What Boys Need

Today, Thursday October 19, 2017, is Purple Thursday- an awareness-raising designation that urges people to wear purple to shine light on the epidemic of domestic violence. I’m wearing purple to work, as are my coworkers, and we will share some impact stories on social media to bring attention to the intimate partner violence that occurs right here in our own backyards.

Earlier this week I attended the Domestic Violence Awareness Symposium at Cabrini University, which was an especially poignant event this year as they launch the Center for Children of Trauma and Domestic Violence. The event featured, first, a discussion with Janine Rajauski, the sister of Nicole Peppelman. Nicole was murdered by her abuser two months after their divorce in 2015, and Janine shared stories of the early warning signs, Nicole’s many attempts to leave, the family’s feelings of helplessness, the substantial police involvement, and Nicole’s ultimate death at the hands of her ex-husband.

The latter half of the program consisted of a panel presentation delivered by local domestic violence professionals, a counseling center lead, and the head of a foundation started by a father after his daughter was murdered by her ex-boyfriend.

As a professional who works almost exclusively with women, I have heard hundreds of stories of the systematic and debilitating abuse that women suffer- which spans the scope of verbal, financial, emotional, physical and sexual abuse- and I’ve learned a lot about how to help women identify the early signs, create plans to exit safely, and identify community resources to help rebuild their lives.

Of course, this is only possible if they are not dead.

Social service agencies are scrambling to meet the needs of women seeking refuge from the abuse that has often whittled their lives down to nothing and their self-esteem to even less.

But as we discussed at the Symposium the ways to help women avoid or survive this abuse, I became increasingly restless and agitated. Instead of asking how we can keep women safe, I thought, why aren’t we asking how we can keep men from abusing?

Then, literally, a voice spoke. It was the voice of John Jordan, who, with his wife Barbara, has dedicated his life to ending domestic violence.

“Considering that 99% of rapes are perpetrated by men and 95% of domestic violence is perpetrated by men, we must insist that domestic violence and sexual assault are not women’s issues: they are MEN’S issues,” John articulated from the panel. He then addressed the male students in the room- less than 10% of the audience, by my visual estimation- and made an appeal to them to stay involved in these issues, to call out violence or disrespectful attitudes toward women when they witness them, to abolish “locker room talk” and to bring male friends with them to next year’s symposium to increase the activism by men against domestic violence.

After the symposium, coworkers and I rehashed, and agonized over this big question: How do we eliminate domestic violence in our culture?

The risk factors for perpetrators of domestic violence are of a depth and breadth that is astounding. We know that witnessing violence, having mental illness, abusing substances, having negative attitudes toward women, experiencing poor parenting and having low self-esteem are all correlated with abuse perpetration (cdc.gov).

The protective factors are less clear.

There is a promising technical packet published by the Centers for Disease Control on Preventing Intimate Partner Violence Across the Lifespan (interestingly it was developed by seven graduate-level professionals; all women). This packet has broad and applicable implications for public health interventions administered through various contexts across the lifespan to reduce or prevent domestic violence.

But for the sake of providing my readers with a glimmer of hope and a useful take-away, I will posit that after reviewing the recent literature, working with victims of domestic violence throughout my career, and in my experience as a parent to a boy and as a former preschool teacher, the most impactful thing you- yes, you!!!- can do to prevent domestic violence is to teach boys empathy.

Teach. Boys. Empathy.

According to research published by Christov-Moore et al in 2014 (Empathy: Gender effects in brain and behavior, Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, Vol 46, Part 4, October 2014, 604-627), there is some evidence to support a difference in the capacity for empathy between men and women- men have a lower capacity for empathy. What remains to be seen is how big the difference is and how much of it has been programmed throughout evolutionary process based on social/cultural “training,” but the  biological constructs for empathy modern men are fundamentally different from women.

To me, origin almost doesn’t matter. Nature vs. Nurture almost doesn’t matter.

What matters it that we know too much violence exists in American culture, and the vast majority of ti is perpetrated by men.

Men who were once boys.

As a professional who has worked exclusively with girls’ and women’s issues for over a decade, I know a lot about what girls need to thrive and I know what resources are available to them.

While boys and men may have privileges and access that girls and women don’t, particularly in the professional and financial spheres, I see very little evidence that men are “doing well.”  To me, this epidemic of male-initiated violence shows us that boys and men aren’t getting what they actually need to thrive.

The issue is far more complex than “cultural expectations” or “media messages,” but I think those examples point to the primary source of this violence.

Boys are allowed to be “boys,” but they’re not allowed to be fully themselves.

This restrictive, oppressive environment generates grown men who feel like caged animals.

Research points to a lack of empathy as one risk factor in perpetrating violence, and boys can’t consistently develop such empathy if their needs, emotions and reactions are stifled and shut down.

My inclination is to posit that to reduce male violence against women, we need to raise boys as fully-developed humans, capable of anything, permitted to express themselves, and expected to respect other life. We need to have empathy for boys and foster empathy in boys.

These attempts have to be inclusive, comprehensive, and relentless, because our boys are up against generations of harmful messaging and our men need recovery from this part of their experience.

Domestic violence and sexual assault have long been on my radar as women’s issues, and I’m understanding more and more that boys and men need a different approach if we are ever to see this epidemic wane.

I’m hosting a community roundtable discussion on November 21st in Havertown, and I hope you’ll join me. I will share the details and registration momentarily.

Please help us heal this world. We need you in the room for this.

Thank you.








Endorphins 101: Sunlight, Sex and Exercise

If you are one of the 4-6% of Americans who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, or one of the 10-20% with mild S.A.D. (American Academy of Family Physicians), you already know that October can be a scary time.

Whether or not you’ve ever received a diagnosis of S.A.D., chances are you’ve felt a touch of the “winter blues” before and are aware of some changes in your mood and energy. As the hours of sunlight decrease and temperatures drop, many people begin to experience some malaise, sleepiness, carbohydrate cravings and other symptoms of depression. For those who live in Northern latitudes, rates of S.A.D. are significantly higher (Rosen et. al., Psychiatry Research, Vol 31, Iss 2, February 1990).

As I write this from the Philadelphia suburbs on the precipice of true fall weather, a mild sense of dread overcomes me. I already miss days in the ocean, paddle boarding at Marsh Creek, and cooking out with friends. Winter changes our lifestyle, and those feel-good pursuits seem so far away once we’ve packed up the flip-flops for the season.

The good news is, while our lifestyle may change for the winter months, we still have plenty of opportunities to generate those summer feelings year-round.

Endorphins- a group of hormones that act as neurotransmitters, sending signals in the brain- are a key factor in maintaining feelings of happiness and calm. The body is complex, as is the psyche, and there is no “magic bullet” for happiness. But if you create a winter routine that incorporates endorphin-boosting activities, and pair that with solid nutrition and good rest, you will fare much better.

The best part? Endorphins are free, don’t require a prescription, and you don’t even need health insurance to access them.

Below are three ways to boost your endorphins this winter:

  1. Sunlight. While the optimal amount of sun exposure varies by region, skin type and other factors, research points to many benefits of daily sunlight, including decreased susceptibility to disease and stronger bones (Mead, Environ Health Perspectives. 2008 Apr; 116(4): A160–A167). Hours of daily winter sunlight are minimal in our region. It becomes more difficult- and more critical- to get some daily exposure to the sun. A mid-day walk is probably your best bet if you work, because the sun may not even be out before you go to work or when you get home. On the weekends, consider a hike, some gardening or winter yard work, a nature walk with friends, or a stroll around the neighborhood with your dog. Light therapy lamps are another option, and have shown significant impact on symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, but please discuss with your physician first. Light therapy lamps can be dangerous for people with bipolar disorder and people taking certain medications, and may have contraindications.
  2. Sex. Consensual sex in a safe context can trigger a flood of endorphins and other internal chemicals that create feelings of calm, happiness and bliss. Truth, though: Mid-winter, most people feel less than sexy. It can be tough to work up “the mood” when you’re cold, run-down and sleepy. I propose that you consider sex (or self-love  ) an integral part of your self-care plan, and commit to it with the discipline you’d apply to your work out schedule, your bill-paying routine or your grocery shopping. No one wants to feel like sex is a chore, but like so many things that are good for us, sometimes we just have to plan for it to make it happen. Have you ever felt like you were “not in the mood” to workout, but worked out anyway? And did you ever regret that you did?
  3. Exercise. Exercise can reduce stress, improve sleep, and increase immune function, much of which can be attributed to endorphins. If you get winter aches and pains, exercise is one of your best bets to combat them, as the benefits of increased mobility paired with the pain-relieving properties of endorphins can make you feel like a new person. You might be rolling your eyes right now, as so many sources spout exercise as a panacea for what ails you, and you’re still trying to figure out, “When can I fit it in?!” I have to be honest: I struggle with that daily. We get a lot of advice to create a routine, to get to bed earlier, to schedule it in as a commitment, but when life happens (and when that life happens to include a child and a full-time job), it is quite literally not the most urgent priority. What works for me right now is wearing a FitBit and aiming for more than 10,000 steps daily. This means lots of funny-looking bursts of walking in circles around my office during the day, and it means walking to the bank at my lunch break, or going downstairs to talk to a coworker. It is hard to fit it in. But I feel the difference, and I have to encourage you to try your hardest to make a plan that works for you. Because exercise is just that good for us. (*Caveat: There is such thing as too much of a good thing, and as a former eating disorder professional I can attest to the dangers of over-exercise. How do you know when enough is enough? If you’re in regular pain from exercise, if you prioritize exercise over work or family commitments, if loved ones have expressed concern or if you “freak out” when your exercise routine is interrupted or derailed, it may be time to talk to a professional. Please be safe.)

If you want to incorporate more mood-boosting habits, you might also consider meditation, massage, hearty laughter, sniffing vanilla and savoring a piece of dark chocolate.

You’re welcome.



Me Time: Self Care Beyond the Bubble Bath

Recently, in a desperate craving for some semblance of peace and normalcy amidst a particularly chaotic September,  I signed up for a “self-care” email series.

When the first email arrived, suggesting readers take more bubble baths with scented epsom salt, my jaw dropped, and my heart did a bit, too.

Scented epsom salt baths are lovely, as a form of relaxation and pampering.

But for a self-care proponent to suggest, as a first level intervention, something as simplistic as a warm bath seems almost irresponsible. Allow me to explain.

For generations, women’s magazines and self-help books have presented bubble baths as the epitome of home-based self-care. A “mini spa retreat” with scented products and 20 minutes of peace and quiet is proposed as an, “easy and inexpensive!” way to practice self care.

In reality, this type of pampering or relaxation barely scratches the surface of a truly effective self care approach. A full-blown spa day barely scratches the surface.

Pampering and relaxation are a component of self-care, but I would argue that they are the least important parts. Pampering may be the icing on the cake of a self-care approach, but no amount of pampering in the world will make someone who is stressed and dissatisfied with life feel content.

In psychological research, self-care is often researched from the lens of preventing provider burnout- “healer heal thyself.” Doctoral students and clinicians are reminded to incorporate practices that keep them feeling stable and healthy while providing care to others. These suggestions often include some of the relaxation and pampering interventions I mentioned, but they go beyond that. The suggestions for clinicians include setting boundaries, managing one’s own health, disconnecting from work and other holistic interventions that go beyond the bubble bath.

There are implications for this truly integrated, systemic form of self care that everyone should understand.

Self-care, to me, is about being a steward of the life you were given. It means respecting and caring for your body, mind and soul, as if you were your own loving parent. Self-care includes building habits that create a life that makes you feel blessed.

Self-care to me, is:

-Choosing your own priorities

-Standing up for yourself

-Maintaining boundaries


-Eating nutritious foods

-Keeping your body active (active enough; but not over-exerting your body on a regular basis)

-Saying “no” when you mean no

-Aligning your resources with your values- spending your time, money and energy on the things that truly matter to you (so many “self-care” articles will urge you to buy things to “treat yourself.” This backfires in a big way if debt or financial instability are a concern for you.)

-Living within your means

-Speaking your truth and

-Maintaining your privacy

-Doing work you love

-Going to therapy

-Incorporating a spiritual practice

-Creating regularly

-Taking care of your living things (be they children, pets or plants)

-Resting. As often as you need to.


-Unapologetically claiming your life as your own, without the pressure of trying to please everyone

Please don’t read this and create a giant “to do” list for yourself. Instead, see it as a way to incorporate sustainable changes in your approach to how you care for yourself. From the suggestions above, if you were to select 2-3 to really commit to and focus on, you’d find yourself experiencing life in a different way.

Adult Children of Alcoholics, a 12-step program for adults who were raised in dysfunctional families, urges members to, “become your own loving parent.”

To me, that’s the crux of self-care.

Regard yourself as you regard those you love, and set your own health and wellness as a non-negotiable priority. Throw in a bubble bath here and there, and then come back and report on what’s working and where you’re stuck.

Thanks for reading!