Tag Archives: Child abuse

The Benefits and Limitations of Rhyming and Alliteration

Smoky Sunrise Aug 2017

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-rhyming and I’m not anti-rap.

Truth is, I think rhyming slogans are pretty darn cool. Ask my students, I use them all the time. Here are a few that have been known to slip out my mouth and into a class lecture from time to time:

  • A pill is not a skill.
  • Get curious, not furious.
  • Your goal should be within your personal control
  • To function to the best of your ability, you should embrace your multicultural humility
  • An alcoholic drink, will not help you think (better)

The benefits of rhyming (and I daresay, alliteration) is that messages emerge with might and mass, which makes them more memorable. What I meant to say here before my alliterative self took over is that rhyming produces a powerful and memorable message. That’s the good news.

The “less good” news (as us therapist types like to say) is that rhyming and alliteration, although clever and appealing, usually don’t capture ALL OF THE TRUTH, and, are often misleading.

All this initial commentary is my way of leading up to my recent critique of the liberal use of a couple of F-words (nope, I’m not talking about “Fire and fury” although that could be an alliterative example of something that’s simply not soothing the simmering psyches of people who need to settle down). Instead, the target of my critique today is the all-too-common utterance, “Fight or flight.”

What follows is an excerpt of a slight rambling rant that was included in my keynote speech at the Montana Prevent Child Abuse Conference this past April.

The context: I had just shown a video of a Harvard professor who happened to mention (without checking with me first) the clever and popular phrase, “fight or flight.” Here’s what came next:

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You may not be aware of this, but I’m an official, self-appointed member of the counseling and psychotherapy theories police. I don’t have a badge, but I’ve got a book. What this book means is that I’ve done a little background reading on lots of theoretical concepts, like “Fight or Flight.” “Fight or Flight” – We hear that a lot, even from, as my older daughter would say, that fancy Harvard guy on the video.

The problem with most rhyming concepts is that they tend to oversimplify whatever it is we’re talking about. Take for example, “No pain, no gain.” There’s some truth to that, but that statement probably doesn’t hold for everyone, everywhere.

Well, the troubling truth is that fight or flight isn’t really all that accurate. Stress doesn’t just trigger two behavioral options. There are other behaviors activated by stress, some of which also start with an F, but don’t rhyme so neatly.

There’s Faint. And there’s Freeze. Chronic stress can also increase Feeding; some of us know that first-hand. My favorite stress food comes from places that rhyme with Fakery, so I guess that’s another F word. But, then again, stress can also dull your appetite, so the feeding thing isn’t a universal response.

Then there are the “P” words, like poop and pee. High stress can affect those, sometimes rather dramatically.

But what most people—even fancy Harvard guys—don’t tell you or don’t know, is that much of the Fight or Flight research was conducted on White Males.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the research was actually conducted on White, Male, Rats.

After re-analyzing old data and new studies focusing on female rats and female humans, years ago, Shelly Taylor and her research colleagues at UCLA discovered that for females of the species, there was a tendency toward a different set of rhyming words. The females coped with stressors using a strategy referred to as “Tend and Befriend.” And to further complexify the situation, sometimes males do the tend and befriend thing too. . . although not quite so frequently as the white, male, rats.

The point . . . I know I’ve strayed from it, is that financial and workplace interventions are very good for decreasing child abuse, but IMHO. . . interventions that increase social support and connection (the tending and befriending as methods for helping highly stressed families cope) are equally important . . . and that brings us right back to you and what you can do to prevent child abuse.

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Today’s blog is just a reminder that although powerful and memorable communication is remarkably powerful and memorable, it’s usually incomplete, not always accurate, and a function of the speaker’s need or desire to be powerful and memorable. This is just as true when I say “a pill is not a skill” or when other people say other things that make use of rambling and reckless rhetoric of the alliterative or rhyming ilk.

To finish, I’ll leave you with what Shelly Taylor said back in the year 2000, as excerpted from our forthcoming textbook, Counseling and Psychotherapy in Context and Practice (John Wiley and Sons, 2018). This particular excerpt ends with brief comments from us that also, in case you are wondering, might be relevant to the recent Google manifesto brouhaha.

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Stress researcher and social psychologist Shelly Taylor made a similar contribution when researching the well-known fight or flight phenomenon (Taylor et al., 2000). She and her colleagues wrote:

A little-known fact about the fight-or-flight response is that the preponderance of research exploring its parameters has been conducted on males, especially on male rats. Until recently, the gender distribution in the human literature was inequitable as well. Prior to 1995, women constituted about 17% of participants in laboratory studies of physiological and neuroendocrine responses to stress. (2000, p. 412)

Reanalysis of existing data and new research revealed significant differences in the ways in which females and males respond to stressful situations. Taylor and colleagues (2000) concluded:

We propose a theory of female responses to stress characterized by a pattern termed “tend-and-befriend.” Specifically, we propose that women’s responses to stress are characterized by patterns that involve caring for offspring under stressful circumstances, joining social groups to reduce vulnerability, and contributing to the development of social groupings, especially those involving female networks, for the exchange of resources and responsibilities. We maintain that aspects of these responses, both maternal and affiliative, may have built on the biobehavioral attachment caregiving system that depends, in part, on oxytocin, estrogen, and endogenous opioid mechanisms, among other neuroendocrine underpinnings. (p. 422)

The preponderance of the research suggests that in fact, that White male ways of being aren’t always normative for females, or even for all males. There are physical and psychological similarities between females and males, but there are also differences. In this case, it would be inappropriate to make the case that a typical male fight-or-flight response is superior to a typical female tend-and-befriend response. There is likely an evolutionary benefit to both stress-related behavior patterns (Master et al., 2009; Taylor & Gonzaga, 2007; Taylor & Master, 2011). Sometimes differences are just differences and there’s no need to advocate for one sex-related pattern as superior over another (although if they feel threatened by this information, white male rats are highly likely to fight for their position…or run and hide in little holes in our cupboards). In this case it seems clear: Neither behavior pattern represents psychopathology…and neither will always be the superior response to threat.

 

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Dear National Review: I’ll help you get government out of parenting if you’ll stop letting bad journalists write articles.

Naked Babies II

A little over two months ago I got all worked up over an article on parenting published in the National Review that I thought was a little too “pro-child abuse” for my taste. I sent them a query about publishing it right away. Their editor responded a couple weeks later, asking to read the piece. Then he politely declined it, noting it was a bit stale (meaning too much time had passed). Of course, it got stale because he sat on it for two weeks. But I figure he didn’t want to publish it anyway, since I basically accused his writer of writing fake news and supporting child abuse.

So . . . I decided to send it to myself. And, after sitting on it for another six weeks, I’m publishing it because it’s crunchy like a piece of old stale bread.

Setting the Record Straight on Government

Interference in Parental Rights

John Sommers-Flanagan, Ph.D.

Abby Schachter’s National Review article (12/26/16) titled, “Why is the government telling us how to raise our kids?” is troubling on many levels.

To start, Ms. Schachter’s headline is inaccurate and misleading. The National Review deserves better than that. In reality, the government isn’t trying to tell parents how to raise their children. An accurate headline would have read, “Why is the government telling us how NOT to raise our kids?”

This is still an important question and begs for a clarification between laws that mandate behavior (e.g., seat belts and registration under the Affordable Care Act) and laws that prohibit behavior (e.g., driving while intoxicated and physical or sexual abuse of minor children). Laws that protect children from abuse are laws that prohibit particular (and unusual) parenting behaviors; they don’t mandate specific parenting behaviors. As is well known, laws mandating specific behaviors—whether within the realm of parenting or focusing on other citizen behaviors—are aligned with tyrannical governments. However, government policies that Schachter mocks in her article are legal efforts designed to protect children from parental abuse and neglect. Is it possible for the government to over-reach in that area? Absolutely yes! But Schachter’s complaints of “bureaucratic busybodies” miss the point and put children at further risk.

Schachter’s complaints about rampant government meddling with good-enough parenting represent a narrow perspective. The historical and current prevalence of child abuse and neglect is stunning. Even the usually stoic Sigmund Freud was shaken after viewing abused children’s bodies at the Paris Morgue in 1885. Child abuse is ugly and disturbing and children need protection. Schachter’s defense of parental rights at the risk of overlooking neglect and abuse implies that she hasn’t seen or appreciated the extent of child abuse in America. Her rhetoric could be interpreted as suggesting that child abuse and neglect should be legal variants of parental rights. I’m sure that’s not her intent.

There’s also a mathematical component to Schachter’s misunderstanding. Government laws prohibiting parental abuse and neglect are a best effort at predicting and therefore reducing child abuse. Schachter’s complaints stem from real cases, but her personal interpretation of the problems reflects no understanding of math and the Bayesian Theorem. To take her position, Schachter must assume the base rates of child abuse and neglect are extremely low, so low that parents and children might be better served if child abuse laws were eliminated. But the facts belie this perspective. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, over 1,800 incidents of child abuse occur every day in the U.S. Even assuming this is an overestimation and the real rates are 20% lower, this still translates to 1,440 abuse incidents daily or 60 per hour or 1 per minute. Let’s assume that Schachter is correct and some laws are an overreach and result in false positive identification of parents as abusive or neglectful. How many times do you suppose false government accusations occur per hour in the U.S.? Do we have 60 parents falsely accused of child abuse per hour? Not even close. But if we embrace Schachter’s position, we protect parental rights and risk a massive increase in unreported child abuse and neglect.

For my money, I’d rather have a few parents deal with the emotional pain of government hassles than to have children deal with the pain of parental neglect or physical and sexual abuse. Over four children a day die from parental maltreatment. I’m betting Schachter can’t find four cases a week like the one she covered in her article.

In the end, I agree with Schachter that government interference in good-enough parenting is wrong. But I also know that in the time it took you to read this article at least five more children in the U.S. experienced abuse or neglect. Parental rights shouldn’t be needlessly usurped. However, in this case, I’m siding with thousands of abused and neglected children over the rights of a relatively small number of parents.

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John Sommers-Flanagan is a clinical psychologist and professor of counselor education at the University of Montana. He’s the author of eight books, including How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen (John Wiley & Sons).

The Missoula CASA Keynote

There are a number of problems associated with being asked to do a keynote speech for a local non-profit. Maybe this is all just me, but the pressure feels very big. Keynotes are supposed to be informative and inspiring and funny. Right? Well, to be perfectly honest, although I love to think of myself as able to be informative, inspiring, and funny, to actually have expectations to be informative, inspiring, and funny is miserable. That might be why, 15 minutes before stepping up to the microphone at the Doubletree banquet room in Missoula, I had a case of the complete BLANK MIND. I seriously had no idea what I had planned to say. Two days before the event I was sure I could memorize my 25 minute speech. Now, I looked at my notebook and words were there, but they seemed stupid and boring and not funny and I couldn’t help but wonder, “Who wrote this crap?” I suppose that’s an example of an unfriendly dissociation.

To top all that off, every speaker who offered introductions and who spoke before me was smooth and articulate . . . and I had decided to drink a cup of herbal tea which led to my bladder was telling me that I HAD to get to the bathroom right away. But I wasn’t sure how long I had before being called up as the highly acclaimed keynote speaker whose name was in big bold letters on the program. Mostly, I felt like crawling under the Crowley and Fleck sponsored keynote table or escaping to the bathroom. Neither of these options seemed realistic.

So I told my bladder to wait its turn and listened to Eden Atwood sing along with a group of fabulously talented and cute young girls. A man at the front table started crying. That’s what happens when you’re at an event celebrating and funding an organization that works with abused and neglected children. It was around then that Eden Atwood and her group (called the MOB) distracted me from my anxiety, calmed me out of my dissociative episode, and inspired me to go ahead and sing and dance around the stage as part of the ending of my keynote.

Just in case you missed it, the whole darn event was awesome. The best part was to be right in the middle of the generosity of so many people who help make Missoula a better and healthier and safer place.

And just in case you’re interested, I managed to deliver most my planned speech and people laughed and afterward offered big compliments. But I’m not certain how well I stuck to the script because at some point I remember saying “Of course, I’m lying about that” which I followed with, “But I understand that lying is popular right now.” I also recall, after one particular non-sequitur, saying something about the fact that because I was a university professor, I could say whatever I wanted and didn’t really have to make any logical sense. None of these comments were in the transcript to my speech. Obviously, I went way off script.

It might be surprising, but my plan to start singing and dancing actually was in the script. However, partway through the song my blank mind returned and I forgot the lyrics. The good news is that I’m fairly sure that everyone, including me, was greatly relieved when I stopped singing.

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Wishing for a Super Bowl that Promotes Non-Violence

It’s been a tough year for the National Football League. There was renewed emphasis (for a while) on the devastating brain damage caused by repeated concussions. Then there was the Ray Rice domestic violence incident. And then there was the Adrian Peterson child abuse incident. And now there’s the Aaron Hernandez trial for murder and weapons charges that started a couple days ago. All these scandals added up to big, bad publicity . . . so much so that the Fiscal Times noted in a recent headline that these incidents “Rocked the NFL.”

Then there was deflate-gate, the ridiculousness that led us to wonder if our football heroes might just be a bunch of cheats.

But wait.

Through all these scandals the NFL has continued laughing its way to the Bank with obscene gobs of money that could be used to wipe out Ebola or end child abuse. Last year, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell made about $44 million. Vegas odds are that he’ll do better this year. Super Bowl advertisings are doing just fine, thank-you. And Katy Perry may or may not have a wardrobe malfunction tomorrow evening, but you can bet there will be millions of viewers. The NFL is right on pace to increase its economic worth to something well over being a $9 billion dollar industry. Not bad. Talk about Teflon.

It’s clear the situation is hopeless and that the Juggernaut that is the NFL will stroll into the future without substantially addressing anything that might be remotely linked to a social virtue. Nevertheless, I can’t stop cheering for underdogs, and that leaves me with an array of dreams that are so silly that I’m embarrassed to admit them. That said, I’ll go ahead and embrace my embarrassment and tell you what I’m watching for tomorrow.

I’ll be watching to see how many advertising bucks are used to promote domestic violence or child abuse prevention. Will we see NFL players, coaches, owners, and the commissioner go on record to support sexual assault prevention? Might there be room for the tiniest of sprinklings of valuable educational public service announcements during the four hour Super Bowl feast?

I think not; but I hold out hope.

And here’s my biggest irrational wish. I’m wishing for the NFL to provide educational information about the dangers of corporal punishment. Adrian Peterson said something to the effect that all he did was send his kiddo out to get a stick so he could beat him with it, just like his Momma did to him. Peterson was talking about our great American tradition of believing that it’s a good thing for parents to hit their children.

Even more disturbing than the single Adrian Peterson incident is the fact that during a typical 4 hour time period (about the length of the Super Bowl broadcast) there are approximately 1,500 reports of child abuse . . . and so maybe, just maybe, we could use a little NFL-sponsored education here.

But what really smacks my pigskin is the fact that Adrian Peterson’s parenting philosophy is still alive and well on the internet. In particular, it’s featured on the website of Christian “parenting expert” James Dobson. Seriously. It’s on a Christian-based website. This is stunning not only because there’s a truckload of science telling us that hitting kids is linked to bad outcomes, but also because it’s pretty difficult to imagine the Jesus that I read about in the Bible hitting children with a stick . . . or advocating the hitting of children with a stick.

Now that it’s the 21st century and time for Super Bowl XLIX, shouldn’t we know better? Shouldn’t we know that we shouldn’t send our kids out to get sticks so we can beat them? Come on NFL . . . just share that fun fact. Just come out and say you don’t support beating children . . . and how about you take 0.001% of your net worth and use it to launch an educational campaign that will teach parents what to do instead of hitting kids.

That’s what I’ll be watching for tomorrow . . . if I can manage to stomach turning on the game at all.

Saturday Morning with Rylee’s Blog

This morning I woke up tumbling through a dream of Margaret and Davis and Chelsea and Seth and Rita. We were all walking together and I got the honor of carrying Margaret on the way home. . . her 21 month old arms around my neck and then—poof—I am awake in Montana and the twins are in Connecticut.

And Rylee is in Scotland.

This past Thursday, as a part of my closing Keynote speech for the Montana Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect Conference, I managed to weave in a 90 second video clip of my grandson Davis walking around with a bucket on his head. I thought my speech was awesome. I was on fire, stringing together clear, clean, and polished sentences. But afterwards most people seemed to think the best part was watching that little boy with the bucket on his head.

This morning instead of reading and grading papers I’m reading Rylee’s blog. http://thecolorlime.wordpress.com/

Yesterday we Skyped, which was fine, but sometimes it’s even better to sift through her blog and catch a little glimpse of what she’s thinking, feeling, and doing across the pond. Freud said “Words were originally magic.” This morning my little Rylee’s magical words make me smile and miss her more than usual.

What makes people so desperate and disturbed that they would abuse children? I have a few academic answers to that question. Maybe it’s their old abuse history, their new stress, emotional troubles, needs for power and control, frustration, misdirected anger, twisted inner worlds of confusion about what they want and what they’re doing. But you know what they say: There are many good excuses, but no good reasons.

On this rainy Missoula morning I’m missing the children in my life and wanting to offer tribute to the human service providers and foster parents I met this past week in Helena who have dedicated their lives to protecting children from abuse and neglect. You all deserve a raise. Even better, you deserve to have your dream of preventing child abuse and neglect come true.

Heading to the 2012 Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect Conference in Helena, MT

Thanks to Mary Peterson, who asked if I could return to Helena again this year to do a break-out session and closing keynote, I’m heading to Helena tomorrow morning for the 2012 Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect Conference. This is a conference attended by an array of social workers, foster parents, and a ranger of other professionals who work hard to prevent and reduce child abuse in Montana. This is a fantastic group of people and I’m honored to spend a few hours with them tomorrow and Thursday. The title of my break-out session is: “How to Get Parents to Listen to your Excellent Advice” and the Keynote is “Your Wild and Precious Life” (in honor of the Mary Oliver poem). Wherever you are and whoever you are spend a moment to think about how to contribute to reducing child abuse . . . an all too frequent and disturbing pattern of behavior that gets very little focus or attention in the media.