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4/18/2015 12:00 AM

The brothers in the Boston Marathon bombing. Racketeer Whitey Bulger Jr. and his younger brother William, president of the Massachusetts Senate and then of the University of Massachusetts.

What do these two divergent tales of brothers teach us about sibling relationships? How is it that one pair of siblings bonds together to walk the same course while other siblings seek opposite pursuits?

On April 15, 2013, two homemade pressure-cooker bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Three people, including an 8-year-old boy, were killed. Hundreds of others were seriously injured. The city of Boston was paralyzed by a gripping manhunt for two suspects — two brothers. Days later, 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed during a shoot-out with police following the death of an MIT police officer and carjacking. Tamerlan’s younger brother, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was injured and subsequently captured. Dzhokhar was charged with using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death and malicious destruction of property resulting in death. Dzhokhar now awaits trial and is facing the death penalty in Massachusetts. At the time of the manhunt, the brothers allegedly were plotting together to detonate more explosives in Times Square in New York City.

Meanwhile in Boston, after decades on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted List,” James “Whitey” Bulger Jr. was about to stand trial on 32 counts of racketeering, money laundering, extortion, weapons, and murder charges. In the summer of 2013, Whitey was found guilty on 31 of the charges and was sentenced to two consecutive life terms. During Whitey’s trial, his younger brother, William Bulger, was in active retirement after 18 years as the president of the Massachusetts Senate as well as president of the University of Massachusetts, a position he resigned in the wake of controversy surrounding his refusal to testify about his brother. In contrast to Whitey, William was an army veteran and lawyer whose life was characterized by education and public service.

What do these two divergent tales of brothers teach us about sibling relationships? How is it that one pair of siblings bonds together to walk the same course while other siblings seek opposite pursuits?

Characteristics of sibling relationships

Children in the United States are more likely to grow up with their siblings than with their fathers. Over the course of their lifetimes, most children will spend more time with their siblings than they spend with anyone else, including their parents. Despite this reality, research and interventions for children focus on the parent-child relationship as the primary source of influence on child outcomes; the effects of siblings on child behavior and health are often underestimated. However, recent research reveals what brothers and sisters have recognized all along — that siblings play a key role in child development and behavior.

The differential power and roles between siblings are related to their broader cultural context. Cultures define who is considered a sibling, the meaning and importance of the relationship, and the obligations siblings have within the family and to one another. These cultural proscriptions are often dependent on immutable structural characteristics of the sibling relationship, such as birth order, gender, and age spacing. Prince William and Prince Henry (“Harry”) of Great Britain’s royal family provide a vivid public example of how the structural features of a sibling relationship can be institutionalized and shape expectations and life trajectories.

Sibling relationships are not elective; children pick their friends but not their brothers and sisters. Emotions between siblings are characteristically intense and can cycle rapidly between love and hostility. During early childhood, siblings are often primary companions as well as competitors. This is believed to provide a fertile training ground for the development of social skills and future relationships. The impact of a warm and supportive sibling relationship or a conflictual, unsupportive one is lifelong. Warmth in the sibling relationship is associated with significant social and emotional advantages in later life. For example, compared to only children, children who have at least one sibling at home display greater social competence and peer acceptance from kindergarten through their early school years. Adolescents who report positive sibling relationships have better peer relationships and fewer depressive symptoms later in life. Warmth and closeness in the sibling relationship are also associated with greater ease and intimacy in romantic relationships. Finally, during middle age and old age, mood, health, loneliness, and depression are related to how people feel about their sibling relationships. Having a close, positive relationship with one’s siblings is not only a source of life satisfaction, but can also provide a buffer from stressful events, such as parental absence, marital conflict, and illness. Younger siblings tend to imitate and “look up to” their older siblings. If the older sibling responds in an attentive and caring manner, the seeds of similarity are planted. If the older sibling is rejecting of the younger child, their paths are more likely to separate.

Conflict and aggression between siblings is very common. It has been suggested that one way siblings learn to manage competition and conflict is by differentiating themselves, carving out different identities or roles within the family. Thus, one child becomes known as the reckless, defiant one, while the other sibling becomes the easygoing, conservative one. Even when siblings pursue very distinct identities and life courses, their bond can be very enduring. Think of the case of the Bulger brothers. One brother led a life of crime and the other a life of public service. William was not able or willing to overcome the sibling bond to testify about his contact with his brother, thereby forfeiting his position as president of UMass. Physical aggression occurs among siblings in the majority of families (i.e., 70% of families). Sibling conflict has been measured up to eight times in a single hour and is the number-one reason for discord between parents and children. However, parents will also dismiss levels of violence between siblings that they would never conceive of tolerating if they occurred outside the context of a sibling relationship. Violence between siblings is the most common form of child abuse and is significantly related to later substance use and delinquency.

Sibling – strong effects within the family

Sibling relationships do not occur in a vacuum. Siblings share parents, relatives, and school and other social environments, as well as their genes. Siblings raised in a home with authoritarian, harsh parents are more likely to be at odds with one another. How parents handle sibling conflict has a significant impact on the sibling relationship. When parents intercede in sibling conflict to determine which child is most at fault or “who started it,” the sibling relationship sours. Siblings often compare themselves to one another and compare how they are treated by others, particularly parents. When children perceive favoritism or unfair differential parental treatment, the quality of the parent-child and sibling relationships suffers. For the less favored sibling, differential parental treatment is associated with lower self-esteem, more depressive symptoms, and more antisocial and delinquent behavior, as well as more substance use.

One area of particularly strong sibling influence, even stronger than the influence of parents, is in the development of antisocial attitudes and conduct, and health risk behavior. The process of “sibling deviancy training” refers to the situation in which (generally older) siblings model, encourage, and reinforce antisocial behavior in their younger siblings. Younger siblings who shadow and hang out with their older siblings are introduced to their antisocial peers and behavior and begin to display negative behaviors more than siblings who do not hang out with their antisocial siblings. Eventually, the sibling relationship transitions from deviancy training to partners in crime; older and younger siblings begin to conspire together in more antisocial behavior and substance use. Even after controlling for the effects of parent substance use, siblings are four times more likely to smoke if their older sibling smokes, and are twice as likely to drink alcohol if an older sibling does. Finally, younger sisters are five times more likely to become pregnant if they have an older sister who was pregnant. The power of the antisocial or behaviorally risky older sibling is magnified when parents are unstable or absent. Think back to the Tsarnaev brothers, whose parents, after years of struggling in the United States, returned to Russia, leaving the younger brother under the influence of his elder, radicalizing brother.

Conclusions and implications

Siblings hold the power to inspire as well as corrupt. Given the intensity and longevity of their bond, how can we engage this power for positive change? It is time to move beyond family interventions that are directed solely at parents (i.e., mothers). When working with children and adolescents, inquire about siblings — their relationships, strengths, and challenges. How much time do they spend together? How are they similar and where do their interests overlap? Be attentive and responsive to reports of sibling violence; do not dismiss these as “normal” and, therefore, acceptable. Consider how recommendations regarding one child might affect other children in the family. Is the heightened attention expected from parent-directed intervention likely to plant negative feelings of differential parental treatment among the other children? Actively help families understand that the investment made early in the sibling relationship has value that lasts a lifetime.

3/6/2015 12:00 AM

Parents are often concerned by certain behaviors they observe in their kids, such as crying, tantrums, difficulty following directions, shyness, difficulty separating, troubles with transitioning, and so on. But when do these behaviors warrant intervention?

Ally follows her mother wherever she goes. Lately, Ally’s been more tearful around leaving for school in the morning and keeps complaining that her stomach hurts. Ally always thinks she’s getting sick and worries every time she is around anyone who coughs or sneezes.

Sam has a hard time following directions. His room is a mess, his homework is incomplete, and it’s a struggle to get him to do daily things like brushing his teeth. Sam frequently argues with his younger brother, and his mother feels like she has to yell in order to get anyone to do anything.

Parents are often concerned by certain behaviors they observe in their kids, such as crying, tantrums, difficulty following directions, shyness, difficulty separating, troubles with transitioning, and so on. But when do these behaviors warrant intervention? All of the above can be considered within the realm of normal childhood development. It is when these behaviors co-occur with other patterns of symptoms, have a negative impact on functioning, and cause distress in either the child or those around him/her that therapeutic intervention may be helpful and warranted. For example, with Ally, her parents may want to seek help if distress in the mornings continues to the point where it’s difficult getting to school or if she becomes so clingy to her mother that it’s hard for her mother to be able to work, run errands, or do things at home. With Sam, his parents may want to seek help if he starts doing poorly in school or if the level of conflict and overall stress at home remains high.

What’s the next step?

The first step to effectively addressing concerning behaviors in kids is to do a thorough evaluation of the symptoms, circumstances, and functions in order to fully understand the nature of behaviors. For example, in children specifically, it is common for acting-out behaviors, such as arguing, temper tantrums, or anger, to be in reality driven by anxiety. Once the nature of symptoms is more fully understood, appropriate intervention can take place.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most commonly evaluated treatments for a range of psychological problems in children and adolescents. CBT is a therapy framework that emphasizes the role and link between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in order to improve functioning. While some youngsters may not be able to fully take part in the entirety of a CBT model of treatment due to their cognitive/developmental levels, tailoring components of CBT for a specific child and treatment focus can be helpful.

Components of CBT treatment

There are different components of CBT depending on the specific treatment model, but for the purposes of describing a general overview, they are conceptualized here by three overarching components: psychoeducation, coping skills, and behavior practice/management.

  1. Psychoeducation. This consists of helping to better understand emotions and normalizing the fact that people experience a range of them, which are sometimes advantageous (e.g., having some anxiety before a test so that you are alert and concentrating) and sometimes impairing (e.g., having so much anxiety before a test that you can’t focus on the questions). Psychoeducation also involves understanding similarities/differences between emotions and helping children learn to identify the cues in their thinking and in their body in order to correctly label the emotional experience. It’s also important to be able to differentiate between varying levels of emotions. If a child thinks of everything that makes him nervous/scared and sees it all as the same intensity of that feeling, it would be very overwhelming. In CBT, children learn to view their emotions as a thermometer where they can tease apart situations/stimuli that would create a “10” on their meter versus a “5” or a “1” so that tackling these experiences starts to seem more manageable.
  2. Psychoeducation also focuses on learning to identify the thoughts, feelings, and actions that occur in a situation so that kids can start to see how modifying one part can affect another. For example, if Ally thinks that the person next to her is sick because he sneezed, she will start to feel anxious that she will get sick too. But if Ally is able to come up with other thoughts, this could alter how she feels. How anxious would she be if she thought that the person next to her sneezed not because he was sick but because something just tickled his nose? In exploring thoughts, children start to recognize when they fall into thinking traps by identifying cognitive distortions and labeling them as such. Cognitive distortions can include thinking the worst will happen (catastrophizing), thinking you know what others are thinking (mind-reading), and believing something without any proof (jumping to conclusions), among others. By learning to recognize thinking traps, youngsters can start to challenge them and become more flexible in their thinking, which may then alter how they feel and act.

  3. Coping skills. After psychoeducation about thoughts/feelings/actions and the relationship between them, patients start to build a “toolbox” of skills to help them effectively manage emotional/physical distress. This component helps empower children to feel that they have the tools they need to conquer problems. Furthermore, in order to face stress-inducing situations, they may need to first learn to lessen their arousal level to the point where they can tolerate facing a stressful situation. The coping skills that are added to their toolbox may include things such as relaxation techniques (e.g., diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, imagery) to help calm their bodies and minds enough to participate in treatment. Skills also include learning scripts to challenge cognitive distortions (e.g., “Do I know 100% that I will get sick?”, “Could there be other explanations why my brother threw the ball at me?”) so that ultimately children may become more flexible in their thinking instead of solely believing the automatic thought that comes to mind. Other distress-tolerance skills include proactive activities (e.g., taking a walk, listening to music, squeezing a stress ball) and positive thoughts to keep in mind in order to help manage distress.
  4. Behavior practice/management. The third component of CBT is where individuals get a chance to practice the skills that they have learned. It includes skill rehearsal, role-playing situations, and ultimately experiencing the situations. For some disorders, such as anxiety, the experiencing of a feared situation and habituating to it (i.e., anxiety lessening by remaining in the situation over time) is the key ingredient of treatment. However, some will need to use the psychoeducation and skills described above in order to even get to the point of being able to face a fear in any form. Another key aspect of this component of CBT is the idea of reinforcing a desired behavior, whether it’s facing a fear, complying with a direction, or reacting in a calm and appropriate way. Some children may respond to encouragement from adults and a feeling of self-efficacy, but most need external reinforcement in order to push through cognitive/emotional barriers to their goals. This typically involves parents setting up a reinforcement system in which kids can earn rewards for reaching certain goals. Rewards can be immediate or in the form of tokens that can be traded in for bigger rewards or privileges after earning a certain amount. It is essential that parents are always aware of what effect their response has on their child’s behavior so that they are not inadvertently increasing the likelihood of the problem behavior rather than the desired behavior. For example, if Sam argues around limits on videogame time, and his mother lets him keep playing so that he stops yelling, Sam has learned that the more he yells, the longer he gets to play. If Sam’s mother gives him a check mark for every time he turns off the game when prompted, Sam learns that by following directions, he earns tokens that he can then trade in for bigger rewards. Likewise, if Ally’s mother lets her stay home when she is crying, instead of fighting the anxiety, this will increase the likelihood that this pattern will continue. However, if Ally earns rewards for getting to school by a certain time, this may reinforce leaving home rather than staying home.


While childhood behaviors such as fears, tantrums, noncompliance, and the like may be part of normal development, patterns of behaviors may become distressing and start to impair functioning. When this happens, it’s important to seek help from a professional who can perform a thorough evaluation and determine appropriate intervention. CBT is an evidence-based treatment that can be applied to a variety of childhood problems. Developmental considerations, such as age and cognitive level, may determine whether treatment is more cognitive or behaviorally focused. CBT can be thought of as a skill set that children and parents both develop and improve over time with practice.


Christophersen ER, Mortweet SL. Treatments that work with children: Empirically-supported strategies for managing childhood problems. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 2001.

Creswell C, Waite P, Cooper P. Assessment and management of anxiety disorders in children and adolescents. Archives of Disease in Childhood 2014; 99(7):674–678.

1/30/2015 12:00 AM

When I was in second grade and living in Racine, Wisconsin, there was a rabies outbreak in the greater Chicago area that received extensive media coverage. Parents kept children indoors because of a perceived risk of marauding mad dogs, and stories about the horrors of having to undergo the treatment shots were widely discussed. Even though I loved dogs, I was petrified of being bitten by a rabid animal. A recurring image from the front page of the newspaper (which I still vividly recall) of a wild-eyed dog foaming at the mouth and fiercely biting the bars of its quarantine cage made it difficult to fall asleep many nights that fall. I’ve wondered whether that childhood experience of fearing a deadly illness I didn’t understand influenced my decision to go into medicine. I am certain, however, that a widespread concern about a scary disease, whether it’s rabies or Ebola, can affect children and adolescents in lasting ways.

While we can’t shield our children from everything that is worrisome, risky, or unpleasant, how we as adults react can have a greater impact on a child’s psyche than the actual reality of the situation. Nowhere is that more evident than in our societal response to the Ebola epidemic. The facts facing Americans (in contrast to many in West African countries) as I write this in late fall of 2014 contrast sharply with the anxiety, verging on panic, seen in some quarters.

The facts are fairly straightforward: Ebola is a viral disease we have known about for decades but not attended to intensely because outbreaks have only occurred in isolated areas of west and central Africa. It is contagious only from direct contact with bodily fluids (blood, vomit, diarrhea, etc.) of those showing symptoms of the illness; the sicker the patient, the higher the viral load and the more contagious he or she is. About half of those who contact Ebola will die, and they are especially contagious in the days immediately before and after their death. There is no specific treatment for Ebola, and effective vaccines, now being developed, will not be widely available for at least a year. Americans at the highest risk for Ebola are health care workers exposed to the virus when caring for sick patients; they comprise all of the handful of cases in the United States.

To judge from the media response and the way Ebola in the United States is consuming our consciousness way out of proportion to the current danger, facts seem to have little bearing on the American anxiety level. Scared parents, extreme governmental quarantine measures, and a national sense of panic are likely to cause unnecessary suffering for children; adult anxiety is more contagious than Ebola.

Instead of communicating dread and danger through what is said and through nonverbal communication (facial expression, affect, preoccupation), adults should present to children a measured and rational approach about Ebola. Knowledge is power, and helping children bolster their cognitive mastery skills goes a long way to allaying undue anxiety. The first step in this process is to create an open and supportive environment where children can ask questions and feel comfortable sharing what they know. Then we have to listen carefully and calmly to what they say. Youngsters’ ability to understand illness varies hugely with age, from a five-year-old’s magical thinking to many adolescents’ ability to deal with abstract concepts. It is critical to meet children where they are developmentally and to use words and concepts they can understand. Whatever the level of communication, it is important that the information we provide be accurate and honest, yet light on the graphic details. The horrible picture of the rabid dog stuck with me from my childhood because as an eight-year-old, I couldn’t understand the verbal explanations provided by the adults. We need to allow for repeated discussions of Ebola, as children can rarely process affect-laden information in a single session. Additionally, repeated questioning may be a child’s way of asking for reassurance. 

As with any challenge, the Ebola crisis presents children with an opportunity for mastery and growth. Understanding the conditions in Africa — while differentiating them from the situation in the United States — can promote empathy for those less fortunate. Appreciating the heroism of medical workers on the front lines of the epidemic helps to define courage and self-sacrifice. If children can contribute some of their own money to a charitable organization fighting Ebola, it reinforces their developing social conscience and allows a sense of active mastery.

We know from other crises what helps and what hinders children’s efforts to cope with unsettling news. In our approach to Ebola, we should manage our anxiety, monitor our behavior, and make decisions based on equal parts of science and compassion. Our children will be the beneficiaries.

Parents’ Guide
1/13/2017 12:00 AM

“It’s hard to be a parent tonight for a lot of us,” said Van Jones, a CNN political commentator, as the election returns were coming in in the early morning hours of Nov. 9, showing that Donald Trump was winning. “You tell your kids, ‘Don’t be a bully.’ You tell your kids, ‘Don’t be a bigot.’ You tell your kids, ‘Do your homework and be prepared,’” said Jones, who is black. “Then you have this outcome, and you have people putting children to bed tonight and they’re afraid of breakfast.”

Weeks afterward, there was still confusion, despair even, among many of the people who were deeply afraid of what a Trump presidency might mean. Trump’s supporters boasted about winning, which was to be expected. But hate speech — anti-immigrant, racist, bigoted rants — was reported as well. This followed Trump’s campaign, which included many anti-immigrant statements, a well-documented mockery of a reporter with a physical disability, and statements urging crowd members to rough up protesters.

As difficult as it was for some people to absorb the results — even Trump’s supporters hadn’t expected he would win — it was even more difficult for children. On Nov. 11, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) gave some advice for how to talk to children about the election. The statement, from Karen Remley, M.D., M.B.A., M.P.H., F.A.A.P., CEO/executive vice president of the AAP, came in response to requests from pediatricians across the country. “They’ve requested advice on how to speak to children and families about the results, how to help each other cope with disturbing rhetoric, and how to explain news reports of protests,” she wrote. “They have sought reassurance that our mission remains steadfast to advance policies that protect all children.”

The AAP is known for being one of the few organizations that exists to further the interests of patients — children and adolescents — above all. “Even as we do everything we can as a national organization to represent children’s needs to our newly elected leaders, it is so important that all children feel safe and protected in their day-to-day lives,” write Remley. “As pediatricians and pediatric medical and surgical subspecialists, parents and grandparents, we can serve as a source of comfort and safety, reassuring children and supporting families.”

Here are some of the AAP’s recommendations for parents:

  • Take care of yourself first. Children depend on the adults around them to be and feel safe and secure. If you are anxious or angry, children are likely to be more affected by your emotional state than by your words. Find someone you trust to help with your personal concerns.
  • ​Explain — as simply and directly as possible — the results of the election and what they mean for who is in charge of the country. Start by asking what your child has already heard and what understanding he or she has reached. As your child explains, listen for misinformation, misconceptions, and underlying fears or concerns. The amount of information that will be helpful to a child depends on his or her age. For example, older children generally want and will benefit from more detailed information than younger children. Because every child is different, take cues from your own child as to how much information to provide.
  • Pay attention to what your children are viewing on television, the internet and social media, especially younger children. When children watch news on television, try to watch with them and use the opportunity to discuss what is being seen and how it makes you and your child feel.
  • Consider sharing your feelings about the election with your child. This is an opportunity for you to model how to react to the news, especially if you talked openly about the potential results as a family in the weeks leading up to the election. Be sure that you are able to express a positive or hopeful approach about the future and be reassuring.
  • Share with your child your own values and beliefs, including how you as a family treat others who are different or who may disagree with you. Kindness is important. Teach your child that if you disagree with someone, you can talk with them kindly about the way you feel.
  • Encourage your child to ask questions, and answer them directly. Question-and-answer exchanges help to ensure ongoing support as your child begins to understand the response to current events. Don’t force the issue with your child. Instead, extend multiple invitations for discussion and then provide an increased physical and emotional presence as you wait for him or her to be ready to accept those invitations.
  • If your child has seen or experienced discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, either from other children or adults, encourage your child to discuss what he or she has experienced. Observing someone we care about being discriminated against, or experiencing discrimination ourselves, is scary, and reminds us that now more than ever it is important to reassure children that they deserve to feel and be safe in their schools, homes, and communities.
  • Allow your child to express what he or she is feeling, including fear, anxiety, or anger. Listen as your child talks about it, again and again if necessary. Reassure your child of the steps that are being taken to keep him or her safe. Children should be encouraged to tell a trusted adult, such as a parent or a teacher, if they are bullied or feel threatened.
  • Engage in activities with your children that demonstrate your values. Volunteer together at an organization whose mission is dedicated to a cause you care about, give your child ideas about individual actions he or she can take every day to help fight prejudice, and take care to discuss issues of shared concern as a family.

“As we turn to our newly elected leaders, the Academy will continue to advocate for and promote healthy children, support secure families, build strong communities and ensure that the United States is a leading nation for children,” concluded Remley. “We will remain constant in our pursuit of health and well-being for all children. We will be steadfast in our approach of using evidence, policy and our passion for children in our dialogue and discussion.”

Obviously your concerns will be more intense if your child has faced hate speech in school. Teachers have reported that such incidents spiked after the election. As always, advocate for your child. Be sure that the school knows and responds appropriately. Your child is counting on you, now more than ever.

Finally, keep your home life normal. Young children in particular need security, and need their parents to be in control. Do not react or overreact to what you hear on the radio or TV, or see on the internet. It might be a good time to buy an actual newspaper and read it with your child. Older children can learn on their own and keep track of what’s going on in politics. After all, they will be voting soon. Teach them to think for themselves, to not to succumb to peer pressure: there is a sense in middle and high school that bullies carry the day. Not so. Votes are private.

Van Jones’ children one day will see the clip of him almost in tears the night of the election, asking how he could explain the results. Perhaps they already have. They will have had time to adjust to the new reality, and they will not have to harbor secret fears about an unknown threat.

Parents’ Guide
9/17/2016 12:00 AM

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released back-to-school tips last month that will help parents — and their children — have smooth sailing through the first days of school — or if not smooth, at least easier.


It’s not unusual for some children to be nervous about school — either as new kindergartners, going to a new building for middle or high school, moving to a new district, or even just going back to their same school but with new teachers. Remind your child that other students are wondering what the first days will be like as well.

Definitely make sure your child attends any orientations. This is a good time to also tour the school before the first day, if it is a new school for your child.

Schools usually recommend that students take the bus for orientation — this is a good time to get to meet busmates and reduce extra anxiety on the first day. If your child walks to school, you may want to walk with him or her on the first day.


Bullying is a particular problem for many children with developmental or mental disorders. It can be physical, verbal, or social, and can happen at school, on the playground, or on the school bus. In cyberbullying, one child picks on another over the internet or through mobile devices. And bullying can take place in your own neighborhood.

If your child is bullied:

  • Alert school officials to the problems and work with them on solutions.
  • Teach your child when and how to ask a trusted adult for help.
  • Recognize the serious nature of bullying and acknowledge your child’s feelings about being bullied.
  • Help your child learn how to respond by teaching your child how to: (1) look the bully in the eye, (2) stand tall and stay calm in a difficult situation, and (3) walk away.
  • Teach your child how to say in a firm voice: (1) “I don’t like what you are doing,” (2) “Please do NOT talk to me like that” and (3) ”Why would you say that?”
  • Encourage your child to make friends with other children.
  • Support activities that interest your child.

You also need to make sure your child is not a bully himself or herself, by setting limits, being a positive role model, using effective nonphysical discipline such as loss of privileges, working with the school, and making sure your child knows that bullying is never okay.

If your child is a bystander to bullying behavior, encourage him or her to tell a trusted adult, and to support other children who may be bullied by including them in activities.

Special tips for teens

And here are some tips for back-to-school mental well-being for teens, from the suicide prevention coordinator for Massachusetts.

  • Good sleep habits. Getting plenty of rest and sleep is important not only for good grades and staying awake, but also for preventing depression and other mental health issues. Establish a reasonable bedtime routine for your teen and let them know that sleep is important.
  • Be available. Teens often appreciate being able to connect with you at the end of their school day, so try to be available either in person or on the phone when your teen gets home from school. Even if your budding adult complains, be persistent. You want to make connecting part of your routine. Walking or driving home together and having uninterrupted dinners provide other great opportunities to bond and communicate.
  • Stay connected. As kids get older, they often share less with parents/caregivers, but that doesn’t mean you should be less aware of how they’re feeling. Send encouraging texts or personal notes in their book bag to help reduce anxiety and let them know they are not alone at school, even if they may feel that way. Take time to listen and discuss experiences that may appear to be scary or challenging. Spend time each day talking to your teen about what happened in school. Give positive feedback about their new experiences.
  • Serve healthy food and encourage healthy eating. Food choices affect mood, ability to concentrate, and energy level — all key in your teen’s academic success and overall well-being. Providing healthy foods is important for your teen’s mental and physical health. Serve a variety of foods, including vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
  • Encourage regular exercise. Physical activity is great for mental wellness and has been shown to decrease depression and anxiety. Experts believe that exercise releases chemicals in our brains that make us feel good. Regular exercise can also boost your teen’s self-esteem and help them concentrate, sleep, and feel better. Help your teen find types of exercise they enjoy, and try to be active together (if they’ll let you!).

Reinforce your teen’s ability to cope. Give your teen a few strategies to manage difficult situations on their own. Many teens find talking with a trusted friend, adult, or therapist; journaling; exercising; and listening to and/or playing music to be helpful ways of coping with stress.

And parents

Last but not least, parents need to take care of themselves when children go back to school. It’s not summertime any more. Everyone’s schedules may be more hectic: getting up early, getting ready for work while preparing breakfasts and lunches, worrying about grades, and getting everyone to their after-school activities, and having your own life as well. Wait, your own life? If you have a child with problems? Yes, it’s essential. As the saying goes, put on your own oxygen mask first, or you can’t help your children.

For more information, go to

Parents’ Guide
8/5/2016 12:00 AM

Desperate parents sometimes call the police on their own children — not because they want them to be arrested or go to jail, but because they don’t know what else to do. Unfortunately, what often happens is a downward spiral, in which young people dig a deeper and deeper hole for themselves, and parents find they have lost their child to the juvenile justice system.

Desperate parents sometimes call the police on their own children — not because they want them to be arrested or go to jail, but because they don’t know what else to do. Unfortunately, what often happens is a downward spiral, in which young people dig a deeper and deeper hole for themselves, and parents find they have lost their child to the juvenile justice system.

A new report, “It Takes a Village — Diversion Resources for Police and Families,” sheds light on a largely hidden problem in the United States — low-level misbehaviors in young people like skipping school, running away, or violating curfew frequently lead to arrest and incarceration. The report, issued June 29 by the Vera Institute of Justice, shows that parents are often the unwitting participants in this system. “In many cases, families dealing with troubling behavior unwittingly send their children into the system by calling the police when they feel they have nowhere to turn for help,” the report noted.

There is little risk to public safety in these problems, yet the police get involved. The report focuses instead on solutions that allow families to access services and support — without ever calling the police.

Krista Larson, director of Vera’s Center on Youth Justice, writes in an introduction to the report that there “are safe and effective alternatives” to calling the police, which are moving the entire juvenile justice system toward prevention “as communities develop a shared vision of responding to youth in trouble through services and support instead of arrest and detention.”

Avoiding arrest

Young people who have an arrest record can also suffer negative legal consequences throughout their lives. Even if they’re not convicted, the arrest record can mean they can’t get a job, a driver’s license, access to college, and more. And the stigma associated with an arrest or negative police contact can create long-term psychic distress.

It’s important to note that youth of color are disproportionately affected. The rate of “ungovernability” cases, also known as being beyond the control of parents, is more than twice as high for black youth than white youth. The rate of runaway cases for black youth is more than three times that for white youth. The disparities are not a reflection of differences in behavior, but the ways that communities respond to the behavior depending on whether the adolescent is white or black.

Sometimes the police are called, but they can respond without arresting the youth. Here’s an example, from the report, of how well things can turn out when the police avoid arresting a young person: “The police were called after J.B., age 15, was involved in a minor scuffle at a park. Instead of immediately arresting J.B., who had been in trouble for fighting many times, the police called the local crisis response program, a resource for police and families to address emergent situations without arrest. A counselor came to the park to meet with J.B. and his grandmother, and the police and counselor determined that it was safe for them to leave the scene. Together, the family and counselor decided what J.B. most needed to keep him out of trouble. They created and monitored an action plan that encouraged J.B. to improve his grades, join his school’s ROTC program, start attending a weekly counseling group, and get involved in an extracurricular activity at school — working with student concessions at basketball games. Throughout his time with the program, J.B. not only stayed out of trouble, but also improved his academic and extracurricular connections to his school and established short- and long-term goals for his education and career.”

Normal adolescence

Disobeying adults is part of normal adolescent development. When you add the normal impulse control problems and peer pressure of adolescence, not to mention family conflict or childhood trauma, there may be symptoms that go beyond what parents can handle on their own. But detention — short-term custody during juvenile court processing — and being placed in a locked juvenile facility are destructive to the adolescent’s mental and physical health and to the family stability, and do nothing to help family problems or other issues that contribute to the behavior.

“We know that the point of contact between young people and officers is always the most volatile point, where things usually break down — and it usually ends with a loss of respect on both sides,” one Oregon police officer said.

Often, parents call the police in the context of fighting within the home — between youth and adults, or between siblings — frequently resulting in “adolescent domestic battery” charges. Police are required to respond. Then they are hesitant about leaving a youth in a crisis situation. And with no other options, they may arrest and book the youth. Sometimes they take the time to locate an appropriate guardian or school official. But these situations take police away from where they need to be — safeguarding public safety — and cause trauma for the child and family.

Community resources

The solution is to have community resources, according to the report. With greater sophistication about adolescent development, communities — including the police — are making changes in how they respond to youth “acting out.” The human costs of arresting and incarcerating young people are being recognized.

Here’s an example from the report: “In Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana, a mother met with the assistant principal at her son’s high school, looking for help. He was using substances frequently, leaving home almost every night, and not attending school. The mother was highly concerned for her son’s safety, and visited the school to discuss whether it was possible to have her son picked up by law enforcement and committed to a psychiatric hospital — the only way she could think of to get help. Instead, the principal suggested to the mother that she meet with staff from the local assessment and resource center. The family came in and, with a therapist’s assessment, discovered that the young man was willing to accept help. The staff found an inpatient facility within an hour of the family’s residence and helped the family form a plan without law enforcement involvement or the need for involuntary commitment.”

The bottom line: “If a family does call the police, they should be able to view police contact as an opportunity — as one way to proactively respond to challenging adolescent behavior and family disputes.” Currently, in many jurisdictions, that is not what’s happening, because the resources aren’t there.

For the full report, go to


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  • Meet the Editor

    Gregory K. Fritz, M.D.

    Dr Fritz is a professor of psychiatry and director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Brown University School of Medicine, where he conducts research and teaches.
    Alison Knopf
    Managing editor

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