Barbara Kapetanakes, PsyD
239 North Broadway
Sleepy Hollow, NY


Communication Breakdown

by Barbara Kapetanakes, PsyD. on 10/12/15

In 2010, a University of Michigan study led by the psychologist Sara Konrath put together the findings of 72 studies that were conducted over a 30-year period. They found a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students, with most of the decline taking place after 2000, as cell phones were becoming more and more popular.  People are studying cell phone use, especially among youngsters, more and more in an attempt to look at the impact that this technology has on our day to day lives. 

As much as I do use my cell phone regularly (for texts and calls, generally not email or internet), I do feel that if there is one invention of the past 50 years that we should eliminate, it's the cell phone.  Yes, it's very convenient for many reasons--a quick text that you're running late eliminates the confusion or worry we used to have when meeting someone who didn't show up on time.  Texting is silent and relatively inconspicuous and can be performed in a place where a call cannot be made.  Cell phones can make you feel safe when driving alone or otherwise find yourself in need of a phone to call a tow truck, a family member, or even emergency services.  But what was initially meant to be a tool to aid in quick communication has become an extension of who we are as people, where individuals cannot tolerate being away from their phones or letting the battery run down.  
I think the change began right after the September 11th attacks.  On that day cell phones became extremely valuable as passengers called loved ones to say goodbye before crashing into an open field, or reached out from the stairways of the World Trade Center (if their phones worked).  At the time, I worked in a school and we were put on lock-down.  We all tried desperately to reach out to loved ones we knew might have been affected by the attacks, and cell phone signals got jammed.  As I recall, my carrier refunded the charges for any calls made on that day, seeing them as emergent in nature and not counting them as part of the calling package (these were the days before unlimited anything).  
Prior to 9/11, most of us could not use our cell phones at work and kept them in a purse, pocket, or drawer, or even in our cars.  After that day, many workers used the argument of "what if we have another 9/11 and my family can't reach me.  I NEED to have my cell phone available to me."  This was especially true of classroom teachers and others who didn't have easy access to a phone, but with the growth of open floor plan offices, shared conference rooms, and the like, the cell phone at your side gave a feeling of security if you thought your loved ones could reach you. 
Since 2001 we have developed other technology such as texting, using the internet on the phone, sending pictures and videos, and group chats.  People so expect others to be available that it is not out of the ordinary for calls or texts to come in quick succession, as if letting someone know how badly you need to reach them will make them suddenly available.  There is no excuse anymore for not picking up a call or texting back immediately.  No one can leave a phone at home or in the car.  If you do, be prepared to come back to a barrage of texts and missed calls if someone is trying to reach you.  Most of my patients bring their cell phones into session, either because they are carried in a purse or simply out of habit.  I have one teen girl who often charges her phone during sessions, the buzz of her group chat distracting us from our conversation.  
We are starting to look at how the way we use this technology affects our ability to feel empathy for others.  Some studies have shown that when out face to face, people tend to limit their conversations to the more superficial when phones are present, such as on the dinner table or otherwise within the field of vision.  The threat that a phone may go off during conversation keeps us from getting into anything too "deep" for fear of being interrupted.  This is not as true when cell phones are not present.  I am not sure when it became acceptable to have personal communication devices out on the dinner table, but this is more common than seeing them all put away before sitting down to enjoy time together.  When someone removes himself from conversation to respond to a cell phone it makes the people he's with feel that they are not important enough for attention to be paid.   For adults, we can learn how to use technology and go back to the "old fashioned" way of doing things, but for children, this is all they know.  Parents texting during their soccer games or during dinner, peers communicating through cell phones and text, never the home phone where they may have to speak to a parent or sibling and ask to speak to their friends, and entire conversations conducted through text message while doing five other things.  I'm curious to see what further studies reveal about how we interact with each other and how much more our ability to empathize with our peers is affected.  

A Blow to the Head

by Barbara Kapetanakes, PsyD. on 09/21/15

In light of the recent reports regarding NFL players' autopsies, a report that indicates that virtually all those in the study showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, it seemed timely to write about concussions.  

As we learn more and more about the workings of the brain, we are learning more and more about what even minor damage can do, and how to deal with accidents when they occur.  My hope is that we will continue to study this important issue and continue to make sports and other activities safer.  

Rather than write an entire blog on the subject, you are welcome to read my current article on the subject.  

Man and His Symbols

by Barbara Kapetanakes, PsyD. on 06/23/15

I belong to a few therapy list serves.  Mostly we post things on there when we're looking to make a referral, for help with a difficult issue, looking for office space, etc.  Sometimes people post interesting articles, or let us know that a workshop or presentation is coming up.  

On occasion, someone writes how they feel about a current event, how it may relate to psychology/sociology, or how it is affecting them and their work.  

I responded this morning to a thread regarding the Confederate flag and the recent events in South Carolina.  Because I have gotten a lot of positive feedback from members of the group, I wanted to share it here.  Food for thought:

We must remember history or we're doomed to repeat it.....but making black people live with a confederate flag here, there, and everywhere is like putting a swasticja in NY and telling the Jews it's just part of history.   The comparison I always make is that I've been to Munich, there's no statue of Hitler in the square, no Nazi flags, but I've also been to the south, I've driven across the country through the south, been to Charleston, Savannah, etc.....and everywhere you look there's a commemoration of the Confederacy.  Savannah, for example, has squares every few blocks that act as traffic rotaries.  They all have monuments to the confederate generals and leaders.  The fact that the south committed treason and seceded and fought the government is conveniently forgotten.  The fact that they did that to preserve the right to buy and sell human beings is forgotten.  Black people walk through these squares and sit on benches by monuments that commemorate those who lynched their grandfathers. Talk about microaggressions.  

Savannah is considered the most haunted city.  They capitalize on that and do zombie tours and the like.  Lots of spooky stories and bizarre deaths etc.  But the sad corollary to that is it's considered so haunted because it's built on dead bodies.  Literally any time the utilities have to dig, or someone builds a home, they find bones.....because of all the slave ships that landed in Savannah with dead and dying slaves whose bodies were simply thrown into the ground and forgotten about.  I was told on my tour that virtually everywhere you walk in Savannah you're walking on sidewalks that are built over bones.  

Remember, yes....glorify, no.  We have so many Jewish colleagues as professionals in NY.....would any of us put a Nazi flag up and expect them to feel comfortable driving past our house?  I doubt it.  Why should anyone be allowed to fly the stars and bars or put it on a t shirt or condone its existence by putting it up at the State House, officially there with the U.S. and SC flags?  It belongs in a museum and should have been banned in 1865.  It shouldn't take 150 years to do this.  

How Far Should a Mother Go?

by Barbara Kapetanakes, PsyD. on 04/30/15

Much has been said in recent days about the mother caught on video in Baltimore, grabbing her son, smacking him in the head, and yelling at him when she caught him protesting and throwing rocks at police officers.  Some people have called her a "hero."  A few have said that what she did was abusive.  Some called her a bad mother for not being able to keep her son from protesting--she should have known where he was at all times. The New York Post put them on the cover with the caption, "Forget the National Guard, Bring in the Moms."  

I have no idea if she is a good mother or not.  I have no idea if she smacks her kid around on a regular basis and should be reported for abuse.  I have no idea if she's attentive or neglectful.  What I do know is that at that moment she was a mother afraid for her child.  Much like the parent who spanks her toddler who wanders in the street, even though she thought she would never spank him, this mother saw her child going down a dangerous road.  She stated outright that she didn't want him to end up dead like the person who was killed in police custody, prompting the protests and riots (Freddie Gray).  She knew or wanted to believe that she had raised him better than this (again, we don't know the history, so I'll assume she's done her best to raise him better than this) and when she saw him joining in with those who were throwing rocks at police, not only being disrespectful, but putting themselves in grave danger, my guess is that she panicked.  

Did she do the right thing?  Who knows.  She did get her son into the house where he would be safe.  Should she have known where he was and what he was doing?   He's a teenager--we all pulled the wool over our parents' eyes at that time in our lives.  Usually it was just childish mischief and not being where we said we'd be, but sometimes the consequences are deadly because the teenager makes a stupid, split-second decision that changes everything, such as getting into a car with a drunk peer or throwing rocks at a police officer. Assaulting a police officer can get you killed.  Mom knew that and freaked out when she saw her son involved in such behavior.  

I understand the rage, confusion, and frustration in these communities.  I may not agree with throwing things at police or rioting in the streets, but I can understand the human desire to act out what you feel.  Our poor, often minority, communities are feeling the rumble of many years of inequality, unrest, and fear.  Two wrongs don't make a right, and throwing rocks at people will surely get you into more trouble than peacefully protesting.  I can also understand the fear and anger of a mother who sees her son doing something extremely dangerous and simply reacts without thinking.  There have been stories of mothers lifting cars or other heavy objects off their children because the rush of adrenaline gave them superhuman strength.  A good mother protects her child, even if she's caught on tape looking like a lunatic in the process (although most people excused her behavior as a necessary reaction under the circumstances). We are human and our emotions sometimes get the better of us.  Like the parent who spanks that toddler for running into traffic, parents of teenagers often feel they are dealing with toddlers again--albeit with more language, louder music, and often, bigger risks.  Bravo to those who get out there and parent, even when it's not easy.  

On Hard Work and Achievement

by Barbara Kapetanakes, PsyD. on 04/21/15

I remember when I was first studying psychology in college we talked about how people have different needs, including a need for affiliation, a need for power, and a need for achievement.  I recall that the need for achievement was the one that spoke to me.  I never felt a need for power, despite ultimately being VP and then President of the Graduate Students Association, and then serving five years as president of my county's professional organization later on.  I enjoyed serving on these boards and being involved in my profession, but was certainly not seduced by power to climb higher and throw my weight around. 

And while I love and value my relationships with others, as an only child who is often a loner, the need for affiliation didn't speak to me.  I know I need people in my life, and I have some dear friends who have been there for me for decades who I love very much, but I value my alone time and have never been one to strive for being the life of the party or ask a friend to tag along while I run errands.  

It was that need for achievement that has always hit home for me.  I was a bright kid who learned to read on my own and did well in school.  My family didn't have a ton of financial resources, and I'm proud of my public college (CUNY) Bachelor's degree and always saw the value in paying for most of my own education, striving to reach that goal even if and when it wasn't easy.  In my adult life I have pursued and obtained two post-doctoral degrees and set up what I consider a successful career in that my colleagues respect me, and I often hear that my reputation precedes me.  Mine is not a household name, but when a colleague refers her own relative or friend to me, it warms my heart.  I have achieved what I set out to achieve.  I am not famous, but my work is respected, and that, to me, is a worthy achievement.  

I just came back from a weekend in Las Vegas, where I went to see the FEI Jumping and Dressage competitions.  For those who don't know, these are international equestrian competitions, the top riders in the world, on the most incredible horses worth millions of dollars.  The horses jump fences of five feet or even higher, or engage in the dance of Dressage with their riders, moving their hooves in beat with the music and performing dozens of intricate movements that should not be possible from such huge animals.  It was an adrenaline ride for sure, to see up close the riders and horses I've read about in magazines.  Akin to watching Babe Ruth hit a home run.  

I have a visceral reaction watching things like this--Olympics (in which many of these riders have performed in the past), Super Bowls, the final World Series game, the person finishing their degree, the performer winning that Oscar or Grammy.  The team wins, and I get choked up.  I don't get choked up like that watching romantic movies (that would be that need for affiliation) nor do I long for absolute power, but when a rider and horse jump a clean round (no rails knocked down), or scores a full ten points higher than her nearest competitor in Dressage and the crowd goes wild, the throat closes, the tears well up, and I feel I suppose a fraction of the pride that that winner does.  And for those who have a disappointing experience, I choke up as well, thinking about all it took to get to this place, all the training and hard work, to go home disappointed, but yet also certainly feeling accomplished to have competed at such a high level and ready to do it again.    

I will never jump five feet on a horse, I'm barely brave enough to jump 12 inches.  I will never ride a million dollar horse, although school horses at lesson barns are worth at least that in their kindness, ability to teach us amateur riders, and forgiving nature when we do something wrong and they do their jobs anyway.  When I do accomplish something on Dozer, my favorite old school horse who loves to be playful and silly and enjoys his job tremendously, maybe I feel fraction of the elation that the riders this weekend felt.  What a rush it must have been to come from all over the world to compete with the top of the top.  You have to wonder how high that need for achievement is in Olympic athletes, record breakers, Super Bowl winners....exponentially higher than it is in most of us, I'm sure.  But we love to watch, because we love to live vicariously through them, wondering what it must feel like to stand in the winners' circle, get that medal or trophy, or take that victory gallop.  As I rode this morning, and my buddy Dozer was behaving well and enjoying his job, and I was trying to channel the riders I had watched all weekend, I felt good.  My goals as a rider are to improve my skills, strengthen my muscles, and have fun.  Achieving those goals and having a good ride feels good.  Even though I'll never win a trophy.   

During one competition, a rider was waiting for her scores, and her horse, as if he knew we were there to see him, raised his head and looked out into the crowd, and I swear he smiled.  The crowd laughed at his facial expression, some of us assuming he had seen himself on the Jumbotron, and attributing some anthropomorphized emotion to his reaction.  Either way, we wanted to believe that this million dollar equine felt proud of himself and enjoyed the adoration and cheers he was getting from us.  We wanted to share in that achievement and the pride he and his rider may have felt.  For most of us in the audience, it was as close as we would ever come to such a rush.  And what a rush it was.