Category Archives: adolescents and young adults

School District Sues Social Media for Harm to Mental Health

As a clinical psychologist who frequently works with families, teens, and young adults, I have definitely seen some detrimental effects of social media, in particular TikTok.

In 2021 and 2022, F74, also known as Floor 74, was a TikTok trend that spread like wildfire and claimed to take you to a parallel dimension in your sleep. The purpose of the “challenge” was to survive your trip to another dimension, as failure to do so meant a person would be stranded forever in the parallel dimension. You would wake up, and everyone you loved would be gone. Teenagers, already notoriously bad sleepers, were coming to my office with severe anxiety, fear, and insomnia. They were convinced that something bad would happen if they fell asleep. These were honor roll students at some of the top private schools and school districts in Washington, DC, and they were scared to go to sleep.

Earlier this month, 1/18/23, a landmark lawsuit was filed which alleges that the Seattle school district and its students have been harmed by social media’s negative effects on youth mental health, academic performance, and daily functioning. It could lead to sweeping changes in the industry. Read more: As Seattle schools sue social media companies, legal experts split on potential impact

Seattle Public Schools alleges that the social media companies cited, which include Meta, Google, Snapchat, and ByteDance, the company behind TikTok, designed their platforms intentionally to grow their younger audience bases and exploit the psychology and neurophysiology of their child/adolescent users into spending more and more time on their platforms, according to the complaint filed earlier this month.

There is skepticism that such cases, this being the first of its kind initiated by a huge school system, will be dismissed in court. After all, people do not sue online gambling or pornography websites for their addictions. However, child development and neuropsychological research may prove otherwise.

In the late eighties, Augusta, Georgia family medicine researcher, professor, and physician, Dr. Paul Fischer, first implicated Camel cigarettes, the product of RJ Reynolds tobacco, for their advertising campaign using cartoon depictions of Joe Camel, as holding great appeal for children and teenagers.

In December 1991, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a study in which young children were asked to match brand logos with products. The study showed that for children who were age six, 91.3% matched Joe Camel with Camel cigarettes, nearly the same amount who matched the Disney Channel logo with Mickey Mouse. In the same JAMA volume, another study was published comparing how well Joe Camel was recognized among high school students versus adults over age 21. The study concluded that high school students were more likely to recognize Joe Camel (97.7% vs 72.2%), understand the product being advertised (97.5% vs. 67%), and identity the Camel brand (93.6% vs 57.7%). The research also noted that Camel’s share of smokers under 18 had risen from 0.5% to 32.8% during the cartoon character’s campaign over three years, indicating that it was particularly effective at reaching younger smokers-to-be. After years of expensive legal wrangling funded by the powerful tobacco lobby, RJ Reynolds removed the Joe Camel campaign. [Disclosure, Paul Fischer, MD is my paternal uncle]. See: Joe Camel Cartoons.

The child/adolescent brain, unlike adult brains, is continuing to develop executive functioning: problem-solving, analyzing, self-monitoring, planning and organizing, impulse control, and metacognition skills well into their twenties. As such, decision-making and influence is different for children and teens, when compared to adults. Overuse of social media platforms has a different effect on the developing neural pathways of children and adolescents than it does on adult brains. Whatever the legal outcome(s), recognition that children/teens are not mini-adults is crucial.  Also see: The Dangers of Mini Me.

Black History and Psychology: Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark and Dr. Kenneth Clark

Andrea Harris Smith is the granddaughter of Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Phipps Clark, the renowned clinical psychologists and educators whose research with African American children was central to arguments that led to the 1954 Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision to desegregate public schools. She lives not far from my office, Northwest Washington DC, where the playgrounds are regularly filled with women of color, exchanging stories and mindfully watching their young ones: Nannies of every nationality.

Ms. Smith, the mother of a biracial child, writes, “the playground is a perfect container for the dynamics of belonging and isolation, conscious or unconscious.”

Ms. Smith’s grandparents designed a study commonly known in developmental psychology textbooks as “the doll test”, in which they used four dolls, male and female, identical except for color, to test children’s racial perceptions. Black and white dolls were presented to children to help determine their preferences and sense of self. Most of the children preferred the white dolls to the Black ones. They said the Black dolls were “bad” and the white dolls looked most like them, reflecting not how they actually looked but how they wanted to be. The white dolls were also described as more likable and more attractive.

The findings helped the Supreme Court to conclude that segregation was detrimental to the self-esteem and mental health of both Black and white children. The Doctors Clark founded Northside Center for Child Development in Harlem; a community clinic for children and families that supports behavioral, mental and educational health. It was one of the first centers of its kind, founded over 70 years ago, and still in operation today. The contributions they made in psychology continue to influence psychologists, families, students, professors, advocates, researchers, and lawmakers.

Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark, who personally faced incredible hurdles throughout her life and educational and professional career stated: “This is probably one of the most dangerous things facing mankind today:  A use and training of intelligence excluding moral sensitivity.“

Also read, “A Tribute to Psychologist De. Mamie Phipps Clark.”

How to talk to children about school shootings

– Find out what your child or student knows about the event.
Don’t make assumptions. Even if you haven’t yet discussed it together, kids may have heard the news from media sources or classmates. Their perception of what has happened may be very different from the reality. Let them talk.

-Reassure the child that it’s ok to talk about sad or scary events. It’s also ok to admit to feeling sad, scared, or angry. You don’t want kids to think something is wrong with them when they feel that way. You are the emotion coach.

-Do not use terminology like mentally ill or crazy.
There is already a stigma about mental disorders and labeling shooters as mentally ill makes it even less likely that people (including children and teens) with mental disorder symptoms will seek treatment or support.

-Encourage questions, both now and in the future.
Question-and-answer exchanges provide you with the opportunity to offer support as your child begins to understand the crisis and the response to it.

-In sharing information, be honest, but be mindful of the child’s developmental age. The National Association of School Psychologists offers these helpful guidelines in its tips for talking with children about violence:

Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them. Give simple examples of school safety like reminding children about exterior doors being locked, child monitoring efforts on the playground, and emergency drills practiced during the school day.

Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Discuss efforts of school and community leaders to provide safe schools.

Upper middle school and high school students may have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence in schools and society. They will share concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. Emphasize the role that students have in maintaining safe schools by following school safety guidelines (e.g. not providing building access to strangers, reporting strangers on campus, reporting threats to the school safety made by students or community members, etc.), communicating any personal safety concerns to school administrators, and accessing support for emotional needs.

-Remember that it’s ok to admit that you don’t have all of the answers. The simplest reply might be something like, ‘I’m sad about the news, and I’m worried. But I love you, and I’m here to care for you.’”

-Be patient.
If the child doesn’t have much to say yet, give them some time and let them know that it’s ok to come back with more questions or to talk about the events when ready. If they show signs of depression and anxiety over time, speak with the child’s pediatrician or a psychologist for guidance.

-Don’t let children stay home if they express reluctance to go to school. Avoidance increases anxiety.

-Encourage the child to express feelings and ideas through familiar activities such as writing, drawing, and singing.

-Turn off the news.
Media/visual images can add to the trauma of a tragedy, particularly for young children. Images on the television, in video, and on the Internet can be confusing and disorienting as dramatic images are repeated over and over again.

-Look for “kid-friendly” sources of information.
These might include children’s books, magazines and websites for children who want to learn more.

-Talk about people who are helping.
The wonderful Mr. Rogers noted that whenever his family learned about bad news, his mother encouraged him to “look for the helpers.” These may include first responders, volunteers, doctors, teachers, or community members. Let your child know that even though bad things happen, the world has many good people who want to help.

-Keep up your routine.
Normalcy will help the child deal with difficult feelings, as will doing fun things that you both enjoy. Remember that kids still need to be kids.

-Stay calm.
Model self care by sticking to a routine, including appropriate sleep, exercise, meal times, quiet time, chores, and family time.

-Keep home a safe place.
Children, regardless of age, often find home to be a safe haven when the world around them becomes overwhelming. During times of crisis, it is important to remember that children may come home seeking the safe feeling they have being there. Help make it a place where your children find the peace or comfort they need.

-Be together.
Consider planning a night where everyone participates in a favorite family activity, movie, or game.

-Watch for signs of stress, fear or anxiety.
After a traumatic event, it is typical for children (and adults) to experience a wide range of emotions, including fearfulness, shock, anger, grief and anxiety. Your children’s behaviors may change because of their response to the event. They may experience trouble sleeping, difficulty with concentrating on school work or home responsibilities, changes in appetite, and changes in mood. This is normal for everyone and should begin to disappear in four to six weeks, if no other traumatic events have occurred.

-Monitor adult conversations.
Be aware that your children may be listening to your conversations. If they do not understand they will “fill in the gaps,” which can increase anxiety.

-Check in often.
Be sure to check in regularly with your children as you monitor their coping. Provide extra time, attention and patience.

-Get close.
Give your child extra comfort and physical affection, like hugs or snuggling up together with a favorite book.

For more info see American Psychological Association guidelines on coping with gun violence and my post on anxiety and coping skills:

Causes of Mortality in US Teens and Children

In 2020, firearm-related injuries became the leading cause of death for children and teens, an age group defined as ranging from 1-19 years. From 2019 to 2020, the relative increase in the rate of firearm-related deaths of all types (suicide, homicide, and unintentional) among children and adolescents was 29.5%, a significant uptick.

In addition, drug overdose and unintentional poisoning increased by 83.6% from 2019 to 2020 among children and adolescents, becoming the third leading cause of death in that age group. Motor vehicle accidents remained the second cause of death.

Although the USA suicide rate dropped overall from 2019 to 2020, there were increases among young adults/teens that affected different demographic groups differently.

According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA Psychiatry) that examined racial differences in suicide in 2020, suicide mortality among Black young people doubled. The evidence pointed to the pandemic having a heavy impact on Black Americans in significant areas including more hospitalizations, deaths and bereavement, job loss, and housing instability.

(Stats: New England Journal of Medicine: NEJM,May 19, 2022; JAMA, psychiatry; December 2020 ). 

Cultural competency with Muslim patients

As Ramadan begins, Embolden is working with several DC area schools and school systems, as well as offices/businesses, to create understanding and comfort for Muslim students and professionals who are fasting or participating in other spiritual activities. Muslim individuals differ in every possible way. The Muslim community has a rich variability that is a complex and nuanced mix of religion, cultural identity, family traditions, and individual personality.

Muslim individuals differ in socioeconomic background, family structure, level of religiosity, cultural identity, knowledge of spiritual practice, gender identity, community, career paths, and personality. There is no single coping style or mental health profile that Muslims share as a group. In order to serve Muslim clients and mental health needs best, an open stance of curiosity, inquiry, and humility is required by medical and mental health professionals.

On a pragmatic level, some schools are adapting to Ramadan, a time when students fast and cannot drink water from sunrise to sunset and often cannot participate in sports, by creating alternative activities during lunchtime, psychoeducational presentations for students and faculty and awareness for both the vulnerabilities and strengths that all students bring with them to school communities.

Also see Nine Reasons Why Cross-cultural Friendships Are Good For Your Health.

The Neuropsychological Costs Of Poverty

Poverty is Trauma
Kids growing up in poverty are constantly releasing the stress hormone cortisol, which can give them short attention spans, restlessness, and short tempers. Physically, they feel the same kind of heart-pounding stress an adult feels after a car wreck. And they feel it all the time.

If you think about the impact on education, imagine if right after you were in a car crash or had a huge health scare, I walked up to you and said, ‘I need you to take a test.’ Or, ‘you just need to sit down and focus.’  Could you do it? Would you perform well? It’s doubtful.

And for kids, with their frontal lobe and brain functioning still developing well into their 20s, lingering effects of poverty are even more significant.

Experiencing prolonged adversity takes its toll. Research indicates that even more striking than lack of adequate nutrition and limited access to consistent healthcare, chronic stress, across the longterm, makes children and adolescents susceptible to cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, depression, and diabetes.

The impact upon the brain, development and functioning, for children with chronic financial adversity is commensurate with those suffering from other forms of post-traumatic stress disorder: the hippocampus part of their brains is atrophied; the amygdala, which regulates the processing of acute emotional responses, is overwhelmed. Chronic financial stress experienced by children can be devastating for learning/education, since the hippocampus and amygdala, in tandem, regulate emotional responses and are also critical in the formation of memory, consolidated knowledge, and spatial awareness.

Poverty Affects One In Six American Children
Poverty during childhood development has immediate effects on cognitive ability and neurological activity. Children from low-SES backgrounds show decreased levels of cognitive function and brain activity across numerous domains. The most severe effects are found in language/communication and regulation of executive function (attention, organizing, self-monitoring, prioritizing, planning).

Snapshots of family poverty in data from 2018 showed a troubling picture for America’s youth, with 13 million children food insecure and one in six children living in poverty (research stats were collected before the Covid-19 pandemic). Living in a financially unstable environment can threaten a child’s sense of safety because it may mean they cannot access basic needs, like food, shelter, and healthy relationships, on a consistent basis.

Children who live in poverty move more frequently, have families more likely to deal with eviction/housing instability/credit problems, have reduced ability to attend school on a regular basis or access curriculum virtually, and may have parents who work several jobs making them less accessible for quality child and parent time.

Long-standing financial hardship IS trauma. It changes the brain, affects everyday functioning, restricts life experience, and ultimately, personal outcomes.

Stats Sources:

    • (Disclosure: Dr. Siddique previously worked at the adolescent medicine department at Children’s Hospital, Washington DC)
    • American Academy of Pediatrics (Www.

Also see the mental health blog at Embolden on racial trauma and the brain:

Racial Trauma and Mental Health

What to Say to Teens

“They just don’t talk to me”.

That’s a familiar refrain. Parents often ask me for advice on how to help their kids speak to them more openly. These are some of my suggestions that I regularly use.

I am happy to listen when you feel like talking.
I believe you.
What I admire about you is…
What is the best way I can support you right now?
You have the right to be upset.
I would also feel scared if that happened to me.
I agree.
I’m sorry you’re going through this.
Thank you for trusting me.
I am proud of you.
I know it’s hard to talk about.
That’s a hard decision to make.
Making mistakes does not define who you are.

The Half Dozen, or How to Return to School

1. Be proactive about mental health
No news is good news is absolutely incorrect in this case. How can you recognize when your child is having a tough time? Look for signs and symptoms that something is wrong: these include isolation, irritability, low mood, poor frustration tolerance, difficulty sleeping, lack of motivation, lack of enjoyment of normal activities, crying, or concerns about safety. I’d recommend having a very low threshold for getting professional help.

2. Consider the effects of layers of change
In general, in any circumstances, going back to school is a big change. But it’s a whole new setting especially for kids who are going from elementary school to middle school or middle school to high school. All of a sudden, they’re expected to know what they’re doing. It’s a huge shift from being in their space at home to now being in this world of back to school. Or a new school. If your child is having a hard time with the transition, think about how they normally act when they’re stressed and look for those behaviors. For example, if your child gets headaches or stomach aches when they’re anxious, you’ll know that school is stressing them out should they start having them more frequently. Of course, big markers are mood changes, anxiety on Sunday nights before the school week starts, and outright school refusal.

3. Establish routines before and after school
Kids need stability during times of change. Be present, predictable and consistent. Family might be the only part of their lives that feels that way right now. Be there for them and follow their lead as much as you can. Maintaining appropriate times for bed, dinner, prepping for the week, recreational time, and chores is more important than ever. Doing as much as possible beforehand is also comforting to kids. Pack your lunch or snacks, put out clothes you want to wear, prep your backpack, go over the schedule for the next day, all the night before.

4. Be peaceful energy
If your child’s reactions seem different, perhaps snippier than usual or even overreacting to seemingly small stressors, the best thing you can do is meet the reactions with compassion, warmth, and calm, instead of reacting yourself. An overreaction can take the form of minimizing in order to be presumably reassuring, being overly solicitous of fears or worries, or just being impatient. Now is NOT the time, as I always tell families, to get into conflicts, or try to confront bigger issues in the household. Times of transition require calmness. As school starts, building up the daily routine and foundation of daily household functioning creates scaffolding.

5. Make things fun
I have kids pick masks that they enjoy, personalize their backpack or notebook with buttons and stickers, select snacks that they love to take to school, make a playlist of favorite YouTube snippets or music that cheers them up and give it a special name (mine is Monday, Monday), and bring something personal with them to school, a small stress toy, journal, or stuffed animal. In my office, I have an assortment of squeezy toys, animals and dinosaurs, and action figures. Sometimes clients like to pick and take a toy with them. It connects them to a sense of safety, known as a transitional object.

6. Reassure them that they are not alone
Many kids have not seen their friends or teachers in over a year. Kids have questions. They want to know how they are going to get from class to class on time. Are they going to miss their bus? How will they get around the school building without getting lost? What will they do if they start having anxiety during class? Where will they sit at lunch? What if they don’t know anybody in their class? Being able to discuss all of these questions without minimizing worries or concerns is needed. Making school advisors, counselors, and administrators aware of any medical or mental health concerns beforehand is also recommended.

The Neuropsychology of Chores

Neuropsychological research shows that those children who have a set of chores have higher self-esteem, are more responsible, and are better able to deal with frustration and delay gratification, all of which contribute to greater success in relationships, school, and future endeavors. These are all aspects of executive functioning, which include planning, organizing, sequencing, sustaining effort, and self monitoring, all mediated by the frontal lobe of the brain. One study by Dr. Martin Rossman showed that the best predictor of young adults’ career success in their mid-20’s was participating in household tasks when they were children. Also see the What Is Executive Functioning

In my practice, parents often express concern that their kids are so busy with school work, sports, and social life, that they have little or no time to contribute to household tasks. I believe that household tasks and chores are absolutely essential, contribute to brain development, and help with prioritizing, scheduling, and multitasking. I specifically assign household tasks that are developmentally appropriate as part of a treatment plan for each family.

The gains:
Life Skills
I often ask kids, are you important in your family? Kids begin to see themselves as important contributors to the family. They feel a connection to the family. Holding them accountable for their chores can increase a sense of themselves as responsible and capable. Not being taught the skills of everyday living can limit children’s ability to function at age appropriate levels. By expecting children to complete self-care tasks and to help with household chores, parents equip children with the skills to function independently in the outside world.

If you let children off the hook for chores because they have too much schoolwork or need to practice a sport, then you are saying, intentionally or not, that their academic or athletic skills are more important than life skills. I work with young adults who go off to college and don’t know how to do their laundry or who live with roommates and leave piles of dishes in the sink, causing friction. Chores are an important part of relationships, with family, colleagues, and friends. One goal I emphasize is for kids to plan and help make a meal for the family each week. By accomplishing goals that are not related to school or athletic prowess, there can be huge gains in self-efficacy and self-esteem.

Role Modeling
You can model a message that there are tasks that need to be completed in order for the entire household to run smoothly, and that everyone in the family is encouraged and expected to participate. Or, alternatively by being allowed to avoid tasks, children may receive the message that chores are boring, mundane, can be put aside, and are to be done by others.

Encouraging Participation
Young children naturally want to be a part of the family and want to help. Ideally, you will encourage their participation (even if it takes more work on your part in the short run). The size of the task does not matter; the responsibility associated with it does. Praise hard.

Withholding Judgment
When tasks are assigned, and completed on a consistent basis, they are creating new neural pathways. Being overly critical or judgmental is not the objective, making chores part of a daily routine is.

Assigning Chores
For those parents who did not begin a chore regimen when their kids were little, you can still start a plan now. You can take some time to think about what tasks you need help with in the home, what life skills your children need to learn, and what are each child’s interests and abilities.

Family Meetings
As you contemplate these decisions, you can ask your children for their feedback and input. This shows teamwork and connection. Also, brainstorm ideas for overcoming any obstacles faced in the past, such as children not following through, arguing, or not doing a thorough job. Many parents hold a family meeting to discuss chores and when and how they will be starting, revising, or re-instating them. Such times together can build morale, improve relationships, and facilitate creative problem solving.

Giving an Allowance
One question that parents frequently ask is whether allowance should be tied to the completion of chores. This is a personal call for families. Many parents want their children to help around the house as a contributing member of the family, not because there is money or other external rewards associated with it. The option I most often discuss is that chores and allowance can be separate. I also encourage providing an allowance or reward for a task that is above and beyond everyday routines, such as cleaning the garage, painting a shed, or other major house projects.

Earning Privileges
One alternative to paying an allowance may be to have children earn privileges for completing their chores. For example, a teen may earn the right to use the car on the weekends by washing the automobile. A school-age child may earn the privilege to have friends over to play if he throws away the trash and puts away the games after a previous gathering with friends. Often parents expect kids to finish their schoolwork, before they get on their favorite video game. All of these actions demonstrate earning privileges, and when done consistently, show that chores and fun are both important.

Teens and Their Dogs

Pets and teenagers, a natural connection. Having a companion animal has been shown to have significant mental health benefits for teenagers, especially girls, who often identify their dog or cat as their primary confidante.

Some of the research:

– Pets reduce loneliness
A 2018 study, published in the PNAS Journal, showed that pets reduced adolescent loneliness and social isolation, and helped kids feel they had a friend, especially if they lived in a city.  In the study, teens told dogs their secrets, talked to them, and cuddled with them.

-Pets provide emotional intimacy
A pet helps tweens and teens build empathy, particularly if the pet is hungry, sick, scared of thunderstorms or fireworks, or injured. Having a cat or dog to come home to, cuddle with, cry on, and play with provides teens with unconditional love and a safe space for emotional intimacy, particularly during the chaotic tween and teen years. In fact, one 2018 study in the Journal of Applied Development Psychology reported that children often feel closer to pets than their own siblings.

-Pets increase health and wellness
A 2017 study in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing reported that just a 10 minute visit with a pet reduced the stress hormone cortisol in teenagers. Imagine then, how having a pet around all the time affects longterm health.
The study showed that when you are in the presence of a pet you feel bonded and attached to, blood pressure decreases and respiration becomes more steady.

-Pets provide the benefits of physical touch
In 2012, the journal Frontiers of Psychology linked petting animals to the release of oxytocin in humans. This release reduces stress and increases feelings of well-being for pet owners.  Petting animals also reduces cortisol levels, the stress hormone.

-For long term social and emotional benefits
A 2019 study in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology observed that girls had a stronger response to having a pet, and may need the pet even more than boys during their turbulent teen years.

Embolden Psychology

Embolden offers the ADOS-2, the gold standard assessment for kids on the spectrum.

Combined with psychoeducational testing, it helps provide comprehensive information and recommendations to help children and teens six and up.

Thank you for contacting us.