Good fortune and a good attitude

This is a guest essay from a high school student Katherine Young. Katherine’s mom is a good friend of my wife and we had the opportunity to talk about the impact COVID had on people of her age. I felt she had demonstrated a personal resiliency so I asked her if she’d be willing to write something that I could post on the blog.

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on several aspects of everyday life. Many families lost those who were close to them. I know individuals who lost their jobs during the pandemic. Productivity rates were also at an all-time low for many students. I witnessed those around me losing motivation to get schoolwork done and it really started to become an issue. Fortunately, I was not affected as severely since nobody in my family was severely ill or hospitalized and I am beyond grateful for that.

On the other hand, this pandemic significantly affected my sleep schedule. I began sleeping much later than usual and waking up past noon. The effects really began to appear once I had to transition back to in-person learning for my junior year of high school. While it wasn’t easy, it surely wasn’t impossible. Being a Bronx Science student means having to wake up way before the sun is even up just to be able to take either public transportation or catch the school bus to arrive at school on time. To address my sleep schedule issue once the school year began, I would slowly adjust what time I go to sleep as the days went on – sleeping around 15-20 minutes earlier as the days progress. Over time, I was able to establish a regular routine once again. While it wasn’t easy, it surely wasn’t impossible.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has done a fair amount of damage to certain aspects of everyday life, it is important to also realize the positive side of things. Prior to the pandemic, I had no idea how to turn on a stove but now I make almost all my meals by myself and am a part-time pastry chef at Midtown’s Bibble and Sip cafe. Cooking and baking would take up majority of my day when I was stuck at home during quarantine and it allowed me to unplug for a bit. I made every birthday cake for my family members in 2020 and it made quarantine a lot less mundane for me. While the pandemic certainly took a toll on my mental health and certain aspects of my daily life, I am glad I was able to pick up a new hobby during that time.

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Back to school – with Covid in the background

Throughout the pandemic I was one of many thousands of mental health professionals trying to understand and help young people cope with the impact Covid was having on their lives. I have therefore been receptive to articles from a variety of sources on the topic.

In a report released at the start of this year, the APA detailed an emerging mental health crisis amongst children and called for a range of programs to better address the issue in schools. More recently, the NY Times did extensive survey of school counselors see “362 School Counselors on the Pandemic’s Effect on Children:” Nearly all the counselors, (94%), said their students were showing more signs of anxiety and depression than before the pandemic. Eighty-eight percent said students were having more trouble regulating their emotions. There was a noted increase in self-harm behaviors and almost three-quarters of the counselors said students were having more difficulty solving conflicts with friends.

One interesting finding of this and a related survey, is that the kids who spent more time learning online were worse off (even in hybrid environments) in comparison to those spending time in school.

While our focus has been on the impact of the pandemic, recent surveys on teen emotional health have shown worrying trends for more than a decade. It’s the kind of issue that tends to get pushed aside unless brought up in terms of a mass shooting or another headline grabbing event. My own thinking on this issue, is that much of this trend can be attributed to the increase in time spent on “smart phones” and engaged in social media. The effect this pull has on us all is hard to overstate, but I believe that today’s young people who have no experience of life before the mobile internet are particularly vulnerable to its pernicious impact on social anxiety and other feelings of insecurity. I agree with the sentiments expressed by Dr. Melissa Dennison a pediatrician serving a rural Kentucky community who stated she regularly shares with families her opinions about the need for their children to put down their devices, exercise and spend time outdoors. The advice seems particularly apropos here in the urban setting as well.

Along similar lines, comes a welcome recommendation of school counselors that students reduce use of technology, participate in more extracurricular activities as well as spend time away from academics in order to engage in fun real time activities with family and friends. Personally, I regularly counsel parents to set limits on screen times, encourage their kids to hang out with friends and have specific times set for family social activities.

From the small sample of young people that I know either through counseling or the children of family and friends, I believe that those who cultivate a range of interests and participate in activities are more likely to weather the vicissitudes of adolescence and the specific challenges presented by the pandemic. I’m not sure what comes first, generally good mental health or involvement with friends and school activities, but I can’t imagine that engaging with peers and cultivating one’s interest would not have an overwhelmingly positive affect.

With that in mind, please see the article by Katherine Young, daughter of a good friend of my wife. On occasions when we had a chance to speak, I was struck by Katherine’s generally positive attitude and wide range of interests. I thought it would be worthwhile to ask her to write a small piece about her outlook on the pandemic (this will be coming soon).

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One With the Game: Virtual Reality and Us

The following article was written by Jonathan Rumore, a college student who was part of a team I led to learn about new developments in consumer VR systems

There’s a sort of commonality that play brings to a discussion. From the earliest ‘hit a ball with your foot’ to today’s most demanding video games; there’s a joyous and guttural feeling of ‘Oh! I know that thing!’ when you talk about these shared, social experiences. Virtual Reality is that next ‘thing,’ if it pans out. In this article, I’ll explain why.

Watching VR art being created and displayed using Google Tilt Brush.

When I got the opportunity to work with Michael Greene on testing out his newly acquired HTC Vive VR headset, I chomped at the bit. I had hoped to try a PlayStation VR unit, but I have not yet had the chance. All of that excitement notwithstanding, I should probably say upfront that I had higher expectations for the Vive than I probably should have, leading to an ultimately disappointing experience in the end.

The amount of things that have to be plugged in (the wires are everywhere) with the Vive, could easily turn off elderly or tech-averse consumers. Not only that, you need a very high end computer to run it. A vast majority of consumers do not have the means or desire to buy or build a computer for something in the neighborhood of $2000. Nevertheless, I remain extremely hopeful that future iterations of VR headsets may prove to be more practical. However ,that being said, even though new programs for the Vive come out continuously, quality software can be hard to find. Michael and I, along with three fellow college students, went about testing his new VR setup with the goal of figuring out these assorted problems (cost, space and software) together. Two members of our group, Nick and Andrew, actually recommended parts and built a gaming-spec computer to run the Vive’s (rather demanding) hardware. Evan and I were unable to join in that phase due to being near the end of our college semester, however we helped with software testing and device setup.

Over the course of two Saturdays, we had roughly 20 people demo the device. It was a diverse group – ranging in age from just 10 years old to 65 years young. I set about to interview these varied individuals immediately after they had taken their turn, in order to gain a small slice of insight into what different people think about the technology and its use.

Many of the people who used the Vive were not gamers, nor were they too well versed in technology in general. One person I interviewed, Pat, said that she had watched her kids play games, and could “throw a gnome in [a Harry Potter game].” Two of the testers, Erin and Olivia, were very into video games, and understood the logic for controlling the system. Olivia showed others around a game in which you played as an adventurer. It was interesting seeing her wave around the controllers almost like a Wiimote, much like I did, since that was the closest thing to the Vive controllers available previously.

The most interesting interview I did, though, was with my own father. My father seems to actively go out of his way to avoid technology newer than the 8-track cassette or LaserDisc. Even though he has his own business, he doesn’t use a computer system for billing or setting appointments. He still owns a slider phone; what more can I say?

After spending some time flying around Google Earth, my dad was undoubtedly quite intrigued by the experience, even though he complained about the limitations of the myriad wires (all of a sudden my dad needs wireless technology?!) One thing that stood out to me was when my dad compared it to the Starship Enterprise’s Holodeck. Huh, even my Luddite dad saw the potential that Virtual Reality shows. That’s what excites me most.

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Virtual Reality in Therapy

psychology-networker-cover2I’m very pleased that an article I wrote about virtual reality and therapy is appearing in the Nov/Dec issue of Psychotherapy Networker, a magazine highly regarded by many practicing therapists. Because the Networker is a subscription based magazine, I’ve included the content in a page on this site – see

As background, prior to becoming a therapist, I worked in the Information Technology field. Much of my time was spent on Internet projects in what the then the relatively early years of the web. Although no longer employed in IT, I have kept up with important trends, particularly emerging consumer oriented technologies that I believe will have a major impact on day-to-day life. Virtual reality and augmented reality (a combination of both the real and “virtual world”) is poised to enter the mainstream with an impact that I believe will be as great as the iPhone and other smart cells.

While I am a long-time sci-fi fan and love thinking of new unexplored realms, I’m not saying this is all good news. Clearly the smart phone has facilitated information retrieval and communications, however, it also appears to have contributed towards less “old fashioned” face to face contact as well information overload with a paradoxical acceptance of more shallow explanations for complex phenomena. It seems that with each advance and its accompanying opportunities, we lose important aspects of ourselves as well.

Well there I go again – for more philosophizing and a lot of information on the subject, see the article at If you do have a subscription to Psychotherapy Networker, you can see it at Is VR a Game Changer? – Virtual Reality in Therapy – In addition, click here for a PDF version if you prefer printed format.

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Meeting Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin and Michael GreeneLast week, I had opportunity to hear Temple Grandin author of a number of books including the national bestsellers Thinking in Pictures and Animals in Translation. She is widely acclaimed for her contributions to the field of animal science and in helping the general public better understand autism. With the exception of Sheldon Cooper, the fictional lead in the Big Bang Theory, Temple Grandin is probably the world’s best known autistic person.

I’m familiar with some of her work but have never seen her present and found the talk quite thought provoking. She described the state of autism research and shared anecdotes from her own life experience. In explaining how she was able to succeed in spite of, or perhaps because of her ability to “Think Different,” Grandin helps reframe the way we view people on the autism spectrum and in fact, people in general.

Grandin compares personality traits to a sound mixing board with its multiple faders, each set to its own level. Within some range of variations we each have a unique mixture of tendencies, inclinations and approaches through which we understand and react to the world. Autistic individuals display a more extreme version of certain traits. Displaying photos of Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, she posits if they were children today, these two iconic figures might be considered on the spectrum due to significant gaps in their understanding and observance of social mores and appropriateness. They also represent vastly different thinking types, Einstein the mathematician, Jobs a visual thinker, two of the more common types of autistic brains. Grandin relates that she is a very pronounced visual thinker and was able to build upon this talent to create a career marked with notable contributions to her field.

Building upon strengths is one of Grandin’s main themes. She notes the importance of allowing children to discover what they are interested in and then helping them expand upon it. A child who loves Legos should fully and frequently play with them but as time moves on, he/she should be encouraged to expand towards related skills and creative endeavors. This is a challenge with any child, particularly those on the spectrum who easily get locked into familiarity and routines, however, it is a key point for their growth. Beyond building upon the child’s areas of interest Grandin feels that “stretching these kids,” is absolutely vital. Recounting her own experience of her parents insisting that she shake hands and serve hor d’oeuvres to guests at family gatherings, she learned to appropriately interact with people and perform expected social duties. This prepared her with some of the social skills needed to succeed in business situations as a young adult.

I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Grandin directly after her presentation and commented on her suggestions to involve your child with people in the broader community in natural and productive ways which I have written about in previous posts and for parent resource materials (see “using your natural resources to help your child with social challenges”). She fully agreed and we discussed the general idea as well as some of the methods one might employ. Of course the challenge for parents is to develop an individualized approach that taps into the “natural resources” at their disposal to best impact their child.

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As your child heads off to college…

This year, a number of the young clients I work with are going away to college. As a result I’ve been talking with both the teens and their parents about the opportunities and challenges this transition presents. I thought I’d use these discussions as the basis for a “big picture” post and in the future, focus in on some of the specifics raised.

For many teens leaving for college will actually be the first time they will be spending any kind of extended time away from home and family. That in itself can be fairly stressful. Even for those who have gone to camp or have been on a teen group trip, going away to school presents a totally new environment. In addition to being away from familiar settings, college life is characterized by less supervision along with greater responsibility for one’s own decisions. Success with both academics and dorm life requires the student to:

  • Manage their time – get to class, meals, regulate sleep, etc.
  • Manage their work load – complete weekly assignments, larger projects and the flow of work through the term.
  • Manage their room and possessions.
  • Get along with people – room and suite mates, dorm residents, classmates, etc.
  • Deal with a wide range of new situations, many of which are unanticipated.
  • Deal with the emotional roller coaster that these new responsibilities and situations evoke.

All parents, particularly those of teens with special needs face the college send off with a mixture of emotions that might be described as relief (finally he/she will be out of the house, and we won’t have to deal with all this stuff all the time) and concern (I hope he/she will cope with the challenges s/he’ll will be hit with).

While all families and situations are unique, the following suggestions might be useful for the parents of any college bound student, particularly those with social challenges.

Stay calm and positive – Despite outward appearances, teens are usually nervous about the upcoming challenges and unsure of their capabilities of handling them. Without dismissing their concerns, or acting as a cheerleader, your faith in their capabilities and the belief they will rise to the challenge will usually be quietly appreciated. Try not to get thrown off by all the small stuff that will come up in preparation of their leaving as well as the underlying emotions that can cause arguments to spike.

Discuss expectations and agreements – By the time your child is going off to school, you’ve probably had many discussions about what he/she should expect at school and what you are looking for as parents. Have you made any agreements regarding the following issues?

  • How often you will be communicating? While cell phones have made it possible to stay intimately in touch with others, is this what you want? Will you and your child be better off by planned communications perhaps once or twice a week where you can relax a bit and talk about a range of issues. Once they have settled in establishing some regularity to the communications with home might contribute to them building structure around their time and assignments as well as allowing everyone to be emotionally prepared for the conversation. Are there particular times that would work for your family to speak?
  • Are there assumptions about academic performance? Does your child feel that passing is the goal or is he/she looking to have a certain GPA. Are you in basic alignment with this goal? Are there any scholarships that have grade requirements that should be recognized? Beyond the performance, students have to explicitly grant access for parents to check on grades when they are posted on-line. Are you planning to look at these? Can you have a good discussion about grades and performance with your child? If this is a difficult topic, prepare yourself so that you don’t inadvertently add a negative tone to the conversation.
  • What are his/her expectations about substance use? In this day and age, kids have to incorporate “official messages” about substance use, along with real life experience in their own social interactions. How exposed was your child to substances in high school? What do they assume will happen in college? Would they know how to handle difficult situations that they or their friends might face?
  • What are your child’s expectation regarding the use of special services? In grade and high school, the school is responsible for evaluating and monitoring progress of special needs. In college, this is up to the student. Often students who have had special needs in high school want to distance themselves from this so they can fit in and be like everyone else. Sometimes they hold this opinion quite strongly even to their own detriment (not even being open to go to the tutoring for a tough class). Is your child open to discussing this, can you together develop a reasonable plan regarding this issue?

In closing, going to college, particularly when it includes moving away from home, is one of the most significant transitions in a young person’s life. Parents know their child and some of the pitfalls that might lie ahead. Being willing to talk and listen to your child, while maintaining an optimistic view, and a confidence that issues can be effectively handled as they arise, will allow for positive communications and help you address even some of the more sensitive topics.

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Using Your Natural Resources to Help Your Child – Pt 2

All children face social challenges as a normal part of growing up but for those lacking basic skills or plagued by severe anxiety, successfully relating to peers can feel like a hopeless pursuit to be avoided at all costs. Parents can play a vital role in turning this around. By effectively tapping into their own network of friends and family, utilizing the resources available in the larger community, and successfully partnering with professionals in the child’s school, parents can minimize problematic situations, expand opportunities and effectively enhance their child’s social development.

The previous post focused on family and friends, this one discusses community and school resources. You can download the full copy for print.

Tapping into Community Resources
Many community organizations seek family involvement. Houses of worship are the most obvious examples. Most try to incorporate fun into the children’s religious and cultural instruction and offer a range of family events throughout the year. Social challenges are reduced by easy access to adults to help settle arguments and discourage teasing.

Look for other organizations as well as community events that encourage child participation. Even more important are organizations specifically geared toward youth.
Scouting is highly regarded; in addition to providing a “ready made group” of kids in a supervised setting, there is a focus on ethics, personal and group achievement, and an attitude of inclusion. This creates a culture in which social awkwardness and anxiety is accepted and channeled towards positive results.

Organized sports and other physical activities can also play an important role; however these are often difficult environments for children with social challenges. If a child is young, being part of a soccer or baseball team might be something he/she can handle and learn from, particularly if their parent can help as a coach. If this seems too much, is there a local Y that offers swimming lessons? How about a local tennis program? What about martial arts? While these supervised activities tend to limit unstructured time, they allow some peer interaction while not requiring the social skills needed to excel in team sports.

Branching out at School
Schools are children’s main social arena. Here parents have two general concerns: effectively utilizing available opportunities, and avoiding damage that can occur through social ostracism and bullying.

Young children should be encouraged to participate in after school events such as a holiday parties. Middle schools usually offer somewhat more after school activities including sports as well as band practice and performances. If your child likes music successful participation might lead to life long social possibilities.

The wide range of clubs available in high school will probably overlap with some of your child’s existing interests. Greater music and sports opportunities are also available including track, which is oriented towards individual effort but also linked to the larger group. By high school, most parents are less engaged in school affairs, but for those whose children face social challenges staying involved will help them advise their child about resources, activities and which school personnel can assist if they encounter social barriers.

Children who lack social skills often feel ostracized by fellow students. Sometimes this is due to the child misinterpreting situations or comments by peers. It can also be that they are an easy target for teasing and bullying. Schools have begun to offer programs to address this. Parents should be familiar with these programs so they can effectively engage with counselors or other personnel to minimize the damage to their child’s sense of confidence and well being if these problems arise.

You can download a copy for print.

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Using Your Natural Resources to Help Your Child

In recent years, there’s been a sharp rise in the number of children identified as having normal to high intelligence, but significant deficits in their social skills. In addition to those classified with Aspergers/Autism and those who suffer from anxiety this group includes children who prefer interacting online but not in “the real world.”

Parents can become alarmed by a growing “social gap” between their child and peers as he/she enters adolescence and tries to navigate the complex social interactions of middle and high school. For kids with social challenges, parental support can make a vital difference.

The following notes focus on making the most of the social potential in your family, community and school. They are part of a brochure I’ve developed on this topic (download a copy for print) and can be used either as a precursor to or in conjunction with a more formal therapeutic program.

Planting the seeds with family and friends
Often a child’s social challenges are clear even when they are quite young but for many, it does not become evident until sometime after they have entered school. No matter what a child’s age, once social challenges are identified, parents should discuss the issue and try to be sure there is mutual understanding. This is a long term, family project.

A first step is to observe how your child behaves with peers and then to develop additional opportunities for him/her to interact. In many families with two or more children siblings provide a major portion of the child’s social life. Perhaps you can promote additional contact with the brother/sister’s friends. Even baby sitting and child care can be considered in terms of having other children around with whom your child can relate. Increasing interactions with children of the extended family, friends and neighbors is often the most basic action parents can take however it can provide a long-term help in your child developing a social network.

Again, the key is recognition by caregivers that social competence requires attention. Young children should expect that social situations are a regular and frequent part of life while knowing they can count on parents to respond in an understanding and supportive manner when they have social difficulties.

As children get older, it is appropriate to engage them in discussion about the life long importance of social competence, explaining that just as one has to work for academic success a sustained effort is required in the social arena.

The next blog entry will include a discussion of using community and school resources. You can also download a copy for print.

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Confronting Bullying: A Father’s Response to Tragedy

When John Halligan talks, people listen. It’s been eight years since his wife Kelly called him while he was away on a business trip, sobbing that their son Ryan was dead. Ryan died by his own hands at the age of 13 after being tormented by schoolmates for months. As part of his healing process, John has made it his mission to change society’s awareness and attitudes about bullying. To date, he’s spoken at about 1,100 schools and has successfully lobbied for the passage of anti-bullying laws.

This week John presented to student assemblies in Great Neck North and South Middle Schools as well as at a special evening parent meeting. When speaking with students, John makes sure that they get a real sense of who Ryan was and what led him to his tragic death. He challenges their own attitudes towards bullying confronting both bullies and the bystanders who enable the act through encouragement or more often silent acceptance. He also gives hope to those children being picked on, helping them understand, they are not to blame for their pain and offering some ideas on how to find help to get out of the situation.

At parent meetings, John has a different goal; helping them avoid the tragedy he suffered. Here he explains some of the major changes that have occurred in the span of a generation. Although many parents might think of physical confrontations in the school yard, at this point bullying is more frequently expressed in emotional or relational terms. Furthermore, the online environment, an increasingly large part of young people’s lives can easily spawn inappropriateness and cruelty. This can have a particularly devastating affect on a young person when combined with callous in person interactions.

John’s advice for parent; know what your children are doing online. While we’ve all become alert to dangers of pedophiles lurking in virtual space, most adults are clueless about the complex and sometimes harmful interactions that take place amongst the kids. Get familiar with the environment your children are operating within and set real and enforceable limits that are appropriate to their age and maturity level (see “Parenting Suggestions Regarding Technology” a guide sheet that John distributes on this topic).

John points out that being able to sensitively inquire whether your child is being bullied or feels depressed is also a vital conversation. Studies have shown that increasing the opportunity for kids to talk about these issues decreases the risks of self harm. In fact surveys of teenage depression and suicide attempts have significantly decreased in Vermont, the state where John’s family lived and where he gave most of his talks. We can’t fix an exact number on how many young lives John has saved through his message of awareness and compassion, but we all hope brings some meaning to the tragic loss he’s had to endure.

For more information about Ryan and anti-bullying programs see

Special thanks to Dr. James Welsch and Denise Nolan, principals of Great Neck’s Middle Schools, their staff and other school district personnel who brought this excellent program to both the children and their parents.

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Changing Role of Dads

What do Cliff Huxtable and Jim Anderson have in common? Both were TV dads on top running programs representing an idealized version of American family life during their era. Jim Anderson played by Robert Young in Father Knows Best provided a consistent presence and thoughtful advice to his children as they confronted the daily dilemmas of growing up. Cliff Huxtable, played by Bill Cosby was much more of a humorous character, often getting involved in silly situations, which at times cause us to question his judgment. Both were excellent, loving fathers who work in partnership with their wives, but clearly the “power” in the Huxtables resides with Claire, the mom, as it does with most other 1980s/90s sitcoms, such as Rosanne, Home Improvement, Everybody Loves Raymond, etc.

On Weds August 31, I had the opportunity to speak to the Great Neck Rotary Club about the Changing Role of Dads using sitcoms as a good jumping off point. It’s remarkable how significantly gender roles have shifted in the span of two generations. While we often look at women’s increased job opportunities and the difficulties they encounter balancing commitments of both work and home life, men have also had to make significant adjustments. Along with the benefit of new freedoms in expression, there is a loss of power and greater uncertainty about how they are expected to perform traditional male roles. Coping with these ambiguities and changing expectations has been a difficult adjustment for many men to make.

Although my talk had a sociological focus, it is as a therapist that I see ramifications. Many families experience conflict reconciling traditional ideas of household rules, discipline and gender roles with current societal pressures and emerging cultural norms. Parents have to figure out what works in their own lives and develop a partnership based on their specific beliefs and circumstances. Not an easy journey, and the maps are out dated. You’ll find allies and resources on the way but you’ve got to find your own route.

Special thanks to Great Neck Rotary Club for hosting this presentation. Meetings are held weekly on Weds 8:00 – 9:15 AM at the Inn at Great Neck, 30 Cuttermill Road. For information contact Phil Raices 2011 club president at

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