How to End Screen Time Without A Struggle

Do you ever struggle with getting your kids off the screen? Does it often end in tears (both theirs and yours)? This could help.

Do you ever struggle with getting your kids off the screen? Does it often end in tears (both theirs and yours)? Like so many other parents, I used to give my children warning.

“Five more minutes, then it’s dinner!” I’d yell from the kitchen.

This statement would either be ignored or grunted at.

Five minutes later, I’d march into the living room and turn the TV/tablet/gadget off, expecting them to silently accept and for us all to have a lovely, quiet dinner together.

Cue screams. Cue tantrums. Cue cold dinner. Cue grey hairs.

I realized something was wrong. Something was wrong in the way I was approaching the issue. My children aren’t naturally prone to tantrums, so I was thrown by this. I couldn’t work out what I could do to stop the sudden screaming at the end of every screen-time.

I wanted to find a way of gently disconnecting my children from the screen, of bringing them back into the real world without continual bumps and bruises along the way (because this happened almost every night), but I didn’t know how. Then a friend introduced me to a little trick by Isabelle Filliozat.

Isabelle Filliozat is a clinical psychologist specializing in positive parenting. She is the author of many books about children’s education, and an authority on gentle parenting in the French speaking world. From one day to the next, my world changed. I suddenly knew how to handle the end of screen-time without the screams, the tantrums, the cold dinner, or the grey hairs.

Here is Isabelle Filliozat’s very simple method to end screen-time without the screams.

The science behind screen-time

Have you ever had the electricity cut off just as the football game reached its most nerve-wracking stage?

Or your toddler pressed the “off” switch just as the protagonists in the deeply engrossing romantic comedy were finally going to kiss?

Or you ran out of power just as you were going to kill that alien and move up a level?

It’s hard to come out of the state of pleasure, which is what screen-time creates in our brains. It’s hard for adults. For a child, it can be terrible. Literally. Here, according to Isabelle Filliozat, is why.

When we human beings (not only children!) are absorbed in a film or playing a computer game, we are, mentally, in another world. Screens are hypnotic to our brains. The light, the sounds, the rhythm of the images puts the brain into a state of flow. We feel good, and don’t want to do anything else. We certainly don’t want the situation to change.

During these moments, our brains produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter which relieves stress-and pain. All is well – that is, until the screen is turned off. The dopamine levels in the body drop fast and without warning, which can, literally, create a sensation of pain in the body. This drop in hormones, this physical shock, is where children’s scream-time begins.

It doesn’t matter that we parents are quite clear that now is the end of screen-time. After all, we’d discussed and arranged it beforehand (”20 minutes!”), and/or given them warning (“5 more minutes!”). To us, it’s clear and fair enough, but to the child, it isn’t. When in front of a screen, she isn’t in a state to think that way or to take that information in. Her brain is awash with dopamine, remember? To turn the “off” switch on the television can, for the child, feel like a shock of physical pain. You’re not exactly slapping her in the face, but this is, neurologically speaking, how it might feel to her.

Cutting her off forcefully is hurtful. So instead of simply switching the “off” button, the trick is not to cut her off, but to instead enter her zone.

The trick: build a bridge

Whenever you decide that screen-time should come to an end, take a moment to sit down next to your child and enter his world. Watch TV with him, or sit with him while he plays his game massacring aliens on the screen. This doesn’t have to be long, half a minute is enough. Just share his experience. Then, ask him a question about it.

“What are you watching?” might work for some kids.

Others might need more specific questions. “So what level are you on now?” or “That’s a funny figure there in the background. Who’s he?”

Generally, children love it when their parents take an interest in their world. If they are too absorbed still and don’t engage, don’t give up. Just sit with them a moment longer, then ask another question.

Once the child starts answering your questions or tells you something she has seen or done on screen, it means that she is coming out of the “cut-off” zone and back into the real world. She’s coming out of the state of flow and back into a zone where she is aware of your existence – but slowly. The dopamine doesn’t drop abruptly, because you’ve built a bridge – a bridge between where she is and where you are. You can start to communicate, and this is where the magic happens.

You can choose to start discussing with your child that it’s time to eat, to go have his bath, or simply that screen-time is over now. Because of the minute of easing-in, your child will be in a space where he can listen and react to your request. He might even have been smoothed back into the real world gently enough, and is so happy about the parental attention that he wants turn off the TV/tablet/computer himself. (I’ve experienced my children do this, hand to heart.)

To me, simply the awareness of what’s going on in my children’s minds helps me handle end-of-screen-time much better than before. It isn’t always as smooth as I want it to be, but we haven’t had a scream-time incident since I discovered Isabelle Filliozat’s little trick.

Don’t take my word for it, go and try it yourself

Next time your child is sitting in front of a screen, and you want to end it, try this:

  • Sit with her for 30 seconds, a minute, or longer, and simply watch whatever she is watching/doing.
  • Ask an innocent question about what’s happening on screen. Most children love their parent’s attention, and will provide answers.
  • Once you’ve created a dialogue, you’ve created a bridge – a bridge that will allow your child to, in his mind and body, step from screen back into the real world, without hormones in free-fall, and therefore without crisis.
  • Enjoy the rest of your day together.

14 Ways "Black-Ish" Normalized Postpartum Depression

A recent episode of the ABC sitcom “Black-ish” focused on postpartum depression and mental health. This is incredible progress.

I was very pleased to watch television this week and see a mental health focus for an entire episode of the ABC sitcom “Black-ish.” This is incredible progress. As a licensed mental health therapist, I understand well the stigma facing mental health and how much awareness and education is needed.

In the “Black-ish” Season 4 Episode 2 – Mother Nature, Bow is feeling overwhelmed after the birth of her son and learns she is suffering from postpartum depression. Dre urges her to get help and stands by her side while she works through it. Meanwhile, the kids baby-proof the house in an effort to help their parents out.

Here are 14 ways this episode of “Black-ish” normalizes mental health for new mothers experiencing postpartum depression.

1 | Honoring mothers is not dishonoring fathers

In the first two minutes of the episode, we see Andre Johnson Sr., or Dre (played by Anthony Anderson), recognizing the pride a man feels when having a newborn baby. He also honors women for the feat of carrying a human being inside their body, and now holding and nurturing that child for the rest of their lives.

“Mother nature has given women everything they need to sustain life with comfort and ease.” A man honoring and praising a woman for her motherhood does not take away from his honor or manhood, it enhances it.

2 | Your family may notice you acting differently but may not understand you are dealing with a mental health issue

Dr. Rainbow Johnson (Bow), played by Tracee Ellis Ross, is visibly showing signs of depression – easily distracted, lack of motivation, frequent crying, low energy, insomnia, etc. As narrated by Dre, the family is aware that something is “wrong” and take steps to help Bow, but are initially unaware she is struggling with a mood disorder.

3 | Having a mental health diagnosis is not a sign of weakness

Dre’s mother, Ruby Johnson (played by Jennifer Lewis) makes the following statement when referring to Bow’s change in behaviors, “This is what new motherhood looks like…she’s just weak.”

There’s often a perception that acknowledging the presence of a mental health diagnosis or even getting help or treatment is a sign of weakness. It is not!

In the last scenes of the episode Ruby ends up apologizing to Bow and tells Bow she’s not weak. Ruby admits being weak for not being there to help Bow through this experience.

4 | Having experienced postpartum depression during a previous pregnancy is a risk factor, but is not the only indication

Dre makes the statement that Bow didn’t experience the symptoms she’s displaying presently after the birth of her other children, and he doesn’t understand why this pregnancy is different.

While previous experiences with postpartum depression are a strong indication of present or future indications, they’re not the only factor that must be considered. Factors such as previous experience with depression, a family member who’s been diagnosed with depression or other mental illness, medical complications during childbirth, mixed feelings about the pregnancy, whether it was planned or unplanned, and others. In Bow’s case, the fact that the baby came early, Bow’s age (meaning it was a high-risk pregnancy), and other factors make experiencing postpartum depression very likely.

5 | Postpartum depression is not the same as having “baby blues”

One of Dre’s co-workers attempts to diagnose Bow as having the “baby blues,” which is used to describe the feelings of unrest, tiredness, worry, and fatigue many women experience after having a baby. It’s normal for a mother to experience worry or concern over being able to provide care for the newborn baby, and this is present in approximately 80 percent of mothers.

However, postpartum depression is extreme feelings of sadness and anxiety that affect the mother’s self-care or that of her family. This affects approximately 15 percent of births. A new mother should not try to diagnose herself but consider speaking to a mental health professional to get an evaluation if she or another family member is concerned.

6 | New mothers can experience postpartum depression and not know it

Dre takes the advice of his co-workers and reads through a magazine targeted to women where he discovers his wife may be experiencing postpartum depression. The suggestion from the magazine encourages Dre to be gentle with his approach in discussing this with his wife.

While magazine or online questionnaires are no substitute for mental health treatment or assessment, the advice given in this occasion was helpful. Having a discussion with a new mother about the possibility of her having postpartum depression should be done very delicately and in a supportive manner.

7 | Mothers should not try to self-diagnose themselves

Bow makes this statement, “I do not have postpartum depression. I am a doctor and I would know.”

While the character of Rainbow Johnson is a medical doctor, she does not specialize in mental health or psychiatry. Postpartum depression doesn’t discriminate in race, profession, socioeconomic status, or anything else. A diagnosis of postpartum depression is not an indication of weakness or failure in the new mother; rather, it’s an indication of something that affects many women. Luckily, there’s help for it.

8 | A woman experiencing postpartum depression is not someone who needs to be fixed

In one scene, Dre asks Bow over and over if she’s okay and tries to engage her in activities. Bow responds, “Please stop trying to fix me.”

It’s important to recognize the new mother not as something that has been broken and needs fixing, but as a human being who is experiencing a mood disorder and needs lots of support. This mindset of the mother being “broken” may cause her symptoms to worsen. She may feel like her body is failing if she can’t breastfeed, or her skills as a mother are failing if she is unable to console her child, or any other self-defeating thought.

9 | Just because someone else did not seek treatment after giving birth does not mean this is healthy for everyone

Dre’s mother, Ruby, discusses Bow’s ability to parent with Dre, comparing Bow’s present actions with her own experience after giving birth to Dre. She says, “I didn’t go to some quack doctor because I was mentally ill with some made-up disease.”

Dre quickly corrects her and explains that postpartum depression is not made up, stating that many women experience it. The Center for Disease Control estimates 11 to 20 percent of new mothers experience postpartum depression. Just because your mother, sister, grandmother, aunt, best friend, or whomever didn’t receive treatment for postpartum depression doesn’t mean that is the best course of action for you.

10 | Recovery from postpartum depression is not instantaneous, it takes time

One of Bow’s children asks, “Why isn’t she getting better?”

Sometimes the expectation for the new mother, or her family and friends, is that she will get better quickly. This process takes time and can be incredibly frustrating for the new mother. Support, encouragement, and space will be vital to her during this time. The best thing family and friends can do is to keep communication open and provide the new mother with what she asks for.

11 | Experiencing postpartum depression is not a reason to allow people to walk over you; establish and reinforce boundaries

One of the scenes shows Ruby and Bow discussing why Ruby made the decision to give Bow’s child baby formula instead of the breastmilk Bow had pumped. Bow assertively tells Ruby she has crossed a line.

It’s important to seek the counsel of a mental health professional regarding healthy behaviors and practices, but at the end of the day you are a mother and it is your child. No one should ever make you feel bad for wanting to raise a healthy baby and no one should violate your wishes as the child’s mother. This may mean setting boundaries with your family, in-laws, friends, significant other, or other people.

12 | The new mother needs support and unconditional love from her significant other

If the new mother is fortunate to have the support of a significant other, that person should be prepared to fully support and love the new mother unconditionally.

In the scene when Bow tells Ruby to get out of her house, Dre supports his wife, even to the point of asking his own mother to leave their house. Bow needs this support during this time. Ruby also calls Bow crazy and says she is overreacting.

Name-calling and unrealistic expectations will only backfire and make things harder for the new mother. The feelings the new mother is experiencing are real, and they should be honored and given space to be worked through.

13 | Everyone around the new mother will feel powerless to help and that’s okay, because it’s not about them

Dre is speaking to his father, played by Lawrence Fishburne, about Bow’s seemingly lack of progress. He states, “I feel powerless.”

It’s not uncommon for men to feel like the woman needs fixing and it’s their job to fix her, but the new mother just needs time, support, and unconditional love to help her during this time. Let’s us not forget this woman just carried a human being inside her body and now that human being is a newborn baby who is crying and solely dependent on the new mother for everything. No pressure at all, right?

14 | Counseling or therapy and medication management are proven treatments for postpartum depression

There still continues to be a stigma around mental health. It is everyone’s responsibility to become informed and to inform others so we can break the stigma.

In the last few scenes of the episode, Bow talks about the therapeutic homework her therapist assigned to help her through this experience. Bow also expresses initial frustration at her therapist, which is normal for anyone entering therapy. Bow’s continuation with therapy and her medication helps her eventually work through and improve her mood.

If you or a loved one may be experiencing postpartum depression, please contact a mental health professional for an evaluation.

How Parenthood Changed My View of Scary Movies

When people say that “everything in your life will change” once you have a child, I thought I knew what that meant. I wasn’t expecting this.

When my two best friends wanted to put together a movie date to see IT, I jumped at the chance to have a girl’s day without my eight-month-old son in tow. Brunch and besties? Yes, please! Plus, it’s almost Halloween, so I figured a scary movie – albeit one based on a book I’ve never read, but by an author I enjoy – was seasonally appropriate.

I wasn’t expecting to walk out of the theater unable to stop crying, but that’s what happened.

I’ve been sensitive to creepy movies and books since I was a kid, but over the past decade or so, I’ve grown to enjoy certain “scary” movies. The Cabin in the Woods pleasantly surprised me in a way I didn’t think was possible anymore in that genre. El Orfanato is deliciously creepy from start to finish. And as far as Stephen King goes, Carrie nails it.

But it’s been a while since things that go bump in the night had the capacity to reduce me into a whimpering mess. What’s different?

I have my own kid now, that’s what’s different. When people say that “everything in your life will change” once you have a child, I thought I knew what that meant. I wasn’t expecting this.

Obviously I’m not afraid of a homicidal clown like the one in the movie, but the biological instinct to protect my kid at all costs flooded my body in a way I’ve never experienced before. When I made it home after IT, I put the question to Facebook. Who else felt like this switch had flipped once they became a parent?

I was floored to discover how many parents, mostly women, have experienced this same shift. It’s as though we’re completely incapable of separating ourselves from the fictional narratives. I was flooded with responses like these from other parents:

  • “For several years after my child was born, any movie/show where the kid was the target of violence or terror just made me ill.”
  • “I can’t deal with anything involving children being harmed in any fashion.”
  • “I couldn’t wait to get home and hug my kid after [seeing IT].”
  • “When Georgie goes out to play in the rain alone, it gave me so much anxiety.”

And so on.

Even my aunt, a nurse of many years, admitted that she had to leave bedside nursing in the oncology ward after she had her three sons. She explained that “the death and difficult disease process were too much to bear after having my own children.”

If somone who faces death and decay on a daily basis felt the same trauma I felt when caught unaware, I knew this guttural reaction went deeper. Dr. Keith Humphreys, psychiatrist at Stanford Health Care, confirmed my suspicions.

“We’re pretty deeply programmed as humans to love and protect our children,” says Dr. Humphreys. “If we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t have survived as a species for so long.”

He goes on to explain that fathers, as well as mothers, are susceptible to this same reaction after becoming parents. Part of this is due to basic biological survival mechanisms, but he suspects it’s also due in part to our overexposure to violence in the media.

“It’s still tough for people because the media knows that stories about children being harmed are eye-catching,” confirms Dr. Humphreys. “It’s common to open a newspaper and see that every day they have another ‘horrible thing that happened to a kid’ story. It’s a way to manipulate you. That’s very upsetting, but it’s hard not to click on it. And that’s what causes anxiety. A lot of parents find it really challenging because you can’t avoid that. You can avoid horror movies – just don’t go to see them.”

This protective reaction isn’t universal. Dr. Humphreys says that even non-parents can be affected in the same way when faced with children in vulnerable situations, and some parents are better equipped to separate themselves from the fantasy.

I don’t think it’s masochistic [to still enjoy scary movies as a parent],” says Dr. Humphreys. “Some people are able to.”

After IT, I decided to test this theory by watching movies I’d seen before that I knew included violence (or implied/attempted violence) towards children in various situations. The Shining. Room. The VVITCH.

What I found was that I was better able to stomach violent images that I’d seen before. My mind had already witnessed these atrocities; I was prepared, albeit still disgusted. I didn’t “enjoy” them, but I avoided the involuntary reflex to protect.

That’s why I think IT affected me so badly. Watching a child succumb to Pennywise’s manipulations made me nauseous. It’s a worst nightmare come to life, it’s reality cloaked in fantasy. It’s masterful. It’s merciless.

This instinct isn’t rooted in weakness, it’s a testament to the power of parental love. If the price I have to pay for being a parent is an inability to digest horrifying imagery like this, I’ll happily skip seeing mother! and keep Hocus Pocus on repeat for every Halloween season to come.

(P.S. My friends, who are non-parents, felt really bad. I still love you guys!)

What Harry Potter Teaches Us About Mindfulness

Relate the strategies and techniques of mindfulness to the perennial favorite, “Harry Potter,” and you’ve got a whole new set of tools.

I’m a clinical psychologist who has worked extensively with children and young people. My patients come to me seeking help for prevalent mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression. I’m also a mum and a huge Harry Potter fan!

The struggle is real when it comes to explaining a concept like mindfulness to young children, and often to parents too. It may seem too abstract, too complicated, or too “hippy-dippy” to be effective in their lives with their very real and present problems – you know, the ones they came in to get actual, realistic help with? Uttering the words “meditation” or “mindfulness” is a quick way to see glazed-over kiddie eyes, and a flash of disappointment cross the parents’ faces while they mentally scroll the yellow pages for someone who is going to provide “an actual fix” for the presenting issue.

Perhaps part of the issue is the way we are communicating what mindfulness is, and the profession’s own difficulty in describing it. Another issue is that mindfulness has become such a trend in pop psychology (think coloring books) that it’s not deemed serious or academic enough to help in any real way.

I do think that as far as treatment plans go, mindfulness-related strategies hold the potential to help kids with a myriad of concerns, whether they be clinical presentations or simply as a way to live in a more positive, engaged way.

A simple way to explain mindfulness is to notice what’s happening right now. Notice what your body is doing. Notice what your mind is doing. Be present in the moment. It’s about paying attention in a specific way, on purpose.

This is not often a concept that reads well with young kids. But in re-reading Harry Potter for the umpteenth time (I’m not proud of the number), I began to notice some parallels between the Harry Potter stories and mindfulness strategies. I started to think about ways to explain mindfulness to kids using Harry Potter language (provided they’ve either read the books or watched the movies).

The following parts of the series do, I believe, teach us something about mindfulness strategies and techniques. There are so many strategies relating to mindfulness that it would be impossible to cover them all in one post, so I’m going to write about some of my favorites (and most effective, based on my own clinical population).

Contentment and gratitude

When Harry stumbles across an ornate, ancient mirror, the Mirror of Erised, on one of his nightly wanderings through Hogwarts, he sees an image of himself surrounded by both of his parents, smiling, happy, and most importantly, alive. For Harry, whose parents are both gone, this was a stunningly emotional moment. He tells his friend Ron to have a look and see his own family, but Ron sees himself as head boy and winning the Quiddich Cup. Confused, Harry comes to realize that the mirror reflects one’s deepest desires. Ron, who is constantly surrounded by his large family, deeply desires to stand out and achieve as his own person even more than his high-achieving brothers. Harry, who’s already famous, just wants his parents back.

Later, Professor Dumbledore confides in Harry that the most well-adjusted, content person would simply see an image of herself, as she is today, with no embellishments. What does this mean?

We spend the majority of our waking moments awash in thoughts of “What if” or “If only.” Regret, envy, and discontent follow us through our days, rendering us stuck and blind to the present moments that we are told to “cherish.” We’re not cherishing them, are we?

An important component of mindfulness is to be aware when our thoughts are going down these tracks, to stop and ask ourselves what are some things we are grateful for, to remind ourselves that the big and the small things matter. People find journaling a beneficial way to do this. Listing five things we are grateful for each day is a good place to start. Gratefulness leads to contentment when we see that our grass is just as green as the grass next door, we just have to water it! Think of thoughts as seeds, the ones we “water” (pay attention to) are the ones that grow. Water gratefulness!

Defusion techniques

Russ Harris, author of “The Happiness Trap,” talks about defusion as a way to detach or step back from our thoughts. The kids in Harry Potter learn to do this with the help of Professor Lupin and his Boggart, a dark, immortal, non-being who shape-shifts to take on the appearance of the darkest fear of whomever is closest to it.

As an example: Ron, Harry’s friend who is deathly afraid of spiders, gets confronted with the Boggart, which becomes a spider. His challenge is to picture the spider in a funny way, using humur as his weapon. He pictures it with roller-skates on and the Boggart changes into a clumsy object of fun. When Ron laughs, the fear is banished and the Boggart leaves him alone.

When our kids are learning to “defuse” from their thoughts, they can be taught to look at their fears from a distance. Their thoughts about their object of fear are not necessarily the truth, more a story that they are telling themselves. If they can look at the fear in another way (say wearing roller-skates), the story can change and their fear can shift. “The Happiness Trap” has some really good techniques for learning the skill of defusion. In the meantime, an effective question to ask is, “What are some other ways of looking at that?”

Mindfulness meditation

The Dementors are dark creatures who suck out your soul through your mouth. (Yes, this is a kid’s series, but when I write it like that it does seem a bit morbid.) In the Harry Potter series, Dementors bring about a sense of fear and hopelessness, much like the experience of someone going through anxiety or depression. After encountering a Dementor, one feels better by eating chocolate. I like this idea.

Practitioners who utilize mindfulness techniques teach us about “mindfulness meditation,” which focuses our whole attention on our sensory experiences. It may be leaving a piece of chocolate (yum!) or a raisin (less interesting but okay) in our mouths, and focusing our attention on that for a window of time, noting the taste, feeling, sensation, and so on. When our intrusive, worried “what-if” or hopeless “if-only” feelings come in (our Dementor thoughts), we are not to judge or pay attention to them (don’t water them!), but to let them pass us by, bringing our attention back to the piece of chocolate instead. People also do this by focusing on their breathing, but chocolate is yummier than air.

In starting to write this piece, I’m thinking of more and more examples of mindfulness in Harry Potter. I could go on all day! This is just a taste of the types of things mindfulness encompasses (besides coloring books!). It is really worth looking into, for both us parents and our kids. And Harry Potter provides a really good way to explain the concepts to them. Perhaps a good place to start is by reading a book about mindfulness (I recommend “The Happiness Trap” by Russ Harris) and then reading or watching (or re-reading or re-watching) Harry Potter with your kids. Mindfulness is truly a ground-breaking way to live in the moment and learn to let go of intrusive and unwanted thinking patterns.

As Dumbledore would say, “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times…if one only remembers to turn on the light.”

Raise Your Hand if You Don’t Like Scary Movies

In all honesty, I don’t think it was my age that ruined it for me. I think some people just aren’t cut out for the scary stuff.

The first scary movie I ever saw was “Jaws”. It was a July afternoon in Oklahoma, and I was visiting my cousins.
I don’t ever remember a hotter summer than that one. The heat rose off the roads in waves and the tar that zigzagged over the cracks in the sidewalks grew soft and stuck to our flip flops.
By noon, we retreated indoors, sunburned and tired from running through the sprinklers and hungry for a bologna sandwich. Still in our swimsuits, we ate in front of the television lying on our stomachs.
“Jaws” seemed innocent enough at first – the banana boats, the too short shorts on the guys, and the Farrah Fawcett hair on the girls. It was beachy and perfect for a summer afternoon. And then the music kicked in.
Dunna. Dunna. Dunna dunna dunna duuuuuunnnnnna.
A fin knifes through the water. Somebody gets dragged under. The water bubbles red. Everybody screams. And my cousins, all boys, tickle me until I am crying. I’m not sure where my heart has gone, but it is thumping loudly from somewhere underneath the floor. I am seven.
My scary moving-going has not gone any better since. I caught one scene from “It” on TBS at age 10, which forever ruined clowns for me. Although, does anybody really like clowns? I will not be seeing the remake.
At 11, I watched “People Under the Stairs” in a detached trailer neighboring my grandparent’s lake house with a girl named Chastity, who was one year older than me but looked like she was 30. She, too, was visiting her grandparents for the summer. They had cockatoos that roamed the trailer, freely pooping on the backs of chairs and your hair if you weren’t fast enough. Both the movie and the trailer gave me nightmares for weeks. I still can’t handle cockatoos.
Maybe I was simply too young for blood and terror and creepy slo-mo shots of half open doors. Maybe I should have waited a decade or two. Even now, I steer clear of the “Horror” category on Neflix. I can’t even pause in my scrolling because the movie covers give me the shivers. How do the eyes of the serial killers and demon dolls manage to follow you around the room?
In all honesty, I don’t think it was my age that ruined it for me. I think some people just aren’t cut out for the scary stuff.
According to Glenn Sparks, a professor at Purdue University, who conducted a research study on why certain people are affected by these films more than others, it has a great deal to do with our wiring. Some people get a kick from that adrenaline rush. The quickened heartbeat and prickling at the back of the neck leave them with more energy when the film is over, what he calls the “excitation transfer process.” It leaves you jittery and happy at having gotten to enjoy the thrill. It’s the same reason some people love roller coasters – the fear factor that leads to greater victory when it is done.
There’s also the novelty of the horror film that draws people in, the idea that you’re seeing something you don’t see every day. It’s curiosity that keeps you watching and wondering what could possibly happen next.
But for some of us, the rush and the novelty isn’t worth the emotional price. I don’t want to come out clammy and shaky and headed for sleeplessness just to say I did it. I’m all for novelty, but let it be for the good. Let it bring me a vision of utopia, not the stuff of nightmares. Give me “This is Us” and “Sing” and let me relax.
I think some of us are simply more sensitive to stimulus than others. The magic of story-telling in books and film is that it carries fiction into reality. If done well, the world in the story is all-encompassing and complete. But if you are a super feeler, a highly sensitive person, the reality can be too much to handle.
You can feel that hot sun and choppy water right before the shark appears. You can hear that door creak open from a mile away. You can already see those unblinking eyes looking back from the rain-slashed window and will continue to see them long after the credits roll. If you are anything like me, you need less, not more, stimulus. Life is enough of an adrenaline rush.
If you’re a scary movie lover, more power to you. With Halloween right around the corner, this is your season. But for those of you who aren’t, know that you’re not alone. I’ll be right there with you, with the lights on, watching re-runs of “Parks and Rec” and locking all the doors after dark.

Turns Out, Screen Time Does Influence IRL Learning

A recent study suggests media activities can provide kids with valuable learning, teaching problem-solving strategies that have real-world implications.

Ask my son what happens when you watch too much TV and he’ll be straight with you: “Your brain turns into mush.”
You can thank me for that one.
Back when he was still in my belly, I read the parenting book, “Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina”, and drilled the following phrase into my brain: “Face-time, not screen-time” (and I don’t mean FaceTime).
Medina explains that babies and toddlers need face-to-face interaction in order to form healthy social, emotional, and cognitive skills. This made total sense to me, so I resolved to wait as long as possible before exposing my son to TV or letting him get his hands on a tablet.
After waiting the recommended two years – okay, fine, it was 18 months – I began allowing him to view a little bit of TV at a time, just so I could get something – anything – done. As he grew older, that amount increased and the type of screen-time expanded, but so did my guilt and concern over it.
“Face-time, not screen-time,” a little voice whispers in my ear each time my son reaches for the remote or gleefully plays the Nick Jr. app on my husband’s iPad (reserved for extra stressful situations). But, another voice tells me to let it go, because I really have to nurse his baby brother or cook dinner or get us through airport security (read: extra stressful situation). And besides, he’s four now, so more than a little screen time won’t hurt…right?
Some recent research has found that, around age five, certain media activities may even help children learn. But can the skills they learn from a screen be useful in real life? In 2016, Joanne Tarasuik, a researcher at the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, set out to answer that question with a study that looked at how Australian children between the ages of four and six solved the same puzzle using a touchscreen tablet version and a tangible, wooden version.
She and her team found that children could indeed transfer skills they learned from working on the virtual puzzle to solving the physical one, demonstrating that screen-based skills were translatable to the real world – although in the age of smartphones and Facebook it can be hard to know what’s real anymore.
Because that finding contradicted most of the research that had come before it, the team decided to replicate their study using a different group of children from a different culture for reliability purposes. In the repeat study, recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, Tarasuik and her colleagues teamed up with researchers in Croatia and studied a group of Croatian children using a puzzle called the Tower of Hanoi, made up of wooden pegs and discs.
The children tackled the puzzle using the tablet version and/or the wooden version. Researchers measured the amount of time and number of moves it took for the kids to complete the puzzle. They observed whether practicing on the device enhanced the children’s performance on the wooden version.
According to Science Daily, “The children all needed a similar number of moves to complete the wooden puzzle, regardless of whether they had practiced using the virtual puzzle, the physical puzzle, or a combination of the two. From the first to final attempt at the puzzle, all the children also improved their speed,” thereby replicating their original finding that four- to six-year-old children can take knowledge gained from a screen-based activity and apply it in a new, physical, practial context.
Clearly, not all screen-time is created equal. Researchers hypothesize that passive screen-time, like watching a video demonstration, will lead to different learning outcomes for children than engaging in an interactive app. The results of this study suggest that certain media activities can provide children with valuable learning experiences, teaching them problem-solving strategies that have real-world implications. It also shows how further research on the learning value and real-world applicability of touch-screen technology for children of different ages could be beneficial.
While it’s clear that we need more information on this important topic and I’m not about to let my son ‘go to town’ with the TV or the tablet, I guess I should admit that not every screen will turn his brain to mush.
But those YouTube videos of people opening toys and Easter eggs will.

If Women Were Erased From Movies, How Much Would the Average Script Change?

If you were to scan 1,000 random film scripts, you might notice a common trend: female characters are rarely central to the plot.

If you were to scan 1,000 random film scripts, you might notice a common trend: female characters are rarely central to the plot. While this might seem preposterous, a group of scientists from the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering’s Signal Analysis and Interpretation Lab (SAIL) conducted this analysis and confirmed there is a serious entrenched gender inequality issue plaguing the film industry. Women and girls are still lacking opportunities, and the spotlight.

Using computational language analysis and interaction modeling tools, the team pulled nearly 1,000 random film scripts and analyzed the dialogues to track any patterns or themes. The researchers analyzed content of the characters’ language and their interactions across gender, race, and age. Beyond the cast, they also looked at genre and the production teams across films including writers, directors, and casting agents. The findings allowed them to quantify the sophistication and the tone of language of 7,000 characters and over 53,000 dialogues.

Of the scripts analyzed, men had over 37,000 dialogues, while women had just over 15,000. Beyond the volume of dialogue attributed to men, male dialogue contained more words related to achievement, death, and more cursing than the dialogue scripted for women. Women portrayed just over 2,000 characters, whereas men portrayed almost 4,900. Overall, female characters, regardless of race, tended to be about five years younger than their male counterparts.

The study also revealed that there were seven times more male writers than female writers, almost 12 times more male directors than female directors, and a little over three times as many male producers than female producers.

The researchers also used a graph theory to determine how central characters are to the plot of a movie by analyzing the ties and relationships to the other characters within the film – assigning dialogues to specific nodes or hubs. They found that when removing the female character nodes from most movie genres, the plot and the relationships did not need to be altered significantly. The exception was when women were in horror movies when they were most likely to be portrayed as victims. Thus, female characters could be easily removed from most scripts and not cause much of a disruption in flow or outcome.

Shri Narayanan, senior author of the study and a professor in computer science, linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, and pediatrics, said that the data from their research reveals that gender inequalities in film are real. “What we’re seeing is trends in unconscious biases,” he said in a phone call. “We’re providing one more objective way to look at the data that science can back up.”

A separate study conducted at the University of Southern California revealed that only a third of speaking parts go to women in the world’s biggest movie markets. The study, commissioned by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and supported by UN Women and The Rockefeller Foundation, concluded that “girls are nowhere to be scene” and that no matter where in the world the film is released, female characters cannot escape an emphasis on appearance. Additionally, according to an article in AAUW Outlook magazine titled “The High Cost of Hollywood’s Gender Bias,” women are often portrayed in traditionally female-dominated occupations, such as teachers, nurses, and waitresses, and underrepresented in high-level occupations, such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers.

Off screen, the underrepresentation of women in positions at all levels of the film industry is called the “celluloid ceiling,” a metaphor for the material that was once used to make film stock (strip). San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film released its annual Celluloid Ceiling report earlier this year, revealing that women constituted just 17 percent of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2016. Women directed just seven percent of the top 250 in 2016, a two percent drop from 2015 and 1998, the first year the study was conducted.

Geena Davis, Oscar-winning actress, advocate, and founder and chair of the nonprofit Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, believes that entrenched gender inequality in film is a problem that can be fixed. “We can absolutely fix it overnight, the next TV show – the next movie can be gender balanced,” she said, in a recent NBC News article. Adding, “When the needle moves on onscreen representation for the first time in seven decades, that will be historic.”

For parents, talking to our children about gender inequalities opens the door to action. When we have these hard conversations, children become more aware of the biases and can use that information to make a difference. With media, help them choose movies and TV shows that give women equal time in the spotlight and support women behind the scenes. Common Sense Media will soon be developing their ratings system to also account for representations of gender. Until then, look for productions directed by women and those with strong, central female characters.

What movies and TV shows would you recommend? Share in the comments!

I Don’t Want to Binge Watch My Son’s Childhood

I’m not going to trot out the tired “enjoy this time because it’ll be gone too soon” trope you get from older women in the grocery store.

I have a tendency to get a little obsessive about things. It’s a delightful quality, really, and never annoys anyone close to me. Never. Anyway, moving on. One of the things that makes me absolutely giddy is to fall in love with a television or book series after it’s already complete. I was a very late adopter of Downton Abbey, and I recently blew through the entire series so fast I’m embarrassed to tell you how long it actually took. I love knowing the whole story as quickly as possible.
But I’ve discovered there’s a downside to being a binge watcher because once it’s over, that’s it. All of the anticipation is gone and you’re left at an awkward standstill until the next obsession presents itself.
I catch myself watching my son, only two years old, and anticipating what’s next. What’s next? What happens when he goes to kindergarten, when he gets his driver’s license, his first broken heart? What will he do for a living, what kind of person will he be, what mistakes will he make and how will he fix them? Have I taught him how to do the dishes so his wife doesn’t occasionally want to kill him for leaving yet another spoon in the sink? You know – tiny, insignificant little questions like that.
I find that when I binge watch or binge read something, I retain less of it. If questioned about something specific, I sometimes can’t recall the details of it other than “it was spectacular!” or “that nearly killed me!” (I’m looking at you, Downton Abbey Season 3 finale where you-know-who died and left me an emotional trainwreck.)
Where will our winding path take us, because, whether he likes it or not, it is our path. I’m on this little adventure with him. Granted, I will be taking a backseat as he gets older, and I have the truest intention of not being that mother, but there will never be a point where I am not interested or invested in his life.
What is the total run time of all six seasons of Downton Abbey, you ask? If you Google that question – which I totally just did – the very depressing answer is two days and eight hours. So, if you were to sit down and not fall asleep, not get up for food, water (wine), or bathroom breaks, you would spend 56 solid hours in early 20th century England. I’m going to avoid pondering that too much, because if I reflect long enough I may have to consider cutting ties with Amazon Video. But I don’t want to watch my son’s life in two days and eight hours. As much as I want to know the end of the story, I want to take the time to enjoy watching it unfold.
I’m not going to trot out the tired “enjoy this time because it’ll be gone too soon” trope you get from older women in the grocery store. You’ve heard it, you know it, and you hate those women just a little because they’re usually saying this while your precious angel is hanging off your leg begging for whatever useless crap is corralling you into the checkout line. But I have started to try to enjoy and even actively not enjoy moments as they are happening. I’m making a conscious effort to take a break from researching “best potty training methods” on my phone (yes, please start praying for me right this minute) and just pay attention. I’m trying to be present for even the bad moments – the no-we-do-not-hit, no-we-do-not-bite, no-we-cannot-paint-the-walls-with-dinner moments. If anything, these will make for great stories as he gets older. Challenging times though they are, I want to remember the details.
If I binge watch a show, I can always go back and watch it again, and I’m the type of person who actually will, but I’m not able to do that with my son’s childhood. This is a one-time showing, so if I want to catch it, I’d better pay attention now.

A List of Hopefuls for the Film, “Wonder”, From a Special Needs Mom

Special needs is a complex entity, a vast network of exposed nerves that must be treated with care. Please, let this story be treated with care.

“Wonder” is coming to theaters in November. You can watch the trailer here. Chances are, if you have kids anywhere from eight to 18, you’ve already heard the premise, which is based on the best-selling novel by R. J. Palacio.
The tale is about a child named Auggie who was born with a genetic abnormality that caused facial deformities among other things. The story follows his first attempt, as a fifth grader, to attend a real school. School is tough for any kid, but middle school might just be the worst, especially for one who looks different from his peers.
The book changed lives. It encouraged kids and adults alike to peek into the world of special needs and consider that humanity there is much the same as anywhere else. This story gave millions an Auggie-eye view on life, and the movie may do just as much, if not more, to bring awareness to what life looks like for families with kids with disabilities.
It was a best-seller because it spun out a story that anyone could respond to: the need to feel connected and to know that you belong.
And yet, I have mixed feelings. As a mom to a son with cerebral palsy and an off-the-map genetic disorder, I can foresee potential pitfalls when Hollywood takes hold of a story like this. I read the book. I see where things might go.
Special needs is a complex entity, a vast network of exposed nerves that must be treated with care. Please, let this story be treated with care.
The things that made the narrative shine are Auggie’s wit and the voices of his friends. They are innocent, even in their unkindness to each other – something that comes out more clearly in Palacio’s follow-up novel, “Auggie and Me”. It is the parents’ cruelty, the bullying by the grownups, that will make your heart seize.
I hope they do it justice. I hope they show Auggie for all he’s worth and do not downplay what happens when adults hold narrow views of those who look different from them. I hope Julia Roberts can carry the complexities of mothering both a child with special needs and a teenage girl. (I will go watch “Steel Magnolias” and “Erin Brockovich” and let myself be reassured.)
I hope that this movie does not sensationalize special needs. I hope my son does not become the new pet project at school because special needs is “trending up.” I also hope this film does not narrow the field of focus too much.
There are kids who look different, like Auggie, and are brilliant and funny like him, too. But there are also kids who look just like everybody else who struggle with learning delays, speech delays, and global developmental delays and require just as much sensitivity from the world around them.
Ultimately, this movie can do a great deal of good. It can turn the light on in the dark corner of the room where children with special needs should not have to bide their time. It can activate that sympathy and empathy that parents diligently strive to promote in themselves and their children. It can put those good vibes to work.
“Wonder” is ultimately a success story and a reminder to those who do not live in the special needs world that it does exist. It is also a reminder to those of us who do live here that we have not been forgotten. The story, if handled well, will be a reminder for all of us to look on every part of humanity with wonder.

Maximize Your Kids' Executive Function to Help Get to School on Time

It might be time to focus less on what’s going on in your house every morning and more on what’s going on in your kids’ brains at any given moment.

You made lunches the night before. The kids picked their outfits and laid them out before lights out. Backpacks are ready and waiting by the front door. Your younger kids have a picture schedule. Your older kids are capable of telling time. Everyone knows what they need to do and when they need to do it in order to get to school on time.
It should be simple, but somehow it’s not. Despite your best planning, you’re rushing, maybe even yelling, as you herd people toward the door. You are stressed, and your kids are late. Again.
If this sounds familiar, it might be time to focus less on what’s going on in your house every morning and more on what’s going on in your kids’ brains at any given moment.
The brain’s frontal lobe is responsible for executive function, which includes time management, impulse control, planning, organizing, shifting attention, and multitasking. Executive function may be the difference between a stressful morning and a tardy slip versus a pleasant morning and a punctual arrival at school.
Strong executive functioning also means getting homework done on time, remembering to wear sneakers on phys ed. days, and starting a project long before it’s due. While some of these skills develop naturally as kids mature, there are things parents can provide to help maximize their kids’ executive function at any age.

Healthy food

A 2016 study from the British Journal of Nutrition proved what we’ve known for generations: You are what you eat. Or at least, your diet plays a large role in the way you think and act. Researchers found a strong correlation between a healthy diet and cognitive function in children and adolescents.
According to experts, filling your child’s plate with foods found along the grocery store’s perimeter and avoiding items from the center aisles, like sugary beverages and processed snack foods, is best. They cited fish and foods high in fiber (whole grains, fruits, and vegetables) as particularly beneficial.
On the other hand, foods high in saturated fat, like red meat and dairy products, were found to be negatively associated with cognitive function.

Limits on screen time

A 2011 study published in Pediatrics found that watching as little as nine minutes of fast-paced television impaired preschoolers’ executive function. In this study, subjects spent nine minutes doing one of three activities: watching fast-paced television (“Sponge Bob”), watching an educational cartoon (“Caillou”), or drawing.
The children who watched “Sponge Bob” performed significantly worse on tests of executive functioning after the intervention. (I’m sorry if I am the first to tell you that “Caillou” would be a better choice for your child than “Sponge Bob”. I know which one I’d prefer.)
Meanwhile, MRI’s have confirmed that excessive screen time damages the structure of the brain responsible for executive function. A 2013 study in the European Journal of Radiology compared the brains of healthy adolescents with adolescents diagnosed with online gaming addiction (OGA). Researchers found significant gray matter atrophy in the brain’s frontal lobes of those with OGA, as compared with the brains of the healthy subjects.
Additionally, there was a positive relationship between the degree of atrophy and subjects’ scores on a standardized test of internet addiction. In other words, the more time subjects spent in front of a screen, the more likely they were to experience shrinkage of brain tissue in the frontal lobe – the center for executive function.

Opportunities for exercise

It’s no coincidence that most adults find it easier to sit at their desks after a sweat session at the gym. Science has proven what we know to be true over and over, and it turns out the benefits of exercise apply to children, too.
A 2010 literature review published in Developmental Review concluded that aerobic exercise unequivocally promotes children’s executive function. While any form of exercise helps, researchers found that forms of exercise that engage the mind (e.g. team sports, dance, martial arts) are more beneficial than those that do not. The amount of exercise can also positively impact executive function.
Subjects in a 2011 study were placed in one of three groups: a control group, a group that exercised 20 minutes per day, and a group that exercised 40 minutes per day. Using standardized testing and a functional MRI, researchers found that both groups of exercisers performed better on executive function than the control group, and that those who exercised for 40 minutes did better than those who exercised for 20 minutes.
If you’re worried that your child is so mentally disorganized that he is exercise-proof, fear not. One study found that the children who benefit most from exercise were those with the lowest executive function at baseline. And if the argument for exercise isn’t somehow compelling enough, a kid who plays a sport, dances, or practices Tae Kwon Do is, by definition, not in front of a screen.
If you find yourself scrambling to help find your daughter’s left shoe two minutes before the bus comes, remember your focus might be misplaced. When it comes to getting to school on time, putting your best foot forward might just start with the brain.