Bounded Compassion with Family

Bounded Compassion with Family

Bounded Compassion with FamilyThe other day I talked to Harriet Brown, author of Brave Girl Eating and Body of Truth. She’s working on another book project about estrangement and reconciliation. Here was her call for participation on Facebook:

For my next book, I’m looking to talk with people who have been estranged from family members or are currently estranged. The book is about family estrangements and reconciliations. Please pass the word! Message me for more info.

(If you would like to be interviewed by her, you can contact her via her website.) It was timely for me because I’d been thinking about my last blog post in the context of support clients in setting compassionate boundaries with family, which is oh so much harder than setting them with friends.

We tend to give our family a lot more leeway because, well, because they’re family and we privilege those ties above all others. We have a lot of cultural stories about the importance of family: Family is where you’re supposed to find unconditional love and acceptance. Family is where you’re supposed to find people who know you best and love you anyway. Family is meant to be the people who are always rooting for you.

That’s the ideal but most of us have to make compromises in our expectations.

All of us need to grow up and step away from our families in practical ways (by moving out) and in emotional ways (by choosing our own values and goals). In healthy families this may be painful but it’s supported. Healthy families want you to be your best self — even when it doesn’t jive with their own idea of best self-ness. Healthy families may grumble about the things you do differently (“But we always have turkey on Thanksgiving!”) but will accept your choice anyway (“Oh well, pass the tofurkey. I’m game to try it!”).

In unhealthy families the adult child’s growth and move away from their family of origin is seen as threatening. If the adult child is serving toforkey, the threatened parent might project a whole lot of critical meaning on it. “Are you saying I’m an unhealthy cook?” “Are you saying you’re too good for your grandmother’s roast turkey recipe?” And because it’s family, it’s somehow OK to say that out loud. A parent who would never complain at a friend’s Thanksgiving dinner table might think nothing of criticizing their adult child.

The adult child, who might have few issues with setting boundaries with such a rude friend, is stuck wondering what to do. They might start an argument. They might internalize the criticism and feel bad about themselves (“Maybe I am a big snob, maybe I am unreasonable, maybe my values are dumb”). They might avoid the discussion and be resigned to having a lousy Thanksgiving every year.

Many adult children twist themselves into knots to try to accommodate the dysfunctional parents’ demands and struggle with anxiety and depression as a result. It’s hard to love yourself when the person who’s supposed to love you best is so critical (or cruel).

When clients come to my office with dilemmas like this and ask me what to do, I say, “What do you want to do?” Because we can’t control how our family reacts to our decisions but we can control our decisions. The long hard work of healing from harsh parents starts with figuring out what we want separate from our unrealistic expectations. We can bring our best selves to our decision-making and then we can let go of the outcome.

Letting go of the outcome starts with confronting and grieving the ideal we’ve been hoping for. In the video below (go ahead and scroll down to watch if you have 15ish minutes), brother Phil has a wonderful, full and accomplished life away from his family. He’s an award-winning journalist with best-selling books and  big deal magazine covers but his family has nothing but criticism because his accomplishments separate him from them. Instead of celebrating with him they ignore him, tell him he doesn’t look good, and advise him to consider a career change. If Phil has been holding on to hope that winning the Nobel prize is finally going to get him the love and acceptance he craves, he’s going to leave the house feeling pretty low. But if he’s worked to recognize family patterns and realized that his family’s reaction is theirs, he may still grieve that his family is not supportive but he won’t internalize their negativity towards his accomplishments.

Instead of thinking to himself, “What’s wrong with me that my mom doesn’t love me like I want her to?” He can think, “My mom is incapable of loving me the way I want her to, this is not my fault and I get to choose how much time I spend with her.”

Sometimes in our work together, when we start talking about families of origin like this, clients will feel like they’re betraying their parents or siblings by being critical so please understand that this is not about bad mouthing our relatives. I believe both that most of us are doing the absolutely best we can (compassion) and that good intentions don’t negate toxicity.

Our families may love us the only way they know how, but that doesn’t mean that we are required to ignore the hurt they cause us.

For some people setting boundaries means estrangement. It means visiting less or not visiting at all. It means Thanksgiving at the vegetarian co-op instead of with our family. It means making decisions designed to support your own needs instead of trying to do things to make other people happy.

 

 

Bounded Compassion

Bounded Compassion

Bounded Compassion

Today I drove my daughter to one of her summer camps and we were talking about friendships both general and specific and it got me thinking about having the same conversation with other middle school aged kids, which got me thinking about remarkably similar conversations I’m having with adults, too.

We encourage children to have boundless compassion for other people and in theory that’s a wonderful thing but in real life we’d be better served if we were raised to have bounded compassion, which is compassion with clear boundaries.

In our efforts to build empathy and understanding we may unintentionally teach kids to put aside their own needs even though empathy and understanding grow best when we are able to protect ourselves. After all, what’s compassion for others if we can’t hold it for ourselves?

bestbestfriendsMy daughter had a picture book that she loved when she was little. (She took the dust cover off and taped it to her door when she was five.) It’s called Best Best Friends. It’s about two little girls at daycare who are (you guessed it) best best friends. Then one day Mary is having a birthday and she gets a crown and she gets some preschool privileges and Claire is jealous. In her jealousy, Claire snaps at Mary and insults her (she tells her she doesn’t like pink, which is Mary’s favorite color). The two girls decide they are NOT friends and go play with other people.

Then after a restorative nap, Claire comes and apologizes and Mary shares her birthday spoils.

Mary appears to be a compassionate person but she’s no door mat. Claire crosses a line but when she’s able to make amends Mary is able to welcome her back. (If you scroll down, I’m including a video of someone reading the book.)

Mary doesn’t go away from Claire to teach her a lesson. She doesn’t put aside her own birthday happiness to attend to her friend’s jealousy. She moves on, she plays. She has a happy birthday anyway. She didn’t share before she was ready because she wasn’t ready. She’s a little kid, and already she’s mastered the ability to say, “I like you but I don’t like this so I’m setting my boundary.”

If we don’t get it in preschool (and let’s face it, even if we do get it in the rarefied protective air of an excellent early childhood environment, it takes repeated practice) we will need to learn that understanding someone doesn’t mean we have to excuse them. Because boundaries are not about the other person; they’re about the person setting them. In other words, boundaries are not about teaching someone a lesson or a passive aggressive way to communicate. Boundaries are about having compassion for our selves and tending to our own needs.

It’s understandable that a friend might act poorly because she’s jealous (or tired or having a hard time) and we can look at that friend with compassion and understanding but it doesn’t mean we have to share our birthday crown before we’re ready.

“But wait,” you say. “What if I’m just being a jerk? I mean, it’s a crown. What’s the big deal?”

That’s where it gets tricky, right? Because sometimes we are being jerks. Sometimes we aren’t sharing when we probably should. And that’s where we have to accept that the dance of friendship is a step forward and a step back, it’s a relationship we create with that other person.

And this is something else about this book. The girls go and play with other kids. Mary plays with Caitlin and Claire plays with Ben. Let’s say that the next day Caitlin wants to play with Mary again and Mary shuts her down because she’s got her best best friend back and she doesn’t need Caitlin anymore. Mary gets to do that and Caitlin gets to decide whether or not this is OK with her. She can condemn this behavior (fair weather friendships) and decide whether or not she wants to say yes the next time Mary and Claire have a fight and Mary wants to play again. Caitlin gets to decide how she feels about that behavior and how she wants to engage (or not) with it. Caitlin can understand why Mary only wants to play with her sometimes but she’s still the one who can choose whether or not that’s the kind of friendship she wants to have.

This is where we need help processing, trying to figure out in the murky friendships where we find ourselves having to stretch or contort to maintain the relationship. Is this really what we want? Is the trade-off worth it? It’s one thing to stretch a bit but it’s another thing to twist ourselves into knots of compassion.

We don’t really get to decide how other people behave or even how they treat us. We do get to decide how we feel about it and whether or not we’ll participate. We can absolutely hold someone in empathy and understanding and still maintain our boundaries. That’s bounded compassion — loving but firm, limitless in theory but limited in practice.

 

Inspiration from Orlando

pride heart

pride heartI heard this news story on the way to the All Adoption Meeting last night and waited in the parking lot of the Karl Road library to catch the end. It’s an interview with someone who was at the Pulse club in Orlando but left just before the shootings started. When he woke up the next day and heard what happened, he volunteered to be a translator between the authorities and the victim’s families. What he had to say was inspiring. His name is Eddie Meltzer and I encourage you to listen to the interview or read the transcript. My favorite part is this exchange at the end (Ari Shapiro is the interviewer):

MELTZER: Five and one acquaintance that was injured. I just got word that he’s doing really well in the hospital after surgery, so that’s happy news.

SHAPIRO: The first time you see him, what are you going to say?

MELTZER: I’ll ask him, when are we going out again? That’s what I’ll say.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MELTZER: That’s what I’ll say. I’ll say, when are we going to go have martinis again?

SHAPIRO: There are going to be people listening somewhere in America who will hear that and say, what are you, crazy?

MELTZER: No, I’m not crazy. I’m just not going to subscribe to fear. We’re a strong community. You know, we’re gay men. We don’t – we live in a world where we get a lot of hate. We take a lot of hate. And we know how the world feels about us. And we’re strong people because we live in a world that wasn’t made for us. And if tomorrow somebody took over this country and said, we’re going to kill all the gays, I will be the first one in that square saying, shoot me with my big flag all over the place because I would rather die for what I stand for. You can kill me. I’m an idea, I’m timeless.

Rigidity, Judgment and Parenting

rigidity judgment and parenting

rigidity judgment and parentingI’m going to do something I haven’t done in a long time and that’s pull out some comments for the next post because it got me thinking and I appreciate that Cynthia is giving me the opportunity to do this. On my last post Cynthia, who is also a therapist here in town, wrote:

I have to admit I find this discussion difficult, and that I have a bias after reading Alice Miller’s books (For Your Own Good, etc.). I think there’s a level beyond political correctness where we have to start to acknowledge what we know about the nervous system responses to certain kinds of treatment, and do our best to help ourselves and each other notice our patterns of response and disowned feelings so we can stop perpetuating violence.

Alice Miller, if you haven’t read her, is a German psychoanalyst who looks at the ways trauma and abuse are perpetuated across generations. Her books are dense but very good and I sometimes recommend them to clients who are working to figure out the impact their own childhood is having on their lives. I’ll also add that Cynthia is a therapist who specializes in trauma work and it makes sense that she would look at my last post through this lens. But for my purposes, doing this is problematic and I wanted to explain why.

Generally speaking, people come to therapy because there’s something that isn’t working in their lives. The very act of making an appointment with a therapist is a request for change and a statement of some level of willingness to explore the possibility of doing the hard work of changing. This is where we begin together, a vulnerable parent who is sad or anxious or angry and me, the person who ostensibly has the answers for them. But I believe that one of the problems for parents is all of the experts (official ones like whoever is writing the latest book and unofficial ones like whoever is standing behind you in the checkout lane criticizing your parenting) and so I want to help the parent locate their own inner expert, which means we are actually going to start with the assumption that the parent has the answers but hasn’t figured out how to tap into them. The stuff I know is about kids and parenting in general but what you know is the specificity of you and your child, which takes precedence as we chart our way.

Nearly twenty years ago, as a new parent myself I found my philosophical home in a very particular local mom’s meeting, which was a radical attachment parenting type meeting. I had one baby and I loved him to distraction and everyone kept telling me to put him down only I didn’t want to put him down. I was trying to figure out who I was as a mother and I was trying to do it — like we all try to do it — against a background of other people telling me what kind of mother I ought to be. Going to that meeting gave me permission to do the things I wanted to do anyway and when I got criticism I had answers to it because of what I was learning there. That meeting shaped my identity as a parent in many, many good ways (and, I’ll add, my identity as a therapist).

But I remember other mothers who came to that same meeting and didn’t find answers and freedom; they found rigidity and judgment. The motherhood identity they wanted to craft didn’t align with the culture of that community. That group took a hard-line “baby comes first,” which is not flexible enough for the reality of mothering for most of us. (You’ll note, too, that my language here has shifted to mothers because it is inevitably mothers who are taking the hit on child-first parenting.) For me, my values aligned enough with the group’s values that I could make the necessary shifts to write my narrative without losing access to my village but for other women, the village began to feel more like a prison.

Back to my clients, many of whom come from the same rigid parenting community that I came from. I know this community well because I’ve been living there for going on two decades and I know how hard we are on ourselves and on each other. I know that Cynthia’s well-intentioned plea that we “do our best to help ourselves and each other notice our patterns of response and disowned feelings so we can stop perpetuating violence” is exactly the kind of language we use in our community when we’re talking about parenting but I also know that it’s this kind of language that is hurting us.

I’m going to take crying it out to talk about it because that’s what my original post was about. The word “violence” is the kind of word the gentle parenting community might use when we’re talking about sleep training. But using words like “violence” stops the conversation cold. After all, there is no excuse for violence against a child so the exhausted mother is left without recourse. There is no flexibility, no nuance in the conversation when we equate actual child abuse with sleep training.

Sleep and the lack thereof is strongly correlated with mental health and so helping families how to manage night-time parenting is a huge — HUGE — part of the work I do with postpartum mothers. For most of us, sleep is terribly fraught, tied up with her own feelings of abandonment and fear and revisited again and again throughout the first few years. Sleep training is not the right answer for every family but sometimes it is and we cannot know that if we can’t even have the conversation.

(I’ll add that I don’t think Cynthia is equating sleep training to violence because I think she’s talking about a broader need to be willing to speak out against certain kinds of truly violent parenting and to be willing to think critically about our choices. I agree with this. However the parents I see in my office, they’re all too critical of themselves already and the violence they are perpetuating tends to be against themselves. Which is to say, while Cynthia is pointing to a necessary conversation we need to have culturally, my post is directed to the parent who is likely already having it.)

As I said in my comment to Cynthia, my blog post (all of them actually) is targeted to the ordinary good enough parent, which is the vast majority of us. I am starting with the assumption that if you’re reading my blog or contacting me for services then you are an ordinary good enough parent. I’m going to assume that you are doing a lot of things right. I’m going to believe that you know what’s best for your family only you might not know it yet or you may not be clear how to get there. Of course if I see you doing harm — real harm — to yourself or your child then of course I’m going to tell you (and as a mandated reporter, if I see instances of abuse I will tell you but I will also tell the authorities) but I’m not going to start from the assumption that that’s where you are because most of us are NOT. Most of us, as I said, are ordinary good enough parents and all of us need and deserve respectful support as we make our way.

The right way to raise babies

the right way to raise babies

the right way to raise babiesLast week there was a lot of noise about that crying it out study, which indicated that “graduated extinction” (which is different from simply leaving the baby to cry) isn’t harmful to infants. On my Facebook feed I heard (like many of you heard) a lot from both sides of the debate, decrying the study as too small to be useful or hailing it as the definitive answer from science. People ask me to weigh in on research like this because I’m a counselor who specializes in working with new parents but I’m not that interested in getting parents to do things some mythical right way to raise babies because there isn’t one.

When my son was a teensy-tiny infant I thought someone should invent a sim baby program so that I could make the most appropriate parenting decisions every single time. I could try virtually feeding him rice cereal as a first food and then hit restart to go back and try feeding him sweet potato to see which made him turn out best. Because even then — when the internet was fairly primitive and we all used Netscape — there was so much information out there and such strong opinions about every little thing. It’s not like my mom’s day where the parenting experts were limited to the people you actually knew and saw on a day-to-day basis (and maybe your dog-eared copy of Dr. Spock‘s book). Now there are a whole slew of people who have opinions on every little thing from first foods to sleep habits to how to tell your child that you like the painting they made in preschool (that is if you fall in the pro-preschool camp because oh boy are their opinions about that, too).

Here’s the thing, I don’t want you to raise your baby in any particular way. I want you to raise your baby your way. I don’t want my clients making decisions solely based on the headlines generated by researchers in South Australia; I want them to figure out how to tune into what they need and what their babies need and make decisions based on that. If the researchers in South Australia help inform those decisions — whether that’s helping parents feel good about sleep training or highlighting their own reservations about it — then great.

You and your baby are a unique dyad. You and your baby and your partner and the rest of your family, you are a complicated and distinct system. However you choose to handle sleep with your baby, it’s only one of many decisions you’ll be making over the course of your parenting career. Those decisions are opportunities for you to build your family culture based on your values, wants and wishes for your child. They are opportunities for you to explore and respond to your child’s individual temperament and learn more about the person they will eventually become. And they are opportunities for you to begin to understand who you are as a parent.

There are definitely absolutes about parenting like your babies should always be in car seats and they need to be fed (how you feed them is up to you). But studies like this, while useful and important, cannot take into account the whole colorful array of personalities and practicalities that make up each family.

If you were to come to my office and say, “Should I let my baby cry it out?” I would want to know so much more like who are you? And who is your baby? And what is the context of your lives together? As frustrating as it might be, I would not give you an answer because I want to help my clients find their own answers, the answers they can stand behind and feel good about. I want them to gain the confidence they’ll need for the rest of the hard work of parenting — choosing a kindergarten and giving the sex talk and figuring out curfews. As the kids say, you do you (because trying to do somebody else will just make you unhappy).

Do I have strong opinions? I sure do. I have strong personal opinions about my own parenting choices. But as I say (often), there are lots of ways to be a great parent and to raise great kids. I don’t have a lock on the best way; I’ve just figured out what works for me and mine. For example, I believe my kids are best served by being force-fed a lot of show tunes and being lectured on the superiority of Sondheim over Webber. You will not convince me otherwise but I also promise not to visit that strong bias on you. You go ahead and listen to Phantom and I’ll just sit over here with my well-worn copy of Company.

So if you come to me for answers, I won’t give them to you but I promise you that I will help you find them for yourself.

Kids, Impulse Control and Public Spaces

kids and impulse control

kids and impulse controlI was not at the Cincinnati Zoo when that 4-year old bolted from his mom into the enclosure. I am not an expert on gorillas or on zoo design. I don’t know the child in question or his parents (some reports state dad was there, too, although he’s not come under fire like mom has). We do know that it was a tragedy — a child (and his family and the bystanders) were traumatized, a 17-year old gorilla lost his life.

Preschoolers are developing their impulse control; they don’t already have it. You might have heard about the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. That’s the test where researchers sat down with children 4 to 6 years old and gave them a marshmallow. The researcher tells the child something like, I need to leave and you can eat that marshmallow or you can wait and then you’ll get a second marshmallow when I get back. Then the researcher leaves the room and observes what the child does through a one-way mirror. And what they found is that the younger a child is the more likely they are to eat the marshmallow.

Young preschoolers, they are bird (marshmallow) in hand type people.

And then there are those children who have a harder time with impulse control. Those kids tend to be more active, less scared, more persistent (the ones who will nag nag nag you) and less concerned about punishment and reward. They are kids who live in the RIGHT NOW. These are the ones who eat the marshmallow before the door finishes closing behind the researcher. That’s a temperament thing; some kids just have more impulsive personalities than other kids and will need more support, understanding and opportunity to develop their self-control.

Back to that marshmallow test. They’ve looked at it a lot over the years and one of the things they’ve found is that children are able to delay gratification (be less impulsive) when their environment is “reliable,” i.e., when their environment is more predictable.

Here’s a video that explains that:

Now I want you to think about this when we think about young children in public spaces, where reliability is generally lower. If you’re at home or at your daycare or at your babysitter’s, you pretty much know when you’ll eat and what you eat. You know where the bathroom is. You know when your little sister goes down for her nap. You count on this consistency.

Then there’s the zoo that — with all it’s fun and excitement — is extremely unreliable. You will likely have to wait for the potty, It may be one of those scary self-flushing potties. Your juice might be warmer than you like it or be the wrong juice or the wrong straw. Your dad promises you that you’ll see the snakes but when you get there the exhibit is closed. Children have finite resources to draw on so even a child with pretty good impulse control might hit their limit at places that lack reliability.

I’ve been to the zoo with a slew of 4-year olds (my own and other people’s including some pretty hectic trips with a whole preschool class) and I know that at a certain point everyone is tired, grouchy and done-in. For any child — not just one who’s struggling with impulse control — this is the point where the lousy behavior comes out. Stand at the exit of a zoo sometime and watch how many kids are carried (or dragged) out sobbing. Notice how many wrench free of their parents’ hand or let go of the stroller or their parents’ back pocket to run to the cotton candy stand or souvenir store with their parents hollering at them to “Get back here!”

This time it was something far more dangerous with tragic results. On another day it might have just meant a lecture or a time-out.

Like I said, I wasn’t there and I didn’t see it. I don’t know that child or his parents and I’ve never been to the Cincinnati zoo so I can’t speak to the efficacy of the barriers around its exhibits. But I do know 4-year olds. Events like these are blessedly rare but impulsive behavior by preschoolers is not.

The Labyrinth of Life

labyrinth

labyrinthWhen I was twenty I was dating someone who was sober and so I was attending Al-Anon meetings both to support him and because my (also sober) best friend was encouraging me to go. At that time in my life I had this idea that getting sober was an event with a before (drinking) and an after (no drinking). I don’t know why I thought this but I think it was part and parcel of being twenty and not knowing very much and thinking that things could be as easy as that. Back then I thought there was a finish line marked “success” and that grown ups who had any sense were living there and that’s where I — and my boyfriend and my best friend — were headed because we were doing what the experts said, going to meetings, stepping forward one day at a time.

I trusted the straightforward path with straightforward rules and I trusted that as long as we were moving forward and following the rules we would end up at the finish line. I didn’t know then that life is more like a labyrinth — meant for wandering — and that there is no finish line. I didn’t understand that life is process and it’s the process that matters.

When I began working at a women’s shelter in my mid-twenties, the life-as-labyrinth became clear to me. I expected shelter to be a point of resolution, the place where Before met  After. But most of our clients were moving in circles that were slowly (we hoped) growing wider. They were living — and in many cases reliving — their particular crises, gathering information as they went. Instead of a signpost, clearly delineating the way, our shelter program was a rest stop: a place to be nourished and nurtured (if the client wanted our nourishment and nurturing) but not a step towards anything in particular unless she chose to make it one.

I remember one client in particular, who I will call Jill. She was a stand-out client, the one we asked to speak at our fundraisers and the one whose story we told when we wrote grants. She came to us after her time ran out at another shelter and she worked our program hard, managing the myriad of appointments that she had with us and with the other programs — the programs for jobs and housing and care for her kids. She would put her two children in a make-shift double stroller and head out the door to push them up the big hill in front of our building to get them to the top where all the buses lined up, heading out to meeting after meeting. She did this because she wanted to and because she was ready to. She wanted to stay sober and safe; she wanted a better life for her kids than the one she’d been living.

She was amazing and she remained a success story after she left our program securing a good job, long-term housing, and therapy for herself and her boys. But it wasn’t because of us (her case managers); it was because she sought us out and thankfully, we were there. I have no doubt that our presence had an integral role in her life but she was the author of her own change. She was able to see a way out of the circle in her labyrinth to someplace wider with better opportunity.

Here’s what’s important: it was not her first stay at shelter. She’d been there before when she had only one child and was still using, eventually going back to the man who hurt her. That first visit with us she wasn’t ready so she left (actually she was asked to leave when she came back to shelter drunk).

Did her success the next time around make her a failure before? No, not in the big picture. Her failure in our program was part of her process in life’s labyrinth. Jill’s way was complicated, as it is for many of us. The first time she came to shelter is as important as the second because it’s where she had to be before she could get to where she was going. She is the one who came to us the second time, she is the one who remembered the way and she is the one who used our help differently than she was able to use it before.

In my own life I see the same widening of a circle that looks familiar. I meet people and think, “Oh, it’s you again!” a particular kind of relationship I need to get better at, a friendship that feels an awful lot like a friendship I’ve lived before. There’s always something to learn on the way, a better understanding of who I am and who I want to be. Parenting my kids is a chance to reexamine the ways I was raised. Arguing with my husband is a chance to understand each other better. Sometimes the sameness seems stifling and then I know it’s time to find my way to another part of the labyrinth, that the frustration I’m experiencing is a sign that it’s time to grow.

Healing is a process. Where someone is in their process is where they are. Perhaps they can hear only every other thing we say or maybe only every third or four or fifth or even TENTH thing we say. Perhaps a client will have only one epiphany in a program or in counseling but that epiphany may be enough to get them to turn a corner six years down the line. Maybe one day they will remember that thing they learned and that will be the important thing they need to step out of the path they’re on. Or maybe they will not get any epiphanies but they will learn that there are places where people will sit and listen to you; that there are places where hope drives the conversation. Maybe what they need to know is that there is refuge for when life gets too complicated, for when they’re finally ready to stop and rest awhile on the way to where they’re meant to be.

Teens, the Internet and Toxic Support

teens and the internet

teens and the internetThe internet has brought us a lot of nice things like kitten videos, the ability to watch only the funny parts of Saturday Night Live and really great gifs. But it’s also brought us a lot of ugliness, sometimes in the form of support groups that can actually make people sicker.

There are a number of web sites populated by young teens and young adults that perpetuate the very illnesses they purport to help. These are blogs, hashtag communities (where users find each other via hashtags on social media accounts) and message boards centered around eating disorders and self-harming.

Here are two articles (one recent, one not) that talks about the research that’s sprung up around these virtual communities:

Parents of tweens and teens have a hard time navigating the sticky, complicated waters of online safety and groups and sites like these make things even trickier. I’ve had plenty of kids come to my office with an online support system that really worked for them. I’ve also had kids who were learning specific ways to be sick — or strengthening their identity as someone who is sick — because of their online community. Because a site that says it focuses on, for example, recovery can still be a place where people compete to be the most ill. After all, if you get completely well then what happens to those friendships? Kids who are hurting crave connection, even when the connection is harmful.

Now I love the internet and I’ve been participating in online communities since about 1995 so even though this scares me, too (I mean, I’ve got kids and I care about the kids who I see in my office and I care about the kids my kids and your kids run around with) I don’t think that the answer is to lock down all things internet mostly because it isn’t realistic. Even if you have all the security settings on your home network, there are library computers, friends’ laptops, and friends’ phones and iPods. Our digital kids are smart — smarter than we are — and they will find work arounds if they really want to find them.

(Do you know how many of my teen clients who aren’t allowed to have an Instagram account or a Tumblr or whatever but who manage to have those things anyway? Almost every single one of them — and that’s just the ones who admit it to me. They’ll post from a friend’s phone or add the app at school and delete it before they get home.)

I’m not sharing this information to scare people; we need to know what’s out there so we can figure out how we’re going to handle it.

This is why I encourage parents to think about the advantages of allowing their child access to Tumblr or Instagram with caveats, like that safe mode stays on, the account stays private (or stays anonymous) and that you’re going to be monitoring them. If you find out that every Instagram account they’re following is tagged with #secret_society123 (that’s a proana hashtag) then you know it and you can do something.

But don’t just monitor for the yucky stuff, ask them to show you the fun stuff. Go ahead and sit through an episode or two of their favorite YouTuber, ask them to share the community they’ve found on Tumblr, get involved just like you do with their real life experiences so that if and when you need to intervene you’ve already built it into your relationship. The internet won’t be something you fight about; it’ll be something you talk about.

Just like we don’t keep our children from participating in the great big real life world because there are some really scary things it, so we shouldn’t keep them from participating in the great big virtual world. Our kids need to know how to manage being an online citizen; we’re the ones who have to teach them.