March 30, 2009

Got a Parenting Question?

Introducing a new feature that I offer called, "Ask Pam."

Parents often have a question or a concern that doesn't necessarily warrant an in-office consultation or therapy session. In those situations I like to give parents an opportunity to have their concern addressed anonymously.

I can offer you insights, suggest websites that you may find helpful and even refer you to other professionals.

You may contact me with your questions via this blog or by sending an email to

March 26, 2009

Experts say play time can relieve stress in bad times

By Janice Lloyd, USA TODAY
Stuart Brown appears to be lighthearted and hooked on playing. He made his office in a treehouse in Carmel Valley, Calif. He is tan and fit. The 76-year-old psychiatrist plays tennis with his buddies every week and recently took a cross-country ski vacation with his adult sons and older brother in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

But his message could not be any more serious, especially during these difficult economic times.

Find regular time to play — or else, he warns in his new book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul (Penguin, $24.95).

Or else what?

A life of rigidity, lacking in creativity. A life without joy, minus sustained pleasure. The opposite of play isn't work, he adds, but depression. During his 40-year career, Brown has peered into the bubbling inferno, studying what goes wrong when people do not play. He has conducted more than 6,000 play studies on everyone from serial killers to substance abusers to career-driven CEOs.

And he is worried many adults are not finding time to play now as the economy forces them to work harder in offices with smaller staffs, then head home to help with chores and rest before starting it all over again. He writes that when we are in peril, "the drive to play will disappear." These are perilous times.

POLL: Mental stress spirals with economy

"Play is particularly important during periods that are sustainedly stressful, like now where we don't see an end to this economic downturn," says Brown, founder of the National Institute of Play in Carmel. The non-profit institute compiles research on play and provides speakers to discuss the importance of play with educational organizations and Fortune 500 companies.

"If we're going to adapt to changing economic and personal circumstances the way that nature armed us to do, then we have to find ourselves having some play time virtually every day," Brown says.

So for the play-challenged, Brown has advice on how to get back into the swing (maybe even the backyard swing).

Experiment, Brown says. Go back to thinking about how you played as a child. He writes about a woman who basically had a "turbocharged" day taking care of her family and her job as the CEO of a real estate company. Up at 5 a.m., she ran 4 or 5 miles on odd days and swam and lifted weights on even days.

She started to dread life. She set out to find a solution and remembered some of her fondest memories as a child involved horses. Now, she rides one day a week and is happier and more productive.

A state of mind

Matthew Calabria of Washington, D.C., has always loved playing hoops. He got tired of working out at the gym and paying his gym fees but did not want to go without exercise. It helps him blow off steam after days spent working at the State Department.

He posted an item on Craigslist in February looking for people to play pickup games.

"We're playing on a small court outside with 10-foot rims, but it suffices," he says. "It's really a kids' court, but we're just doing it for fun. I played in high school and missed it."

Brown lives near Pebble Beach and says he has played a few rounds of golf there. For most people, he says, it's "the highlight of a life, a special moment to play" on the famed course. But for others? "I've seen golfers who are ticked off when they tee off and are no different after 18 holes."

That's not play, he says. Nor is it play when a runner has high fitness goals or strives for fast times. That adds too much stress. Running for the pure joy of it or running with a friend and socializing is fun and relaxing.

There are all kinds of play; what's important is to find out what kind of play is right for you. Some are as simple as really playing with and enjoying the dog when you are walking it, rather than begrudgingly taking it outside. Play is not being cutthroat or winning at all costs. That's about domination, he says. And play can and ought to be involved at work.

A big part of the solution, he says, is opening up to the idea that play is a state of mind. Every day, there are opportunities to play, which he defines as "an absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness and sense of time."

But society pushes adults away from play, teaching them to think playful activities are for children, a frivolous luxury and immoral. Plus, Brown says, the economy has made it hard for adults to think they deserve to have fun or can afford fun.

Mental health professionals say that kind of thinking is a serious red flag — and they're seeing more of it.

"People say, 'I can't have fun when my 401(k) is down or I lost my job,' " says Nadine Kaslow, family psychologist and professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "What I say to people is you're probably not going to have as much pleasure as you did when things were better, but play is something that can make us feel better about ourselves and more engaged with other people."

One of play's benefits, says Penny Donnefeld, a clinical psychologist in Manhattan, is it reduces stress hormones in the bloodstream. Because continuously high stress levels wreak havoc on our bodies, she says, the health benefits alone should give adults motivation to play.

"If this is going to keep your arteries clear and keep you alive longer, maybe it's worth considering," Donnefeld says.

Not sure which kinds of recreation are right for you? Michael Otto has a tip.

No watch, no cellphone

"All of us end up being better at tracking what is going poorly than what goes well," says Otto, director of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University. "One intervention is to ask people to keep a diary of moments of well-being. If you do that, you end up with a diary and collection of moments that helps you feel good, and it's a diary about what to pursue next week."

Ken Silverstein, 49, knows what works for him. The anesthesiologist lives in Wilmington, Del., and goes on a mountain biking trek every year with Escape Adventures. This will be his 10th year. "It's the last thing I'd give up if I had to save money," Silverstein says. "It's like oxygen, it's so important to me. There's nothing more liberating in the world than being on the bike. We take no cellphones, and you have to leave your watch behind."

Silverstein says he also takes time during the week to ride "almost no matter what. I'm very busy, work very hard and cycling is my outlet."

Sex is a refuge, too

Brown says it is no coincidence that people who stay sharp as they age are those who keep working and playing. And couples who stay together also play together, he says, especially when they have different play personalities that might lead them in different directions.

"I encourage couples to have a weekly date," Kaslow says. "They put something on a piece of paper that would be fun for them to do into a love jar and take turns pulling it out of there and doing whatever it is."

Sex counts big time in the world of play, Brown says, when partners try to draw each other out, they are in effect freeing themselves and relaxing.

ROMANCE: Nearly 80% says economy hasn't slowed frequency of sex

"Lovers can be so involved they shut out the rest of the world," Brown says. "For them, there is nothing but each other, the essential dyad."

Above all else, Brown says, remember play is not perfect. It has its trying moments, too. To sail, you need to take care of the boat. To ride your bike, you need to strengthen muscles.

Toward the end of his book, he mentions a bike ride along a steep winding road lined with redwoods and laurel near his home. He calls the ride up Robinson Canyon "play bliss."

"The uphill slog is slow, physically demanding, and my aching thighs and lungs beg for relief.

"The road opens to a panorama of ocean and woodlands. The light is different on every ride, the push worth it, and on the glide home my spirit is clear, happy, at one with body, nature, spirit."

March 25, 2009

The Best and Worst Restaurants in America

From Men's Health Magazine:

Eating out invariably raises a number of tricky questions: sit-down or drive-thru? Burgers or pizza? Thin or stuffed crust? Choosing one over the other could mean saving hundreds of calories in a single meal, and up to 50 pounds of flab in the course of a year and countless health woes over the course of a lifetime. That’s why Eat This, Not That! launched an investigation and put 66 major chain restaurants under the nutritional microscope—so that you and your family can continue to eat out, but do so knowing the types of insider tips and savvy strategies that can help melt fat all year long. And the good news is that many fan favorites scored top marks!

To separate the commendable from the deplorable, we calculated the total number of calories per entrĂ©e. This gave us a snapshot of how each restaurant compared in average serving size—a key indicator of unhealthy portion distortion. Then we rewarded establishments with fruit and vegetable side-dish choices, as well as for providing whole-grain options. Finally, we penalized places for excessive amounts of trans fats and menus laden with gut-busting desserts. What we ended up with is the Eat This, Not That! Restaurant Report Card, which will show you how all of the nation’s largest eating establishments stack up nutritionally.

March 24, 2009

How Optimistic Are You?

Find out by taking a quiz designed by Suzanne Segerstrom Ph. D

Click where it asks you to take a personality test.

March 18, 2009

Sensory Food Aversions in Infants and Toddlers

Sensory Food Aversions is one of the most common feeding disorders during the first 3 years of life, when young children are transitioned to self-feeding, and when issues of autonomy and dependency have to be negotiated between parents and child.

This article, by Irene Chatoor, MD, discusses "picky eaters" and the importance of distinguishing between children who experience minor food aversions and those for whom their reluctance to eat may become a serious feeding problem.

March 15, 2009

Is Your Preschooler a Picky Eater?

The USDA has a new web site where parents of 2-5 year olds can create a customized eating plan based on your child's age, sex and activity level. It can analyze his BMI and compare his height with that of other children his age. It also has great ideas for kid-friendly meals and nutritious snacks.

March 9, 2009

Talking smoke detectors wake sleeping children better than shrill, beeping alarm

Robert Thomas, Information Specialist, Extension & Ag Information, University of Missouri

The piercing 85-decibel alarm from smoke detectors will wake most adults with a start, but small children might sleep right through them.

That’s why parents might want to consider an alarm that talks to their children in case of a fire, said Karen Funkenbusch, a University of Missouri safety specialist.

“Don’t rely on smoke detectors to wake up your child. That may be a fatal error. Research has shown that many children do not wake to the shrill beeping of an alarm, but they will respond to the recorded sound of their parents’ voices,” said Funkenbusch.

A study by the American Academy of Pediatrics showed that 96 percent of children woke up to the sound of their parents’ voices within five minutes, with half the children waking up within 20 seconds. Only 58 percent woke up to conventional smoke alarm tones within five minutes.

“The key to surviving a fire is getting out of your burning house in two minutes or less,” Funkenbusch said. “That means every second is precious.”

Using many inexpensive talking models on the market, parents can not only call their child by name but also give them a quick set of instructions on how to escape safely, she said.

More than 40,000 children are injured and hundreds are killed in house fires in the U.S. each year.

In addition to installing talking smoke alarms, parents should practice an escape plan with their children that identifies two exits from every room, especially bedrooms, she said.

If your house has more than one story or you live in an apartment, make sure there is a window exit with an escape ladder.

“Practice your plan with your children and repeat the lesson throughout the year,” Funkenbusch said.

March 3, 2009

Kids Prefer Veggies With Cool Names

By LiveScience Staff

Kids won't eat their vegetables? Rename them, scientists say.

In a new study, 186 four-year-olds were given regular carrots and, on other lunch days, they were given the same vegetables renamed X-ray Vision Carrots. On the latter days, they ate nearly twice as many.

The study suggests the influence of these names might persist.

Children continued to eat about 50 percent more carrots even on the days when they were no longer labeled as anything special.

The research, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, was presented today at the annual meeting of the School Nutrition Association in Washington, DC.

"Cool names can make for cool foods," says lead author Brian Wansink of Cornell University. "Whether it be 'power peas' or 'dinosaur broccoli trees,' giving a food a fun name makes kids think it will be more fun to eat. And it seems to keep working — even the next day," Wansink said.

Similar results have been found with adults. A restaurant study showed that when the Seafood Filet was changed to Succulent Italian Seafood Filet, sales increased 28 percent and taste rating increased by 12 percent. "Same food, but different expectations, and a different experience," said Wansink, author of "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think."

The veggie study was conducted in pre-schools, but the researchers believe the same naming tricks can work with children at home.

"I've been using this with my kids," said researcher Collin Payne, "Whatever sparks their imagination seems to spark their appetite."

March 2, 2009

Celebrate Dr. Seuss's Birthday!

March 2, 2009 is the 105th anniversary of the birth of Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known to the world as Dr. Seuss.

Observe the day by getting out your child's favorite Dr. Seuss books and reading them together.

In my work as a play therapist I often use the book "My Many Colored Days" to encourage children to talk about their feelings.