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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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Silence is Not Golden

  
  
  
To develop strong family relationships, says Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, "Don't Bite Your Tongue"
family communication

In her recent book, "Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children," clinical psychologist and researcher Dr. Ruth Nemzoff offers parents what some may consider unusual advice.

As their children reach adulthood, parents are often advised that it's time to back off and let goto cut the apron strings and send their adult children out into the world to make their independent mark on the world.

Not so fast, cautions Nemzoff. She believes that many parents miss out on close and rewarding relationships with their adult children when they take this kind of advice too literally. In her clinical practice she regularly encounters parents who would love to have more intimacy with their adult children—as well as adult children who would love to have more intimacy with their parents.

"Not talking about what we care about is a sure way to create barriers," she says. "Forget trying to bite your tongue at all costs. Instead, use the skills you employ in other situations to communicate." After all, most of us have other close relationships in which we communicate successfully.

"Another problem with silence," points out Nemzoff, "is that it leaves the intended recipient of the communication with questions. Does your silence mean approval, disapproval, or just disinterest? Children "hear" or read into our silences because our body language, our actions, and our moods convey content-filled messages. Silence is not golden; it can lead to tension and misunderstanding."

Adult children will, of course, be relieved to know that Nemzoff is not suggesting that parents should run their children's lives. Her message is about intimacy and interest rather than interference. "The task is not to let go, but to figure out how to be available yet not controlling of each other's lives. We need to let our children know we are interested in their lives, and hopefully they will be interested in ours. Together parents and emerging adults need to craft a way of finding a balance between losing touch and smothering each other."

As Nemzoff explained to me In an interview, parents and adult children need good relationships with each other over the course of their entire lives. And while parents do "let go" in some ways, "it's all about gradually learning how to stay connected in each stage. As we get older, how do we live perfectly independent lives yet remain able to share the joys and the sorrowsthe frustrations of life?"

How indeed? Fortunately, Nemzoff has plenty of well-researched advice to offer on that topic. Don't Bite Your Tongue promises to be an intergenerational classic with a rightful place on every bookshelf. In fact, many parents may want to discuss it around the dinner table long before their children reach adulthood.

It's No Party but I'll Cry if I Want To

  
  
  
You should cry too, if it happens to you . . .
is crying beneficial

We know the drill. Big girls don't cry; boys—big or little—don't cry at all.

But don't they really? And why shouldn't they? Even though we've all felt the need to cry at one time or another it can be too easy to disparage someone else's need to cry. We may forget those experiences of our own which have prompted such a need, or deny someone else's need on the basis that we've survived our own drama—and after all, how could theirs be worse?

Why do stigmas attached to the act of crying persist? Why do some people avoid this display of emotion at all costs, even if an event justifies a crying response?

Sadly, some people can't cry because of physical restrictions imposed by diseases such as emphysema. But others restrain themselves for social reasons. Perhaps they are uncomfortable with expressing their emotions, especially in the presence of others. However, researchers writing in December's issue of the APS journal Current Directions in Psychological Science suggest that it is precisely in the presence of supportive others that crying is most beneficial. 

"Crying behavior punctuates the lifecourse," begins psychologist Jonathan Rottenberg and his colleagues, "from our start as helpless infants through adulthood, . . . tears can mark both our most important moments and the most mundane of events. A capacity to cry is part of being human." 

The researchers then ask the obvious question: "Is it important for our well-being?"  Acknowledging that some laboratory situations fail to uncover the benefits of crying while others have done so with certainty, the researchers set out to analyze the cause of the divergent results and to ascertain whether (and when) crying may indeed be beneficial.

In the process, they came up with two reasons why some studies fail to reproduce positive results: the imprecise timing of their measurements and failure to provide a social context within the studies.

Why do these factors matter so much? 

As crying episodes unfold, they begin with arousing effects (such as increased heart rate) but they also develop calming effects (such as slowed breathing). Depending on the timing of measurements, the distress and arousal effects could be more prominent than the calming effects—which actually last much longer than the arousing effects.

But according to Rottenberg and his associates, social context proved to be especially important in the final analysis. "Criers who received social support during their crying episode were more likely to report mood benefits than were criers who did not report receiving social support," they said. "Likewise, mood benefits were more likely when the precipitating events of a crying episode had been resolved than they were when events were unresolved."

Though these points may seem self-evident to anyone outside the laboratory who has cried on a friend's shoulder, unfortunately many past studies have failed to factor in any kind of social context.

Other factors that affect the benefits of a crying episode include individual personality traits as well as the affective state of the person crying.  For instance, the researchers found that patients with mood disorders or anxiety symptoms were less likely to reap the benefits of their crying episodes.

However, other studies have shown that people with mood disorders and anxiety symptoms do reap the benefits of social support.

Their conclusion? "Additional laboratory and field studies are needed to isolate specific features in the social environment that mediate psychological benefits, whether these are situational characteristics, physical comforting behaviors (such as an arm around one's shoulder), or other types of social support (such as verbal behaviors)."

Though most of us will wait with bated breath for the results of any studies to be done along these lines, anyone who has been on the receiving end of these support behaviors could probably already hazard a wild guess as to what will be found.

Chalk One Up for Technology

  
  
  
According to John Holt, the 60s and 70s education guru, children learn best when they're involved rather than sitting as mere observers. Are we there yet? 
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