Monday, July 30, 2018

Sleepovers, Playdates and Codewords

Reaching out to rescue one another under ANY condition is an eternal measure of love.
-Ronald A. Rasband

There is something called “The Law of Unintended Consequences”.

This concept was popularized in the 20th century by sociologist Robert K. Merton. Merton stated that actions of people always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended.

A modern example of this is computer passwords. In an effort to increase security, many sites require complex passwords that need to be changed often. However, people have a hard time remembering all these passwords. They will write their passwords on a post-it note and put it on their desk or monitor, which lessens security.

The reason why I bring this up is because my articles also have unintended consequences.

For me, one of the unintended consequence is that my parents read about events in my life that I have been hiding from them all these years, while suggesting to my audience that they parent differently than my parents did. It can make for some awkward family moments.

Lucky for me I have loving and supportive parents.

Here is another one of the aforementioned stories:

When I was 11 years old I was invited to sleepover at a friend’s home. I played with him in his home for a bit, then I went with his family to visit another family. In the car ride to this other family, my friend’s father was extremely inappropriate. He was teaching us the slang racist terms for different minorities. He did so over his wife’s constant objections.

When we finally arrived at this other family’s home, people whom I did not know, there was a sudden argument between my friend’s father and his mother. Things got very heated, and my friend’s younger brother got injured during this episode. The father ended up leaving in anger, abandoning his family and myself at their host’s home.

I felt trapped.
I felt that I shouldn’t be there.

Hours later we returned to my friend’s home, but the tension was still very much in the air. I stayed the night and the next day, until I was picked up by my mother. She picked me up at the time we had agreed upon prior.

I strongly urge all parents, whenever your child is going somewhere, remind them that you are willing to come get them if a situation arises and they don’t feel safe (whether it be physically or emotionally) where they are.

Also, make sure you have a codeword with your child. He or she might not be comfortable (or might not be in a position) where they can outwardly say “Mom, please get me, I don’t feel safe here”. Therefore, set up a codeword (keep it consistent, don’t change it every time). For example, if the codeword is strawberry, the child can say such things as “Mom, remember how much I like strawberry” or “I forgot to tell you that I ate the last strawberry yogurt yesterday”.

As with everything else child safety related, this is not something that can be said just once or twice to the child. Every single time the child goes to spend time somewhere else (and the child can’t make their own way home) let the child know that they can call and get brought home quickly, should the need arise. This needs to be mentioned every time so that it is in the forefront of the child’s mind whenever they go out.

In all honesty, I am not sure that I would have even made this call had I been told this back when I was 11. I felt extremely bad for my friend and leaving would have made a difficult situation much harder for him. Nevertheless, kids need to know that they always have this option.

There are many different scenarios that might occur that would lead to a child justifiably calling the parent and asking to be taken home. Listen to your child, trust your child, be there for your child. 

Most importantly, make sure your child knows and feels that you are there for them.

Yisroel Picker is a Social Worker who lives in Jerusalem. He has a private practice which specializes in working with people of all ages helping them understand their own thought processes, enabling them to improve their level of functioning, awareness, social skills and more. He also lectures on the topics of communication and child safety.  
You can email Yisroel at
Follow Yisroel on LinkedIn here

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Educating Children - Clarity is Key

There is no greater impediment to the advancement of knowledge than the ambiguity of words.
-Thomas Reid

This story is a true story.
This story happened to me, not to a friend of mine.
I could have chosen to use literary license and told the story in third-person, but that might minimize the message.

It was the most embarrassing moments of my life, bar-none.
I was about 9 years old and I needed to go to the nurse in the day camp.
When I got to the nurse’s trailer, there were other people there, including a male who was about 20 years old. I had never seen this man before. This man saw me and commented about my ears. Back when I was 9, my ears stuck out quite a bit. This man decided to utilize that fact by standing behind me and entertaining the crowd of people using my ears.
For what seemed like an eternity, this man played with my ears while joking about them, entertaining everyone else at my expense.

I was embarrassed.
I was confused.
I was ashamed.

Then I started thinking about all those “public service messages” I had seen on TV. The ones where they give you important child safety messages.
“No one is allowed to make you feel uncomfortable”
“No one is allowed to touch you in ways you don’t like”
“If this ever happens, you must tell an adult”

This got 9 year old me wondering if these messages were talking to me right now.
Did he make me feel uncomfortable? YES!
Did he touch me in a way I didn’t like? He sure did! I didn’t like him touching my ears that way! I didn’t like it that he used my ears as a prop in is impromptu comedy show!

So I told a counselor of mine, who got the camp staff involved.
After half an hour they found the guy. He quickly admitted that he made me uncomfortable because he played with my ears. Camp staff quickly realized that his playing with my ears was what made me report him for “touching me in ways I didn’t like”. 

It was unfortunate that back in the ‘80s that was the extent of child sex abuse prevention. It is even more unfortunate that there are people still teaching these same flawed lessons today.

The reason why they are flawed is quite simple, they are too vague. I didn’t lie. I didn’t like to be touched that way and he made me feel very uncomfortable. How would you feel if you and your ears were being used as a comedy show at your expense?

While public embarrassment is very wrong, it isn’t anywhere near sexual abuse.

When it comes to educating a child about sex abuse prevention, you need to be direct as possible.
Here are some tips when discussing the topic of “bad touches”:
 Use proper names for the child’s genital areas
 Teach children that no one is allowed to touch the areas that are normally covered by a bathing suit.
 Teach that touching doesn’t just mean with hands
 Teach children that requesting to see these areas uncovered/undressed is also off limits (remind them that this includes pictures).
 Teach that like all rules, there are exceptions. The advised exceptions are parents and a doctor/nurse, only when a parent is present in the room.
 There is also an exception for cases when the child needs help e.g. The child has an accident, the child needs help in the bathroom, a medical emergency in the area on the body which is normally covered by a bathing suit.
 Use this time to reinforce that uncles, siblings, friends, teachers, community leaders etc. are NOT exceptions.
 Educate the child that just like no one can see their genitals, no one should be showing the child their own genitals. Just like one cannot touch a child’s genitals, the child should not be touching the genitals of someone else.
 Don’t forget to use this time to remind your kids about reporting if any of the above situations occurred (or potentially occurred).  Remind them that it is a MITZVA to tell you, that there is no LASHON HARA in telling their parent that this happened to them OR SOMEONE ELSE THAT THEY KNOW!

Childhood years are a time of constant learning. This is a time when there are often more questions than answers. That’s why it is of the utmost importance to be as clear as possible. Ambiguity and hoping for the best is a very poor strategy. Be clear, ask the child to repeat the message (as a way of ensuring that the child has correctly understood) and allow the child to ask questions.

There are many other components to speaking with your child about child sexual abuse prevention. Just talking about the topic of “bad touches” is an incomplete discussion. While I am unable to go through the entire list right now, clarity is a fundamental principle that is required with all components.

Yisroel Picker is a Social Worker who lives in Jerusalem. He has a private practice which specializes in working with people of all ages helping them understand their own thought processes, enabling them to improve their level of functioning, awareness, social skills and more. He also lectures on the topics of communication and child safety.  
You can email Yisroel at
Follow Yisroel on LinkedIn here

Monday, July 16, 2018

Online Safety & My Biggest Regret

“One doesn't recognize the really important moments in one's life until it's too late.”
-Agatha Christie

Being the outgoing and open person that I am, I tend to be the type of person who can have a conversation with almost anyone. Many times these conversations are mundane, but sometimes they become deeply philosophical while other times they get personal. A number of years ago, one of my conversations took a very personal turn when someone asked me to name my biggest regret in life. This is a question that I’ve heard before, but it wasn’t a question that I’d ever thought about personally.

I believe that approximately 95% of the people who answer this question give the same basic answers.
-I wish I spend more time with [a friend or relative]
- I wish I told [this person] how I felt about them
- I wish I had/hadn’t married this person
-I wish I went to university

My answer wasn’t in the 95% category, and it is something I still regret to this day. But before I give you my regret, I need to provide a bit of a background.

The year was 1995 and kids all over the globe are using a new internet service known as America Online (a.k.a AOL). The dangers of the internet was not yet known to many parents. I was 14 years old and I was one of these teens on the AOL. I signed up for a Jewish kids e-mail penpal service. I publicly list that I’m a 14 year old Orthodox Jew and that I live in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. I received a number of responses from kids my age. All of the e-mails seemed okay, but there was an exception.
I got one very odd email (name has been changed due to my memory).
Hello, I’m Chaim. I’m 42 and I live [quite close to you]. If you don’t find it too odd, I’d like to be friends with you…
I ignore the email. Even at 14, I know better than to engage with such a person.

A few months later, I find myself on AOL with a different screen name (AOL wasn’t a fan of people emailing hacking files) and back on the penpal list. Once again, I get an email from Chaim:
Hi, My name is Chaim and I live in Flatbush. I’m 42 and I like having younger friends. If you don’t think it is too creepy to befriend someone my age, I’d like to get to know you better. Perhaps we can get some ice cream.

This time I decided to email Chaim back.
Sorry, but I think it is too creepy.

I never heard from him again. End of story.

So why do I have regret over this incident?

While I was smart enough to stay away from such a solicitation, I was NOT smart enough to inform a parent, or a teacher, or a member of law enforcement about these emails. While I was smart enough to stay away from this, It burns me to think that there was a kid (or kids) who weren’t. Perhaps my lack of action caused them harm.

When it comes to online safety, kids are very reluctant to share information with their parents. This is understandable. They understand that being online is a privilege and they are afraid that if they share certain information with their parents, their online privileges might be revoked.

While this story happened over 20 years ago, and while very few people use AOL now, the threat is still the same.

Last summer, an American Airlines employee in California denied boarding to 2 underage girls who were trying to fly to New York to meet a man whom they met online. The employee was afraid that the girls were going to be victims of a sex-trafficking plot. (Article can be seen here) Their parents had no idea, and the girls were na├»ve enough to believe that they were going to meet someone who was going to give them modeling work.

The first thing that parents need is to have open lines of communication with their children. This is true whether or not the child is allowed to use the internet. Parents need to stress specific cases that, were they to occur, need to be brought to the parents' attention immediately.

Schools also need to take an active role in educating children to the dangers of the internet. If nothing else, it will show the child that it isn’t just their parent being overly cautious. It will also help if the child has a way of reporting online issues, without involving their parent.

Parents who allow their children online access need to monitor their child’s access. Parents need to be aware of the latest threats and issues. Kids will always be one or two steps ahead of their parents, and the parents need to try to keep pace. Parents need to know that there are such things as “decoy-apps” which are made specifically to fool parents. Most importantly, parents need to make sure that their kids understand the risks and are able (and willing) to share information with their parents.

I didn’t share the information and it might have cost someone their life. Will your child make the same mistake, or have you  given them the tools, confidence and security that they can share such information?

Yisroel Picker is a Social Worker who lives in Jerusalem. He has a private practice which specializes in working with people of all ages helping them understand their own thought processes, enabling them to improve their level of functioning, awareness, social skills and more. He also lectures on the topics of communication and child safety.  
You can email Yisroel at
Follow Yisroel on LinkedIn here

Monday, July 9, 2018

Bullying - The Parental Blind Spot

"Preconceived notions are the locks on the door to wisdom." 
-Mary Browne

Even though it was over ten years ago, I still remember the introduction I used for one of my final papers. I was in an MSW program and the subject was Gerontology. My paper was on Substance Abuse and the Elderly.
My final paper started as follows:
The medics were called into the home of Mrs. Cooper, who is lying on the floor in obvious pain. She is incoherent and mumbling to herself. The medics look at this 87 year old fall victim and assume that she is suffering from dementia, little do they know of the now empty bottle of vodka in the other room.

The above scenario is a classic case where those in charge of making the assessment automatically assume that they know the cause. Who can blame them? This is an 87 year old woman who is incoherent. Who would really think that the issue is anything other than dementia?

But it isn’t always dementia. Sometimes the 87 year old woman is on the floor because she is drunk. Those who refuse to acknowledge that possibility and immediately diagnose dementia are guilty of laziness and malpractice. Their incorrect diagnosis can seriously harm their patient.

This same exact script happens in cases of bullying.

Let me explain:

Often there are hardships in the child’s life that are very difficult. Perhaps the child’s parents are getting divorced. Perhaps the child has suffered some type of injury and now appears very different (e.g. patch over the eye, crutches, wheelchair etc.). These are things that could very well cause a major change in the child’s behavior. But these are also things that a child who wasn’t previously getting bullied might start getting bullied about.

Don’t assume that you know the exact reason this child is struggling.
Don’t be afraid to ask the difficult questions (and if you are, connect the child with someone who is not afraid to ask the difficult questions). Also, don’t accept the first answer the child gives you, simply because it is the one that you want to hear.

Don’t be the medics who are quick to say dementia when it is really vodka (or even a combination of the two).
Here is the story from my essay, redone in the case of the bully:
Caleb comes home with his report card, he is failing most of his classes. This is very different from Caleb’s previous report card. This isn’t a shock to his mother. Caleb’s dad left town a few weeks ago and life has been difficult for everyone left in the household. Caleb’s mom figures this is just part of the damage done when Caleb’s dad left. The teachers all assume the same. Little do they know that what’s really bothering Caleb isn’t that his dad is gone, but the bullying he now receives daily in school.

In order to treat a patient, the doctor first needs to know what the ailment is. If a doctor treats the wrong ailment, the patient won’t heal. So too with children, they often come presenting symptoms, it is up to the parents, teachers and mental health professionals to properly diagnose the cause of these symptoms.

I was once speaking with a mother, discussing the possibility of working with her son. The mother told me that her son was having trouble in school, she wanted to know if I could be of assistance. She told me that her son had the same teacher two years in a row, and that the teacher was not nice to her son. Over the course of our discussion, we had the following dialogue:
Mother: My son once shouted ‘I’ll never forgive my teacher for what he did to me’
Me: Did you ask him what he meant by that?
Mother: No. We know what he meant. The teacher wasn’t nice to him, He’s referring to that.
Me: [silence]

The child gave a wide opened door, yet the parents refused to enter.

Don’t be afraid of going through those doors.
Don’t be afraid of exploring other possibilities.

If you are afraid, connect your child with someone who isn’t and who has the ability to help.

We all have our blind spots. It is easy to miss that the problem might not be what we think it might be.

Yisroel Picker is a Social Worker who lives in Jerusalem. He has a private practice which specializes in working with people of all ages helping them understand their own thought processes, enabling them to improve their level of functioning, awareness, social skills and more. He also lectures on the topics of communication and child safety.  
You can email Yisroel at
Follow Yisroel on LinkedIn here

Monday, July 2, 2018

Bullying - My Lost Voice

Bullying builds character like nuclear waste creates superheroes. It's a rare occurrence and often does much more damage than endowment.     
-Zack W. Van

This week’s article is going to be very personal for me.
I was the victim of bullying at various times during my elementary and high school years.
For the purposes of this article, I’d like to focus on what happened to me during the 4th grade. There was one particular student who decided that he was going to bully me and start rumors about me. Friends of mine started believing them and stopped being my friends. This left me both hurt and suddenly alone. I became miserable and my grades started suffering. I stopped caring.
One particular incident sticks out to me. This isn’t an incident about actual bullying, but an incident which showed me how much I was suffering from the bullying.
I was having a history test. The test was a number of pages. One of the pages had 2 True/False questions. Each question was a paragraph, and the student had to say whether the paragraph was truthful or not.
On my paper, there was a printing error.
The middle of the page had no ink, meaning that I couldn’t read the paragraphs in their entirety.
I should have asked the teacher for another paper.
I should have asked the teacher to read the questions.
But the bullying took away my voice.
So I just ended up guessing. I randomly wrote F for one answer and T for the other.
I decided that it was easier to just get the questions wrong than to open myself up to ridicule and bullying.
That’s what bullying does. It destroys the child. It gets them to shut down and lose their ability to speak.
There was no logical reason for me to keep my mouth closed. But emotions were now controlling my decision making process, logic played no role in my choices.
I’ve been asked what got me out of this. Switching schools was a huge help, but it actually started prior to leaving. At one point, the principal pulled me aside, and he told me “We (your parents and I) know that you are having a tough time, just know that you can always speak with me, you can always speak with them”. That’s all I really needed to hear. I needed to know that there were people on my side, willing to help. They got involved and, whilst not fully fixed, things did subside.
I have been approached in the past to speak and write about bullying. I have a very difficult time with this for a number of reasons. Firstly, what works for the 4th graders isn’t always the best for the 11th graders, and vice versa. Additionally, while there are many good anti-bullying theories out there, very few have been proven to be successful. Every case has so many different variables, that it is hard for someone on the outside to give perfect advice.
But there is one piece of advice that I will share.
Parents need to create a “communication safe-zone” for their children.
When a parent sees that their child is struggling, that something is bothering their child and the parent has no clue what it is. The parent needs to take their child into a “communication safe-zone”.
1. Pull your child aside, away from where anyone else can hear you or them. If you do this in public, it won’t work. Nor should this ever be something done at the dinner table etc.
2. Tell your child that you love them, and you want what’s best for them
3. Tell your child that you are here for them and want to help them as best as you can
4. Tell them that you know that something is bothering them, and that they should share with you
5. Tell your child that the information that they share with you will not cause them to get into any type of trouble!!
6. Hear what your child has to say, be empathetic, do not argue with your child, and never EVER violate rule #5!
That is how you create (and maintain) a “communication safe-zone”. This is the first part of assisting your child with these types of struggles.
One final point, there are many different reasons why a child might end up shutting down (e.g. bullying, abuse, guilt, fears etc). On the one hand the parent needs to get the child to open up, but on the other hand, the parent can’t just allow the child a “free pass” if they really did something wrong.
So what should the parent do if the child tells the parent that what’s bothering them is their feelings of guilt for breaking something valuable? (e.g. Soon my sister will see that I broke her camera , or, I broke the neighbors window and I’m scared as to what’s going to happen).
In these cases, I apply the principle from the gemarra about knas and keren (fines vs. principle). Parents should tell their child that the child needs to pay for the damage. Paying for damage caused is NOT A PUNISHMENT, it is making things right.
There are many things that cause kids to shut down. Don’t assume you know why they are shutting down, and try not to mistake the effects of their suffering for the causes that are bothering them. In order to truly get to know what you child (or anyone) is suffering from, you need to have open lines of communication. Creating a “communication safe-zone” is one such way of establishing open lines of communication.

Yisroel Picker is a Social Worker who lives in Jerusalem. He has a private practice which specializes in working with people of all ages helping them understand their own thought processes, enabling them to improve their level of functioning, awareness, social skills and more. He also lectures on the topics of communication and child safety.

You can email Yisroel at

Follow Yisroel on LinkedIn here