have recorded unauthorized videos of other kids (or adults) and uploaded them for the world to see, rate, tag, and discuss." Cyberbullying can take a heavy toll on kids. Research has shown that it can affect self-esteem, and can cause kids to feel sad, angry and afraid and embarrassed. Here are some things to consider:

According to NOVA, a child or teenager may be a victim if he or she:
  • unexpectedly stops using the computer;
  • appears nervous or jumpy when an instant message or email appears;
  • appears uneasy about going to school or outside in general;
  • appears to be angry, depressed, or frustrated after using the computer;
  • avoids discussions about what they are doing on the computer;
  • or becomes abnormally withdrawn from usual friends and family members.
A child or teenager may be a cyberbully if he or she:
  • quickly switches screens or closes programs when you walk by;
  • gets unusually upset if computer privileges are reduced;
  • avoids discussions about what they are doing on the computer;
  • or appears to be using multiple online accounts (or an account that is not their own).
In general, if your child acts in ways that are inconsistent with their usual behavior when using the computer, it's very important to ask questions and find out WHY.

In order to prevent cyberbullying:
  • If your kids are using the Internet, you must educate them about appropriate online behaviors (and kids must follow the rules)
  • Monitor their activities while online. If your kid is on Facebook, you'd better be one of their Facebook friends! (or have a close family member do it) in order to monitor their activity.
  • In addition, you can use an "Internet Use Contract" and/or a "Cell Phone Use Contract"  (I have posted the links below) to lay out the rules and expectations. 
  • Kids need to learn that inappropriate online actions will not be tolerated. If they break the rules, follow though on the consequences
  • If you discover that your child is cyberbullying others (yes, it could happen), be sure to let your child know how their behavior affects others whether it is the "real world" or in "cyberspace". The anonymity of the Internet often allows people to do/say things they would not say in a face to face interaction. 
  • Firmly enforce consequences; structure is how kids learn the boundaries!
  • If an incident was particularly serious, you may want to install tracking or filtering software as a consequence.
  • Moving forward, it is essential to pay even greater attention to the Internet and cell phone activities of your kids to make sure that they have internalized the lesson and are acting in responsible ways.
Don't be afraid to ask for help!

To visit the National Organization for Victims' Assistance (NOVA) website rergarding Cyberbullying, use the link:

To download the cell phone use contract and the Internet use contract, use the links below:

Friday, May 7, 2010

Putting Mother's Day - and Motherhood - into perspective.

As a psychologist, and psychotherapist, part of my job is to help my patients "put things into perspective". Often, during this process, revelations applying to my own life often come as a huge surprise and smack me right between the eyes. This week was no exception. I had planned to write a blog merely extolling the virtues of gratutide and appreciating mothers; what follows is how it developed.....

When Anna Jarvis, from Grafton, West Virginia, created a day to celebrate mothers, with the help of wealthy Philadelphian John Wannamaker in 1908, it was the realization of a dream her own mother had for many years. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson made it offical: the second Sunday of May would be that day. Little did Anna Jarvis know at that time, within just nine short years, her mother's dream would become a commercialized phenomenon that it became known as "The Hallmark Holiday". Mother's Day is now THE most lucrative holiday for florists, greeting cards, and restaurants around the nation. I am sometimes ashamed to admit this, however, my own family is BIG, and I mean HUGE, on the greeting card front. In fact, we should have bought STOCK in the Hallmark Company (and, according to my Dad, the electric company). The ultimate goal on holidays is to find THE best card, and make the recipient cry. To this day my husband and I still play this game. The objection many had to the commercialized version of the holiday is that it takes away people's need to actually write down their feelings, and we let someone else do it for us. For some who lack the gift of writing, it's the only option. Either way, it's a very impersonal way to get personal.

Despite all of the hard work Anna Jarvis invested into making Mother’s Day a reality, it was not long before she came to loath the vey thing she had created. Long before the present, this day to honor the woman who carried and guided you into the world became SO commercialized that Anna Jarvis later denounced the holiday and spent her remaining years, and every last penny, protesting and fighting against the very day she created, obviously with no success. What many people do not realize, Mother's Day is celebrated around the world, from the Arab nations to Europe, Africa to Canada...and is also observed on different dates throughout the year.

So why do we need a special day to celebrate this beloved woman who gave you life?

For many, Mother's Day is a wonderful day to remember and celebrate all the special things your own mother has done for you; after all, you would not be where you are today, if not for Mom. Giving thanks to her on this day is not only the right thing to go, it's good for your mental health! In fact, Martin Seligman, Ph.D., Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Penn, states that of the five factors he found to be most important in having a happy life, gratutide is the most important. (check out for more info on Positive Psychology).

Over the years, I have often wrestled with the meaning of this holiday in particular, primarily due to the fact that I lost my own mother when I was still a teenager, some 22 years ago. This left me with several options. My first solution was, I could honor my father on both Mother's and Father's days...since he was "both". So, I trudged to the Hallmark store for those first several years and purchased Mother's Day cards "to my father". After a time, I came to realize that this was not a real solution because it didn't really ring true. After all, as much as I love my Dad, he is still "Dad". The next “solution” involved simply honoring the other "Mothers" in my life. My grandmother, my sister, and my stepmother. Nice, and it is great to honor the "mother's" in our lives, but it's still not the same. Some years, I went to the cemetary, some years not....I even wondered at some points if I could simply ignore the holiday. After all, no Mother - no Mother's Day. Great idea THAT was – all that accomplished was to leave me bitter and angry that there was a Mother's Day at all and that I was not able to participate and honor MY mother like everyone around me. NOT FAIR!!!

Fast forward to 2000. I met, and fell in love with, my wonderful husband, Mike, AND his 5 children; every single one of them. I am especially close with Nicole, who moved to be near us and lives just across the street with her husband. She is 24. I think that our special relationship lies in the fact that I have never tried to be her mother. She HAS a mother. In fact, I have never even tried to be a step-mother. As a psychologist, I realize that going down that road will lead to sure disaster. So I tried very hard NOT to be a mother. None-the-less, as the years have gone by, Nicole and I have developed a very special bond. However, I never thought of it as a “Mother – Daughter” type relationship.

Yesterday, I received a Blackberry message from Nicole. She wanted to know what we are doing on Sunday. I replied "I don't think we have plans, why?". She replied that she wants to make dinner or take us out. Wow. That is nice (wonder what she wants - haha). I called Mike to let him know. "I don't know what is up" I said. He replies "She wants to take you out for Mother's Day". Wow. Blown away doesn’t BEGIN to describe what I was feeling after hearing those words! Even when I was planning this blog and KNEW Mother's Day was Sunday, I never made the connection! Without even trying, I had become "a mother" to someone. In fact, once I thought about it, on my recent birthday, I received three text messages that said "Happy Birthday Mommy!". It seems that in spite of the fact that these wonderful human beings have TOLD me that they think of me as a "mother", I needed it to smack me between the eyes to "get it".

I can honestly say that, in spite of many very important women in my life, there has never been anyone to replace my own mother. I miss her every day, and this Mother's Day, I will reflect, and honor her memory. She obviously taught me something profound about being “a Mother” in someone's life, even if I don’t realize that I am filling that void. I am proud and thankful that these “step-children” chose me. Thank you Nicole, you have given me one of the most important lessons of my life: Anyone can have kids. But being a Mother is something else entirely.

Like this blog? Check out some of my others...


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