Families & Parenting

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Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

Cory, a veteran police officer, draws his gun just as a bullet whizzes through his hair, grazing his scalp.

Emma, a bank employee freezes when a gunman holds her hostage for several hours in the safe room.

Anthony, a military officer in Afghanistan, runs through crossfire to retrieve the corpses of his buddies.


These images are all too familiar to TV audiences, but nothing can simulate a near-death experience like the ones described by Cory, Emma and Anthony.

They all suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) occurs after someone is exposed to a life-threatening traumatic event. Commonly this happens after coming back from a war zone, but it can happen after any traumatic or life-threatening event.

Although many people experience very disturbing things in war or security situations, not everyone will develop PTSD. Both the Canadian Department of National Defence, and the United States Department of Veterans Affairs that 11 to 24 percent of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have PTSD.

The prevalence of PTSD in the general population is about 7 to 8 per cent.

What are the signs?

Fight or flight is an instinctual human reaction in the face of extreme danger, when you have milliseconds to decide whether to run away to safety or to fight to defend yourself. After a traumatic event, this ”flight or fight” reaction in the body is damaged and the person freezes up when sensations, images, or feelings they had at that time recur in the here and now.

Physiological signs of fear, like rapid heartbeat and profuse sweating activate emotions of acute fear and strong normal responses to threatening situations often appear in PTSD sufferers in situations where there is no danger present.

PTSD usually develops within three months of the traumatic event, but can occur much later in life.


Some of these symptoms are referred to as Re-experiencing symptoms. These include flashbacks of the event, which can bring extreme stress on not only the mind, but also the body in terms of sweating or a racing heart. Bad dreams and frightening thoughts are also typical. The traumas from the past become torturous again, in the present.

Avoiding Triggers

The next category is Avoidance symptoms. This is when the sufferer goes to extremes to avoid reminders of the traumatic event. This can cause people to change their clothing, hair, and even to quit their job to avoid things that trigger memories and to have deep feelings of shame or guilt.


The last category of symptoms is called Hyper-arousal symptoms. This is when a PTSD sufferer becomes very easily stressed or fearful for their safety, such as checking that doors and windows are locked, feeling suspicious of parked cars, strangers and anything they used to consider benign.  This effect of being easily startled can also lead to angry outbursts, constant vigilance for possible signs of danger, and difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. These symptoms make people more vulnerable to overuse of drugs and alcohol.


Unfortunately there is still a stigma surrounding PTSD. Because it can be such a terrifying and disruptive mental state, sufferers can be labeled as “crazy,” “dangerous,” or “violent.” Other stigmas are general beliefs that since in today’s wars people chose to go to combat, in a sense they brought it on themselves.

Many PTSD sufferers reported that they avoided early treatment because they did not want to be considered to have a mental illness. However, PTSD can be cured through different forms of therapy.

Group treatment programs for PSTD are delivered over 6 to 12 weeks, while individual therapy is customized to each person’s needs.

What happened to them?

Cory was in psychotherapy for 11 months, and eventually retired from the force  to work as an investment advisor. He sometimes remembers the trauma, but can now deal with stressful feelings realistically.

Emma was off work for six months before she was able to step foot in the bank again.  With the help of a psychologist, she eventually felt strong enough to return to her job.

Anthony was released from the military after intensive individual and group psychotherapy.  He still has survivor guilt. He works part-time as a security guard.     

A psychologist can help you learn more about PTSD and its effects, deal with explosive anger, and help you become aware of the signs leading to a recurrence.

If you or someone you know is struggling with post traumatic stress it would be a good idea to schedule an appointment with a registered psychologist.


Patients in this story are a fictional composite of people who have sought help for this issue. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

Dr. Eva Fisher is an Ottawa psychologist who has been providing psychotherapy for a variety of issues for over 20 years. Follow her on Twitter @drevafisherFacebook or Instagram @dr_evafisher. Blog writing assisted by freelance journalist Alyssa McMurtry.

Written by Dr. Eva Fisher C Psych
All rights reserved. Copyright protected.
Photo Credits: www.flickr.com/photos/copsadmirer/5141029384 Oscar in
the middle
http://www.flickr.com/photos/alancleaver/4446487398 Alan

Understanding and managing misbehaviour in children

It’s hard to find a catchy title for an article about child-rearing, and many parenting books can put you to sleep before you finish the prologue. That’s probably because the best parenting books are simply about common sense ways to manage misbehaving children.

After some time in the Parent & Child section of the local Barnes and Noble bookstore I was surprised at the number and variety of books on how to raise children, considering the birth rate has been stagnating for years. Titles with words like ‘spirited’ or ‘strong willed’ seem to sell better than those by my favorites like Alfred Adler, Rudolph Dreikurs and Chaim Ginott, one of their protégés who wrote the best-selling book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen.

In all the choices available, you likely won’t do better than a careful reading of Children: the Challenge by Rudolph Dreikurs.


 The writing is clear and straightforward, and even uses the word ‘discipline’, apparently a no-no in contemporary parenting literature, and the term ‘logical consequences’ which simply means that any ‘discipline’ should be logically connected to the misbehaviour that must be stopped.

Keep in mind that your job is to raise a child to become an adult who is a responsible member of society whatever their choice of career or lifestyle.  Learning self-discipline and personal responsibility are essential parts of this growth for the child. That means that you may have to sometimes choose between being a good parent, or being considered ‘cool’ by the child and his/her friends.

If you want to be a good parent, most of what you need to know is in this article. Read on.

What if you feel annoyed, angry, bullied or impatient with your child?  What do those feelings mean and what are your child’s motivations behind that behaviour?

To become a good parent, you have to hold onto yourself when your child is being difficult. A good parent can tolerate a child’s temper tantrum without getting roped in, or having to control it or stop it (unless you are in a public place).  You just need to show your child that you are quietly there and will still be there when the melt-down is over.

If your child becomes physical you need to be able to tell your child quietly that “Mommy is not for hitting,” hold his hand firmly and look into his eyes like you mean it. If your child continues to hit you, you need to tell her that if she doesn’t stop hitting, she will have to go to her room alone or stay alone in another room until she stops and can behave better.

These are examples of a logical consequence – the misbehavior is logically connected to the ‘discipline.’ Children are social beings and their behavior is goal oriented.  If they behave badly, the logical consequence in the above example is social isolation, at least until they are able to behave in socially acceptable ways.

Children actually want to be approved of, to belong and to feel important. Your job is to show them how to achieve those goals.

The Four Goals of Misbehavior

Dreikurs viewed children’s behavior as goal-oriented. Parents need to encourage positive goals and discourage negative goals.

Children are very alert observers but they can come to mistaken conclusions about what they are observing. Misinterpretations of their parents’ behavior can lead them to their own misbehaviour.

The reasons for children’s misbehaviour can be understood by observing the goal they are trying to obtain.


Children need and want attention. However, seeking attention all the time or having to be the center of attention will lead to behavior that keeps parents overly busy with them or having to give them special treatment.

When parents feel annoyed, worried or guilty these feelings are clues to the child’s own goal of attention seeking. The parents’ job is to help the child recognize that attention will be available sometimes, but not all the time. Parents need to train the child to know how to seek attention, and that sometimes it’s the right time to receive attention and sometimes it’s not.


Some children want to be the boss. Parents should validate the child’s wish to be the boss, but must let them know that the parents are in charge. Children need to listen to their parents.

Children with the goal of power may also want to be the boss of their parents, their siblings and their friends. This goal is not socially responsible, and it will often result in other children rejecting them.

The parent’s job is to help the child deal with the reality that a child cannot be in charge of his parents. When parents feel provoked, angry, intimidated, or bullied by this behaviour, these are signs of the child’s goal of seeking power over them.


Sometimes children will use helplessness as a way to get their parents to do things them that they are fully capable of doing themselves.

When parents feel impatient with this behaviour, this feeling is a clue to the child’s goal of getting parents to do things for him, to service him. Children have to learn to do things for themselves and to do their share. Pretended helplessness is a warning that the child is developing dependent behaviors. It may also be a way of gaining attention. The parents’ job is to encourage greater independence as the child develops.


Children who feel they can never win or feel they have been hurt may want to get even or get back at others.

When parents feel hurt, rejected or disgusted by this behaviour, these feelings are negative feedback clues to the child’s goal of revenge. Telling their parents “I hate you” is a way of getting revenge.  The parents’ role is to remain impassive when children are trying to be mean to them. Ignoring or calmly replying that saying I hate you is just a way of getting even – because they can’t have a cookie before dinner, for example – shows the child that you can remain neutral and can handle their revenge without having to retaliate yourselves.


Each child is born with a genetically inherited temperament.  Some children are naturally shy and quiet; others are talkative and rambunctious, while others are inquisitive and ask lots of questions. These tendencies will unfold into their unique personalities as they grow up.

A parents’ job is to accept the child for who they are. To understand and accept the child’s innate temperament directs the parent on how to encourage them to find their particular way of seeing the world.


Real life application

Sometimes parents want to see a psychologist to talk about a problem child and that is why Derek and Ann were in my office.  Their seven year-old daughter Tanya was doing well at school, had lots of friends, and was a really great kid.  The only issue was the daily power struggle over clothes.  Ann wanted her daughter to wear nicer clothes to school and Derek agreed with Ann.

Tanya had other ideas. She liked to wear comfortable leggings and loose tops to school. Ann didn’t consider these clothes appropriate, so every morning they argued over which clothes Tanya would wear that day. Their voices would get louder and Tanya would end up crying, which would disturb Derek who had to get to work on time.

Derek and Ann wanted to know how to make their daughter listen to them. .

It was clear to me that Ann and Tanya were enmeshed in a power struggle. Tanya was strong-willed at home but there were no complaints about her from school or from friends. That meant to me that Tanya must be feeling that she could never win in a power struggle with her mom and was trying to assert her rights to feel comfortable in her clothes at school.

I recommended they back off from the power struggle and let their daughter choose her own clothes. In other words, to let her be responsible and self-determining, which are important parts of growing up.

Over the next few sessions, the parents reported that things were much better at home and there was peace and quiet in the mornings. Ann and Tanya had even gone shopping and bought several pairs of the clothing that Tanya preferred to wear. Ann was delighted one day when Tanya announced that she now wanted to wear nice dresses to school sometimes!

Having a neutral third party involved like a psychologist can help you understand what is going on behind the scenes, and provide guidance on how to have more balanced and beneficial relationships with your children.

Patients in this story are a fictional composite of people who have sought help for this issue. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

Dr. Eva Fisher is an Ottawa psychologist who has been providing psychotherapy for a variety of issues for over 20 years. Follow her on Twitter @drevafisher, Facebook or Instagram @dr_evafisher. Blog writing assisted by freelance journalist Alyssa McMurtry.

Written by Dr. Eva Fisher C Psych
All rights reserved. Copyright protected.

photo credit: c@rljones via photopin cc

photo credit: @rtimage – Debora Bogaerts via photopin cc

Anxious Moms, Anxious Kids

“Your children are not your children, they are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself”

-Kalil Gibran

From the moment they realize they are pregnant, women often shift from being “me” to being a “mom-and-child”. This is re-enforced through the early years, and most mothers feel both pride and pangs of separation when their little ones go off to school.

Unfortunately there are moms who find it impossible to let go at any time.  These moms share and peer into every corner of the child’s life and act as if their child’s life is their own.  They cannot see the child as a separate person; they see their child’s identity as being one with theirs.

Moms who interfere with their child’s normal attempts at independence have anxieties of their own, that are triggered by the child’s growing away from her – really just growing up. Unconsciously they see their kids as an extension of themselves, and constantly feel the child doesn’t really know what’s best and so she must intervene.  In reality the child’s existence must make up for their own childhood failures and deprivations.  And so they relentlessly plan, schedule, car pool, push and prod their kids into a facsimile of “mini-me”.

In fact, even when the “kids” are forty-year-olds, these moms may still be like this, and still be anxious about their children making the “correct” decisions in every part of their lives.  These moms are “micro-manager moms”, and in trying to control every aspect of their children’s lives they create unnecessary stress for themselves and immaturity and dependency in their offspring.

Paula, a 13 year old, was referred to a psychologist by her pediatrician for anxiety and self-esteem issues. In therapy with children, confidentiality is most important to give the child a place to think and express  things that may be taboo at home.

She was brought to every appointment by her mother, although Paula could easily have walked there after school.  After a few sessions, Paula confided her fears that she might be gay and how these doubts affected her self-esteem. The following day, the psychologist received a call from Paula’s mother who was incensed that the psychologist had discussed sexual matters with her daughter, demanded a thorough summary of each Paula’s sessions, and promptly cancelled future appointments.

Paula’s mother illustrates the micro-manager mom’s issues with boundaries and respecting confidentiality.  She had intruded into her own daughter’s therapy, effectively destroying Paula’s attempt to establish her own identity and raising Paula’s post-treatment anxiety even higher than it was before.

As children grow up and see their mother’s worrying and micro-managing approach, they may take on this behavior themselves as they grow up. If they are used to their mom always interfering, asking details, criticizing, and saying how they should feel and what they should say or do in every life scenario, such behavioral copying and low self-trust becomes endemic. The results can become generational, almost like a family habit.

Anxiety is serious, and the best way to treat anxiety is with psychological treatment by a trained professional. This is particularly important with anxious families and micro-managing moms, as these are serious external influences affecting the anxiety in the child.

Anxiety can really degrade the quality of living as a result, and addressing it with a professional is an important and effective investment of time and money.

Patients in this story are a fictional composite of people who have sought help for this issue. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

Dr. Eva Fisher is an Ottawa psychologist who has been providing psychotherapy for a variety of issues for over 20 years. Follow her on Twitter @drevafisherFacebook or Instagram @dr_evafisher. Blog writing assisted by freelance journalist Alyssa McMurtry.

Written by Dr. Eva Fisher C Psych
All rights reserved. Copyright protected.

Back to School Parenting 2015

It’s always surprising when, in the middle of summer, big-box stores suddenly display stacks of back-to-school supplies on their shelves.  They remind us that lounging afternoons with friends and enjoying summer BBQs will soon be replaced with back to school preparations.

For parents Back to School 2015 means getting tighter with kids’ bedtimes and routines, and starting to talk about the upcoming changes that will soon be upon us. Now is a good time to star reminding children about their responsibilities, and preparing for some push-back from kids who want to convince you that the end of summer is still a long way off.

Parenting is different today: modern parents believe kids need guidance and rules laid out in small bite-size doses to protect their self-esteem and emotional health.  Today’s kids also feel entirely within their rights to negotiate these rules with you. And as kids get older that’s where you may need help.  Perhaps lots of it, because your own parents didn’t treat you that way. You may find you’ve entered uncharted parenting territory.

Raising emotionally stable children in the new millennium is often difficult and can be exacerbated with the multitude of stresses that working parents face. Between kids’ activities and time deprivations across the board, combined with warp speed changes in technology that affect social norms and all family members, the modern world can be pretty complicated.

Don’t be afraid to seek help from a professional psychologist if this all becomes overly stressful and simply seems too much. You are certainly not alone. A qualified psychologist can assist both parents and kids in understanding their family situation and creating harmonious family relationships.  Any underlying children’s issues can also be uncovered and treated.


In the meantime, here are a few planning suggestions to help with back to school transitions.

  • Make a list of chores to be completed and routines to be established and obtain agreement from all family members regarding them. (But remember, you and your partner are still the uber-bosses.)
  • Divide chores into manageable chunks, for example things to be done 3 or 4 items a week
  • Develop schedules for guidance – such as homework, other activities, and also family fun times.
  • Begin bedtimes 15 minutes earlier each week before the time to return to school and the bedtimes to be observed then.
  • Insert pleasant memories about school friends, activities, teachers into conversations, and discuss how they might look forward to the new school year.
  • Organizing your time and their time using a planning calendar is also showing your kids that a planned family environment works better.

Kids complain, use all sorts of “logic” to get their way, resist, but behind it all they know that rules and structures show that you care about them and love them.

Dr Eva Fisher is a registered psychologist with training in family and parenting issues.

Growing Concerns: Mental Health of University Students

Warren was nervous in the car on the way home from the airport after being kicked out of university.

Warren could tell his dad was furious. The silence, the set of his jaw, the way he drove the car faster than usual all the way home. He didn’t need his dad to remind him  how much it had cost to send him to college with all expenses paid for three years and to come home with few credits and a transcript full of “failed” and “incomplete”.   

Warren knew that he had messed up big time skipping classes, sleeping until noon, drinking, taking drugs and partying. After his girlfriend broke up with him he hadn’t cared much about anything except getting blotto.  He had tried to commit suicide, but he never was good at making knots and the rope wouldn’t hold.  He felt he never had been much good at anything anyway.

If Warren had known that he was in a serious depression soon after beginning first year, he might have been able to get help and get back on track.  He was too ashamed to talk to anyone. The university counseling center was in a dingy building where anyone could see you going in and would know why you were there.  He was embarrassed to ask for help or talk to anyone and that’s how alcohol and drugs became his best friends at university.

The Warrens who burn out at university come from all walks of life.

Nine-five percent of college counseling center directors said the number of students in 2013 with significant psychological problems is a burgeoning concern.  Seventy-five percent believe that the numbers of students with severe psychological problems on campus has increased and continues to climb. The reality is:

-anxiety is the most frequent presenting problem among college students, followed by depression and relationship problems
-one quarter of students take psychotropic medications, directors report the availability of psychiatric services on campus is inadequate
-directors report that 21 percent of counseling center students present with severe mental health issues, and
40% of student present with transient mental health concerns

Most students begin university at a time of life when they are most vulnerable to mental health issues. University-aged people are most likely to suffer from mental illnesses, substance abuse and suicidal behaviors.

An increased awareness of these mental health issues among students is leading to greater pressure for increased funding for campus counseling centers to hire more psychiatrists and case managers to track treatment referrals.

Some forward thinking universities are collaborating for better outreach to students with innovative programs such as stress management workshops, focus programs on mental health issues of students with disabilities, and reward incentives for good ideas for improvement in campus mental health programs.

University students need to be made aware of early signs of burnout, depression and anxiety overload; and universities are ideal environments for effective information exchange. All of these changes will make a large improvement in time.  But they are not prevalent or well understood by students.

If you are a college student who has become unusually withdrawn or unhappy, or if you know another student like that, it is important to talk to them, talk to their friends about it, and ask for help from the student counseling center.

You could also offer to go with them to a psychologist, at least to help them get through the first important visit.


Patients in this story are a fictional composite of people who have sought help for this issue. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

Dr. Eva Fisher is an Ottawa psychologist who has been providing psychotherapy for a variety of issues for over 20 years. Follow her on Twitter @drevafisher, Facebook or Instagram @dr_evafisher. Blog writing assisted by freelance journalist Alyssa McMurtry.

Written by Dr. Eva Fisher C Psych
All rights reserved. Copyright protected.


Student mental health: secondary education no more. By Eileen M. O’Connor Monitor Staff.Sept. 2001, Vol 32, No 8

Data indicate rise in student mental health problems. September 2001, Vol 32, No 8 American Psychological Association

College students exhitibing more severe mental illness, study finds. August 12, 2010. American Psychological Association.

College students’ mental health is a growing concern, survey finds. June 2013, Vol. 44, No 6. American Psychological Association.

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via photopin

All Work and No play

If you’re like me, you enjoy watching children at play and no matter where you are in the modern world you would see one of these scenes in a typical kindergarten class.

Two children want to play with a certain toy at the same time.  After a brief argument one of them suggests they take turns and they continue playing.

A girl new to the group watches two girls playing Mommy and Baby.  One of the girls asks her if she could be the little sister and the others accept this and they all continue playing.

Two boys are playing Spiderman while a third boy looks on.  He then joins the game by playing one of the bad guys driven away by the good guys and the play continues.

These situations may sound simple but these children are learning important pro-social behaviors.  Turn-taking, showing empathy, joining in and respecting rules are all examples of social skills that children learn when they play with others.

Fast forward to the same children three years later. Now eight years-old, their “free” time after school is highly structured.  This is what an after-school schedule might look like:

Monday – Gymnastics, Tuesday – Karate, Wednesday – Music Lessons and Thursday – Soccer.

In place of free play, life is filled with learning specific new skills and how to be competitive.

Where does free play fit in these schedules?

We all know the proverb “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy”. However, researchers are questioning whether children’s lack of free play is actually contributing to psychological problems. For example, according to 2004 research by the UK Department for Health[1], 1 in 10 British children aged 5-16 are diagnosed with psychological disorders like anxiety and depression.

There is no conclusive data that points to busy childhoods and lack of free play time as the cause of issues like depression and anxiety, but by middle childhood children’s time for creative play has been largely lost as a result of parental and peer pressure, and replaced by hard work to meet exacting standards.

Why is play important?

Jean Piaget(1932),[2]  an early child psychologist, observed how children at play learn and develop their view of the world. Universally, children learn different concepts and social skills through play, including socialization, respect, conflict management, controlling aggression and how to consider others’ feelings.

Why do children play less today?

Achievement.  Today, Western society is obsessed with getting fast results. For this reason, schools in the United States, Canada and England are increasingly concerned with progress and measurable results such as standardized tests, grades, sports, or even artistic endeavours. While positive feedback from these activities is valuable, sometimes the relentless pursuit of measurable results takes its toll on the amount of time children have to play freely.

Urbanization. In many areas, especially big cities, children are limited by space as well. While in the past it was seen as acceptable to let children run around the neighbourhood, now fears of abduction and traffic accidents keeps children in more supervised locations.

Researchers in Britain are actually calling this the “Nature Deficit Disorder”. They argue that children should go outside more because children learn and behave better when classes are taught outside, and that symptoms of ADHD improve when the children are exposed to nature.  Quite surprisingly, children themselves say that their happiness depends more on having things to do outdoors rather than owning technology

Technology. Technology is another reason why children are playing less. Since technology provides entertainment and fun in a virtual reality, children are often tempted to playing in a non-physical way with technology.

Watch a group of pre-teen girls talking on cell phones, texting, playing games, or surfing.  What you’re seeing is a form of parallel play, an activity unique to children younger than three years-old, where each child is engaged in a solitary activity in the presence of another child – they play but don’t interact.  It is the most immature form of play in developing social skills – a side effect of advancement in technology that creates more isolated activities than ever before.

What’s next?

Research has shown that children are increasingly put in artificial, supervised environments such as after school activities to help them prepare for the real world. However, the benefits of free play as children, and later on as adults, can have a tangible effect on peoples’ psychology.

In order to combat the rise of mental health issues in children, we need to re-evaluate the importance of play. Peter Gray, writing in the Journal of Play[3], states: “Without play, young people fail to acquire the social and emotional skills necessary for healthy psychological development”.

Allowing children to play like children can have enormous benefits. The results may not be as direct as making a child practice piano for two hours a day but the indirect effects of playing help children learn about creativity and how to become better social beings. It is important to have room for both in every child’s life, and parents should assess the balance that suits each child.

Dr. Eva Fisher is an Ottawa psychologist who has been providing psychotherapy for a variety of issues for over 20 years. Follow her on Twitter @drevafisher, Facebook or Instagram @dr_evafisher. Blog writing assisted by freelance journalist Alyssa McMurtry.

Written by Dr. Eva Fisher C Psych
All rights reserved. Copyright protected.



[1]  Green, H., McGinnity, A., Meltzer, H., et al. (2005). Mental health of children and young people in Great Britain 2004. London: Palgrave.

[2] Piaget, Jean, (1932) “The Moral Judgement of the Child,” Full online text.

[3] American Journal of Play, volume 3, number 4. © 2011 by The Strong. Contact: Peter Gray at grayp@bc.edu



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Whiz Kids

Less than two per cent of children are considered to be gifted based on population norms. In fact, there is no formal agreement among psychologists and educators on what exactly defines giftedness, although it does tend to be genetically linked and there are some identifying markers.

For example, from the first year of life children considered gifted are walking and speaking much earlier than their age peers, and such advanced or early development continues to be the case in later life; they go on to develop outstanding abilities in language, math or music compared to population norms.

Challenges for gifted children

However, just because these children have exceptional abilities in learning, understanding or retaining information does not mean that they are advantaged and their lives will be easy. In fact, gifted children may have a whole set of problems that their peers do not have to deal with.

For one thing, emotional development and intellectual development are known to develop at different rates and for gifted children; often emotional maturity does not develop at the same rapid pace as intellect. To adults, gifted children appear to be more mature and serious than their age would indicate, but within their peer group they are easy targets of ridicule and they are no better than other children in dealing with bullying and social rejection.

Some gifted children have had major struggles in school.  According to Judy Galbraith’s book The Gifted Kids’ Survival Guide, Beethoven’s music teacher described him as ‘hopeless,’ Einstein quit high school at the age of 15, and Picasso was so bored by school that his family let him bring a live chicken to class so he could draw its portrait. Gifted children are known to complain about boredom in the classroom as their number one challenge in life.

If you suspect that your child is gifted then it is important to determine whether it is true, in order to satisfy their love of learning and to stay interested in attending school. The school system can offer special placements for your gifted child; however that is not necessarily sufficient and their giftedness may not even be identified. If your child is sitting in a grade-one class room all day but comprehending at a grade-four level, they may simply tune out, daydream or become bored.

It is also not true that gifted children can only be gifted in one area; among children in the upper two per cent of the general population there are differences. While most excel in either math or language, some are outstanding in both areas, and may also easily comprehend complexities of scientific principles as well as abstract thought.

Having a deficit in short term memory or attention is also not unusual in gifted children, since they often appear distracted and don’t appear to be listening, when they in fact are lost in deep thought about some internal concept that has grabbed their attention.

For exceptional children, underachievement may also be a coping mechanism to help them deal with social situations.  At school, for example, exceedingly intelligent children can be bullied under the playground stereotype ‘nerd.’ For these kids, they may even try to avoid showing their skills, for example, by not speaking up in class or not doing homework well in order to avoid this label. These kids may have bad marks on normal exams but do incredibly well on standardized tests.

Another psychological challenge gifted children can struggle with is unhealthy perfectionism. Since they find many things come to their understanding so easily, they may apply these high standards to all aspects of their lives. Furthermore, parents and teachers who label the child as a “prodigy” can inflict the delusion in the child that they can and should be perfect in all areas.

Giftedness Assessments

Giftedness is measured with standardized intelligence tests that are restricted to professional practitioners. These tests can only be administered and interpreted by a registered psychologist with specific training in this area. The tests must be kept locked in secure storage; the test questions must be protected from the public in order to maintain test validity.

The most commonly used test is the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, commonly known as the WISC-IV, a test that measures the intelligence quotient, or IQ.

If you have your child tested here are some things you should know.

  • A standardized IQ test takes about two hours of face to face testing room (no parents are allowed)
  • Children are given a chance to practice items for each subtest, to create a mental set to get an idea of what is to follow
  • The psychologist scores and analyzes the test results only after the test is complete

A written report of the findings is usually given. Scores are quoted in percentiles and categories:

  • Very Superior
  • Superior
  • High Average
  • Average
  • Below Average
  • Well Below Average

Only the top 98th and 99th percentiles fall within the Very Superior category.

Next Steps

Each school system decides the cut-off point for entry into their giftedness program.  Some schools offer an “Enriched” program targeting the children above the 90th percentile, while others offer a “Giftedness” program that excludes all children except those within the 95th percentile and above. In deciding on how best to support your gifted child, be sure to ask the school principal what are their cut-off points for entry into their giftedness program.

To inspire your child to continue on their quest to learn is not easy and will require a lot of effort. There is no one-size-fits-all approach that works with these unique children, however it is rewarding to see their success.

Ask your doctor for a referral to a child psychologist trained in psychological testing. Scheduling an appointment for a psycho-educational assessment can help you understand your gifted child and help them come to terms with their own feelings about it.

Dr. Eva Fisher is an Ottawa psychologist who has been providing psychotherapy for a variety of issues for over 20 years. Follow her on Twitter @drevafisher, Facebook or Instagram @dr_evafisher. Blog writing assisted by freelance journalist Alyssa McMurtry.

Written by Dr. Eva Fisher C Psych
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Cutting Remarks

It takes a lifetime to learn how to handle disappointment, and being a teenager doesn’t help much when things get rough. I was wondering what would cause a beautiful, smart 15 year old like Briana to get a pack of her dad’s razors and some disinfecting lotion from the medicine cabinet and deliberately carve small evenly spaced slices up and down her arms and legs.

It didn’t help when her mom walked into her room and freaked out either. She couldn’t know that her mom would bring her to see me, and that she’d land up having to talk about what happened which was why she was sitting in my office. She couldn’t tuck herself any more tightly into the corner of the sofa without disappearing completely, trying to avoid my eyes and smoothing the long sleeves of her shirt.

And looking at the floor, she whispered that all she wanted was to escape from the bad feelings when her friends at school had turned against her.

In 1921, Freud proposed the pleasure principle is the instinctual pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Maturity is learning to endure the pain of frustrated desires when reality requires it.


While many people abuse their bodies while indulging in smoking, drinking or recreational drugs, they can shrug it off the next day by remembering the fun and good times that went with their over-indulgence. With self-cutting, the pleasure principle – meaning, the avoidance of one kind of pain as a way of by-passing emotional pain however, results in bodily scarring and disfiguring while offering emotional relief.

Self-cutting is when the injury is intentional, as when as person makes small cuts with a sharp object that draw blood on the wrists, arms, legs, sexual organs or bellies. Unwanted and potentially dangerous side effects are infected wounds, scars, accidentally cutting too deep or uncontrollable urges that get in the way of daily activities.

Research shows that 90 per cent of people who engage in self harm begin during their teen and pre-adolescent years, however onset can occur at any age, including in elderly people.

In a survey by the Canadian Mental Health Association, approximately 13 per cent of adolescents said the engaged in self-harm activities. However, since this habit tends to be secretive, it is difficult to determine the exact percentage.

There is no single pattern or profile for self-injures, however the Canadian Mental Health Association shows that most are from the middle to upper-class, intelligent but suffer from low self-esteem. Almost all say they were discouraged from expressing emotions, especially anger and sadness.

Why do people self-cut?

There are many different reasons that people engage in self-cutting behaviour, but the primary reason is that it provides temporary relief to feelings of frustration, suffering and emotional pain. The flow chart below, shows two common patterns of why people injure themselves.


Studies show that incidences of self-cutting are increasing. This may be due to cultural trends, where young people are told it is a normal way to express feelings of frustration, numbness or sadness. However, it is not new, in the 19th century some women in Europe became known as “needle girls” because they would cut themselves with sewing needles. Today, for example, there are many websites that give advice on how to go about cutting oneself. In order to fit in to a subculture, teens may try cutting themselves only to find that it is an addictive behaviour that can spiral out of control.

Contrary to the belief of some, self-cutting is not necessarily a ‘cry for help’ nor is it attempts at suicide. Cutting tends to become an impulsive, secret habit where the pain provides an illogical sense of temporary calm. Many self-cutters are ashamed of this habit and try to hide their scars.

Self-cutting is not a mental disorder but is usually a symptom of underlying emotional problems. There is a whole gambit of psychological problems that can be associated with it, anything from depression to borderline personality disorder to bipolar disorder.

If you or someone you know is self-cutting,  speaking to an experienced psychologist could help.

Patients in this story are a fictional composite of people who have sought help for this issue. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

Dr. Eva Fisher is an Ottawa psychologist who has been providing psychotherapy for a variety of issues for over 20 years. Follow her on Twitter @drevafisherFacebook or Instagram @dr_evafisher. Blog writing assisted by freelance journalist Alyssa McMurtry.

Written by Dr. Eva Fisher C Psych
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