The Bystander Effect

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The Bystander Effect

I just read a book that described the research behind the Bystander Effect. It is a disturbing phenomenon, indeed, and it has been empirically proven in many studies. The misconception most of us hold is that when someone has been hurt, witnesses will rush to their aid. The sad truth is the more people who witness a person in distress, the less likely it is that any one person within the group of witnesses will help.

The line of thinking in the Bystander Effect is that if one person , alone, sees someone in  trouble, he or she will feel compelled to help. If three or more people are witnessing someone in trouble, each supposes someone else in the group will help and so the individual abdicates his or her personal responsibility to step in. According to David McRaney, author of You are Not So Smart, the Bystander Effect has cost plenty of victims either their physical and/or emotional well-being. In many cases, by-standing has caused victims their lives, while others looked on.

I can personally relate to the Bystander Effect. When I was traveling in Florence, Italy, I was unaccustomed to the uneven cobblestone walkways. Upon exiting my hotel, I tripped just outside the entrance and went down sprawling onto the sidewalk. I hurt my knee and could not immediately get up. The number of pedestrians who literally climbed over me was astounding. Scores of them. Not one person offered help. I don’t remember what hurt worse: the injury to my knee or the shame of being ignored via apathy. I think the latter. Gosh. How do some people sleep at night?

I believe that the Bystander Effect needs to be considered as seriously as leaving the scene of an accident or leaving the scene of a crime. If it was our civic and legal responsibility to help someone in need, perhaps there would be less bullying, less domestic abuse, less hate crimes, less assaults, fewer injuries and fewer victims. Why do you think people abuse or bully other people? …because they can!

I have decided that by-standing someone in distress is officially not part of my behavioral repertoire. If I see someone being mistreated or in danger, I want to act in some way to be of aid to the victim. In my opinion, not only is it the moral choice; it is my honor to be of service to another who may be in distress. Give it some thought. What stand do you take?


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Mother’s Day and Mythology

Mother’s Day is typically celebrated for loving mothers everywhere. The day is dedicated for remembering all the sacrifices and kindnesses mothers, old and young, have demonstrated to their offspring.

But for many children, Mother’s Day is a myth. It is a fantasy; an idea or illusion a child wistfully carries in their mind, but never truly experienced. The population of these children who are older, are the ones who linger by the Hallmark cards for long periods of time: reading and replacing; reading and replacing. They finally settle for some benign message that ultimately says “Have a Nice Day”, but nothing more. This blog is dedicated to all those children. There are plenty of them out there and, for them, Mother’s Day can trigger some powerfully painful emotions.

The children who contend with Mother’s Day Mythology are usually the children who have not received love via compassion from their moms. They may have been overtly or covertly abused. They may have been overtly or covertly neglected. They may have even received some virtuous traits from their mom’s role modeling, but they still suffer. Many are in therapy or many need to be. Sad children, young and old, affected by insensitive mothers and who may now struggle with attachment challenges, low self-esteem, fear of abandonment, fear of rejection, …too many adverse effects to list here.

Here is what I want to say to children who have not yet risen above their maternal yearning:

  • You are a lovable and valuable human being.
  • You are whole and nothing is missing.
  • You have special gifts and talents that deserve to be encouraged.
  • You deserve unconditional love and regard.
  • You are not to blame because your Mom struggled in her parental role; she probably wasn’t mothered very well, herself.
  • You are not to blame that you may not have loving feelings for your Mother.
  • You can blame your Mother every which way from Mother’s Day and it won’t change a thing for you, unless you change.
  • You can grieve the loss of a loving mother, whether your Mom is alive or not.
  • You can still find a loving mother-symbol in other relationships.
  • You can still be a wonderful Mother, even if you didn’t have one.
  • You can forgive your Mother and release yourself from the myth.
  • You have strength, wisdom, determination and fortitude as a direct result of your painful mother-experience.
  • You have everything it takes to be your own loving mother.

I humbly and respectfully invite any child of this particular experience to add to this list. I am certain there are many more attributes to be shared. You deserve to be heard on Mother’s Day.

If you have or had the gift of a loving mother, please take a minute and send some loving thoughts to all the children who wish they did too.

Thank you for reading my blog and Happy Mother’s Day.


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Compliant Children of Divorce: Unwanted Lessons Learned

It is nothing new to remind the reader that children of divorce are learning some very important lessons through the role modeling of their separating parents. Children of divorce probably watch their parents lead by example more closely than the general population of children. Why? Because they simply do not know what to do, what to say, or how to feel. They may have heard the word “divorce”, but may have very limited internal resources with which they can make sense of the concept. They are in the midst of a family breakdown over which they have no control and no idea of how bad the breakdown might ultimately become.

As a mental health professional, I worry  less about the children who “act-out” during their parents’ divorce. These kids get the attention, albeit negatively, and parents are more likely to recognize the cry for help. I worry much more about children who “act-in” and, as a result, the parents mistakenly think are fine.

Here are some very subtle and unwanted lessons compliant children of divorce are at risk to learn:

“I should contain my upset. My mother/father is really upset and I am afraid that my being mad, sad or scared will be the last straw. If I seem to be fine, my parents won’t be more upset and so I won’t be left.” Children who learn the unwanted lesson of holding in their own feelings are at risk for future depression, anxiety and difficulty in making healthy attachments.

“I should act like nothing is wrong and I am okay. If my parents think it is okay to break up our family and divorce each other, I will just divorce myself.” Some children of divorce go beyond repressing their own legitimate anger and sadness and actually “break away” from or deny their own unique family experience. This sets them up to live in a distorted reality that they can perpetuate into adulthood.

“When they ask me if I am okay, I will just say ‘yes’. When they ask me if anything is wrong, I will just say ‘no’. They hardly pay any attention to how I’m truly feeling anyway. I may not be very important to them.” This unwanted lesson teaches the child that he/she is not very lovable. A wounded self-concept can carry forward into the child’s own adult relationships where they are either neglected or treated poorly.

When children of divorce become tentative and resistant to discuss the pain they feel about the shift in their family, they may be struggling with feeling ashamed that their parents are breaking up. The feeling of shame is an overwhelming emotional burden for a young child to face and resolve. As a result, these kids develop a style of communication that is guarded and limited. This wall of defense temporarily protects the compliant child. The challenge is that deferred feelings are just that. They don’t go away just because the child is denying them. Sooner or later these unpleasant feelings will arise and more than likely, come out “sideways” through other problems: drug and alcohol abuse, insomnia; poor academic performance, running with the wrong crowd, bad love relationships, suicidal thinking, criminal behavior…just to name a few.

Please consider seeking the support of a Collaborative Child Specialist who can offer uncoupling parents valuable insight into the compliant child’s experience. Pay attention to the child of divorce who appears to be and acts like he/she is just fine. They may be learning some unwanted lessons which will not serve them well on their journey through life.


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Conflict: In It for the Friction

Have you ever noticed that some people are in it strictly for the friction? It seems as if they thrive on arguing and they like to turn most interactions into some kind of heated debate. They like to fight so that they can see themselves as right and justified in their bad behavior. Coined as “High-Conflict” personalities, this part of the population covers a wide demographic and you will find these types everywhere you go. Quite often they are of high intelligence and you might very well notice that they hold powerful jobs. Their behavior can become the bane of your existence if they are your boss or your partner.

According to Bill Eddy, the guru of high-conflict,  the personality traits of people who are in it for the friction include:

  1. Rigid and uncompromising, repeating failed strategies
  2. Unable to accept or heal from a loss
  3. Negative emotions dominate their thinking
  4. Unable to reflect on their own behavior
  5. Difficulty empathizing with others
  6. Preoccupied with blaming others
  7. Avoid any responsibility for the problem or the solution

Does this sound like someone you know? One way to gauge if you are dealing with this type is to examine your own behavior. If you notice that you walk on eggshells around him or her, you could be with a High-Conflict personality and you must take care, because you could easily end up as their target of blame. Learning how to set a boundary with this type of person does not come easy because their trap is to lure you into the debate. Once, you are lured in, they “gotcha!” and now are justified in escalating the argument. Beware! Don’t ever argue with a High-Conflict personality.

Here are some tips for you:

  1. Learn to be okay if the High-Conflict person doesn’t like you. Being the good-guy with someone who is in it for the friction is seriously overrated. The High-Conflict personality translates “good guy” into “my next victim”.
  2. Learn not to take the High-Conflict person’s behavior personally. So what if their behavior has insulted you? Why need the approval of an unstable person? If it is a supervisor or boss, their critical nature will rarely cost you your job. Consider the source and remember that their need to be right comes from a deep inner insecurity.
  3. Trust your instincts. You will get a gut-kick very early with someone who is in it for the friction. Set your boundaries early and don’t let those boundaries be intruded upon.
  4. Don’t try to prove a point. They won’t accept it. Remember that they need for you to be “wrong”. State that you understand their point of view and you just happen to see it differently.
  5. Never, ever fall into the trap of trying to manage the wrath of someone who is in it for the friction. You will only be as good as your last performance and you will become emotionally exhausted.
  6. Be ready to walk away. Since High-Conflict people are usually terrified of abandonment, you will sense this early on and you might stay hooked up with them long after it is useful to do so. Sometimes you just have to walk away to preserve your own mental health.

Ultimately, someone who is in it for the friction needs to have a target. Recognize that early and refuse to play that role. See Bill Eddy’s work for everything you need to know.



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9/11 Still an Issue a Decade Later

Here is a blog I wrote last year. It still rings true and it deserves repeating. Thank you for taking the time to read it.

Carol Tosone is an associate professor of social work at NYU. Carol lived and worked through the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack and has become very interested in Second-Hand Shock. She shared in an interview that she is still “spooked” by the sound of airplanes since that tragic day.

Carol was curious if other social workers and mental health providers who treated 9/11 victims shared her experience of vicarious trauma, so she polled 500 helping professionals who worked in Midtown and Lower Manhattan during the attacks. She found that many of our heroes are still suffering. Her survey is an empirical testimony that many helping professionals share trauma with the people they are treating.

Tosone’s survey is being replicated in New Orleans among clinicians who counseled flood survivors. These clinical studies will help prepare social workers and other helping professionals who work in disasters and other traumatic situations to recognize and treat their own natural trauma responses. “We need to refortify clinicians,” said Tosone, who is also a member of the National Association of Social Workers.

Can you imagine that helping professionals and other caring witnesses are still suffering trauma responses a decade after the 9/11 tragedy? That certainly speaks to how insidious the effects of vicarious trauma can be! It also demonstrates a saddening lack of compassion and absence of resources for our heroes. Probably these heroes have been suffering with all types of unpleasant symptoms and they may have attributed these symptoms to other causes as a result of public apathy to their plight.

The symptoms of vicarious trauma or Second-Hand Shock run parallel with Post Traumatic Stress disorder and include:

  • negative emotions;
  • frequently feeling “on edge”;
  • existential upset that includes a negative world-view;
  • disruption in memory
  • intrusive imagery, including nightmares or recurring visualizations;
  • emotional numbing;
  • inability to tolerate strong emotions or hypersensitivity to emotionally charged content, such as seen in movies or television;
  • feeling anxious or worried for family members;
  • avoidance or “checking out” from the traumatic experience;
  • physical illnesses;
  • isolation and loss of ability to enjoy meaningful activities; and,
  • feelings of incompetence.

It is imperative for our heroes to be given the time and space to debrief and regroup after suffering Second-Hand Shock. The Rapid Advance Process is an effective technique that helps the helper to move out of the flight or fight reaction and back into their higher thinking which promotes a sense of inner peace and well-being.

I find it to be ironic that many helping professionals work so diligently to reduce the stigma around maintaining mental health, yet they may be falling prey to the same faulty thinking when it comes to their own welfare. It is long overdue for us to normalize the concept that helpers are negatively affected by listening to trauma content stories while they control their empathic responses. As we work together to raise public awareness, we build a safe environment for our heroes to seek the relief they so greatly deserve. I thank Carol Tosone for her work and her dedication to the helping professions.