Thursday, July 23, 2015

Guns AND Mental Health

It's heartbreaking that some articles continue to be relevant. This one from the Christian Science Monitor 10 years ago is again. The current cases will find those who seek solutions from both approaches -- fewer guns and more mental health awareness. It doesn't need to be an either or.

Both matter.

It's not too late to stop the next shooter

By  / March 31, 2005
A youngster in Minnesota shot and killed a teacher, classmates, and himself last week. Shocked, Americans are wondering, "How could such a thing happen?"

Yet his story will soon fade from the national news. When the next shooting occurs it will be dredged up and included as background along with the previous three or four.
But what about the potential next shooter? What is going on with him right now?
It's not unlikely that right now, in a school near you, elements of this dangerous social equation are building.
There is a child who feels left out. He is often teased by other kids who don't realize how deeply their words cut. He doesn't have the maturity to know that his tormentors are just thoughtless, miserable adolescents, too.
The boy - because, it seems, it is almost always a boy - doesn't have the family support or sense of self worth to deflect the teasing. When he goes home after school, he is usually alone.
He has grown to love angry music. It makes him feel a little better to connect with the power in the performer's chants of rage. His unresolved grief transforms into the rage he admires. He wants to feel angry. It feels less weak than the sadness. The boy fantasizes about getting even - about showing "them."
Some days he thinks, "I'll grow up and be so successful, famous, and rich." Then they'll be sorry that they ignored him or put him down.
But he lives in a world that does not value long-range solutions - even when they're the right ones.
It may take too long to find a way to relieve the pain - the media he surrounds himself with seem to offer a quicker fix.
The people who are making money from the music, video games, and movies he hears, plays, and sees refuse to question the content or accept the ways they affect the boy.
Instead they go about their business providing training in immediate, sensational "solutions." They provide heroes for the boy, never mind that they are antiheroes.
And, the boy has access to a gun!
But it might not be too late for him.
Events like the Red Lake, Minn., high school shooting last week (10 left dead) and the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo., in 1999 (15 total dead) cause people to wonder what could have been done to prevent this.
We need only look at the history of the last few for clues.
There could be a teacher who is willing and able to see through the fa├žade to the pain; another student who might stand up for him; a neighbor who might notice him and find a way to help him feel worthwhile; a family member who might stop and realize that the cover of self-reliance is so thin.
Maybe there is someone who reads the paper every day and worries about what the world is coming to. This person might stop wringing his or her hands and start looking more closely at young people and find ways to help them navigate through their difficult periods, in these difficult times.
The story of the last shooter has been written.
But the story of the next shooter is still not finished.
It may not be too late for this child or for those he could destroy in his chaos of pain. It might not be too late for one of us to make a difference.
• Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015



The title is "Parenting? There's Not an App for That." or you can see if this address works,

It contains some articles from this blog and many more. I look forward to hearing feedback (especially if it's positive). If you are so inclined a review on Amazon is very helpful.

Thanks for all the encouragement and interest in my writing. It helped propel me to complete this project.
Cheers, Susan

Friday, June 12, 2015

Summer Activities for Kids -- Pretending

Each year as parents plan their busy summers, it is worth considering the value of doing "nothing."


Summer is here and many children will spend much of it in wonderful, enriching camps and classes. Lucky kids. And other lucky kids will just putter around their yards pretending. “Let’s pretend” were the words that commenced most of childhood play for generations. With rich imaginations children created exotic and fantastic worlds in which they were the main players.
            Empty packing boxes became all kinds of little shops and vehicles.  A line of chairs in the dining room became a bus or train. A bedspread thrown over a sawhorse became our tent on the Amazon.  In our own attic was a box of fancy dresses, suits, hats and old jewelry. We became Mom and Dad or duke and duchess.
            I have nothing against the kind of “enriched childhood” many parents are trying to create. I just don’t want kids to miss the richness that comes from their own unique imaginations.
            When I see the Kindergarten children in a school where I'm the psychologist with baskets of dress-ups in their play area, I am grateful. This may be one of the few places where these developing minds get to exercise the capacity to imagine. Too often these days children’s imaginations are hijacked by television or by toys that require a specific story line.
As children we often had as much fun making our toys as we did playing with them.  When I wanted to play secretary, I spent an entire afternoon making a typewriter from a little black box and circles of paper that I carefully cut out, labeled with appropriate letters and glued on the box. When we wanted a swimming pool we spent a whole day digging a hole, placing a tarp and running water.  All for about 30 minutes of splashing.   Our mother had suggested the location of the "swimming pool" and a few days later a big lilac bush was planted there. (Guess mom had a little imagination too.)
            Children still have these impulses and with a little unstructured time will organize an activity, create and pretend. My daughter was one of those children who absorbed all the tape and cardboard in the house into her creations.  One year I gave her a shoebox filled with tape, scissors, cardboard etc. as a Christmas gift.  She loved it, managed to use it all up in short order and continued to gather the tape from her parents' secret hiding places.
            I became convinced that one of the ways we encourage imagination is by tolerating messes. Sometimes the imagination of my children resulted in chaos in the living room, where every stuffed animal and piece of doll equipment became part of some elaborate setting.  I must confess that it was often tempting to just let them watch cartoons because it created less mess. On the other hand the mess created from too much media can be in their heads rather that on the living room floor.  Much harder to clean up.
Some children are natural directors in pretend plays. "You be the princess, and you be the horse and you be the dad." My daughter was one of those directors, and to be allowed to play with her and her friends she would tell her little brother, "You be the monster". It's hard to know what impact her training had on him, but there were times when he played that role too well. Fortunately he escaped the type casting and is now the most wonderful grown son a mother could want.
Toys that have multiple uses and, even better, time in the great outdoors can spark the “pretend potential” in children. I hope every child gets to make mud pies at some point in their childhood.  Even pretending with them can help. I’m certain that our now grown children became the creative cooks they are because of the hours we spent pretending to be restaurant patrons and ordering wildly exotic dishes. 
One of the best friends of imagination is boredom. We have to let kids be bored every now and then and let them find inspiring materials around to create there own fun. In these critical times we need rich imaginations to solve our many problems and equally important to bring joy and laughter into the world. Even if it means more messes in the living room -- it's a small price to pay.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

"Use your words?"

A script might help.

     The phrase "Use your words," is very common from adults working with young children. It is usually in response to a conflict among children or in response to some unacceptable behavior. The hope among the adults is that the child will say, "Can I please have a turn." Rather than snatching a toy or bopping a peer on the head to get what they want. The hope is that the child will generally use language rather than some kind of aggressive or tantrum-like behavior. It's great advice and guidance IF the child has the words. Saying, "use your words" assumes that the child has them, but in my experience working in schools I've found that this is often not the case. Or they may have the "wrong" words.
      Children don't automatically develop effective communication skills. They need guidance and sometimes very explicit training. Even older kids often benefit from developing effective scripts for a variety of situations. In my work with children individually and in classroom discussions, we generate and practice a number of scripts to deal with a range of experiences. Some of the common scripts are for ways to express a request such as, "Can I have a turn with that toy." Or to set boundaries on a peer with something like, "I don't like it when you pull on me, please stop." Even the script for a proper apology is useful and can include many parts. An elaborate version might be something like, "I'm sorry I did that. I didn't mean to hurt you. I'll be more careful from now one." 
         If I ever get punched while in the supermarket it will be because I gave in to the temptation to offer unsolicited parenting advice. When I see an adult haranguing a little child with, “What do you say? What do you say”? What do you say?” Presumably they are asking the child to say something like, “Thank you.” Or “Please.” My strong urge is to advise them to simply remind the child to say. ”Please “ or “Thank you.”
     So when we ask them to use their words, it’s a great idea to make sure that they have those words and have both practice and support in using them.

Friday, May 22, 2015


Some might relate to this piece from the Christian Science Monitor.

A Graduation Speech for the "Average" Student

Honor those hard-working grads who didn't quite make it to Harvard

    By Susan DeMersseman / May 24, 2004
    Graduation season is here. Soon millions of students will be leaving for college or other pursuits. But I wonder how some of them will be affected by the speeches and awards at their commencement ceremonies?
    I, along with other relatives and friends, have listened to hours of speeches and watched dozens of the 4.0's come up to the stage for award after award. As I've watched the faces of those not called, I've wondered what it must be like to be a solid "C" student, or one who struggled to hold on to a "B." Did those "average" students feel that, after all the hoopla for the award winners, their fate of mediocrity was sealed?
    As I sat through one of the longer events, I started composing an address for those "other" kids:
    Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, congratulations to the valedictorian and the 4.0's. I wish them well, but this is for the rest of you.
    You're not off to Stanford or Harvard. Maybe you're going to community college or state college, or your second or third choice. Or maybe you're going to try something different. Good for you! You are all about to do great things. Ahead of you are opportunities for success that you haven't even imagined yet. Maybe success by worldly standards; maybe success by your own standards.
    I have one piece of wisdom to share. Much more of our future than we sometimes realize is a matter of chance, and a lot is what we make of those chances.
    You might, for example, get a part-time job with a landscaper, find that you love it, and go on to create beautiful environments that bring joy and pleasure to others. Your college roommate's dad might own a business that gives you a summer job, and you might end up running the company. Or you may find the only class that meets a requirement one semester is "Geography of Water" - and you get hooked and eventually design clean-water systems for developing countries.
    One of my favorite sayings is, "God laughs, when man makes plans." I don't mean don't plan. But some of those perfectly planned 4.0 lives may take unexpected turns and so will yours. Be ready to make the best of them. The doodles that always got you in trouble may be the groundwork for a cartoon series, the design for a new building, or might enhance the lessons for your future students.
    One of those 4.0's might find a medical cure for cancer. But you might find a cure for loneliness. One day you might comb an old woman's hair into a neat little bun, push her wheelchair to a spot next to her favorite rosebush, and listen as she tells you about her garden.
    Whoever you were on Commencement Day, whatever others expected of you - well, that's done. Now you get to reinvent yourself. If you were always the super-neat one, you get to loosen up. If you were the class clown, you get to try being serious.
    Treat every class as if it's important. You never can tell. Even if you don't become an astronomer, that astronomy class that filled a requirement may turn out to be valuable. You'll acquire study skills that will help you in the next class. Or some star-filled night you may lie on the grass with your children and teach them about the wonders of this universe.
    Have faith in yourself. Most wonderful, successful people never went to the stage for an award. Many were a lot like you. They kept their minds and hearts open, found a niche, and made the most of it.
    So can you. Congratulations.

    Thursday, May 21, 2015

    Good Enough Parenting

    Please visit my website at
    where there is more on my work and the same parenting articles that appear on this blog.

    Saturday, May 2, 2015

    Mother's Day -- Again

    If you are a father or if you know of a mother who is without a spouse, one of the kindest things you can do is to help her children celebrate her day. It's so good for kids to understand that not everything is about them and to experience the incomparable joy of making someone else  happy. In the process of preparing something special for their mother children learn how to put themselves in her place and create something that speaks to her desires. The following article from the Christian Science Monitor addresses the different languages that express love -- from a new hedge trimmer to a walk in the park. For a mother  who might not expect a celebration of some sort it will be an even greater joy. 

    What Mother's Day language do you speak?

    By Susan DeMersseman / May 6, 2005
    I know there are some women who would be very unhappy if they received a new hedge trimmer for Mother's Day or some other special event. I am not one of those women. I would instead be upset to receive an expensive bouquet of roses. But I realize there are women who feel exactly the opposite.
    Understanding these differences has a big effect on relationships, understanding that there are many different languages of love.
    I like to bake, but my husband, who is not fond of sweets, would not hear, "I care about you," in a batch of freshly baked cookies. He might appreciate the thought, but he would be much happier to get me out of the kitchen and off to a hike in the mountains.
    We can learn to hear "I care about you" in someone's gesture, even if it is not in "our language." Over the years we learn that each person has a unique way that they express affection and love, and each person has a unique set of gestures they perceive as loving. Understanding on both sides makes it work.
    At first, I didn't hear "I care for you," when my husband washed my car. Originally I thought, "I can just run it through the car wash." But then I realized that it was important to let my husband speak his language of love to me and equally important that I read it that way.
    Gifts and gestures that express caring vary so broadly. One friend shared that her preferred combination of loving gifts and gestures was as follows: any high-tech add-on to her computer and someone to follow her toddler around and pick up all the clutter.
    My own objection to expensive bouquets is not to flowers. I love flowers, but I am a gardener and an annoyingly practical person. I would rather have a plant for the yard. Once in a while, I do appreciate the gift of a certain perfume, but wonderful gardening tools are my real luxury. And even more wonderful - someone to follow me around and pick up the clippings as I prune.
    As a mother, I have found wish lists a good way to help with translating these unique languages we have. My Mother's Day wish list always includes the request that the sometimes-unsweet siblings will be sweet to each other.
    The first wish list included what I wanted for dinner. From that wish list, my family developed a traditional Mother's Day menu to speak my language. And just as important - though I do not like breakfast in bed - I "oohed" and "aahed" when my children were little and graced me with this honor. Breakfast in bed is not, in my language, a loving gesture, but it was in theirs and so it was important to "hear" and understand their language.
    This comprehension of others' emotions even when not perfectly expressed is maybe the most loving language of all.
    To this day, I remember the way that my father raved about the weird little salads that 5-year-old me served him on jar lids. One of his "favorites" was crumbled up saltines on shredded carrots! I love that he understood my language. His language was the understanding.

    Thursday, April 30, 2015

    Defining "success" for children

    This older piece published in the Christian Science Monitor remains relevant and recently confirmed by a Gallup poll.

    Redefine Success for Kids

    I will never forget the news about my friend's daughter: She was going to Stanford University – and felt devastated. Her friends were all going to prestigious Eastern schools, while she had "settled" for her second choice.
    Just the week before, I had spoken with the father of three teenage boys – all great kids, but low-average students. And each felt like a failure.
    Then, listening to the college counselor at my daughter's college prep night, I was struck by how high the bar has been set for youngsters: Average now equals failure. American society is so competitive that the pressure has filtered down to the youngest children.
    Is there any place in childhood where you can just be where you are, not "getting ready for the next level?" My son's teachers in middle school pushed hard to get the kids ready for high school. I understand the pressure teachers feel, but I wonder if kids might not be better off if teachers just helped them do something well for the feeling of satisfaction in a job well done.

    I do know of a fifth-grade teacher who doesn't always speed through assignments and grade kids on their first effort. Several times during the year, she works with each child until an assignment merits an "A." Each student gains the experience of producing fine work.
    But she is an exception. When I mentioned my concern to fellow psychologists, each had examples. One woman's sister had gone to a very high-powered high school. Her teachers and classmates had made her feel like a failure, because she was only a C+ student. Though she went on to get a doctorate and now holds a prestigious job, she still sees herself as a failure.
    In contrast, another psychologist described her sister, too, who had struggled through school. But their parents had encouraged her to find many sources of satisfaction and kept telling her she would find her niche. She did, and is now a happy, successful adult.
    Maybe there is an underlying belief that, if we make satisfaction unattainable, children will be more motivated. But perhaps we will end up with highly motivated people who never experience satisfaction. Or youngsters like the teenagers who feel that only A's "count," so why bother if you can't achieve them.
    Some of this pressure represents a misguided sense of what it takes to be successful in this world. In less pleasant cases, it is a sign of people who use their children for their own sense of status.
    In parenting workshops, I often ask participants to consider the question: "Are the people I know who went to Stanford and Berkeley so much happier than those who went to other colleges?" If the answer is not a resounding yes, then what are we doing to our kids?
    Society has put so many conditions on children's value, it's easy to see how they can end up feeling like nothing. Psychologists practicing in affluent communities are kept in business by this trend.
    The pressure also seeps into activities out of school. One mother described her feeling of inadequacy at a young child's birthday party. One little guest came late because of chess lessons. Another left early because of violin lessons. The first mother was almost embarrassed that she wasn't in any hurry, and was just taking her child home to hang out in the backyard with the cat.
    I tried to give her some perspective in seeing that overprogrammed children do not always benefit. A few excel, but many just wear out or don't develop the capacity to pursue self-initiated activities. I don't encourage parents to eliminate expectations, but instead to appreciate children and help them find skills that give them pleasure regardless of the grade, the money, or the status that goes with them.
    After 12 years of college, what is my greatest source of satisfaction? A patch of ground well weeded. A friend well cared for. The ability to notice the wonderful things that happen when the autumn sunset puts a rosy filter in front of the fading hydrangeas.
    I enjoy my work, but this is not because I have a PhD from Berkeley. It's from parents who loved me unconditionally and helped me, by their example and support, find many sources of satisfaction in life.
    It is possible to motivate people without keeping satisfaction unattainable. In fact, what could be more motivating than the desire to reproduce the wonderful feeling of a job well done?
    There are many routes to happiness that do not pass through the doors of Ivy League colleges.