Monday, June 19, 2017

When Your Child Is a Psychopath

A reader writes:

I’ve been keeping you in mind, particularly since lately I see more and more nuanced discussions of psychopathology cropping up. Paul Bloom’s ‘Against Empathy’, though I haven’t yet read the full book, is a particular point of interest for me. But I found out today that The Atlantic had published this article very recently, and I wanted to share it:

What stands out for me in this situation is the fact that the girl, Samantha, is adopted; I know that children who have been abandoned or through the foster system face greatly increased hardships in their development, which is something I find deeply troubling on a social level. It seems to me that whatever harmful antisocial traits Samantha has may have been exacerbated by past trauma, even as early as her infancy.

Anyway, if you’re so inclined, please read it, and I hope you can take away something useful from it!

Incidentally, concerning the earlier stuff I mentioned about anime - have you ever heard of PSYCHO-PASS (yes, the title is in all caps)? It’s a speculative science fiction series specifically about psychopathy and preemptive judgment in criminal justice. You might find it interesting.

One of the more interesting things for me in the article was this paragraph on low resting heart rate (mine is always just barely hitting 60 beats per minute):

Psychopaths not only fail to recognize distress in others, they may not feel it themselves. The best physiological indicator of which young people will become violent criminals as adults is a low resting heart rate, says Adrian Raine of the University of Pennsylvania. Longitudinal studies that followed thousands of men in Sweden, the U.K., and Brazil all point to this biological anomaly. “We think that low heart rate reflects a lack of fear, and a lack of fear could predispose someone to committing fearless criminal-violence acts,” Raine says. Or perhaps there is an “optimal level of physiological arousal,” and psychopathic people seek out stimulation to increase their heart rate to normal. “For some kids, one way of getting this arousal jag in life is by shoplifting, or joining a gang, or robbing a store, or getting into a fight.” Indeed, when Daniel Waschbusch, a clinical psychologist at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, gave the most severely callous and unemotional children he worked with a stimulative medication, their behavior improved.

And regarding the ineffectiveness of punishment or bad experiences in terms of modifying behavior:

Faulty brakes may help explain why psychopaths commit brutal crimes: Their brains ignore cues about danger or punishment. “There are all these decisions we make based on threat, or the fear that something bad can happen,” says Dustin Pardini, a clinical psychologist and an associate professor of criminology at Arizona State University. “If you have less concern about the negative consequences of your actions, then you’ll be more likely to continue engaging in these behaviors. And when you get caught, you’ll be less likely to learn from your mistakes.”
This insight is driving a new wave of treatment. What’s a clinician to do if the emotional, empathetic part of a child’s brain is broken but the reward part of the brain is humming along? “You co-opt the system,” Kiehl says. “You work with what’s left.” 

The article also talks optimistically about the possibilities of treatment, with this caveat:

No one believes that [the boys in treatment] will develop true empathy or a heartfelt moral conscience. “They may not go from the Joker in The Dark Knight to Mister Rogers,” Caldwell tells me, laughing. But they can develop a cognitive moral conscience, an intellectual awareness that life will be more rewarding if they play by the rules. “We’re just happy if they stay on this side of the law,” Van Rybroek says. “In our world, that’s huge.”

Sunday, June 11, 2017

White Nationalism as Drug Resistant Bacteria

I want to argue yet again not only is shaming hypocritical and cruel, it's ineffective. Recently, I started to think of the rise of white nationalism as a drug resistant bacteria and shaming as the overused antibiotics that have led to the rise in white nationalism. I saw an Saturday Night Live recently hosted by Aziz Ansari where he asks people to start pretending not to be racist again.

It makes (obliquely?) an interesting point -- did all of the policing of political correctness, enforced by social shaming actually change people's underlying attitudes about race, class, privilege, etc.? Or did it just cause people to be quietly prejudiced and bitter about the shaming attempts?

A character from The Mindy Project recently remarked "Every white person’s greatest fear is being called racist. It’s their equivalent of actual racism." And I have noticed that white people do seem to feel quite oppressed and like they are being unfairly treated by being called racist. For instance, I had a conversation recently with a close family member of an older generation about political correctness and asked him what about it was so upsetting to him. He said that he didn't even believe that people who enforce political correctness even believe in it or care about the people they're allegedly trying to protect. He thinks it's just a way that people put other people down, for the same reason that anybody ever tries to enforce a social hierarchy against someone else -- a selfish desire to feel superior.

I tried to explain that anything can good be used to advance bad purposes (speaking of which, I'm watching the Handmaid's Tale). I just had a conversation with a friend whose non-Mormon husband was raised in a Mormon community -- wasn't invited to any of the block parties, wasn't allowed to go to anyone's houses for sleepovers, no one cared to communicate with his family at all until his mom got sick and they started trying to aggressively proselytize. I'm sure those Mormons felt like they had scriptural support to justify their exclusion.  But I'm also pretty sure it's all reasoning post-hoc, that is they decided how they wanted to act and took otherwise neutral or good principals and twisted them to fit their preconceived notions. It's why so many people hate organized religion (see again the Handmaid's Tale), which is the point I made to my Mormon relative who hates political correctness. In fact, it's a problem that has been specifically addressed many times in addresses by the church leaders to church members, including most recently this reference to my favorite topic of shaming by President Dieter Uchtdorf:

During the Savior’s ministry, the religious leaders of His day disapproved of Jesus spending time with people they had labeled “sinners.”

Perhaps to them it looked like He was tolerating or even condoning sinful behavior. Perhaps they believed that the best way to help sinners repent was by condemning, ridiculing, and shaming them.

Perhaps the current adherents to shaming believe that the best way to get people to change is by condemning, ridiculing, and shaming them. Perhaps the shamers of the world truly believe that they're doing a good thing, rather than doing what my relative believes political correctness police do -- putting others down so that they can feel relatively more superior. Perhaps they choose to intentionally inflict harm on others for the sake of some higher purpose, thinking that the world will be a better place because of it, rather than the obvious natural result of their actions -- increased antagonism, hurt, distrust, pain, hypocrisy, etc. But even if shamers' intentions are to create more positivity and good in the world, it doesn't work (or works so seldom that the aggregate effect is failure). Because even if you are right when you try to correct someone, there's a psychological concept called the "backfire effect" that makes you confronting someone with those facts extremely ineffective -- it most often leads to them becoming further entrenched in their beliefs. Sort of like drug resistant bacteria becoming more beefy in response to increased use of antibiotics. This Oatmeal page has a great explanation with citations to further reading/listening on the backfire effect.

So if shaming doesn't work, is it just cruelty for the sake of being cruel? Is it just twisting otherwise good concepts to advance oneself in a social hierarchy to the detriment of someone else?

Saturday, June 3, 2017

4 Stress-Management Techniques for Anxious Kids

Image via Pixabay 
Approximately 50% of mental illness symptoms begin by age 14, even if parents or kids don’t immediately recognize the symptoms. Even if you don’t suspect your child has a mental health condition, you may worry about how much stress he experiences. Stress can have a major impact on the body, especially if it remains untreated for a long period of time. The stress-management techniques below can help alleviate childhood anxiety, whether you’re parenting one of the 17.1 million kids with a psychiatric condition or simply helping your child cope with temporary stressors.

Talk it Out

Sometimes a vent session is all your child needs to recover from a stressful experience. When your child is worried about something, encourage him to talk about what’s wrong. Academic stress, peer pressure or bigger issues like moving to a new school, can all have a big impact on a child’s mental health. Ask open-ended questions that encourage discussion, such as, “Can you tell me what happened at lunch today?” or “I haven’t seen Emily over here lately. What’s new with her?” This gives your child the option to give you a detailed explanation of what’s happening rather than resorting to a one-word response.

If your son or daughter hates talking about uncomfortable topics, give them a journal. Encourage them to jot down anything that comes to mind, good or bad, each day. Consider setting aside quiet time for journaling before bed or first thing in the morning so that your child gets in the habit of jotting down their feelings. If your child struggles with spelling or doesn’t know how to read, have them draw pictures instead. You can also give them a stack of old magazines and encourage them to cut out pictures that they like or relate to so that they can paste them in the journal.

Create a Checklist

Not every episode of anxiety has a specific trigger, but some anxiety attacks stem from a fear of the unknown. You can help mitigate this type of concern by having your child create a checklist that details how to react in a stressful situation. You can create different checklists for common situations or develop one basic sheet that applies to any issue.

Keep the checklist as concise as possible while still covering everything that your child wants or needs. This prevents the checklist from becoming an overwhelming to-do list that adds - rather than alleviates - stress. Kids who can’t read can draw pictures to help them remember what to do when they’re stressed. You can also take photographs of different things, such as your child taking deep breaths or coloring in a notebook, for the checklist.

Practice Breathing Exercises

When anxiety strikes, encourage your child to take slow, deep breaths and focus on his breathing. Have him close his eyes so that there are fewer distractions, and ask him to breathe through his nose rather than his mouth.

You may have seen adults count to 10 or even 20 during deep breathing sessions, but high numbers can be difficult for kids with limited attention spans. Start by counting to 3, and increase to 5 or 7 over time if you feel your child is ready. Have your son or daughter take a deep breath, hold it for the count of 3, and exhale for the count of 3.

Perform Visualization

What’s your child’s favorite thing to do? Is there a special place he loves to visit? When stress strikes, have your child close his eyes and picture his desired destination or activity. Have him incorporate all of his senses during his visualization exercise. If he’s on the beach, he should smell the ocean and feel the warm sand beneath his toes. If he’s pretending he’s eating his favorite meal, he should smell the food and think about how it feels in his mouth.

Remind your child that he is in control and nothing bad can happen during his visualization. The weather is nice, and everyone is happy. There are no tornadoes, spooky clowns, or anything else that may terrify your child.

Coping with anxiety is difficult at any age, but there are ways to effectively tackle worries. Encourage your child to try the techniques above next time an episode of anxiety occurs so that he can find much-needed relief from the situation.

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