Monthly Archives: October 2012

Death by Suicide at an All-Time High

I recently read an article  which stated that suicide has now surpassed car accidents as the number one cause of injury-related death in the United States.  From 2000 to 2009, the suicide death rate went up 15 percent.  That blew my mind.  It’s scary to think that so many people are finding it necessary to deal with their pain in an irreversible way.

Interestingly enough, the literature shows that people are committing suicide for the standard reasons: substance abuse, mental illness, a family history of violence, depression, etc.  So why is suicide on the rise?

Suicide basically stems from a person’s lack of hope for the future.  They are convinced that things won’t change or get better, and they feel helpless, hopeless, and worthless.  They hate themselves, feel like a burden on others (especially when the person is older), and have an “everybody would be better off without me” kind of attitude.

What the person doesn’t realize is that they still have a lot to offer.  That’s probably one of the most important considerations in giving someone hope: they need to believe that they are valuable.

Where there is community, familiarity, bonding, and connections with community and family, you’re going to find a lower suicide death rate.  One of the problems we have in our society as it has evolved is that the morality of obligations and sacrifice has pretty much gone by the wayside.  People are up, out, and gone.  I think the dissolution of our families and community has a lot to do with the increased instances of suicide because people feel helpless, hopeless and isolated more than ever. 

Years ago, if someone’s barn burned down, everybody within 50 miles would come with wood, nails, paint, and food.  They would set up shop and rebuild that person’s property.  If there was a death in someone’s family, the community pulled together.  People lived close to each other and very few had to go it alone.  Kids were more surrounded by family and other kids in reasonable neighborhoods.  Yes, of course there were still jerks, but you were able to survive things much better because you felt like your back was always being watched.

Even though there have been many advances in medicine and technology, a lot of people today are feeling lonely, desperate, hopeless, and helpless.  Little kids are growing up in homes where their parents get divorced, bring other boyfriends and girlfriends into the picture, and shack up.  People make some babies here and other babies there, and they don’t even bother to give their kids a mother AND a father because they don’t feel like their kids need that.  As a result, a lot of kids are growing up without intact, supportive families.  It’s interesting that when a kid or teenager commits suicide, people often attribute it to bullying rather than looking at their family or community dynamics (abuse, hostile home environment, etc).  They are trying to pin the wrong tail on the donkey. 

It’s very sad that more and more of our fellow human beings are feeling so tragically lost.  I think kids these days don’t have a lot to look forward to.  When I was young, your future was, more often than not, clear and secure in your mind if you finished high school.  You either got a job or went to college.  After college, you either got a job or went to graduate school.  Somewhere along the line, you got married, had a family, and built ties with extended family and neighbors.  Sure, the future had some bifurcations and you needed to make choices, but for the most part, things were pretty clear.  You knew you were going to get a job and have a family.  

Nowadays, kids grow up not knowing if they are going to be able to have either one.

The teenage years are messy to begin with.  Teens have a lot of pressure to succeed, and they desperately want to fit in.  If a kid feels they have no support, especially at home, it’s tough for them to be hopeful. 

I think many articles about suicide leave out a large part of the truth because it is bound to offend somebody.  Truth is often excised from information today because as a society, we’ve made “not offending anybody” the highest priority.  However, I find it offensive that we don’t deal with things openly and honestly because people are paying a price for it.  For example, here are some common misconceptions about suicide.
Do I feel that suicide is ever justified?  Yes, I do.  If a person is terminal, not getting any better, and suffering from intolerable pain, I think it is cruel to keep them in that position.  Denying someone an alternative, peaceful way out when they are going out anyway doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.  However, in any other situation, I do not think suicide is justified.  There’s a way out of everything, except death.   

If you have even a NOTION that someone is suicidal, call 911 and have them hauled off for a 72-hour hold with a psychiatric team to figure out what needs to be done.  Many times, the person doesn’t give much indication, or everyone is too busy to notice.  Sometimes it’s even a little bit of both.  But, if someone mentions suicide, you need to take it seriously.

In addition, if someone you know takes his or her own life, you have to remember that the person who kills themselves ultimately takes full responsibility for their death – not you or anyone else.  I’ve worked with so many parents and spouses who believe they should have known.   However, unless you’re psychic, you may not be able to know. 

The one thing you can do is reconsider the atmosphere you have at home and the support you give your family, friends, and people around you.  We’re losing that sense of connection and purposefulness that comes from forming bonds between each other, and we need to get it back.

A Teenager in Love

I think my most heart-wrenching breakup happened in early high school.  The irony is that I have no memory of the guy’s name but, nonetheless, he was my boyfriend.  In those days, having a high school boyfriend didn’t mean what it does now.  Kisses were just quick pecks, and there might be some hand-holding or an arm put around you at the movies.  That was it.  There was no sex.   

The night before my 15th birthday, my best friend called me up and said, “There’s something I have to tell you.”  I figured she was going to divulge something about the gift she was getting me, but instead, she said that she and my boyfriend were going steady and that he had given her his ring.   “Ha ha. Very funny,” I thought, but then I realized she wasn’t kidding.  I was devastated and began crying my brains out.  There had been no hint from either one of them, and I had never even seen them together.  Of course, that was the end of our friendship. 

I told my parents about it, but you know how parents are.  “It’s just puppy love. It’s no big deal,” they said.  But it was totally devastating to me.  It was rejection, stealing, betrayal, and 15 other things I can’t even think to mention.  I didn’t want to go to school the next day – birthday or not – because I just did not want to face all that.  But my mother got out a very fancy outfit that I would normally not be permitted to wear to school because it was too dressy, and said, “Tomorrow you’re going to school.  You’re going to wear this nice outfit and your new shoes.  You’re going to fix yourself up and walk around with your shoulders back and head held high.  You’re going to give the impression that neither one of them matters to you.” 

I cogitated about this for the rest of the evening – “Can I do this?  Can I really walk around like it doesn’t matter and not cry?” – and the next morning, I got all spiffed up, put on a little pink lipstick, and went off to school.  Evidently by this time, the news had ricocheted around the class and everybody knew about what had gone down.  All sorts of people were coming over to me offering support and saying how terrible it was.  It went a long way in making me feel better.

When you’re a teenager, breaking up is especially hard to do.  High school dating is more about having an identity than simply being attracted to another person.  It’s really important at that age to have serious peer acceptance.  Your mother thinking that you’re the bees’ knees is just not enough anymore.  You get attached to somebody because it’s a status symbol. 

I want to discuss how teenage breakups should be handled on both ends – if you’re the dumper, and if you’re the dumpee.

Now, there are school programs that have been implemented to teach kids how to deal with breakups.  I think they are absurd.   I don’t believe there should be school programs about anything except science, math, English, history, computers, etc.  In my opinion, schools shouldn’t be dealing with emotional things like bullying and breakups.  It should be handled in the home like when I was a kid; the vice principal called your parents, you got your butt hauled off, and there were serious consequences if you misbehaved.  Period, end of sentence.  Public schools today care too much about social engineering, which is just another reason why I support homeschooling.

In addition to the school programs, there are forums like the Boston Public Health Commission’s Break-Up Summit for teens which are equally ridiculous.  According to a USA Today report, “Counselors at the forum urged teenagers to communicate with partners about relationship boundaries, together defining whether they were ‘just texting,’ casually ‘hooking up,’ ‘friends with benefits,’ or in a monogamous relationship.”  Is this really what we’re teaching teenagers?: “Sit there and think about whether you’re screwing with no meaning, screwing with no meaning, or screwing with no meaning.”  It’s insane.  We’ve escalated things to pseudo-adult behavior.

If you’re a teenager or a parent of a teenager, here are some better breakup rules:

  • Don’t tell your friends before you break up.  Don’t feed the gossip machine and embarrass the other person.
  • Don’t post it on Facebook.  Setting your Facebook status to “Single” is not the way to tell your boyfriend or girlfriend that you’re done.  Do not be cold and callous.  I don’t care if it was just puppy love – they are still a human being who deserves respect and compassion.  Remember, you once cared about them very much.
  • Don’t do it via text or email.  About one-third of teenagers said they’d either broken up with or been dumped by somebody via text.   Show some humanity and don’t text.

When breaking up with someone, the first thing you need to do is be clear about why you’re ending the relationship.  Maybe you’ve been arguing with them all the time, or you realize that this person is not as much fun as you thought and you don’t really enjoy spending time with them. Perhaps you’ve developed feelings for someone else, or you can’t be hindered by a serious relationship right now because you’ve got places to go, things to do, and people to see. 
You really need to think through why you’re doing this because you will be asked, and you have to give an answer without being mean and without beating yourself up.  Be honest with them, but don’t be cruel.  And just because the other person doesn’t accept it, that doesn’t mean you can’t like somebody else or want to spend your time doing something else. 

In addition, treat the other person with respect, and break up with them in person.  Yes, they’re going to feel hurt, disappointed, sad, rejected, and heartbroken, but don’t back down.  Stick to your guns and remember that it’s not a negotiation.  You’re going into the conversation to let the boyfriend or girlfriend know that you’re leaving the relationship.  Respectfully say what you have to say, and then politely listen to what they have to say.  If you’re getting out of a relationship because it’s abusive, you better have people around you, including someone with police experience or an Army Ranger.

Here’s how to start things off:

  • Make sure you’re in private. 
  • Tell your boyfriend or girlfriend that you want to talk about something important.
  • Start by mentioning something you like or value about them. 
  • Say what’s not working (your reason for the breakup). Whatever it is, you can do it in one sentence: 
    - “I’m not ready to have a serious boyfriend right now.”
    - ”You cheated on me, and I can’t accept that.”
    - “We’re arguing more than we’re having fun.”
    - ”It just doesn’t feel right anymore.”
    - ”There’s someone else.”
  •  Follow it up with: 
    - “I want to break up.”
  • Saying, “I want to stay friendly,” is probably better than, “I want to stay friends.”   It’s very hard to be friends with someone who is still thinking about you day and night, and you’re already on to somebody else.
  • Tell them it pains you that it hurts them.  
    - “It’s not the way I wanted things to be.  I hoped things would work out, but it is the way it is.”
  • End by saying something positive.
    -  “I’m always going to have good memories about…”
    - ”I know you’re going to be OK.”
    - ”I’ll always be glad I got to know you.”
    - ”I know there’s somebody out there who will be happy to have a chance to go out with you.” 
  • The final part: spend some time listening to what they have to say.  Of course, if they start getting out of hand, you can excuse yourself and leave.

Now, on the flip side, what if you’re the one being dumped?

When someone breaks up with you, it hurts.  It feels like your heart has sprung a leak.  It’s reasonable to feel sad, and it’s OK to cry.  Sometimes people don’t want to feel the pain, and they turn it into rage and get mean.  Don’t do that.  It doesn’t help you get better.  It only makes you look bad and it hurts other people.  There is simply no upside to getting enraged. 

You need to remember that you have a lot of other relationships in your life.  You have friends, family, teammates, and many others who care about you, and they can help you feel like yourself again.  When I went through my breakup in high school, I had some of the most random folks suddenly being very kind to me because they didn’t think my best friend did a nice thing. 

Another thing you can do is spend some time thinking about what you gained from the relationship, good or bad.  Did you become a better person?  Did you become nicer?  Did you become worse?  Did you become a doormat?  Did you become a bully?  Did you become a whiner?  Did you become a good support system?  Think about what you got out of that relationship.  Ask yourself questions like, “What did I do wrong?,”  “What could I do better in my next relationship?,” and “What had nothing to do with me?” 

Finally, if you’re the parent of a teenager, you have to remember that as much as you’d like to protect your kids from all pain, you can’t and you shouldn’t.  Most teenagers are going to experience a lot of breakups, but being consistent in your love and support for them will help.

Why Bad Decisions Are Made

If I had to pick one phrase I’ve heard more than any other over the years (other than “I don’t know”), it’d be some variation of “I didn’t make a good decision.”  If I could charge everyone a dollar each time they said that, I would have zillions by now.  And although people admit to making a bad decision after the fact, I am convinced that most of them know the decision was not a good one at the time, but did it anyway.
I don’t think people who tend to make bad decisions are really stupid or uninformed.  Usually if they say they were uninformed, it’s just denial. Bad decision-makers typically know they’re making poor choices, and they make them because they want something in the moment.  They don’t project into the future or think, “When I look back on what I’m about to do, will I be proud of it.”

About 25 years ago when I was on the radio at night, I remember a young man in his 20s calling in to my show.  His parents had just died in a car crash, and he was left to take care of his little sister.  He told me, “I’m in my mid-to-late 20s and it’s time I started my life, but on the other hand, I feel guilty [that's the way people phrase it] about not taking care of my little sister.  There are no other relatives to do it.”  After listening to him, I responded by saying, “OK, by the power vested in me, I am projecting you 20 years into the future.  You are now looking back at yourself right now.  What would you like to see yourself doing that would make you proud?” 

The guy instantly started tearing up.  “Taking care of my sister,” he said.  And that was the end of that.
A lot bad decisions usually come from wanting to feel good at that particular moment, and it all goes downhill from there (e.g. “I know he/she is not really for me, but I’m lonely”).  However, a lot of times people end up making poor choices because they’re overly self-critical.  Negative self-talk – “I’m useless,”  “I’m a loser,” “I’m a failure”) – results in people feeling like there’s no point in even trying to behave positively or solve problems because if they’re already “a loser” and “a failure,” how can they possibly be successful? Self-criticism and ruminating on the negative are things people just tend to do.  They go on and on and on about the negative, and it strips them of all their motivation to take any positive steps forward.  For example, if you’ve just spent an hour in therapy bitching about your life, your parents, your brother/sister, or your husband/wife, do you really think at the end of the hour you’re going to feel motivated to do anything positive about it?  No.  That’s why I ask people to be careful about how much time they spend “feeding the angry monster.”

Another reason a lot of you end up feeling sorry for yourselves is that you say “yes” to things you should say “no” to.  You spend time with people you don’t want to spend time with so they’ll be happy with you, allow others to treat you poorly, and live the life that others want you to live.  All of these are part and parcel of bad decisions, and they have to do with being cowardly.

Usually when I tell people that they are going to have to talk to the person they’re trying to please, they say, “Oh no!  I’d do anything to avoid that.”  However, unless the person has got a sawed-off shotgun or some other equally lethal weapon, you’re going to have to face your fearsTake responsibility for your decisions.  They are your decisions.  It does no good to make excuses or rationalize or pretend that you aren’t to blame.  If you want to move forward, you have to take responsibility for your choices, your actions, and the consequences of those actions. 

In addition, some people tend to get stuck in making bad choices simply because they want to stay stuck.  It gets them off the hook from having to take risks and working hard to apply themselves.  I’ve had a lot of people call my program over the years about their weight.  They always have a million excuses, or want to look back and see how their childhood has affected their eating habits.  But it’s today and tomorrow they should be looking at.  It doesn’t matter how they got there.  We can’t fix yesterday.  (F.Y.I., when I ask things about people’s childhoods, it’s to find out information and understand, not to blame.) 

So, now that you know why people make bad decisions, how can you ensure that you don’t make them yourself?

Whether it’s deciding on who you want to be in a relationship with or simply where you want to go to lunch, make it mechanical.  “Life is the sum of your choices” (remember your Camus from college?)  There could be times in your life where you make about 10 really bad choices in one week and then sit there thinking that there’s no way out.  However, what you need to do instead is say, “Oops!  I guess those were bad choices.  How do I find a way out of this?”  Frankly, there’s not always a way out.  Some things, unfortunately, can never be fixed.  Yet, even if your situation seems finite to two options, there’s probably some alternatives you’re overlooking.  If you’re thinking you can only decide between “A” and “B,” that’s wrong.  It may seem like only “A,” “B,” “C,” “D,” and “E” are available, but you’re probably not considering “F” and “G.”  Brainstorm and make a list of your possible options, put down crazy ideas, and ask other people for suggestions.  No matter how dumb you think some of them sound, write them down anyway.

Now here’s the tough part.  For each one of those situations, think about whether the best possible outcome of making a particular decision outweighs the risk of the worst possible outcome?  When coming to a decision, go through the following steps: What’s the best possible outcome?  What’s the worst possible outcome?  Is the best outcome so valuable and so likely that it’s worth risking the worst outcome?  For example, “The best thing that can come out of this is I make a million dollars, and the worst thing that can come out of this is I damage my entire family for life.”  Of course I’m just making up a silly example, but it clearly illustrates the process.  Is the million dollars worth the possibility of damaging your whole family for life?  It’s a decision you have to make.  Be honest – is the answer “yes” or “no”?  Most of you would say “no,” moan and groan a little bit over what you could have done with the million dollars, and then move on.  Some of you would say “yes.”  Nevertheless, that’s how you make a decision, and then, you have to be willing to live with the outcome. 

Recently, a man called into my show with a situation that you’ve all heard many times before: he’d knocked up a girl he wasn’t married to.  They had the kid, and while he was off in the military she found another guy and got knocked up again, except this time, this guy married her.  Our original guy got all angry and upset that some other guy was going to be Daddy.  Do you want to know what my answer was?  “I hope the new guy is cool, nice, loving, and a good dad.  I really don’t care about your feelings.  Sorry.”  He didn’t care about the risk of bringing a new person into the world that he wasn’t going to take care of.  He was willing to risk the life and well-being of a child for instant gratification and sex.  It was a poor decision and there were consequences.  He needed to just accept responsibility for his misbehavior and not be angry with this woman and the other guy.  He was the one who caused the problem. 
Everyone needs to think through their decisions because down the line, there are huge prices to pay.  Be prepared to accept responsibility for every outcome of your decisions.  And when you do make a bad decision, don’t just sit there feeling sorry for yourself.

Paying Kids for Grades

I have the final answer on whether or not you should pay your kids for grades:

You shouldn’t!

There’s a great deal of debate out there among parents about how to motivate kids to do well in school.  I think kids should do what they are able to do in school.  A lot of parents have their eyeballs set on the brass ring – the “A” – when they have B or C students.  If a B or C student is working his or her butt off and gets the B or C that they’re capable of getting, then that’s a huge success.  It’s the process and the activity of studying that should be valued over the result. 

I’ll tell you why that works.  The more enjoyment and satisfaction you get out of a process, the better it feels.   For example, when I’m shooting pool, I go through a five-point process just like the pros do (although I’ll never be a pro), and when I do it right, it feels so good that I don’t even care about pocketing the ball – that’s just icing on the cake.  If you’re only focused on the end result, your hand tightens up, your arm twitches, and your head moves.  Sure you may get lucky and inconsistently pocket some balls, but you’ll never get past a certain level.  But if you follow the process, eventually you’ll be pocketing a lot more balls.  It took me a couple of years to get to the point where the process was the goal and not pocketing the ball.

The same goes for kids in school.  It’s about the process and the learning that are important, not getting the grade. 

One fun way to inspire your kids is to sit around the dinner table and ask them what they learned at school.  My kid is currently taking some philosophy and political science classes, and on the nights he comes over for dinner from his place, we all sit around and enthusiastically discuss whatever he’s learned that day or week.  No matter what your child’s age, you can still ask them to teach you something they learned at school.  Once you’ve asked, just sit there, look impressed, enthusiastically ask questions, and complement them on their ability to discourse in a particular subject and show you that they’ve learned something.  That kid is going to have a lot more enthusiasm for learning because the payoff is your interest and pride in them. 

You have to decide what you want to achieve with you child.  Do you want them to get good grades because you need them to get good grades, or are you trying to change their attitude and behavior?  You are a lot better off trying to help them improve their habits than beating them up over a grade because they’ll not only get the most out of their education, but they’ll also learn how to be more focused and productive. 

Another reason not to pay your kid for grades is that a lot of what we do on this planet isn’t necessarily attached to rewards, especially financial ones (e.g. you don’t get filthy rich volunteering for a charity).  Providing praise and recognition when your child does well in school is wonderful, but setting expectations for a cash reward won’t motivate your kid or instill the values you’re looking for.  It’s difficult for kids to recognize that working hard has long-term benefits when all they are focused on is a paycheck.

So, you need to stress the process over the result, support their work ethic by demonstrating it yourself, and always value the activity of learning.  If your kid comes home and he or she didn’t quite attain a particular grade but you saw that they really studied and prepared, do not say, “Go to your room and don’t play with your friends for six years.”  Tell them, “You know what?  You really studied hard, and this one test in no way measures how hard you worked or how proud I am of what you put into this.”

Quote of the Week

Treat your friends as you do your pictures, and place them in their best light.

Jennie Jerome Churchill
(Lady Randolph Churchill)
Mother of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill