Ask Dr. Mike: October 2012

This month’s questions range from dealing with death and fear to the advantage of local support groups.

What’s Up with the Loudoun Gamer’s Union?

Dr. Mike,

What are your thoughts on the Asperger’s teen support group, Loudoun Gamer’s Union? The group meets monthly at the Rust Library in Leesburg. I was told by the librarian who runs it that the group promotes gaming for teens while the parents meet separately in another room with her. As a mother of a teen with Asperger’s, I am always open to new social possibilities, but am reluctant to try this one for a few reasons. First, my son games plenty enough and I don’t see how the meeting is therapeutic. Second, I was told that there is no formal guidance for the teens. Third, what in the heck does a librarian know about Asperger’s and what would we as parents speak to her about? Why would our local public library even sponsor or endorse something like this given all the possible liabilities?

A in Loudoun County



I support the group in general, but I understand and appreciate your concerns and will address them in full. The Gamer’s Union, which is hosted by the Rust Library in Leesburg, is not a treatment group. Rather, the purpose of the group is for teens with Asperger’s Disorder to meet and to have fun doing what most teens like to do … play video games. Lack of socialization is a key feature to Asperger’s Disorder, so creating a forum for these teens to get together is really a great thing and therapeutic in my opinion. The group is also advertised as being a networking opportunity for the parents of teens with Asperger’s Disorder, which is also a good thing. I think your concerns regarding supervision and guidance are valid, and I too have concerns. More specifically, the library advertises that the group is for anyone between the ages of 12 years and 21 years. That is a huge age spread for a non-structured or loosely supervised social function for individuals on the autistic spectrum. Young and middle teens with Asperger’s are in a much different place developmentally than individuals in their late teens or early twenties. I do not know about the librarian’s knowledge base on Asperger’s, however, he/she is not purporting to be a pediatrician or child psychologist. I gather that his/her role then is to facilitate dialogue in support of parents. I would certainly hope that he/she is not there to give specific advice, referrals or recommendations to parents. Lastly, to your point on liability, I suppose if something bad were to happen to a minor with Asperger’s attending the group, the library, and Loudoun County for that matter, could possibly be held responsible. I think you should have an open mind. Why not attend the group with your son with the sole expectation to meet others and to have fun. If your son enjoys himself, and you feel comfortable as a parent, perhaps it can become a regular outing for the two of you. For more information about the Gamer’s Union, call the library at 703-777-0323 or visit the website at www.library.loudoun.gov.


Helping Children Deal with Death

Dr. Mike,

My father has a terminal illness, and his doctors claim that he has “weeks to months” to live. Our 3-year-old daughter is very close to her grandfather, but my husband and I are struggling with how to let her know that her grandfather is dying. My husband thinks we should start preparing her now, but I am inclined to wait awhile longer. I also think that I have not yet come to terms with the pending loss of my father, which is why I am delaying the news to our daughter. We are Christians, and perhaps this is the right time to introduce the idea of Heaven to her. The situation is just very sad for us as a family. Your thoughts are appreciated.

E in Loudoun County



The loss of a parent is one of the most significant losses to face, so please take care of yourself as your situation unfolds. Whether that’s speaking to your husband, family members, friends or a therapist, your focus should be on you first as you prepare for your father’s passing. While you cannot protect your child from the death of her grandfather, you and your husband can and should address the topic with care. Toddlers in general lack the notion of death being inevitable, irreversible or permanent. Developmentally, at 3, your youngest child likely has a rudimentary understanding of death vis-à-vis the fairy tales or stories she knows or actual experiences she may have had with a pet, insect or flower. Given your situation, I recommend you start out with a conversation on illness with your daughter. The point being that grandfather is very ill and that bodies slow down when they get old. Discussing the topic of your father’s serious illness is a respectful way to prepare your daughter for his passing. As long as your father is healthy enough to have visitors, I think your daughter should spend as much time as possible with him before he passes. Of course you will need to consider your father’s health and needs, but your daughter’s visits will also help her begin to understand the seriousness of his illness and the nearing end. I would also encourage you to read a few age-appropriate books on the topic to your daughter. The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages by Leo Buscaglia is an excellent book on loss for children of all ages. What’s Heaven? By Maria Shriver is also a good book for your situation. I think you should have the specific conversation of death soon after your father passes. The conversation should be both loving and brief. At 3, your child could react to the news in a number of ways – she could become sad, tearful, clingy and increasingly dependent. She could have a meltdown or become silly and aloof and immediately distance herself from the topic or reality. At 3, death and heaven are demanding topics to grasp, so you and your husband will just need to supportively follow your daughter’s lead as she grieves her grandfather. 

As a mother who is close to losing her father, I would like to share a very moving excerpt from Judith Viorst’s book, Necessary Losses:

When we think of loss we think of the loss, through death, of people we love. But loss is a far more encompassing theme in our life. For we lose not only through death, but also by leaving and being left, by changing and letting go and moving on. And our losses include not only our separations and departures from those we love, but our conscious and unconscious losses of romantic dreams, impossible expectations, illusions of freedom and power, illusions of safely – and the loss of our own younger self, the self that thought it would always be unwrinkled, invulnerable and immortal.

Somewhat wrinkled, highly vulnerable and non-negotiably mortal, I have been examining these losses. These lifelong losses. These necessary losses. These losses we confront when we are confronted by the inescapable fact …

That our mother is going to leave us, and we will leave her;

That our mother’s love can never be ours alone;

That what hurts us cannot always be kissed and made better;

That we are essentially out here on our own;

That we will have to accept-in other people and ourselves, the mingling of love with hate, of the good with the bad;

That our options are constricted by anatomy and guilt;

That there are flaws in every human connection;

That our status on this planet is implacably impermanent;

And that we are utterly powerless to offer ourselves or those we love protection – protection from danger and pain, from the inroads of time, from coming of age, from coming of death;

Protection from our necessary losses.

These are a part of life-universal, unavailable, inexorable. And these losses are necessary because we grow by losing and leaving and letting go.

For the road to human development is paved with renunciation. Throughout our life we grow by giving up. We give up some of our deepest attachments to others. We give up certain cherished parts of ourselves. We must conform, in the dreams we dream, as well as in our intimate relationships, all that we never will have and never will be. Passionate investment leaves us vulnerable to loss. And sometimes, no matter how clever we are, we must lose.


Vacation Without the Kids?

Dr. Mike,

My husband and I are planning a trip to the Caribbean together right before Thanksgiving. I am thrilled to finally have some time alone with him for an extended weekend in paradise, but he is only half thrilled. We have two boys under 5, and he doesn’t think we should take trips without them, given their young ages and so close to the holidays. I see the trip as a much needed get away for us as a couple, and he sees it as something he is doing for me, and with great trepidation. My parents were also looking forward to spending time with our boys, but maybe we shouldn’t go. Your advice is appreciated.

P in Loudoun County



I think you both need to have a serious talk, and I think you both need to really listen to each other during that talk as opposed to defending your positions. As a general rule, I think it is important and healthy for couples to spend time together and away from their children. By refueling as a couple, you will likely be refueled upon your return as parents. However, I think you need to better understand what is triggering your husband’s “trepidation.” How much of his discomfort with the trip has to do with your boys and their ages, the holidays or the status of your relationship as a married couple? I think you are also hurt by your husband’s attitude, and I think he needs to reassure you that he wants to spend time with you as his wife. Your husband may also need plenty of reassurance – that your boys will have an adventure of their own with their grandmother and grandfather, that the grandparents will cherish their special time with your boys, that it is only an extended weekend, and that you as a couple deserve a fun weekend to celebrate and enjoy each other! Another option could be to look for a hotel that offers babysitting services. This will allow your husband to spend quality time with his children, while also allowing time for you to be alone as a couple.


Halloween, Fear and the 3-year-old

Dr. Mike,

My husband and I have a very sensitive 3-year-old boy, and while Halloween is a fun time of year for our older kids, it is freaking out our youngest. We thought he’d get into the costumes and the event this year at 3, but even hearing his much older siblings plan out their costumes frightens him to the point of tears and meltdowns. We can’t really protect him from every monster or ghoul that he might encounter on Halloween, but we also don’t want to make his anxiety worse by pushing him too hard. We could use some advice.

V in Loudoun County



It is not uncommon for a 3-year-old to experience uneasiness or fear in this way. Why just the other day I was at the Home Depot with my nearly 3-year-old son, who was startled and became tearful in response to a mechanized life size witch. We ended up walking by that witch a few times while shopping, and by the time we were checking out, he asked to go back and push the button himself to make it howl and storm. He laughed and laughed in response. The point here being that gradual exposure to the fear served to slowly extinguish its hold on my boy. In fact, with exposure to the witch, he began to gain as sense of control and eventually mastery over the problem. I recommend a similar approach for your son where you slowly expose him to the idea of Halloween and all its joys. You might consider having him help you pick out pumpkins and carve some faces together. You might watch some age appropriate fun cartoons on Halloween together – e.g., It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown – or read some fun books on the topic together – e.g., The Big Pumpkin. You could also ask your son’s friends and their parents about their Halloween plans and costumes when socializing. Maybe you could get your older children on board to wear only fun and/or happy costumes and not scary ones this year in support of their younger brother’s fears. Hosting a Halloween party or gathering for your youngest son and his friends on Halloween afternoon or early evening may prove to be a fun way to help your son feel secure with the event while your older children trick-or-treat. Keep in mind that your son has plenty of time to address and manage his fears. By gradually exposing him to his worries and fears now, and by his experiencing and re-experiencing his competency in those moments, I am hopeful that your son will be ready for a great Halloween this year!

Phyllis Casey October 01, 2012 at 12:42 PM
Good advice. My hesitant three year old dressed in his own overalls with seed packets tucked into the bib pocket and a straw hat. He carried a toy rake. He was quite happy collecting candy as a farmer! His dislike was the masks. The next year be choose to be C3PO, mask and all!
Cheryl F. Bragg, Ph.D. October 09, 2012 at 04:19 PM
Hi. Just a quick response to the concerned parent regarding the Gamer's Union. This Group was started to offer a social opportunity for teens who like to play video games. The parents are present, should their child start to feel uncomfortable. There is a Library Aide who is present, who is a special education teacher within Loudoun County public schools. It is not a Therapy Group. It is an offering to the community - for those children who are comfortable enough to mix and engage with others and for parents who would also like the opportunity to meet other parents. I began this Group with the Loudoun County Public Library - who generously have devoted time and energy and resources to this effort for the past two+ years - with the hope that it could provide an opportunity for possible friendship-building. I stayed with it until I felt confident that the library could carry it forth without my direct involvement, and I give big kudos to them for maintaining the program, and expanding their efforts with a reading group for children with autism. Most Respectfully, Cheryl F. Bragg, Ph.D., Child Psychologist


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