Monday, June 17, 2013

Sesame Street Has A New Character. And His Dad Is In Jail.

Below is a clip from a recent Sesame Street episode where the character of Alex is introduced. Alex is very sad in the clip because he is dealing with the fact that his father is incarcerated.

Here is the clip:

One of Sesame Street's missions has always been to be inclusive--to reach out to kids who come from all kinds of different families. And with approximately 2.3 million people in jails and prisons, the U.S. has a lot of kids who are likely to relate to Alex.

By the way, according to a New York Times piece from 2008, the United States has about 5% of the world's population, but we house about 25% of the world's prisoners. And, about 70% of those who are incarcerated in the U.S. are non-white minorities.

What do you think about Sesame Street reaching out to kids with a parent (most likely a dad) in prison?

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Summer Reading List. Or, How To Kill Time When You Are In Jail

Yesterday, I posed a question on Twitter: What book would you read if you were in prison?

Originally, my idea was to get personal reading suggestions, since I spend a lot of time locked in jails while inmates are filling out paperwork. Sometimes, I have hours to kill. My options for how to spend that time are limited. Following are a list of activities in which I have engaged:

1. Staring into space.
2. Writing haiku.
3. Writing responses to hypothetical questions people might ask me in the future.
4. Writing anything.
5. Drawing small squares on a piece of paper to see how many small squares I can draw on a piece of paper.
6. Drawing anything.
7. Reading.
8. Planning how I would escape, just in case.

I was not kidding about
the small squares

It turns out, reading is the best way to spend one's time while locked in jail. I assume weight lifting is good, too, but I have never had access to the yard.

Luckily for me, my twitter followers had a lot of great book recommendations. Regardless of where you find yourself, a lot of these books are likely good reads. Many of them would be just as enjoyable on a beach as they would be in a prison cell.

In addition to soliciting the recommendations, I promised I would collate the list and put it on my blog today.

I am listing the books in alphabetical order, by author's last name. Word of warning: While I have read some of these books, I have not read all of them. Some books I have never even heard of. Frankly, some of them very likely do not actually exist. But, I wanted to present the list in its entirety. I am not censoring the list, but I am not necessarily endorsing these books, either.

Here they are:

The Bible
Any book on how to break out of jail, by any author willing to write on that topic
How To Tunnel Out 101, by anonymous
Self Defense Against The Psychopath: Essential Reading For Everyone, by Rik Atherton
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho
Beautiful Losers, by Leonard Cohen
Tender Is The Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Man's Search For Meaning, by Viktor Frankl
One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Garden of Eden, by Ernest Hemingway
Any book written by John Irving
Three Men In A Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome
Ulysses, by James Joyce
The Shawshank Redemption, by Stephen King
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera
The Abolition of Man, by C.S. Lewis
Moby Dick, Or The White Whale, by Herman Melville
The Gormenghast Trilogy, by Mervyn Peake
Lullabies For Little Criminals, by Heather O'Neill
The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through The Madness Industry, by Jon Ronson
Tweak: Growing Up On Methamphetamines, by Nic Sheff
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

So, that is the list. I would like to give a big thanks to everyone who submitted a book idea yesterday. The most popular submission was Viktor Frankl's Man's Search For Meaning. Dr. Frankl was a holocaust survivor who wrote about existential concerns in a powerful and moving way. It is hard to explain how rough your life has been to a man who survived a Nazi death camp.

Any surprises on the list? Any other books you would like to include on a summer/prison reading list?

reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

How To Talk To Your Kids About Terrible Events (Without Freaking Them Out)

I often get asked how to talk with children about tragedies. Whether they are manmade (kidnappings, mass shootings, bombings, etc.) or natural disasters, children catch glimpses of horrible events fairly frequently and it is important to have an understanding of how to discuss those events with them. Some people ask if it is even the right decision to talk to kids about tragedies.

The most important action you can take is to plan ahead. Think about the age of your children and decide how you will respond the next time a tragedy strikes. That way, you will not be caught off guard if you start getting questions from your kids.

Here are a few tips to help you move in the right direction:

1. Your children are smarter than you think. The more we learn about children and child development, the more we know they are capable of understanding a lot of information. When I finished kindergarten, I barely new the alphabet. When my daughter finished kindergarten, she was reading. Kids can learn quickly, and they can understand more than we have traditionally given them credit for.

2. Even though they are smart, your children will still be confused about a lot of things. Depending on their age, they may have trouble comprehending the finality of death, and abstract concepts will be confusing. Many times, you need to share information with them in concrete and basic terms. For example, if you are talking about death, you might need to explain that once a person dies, she is gone and never comes back. You might then need to relate that concept to a pet or a person your child knows who has died ("like when Sparky went away, remember?").

3. Kids talk to each other. You may decide you do not want your children to know about a particular tragedy. That is a decision each parent must make on a case-by-case basis, and it is fine to decide that your kids do not need to know about something. But, keep in mind that other kids will have heard about it and they may talk to your children. You still need to be prepared to answer questions about a tragedy you wish your kids didn't know about.

4. Kids have the capacity to hear tragic news and then go about their day. This is a tough one for parents to deal with at times. You may be reeling from the devastating news coverage and your heart may be aching for the victims. Your children may ask you a lot of questions (things such as "What is death?" and "Who is God?"). After struggling to explain these huge concepts to your kids in an emotionally sensitive and age appropriate way, your kids will then say, "Okay, can we watch Teletubbies now?" They will be over it. You, however, will be wondering if 10:00 in the morning is to early to break out the vodka.

5. Kids listen to what you are saying (and the television). Contrary to how they behave sometimes, your children listen to almost everything that you say. If you are discussing a tragedy with other adults and your children are in the room, they are hearing what you say. And, if the news is on, they are hearing that too (and seeing the video images). Be careful not to overstimulate your children with images and details that are not age appropriate. There are times when you will need to stop talking with other adults until your kids are gone, and you will need to turn off the television.

6. Sometimes, children have heard too much. There are some common signs that your children have been exposed to too much information about a tragedy. If they seem stressed or overly scared, that might be a warning sign. If their imaginative play relates to the tragedy, or if it becomes violent in its imagery, that is a definite warning sign. Other warnings include problems falling asleep, misbehavior, arguing with friends or siblings, crying for no reason, clinging to loved ones, and refusing to go to school (or getting upset when you try to leave).

7. Be prepared to have a fairly short conversation about the tragedy with your children. You could potentially talk to an adult about a tragedy for hours, explaining it in detail and answering very sophisticated questions. But your children are different. They will only require a brief, simple explanation, and their questions will require simple answers (even questions that seem complicated, such as questions about death and the existence of God). You might only need to spend a few minutes talking with them about a devastating tragedy. Of course, the older your children, the more complicated your discussion will become.

8. Be prepared to answer questions about death and God. Trust me, this will come up, and you will panic if you haven't thought about how to describe these concepts to your children ahead of time.

Is it possible to have a deep theological discussion
with a human who thinks this is acceptable behavior?
I hope these pointers are helpful for you. Again, the most important step you can take is to think about how you will talk to your children before a tragedy strikes. Think about their age, about what types of tragedies they need to hear about, and how you will discuss it with

them. Be prepared for huge, existential questions, and come up with a way of answering those questions in a sentence or two.

Kids will hear about tragedies--the world is full of them. It is our job as parents to help them understand and navigate a world where bad things happen in an emotionally safe way.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Revenge: It's All Fun And Games Until You End Up In Jail

Revenge: There are few things more satisfying than a good fantasy about getting even with someone who has wronged you. A boss, a coworker, an ex...think of all the fiendish things you can do to a person who hurts you deeply.

Here is the problem: many of those satisfyingly devilish revenge fantasies cross over from clever to illegal very quickly. You may not even realize you are thinking of breaking the law when you devise how to best get your comeuppance.

Let's examine a real-world case. One major caveat: I have no idea if the following scenario is actually true. But, it has gone viral on the internet, so let's just pretend it really happened.

The funny break-up letter: A woman discovered after looking through her boyfriend's open Facebook account that he was having an affair. She then wrote him this letter:

This woman, who had every right to be angry, embarrassed, hurt, depressed, etc., discovered the existence of Kelsi, the other woman. She made a point of telling her boyfriend she did not break any of his things. But, she did take many of his possessions and put them in public places. She then gave her boyfriend "clues" about where his stuff was. She ends the letter by writing, "Oh, and while I didn't break or damage anything, I can't guarantee anybody else won't find it!"

On the surface, this seems like an epic revenge. I mean, she crushed this guy--his stuff is hidden in plain sight all over town! People will steal his stuff! It's awesome!

It is also illegal.

Taking someone else's possessions without the use of force and without breaking into a building is called theft. And, the dollar amount of the stuff she took (video games, a television, a laptop, and clothes) constitutes felony theft.

At the very least, she committed several acts of criminal mischief (knowingly damaging or injuring others' property).

And, depending on how vigorous a prosecutor would like to be, she might be charged with breaking into her boyfriend's Facebook account, which can be charged as stalking or computer hacking, depending on the jurisdiction.

This is the problem with revenge: it often leaves us worse off than when we started. And, it is typically masking deeper emotions such as depression, embarrassment, or shame. None of those emotions resolve themselves by acting out toward another person in anger.

It is much better to deal with your deep feelings of hurt directly than to act on thoughts of revenge. At the same time, it can be fun and cathartic to fantasize about getting even with someone. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as you don't act on those thoughts and you also work on healing your deeper emotions.

Remember the famous George Herbert quote: "Living well is the best revenge."
Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Judge Accepts Aurora Theater Shooter's Insanity Plea

Yesterday, the Arapahoe County judge in the Aurora theater shooting case formally accepted the defense's plea of Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity. That does not mean the shooter has been ruled to be insane--it merely means the judge is allowing him to plead insanity, which then puts into motion the official sanity evaluation process.

The shooter will be transported to the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo, where he will likely spend several months. A psychiatrist will evaluate him and offer a 'psycho-legal' opinion about the shooter's sanity. Then, it will be up to a jury to make a decision about whether he was insane at the time of the shooting.

Here is a 9 News story from yesterday where reporter Chris Vanderveen interviewed me about the sanity evaluation


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