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Columns: April 2019

John Rosemond April 2019 Columns

Copyright 2019, John K. Rosemond



Confronting 'Biochemical Imbalance' in Children

The Wall Street Journal recently (3/16/2019) printed a letter-to-the-editor in which Upland, California psychiatrist/psychoanalyst Charlene Moskovitz promotes the alleged benefits of medication and psychotherapy for children diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and ADHD (and, presumably, other emotional and behavioral issues). According to Moskovitz, children who exhibit the behaviors in question may be dealing with “biochemical abnormalities.”

She asks, rhetorically, “Would such a child not benefit from having his or her biochemical issues helped with medication and thus build further strengths and coping mechanisms to deal with the other difficult aspects of his life? Does such a child not benefit more fully from the psychotherapy a skilled therapist provides?”

In all fairness to her, Moskovitz is only acting as a spokesperson for the mental health and pharmaceutical industries that have built up around the practice of diagnosing children as young as two with various mental disorders. Said practitioners routinely explain the behaviors in question – depression, anxiety, inattention, impulsivity, defiance, frequent and extreme tantrums, sudden mood swings – in terms of “biochemical imbalances” and prescribe medication as well as various forms of therapy.

In 2009, I published a book on this subject: The Diseasing of America’s Children. My co-author –pediatrician Bose Ravenel of Greensboro, North Carolina – and I put forth evidence that these brain-based explanations and therapies have no scientific validity.

Concerning the oft-referenced “biochemical imbalance,” for example, since no one has ever quantified biochemical “balance” in the human central nervous system, it is nothing short of disingenuous for medical scientists to lead the public to believe they know what they’re talking about when they refer to a CNS imbalance. A leading psychiatrist, well-known in his professional community, has said that the term biochemical imbalance is “nothing but a useful metaphor.”

“How is it useful?” one may ask. To sell the public on the unproved notion that psychiatric drugs are the answer to problems of emotion and cognition, that’s how. After all, it makes sense to assume that a biologically-based condition requires an intervention that targets the biological fault or dysfunction. The problem is, no one has ever established beyond reasonable doubt that psychiatric disorders are biologically-based. And yes, that includes schizophrenia and manic-depression. The current state of evidence strongly suggests that the term “mental illness” is a misnomer. Moskovitz’s fundamental premise – that many of the kids in question have “biochemical abnormalities” – is one that neither she nor anyone else can prove concerning any given child.

Furthermore, the medications in question, although approved by the FDA, have not reliably outperformed placebos in double-blind clinical trials. Unlike placebos, however, they have often-dangerous and even life-threatening side effects. In other words, the question of whether these drugs truly “work” is not fully resolved.

As for psychotherapy with children, and with all due respect to folks like Moskovitz, no study done by an objective third party has conclusively verified the reliable efficacy of any form of child therapy. Over the course of my 40-plus year career, hundreds of parents have told me that putting their kids in talking or play therapy made matters considerably worse.

Several psychiatrists have confirmed to me that what I’ve written in this column concerning medication and child therapy is known by many of their colleagues…yet the band plays on.

That just might qualify as a mental illness.

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Key to Effective Discipline Is Right Attitude

“We’ve tried everything!” is one of the more common testimonials I hear from parents who’ve just described persistent and highly vexing discipline problems with a child or children.

Setting aside that it’s never the case that “everything” has been tried in conscientious fashion, the complaint reflects the wrong-headed notion – common to American parenting since the early 1970s – that proper/effective discipline is a matter of correctly manipulating consequences vis a’ vis some method, technique, or strategy.

I must confess to having contributed, perhaps greatly, to this mistaken idea. Early on in my now forty-plus-year career as a syndicated columnist, my editors repeatedly emphasized the need for me to tell people what to do. So that’s what I did. I was deft at coming up with creative approaches to behavior problems; furthermore, at that point in my ongoing development as a “parenting expert,” I believed that for any given problem, there was a method that would solve it.

I believed in behavior modification, in short. I believed that the proper use of positive consequences would strengthen right behavior and, likewise, the proper use of negative consequences would shut down wrong behavior. It took me a while to discover what I was not told in graduate school: no one has ever proven that behavior modification works on human beings. It works on dogs, rats, monkeys, even amoeba, but when you throw free will into the equation, behavior modification falls flat. In fact, children who are the targets of behavior modification are likely to learn to be manipulative.

Having said that, it’s important to note that consequences are necessary. Children need to learn that in the real world, right behavior is usually rewarded in some way and bad behavior is usually punished – the operative word in both cases being “usually.” But whereas consequences work reliably and predictably with, say, dogs, they do not work reliably or predictably on humans. For example, a child who is punished for a certain misbehavior may become that much more determined to get away with it. And researchers have found that a child who is rewarded for a certain something may stop doing it. Humans are paradoxical. Dogs, not so much.

The key to effective discipline is a right attitude. Without the right attitude in question, no consequence-based approach to discipline is going to work for long (any new approach, because of the novelty effect, may work for a few days or weeks). With the right attitude, just about any approach is going to work and keep on working. Furthermore, the right attitude will eventually render consequences all-but unnecessary.

The right attitude involves letting a child know that there is absolutely nothing he can do that is going to knock you, the parent, off balance; nothing he can do that will ruffle your feathers. He can disappoint you, but he cannot upset you. He has no power over your emotions.

The right attitude involves projecting complete confidence in the legitimacy of your authority concerning the child in question. You are clear on the fact that as a general is superior to a lieutenant, you are your child’s superior. Children need superior beings in their lives. They need adults who act like they know what they’re doing. That is essential to their sense of well-being.

The right attitude “says” to the child, “I really don’t care one whit whether you like me at any given moment in time. I know that I love you enough to give you my seat in the lifeboat, and that – which you can’t fathom so I’m not going to try to get you to fathom it – is what really counts.”

The right attitude is very old fashioned. But where children are concerned, there is nothing new under the sun.

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Parenting in an Age of Technology

Julie Jargon is a reporter with the Wall Street Journal. Heretofore, she has written about food companies like Starbucks and McDonalds. As of April 2, however, Ms. Jargon is writing a WSJ column titled “Family and Tech,” described as dealing with “the impact of technology on family life.”

In her inaugural column (April 2, 2019), which could have been written by public relations folks at Sony and the American Psychological Association, Ms. Jargon strives to convince her audience that simply because a child has difficulty putting down the game controller and finding creative, productive things to do does not mean he’s a video game addict.

Given that addiction is defined as being obsessed with and having great difficulty ceasing the use of a harmful substance or involvement in a non-productive or pathological activity, I fail to see anything but contradiction in Ms. Jargon’s thesis. We’re talking about kids who will not stop playing video games unless a parent or the imminence of a bodily function forces them to stop. How’s that not an addiction?

The manager of a large west coast convention hotel once told me that when his property hosted a “gamers” convention, his staff had to threaten attendees with pulling the plug on their devices to get them to drink water or eat even a cracker. Many of the attendees wore adult diapers so they wouldn’t have to stop playing. That, by any other name, is addiction. It’s also sick. It’s also where a child or teen’s obsession with video games may lead if parents don’t pull the plug before some hotel manager has no choice…that or risk a lawsuit from a gamer who becomes dehydrated and suffers a cardiac episode.

Ms. Jargon seems loathe to call a spade a spade. After relating two horror stories that clearly describe addiction, she refers to psychologists who advise parents to stop worrying about whether their kids are addicted and figure out instead if they’re using video games to cope with depression, anxiety or stress. She cites a study finding that teens who played video games four or more hours a day on average showed more signs of depression than kids who played less than four hours a day.

Note that the psychologists in question (unidentified) posit that depression and other mental health issues cause obsession with/addiction to video games as opposed to the other way around. That’s a clever means of covering ineptitude while at the same time claiming rights to treatment (keep in mind, dear reader, I am a psychologist). Besides, it’s so much easier to tell parents their child needs a daily dose of a drug than it is to get them to do something that will cause their child to hate them and act deranged until cured, not to mention something that may cause them to never make another appointment.

I once persuaded parents to “disappear” their 15-year-old son’s console while he was at school. He was so “into” video games he would not come down to dinner or participate in any family activity and was usually up well past midnight every night. When he discovered that his supply of videopioid had been terminated, he went nuts. He all-but destroyed his room, for example. Two weeks of silence and self-imposed seclusion later, he admitted to his parents that he felt much, much better and was going to try and help other boys conquer their addictions.

To prevent an addiction from developing, Ms. Jargon passes along such hackneyed tips as creating rules around playing and following them consistently. Okay, but that assumes parents who have no difficulty establishing limits that cause their kids distress. The problem is that all too many of today’s parents have an abundance of said difficulty, meaning Jargon’s advice is moot out of the gate.

Thankfully, there are still parents who will stand up to child-rearing challenges and face them head-on; parents who are not trying to be their kids’ friends; parents who understand that children, including most teens, know only what they want, which is precisely why they require adults in their lives who know what they need.

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Child Raising vs Parenting

There is child raising and there is “parenting.” America replaced the former with the latter in the 1970s and it’s been downhill ever since.

My mother – a single parent during most of my formative years – was not parenting me. She was raising me, bringing me up. She did not, therefore, “get down to my level” when she spoke to me. Both literally and figuratively, I looked up to her. That’s where I wanted to be; up there, where she was.

As did nearly all 1950s parents, Mom raised me according to traditional understandings of children and parental responsibility that had been handed down, relatively unchanged, from generation to generation since the dawn of human history. She was the boss, for example. She was not trying to be liked by me much less my friend; nonetheless, she was affectionate, funny, and always there when need arose. Largely because it was clear that she was my superior in every sense of the term and that I depended on her as opposed to the other way around, I respected her. I don’t think today’s mothers are clear on how important it is that their children, especially their sons, see them as powerful, capable, albeit loving, women. But then, today’s parents are “parenting,” which is all about being liked by your child.

In the 1970s, as parenting pushed child rearing to the margins, bogus psychological theory replaced common sense and traditional wisdom and people with capital letters after their names replaced family and community elders as sources of child-rearing advice.

Everything is topsy-turvy in parenting. For example, a child who was merely raised was expected to pay attention to adults, beginning with his parents, and do what adults told him to do. By contrast, the “parented” child is the center of his parents’ attention and they are constantly looking for Facebook-worthy things to do with and for him. These same parents often complain that their child does not pay attention to them unless they act momentarily insane; furthermore, he does not “cooperate.”

Cooperate is parenting word. In the pre-parenting age, when child mental health was far, far better than it has been since, children were expected to obey (and generally did). Then, psychologists claimed (without evidence, as usual) that obedient children were nothing more than mindless robots who weren’t learning to think for themselves. This appeal to emotion worked and ever since, parents have been trying to get children to cooperate. The parents in question often complain that their children do not obey. Needless to say, they fail to see the connection.

The raised child was expected to be a responsible member of his family. So, for example, yours truly was doing chores like washing floors when I was four years of age. My friends all had chores too. We couldn’t play outside until we had done our chores and done them properly, and we lived for playing outside. If we didn’t do our chores properly, we had to re-do them. Even then we couldn’t go outside because our mothers found more chores for us to do and so we learned, quickly, to do our chores properly. Today’s children, parented, have after-school activities that will, for the most part, serve them no good when they are adults. In most cases, parents who are parenting claim their children have no time for chores or won’t cooperate in doing them.

Raising children was about their future citizenship. The guiding principle was “good citizenship begins in the home.” Those parents taught proper manners. Parenting is all about a child’s grades in school and other accomplishments. As such, today’s parents do on a regular basis what parents sixty-plus years ago rarely did: they help their kids do their homework! Since parents began helping with homework because they want their kids to get into the “right” colleges, school achievement has been steadily declining.

Kids reared/raised in the pre-parenting era were expected to entertain themselves, solve their own peer-group problems, survive being called names, eat what was put on their plates, wear itchy, tight-fitting clothes without complaint, and so on. Kids who are parented are not expected to do any of that. Their parents solve all their problems. So, they get into the “right” colleges, ask directions to the nearest “safe space,” refuse to eat what’s put in front of them and complain that their clothes itch.

The moral of this column is, “If you want THAT outcome (as well you should), you gotta do THAT.” Quite simple.

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 Freedom Lost on the Children of Today

My wife and I spent two days in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, recently. As we always do, we walked around my boyhood neighborhood – the South-of-Broad historic district (back then, more run-down than historic) – and the usual memories came flooding back.

My friends and I spent nearly all day of any day that wasn’t a school day just running the then-cobblestoned streets. At the time, most kids in America played “Cowboys and Indians” or “War,” but this being Charleston, we mostly played “Pirates.” The walled back yards were our forts, iron outdoor furniture our ships, trees our crow’s nests, and so on. Battery Park, with its cannon and stacks of cannon balls dispersed among the live oak, offered a particularly rich field for fantasy.

After breakfast (which, our mothers felt the compulsion to constantly remind us, was the most important meal of the day), we’d leave our homes, meet in the streets, and run, gloriously run. Water was consumed through garden hoses, of which there was no short supply. Around lunchtime, we’d dart home, grab an apple or banana, and rejoin the mob. Sometimes our mothers wouldn’t let us back in the house because we were so dirty. They’d just hand our meager but adequate lunches to us through barely cracked screen doors, always reminding us to be home by supper.

Looking back, I’m reasonably certain that my mother didn’t know where I was most of the time. I don’t even remember her ever tracking me down. Today, of course, that would be grounds for a visit from social workers. And had today’s parenting police examined us – torn clothing, perpetually scraped knees, dirty as all get-out – we’d probably have been removed from the custody of such an irresponsible lot.

(By the way, the U.S. Justice Department has been unable to determine that the per capita rate of child abduction by individuals bent toward mischief has changed since my childhood in Charleston. What’s risen is incidence – because of population growth – along with media coverage, leading to the mistaken notion that if you take your eyes off your child for a half-minute, he’ll disappear.)

As I walked down my memory lane (Church Street), I thought of what today’s kids don’t know they’re missing. In a word, freedom. They don’t know what it’s like to not be organized, scheduled, directed, and hovered over by well-intentioned adults. It occurred to me that if the adults in question can figure out how to plan and direct thousands of after-school activities all going on at once all over the USA, they surely can figure out how to give children both freedom and safety.

Today’s parents are taken with demonstrating, at every possible opportunity, how involved and supportive they are. By contrast, I did all I could to ensure that my single-parent mom didn’t have to get involved. No one wanted to play with the kid whose mother was involved. As for supportive, my mother could not have been more supportive of my rights to liberty, self-responsibility, and the pursuit of happiness. “Go outside and find something to do” seemed to encapsulate her entire parenting philosophy.

“But Mom! It’s raining!”

“Water never hurt anyone. Now go!”

My childhood freedom was my mother’s freedom. Today’s child has little freedom; neither does his mother. From an early age, I knew that my mother wore many hats. In all too many cases (one being too many), today’s mom wears only one hat.

That’s not good at all, for either party. Children need to learn – from early on – that women are interesting people. That requires that the most important woman in a child’s life have many interests, wear many hats.

As Mom would say, “I’m your mother, but I’m lots of other things, too, and the sooner you accept that, the better for both of us.”

It was my introduction to women’s liberation.

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