Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Parent's Worst Nightmare

Every summer we hear about it, and every summer we think, "Could that happen to me?"  It happens about 20 times in the United States each year.  A parent forgets that their infant or toddler is in the backseat and leaves them in the car, resulting in the child's death.  Hubby and I have talked about this when we've seen it on the news, wavering between criticism of such a negligent parent and empathy with a parent who made the most tragic mistake of their life.  But, it has always been a problem we can mentally categorize as "not our problem."

Until this past week.  A teacher at one of the schools I work at forgot that her one year-old daughter was in the car with her.  She didn't realize that she'd left her precious daughter in the car until police came in the school building to arrest her.  A high school intern had parked next to her car and noticed the baby.  She called 911, broke out the window of the car with a 2X4 she had in her truck, and performed CPR on the lifeless baby.  The baby died.  The teacher was arrested.  And, staff and students wondered how something so terrible could happen.  The teacher was well-respected, kind, loved her child, and was usually quite dependable.   But, she did often work late, and was stressed from working in a system with increasingly high expectations.

As the psychologist assigned to the school and the lead person for the area's crisis response team, I was called to respond.  My team and I heard a variety of reactions, from shock to blame to deep sorrow.  One reaction, though, was fairly predictable.  Staff members with children of their own wondered, "Could this happen to me?  Could I forget my child in the back seat?"  While part of us is quick to place blame and want to hang these parents for being so neglectful, I think that many of us can secretly relate. A young child that is still required by law to be rear-facing is also at the age where they fall asleep easily in the car.  In the busy hustle and bustle of preparing for work, it seems plausible to most people that they could forget that their child is there. 

The best discussion of this topic was written by Gene Weingarten in 2010, "Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime?".  The article won the Pulitzer Prize that year for showing an inside look at several cases and shining light on the troubling questions of guilt and empathy that these cases ultimately bring to mind.  You really must read the article . . . if you can.  I had to read it in pieces, emotionally processing some pieces before moving on.  There are some details that will tear your heart out, especially if you have infants or toddlers of your own.

One important point that Weingarten makes, is that this type of tragedy could happen to anyone.  He says,
"The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist."
Weingarten also convincingly explains the brain science behind the possibility of forgetting something so unforgettable. Our reptilian brain, the basal ganglia, which controls our voluntary but barely conscious actions, may be to blame.  When our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that is responsible for planning and decision-making, and our hipppocampus, which plays an important role in memory, are preoccupied with other life events (getting ready for work, family and life stressors, etc), our basal ganglia can take over our more predictable day-to-day actions.  This type of basal ganglia autopilot mode is why you can sometimes drive from place to place and not actually remember doing it.  This basal ganglia function can be quite helpful, but in rare circumstances, it can lead to devastating instances of forgetfulness.

So, what's a concerned momsie to do?  First, don't spend much time imagining the horrific scenario of your child being left in the car seat.  Our minds can go crazy with those images.  Instead, think proactively.  There are some "forgotten-baby devices" such as ChildMinder Smart Pad System, the Deluxe Padded Safety Seat Alarm System, and SafeBABI, which can give you some peace of mind as they promise to remind you if you've forgotten your baby in their car seat.  These devices have fallen under scrutiny, however, as not being totally reliable. 

Your best protection is to keep in mind, these incidents usually happen when a parent is under abnormal amounts of stress and they get off their regular schedule.  If you know that you are stressed, or will be off your regular daycare drop-off schedule, set up some reminders in your phone, have your spouse call you or send you a text message, or make other reminders to check that you've dropped off the baby.  Having intentional conversations with your spouse about the need to avoid changes in schedules and how you will help each other avoid forgetting, are probably your best preventative actions. 

And, remember, God is in control.  Ask Him each day to watch over and protect your children.  And, then, trust Him to do just that!


Thursday, May 16, 2013

Stop Your Stinkin' Thinkin'!

"I'm positive that none of my friends will ever speak to me again!"  Yesterday, a middle-school student tearfully made this announcement in our counseling session.  One of her dear, trusted friends had revealed my client's deepest, darkest secrets to her other friends.  And, now, she is sure everyone will hate her. 

Another student was sure her parents would divorce after an argument the night before.  A teacher wondered if a recent minor financial setback would lead her family into financial ruin.  Highly unlikely, I reasoned in each case.  It may seem like the world is ending, but it really isn't!

Thinking that a major catastrophe is likely to follow a minor disappointment or mishap is a common thinking error that psychologist refer to as "catastrophizing."  It is so common in my practice, in fact, that I specifically talk about it with most of my adolescent clients. Catastrophizing is part of a whole set of thinking errors that people often make that contribute to depression, anxiety, and other emotional problems.  This "stinkin' thinkin'" becomes the constant background dialogue in our heads that, though at first may be easily dismissed as irrational, can start to seem true if we aren't carefully examining our thoughts.

Do you ever find yourself thinking this way?  Do you make "mountains out of molehills?"  Do you often find yourself imagining the worst case scenario?   You may exaggerate the importance of some things (such as your goof-up or someone else's achievement), while inappropriately minimizing things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or another person's imperfections).  Or maybe you see your child starting to adopt this thinking pattern, "crying over spilled milk" and panicking over small set-backs.  Are you seeing your teen become more withdrawn or anxious?  It could be because s/he is mentally maximizing or minimizing the importance of his/her current situation.

It's important to deal with your catastrophic thinking (or your child's) before it becomes a core thinking pattern.  Here are some tips:
  1. You have to catch your thinking errors before you can change them.  Make an effort to question your thoughts when you start feeling depressed or anxious.  Could any of your thoughts be inaccurate catastrophizing rather than actual truth? 
  2. Ask yourself, "What are other possible outcomes or explanations?" Try to consider all other possible outcomes or explanations, including those that are positive, slightly negative, or neutral.
  3. Don't allow your mind to argue away the possibility of a positive alternate explanation.  Many people will tell me, "Well, yes that could be, BUT . . . "  If you catch your mind saying "but," immediately turn your mind away from that thought.
  4. Make a distinction between an unpleasant situation and a catastrophe.  Sure, it may suck that you failed an exam, but it probably won't mean that you'll flunk out of school.  Ask yourself, "Could it be that this situation is just really unpleasant, but not permanent and drastic?"
  5. Remind yourself, or your child, of your ability to cope. Engage in "positive self-talk" to encourage yourself that you will get through this difficult situation.  You can do it, you've done it before!  Remind yourself or your child of times you were able to overcome setbacks.  Also, remember the loving support systems that have helped you through difficult times in the past.
  6. To help a child steer away from stinkin' thinkin', try these steps.
    • First, try to get a child to talk about what they are thinking in a moment where you see high emotions.  When they've calmed down a bit from a crying or angry spell, ask them, "What is going through your mind right now?"  "What thoughts are popping into your head?"
    • Don't judge a child's response, even if it seems silly.  Just acknowledge their feeling and listen. For example, "I'm so sorry that your friend let you down.  That really is disappointing and sad."
    • Next, remind them of alternate explanations.  "Could it be that maybe one or two friends won't completely disown you?"  "Have any of your friends actually told you that they hate you now?"  "Could it be that they could be mad for just a short time?"
    • If a child resists exploring alternate thoughts, remind them that they may be stinkin' thinkin.'  Give them some time to calm down a little more.  Later, say, "Let's think a little bit more about what happened earlier."
    • Remind them of their ability to cope.  Remind them of times they tackled difficult situations.  Remind them of other times they imagined the worst, and ask them if the worst possibility actually happened. 
    • Pray and remind them that God is with them.  Although the devil is the father of lies, a roaring lion, seeking to devour us with stinkin' thinkin', we can overcome with the help of our Father in heaven!
As I mentioned before, catastrophizing is just one example of stinkin' thinkin'.   Other common thinking errors (we psychologist call them "cognitive distortions") can be:
  1. All or nothing thinking.  Seeing situations, people, or ourselves as either all good or all bad.
  2. Overgeneralization.  Seeing a single event as a never-ending pattern. You can know these thoughts by the words "always," "never," or "absolutely." 
  3. Mental filter. Dwelling on a single negative event or seeing the one negative factor in a situation that might have many positives as well.
  4. Disqualifying the positive. Rejecting the importance of positive experiences by insisting they "don't count."
  5. Jumping to conclusions.  Making a negative conclusion even if there aren't facts to support your conclusion.  Examples are mind-reading (arbitrarily assuming someone is acting negatively) or fortune-telling (assuming a negative event will happen in the future).
  6. Emotional reasoning.  "I feel it, so it must be true."  Allowing your negative emotional state to guide your interpretations of a situation.
  7. Should statements. Setting up arbitrary requirements for yourself or others which cause feelings of guilt and disappointment when they aren't met.
  8. Personalization. Feeling responsible for situations you have no control over.
You can challenge these thoughts just as you would catastrophizing. Keep in mind that we all have errors in our thinking from time to time.  I've found that God's Word has provided us with the best advice for challenging our stinkin' thinkin'.   "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. " Philippians 4:8

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Your Belly is SO _____! UPDATE!

Last week I posted some of the comments I have heard recently about my belly.  I was starting to feel beat down a bit by the constant, "Wow!  Look how big you're getting!" comments.  It doesn't help that I'm in a different building each day and I only visit each location once a week.  I guess a belly can really grow in a week!

I've decided I need to stop quietly taking offense and sulking away with hidden hurt feelings.  Instead, I am going to say something witty and informative, that might make a person think twice before they make "your belly's so big" comments to other poor pregnant momsies.  I know I have to be careful with this new strategy, as my pregnancy hormones can easily make my words a little more biting then I intend.  I don't want to seem bitter or emotional.  I just want to light-heartedly help people think of more positive comments to say to pregnant women.

So, yesterday, I started implementing my new response to negative belly comments.  My first opportunity came when a teacher looked at my belly, dropped her jaw to the floor, and said, "Wow!" Her otherwise speechlessness could easily have been translated as "Your belly is humongous."  So, I practiced my new reaction.  I gave a little chuckle, said, "Now, you know you aren't supposed to say that to a pregnant lady!" and sandwiched it with another light-hearted chuckle.  The teacher responded just as she should have. "Oh, I meant, Wow! You look beautiful!"  "Ah, thank you!," I chuckle chuckled.  That worked out nicely.

I tried it again later in the day.  When I picked Jr. up from daycare, his teacher met me with a very similar response as the teacher from earlier in the day.  "Wow! Your belly!" Jaw dropped and eyes bulged.  I gave my new response, chuckle chuckle, "Now, you know you aren't supposed to say that to a pregnant lady!" chuckle chuckle.   Her response was a little different.  She stammered and back-tracked.  "Well, I didn't see your belly at first . . .  and then I looked up . . . and there it was . .  and . . ."  That response will also work for me.  Though a little defensive, she at least seemed to get that she should have responded a little differently. 

I will continue on my one-woman quest to encourage people to think of more positive responses to growing bellies!  A pregnant belly is a sign of such a beautiful and amazing miracle!  Please join me by spreading positive words to pregnant women you know.  Speak positive words to pregnant women and when you see or hear someone rudely guffawing at a pregnant belly, counteract their negative response with some beautiful encouraging words.

"Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing." 1 Thessalonians 5:11

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Don't Forget Teacher Appreciation Week!

Oh, how I love good teachers! This week, May 6th- 10th is Teacher Appreciation Week. Working in schools, I know how much teachers are under-appreciated, overworked, underpaid, and stressed.  In at-risk, low-income areas, I would guess that this is even more true, as teachers constantly deal with low parent involvement (and even parents with mental health, substance abuse, and anger issues), few resources, more extreme behavior problems, and so many other barriers to teaching and learning. 

Many teachers work eight hour days with barely 10 minutes for a potty break. They can't run a quick errand during the day or enjoy a leisurely lunch.  They are responsible for a class full of children - which is often about 30 moving bodies.  So, they have to be on their toes and at their best 100% of the time. Teachers I know often don't even call in sick when they need to for fear of leaving their children without rigorous instruction for a day.  Because without rigorous instruction, those 30 kiddos might not perform tip-top on the high-stakes state assessments, which have become the ultimate measure of teacher effectiveness (and don't get me started on that topic).  And, did I say they work 8 hour days?  I lied.  Many work 10 or 12 hour days, working on lesson plans, grading papers, completing mandatory paperwork, etc.  For those reasons, and many more, I always say that I would never ever want to be a teacher.  And, God bless those masochistic souls that dedicate their lives to teaching other peoples children. They deserve at least a week of appreciation. 

Jr. and I created these little bread loaves for his teachers.  We got the free printables from How Does She.  Jr. was so excited to give them to his teachers and practice his new favorite phrase, "Thank you!" (ok, it's still right behind his forever favorite phrase, "NO!").  He ran into daycare today carrying the bag full of bread and yelled, "Thank you, Shelly! Thank you, Shelly!"  He jumped into Ms. Shelly's arms, got his morning kisses and tickles, and dismissively said, "Bye-bye, Daddy."  We feel so blessed that Jr. loves his teachers and feels loved by them.  For any working mom, this is an answer to prayer.  We struggle so much with having to leave him at daycare during the day, but God has been sweet to us by reassuring us often that his caregivers are loving and nurturing.

Today, do something nice for your child's teachers, even if it is just telling them how much you appreciate their love and hard work.  And, best of all, pray for your child's teachers today!  Pray for discernment, energy, effectiveness in teaching, patience, and love for your child. 

Thank you teachers!  Keep it up, summer is near!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Suck that Pacifier, Momsie!

Did you all see this headline:  "Parents' Saliva On Pacifiers Could Ward Off Baby's Allergies"?  I love it.  How many well-meaning momsies have popped their screaming babies pacy in their mouth to "clean it" after it falls on the floor?  Probably most.  I know I have on occasion.  My reasoning has been, if there isn't a more sanitary option around, I'd rather have the yucky floor germs in my mouth then in Jr.'s. 

But, science is giving us another even more convincing reason to pop that pacy in your mouth on occasion.  In fact, some are claiming that parental sucking on the pacifier may be the BEST way to clean it!  Apparently, we all have a collection of bacteria living in our bodies called "microbiomes."  Exposure to these microbiomes early in life may actually impact a child's health, especially the development of allergies.  One way that parents can help expose their child to allergy-preventing microbiomes is through their saliva.  Sounds yucky, but a quick little parental suck on the pacifier might provide baby with enough exposure to harmless bacteria to boost their immune system and thus prevent the development of excema and allergies.

The research behind this idea started with a broad study of babies' allergies. Bill Hesselmar of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and his colleagues found in analyzing data from 184 Swedish babies that the 65 babies whose parents cleaned their pacifiers with their saliva were less likely to develop excema or asthma, two early signs of allergic reaction.  It makes sense to me that as we have become more anxious about germs and disinfectant sprays, soaps and gels become more prevalent, we also have seen more asthma and allergies develop in our little ones.  Could it be that our good-intentioned efforts to keep our babies healthy is actually preventing them from optimal health?  Just another example of how fear and worry can get the best of us.

So, go ahead momsie.  Who cares if someone's looking?  Clean that pacifier with your mouth!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Your Belly is SO _____!!

A rare photo of my 29 week pregnant belly.

A growing baby belly attracts a lot of attention.  Much of it, during this second pregnancy of mine, is unwanted.  When I hear, "Dr. Momsie!" in the hall of one of my schools, I brace myself.  Mostly because I really never know how someone is going to respond. I get some very lovely and supportive comments, but I also receive some really rude and unthoughtful responses too.  I can't resist sharing a few examples  I'll start with the supportive make-my-day type of comments.  Please repeat these unsparingly to the pregnant people you know.
  • "You carry a baby so well, you just really take to pregnancy."
  • "You look beautiful!" (said by a complete stranger in the bathroom).
  • "You are so tiny, all belly.  You will have that baby and have no weight left to lose!" (From their lips to God's ears!)
  • "You just have a little ball in front. How cute."
  • "You haven't gained much weight in your face like some pregnant women." (Even though you can obviously see in the picture above that my cheeks are quite chipmunky).
  • "You are glowing."
  • "You look much smaller then with your last baby." (Completely untrue, but I love to hear it).
  • "Ah, she's having a baby!"  (Said with smiles by children in the hall).

Unfortunately, more often then not, this is what I hear instead . . .
  • "You're not due until July?  I just don't think you'll make it!" (I hear this at least once a day.  Does anyone really think this is a kind thing to say?)
  • "Oh my! Are you sure it isn't twins?"  (Quite possibly the most annoying, but very common, comment).
  • "Ewww, she's pregnant!" (said with judgmental and glaring stares by students in the hall.)
  • "You look good . . . in the face." (Teacher says as she stares at my belly.  Really?)
  • "Wow, you're really much larger with this baby, huh?"
  • "How much does she weigh?  She's going to be a big baby!"  (Ok, do people really think I know how much the baby weighs, as if I can place her on a scale?"
  • "What's wrong with your belly?  It's all lopsided!" (Yes, she likes to roll up into a ball on one side. Thanks for letting me know how freakish that looks).
  • "You're really poking out!"
  • "You sure are growing!" (Duh.)
  • "Wide load!"  (Jokingly said by the husband.  Totally not funny.)
  • "You're much bigger than I was at that stage."
I'm amazed at how thoughtless some people are when they make "big belly" comments.  I assume these are people that either were big-and-fat pregnant women and want everyone else to be big-and-fat too, or they never have been pregnant.  Anyone who has gone through a pregnancy and felt self-conscious of their changing body would know better.  God has been so sweet to me, though.  Usually when I have heard a hurtful comment, He sends someone not long after who says something encouraging and flattering.

Say something kind to a pregnant woman today.  Even if she looks like a hot mess, she may need to hear a little lie.  If nothing else, try "You look amazing!"
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