Ask the Psychologist

Free Advice by Dr. Ricky Greenwald (occasionally, as time allows)

Questions Asked and Answered

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Depressed: therapy or medication? -- which treatment approach is best?

Parenting teens in a dangerous world -- help them make it to adulthood

Does my son have Attention Deficit Disorder? -- how to find out

Where to draw the line? -- with a teen with an attitude

Dear Mom & Dad -- divorced parents are fighting over the kid

Who's in charge? -- a child threatens a scene in public

What's wrong with me? -- confusing reactions after an accident

Do I really need counseling? -- how to figure it out

Who disciplines the stepchildren? -- when it's not the Brady Bunch


Depressed: therapy or medication?

Q: I have been depressed and my doctor suggested Prozac. I don't like to feel so low, but I also don't like the idea of using a drug. What should I do?

A: First of all, you didn't tell me just how bad you feel. If your life is going downhill (for example, if you might lose your job) or if you are thinking of hurting yourself, yes, you should follow your doctor's advice, right away. There is no reason to suffer long-term consequences from this temporary condition.

Medication is convenient, and side effects for the newer drugs, such as Prozac, are less than they used to be (consult your doctor for more information). Medication is especially helpful in urgent cases, and also when the depression's primary cause is biological. Usually, though, depression is caused by a mix of biological tendencies and emotional stresses.

Psychotherapy takes more effort - you might go to weekly sessions for a couple of months or more. Therapy is especially helpful when the depression is the result of life events, such as the loss of a loved one, a traumatic event, or a stressful life situation. In therapy, you can learn to handle your thoughts, feelings, and interactions more effectively - so you'll be less likely to get depressed again.

Chances are, either medication or counseling will probably get you out of your depression. So I'd suggest trying whatever seems best to you - and if that doesn't work, something else probably will. If you are going to try to go without the medicine, you should be working with a mental health professional in consultation with your physician. What's most important is to get treatment of some kind, soon. The longer you feel depressed, the more it becomes a habit, and the easier it becomes to get depressed again later in life.


Parenting teens in a dangerous world

Q: Ever since those girls got killed in [XXXXXXX], I have become very concerned about my children's safety. I call from work twice each afternoon to make sure the kids are still home, and I don't let them go anywhere unless an adult that I know is going to be there. My 14 year old son is mad because I won't let him bike a mile to the store anymore. How can I explain to him that his safety is more important than getting to do whatever he wants?

A: One of the good things about such an awful event is that it wakes parents up to how dangerous the world can be. It is a real shock to discover that someone you know and see every day is a murderer - or, more commonly, a child molester. I hope you will be very careful about who you trust with your children.

On the other hand, it sounds like you might be over-reacting. It is normal, after such a shock, to feel extra worry. But your 14- year-old is probably mature enough to go to the store by himself! You can let your kids know that you are feeling over-protective, and to please put up with it for a few weeks until you get over it. This will give you a chance to figure out which rules you really want to keep. You might want to talk about this with other parents you respect, or with a professional such as a child psychologist or school guidance counselor.

Remember, too much protection can be as dangerous as too little. Overprotected children do not learn how to handle life's problems, so they are actually at higher risk. But protection is only the first step in keeping children safe. You can also help your child learn how to cope with problems and safety risks. For example, you can teach your children to trust their own feelings, and to run or get help when they feel unsafe. Some families make this lesson into a game, with parents play-acting a smooth- talking villain, to give the children practice getting away.

You can also encourage your children to talk with you about problems they may encounter, such as bullies, and help them figure out solutions. And since kids don't always volunteer information, you can watch out for noticable changes in behavior - a good sign that something might be wrong. When you give your children guidance and support as well as protection, they will learn how to keep themselves safe, when you can't do it for them.


Does my son have Attention Deficit Disorder?

Q: My son's teacher says that he is "hyper" or has an attention deficit or something. I took him to the doctor, who wants to give my son Ritalin to calm him down. I want my son to do well in school, but I don't like the idea of putting him on drugs. What should I do?

A: You should do just what you're doing: Get more information before making a decision!

The teacher probably says that your son has trouble sitting still, paying attention, finishing what he starts, and might be fooling around and getting into trouble. These and other symptoms are part of a syndrome which used to be called "hyperactive," and now is called "Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder," or ADHD. It can make life hard not only for your son, but for those around him - including parents.

But be careful! Many children who seem "hyper" do not really have ADHD. Kids can act fidgety, distracted, and troublesome for lots of reasons. For example, some children have learning disabilities that make them frustrated and discouraged. Some children act worse after going through an upsetting experience, such as a trauma, loss, or stress in the family.

Unfortunately, if your child is feeling badly about something, you may be the last to know. Children often keep this a secret, to keep from upsetting their parents. So when your child is acting "hyper," all you know is that something's wrong. Now to find out what it is. Child psychologists are trained to distinguish between ADHD, learning disorders, and emotional problems. There is help for your son. Once you know what is wrong, then you can handle it the right way.

If the problem turns out to be ADHD, the best treatments involve self-control skills training, training for parents and teachers, and, if needed, medication. Ritalin is the most common drug used to calm down children with ADHD, and it usually works. (For more information about drugs and side effects, talk to your son's doctor.) However, children with ADHD have gotten into bad habits in how they learn, act, and relate to others. A mental health professional can work with your son, you, the doctor, and the school, to help him learn the things he has been missing.


Where to Draw the Line?

Q: Our son is a junior in high school. His grades are okay and he works a part time job. Lately, he's started to come home late some nights, and to curse, which we have never allowed. Also, sometimes he gets a bad attitude just out of the blue. He's a good kid, but we're afraid maybe he's going bad. What should we do?

A: Kids this age often need to fight about something with their parents. This helps them to leave childhood and become a stronger person. Your job is to keep this fight on safe ground. Things like cursing, curfew, personal appearance, and noise in the house are good to argue about. Then when he rebels, which he will, you can get angry, maybe give a small punishment, and no one is the worse for it.

If you let things slide, he may keep on pushing until you finally confront him. Then you could find yourself arguing about a much more serious issue, like going to school or habitual drinking. If he rebels there, the consequences are much worse. (If things get out of control, get help.) When it comes to matters of safety, he still needs you to be firm, strong parents.

On the other hand, your son is becoming more independent, and deserves the chance to learn from his own mistakes. This means that you allow him to make certain choices, and to face the consequences. If he blows all his money, then asks you for some later, say "No, you had money, but you chose to spend it on something else." If he gets caught skipping school, don't write him a note - let him serve the detention.

The same goes in your own house. You can set things up so that he earns privileges (extra money, later bedtime, even TV) by doing important things like homework and chores. No homework? No TV! By making him face the consequences of his choices, you can help your son become a responsible adult.

Good luck, and stick to your guns. And don't expect any thanks for a few years!


Dear Mom & Dad

Q: I haven't seen any questions from kids yet. My parents got divorced a few months ago. I thought it would be better cause they wouldn't fight anymore, but it's not. My father and mother keep asking me about what the other one is doing, even when I'm not supposed to tell. And they say nasty things about each other. I never know what to say. Like if I agree with my mother, it's like I'm against my father. But if I don't say anything, it's like I'm against her. I feel all torn apart. No matter what I do is wrong. What can I do?

A: Show them this column and get out of the way. Your parents are putting their own problem onto you. It's time for them to take it back. I think they will, once they realize what they were doing to you. Okay?

Dear Mom & Dad:

You are tearing your girl apart. Stop it!

If you are like most people who just got divorced, you are still very angry and upset, and maybe lonely and sad, too. When you're feeling so bad, it can be easy to miss how other people feel. I'm sure you didn't intend to hurt your daughter. But you are. Here are three rules you can follow to keep from hurting her any more.

  1. Never put down your ex in front of your daughter. Don't argue in front of her, either. Don't even roll your eyes.
  2. Never ask your daughter to get, or give, any sensitive information. She's not your spy or your ambassador.
  3. Never use your daughter as a weapon in your own fight, for example, by cancelling a visit or delaying a child support payment.

Don't make your daughter choose sides between you and your ex. She needs both parents, not just one of you. Remember, just because you got divorced, you are still parents together. When you put down or hurt your ex, you are hurting your daughter's parent. Better you should support each other's efforts.

If you are having trouble following these rules, get help. Keep the grown-up problems to the grown-ups, and let your daughter have the good parents she deserves.


Who's in charge?

Q: When my daughter doesn't get her way, she keeps bugging me until she causes a scene. At home, I can just send her to her room. But when we're out shopping, I usually give her what she wants, just to shut her up. How can I get her to behave when we go out?

A: Who's in charge here? She is, until you stop worrying about what people will think. People will respect you for being a good parent, not for raising a spoiled brat.

You can get her to behave by standing your ground, just like you do at home. If you say "no," mean it. Tell her, "I won't change my mind anymore, no matter how many times you ask, no matter how loud you get." And stick to it.

Don't make big threats you don't intend to keep. If she starts to cause a scene, tell her, "if you don't behave in public, I won't take you next time I go out." And keep your promise. If you can stand it, she'll find that she is only embarrassing herself. Remember, if she can get you mad, she's still in charge. Let her be the one that suffers - by losing a small privilege - for her bad behavior. Then she will learn.

Your daughter needs a parent she can count on - not someone she can jerk around. Giving her "what she wants" just teaches her that her bad behavior pays off. When you are in charge, you can start rewarding the good behavior instead of the bad.

If you try this, it will take a lot of effort at first, because she will try very hard to break you down. And it won't work if you get wishy-washy. But if you stick it out a few times, she will learn. And she will become better behaved and happier.


What's wrong with me?

Q: I was in an accident a few weeks ago, but was not hurt too badly. Since then I've been having trouble sleeping, I keep thinking about the accident, and I don't seem to be concentrating very well at work. Also, my family tells me my temper's getting worse. What's wrong with me?

A: It sounds like you have something called "post-traumatic stress." This can happen after any very scary or upsetting event, whether or not you actually got hurt. It can even happen from seeing something bad happen to someone else.

This is a normal reaction to a beyond-normal situation. Some people have other symptoms you didn't even mention, such as nightmares, being extra nervous or jumpy, feeling low or withdrawn, and trying to avoid remembering what happened. If you didn't know what was going on, you could get pretty worried about yourself!

You might not like this, but here's my advice: Think about it and talk about it as much as you can. This will help you to face it and gradually get through it. Then, after a while your symptoms will fade and it will be just another memory.

Unfortunately, sometimes things just get stuck. Then the symptoms stay with you. If you find that you are not feeling better, or if you are doing special things to avoid facing the memory, it's time to get help. Go to a mental health professional who is trained in EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). This is a proven method which is very effective.

People used to think that they were just stuck with their emotional wounds - but it doesn't have to be that way. If you can't get through it on your own, don't just push it aside. That will hurt you inside. Get help, and get over it.


Do I really need counseling?

Q: I've been having a problem, and someone I respect told me to get counseling. I don't like the idea of telling my problems to a stranger, and I don't see what good it would do. Also, I don't have a lot of money to spare. How do I know if I really need to see a counselor, and how do I find one?

A: If you're like most people, you'd rather solve your own problems. Here are some good things to try: Talk to close friends or family; get plenty of exercise, rest, and healthy food; pray; write down your thoughts and feelings; or change the situation that leads to the problem. If the problem is still there, you could probably use some professional help.

You don't need to be "crazy" anymore to go to a counselor. Nowadays, counselors help many normal people with many types of problems. If you are thinking about going to a counselor, here are some things you should know:

Your privacy: Counselors can't talk to anyone about you unless you give permission. The main exception is if someone is in danger - for example, child abuse must be reported. In general, your privacy is very well protected.

Cost: Counseling can cost a lot - up to $100 (or more in some areas) for a session. But many people pay less, because of health insurance as well as counselors who are flexible in their fees. Most people who want counseling find that they can afford it.

Does it work? Yes. Most people who get counseling are better off than if they didn't go. Of course, there is no magic wand - but your counselor can help you to find your own solution.

Finding the right person: Finding the right counselor to work with is very important, like finding the right mechanic or the right doctor. Look for someone with training and experience in working with your particular problem. You also want someone you feel comfortable with - it's no use going to the "best" person if it's someone you can't talk to.

Remember, you're the customer. It's okay to ask questions and shop around. Don't stop until you find someone you can really trust to help you.


Who disciplines the stepchildren?

Q: I was divorced four years ago, and have custody of my two children. I remarried last year. My new husband says he loves my children, but I think he is too hard on them. My husband wants me to support him but I feel that I need to defend my children. What should I do?

A: I'll make a bet that if your husband had written, he would have said it this way: "My wife doesn't discipline her kids, so I have to step in. Then she sides with them against me, and they know they can get away with anything." It sounds like you and your husband might have fallen into some of the traps that are common in remarriage.

1) You might feel bad that your children had to go through the divorce, so you are trying to make it up to them by being extra-nice. But your children do not need to be spoiled. They need the security and guidance that comes with loving, firm, consistent discipline.

2) Your new husband might want to be a part of your family, so much that he tries to become your children's father. But he is not their father. You are the main parent. When you step up to take care of the discipline, your children will get the guidance they need. Then your husband can ease off. This will give him a chance to develop a friendly relationship with your children.

This kind of problem is bad for your family. Your children aren't getting what they need, and you and your husband are being torn apart by a conflict where both sides are "right." Make an agreement with your husband that he will back off and you will step up. If you can't do it on your own, get help. Take care of it before it gets worse.