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Gina Stepp has a master's degree in forensic psychology with an emphasis on trauma and resilience. As family and relationships editor for Vision, she examines the role interpersonal connection plays in ensuring human well-being.

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Parenting Challenges: Playing With a Full Deck

  
  
  


AceOfHearts1

When we as parents see unwanted behavior in children, one of our first unspoken reactions may be "How can I use my authority to stop this behavior?" But is the authority card always the most effective one in the parenting deck? 

Following on from that question, if parents don't play that card in a given instance, does it mean they're giving up their authority in an attempt to become their child's "best friend"?

The answer to both questions, of course, is no. There are many more than two alternatives available to parents. Sometimes there's no scepter on the most powerful trump card, and "heart cards" can often be our best friend without undermining our position as parent. In fact, we can opt to use the unique bond we form with our children to help them make a number of important adjustments in attitude and behavior even when—or perhaps especially when—it's clear that the authority card isn't working.

One of the most important things for parents to keep in mind is that kids pick up the attitudes and behaviors they see in us, and not only the good ones. To a great degree, you might say, we've dealt them their hand. Have they seen us pout, or even melt down, when we don't get our way? Do we express disrespect for other people, whether in our face-to-face interactions or behind a friend’s back when we're alone with our children?

If we stop to wonder why kids pick up our attitudes so easily, we might come to the conclusion that they admire us—that they want to be like us. But whether they admire us or not, they have a deep-seated need for our love and approval. If we don't express positive messages in equal measure to the negative feedback we tend to offer with excessive generosity, that missing dimension in their lives will have a detrimental effect on their ability to function in relationships and in society.

On the other hand, a child's intense need to bond with us can actually be our parenting ace in the hole. If we remember to give them positive attention and approval when their behavior is appropriate—or, in some cases, when it has simply improved (for instance, if the behavior we're trying to change was deeply entrenched)—we can help them make swift and permanent changes even in behavior that has resisted the most consistent use of our authority card.

Unfortunately, most of us tend to ignore behavior until we see something we don't like, and of course, by then it's too late in the game to have much hope of easily changing its course. 

What's a good winning strategy? Shape good behavior by identifying the positive behaviors you want to see, setting the stage for them with the right cues, and then responding quickly to reinforce positive behaviors as soon as you see them by offering the affection and approval your child craves. Appropriate punishment, used sparingly, has its place; but if punishment is your primary childrearing strategy, you're only playing with half the deck.

What if your child is an adolescent? Is it too late to change a reactive approach and begin laying the groundwork for better behavior? 

If the whole family commits to making some changes, it's almost never too late. But some families have become so entrenched in negative cycles of interaction that finding the way out can be very difficult. It's rarely enough to send the "problem child" to a boot camp for an attitude adjustment. While we're all responsible for our own behavior, we are also deeply affected by others in our relationship network. People within family systems don't just act, they interact; we decide which card to play based to some degree on what others have played. 

Authentic, long-term change requires that parents engage in some honest introspection, taking as keen an interest in their own behavior as they do in their teen's. Your adolescent may be playing badly, but he or she is not playing solitaire.

As a plethora of research tells us, the bond between parents and children from birth all the way through adolescence is crucial to their brain development and to the quality of their mental and physical health as they mature. Considering that our children are our legacy to the future, it's clear that this is a high-stakes game, and when we teach our children well, everyone wins. Parents, are you in? It's time to ante up.

 

 

Parenting the Challenging Child
Difficult. Headstrong. Stubborn. If any of these describe your child or teen, an innovative set of parenting ABCs can help toward solving the problem. 

I Do It Myself! Attachment, Autonomy and Resilience

  
  
  

individual autonomy

 

Parents who want to encourage good decision making in their children must also encourage one of the skill's important components: individual autonomy. But how? By pushing them to succeed in the supposed tradition of a "Tiger Mom?" By stepping back as a "Wise French Parent" might do to let their children "live their lives"? By shielding them from every possible hurt as some have characterized current American trends?

If anything, it seems the recent flurry of parenting books has clouded the question rather than clarifying it. Of course, you can't really blame the authors. To sell a book, authors have to convince publishers that they have something unique and important to offer, which means they need to stand out from the competition. They do this by emphasizing their differences—even exaggerating them if necessary. As readers identify with one author or another, friends and family can become polarized, especially if they cling to the conviction that one or another approach is the only "right" one. Views on parenting, in particular, can become very emotionally charged, which can create rifts in family relationships.

But let's consider parenting from a more fundamental perspective. Digging deeper than culture and opinion, what are the basic elements that the human brain needs to develop the capacity for autonomy and good decision making?

These capacities, say researchers, stem from secure attachment with early caregivers. Perhaps ironically, our ability to act responsibly and autonomously is rooted in the security of our relationship with someone who was attuned and responsive to our needs when we were utterly dependent.

Of course, there are genetic factors involved in our ability to develop these healthy skills. As UCLA researcher Daniel J. Siegel puts it in The Developing Mind, “Although it is important to be aware of the significant and very real contributions of genetic and constitutional factors to the outcome of development, it is equally crucial that we examine what in fact is known about how experience shapes development. Such a balanced view enables us as parents, for example, to have a sense of responsibility for the experiences we provide without the unnecessary burden of guilt generated by the belief that our actions are solely responsible for the outcome of our children’s development.”

If we're concerned enough about our success as parents to care whether we are tiger moms, French moms, American moms, or any other kind of mom (or dad, for that matter), we are likely to have cared for and responded to our children as infants. If we have slightly different parenting approaches, the common denominator would have to be that each child has the assurance of the parent's love, presence, and concern for their well-being, or these approaches wouldn't work.

This is not to say that variations in parenting approaches might not produce certain differences among our children, and we may perceive these differences as more or less preferable, depending on our culture. For instance, some cultures may encourage lesser or greater degrees of individual assertiveness or other traits. But as a baseline for mental health, we all need the ability to connect with other human beings and to form healthy relationships: a capacity that stems from secure attachment.

Even further, say researchers, there are certain core "competencies" that support lifelong psychological resilience and protect children from risky behavior. These include good decision-making skills, a positive sense of self, self-control, a moral system of belief, and outgoing concern and empathy for others (prosocial skills).

It's entirely conceivable that tiger moms, French mothers and granola moms alike want these skills for their children in abundance. Sure, it's interesting, even amusing, to ponder the cultural differences between us as we go about teaching these competencies to our children. But there are human needs that transcend culture. The need for secure attachment (which encompasses love, understanding, attunement and connection) is one of them: and it's as real as the need for food and water.

One Teenage Pregnancy Makes a Tragedy

  
  
  
Thousands only make a statistic
Teen Pregnancy

Teen pregnancy statistics can be very misleading and making sense of them is somewhat like assigning meaning to tea leaves: they can say almost whatever you want them to say.

For instance, common wisdom has it that America and Britain alone lead the developed world in teen birth rates and that Denmark is among the nations with the lowest rates. This leads people to conclude that whatever Denmark is doing to prevent teen pregnancy must be working, and whatever America and Britain are doing is not. But even that simple, widely accepted statistic begs further examination.

First there's the fact that ‘birth rates’ are not quite the same thing as ‘pregnancy rates.’ A nation may have high teenage pregnancy rates, but if offset by high abortion rates, the resulting low birth rate may give a false impression. Further clouding the issue, some countries prefer not to report abortion rates, and others can’t—because, for various reasons, they don’t know what they are. Incidentally, Japan actually has the lowest teen pregnancy rates, as well as very low abortion rates—less than half that of Denmark for both statistics. And Japan’s statistics are measured for all women under 20, not just ages 15-19 as most other nations report them.

Still considering the same oft-reported factoid, there are other questions that have a bearing on its usefulness. Particularly, what is teen pregnancy and why should it bother us? In the minds of most, discussions about this subject refer to teenage girls who are unmarried and pregnant. The concern arises across political and religious lines in part because single young mothers and their children are shown to be exposed to much higher risks of all sorts, whether mental, emotional, physical or economic. It isn't good for anyone when young, unmarried girls become young, unmarried mothers.

But—oddly enough—national statistics aren’t reported by marital status. Married teens are usually lumped in with single teens when birth rates are reported by age. This means that statistics may include a large percentage of 18 and 19-year-olds who are married and who, in some cultures, may be surrounded by extended family support—not subject to the same risks as single teens whose lives will be seriously impacted by the struggle to raise a child alone in harsh economic circumstances. As studies have consistently demonstrated, children with fathers as well as mothers have higher levels of well-being by almost all measures. Certainly even married teen parents may have a lot to learn, but in cultures where extended family is routinely present, this deficiency may be overcome more easily.

Then there is the term ‘developed world.’ In some reports, the word ‘Western’ is substituted for ‘developed,’ but both carry a certain amount of ambiguity. Does one consider New Zealand to be ‘developed’ even if not precisely ‘Western?’ If so, one also has to point out that it often beats out Britain for the second spot. As of 2006 figures (the latest compiled) the two nations are, in fact, neck and neck.

Of course, when ‘less developed’ (less-Western?) nations are included in the reckoning, the U.S. and U.K. come out looking clean-cut and freshly washed. The highest rates are found within Latin America and Africa, some of the countries reaching levels two, three and four times that of the U.S.

The conclusion must be that cold statistics say very little about how to address this issue. In fact, zooming in for a closer look at some of the real-life stories that make up these statistics may be the only way to gain real insight into changing them.

In the December 1964 issue of The American Statistician, Yale professor Colin White wrote, "There is so much truth in the remark of [British statistician] Major Greenwood: . . . The rich drama of birth, life and death becomes, in the hands of the statistical sociologist, a report on ‘marriages, babies dead, broken lives, men gone mad, labor and crime, all treated in bulk, with the tears wiped off.’”  

Especially insofar as teen pregnancy statistics are concerned, it is difficult to disagree with that sentiment. 


Can't Wait To Be a Soccer Mom?

  
  
  
Unfortunately, soccer isn't an important sport in Mississippi

There's not much to say on the subject of teen pregnancy today. Perhaps Jamie Lynn Spears says it best.  (Thanks goes to my 15-year-old daughter for bringing this article to my attention).

Of course, it's impossible not to feel compassion for the many less fortunate girls for whom such a mistake means a life very different from the one Jamie Lynn's daughter is likely to have. And it's just as difficult to pin down why young girls might romanticize motherhood as it is to pin down why young boys (or girls) might romanticize violence. But these are topics worthy of at least some thought. 

In the spirit of Jack Johnson, no blame is implied.

Taking Responsibility

  
  
  
America and Britain take steps to reduce teen pregnancy

The world's leaders in teen pregnancy statistics are not ignoring their considerable problems. This fact sheet from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy in the United States is posted in its entirety here. A crucially informative article, it is concerned with the important role parents can take in minimizing the risks on the individual family level.

"Overall closeness between parents and their children, shared activities, parental presence in the home, and parental caring, support, and concern are all associated with a reduced risk of early sex and teen pregnancy," says the NCPTP. "Teens who feel closely connected to their parents are more likely to abstain from sex, wait until they are older to begin having sex, have fewer sexual partners, and use contraception more consistently."

Britain, also among the nations with the highest rates of teen pregnancy, has undertaken a campaign to "halve the under-18 conception rate by 2010." While its Teenage Pregnancy Strategy doesn't say much about plans for parental involvement, it does call for the "active engagement of all of the key mainstream delivery partners who have a role in reducing teenage pregnancies: health, education, social services, youth support services, and the voluntary sector."

One can only assume they left out "parents and families" because their presence and involvement is taken for granted. 

Teen Suicide Clusters

  
  
  
Can the Internet be blamed?
Megan Soh

Yesterday the Telegraph reported two new teen suicides in the town of Bridgend, South Wales. Cousins Nathaniel Pritchard and Kelly Stephenson hanged themselves within a day of each other, the 15th and 16th in Bridgend's year-long cluster of self-hangings.

Despite speculations of suicide pacts or "cult" activity, authorities have been unable to find a traceable connection between the deaths. 

In the absence of another explanation for the rash of suicides among the area's teens, detectives offered the suggestion that popular social networking Web sites such as Bebo or Facebook might be responsible.

The Telegraph explains, "As well as the deaths during the last 12 months, several more have attempted suicide and police fear they are being driven by a desire to achieve prestige by having a memorial Web site set up in their name."

Would a happy teen really kill himself just to get a memorial page on Bebo? It seems unlikely.

"I think that to even imply that people kill themselves to get a death page is frankly pathetic, and its an outrageous insult," was one teen's comment to the Telegraph piece. "People don't kill themselves to get attention, they kill themselves because they honestly feel life is not going to get any better. I'm seventeen, I use social networking sites and I suffer bouts of depression. Getting a death page just isn't even tempting, its the welcome relief of not living that is." 

The teen concluded, "I'm afraid this news story will be seen as another example of how many older adults not only don't understand younger adults, but also underestimate them. This isn't going to make anyone at risk of suicide want to talk to someone who could actually help."

This teen's point is well taken. Presumably teens who are not already depressed and leaning toward suicide are not going to see glamour in a memorial page.

But if the problem isn't social networking sites alone, what is it?

According to Columbia University's Madelyn S. Gould, "Suicide contagion is not a new phenomenon. Evidence of suicide clusters and imitative deaths has been reported in accounts from ancient times through the twentieth century. Concern about suicide contagion has increased due to a number of highly publicized suicide outbreaks among teenagers and young adults in recent years and to new evidence that a significant number of suicides appear to be associated with suicide stories in the mass media."

Police and other public safety experts have long known that suicide rates tend to rise when famous suicides are highly publicized. They also recognize that those at highest risk for imitating suicide are those who have a record of previous suicide attempts, depression and highly-charged emotional states.

Because of the intense hormonal changes they undergo, it should not be surprising that teens may fall into one or more of these high-risk categories. What can parents do to minimize their child's risk?

First, make sure lines of communication are open. Teens should know their parents will listen to their feelings without ridiculing or minimizing them.

Learn to use the Internetit isn't likely to go away in the near future, and it is, after all, the most massive of the mass media. Parents need to know where their teens are getting their news and should ideally be able to discuss it with them.

If a teen knows how to build a page on a social networking site, there's no reason for a parent to be ignorant about how to visit that page. As veteran teacher Vicki Davis says, "We would never dream of going days at a time without speaking to our family. Well, children are speaking all of the time but adults who ignore their Internet presence are ignoring their children."  She also advises, "If your kids are on the Internet, you should be too. If your kids are on MySpace, get your own MySpace account and be added to their friends list. Is this invasion? No. Is it raising your kids? Yes."

Once upon a time, television used to take the blame for every evil that befell children. Now it's the Internet. Perhaps someday there will be a new medium for society to cast as the source of all sorrows. But what if the source actually lies elsewherein human nature, let's say. If that's the case, in every era, no matter what the popular medium, parents will always have a role to play in protecting their children.

Child Development: Are Babies Born with Morals?

  
  
  
If not, what can parents do to teach their children right from wrong?
Family and Relationships
Image courtesy Flickr.com

The UK's online Telegraph last week cited a new Yale study suggesting that babies as young as six months old can tell the difference between people who are likely to help them and people who are not. This prompted the author to ask, "Are babies born with morals?" 

If it seems a huge leap from "babies can tell who is likely to help them" to "babies are born with morals," it's only because it is rather. One has only to take a cursory look inside oneself to understand that our standards of right and wrong when it comes to how others treat us are much more intuitive than our standards of right and wrong when it comes to our treatment of others.

Unfortunately, it doesn't appear likely that this study means we can wind up our kids and let them loose into the world without any kind of guidance, and to be fair, I don't think that's what Roger Highfield meant to imply in the least. He merely intended it to spark conversation, and I am happy to take the bait. It offers the opportunity to ask another question while we're on the subject.  "What can parents do to instill a sense of right and wrong in their children?" 

While child development gurus have all kinds of advice to offer on the topic, parents who try to apply it all may find themselves and their children reeling from the contradictions and overstimulation.

Two books that get to the heart of the matter in straightforward, practical terms include Michael Gurion's Nurture the Nature and Michele Borba's Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues That Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing.

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