Our Teens Are More Stressed Than Ever: Why, and What Can You Do About It?

Every time a new disheartening statistic is released on teen mental health, I cringe. For the past seven years there’s been a downward trend in the state of their emotional well-being, and I’m waiting—hoping—for an upswing.

The American Psychological Association (APA) periodically surveys for stress in the American public, and since 2013, teens have reported higher levels of stress than adults. In the 2018 APA survey, teens reported worse mental health and higher levels of anxiety and depression than all other age groups.

These finding are consistent with other surveys, and I have yet to see data that counters that trend. A 2019 analysis by Jean Twenge, author of iGen and psychology professor at San Diego State University, showed that between 2005 and 2017, teens and young adults experienced a significant rise in serious psychological distress, major depression, and suicide. And a 2018 American College Health Association survey of more than 26,000 college students found that approximately 40-60% reported significant episodes of anxiety or depression during the year—an increase of about 10% from the same survey conducted in 2013.

 Why is there a steady increase in teen distress, when the period of adolescence (as developmental scientists have discovered) is not inherently characterized by “storm and stress?” Adolescence is a period of transformation, not mental illness. So what’s the problem—and what can we do about it?

The popular bogeyman

The most popular focus of blame for teen stress is social media. Is there a connection? On the one hand, it’s certainly obvious that teens (just like the rest of us) spend hours every day staring at screens. And, adolescents are especially sensitive to the social comparisons that result from seeing carefully curated, idealized bodies and lifestyles online. At a panel[i] I recently attended in Berkeley, CA, one eighteen-year-old woman said that she regretted losing so much time in her childhood to wishing that her body looked different. She had come to the conclusion that Instagram and Snapchat “encourage us to live from the outside in, instead of from the inside out.”

In the APA survey on teen stress, one third to one half of teen respondents reported that social media made them feel judged or bad about themselves. In her book iGen, Twenge analyzed large survey data sets and found a correlation between the rise of the smart phone in 2012 and the rise of mental health problems among teens. Her further analyses uncovered similar correlations, explicitly linking more time on new media with more mental health problems for teens in grades 8-12. Conversely, more time spent in in-person interactions (along with sports, homework, religious activity, or print media) correlated with fewer mental health problems.

So, yes, there’s some evidence to support that social media may harm kids. But the situation is complicated. Science and culture zig and zag while scientists test and correct each other’s conclusions, and the correlations between screen use and mental illness have been roundly criticized. One social scientist tweeted that data also shows that “teen pregnancy, drug use, and delinquency all declined significantly with the rise of smartphone and social media use.” In other words, correlation is not causation. It simply means that two things just co-occurred.

 A prospective longitudinal study which assesses people over time, sorts out causality better. One such Canadian study surveyed nearly 1,700 teenagers at several points in time up to a six-year period. It showed that social media use did not lead to depression, either in girls or boys. However, the reverse was true: Depression in middle school girls (though not boys) at the beginning of the study predicted greater social media use two years later. In other words, heavy social media use may be a sign for concern, not because it causes distress in the first place, but because it may be a symptom pointing to underlying distress. And middle schoolers may be most at risk.

The longer social media is around, the better youth and families are becoming at managing it. The APA survey on teen stress showed that individual teens use social media in different ways, and it’s worth noting that 55% of teens consider it a source of social support. Parents and teens are also getting better at understanding how social media “hacks” the brain (how the reward algorithms are coded to be maximally addicting). This is especially true in a developing brain, when the reward circuitry and dopamine architecture that “lock in” responses to pleasure are remodeled. As a result, many parents are limiting teen social media use, and numerous guidelines[ii] for wise strategies are now available. Social media “hygiene” is something we should all practice.

 Are teens the canaries in the coal mine?

Teens take in more of the outside world than children do. Neurological changes occur in puberty that draw their attention outward, beyond the family, and their cognition allows them to ponder big issues in more abstract and sophisticated ways. Because they take in more and more of the outside world, what teens absorb is increasingly stressful. And high schools reinforce that expanding view with curricula on current social events. Yet teenagers have no prior experience and few strategies for dealing with this new level of exposure.

More than two thirds of adults and teens surveyed by the APA said that the future of the country caused them significant stress and that the U.S. is on the “wrong path.” Teens had additional concerns: 75% of them were stressed about gun violence, mass shootings, and school shootings. This is not surprising given that 288 shootings have occurred in the U.S. since 2009, 57 times the rate of all other developed nations combined. More teens than adults feel stressed by societal issues like rising suicide rates, climate change, immigration separation and deportation issues, and sexual harassment and assault. More teens than adults worry about work, money, and health alongside more age-relevant issues like bullying, peer conflict, gender identity, and sexual orientation.

Stress and adolescence can make for a perfect storm. Until recently, scientists believed that an individual’s baseline for stress reactivity was more or less set in the first two years of life. However, new research suggests that puberty might open that window of sensitivity again for a second chance at recalibrating the stress system—for better or for worse depending on the context: If the environment is supportive in adolescence, this second opportunity might smooth out earlier problems and improve coping in the long run. However, if the context is harsh and stressful without relief or repair, the stress system can remodel for vulnerability and set the stage for later mental and physical health disease systems.

Policymakers should be worried about rising teen stress, not only for the sake of teens’ psychological health (which should be enough cause), but for the health of the country. Teen stress might be an important warning that the nation is off-course. As influential developmental scientist Urie Bronfenbrenner said, “There is no more critical indicator of the future of a society than the character, competence, and integrity of its youth.”[iii] Put more bluntly: If we squander our human capital now, we can’t expect a robust society in the future.

Much of the responsibility for decreasing the stressors listed above is in the hands of policymakers—and ultimately in our hands as voters and citizens. But political and social change take time, and teens and parents are still left to cope. So what might be helpful?

  • First, remember that every teen is different. Some may find relief, empowerment, and community by actively engaging in planning and organizing around social, political, and environmental issues. Other teens may need to modulate or decrease their exposure to stressful news for self-protection.

Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein:Corbis via Getty Images

Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein:Corbis via Getty Images

  • Teens benefit from, and want, relationships in which their understanding of the world and their place in it can be co-constructed in a healthy way. A mentoring relationship or facilitated group can help teens process their growing awareness with like-minded people while balancing it with a focus on healthy development. In such a setting, the skills for mastery and sense of control can gradually emerge at a developmentally appropriate pace that teens can manage.

photo credit: E. Frost

photo credit: E. Frost

  • Parents might be mindful of buffering their own stress from their teens. True, the parental brain has evolved to scan the environment for threats. But if parents pass on their stress, children can become overly stress-reactive, vigilant, and stress-sensitive. On the other hand, passing on constructive coping strategies is helpful.

  • Building emotional intelligence skills is always important, too. Every teen will benefit from a) the ability to be aware of their feelings and b) having strategies for regulation. As one woman on the Berkeley teen panel said about meditation, “It’s real. You should try it.”

  • And finally, a warm family climate and what I like to call a “competing joy” is always a good antidote to stress.

 Resurrecting an old theory: Healthy identity development

A third possibility is that society has forgotten about an important developmental task of adolescence.

In the 1960s, while the Baby Boomer generation was famously transforming society, the lifespan psychoanalyst Erik Erikson wrote his groundbreaking work, Identity, Youth, and Crisis, about identity in adolescence.[iv]

Identity is how you walk in the world. It’s a sense of knowing who you are, what you believe, where you fit, and where you’re going. It includes being at home in your body, having personal agency, and feeling a sameness through time, all of which contribute to a general sense of well-being. According to Erikson, and the major developmental scientists who followed, finding a healthy identity is the central task of adolescence.

It takes time. Young children identify with their parents: they imitate them and believe that they’ll grow up to be like them. But with the onset of puberty, neurological and social forces propel teens to differentiate from their parents. (Differentiation is not a rejection of parents, but a reconfiguration of the relationship in order to accommodate a teen’s growing autonomy and independence of thought and action. It’s a necessary process that teens need to go through to become functioning, autonomous adults.)

But teens struggle with their identity and with the core question that adolescence invites them to answer: If I’m not my parent, who am I?

There are multiple paths by which teens find their identities. Whichever they take, Erikson believed that the establishment of a coherent sense of identity requires a period of moratorium—a timeout during which a teen is clearly not a child but the adult path has not been determined. It’s a time to discover and experiment with different roles, paths, ideas, and activities. When a teen quickly changes points of view, jobs, friend groups, pop culture preferences, hair color, and more, this process is likely at work.

The psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, who named the later period of emerging adulthood, said that the central themes to be settled in establishing a healthy identity are worldview, work, and love. The psychologist James Coté believes that identity rests on two things: first, the feeling of having matured into adulthood, and second, finding a permanent niche in community and lifestyle. But exploration can occur across many domains, including politics, religion, societal issues, relationships, recreation, appearance, competence, occupation, morality, ethnicity, sexuality, and intimacy.  The process can last a decade or more—usually only one or two areas can be tackled at a time—but it culminates in commitments to those dimensions, a greater sense of purpose, a coherent system of values, and long-term plans. Identity formation—or coming of age—is a central theme of many classic and best-selling novels including The Catcher in the Rye, The Fault in Our Stars, The House on Mango Street, and Jane Eyre.

An authentic identity exploration is hard, intellectually and emotionally taxing. Uncertainty can be uncomfortable, and progress is not linear or orderly. There are anxious periods of not knowing where to fit. Dead ends are common. And progress feels unstable, sometimes sliding back after taking a step forward. It can be difficult for parents to stay supportive as their teens bang around in the mess of options. But identity exploration is most successful when it’s encouraged and accepted by an adult, where the teen feels seen, where their feelings and perceptions can be accurately mirrored back to them, and where they can borrow the confidence, optimism, insight—and sometimes limits—from a loving adult.

According to Erikson, teens should grow into an adult identity, not be forced into one prematurely. But not everyone has that privilege. Some teens are restricted by life circumstances, a lack of options, and/or economic necessity. Others are restricted by self-imposed constraints, or limits others place on them. Erikson said these forced choices do not necessarily lead to a failure of identity: young adults can still organize meaning and purpose out of the circumstance, while still exploring other areas. But he did believe that the lost potential was “regrettable.” Without an authentic search, a teen might not get the chance to discover their true capabilities.

When teens don’t get a chance to explore the central questions of their lives, there can be several problematic outcomes:

  • A foreclosed identity results from a premature commitment to a path without sufficient exploration or experimentation. This could be the child whose “tiger” mother decided for her in fourth grade that she would be a dancer; the son whose parents forced myriad activities on him in order to build a college resume; or, conversely the child who grew up without any mentor, guide, or exposure to opportunities.

For youth who lack a wide range of opportunities, middle and high schools can offer much-needed exploration and experimentation. In her book, When Grit Isn’t Enough, Linda Nathan argues that career exploration and support should be systematically incorporated into educational curricula from middle school through graduation and across the transition to college.

In their book, Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success and Failure, authors Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Kevin Rathunde, and Samuel Whalen identify the qualities that sustain the development of talent across teen years. Along with a modicum of talent and wholistic support, free time was an important variable. Teens who were distracted with too many life hassles, family conflicts, excessive out-of-school employment, or over-scheduling, did not have the unencumbered time and space that was necessary to just “mess around” in the subject area, to dream, practice, and experiment. Exploring what you’re good at and what you enjoy takes sheer time.

Today, in the drive to raise their selectivity ratings and drive a vast lucrative network of feeder businesses, the college industrial complex colludes to torque teens’ developmental trajectory. Teens (and their parents) often sense a pressure to be a certain kind of idealized applicant, and they’re tempted to shape their high school experiences to fit someone else’s idea of who they ought to be in order to be accepted into college.

Psychologist Robert Sternberg is a forceful critic of college admissions practices. He argues that college acceptance criteria are not correlated with either college achievement or life success. Instead, the types of competencies that predict actual success are: 1) creativity and the ability to see things differently or defy a current trend; 2) wisdom and the application of knowledge and skills for the common good; and 3) practical intelligence and the ability to cope with a situation that’s not explicitly taught, along with more conventional and domain-specific kinds of intelligences.

  • A diffused identity is one that is never quite settled, in which exploration and experimentation never seem to end. The identity feels incoherent and disjointed, and the individual seems confused about, or just unaware of, who they really are. They’re often more neurotic, have difficulty making decisions, and suffer extreme self-consciousness.

  • A negative identity is an undesirable one, chosen in opposition to, or defiance of, surrounding pressure. This might be the “bad boy/girl,” the extremist, and the anything-my-father-isn’t person. Erikson observed that a negative identity often arises from a lack of recognition or acceptance from the important person in the teen’s life. In those cases, being somebody “bad” feels better than being nobody at all.

Based on J. Marcia (1980). Identity in adolescence. In J. Adelson (Ed.),  Handbook of adolescent psychology.  New York: Wiley.

Based on J. Marcia (1980). Identity in adolescence. In J. Adelson (Ed.), Handbook of adolescent psychology. New York: Wiley.

What else is protective against stress?

  • Some stress is good.

Some parents might overcorrect and try to protect their children from any stress at all. Scientists worry about this kind of experience, too! Parents who “snowplow” or “lawn-mow” away their children’s obstacles do them no favors, in fact, they may be undermining their children’s development. Stress in the right amount promotes neural growth, enhances task performance, and can be a motivation to stretch, reach, and strive.

When young people have a chance to master a new challenge, it can contribute to their resilience, i.e., their ability to withstand and recover from future stresses. Their challenges should be reasonably within their developmental competence; not overwhelming; and “scaffolded” if necessary, where they’re coached through the components. After the challenge has passed, rest and repair also help.

photo credit E. Frost

photo credit E. Frost

  • Mind the basics—sleep, exercise, nutrition.

Teens need more sleep than adults, and they need it later on the clock. A recent survey found that teens are shortchanged by an average of two hours of sleep per night, which adds up to a devastating deficit. Sleep is critical to all areas of functioning. It’s necessary for cognition and consolidating memories, especially in the adolescent period of rapid brain growth. When schools adopt later start times to accommodate teens’ unique sleep needs, the benefits are vast—better mood regulation; improved academic performance; and fewer incidents of conflicts, aggression, bullying, and accidents. Teens, like everyone, should follow good sleep hygiene, including screen-time management. Healthy nutrition and regular aerobic exercise also help keep an even keel.

Authoritative parenting balances warmth and love with clear expectations and the support to meet those expectations. It’s flexible, respectful, and allows a teen’s growing autonomy. Of all parenting styles, authoritative parenting is the most predictive of positive outcomes for children and teens.

Other family qualities that help keep teens on track include a positive climate that creates a background sense of well-being, joyful ways of staying connected, and regular routines and rituals. In other words, a thriving family life is nourishing, provides a buffer, and supports resilience. Parents’ own development matters, too; how parents manage their own stress is extremely influential for teens. The template of family life gets imprinted on a teen and stays with them for a very long time.

Photo credits: D. Divecha, Unknown, D. Divecha, S. Burkhart, M. Divecha, R. Archibald

  • Keep growing the skills of emotional intelligence.

In the APA study of stress, three-quarters of the teens surveyed said they wanted more emotional support. One powerful strategy is to teach them to recognize feelings when they’re happening and help generate constructive strategies (not avoidance and distraction) to regulate them. The more families can name and normalize emotions and emotional competence, the more successfully teens develop.

  • Save time for friends and relationships.

Good relationships are essential to mental health and well-being. The presence of a caring person can buffer the cortisol response. In the presence of a friend, challenges feel easier to navigate. Unfortunately, teen boys are at risk for giving up their good friends, which can lead to sadness and grief, in addition to an absence of support.

Whatever the cause of adolescent stress, it falls to parents, educators, and mentors to help teens move through it. Developmental science, practical sense, and even traditional wisdom can all help.

When my own daughter (whose father is Indian-American) became a teenager, we marked the new road ahead with a Hindu coming-of-age ceremony. Sitting in the circle of our community and facing my daughter, the pundit reminded her of two things: first, to stay connected to her family, and second, to develop her powers of discernment.

Discernment, the pundit said, is the ability to parse what is true and right from what is not, and it’s one of the most important intellectual qualities. It requires recognizing the difference between what matters to you and what is coming toward you from the world. From that space, wisdom springs.

I’ve enjoyed watching my daughter develop discernment—and use it—as she has formed her identity, choosing a partner, a career, and a new city to live and thrive in. As other parents of grown children can attest, when our teenagers explore their way into the world and land comfortably in a solid identity, it’s a joy for everyone. Nowadays, though, they may just need some extra care doing that.

Copyright 2019 Diana Divecha

[i] Teen Wisdom Panel, April 26, 2019, David Brower Center, Berkeley, CA.

 [ii] Common Sense Media; Cyberbullying Research Center

 [iii] Bronfenbrenner, U. (1996). The State of Americans: This Generation and the Next. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, p. 1.



Can a Pregnant Woman’s Experience Influence Her Baby’s Temperament?

photo credit AlonzoDesign

photo credit AlonzoDesign

Thirty years ago, when my Indian mother-in-law first learned that I was pregnant, she had some advice: Eat a lot of ghee (clarified butter), think pleasant thoughts, and gaze upon beauty.

Charming, I thought. I had a full time job with a two-hour commute. Where was there any time for meditative reflection? Still, she planted a thought in my mind, and I began to wonder. Was there a connection between my internal state and the development of the baby growing within me?

Folk wisdom and cultural beliefs throughout history have maintained that a woman’s emotions affect the fetus. Animal studies have shown that maternal stress, especially, can affect offspring—but it’s not been clear exactly how relevant those findings are for humans. In the last 15 years, though, research on human mothers and babies has caught up to show that my mother-in-law was at least partly correct: A pregnant woman’s emotional state—especially her stress, anxiety, and depression—can change her child’s development with long-lasting consequences.

Yerkes and Dodson, 1908, in Diamond, DM et al. (2007).

Yerkes and Dodson, 1908, in Diamond, DM et al. (2007).

 Some stress is good.

When it comes to stress, psychologists often affirm the Goldilocks approach: too little is not good, as it makes us passive. And too much is not good because it can overwhelm us and contribute to emotional upheaval and physical disease. Along the spectrum, there’s a “just-right” amount of stress that helps us to function optimally in most situations.

The Goldilocks principle (called the Yerkes-Dodson law, in psychology) seems to be true in pregnancy, too. “The human brain requires sufficient, but not overwhelming, stress to promote optimal neural development both before and after birth,” writes researcher Janet DiPietro of Johns Hopkins University.

Pietro and colleagues studied pregnant women who were mentally healthy, well-educated, and had low-risk pregnancies. Midway through the pregnancies, Pietro measured the level of the mothers’ psychological distress (stress, anxiety, or depression). After the babies were born, she tested their development at six weeks and then again at the two-year point. She found that babies whose mothers had mild-to-moderate distress were more advanced in their physical and mental development. Another study showed that the babies’ brain development benefitted from a little prenatal stress, maturing a bit faster, with quicker connectivity among neurons.

Does that mean that women should welcome stress in order to boost their fetus’ development?

Absolutely not. According to DiPietro, the normal stresses of modern life are enough already. “The last thing a new mom needs is to head into newborn baby care stressed and exhausted.” In other words, healthy women leading reasonably normal lives can “stop worrying about worrying.”

But too much stress can be harmful.

On the other hand, when women experience severe stress during pregnancy, their babies can be at risk for serious problems. What kinds of stresses are harmful?

In studies on pregnant women, intense stress has been defined to include the following: the loss of a loved one; war; a major catastrophe like an earthquake, flood, fire, or terrorist attack; and interpersonal violence. These stresses have been linked to subsequent miscarriage, prematurity, or low birth weight in infants.[1] Stress that is chronic—like poverty, homelessness, racism, and discrimination—can also lead to low birth weight, as well as later physical and psychological problems. Babies whose mothers experienced these kinds of toxic levels of stress while pregnant are statistically more likely to have respiratory and digestive problems, irritability, or sleep problems in the first three years of life. They are also more apt to experience developmental problems, with cognitive, behavioral, social-emotional, and health issues that suggest neurodevelopmental changes that ripple into adolescence and adulthood. Many of the studies were careful to rule out other potentially confounding environmental factors in order to isolate the effects to the prenatal environment.

photo credit Ijubaphoto

photo credit Ijubaphoto

photo credit monkey business images

photo credit monkey business images

A woman who experiences depression is also cause for concern. Newborns of mothers who were depressed during pregnancy are four times more likely to have a low birth weight than babies born to mothers who are not depressed. When women are depressed during pregnancy, there’s also a greater likelihood that they’ll suffer postpartum depression, which can become a major challenge for the whole family. Not only does the mother suffer, but research shows that depression in the primary caregiver is one of the strongest predictors of poor developmental outcomes in children. These children simply do not receive the normal interpersonal attunement and feedback they need in order to grow in emotionally healthy ways.

Even anxiety about being pregnant can be cause for concern. Research shows that “pregnancy-related fears”—worrying about an unplanned pregnancy, a specific medical risk, the fetus’ health, labor and delivery, or your ability to be a good parent—can be problematic in high doses. Excessive levels of anxiety (as opposed to what you worry about) are correlated with a greater likelihood of having a preterm birth. Also, pregnant women’s high levels of anxiety are correlated with later problems in children, including a difficult temperament, behavioral and emotional problems, anxiety, problems with attention regulation, impulsivity and hyperactivity, immune functioning and autoimmune disease, cognitive problems, and stress regulation.

Fetal stress and infant temperament

Psychologists have long known that babies enter the world with different temperaments. Some babies seem easy and sociable; others are more reactive, difficult to soothe, and are more sensitive to their environment. Until recently, scientists thought babies were “just born that way,” with temperaments that were “constitutional,” part of their makeup, or “inherited” from parents.

But the new research on fetal development changes that notion, and our understanding has progressed toward an interplay between biology and environmental influences—even before birth.

Catherine Monk, Professor of Medical Psychology in Psychiatry and Obstetrics and Gynecology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, and her colleagues study the long reach of prenatal influences, especially among women who suffer from depression, stress, and anxiety. They found that some fetuses register mothers’ stress, and that fetal reactivity correlates with infant temperament at four months.

Monk and her colleagues brought 50 pregnant women into the lab and monitored the fetal heart rate while the women completed the Stroop Test, a mildly stressful mental task. Fetuses of women who were clinically depressed or anxious showed they registered the performance stress of their mothers, by the changes in their heart rates during the task. Later, when the babies were four months old, researchers assessed their temperaments by watching how reactive they were to a range of new stimuli (sounds, sights, smells), and some important patterns emerged. In particular, fetuses who had greater heart rate changes during their mothers’ task were more likely to be highly reactive at four months of age.

Subsequent studies have shown while the heart’s reaction to stress is important, the recovery from the stressor—how soon the heart returns to baseline—is also predictive. A quicker heart-rate recovery in the fetal period predicts an easier temperament and even more prosocial behavior later in childhood.

The fetus’ response to stress and the ability to return to baseline, may be the earliest sign of a fetus’ emerging stress regulation system, which in turn is the foundation of temperament (reactivity and regulation). The stress regulation system involves complex processes throughout the brain and body, and its effects cascade through complicated pathways into all the other areas of development. In infancy, the stress regulation system affects babies’ ability to form an attachment with others, to explore and learn about their world, and to receive feedback from others that helps them grow. It also affects their health and immune systems. Even for adults, scientists find that over the entire lifespan, the ability to manage the ups and downs of our interior worlds—stress, emotions, energetic “arousal,” and positivity—affects our physical and mental health, relationship quality, decision-making, and even creativity. Some studies assert that stress regulation has consequences for education, employment, and overall life satisfaction.

But a baby isn’t born with a thermostat set to some ideal of normal. In utero, the fetus is programmed to listen for cues about their future environment and start adapting accordingly.

“Theoretically, it’s an elegant evolutionary adaptation,” Monk told me in a recent interview. “The pregnant female communicates to her offspring cues about what the postnatal world is like, and the adaptation starts in utero.” But problems arise when the fit between the stone-age brain and the modern world is misaligned. “It could be advantageous to be reactive and vigilant if you’re in a dangerous postnatal environment,” Monk explains. “But we’re not facing bears in the woods now, so maybe the system for prenatal adaptations made to anticipate adverse environments (the environments that are eliciting stress and anxiety in pregnant women) aren’t adaptive for our modern world.”

The stress regulation system operates much like a thermostat that sets the room temperature, increasing the heat or turning it down to achieve a desired range. When we perceive a threat, the sympathetic nervous system activates a fight-flight-or-freeze response throughout the body and brain. When we judge that the threat has subsided, the parasympathetic system turns on to try to bring the whole system back to a resting state.

Because the biological “hardware” is just forming during the fetal period and early infancy, these are crucial times for setting the stress baseline in each fetus and young baby.

How do mother’s feelings get through to the fetus?

Scientists are curious about how stress reaches a developing fetus. This research is just in its early stages, and much more needs to be learned. But so far, scientists are focusing on a few mechanisms which may operate together or independently:

  • One is cortisol, a stress hormone that’s a downstream product of the body’s stress response. Women with anxiety and depression have higher levels of cortisol. And there is some evidence that when the placenta registers higher levels of cortisol from the mother, it creates an epigenetic change—a molecular modification to the gene that changes how it functions—that allows more cortisol through to the growing fetus, which in turn affects the stress regulation system.

“The placenta is highly susceptible to maternal distress and a target of epigenetic dysregulation,” Monk and colleagues write.

  • Inflammation is another focus of investigation. The pro-inflammatory cytokines—proteins that impact the behavior of cells and resulting immunity—may play a role, but the research on the exact pathways involved is still in the early stages.

  • Scientists are also looking at the role of infection and the microbiome, but there is no conclusive evidence at this time.

There are other complications, too. For example, one gestational period doesn’t seem more sensitive than another, but the impact of stress might vary depending on which areas of the brain are developing when the stress occurs. And while both sexes are affected, there are hints that male and female fetuses might react differently. For example, some research shows that female fetuses are more reactive to stress in utero, but other studies suggest males and females react similarly, but that males recover more quickly.

How much control do pregnant women have?

It should be obvious that almost every source of major stress—war, the loss of a loved one, violence, poverty, homelessness, a demanding workload, etc.—is outside the control of the woman experiencing it. But given that we live in a culture that frequently blames mothers for whatever happens to their children, I was concerned that this new research might be wielded against women.

“Could this research be used as a new form of mother-blaming?” I asked Monk.

“I think about this a lot,” she replied. “I don’t want my research to be adding stress to a woman’s life.”

Monk pointed out several caveats to the findings:

First, she cautioned that the research is just beginning, and we have to consider that these are correlations, not cause-and-effect. The associations have been shown repeatedly by different researchers, but it is not possible to complete a scientifically controlled study of intense stress on humans that would sort that out.

Second, Monk explained that a pregnant woman’s stress is just one of many “exposures.” There are numerous biological and environmental influences on development: The air a woman breathes, the water she drinks, the nutrition she ingests, and whether she exercises, gets sick, or is exposed to toxins. There are genetics. The father’s sperm quality matters, too, and is affected by his age, health and risk factors, and even frequency of physical exercise. Support from partners, families, and friends is important in mitigating stress.

Third, we should care for pregnant women more preventatively. “If we want to have a healthy population, a healthy workforce, then society is responsible,” Monk says. “So let’s take care of women and families early on with policies and programs that support them.”

Fourth, some stress is modifiable. “I see homeless women living in shelters, and I see busy medical doctors juggling family life with their practices,” says Monk. “One person can’t move the level of poverty in the country, but we can do something to help people cope with it. We really do know how to de-stress people and help them with depression and anxiety.”

And finally, stress hardware isn’t completely formed by birth. Once born, the quality of early caregiving continues to alter the epigenome that regulates stress, emotions, and behavior, dialing up or down the expression of genes that set the baseline for stress regulation. In many cases, good caregiving after birth can offset a rocky prenatal start.

How much stress is too much?

“How can women know if their stress levels are harmful or normal?” I asked Monk. “Are some kinds of stress worse than others?”

She replied, “Science is not at a place yet of saying that one kind of stress is worse than another. In our clinic, we see women in extreme stress, and what matters is how much, and what inner and outer resources they can bring to the experience.”

Monk listed some indicators of harmful stress:

  • When stressful feelings are chronic (symptoms might include an inability to get up in the morning, a continual low mood, not eating or sleeping)

  • When there’s prior exposure to trauma or abuse (which the anticipation of parenting might reactivate)

  • When a person’s life foundation is weakened by repetitive daily stresses (e.g., “Will I lose my job?” “Where’s my next meal coming from?” “Are we getting a divorce?”)

  • Or continual feelings of being overwhelmed

In addition, Monk and her colleagues use the Perceived Stress Scale to measure stress in their research subjects. They found that women in poorer mental health (comprising about 20% of their samples) score around a 26 or less on the scale. Items such as “I feel like I don’t have control,” “I often feel overwhelmed,” and “I feel like I can’t get things done,” are indicative.

Monk adds, though, that fewer psychologists are trying to measure a person’s amount of stress, and instead are looking at how they function across different areas of their lives. For example, a person might ask, “How am I functioning now compared to six months ago?” Or, “How am I functioning cognitively, physically, interpersonally, or emotionally?” This approach offers more useful information, Monk notes, allowing the person to leverage what is going well and to shore up what is not.

What helps?

Every person has unique vulnerabilities and strengths, and every situation is different. But research confirms that although we might not be able to control what happens to us, we have some control over how we react. And that matters. We can change our responses to stress through self-care (nutrition, sleep, and moderate physical activity); increasing our repertoire of emotion strategies for coping; having positive experiences; and seeking support from others. A strong support network of engaged partners, helpful family members, and good friends can buffer the ill effects of stress. Techniques like meditation and mindfulness have been shown to reduce stress and create better pregnancy outcomes and physical health.

As an example, Monk and her colleague Elizabeth Werner developed a four-session intervention that reduces the risk of depression in pregnant women by half. The PREPP program (Practical Resources for Effective Postpartum Parenting) reaches out to women through OB-GYN offices, and offers them education on three topics:

  1. Parenting skills (e.g., How to help babies sort out day-night cues; encouragement for carrying the baby when he’s not crying, etc.)

  2. Psychoeducation (e.g., What to expect about babies’ crying); and

  3. Mindfulness and self-reflection (e.g., Examining how you were parented)

This intervention reduced depression and anxiety in mothers, and their babies became better self-regulated as well.

“By learning more about handling their baby, a mother may literally be facilitating their baby’s regulation along with their own. Mothers and babies get onto a bidirectional, more positive cycle,” Monk says.

As for me, since this knowledge wasn’t around to confirm my mother-in-law’s advice during my pregnancies, I hedged my bets. I knew I carried high levels of stress from a turbulent childhood, so I took some extra care. I exercised, was thoughtful about my food, and took a prenatal yoga and meditation course. But by the second pregnancy, I was frequently overwhelmed with panic attacks at the prospect of managing work and two children. Already my energy was low, and I filled in with chocolate milkshakes when I should have rested. Fortunately, both daughters did fine in the long run and are well-adjusted adults. But many women face graver challenges, and as a society, it’s our responsibility to protect and support them. Many countries have made children a collective investment, but in America, tragically, we haven’t. It’s a big problem—and a big topic, which I’ll save for a future blog entry.

photo credit RusianDashinsky

photo credit RusianDashinsky


More Resources

How pregnant women’s emotions affect prenatal and child development:

Stress reduction in pregnancy:

  • Newman, K. M. (2016, August 17). “Four Reasons to Practice Mindfulness During Pregnancy,” Greater Good Magazine. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/four_reasons_to_practice_mindfulness_during_pregnancy.

  • Bardacke, N. (2012). Mindful Birthing: Training the Mind, Body, and Heart for Childbirth and Beyond. New York, NY: HarperOne.

  • Mindful Birthing Network: Mindful birthing. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.mindfulbirthing.org/.

  • Hardwiring happiness: Zimmer, E. (2015, June 24). 082: Dr. Rick Hanson. The one you feed. Retrieved from http://www.oneyoufeed.net/rick-hanson/.

  • Introduction to mindfulness-based stress reduction:

    • Palouse Mindfulness. (2015, August 28). Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (UMass Medical School, Center for Mindfulness). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0TA7P-iCCcY.

    • Sega, A. (2016, August 22). Jon Kabat Zinn: Practical Stress Reduction. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3fjNPbErciU.

    • Kabat-Zinn, J. (2016). Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment and Your Life. Boulder, CO: Sound True.

  • This is one of my favorite resources for self-development:

    • Hanson, R. (n.d.). Rick Hanson. Retrieved from http://www.rickhanson.net/rick-hanson/

 How to find out about, and advocate for paid leave from work:

  • Find out if your state has paid family and medical leave protection here:

    • National Partnership for Women and Families. (n.d.). Paid leave means a stronger nation. Retrieved from http://www.nationalpartnership.org/issues/work-family/paid-leave-means-map.html.

  • Quick economic statistics re: the costs to both employers and employees of NOT having paid leave: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1geQNdDBd2MDBvzvOMJg_YKdfVqSsduWZ/view.

  • Companies that offer paid leave, and their rationales for doing it:

    • National Partnership for Women and Families (2018, January). Companies with new or expanded paid leave policies (2015-2018). Retrieved from http://www.nationalpartnership.org/research-library/work-family/paid-leave/new-and-expanded-employer-paid-family-leave-policies.pdf

  • An article on how businesses can adopt paid leave:

    • Williams, J. C., & Massinger, K. (2015, November 23). “Need a Good Parental Leave Policy? Here It Is.” Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2015/11/need-a-good-parental-leave-policy-here-it-is.

  • How to negotiate a leave, from the Harvard Business Review:

    • Gallo, A. (2012, October 25). “How to Negotiate Your Parental Leave,” Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2012/10/how-to-negotiate-your-parental-leave.html.

  • The effects of paid leave on child health and employee retention:

    • National Partnership for Women and Families. (n.d.). Studies on the Effects of Paid Leave. Retrieved from http://go.nationalpartnership.org/site/PageServer?pagename=issues_work_library_paidleave_research#effect


Yerkes and Dodson, 1908, in Diamond, D.M., Campbell, A.M., Park, C.R., Halonen, J., & Zoladz, P.R. (2007). The temporal dynamics model of emotional memory processing: A synthesis on the Neurobiological basis of stress-induced amnesia, flashbulb and traumatic memories, and the Yerkes-Dodson law. Neural Plasticity, article ID 60803, 33pgs. doi:10.1155/2007/60803


[1] Low birth weight, sometimes referred to as “small for gestational age,” occurs when the weight at birth is lower than expected for the length of the pregnancy. It is a risk factor for subsequent development. The U.S. has the one of the highest rates of babies born with low birth weight—about 1 in 13. Babies who are born very small for their gestational age are more likely to go on to develop problems, but most low-birth-weight babies who receive good nutrition and sensitive, affectionate care and stimulation, catch up and do just fine.

Additional Photo Credits

Top panel, left to right: MaxRiesgo, RapidEye, vm, DragonImages

Middle panel, left to right: FatCamera, photominus, Dean Mitchell, martinedoucet

Dads Want to Co-Parent — And It Matters

When co-parents tend to their relationship first, everyone benefits.

Note: This blog post is primarily about fathers (in honor of Father's Day) and particularly fathers who are partnered with women. This is just one of the many types of family structures that exist and I'm interested in all types of family structures. However, much of the detailed research on co-parenting involves heterosexual relationships. The good news is that many of the findings here that apply to fathers in heterosexual relationships also apply to co-parents of all kinds.

photo credit E. Frost

photo credit E. Frost

Arms heavy with meals I had prepared, I crossed the sunlit porch, slipped off my shoes, and walked through the front door. I found my friends, new parents, standing quietly side by side in their darkened kitchen. Shaye, their tiny newborn, had just awakened from his nap and was resting on his mama’s shoulder. A hushed atmosphere of disheveled slumber lingered.

Jed, Shaye’s father, turned to investigate the food I’d brought, lifting lids from the containers and filling his plate with chicken. “Do you want some?” he asked Emily, his wife.

“Later,” she said, sitting down on the couch to talk. Little Shaye lay quietly on her lap, attentive to sights and sounds, while Jed ate beside us.

Soon it was time to breastfeed, and Jed stood to bring Emily a pillow and a glass of water. When feeding was finished, Jed brought Emily her lunch, took Shaye from her arms, and burped him; then they disappeared for a walk in the afternoon sunlight while Emily turned to talk with me. After a while, Jed came back in, changed Shaye’s diaper, and, standing, started to rock the baby back to sleep. When Shaye fussed, his parents passed him back and forth until he settled.

I was in awe of this ballet, of Jed and Emily’s seamless choreography. Each shift in task was preceded by a considerate, “Do you want…?” “Could you please…” Or a “How are you doing?” This was true partnership in action.

Co-parent collaboration is good for the entire family

Carolyn Pape Cowan and Phil Cowan, psychologists emeriti at the University of California at Berkeley, have studied families for over 40 years. Parenting is hard, they acknowledge, and the transition to parenthood is an especially vulnerable time. More than 50 studies worldwide show that, as joyous and welcome as a new child might be, trouble usually starts to brew in the parents’ relationship after a birth. There’s too much to do, sleep is short, and freedom is seriously curtailed—a recipe for conflict and dissatisfaction that can place everyone at risk.

But when parents tend to their relationship and learn to collaborate constructively, everyone is much more likely to stay on track and thrive. Through several major studies involving more than 1,000 couples in very diverse walks of life, the Cowans found that when parents nurture their own bond, it maintains relationship satisfaction across the challenge of parenting—for years. It also improves the parents’ relationships with their children. In turn, the children are happier, and more sociable, and secure. Notably, tending to the co-parents’ relationship creates more benefits for the family than even parenting classes, men’s groups, or moms’ groups that tend to overlook couples’ issues.

photo credit E. Dorrien

photo credit E. Dorrien

Why is nurturing the couple relationship so powerful, even for the children?

“The relationship between the parent figures creates the atmosphere in which children are growing,” replied Carolyn. “If parents have unresolved high conflict, it makes children nervous and preoccupied with their parents; they end up not doing as well socially or academically. But if parents are warm and respectful, and treat each other kindly and gently, the children feel secure and therefore, free to explore life. They also have a positive model for their own lives as to how relationships should work.”

Phil added, “There are ‘spillover’ effects. That is, if a partner is unhappy, it’s very difficult to turn around and be a nurturing, supportive parent to the child. And our research shows that when a couple functions effectively as a team, it helps them ward off stresses and strains from outside the family, like job stress, poverty, or difficult life events.”

A healthy relationship invites dads in

photo credit W. Johnson

photo credit W. Johnson

One of the benefits of this early collaboration, the Cowans report, is that fathers feel more welcomed into the emotional labor and rewards of parenting.

“We know from our own and others’ research that one of the best predictors of father involvement is the relationship with the mom,” says Phil. “And that’s true regardless of the family structure, whether they are biological parents, adoptive parents, stepparents, divorced, cohabitating, or married. If you improve the relationship between the co-parents, partners are happier, and it draws dads in, not only to the relationship but into the family.”

And dads matter.

They want to be involved in parenting. A recent survey on parents of 2200 Millennials and Generation Xers revealed that 90% of the fathers said being a parent was their greatest joy, and 73% said their lives began when they became a father.

“Most of the fathers we’ve worked with want to be more involved with their babies and young children than their fathers were with them,” said Carolyn. “Some of them say, ‘I want my son or daughter not to be afraid of me and be able to talk about anything with me.’ Regardless of ethnicity—African-American, Mexican-American, European-American—all the fathers we’ve worked with either want to emulate some aspect of their own father, or they’re really eager to do it differently.”

Parenting has benefits for fathers, too. Research shows that fathers who are more involved in their children’s lives have better physical and mental health, are more stable, and live longer. Kyle Pruett, a psychiatrist at Yale University who with Marsha Kline Pruett collaborated with the Cowans for the past 15 years, quipped that health insurance providers should lower premiums for men when they become fathers.

When fathers are involved, moms also benefit. Women are still spending an average of twice as much time than men providing care for young children, even though dads have increased their involvement over the last 30 years by 65%. More support from fathers is welcome.

Dads are just as capable as moms

photo credit K. Merchant

photo credit K. Merchant

For a couple of decades, research has shown that mothers and fathers are equally capable of parenting well. Both mothers and fathers:

  • Are warm and responsive to their babies’ smiles and happiness;

  • Provide comfort when their babies cry;

  • Encourage exploration;

  • Engage in developmentally sensitive teaching;

  • Encourage their children’s autonomy.

Research shows that, as a general rule, mothers and fathers are equally sensitive and attuned to their children’s feelings.

Natasha Cabrera, psychologist at the University of Maryland, has been studying fathers, especially poor fathers, for 20 years. Many dads she sees are very hands-on. “They know how much their child weighs or what makes their baby cranky,” she says. “In a study we have going on right now, almost half of the children are soothed better by the dads than the moms.”

According to Cabrera, sometimes people assume that dads are incapable, and sometimes dads hide their capability so the mothers don’t “look bad.” “But often dads can be more understanding of their children because they have less of an agenda. They’re more laid back, less stressed, so they see the child more clearly,” Cabrera explains.

Dads and moms make different contributions to development

  • Language development: Cabrera has found that mothers and fathers talk to their children in different ways. One at a time, she gave moms and dads the prompt to “just talk to your child.” Then she recorded how many words were said, and which types of words were used. She found that fathers talked to their children in longer and more complex sentences and included more diverse kinds of words than mothers.

“The quality of their language was higher,” Cabrera said. “As a result, the two-year-olds knew more words, and more diverse kinds of words. So fathers are making important contributions to their children’s language development.”

  • Emotion regulation and risk-taking: Worldwide, dads seem to take on the role of exciting their babies. They’re more likely than mothers to engage in rough-and-tumble play, sweep the baby high into the air, or go for hysterical giggles, while still paying attention to what the baby can tolerate. Scientists think that this experience of excitement and energetic feelings—within the safety of the father’s watchful care—contributes to a baby’s emotion regulation and healthy willingness to take risks.

Fathers tend to hold babies differently—facing out, like a hood ornament, Kyle Pruett says—as if they’re “getting their child ready for the world.”

  • Less aggressive problem-solving: Ruth Feldman, psychologist at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, found that fathers who were sensitive and attuned to their children’s feelings and behavior benefitted their child’s social development. When these children, especially the sons, first encountered peer groups in preschool, their social problem-solving was more constructive and less aggressive or passive. These benefits continued into the early teens and were more attributable to fathers’ than mothers’ contributions. In other words, good fathering was critical to these children’s interpersonal problem-solving. They learned how to stand up for themselves respectfully, neither shying from conflict nor resorting to aggression.

Parents can relax and appreciate the diversity that each one brings to their parenting role,  Cabrera points out. “There are similarities, and differences, and they complement each other to contribute to a child’s development and resilience.”

There’s an early, sensitive period for fathers’ involvement

 Nature seems to draw fathers into parenting from the start.

Several studies examine the hormonal and neurological changes that occur in expectant and new fathers. For example, in a study of 34 couples, the hormones prolactin and cortisol—related to bonding behaviors in animals and humans—increased in women and men as childbirth approached. While the women’s cycle was driven by pregnancy, the men’s changes were related to their partner’s changes; that is, closer involvement with partners correlated more closely with men’s hormonal changes. And the greater the hormonal increases in men, the more “couvade” they experienced—i.e., the behavioral changes in weight, appetite, emotions, or energy some men experience during their partner’s pregnancy.

photo credit L. Daniels

photo credit L. Daniels

After the birth, men’s testosterone dropped to low levels, perhaps in preparation for their first interaction with their babies. And men who had higher prolactin before birth and lower testosterone after birth were more responsive to infants, looking, smelling, holding, and responding to their cries more. Other studies confirm that lower testosterone in fathers is related to a more sensitive “attunement,” or synchrony, with their babies in the first six months of life. While the caregiving system is “plastic”—e.g., adoptive parents bond just as closely as biological parents—nature seems to have provided this easy on-ramp to parenting.

Interestingly, men and women fall in love with their babies in different ways.

Women’s brains are primed by pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding to get drawn into caring for their baby. Changes in the subcortical, “bottom-up” limbic regions of the brain connected to vigilance, mirroring, and emotional connections can even be identified in brain scans post-delivery.

By contrast, men’s brains are remodeled by their participation in caregiving. The more fathers engage in activities like soothing, changing diapers, and feeding, the more oxytocin (the bonding hormone) they produce, and the stronger the activation they show in the “mentalizing” regions of the brain. These are the more “top-down” processes from cortical regions that help a father to imagine and figure out what another person needs. And there doesn’t have to be a biological connection. Adoptive gay dads showed neurological changes similar to bio-moms and bio-dads.

The takeaways from the brain science are twofold. One, the caregiving system is “plastic,” and human brains are wired to change in ways that make room in a person's consciousness for caregiving, whether they're biologically related to a child or not. And two, dads shouldn’t wait until their children can talk to get involved in parenting.

“If you’re not involved in this sensitive period, it’s going to pass you by,” says Pruett.

About half of fathers—and mothers too—underestimate the importance of the earliest weeks and months of a child’s life. The hormonal and neurological changes that occur in fathers when they're involved with their pregnant partner, and later when they help with the physical acts of caregiving, actually pave the way for them to become more connected with their baby in ways that can have long-lasting effects.

What stands in the way?

 Unfortunately there are a lot of barriers to full father participation in America. Structural barriers like lack of paid parental leave force both parents to choose between their paycheck and caring for their baby. Even if fathers have paid leave from work, many fear taking advantage of it, lest they be punished or ostracized by employers.

The Cowans and Cabrera react when I ask them about barriers to father involvement.

“There’s a pervasive cultural bias against fathers,” says Phil Cowan. “Often, in social service agencies, men are the ‘bad guys,’ especially to providers who are used to seeing family violence. But most men are not violent and would like to be caring, involved fathers if we would just make space for them. Outreach programs tend to focus exclusively on moms, like the Maternal and Child Health Bureau. And in our own experience we’ve found that sometimes dads’ names are not even listed on a family’s file.”

Cabrera agrees saying that research findings have important implications for decisions society makes about fathers, including custody arrangements, mental health interventions for fathers, and incarceration.

“Fathers, especially poor men, are often considered optional except for the financial support they can provide, and often visitation is denied or strictly limited,” Cabrera says. “Or we’re more concerned about mothers’ mental health and depression than the mental health of fathers. In most cases fathers love their children, and now research shows they are important for children in ways besides financial. I think we’ve done a lot of injustices to many men who would be very capable.”

“And the bias is not just in family service agencies, it’s in psychology, too,” says Phil. “Ninety percent of the parenting research is on moms.”  

Cabrera agrees: “By using the maternal template for research, we miss things fathers do that might be interesting and required in kids’ development. Dads are not just babysitters, backups, or paychecks. They’re important for development.”

Mothers sometimes stand in the way. In a 2015 representative survey of parents, 40% of dads (versus 17% of moms) said they’d like to be more involved in parenting but their co-parent didn’t let them. And 43% of dads (versus 16% of moms) said their co-parent was too controlling.

What’s important about couple collaboration?

 The Cowans described the five aspects of collaboration they focus on in their work with parents of young children:

photo credit K. Merchant

photo credit K. Merchant

  1. Individual well-being of each parent: Are they anxious or depressed? What do they worry about? Do they feel effective, or not? How is each partner feeling?

  2. The couple relationship: What are some helpful strategies for problem-solving in the relationship? How can couples approach solutions and maintain their sense of calm?

  3. Parenting and co-parenting strategies: What is the authoritative parenting style and which specific strategies reflect that style? They encourage couples to make incremental changes and to plan time to reflect together on how things are going.

  4. Three-generational reflection: How have parents’ own childhoods, especially the relationship between their own parents, affected them? What approaches would they like to carry over from their childhood experiences, and what would they like to do differently?

  5. Stressors: Are there other stressors pressuring the family that should be addressed and where might they find support to lower their stress?

Six months after my first visit, I followed up with Emily, Jed, and little Shaye—and I experienced them as a solid, well-coordinated unit who were really enjoying each other. They were navigating the challenges of new parenting with thoughtfulness and care.

They recently helped their baby to sleep through the night. How? “We spent hours and hours arguing over strategies, and had months of conversations," Jed said. "Finally I said, ‘Emily, you need sleep. Something needs to happen here.’”

Now they’ve established a pattern where Jed manages much of the nighttime so Emily can sleep. He thaws and warms the breast milk, feeds Shaye, and then puts him down for sleep. If Shaye wakes up, Jed briefly comforts him, and then rolls back to bed.

“It can be challenging,” says Jed. “But the whole process is sweet and I love the interaction with him. It feels important to me that I can be that nurturing and effective.”

Juggling two work schedules and baby care without outside help is hard, and Jed is candid about that: “The most stressful part is when you’ve got 400 things on your mind and you’re racing against a deadline, and there’s nothing else you can do but be with your child. I’m more tired than I’ve ever been, and drink more caffeine now than in my entire life. I’ve hit my edges a few times, but it’s grown my capacity.”

"There’s not a lot of social support for new fathers," he continues. "Now I'm more interested in other dads. But it's not like we give a lot of advice to each other, it’s more like, ‘hey, what’s it like to be you right now?’”

How has fatherhood changed him?

“I feel more joyful and playful and fulfilled,” he says.

photo credit P. O'Conner

photo credit P. O'Conner


* * * * *

Additional resources

An Interview with Dr. Kyle Pruett, 2014

Conversation with Dr. Ruth Feldman and Dr. Kyle Pruett, 2014

More video talks by experts on the importance of fathers: Simms/Mann Institute

When Partners Become Parents: The Big Life Change for Couples, by Carolyn Pape Cowan and Philip Cowan

Do Fathers Matter? What Science is Telling Us about the Parent We’ve Overlooked (2014), by Paul Raeburn.

All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses—and How We Can Fix It Together (2015), by Josh Levs

And for fun

Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood (2009), by Michael Lewis

Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces (2018), by Michael Chabon

Teenagers Might Have a Problem With Respect But It's Not the One You Think

If you have a teenager, you're probably familiar with the feeling of being disrespected: Your teen rolls their eyes, sighs deeply, no longer laughs at your jokes, goes straight to their room and closes the door, or seems to argue with you all the time. You feel triggered: Your once-compliant child is becoming a stranger. Or your parental authority is threatened. 

You may sense that some of this disrespect is related to growing up, to your teen's desire to run their own life, make their own decisions. But they're not yet an adult, and the issues you need to weigh in on accumulate: When can they go out without supervision? What media can they use, and for how long? When can they have co-ed sleepovers, go to parties, or date? Are they doing their homework, getting enough sleep, spending time with family?

Some adults (not only parents but teachers, coaches, advisors, and more) react by taking a top-down approach, laying down their word as law: "Do it because I said so." Others take the opposite tack and abdicate their authority, letting the teens do what they want. Some adults try to micromanage teens, taking over where teens could be responsible for themselves. And others--especially those with a higher level of education--try to inform and persuade, didactically offering all the reasons why a teen should or should not do something. 

teacher stairwell.jpg

But research is revealing an important truth: Respect is a two-way street, and it becomes especially important during adolescence. Shifting focus from how much respect you feel you're getting, to whether or not you're showing them respect, is critical. Leveraging respect for teens is key to helping them stay engaged, in relationship, and in collaboration.

So what does that look like?

Respect for autonomy is key.

Self-determination theory asserts that people are more motivated when their underlying needs are taken into account. One of the most important human needs is autonomy, and autonomy is never more important than during the teenage years.

When you have autonomy, you have the freedom to act out of your own volition, to "own" an action yourself. Teens are more likely to feel autonomous when they feel successful managing a part of their lives, when they're allowed freedom of choice and action, when they're given responsibility, and/or when they see that their actions are meaningful and that they matter. Feeling autonomous contributes to feeling respected, and it helps teens know that they're on the road to adulthood.

A number of changes conspire during adolescence to make autonomy more important than at any other time. The hormonal changes that come with puberty act on the brain to bias teens' motivation in certain ways, perhaps in preparation for adulthood. One of those changes is in testosterone; its rise in both boys and girls in adolescence is correlated with respect-seeking. (Conventional wisdom links testosterone with aggression, but researchers find that it's more accurately predictive of respect-seeking. It's just that what counts for respect depends on the context. In deviant peer circles, testosterone is associated with aggression, but if teens are in a healthy peer group, the drive for respect is channeled more constructively, like taking leadership.)

If you take a long view of adolescence, this sharp turn toward needing respect makes sense: As adults, we all need to solicit respect or status among our peers in order to make things happen and function effectively in a group. But to a parent, the sudden change can feel jarring, and parents are often unprepared.

Autonomy threat: Why teens shut down (and how to avoid it).

It turns out, teens are super-sensitive to how adults react to their growing autonomy. When teens feel over-controlled or coerced, or even when adults do too much for them, it can trigger "autonomy threat," which shuts down teens' willingness to collaborate or engage. Threats to teens' autonomy may make them feel less able, less trustworthy, and more childlike than adult-like. Autonomy threats also send negative messages about teens' competence.

Researchers have noticed that quite a few strategies that work for children don't work for teens, especially beginning at around the eighth grade. A major reason for that may be autonomy threat. 

For example:

  • A meta-analysis (analysis of multiple studies) of bullying prevention programs showed that program effectiveness drops to nearly zero for eighth graders and above. Many social and emotional learning programs that work for younger children are less effective with high school students.

  • A recent randomized control trial (the gold standard of research) of a mindfulness intervention showed that it had no benefits for high school students, even though the course was taught by an expert in mindfulness.

  • Other meta-analyses show that numerous public health campaigns aimed at preventing obesity, depression, and juvenile justice recidivism become less effective in the eighth grade and above.

In fact, scientists are now starting to think that so-called "teenage rebellion" is not an inevitable part of adolescence but rather a reaction to autonomy threat. For example, studies show that teens are willing to comply with parents when they think the rules are fair (like moral choices or ones involving safety), but they resist when the rules seem personal (e.g., what clothes to wear) or unjust. In other words, they don't rebel across the board, just when they think something is out of bounds--a distinction we surely want them to be able to make as adults.


One clever study showed how criticism can literally shut teens down. Researchers scanned teenagers' brains while they listened to recordings of their mothers making different types of statements, including both loaded statements (criticisms) and neutral statements about the weather. When the mothers criticized the teens, saying things like, "One thing that really bothers me about you is [blank]," regions of the teens' brains that process emotions (specifically social and physical pain) became more active. Simultaneously, areas of the brain associated with emotion regulation and social cognition became less active. Scientists interpret this to mean that not only do teens react with negative feelings to their mother's criticism but that their ability to regulate those feelings also deteriorates and they become less able to take the parent's perspective into account.

So how do we talk with teens about difficult subjects without activating their autonomy threat?

One recent study demonstrated that avoiding autonomy threat, along with appealing to teens growing sense of social justice, could inspire them to make healthy food choices--something traditional public health campaigns have been unsuccessful at. Researchers Christopher Bryan at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and David Yeager at the University of Texas at Austin, along with other colleagues, randomly assigned over 500 eighth graders to one of three learning conditions:

  1. The first group learned about the importance of healthy eating through traditional, information-based health education lessons.

  2. The second group read an article about how food companies unfairly influence people's food choices in a number of ways, e.g., by engineering foods to be addictive, manipulatively targeting young people, mislabeling unhealthy foods as healthy and natural, and so on.

  3. The third group was a non-food-related control group.


The following day, when students had the opportunity to select their own snacks for an ostensibly unrelated event, the group that had read about corporate manipulation chose healthier snacks than either of the other two groups. A reasonable conclusion is that in the case of the first group, teens' autonomy threat was triggered by the didactic style of teaching information. But in the second group, their desires both for autonomy and for social justice were appealed to--teens don't want to be controlled by anyone, including corporations, and they have a strong sense of fairness and justice.

Interventions are more effective, science suggests, when they work in concert with teens' strong values. Indeed, studies show that teens collaborate more under certain conditions: where they feel their intelligence is valued, where their potential fro growth is taken into account, when they are allowed to make choices and discoveries, when they feel safe. 

Another piece of the puzzle: secure attachment.

Teens who have a secure attachment with their parents or primary caregivers also collaborate and engage more with adults and make healthier decisions. Scientists define a secure attachment in adolescence much the same as in earlier childhood--where parents are a "secure base" for children to explore the world and master their environment. And a secure attachment in adolescence continues to confer benefits like better mental health, better social skills, fewer risky behaviors, and better coping in teens.

But attachment looks different in adolescence that it does in childhood, especially in the dimension of autonomy. Teens don't need to be as physically close to their parents, but they do still need the psychological closeness and assurances of support and protection when needed. They spend more time with their peers, away from parents, than younger children do. And they have more conflicts with their parents--though conflict itself is not a sign of a problem. Rather, some conflict is a healthy byproduct of negotiating their growing autonomy. However, how the conflict is handled matters very much: Teens do better when they are allowed to express their opinions freely (respectfully, still validating and showing empathy for the other person's point of view), without being made to feel that their relationship with their parent is threatened.

Kristine Marbell-Pierre researched "autonomy-supportive parenting" as a graduate student at Clark University, and she is now the Head of Guidance and Counseling at The Ghana International School in Ghana. Autonomy-supportive parenting is part of a secure attachment and is an approach where parents motivate teens to be collaborative.


"You help them get behind your actions so they want to do what they're doing," she says. "They're cleaning their rooms because they want to do it, or they're studying really hard because they want to do it." How does that happen? "Through a conversation," she explains. "You let them give you their opinion, you give your perspective, and you negotiate and give them some choice."

For example, the parents of a friend of mine were getting a divorce and they felt it was important for their son to go to therapy. He wasn't sure he wanted to go, though, and his parents listened to his opinion. Then they explained why they thought therapy might be helpful...and they let him reject as many therapists as he wanted to until he found one he liked. Both parties had some control in the situation, and to this day, their son talks about therapy as one of the most important contributors to his mental health.

But what about when making a choice isn't appropriate or isn't allowed? Marbell-Pierre wondered if allowing teens choices would fly in her home country of Ghana, where families are hierarchical and where obedience to, and respect for, elders is paramount. "How can a teen feel like they're behind their own actions without undermining our value of respect for elders?" she asked.

So she surveyed both American and Ghanaian six graders about how they and their parents handled decisions together. What she discovered is that there are two separate parts to autonomy support: The first involves taking the teens' perspective, empathizing, and allowing an open exchange of conversation. The second part is the allowance of choice, or the teens' own decision-making.

Among the Ghanaian teens, obedience and lack of choice did not create negative feelings, she explained, because the teens identified more as part of the collective family. For American teens, though, having a choice was important, and negative feelings resulted when they couldn't have a hand in the decision-making. However, teens in both cultures did better and felt better when they were free to express their views, their feelings, and even their criticisms--and when they received empathy and an understanding of their different perspective from their parents. 

"Human beings across cultures need to feel heard and understood," says Marbell-Pierre.

Research confirms that all kinds of positive outcomes result from autonomy-supportive parenting: Teens learn better and do better in school, they are more engaged, and they persist harder if the face of difficulty. They also have better moods, are more collaborative with adults, and they rebel less.

"They are happier, more self-motivated, and more confident," says Marbell-Pierre.

Teenagers are one of the most negatively stereotyped groups in America, writes Laurence Steinberg, a prominent developmental psychologist.(1) And yet, as a society, we need--and we should value--teens' developmental gifts.(2) Their creativity, their energy, and their idealism are what remake society and carry us forward into the future with new ideas and solutions. Validating, protecting, and guiding their growing autonomy is important to their wellbeing and to keeping those gifts intact.

* * * * *

Helpful tips for supporting teens’ growing autonomy:

Strive for an authoritative parenting style, which includes a secure attachment. It also helps to encourage the ongoing development of a child’s autonomy from an early age.

Practice deep listening or reflective listening to the teen’s side of things. It might help to:   

  • Turn off your own internal alarm system: Take a meta-moment to calm your own reaction in order to make space to listen.

  • Reframe the teen’s desire for autonomy as a sign of their growing maturity rather than a threat to your authority.

  • Notice what gets in the way of your ability to be present and listen, such as stress, worry about your teen’s future, daily hassles, over-investing your own self-esteem in your teen’s success, or an addiction to control. (These suggestions come from this website on autonomy-supportive parenting.

  • Learn reflective listening techniques. For help, see the classic book How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

Be wary of pop literature that offers simple solutions, such as this article that points to letting teens fail as the way to promote autonomy. Granted, low-risk failure is appropriate at times, but be aware that the development of healthy autonomy results from more complex processes.

Scaffold choices and decision-making in age-appropriate ways. Teens, especially younger ones, can have strong emotional responses without the skills to regulate them. That, along with their desire for status among their peers and fallibilities in logical reasoning, can sometimes put them at greater risk. One helpful strategy is to require increased responsibility concomitant with increasing freedoms. For example, allowing the tongue piercing but making the teen responsible for health, safety, and costs. Or allow your teen to stay at a friends’ house but requiring a phone call when they’re starting back home.

Hone your back-and-forth negotiation skills. Here’s a template for that kind of conversation in families. Be clear on what’s non-negotiable for you (e.g., safety), versus what you’re willing to compromise on (e.g., appearance).

Other resources: Developmental psychologist Mike Riera offers the framework of transitioning from being a child’s “manager” to becoming more of a “consultant” during your child’s adolescence. He has several books, including Staying Connected to Your Teenager and Uncommon Sense for Parents with Teenagers. And developmental psychologist Laura Kastner, along with Jennifer Wyatt, write about how to handle conflicts that arise with teens in the book Getting to Calm.

* * * * *


(1) Laurence Steinberg (2014). Adolescence, 10th Ed., NY, NY: McGraw-Hill, p. 18

(2) Daniel Siegel (2013). Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. NY, NY: Penguin Group.

























What is a Secure Attachment? And Why Doesn’t “Attachment Parenting” Get You There?

photo credit: Emily Dorrien

photo credit: Emily Dorrien

A few months ago, a young friend of mine had a baby. She began a home birth with a midwife, but after several hours of labor, the baby turned to the side and became stuck. The midwife understood that the labor wouldn’t proceed, so she hustled the laboring Amelie into the car and drove the half-mile to the emergency room while Amelie’s husband followed. The birth ended safely, and beautiful, tiny Sylvie emerged with a full head of black hair. The little family of three went home.

When the baby was six weeks old, Amelie developed a severe breast infection. She struggled to continue breastfeeding and pumping, but it was extremely painful, and she was taking antibiotics.[1] Finally she gave in to feeding her baby formula, but she felt distraught and guilty. “Make sure you find some other way to bond with your baby,” her pediatrician said, adding to her distress.

Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. “Pooh!” he whispered.
”Yes, Piglet?”
”Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.
— A. A. Milne

Fortunately, sleep came easily to Sylvie; she slumbered comfortably in a little crib next to Amelie’s side of the bed. Still, at four months, Amelie worried that the bond with her baby wasn’t forming properly and she wanted to remedy the problem by pulling the baby into bed. Baby Sylvie wasn’t having it. When she was next to her mother, she fussed; when Amelie placed her back in the crib, she settled. Again, Amelie worried about their relationship.

“Amelie” is an amalgam of actual friends and clients I have seen in the last month, but all of the experiences are real. And as a developmental psychologist, I feel distressed by this suffering. Because while each of the practices—home birth, breastfeeding, and co-sleeping—has its benefits, none of them is related to a baby’s secure attachment with her caregiver, nor are they predictive of a baby’s mental health and development.

Attachment is a relationship in the service of a baby’s emotion regulation and exploration. It is the deep, abiding confidence a baby has in the availability and responsiveness of the caregiver.
— Alan Sroufe

“Attachment is not a set of tricks,” says Alan Sroufe, a developmental psychologist at the Institute for Child Development at the University of Minnesota. He should know. He and his colleagues have studied the attachment relationship for over 40 years.

Why the confusion about a secure attachment?

Over the last 80 years, developmental scientists have come to understand that some micro-dynamics that take place between a baby and an adult in a caring relationship have a lifelong effect, in very specific ways, on the person that baby will become.

“Attachment,” Sroufe explains, “is a relationship in the service of a baby’s emotion regulation and exploration. It is the deep, abiding confidence a baby has in the availability and responsiveness of the caregiver.”

A secure attachment has at least three functions:

  • Provides a sense of safety and security

  • Regulates emotions, by soothing distress, creating joy, and supporting calm

  • Offers a secure base from which to explore

In spite of the long scientific history of attachment, psychologists have done a rather poor job of communicating what a secure attachment is and how to create one. In the meantime, the word “attachment” has been co-opted by a well-meaning pediatrician and his wife, William and Martha Sears, along with some of their children and an entire parenting movement. The “attachment parenting” philosophy promotes a lifestyle and a specific set of practices that are not proven to be related to a secure attachment. As a result, the movement has sown confusion (and guilt and stress) around the meaning of the word “attachment.”

The attachment parenting philosophy inspired by the Searses and promoted by an organization called Attachment Parenting International is centered on eight principle concepts, especially breastfeeding, co-sleeping, constant contact like baby-wearing, and emotional responsiveness. The approach is a well-intentioned reaction to earlier, harsher parenting advice, and the tone of the guidance tends to be baby-centered, supportive, and loving. Some of the practices are beneficial for reasons other than attachment. But the advice is often taken literally and to the extreme, as in the case of my “Amelie,” whose labor required hospital intervention and who suffered unduly in the belief that breastfeeding and co-sleeping are necessary for a secure attachment.

Attachment parenting has also been roundly critiqued for promoting a conservative Christian, patriarchal family structure that keeps women at home and tied tightly to their baby’s desires. Additionally, the philosophy seems to have morphed in the public consciousness into a lifestyle that also includes organic food, cloth diapers, rejection of vaccinations, and homeschooling. The Searses have sold millions of books, and they profit from endorsements of products that serve their advice.

“These [attachment parenting principles] are all fine things,” observes Sroufe “but they’re not the essential things. There is no evidence that they are predictive of a secure attachment.”

Sroufe unpacks feeding as an example: A mother could breastfeed, but do it in a mechanical and insensitive way, potentially contributing to an insecure attachment. On the other hand, she could bottle-feed in a sensitive manner, taking cues from the baby and using the interaction as an opportunity to look, talk, and play gently, according to the baby’s communication—all behaviors that are likely to create secure attachment. In other words, it is the quality of the interaction that matters. Now, one might choose breastfeeding for its digestibility or nutrition (though the long-term benefits are still debated), but to imply, as Amelie’s pediatrician did, that bottle-feeding could damage her bond with her baby is simply uninformed.

There is also confusion about what “constant contact” means. Early on, the Searses were influenced by the continuum concept, a “natural” approach to parenting inspired by indigenous practices of wearing or carrying babies much of the time. This, too, might have been taken up in reaction to the advice of the day, which was to treat children in a more businesslike manner. There is no arguing that skin-to-skin contact, close physical contact, holding, and carrying are all good for babies in the first few months of life, as their physiological systems settle and organize. Research also shows that the practice can reduce crying in the first few months. But again, what matters for attachment is the caregiver’s orientation and attunement: Is the caregiver stressed or calm, checked out or engaged, and are they reading a baby’s signals? Some parents misinterpret the prescription for closeness as a demand for constant physical closeness (which in the extreme can stress any parent), even though the Searses do advise parents to strive for a balanced life.

“There’s a difference between a ‘tight’ connection and a secure attachment,” Sroufe explains. “A tight attachment—together all the time—might actually be an anxious attachment.”

And what of emotional responsivity? This, too, has a kernel of truth, yet can be taken too far. It is safe to say that all developmental scientists encourage emotional responsiveness on the part of caregivers: The back-and-forth, or serve-and-return, is crucial to brain development, cognitive and emotional development, the stress regulation system, and just authentic human connection. But in my observation, well-meaning parents can become overly-responsive—or permissive—in the belief that they need to meet every request of the child. While that is appropriate for babies in the first half to one-year year of life (you can’t spoil a baby), toddlers and older children benefit from age-appropriate limits in combination with warmth and love. On the other hand, some parents feel stressed that they cannot give their child enough in the midst of their other responsibilities. Those parents can take some comfort in the finding that even within a secure attachment, parents are only attuned to the baby about 30% of the time. What is important, researchers say, is that the baby develops a generalized trust that their caregiver will respond and meet their needs, or that when mismatches occur, the caregiver will repair them (and babies, themselves, will go a long way toward soliciting that repair). As long as the caregiver returns to the interaction much of the time and rights the baby’s boat, this flow of attunements, mismatches, and repairs offers the optimal amount of connection and stress for a baby to develop both confidence and coping, in balance.

What is the scientific view of attachment?

The scientific notion of attachment has its roots in the work of an English psychiatrist named John Bowlby who, in the 1930s, began working with children with emotional problems. Most professionals of the day held the Freudian belief that children were mainly motivated by internal drives like hunger, aggression, and sexuality, and not by their environment. However, Bowlby noticed that most of the troubled children in his care were “affectionless” and had experienced disrupted or even absent caregiving. Though his supervisor forbade him from even talking to a mother of a child (!), he insisted that family experiences were important, and in 1944 he wrote his first account of his observations based on 44 boys in his care. (Around the same time in America, psychologist Harry Harlow was coming to the same conclusion in his fascinating and heart-rending studies of baby monkeys, where he observed that babies sought comfort, and not just food, from their mothers.)  

Bowlby went on to study and treat other children who were separated from their parents: those who were hospitalized or homeless. He came to believe that the primary caregiver (he focused mainly on mothers) served as a kind of “psychic organizer” to the child, and that a child needs this influence, especially at certain times, in order to develop successfully. To grow up mentally healthy, then, “the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with this mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment.”

But the attachment figure doesn’t have to be the mother or even a parent. According to Bowlby, babies form a “small hierarchy of attachments.” This makes sense from an evolutionary view: The number has to be small since attachment organizes emotions and behavior in the baby, and to have too many attachments would be confusing; yet having multiples provides the safety of backups. And it’s a hierarchy because when the baby is in need of safety, he or she doesn’t have time to analyze the pros or cons of a particular person and must automatically turn to the person already determined to be a reliable comfort. Research shows that children who have a secure attachment with at least one adult experience benefits. Babies can form attachments with older siblings, fathers, grandparents, other relatives, a special adult outside the family, and even babysitters and daycare providers. However, there will still be a hierarchy, and under normal circumstances, a parent is usually at the top.

In the 1950s, Mary Ainsworth joined Bowlby in England, and a decade later back in the U.S. began to diagnose different kinds of relationship patterns between children and their mothers in the second year of life.[2] She did this by watching how babies reacted in a sequence of situations: when the baby and mother were together, when they were separated, when the baby was with a stranger, and when baby was reunited with the caregiver after the separation. Ainsworth and colleagues identified the first three of the following patterns, and Mary Main and colleagues identified the fourth:

  • When babies have a secure attachment, they play and explore freely from the “secure base” of their mother’s presence. When the mother leaves, the baby can become distressed, especially when a stranger is around. When the mother returns, the baby expresses her joy, sometimes from a distance and sometimes reaching to be picked up and held (babies vary, depending on their personality and temperament, even within a secure attachment). Then the baby settles quickly and returns to playing.

The mothers who fall into this pattern are responsive, warm, loving, and emotionally available, and as a result their babies grow to be confident in their mothers’ ability to handle feelings. The babies feel free to express their positive and negative feelings openly and don’t develop defenses against the unpleasant ones.

  • Babies in insecure-avoidant attachments seem indifferent to the mother, act unstressed when she leaves, and exhibit the same behaviors with a stranger. When the mother returns after a separation, the baby might avoid her, or might “fail to cling” when picked up.

The mothers in insecure-avoidant attachments often seem angry in general and angry, specifically, at their babies. They can be intolerant, sometimes punishing, of distress, and often attribute wrong motivations to the baby, e.g., “He’s just crying to spite me.” One study showed that the insecurely-attached babies are just as physiologically upset (increased heart rates, etc.) as securely attached babies when parents leave but have learned to suppress their emotions in order to stay close to the parent without risking rejection. In other words, the babies “deactivate” their normal attachment system and stop looking to their mothers for help.

As toddlers, insecure-avoidant children don’t pay much attention to their mothers or their own feelings, and their explorations of the physical world are rigid and self-reliant. By preschool, these children tend to be more hostile, aggressive, and have more negative interactions overall. Avoidance and emotional distance become a way of dealing with the world, and instead of problem-solving, they are more likely to sulk or withdraw.

  • Babies with an insecure-ambivalent/resistant attachment are clingy with their mother and don’t explore or play in her presence. They are distressed when the mother leaves, and when she returns, they vacillate between clinging and angry resistance. For example, they may struggle, hit, or push back when the mother picks them up.

These babies are not easily comforted. They seem to want the close relationship, but the mother’s inconsistency and insensitivity undermine the baby’s confidence in her responses. This pattern also undermines the child’s autonomy, because the baby stays focused on the mother’s behavior and changing moods to the exclusion of nearly everything else. In insecure-ambivalent babies, separation anxiety tends to last long after secure babies have mastered it. Longitudinal studies show that these children often become inhibited, withdrawn, and unassertive, and they have poor interpersonal skills.

  • The last pattern of insecure attachment—which is the most disturbing and destructive—is disorganized attachment, and it was described by Ainsworth’s doctoral student, Mary Main. This pattern can occur in families where there is abuse or maltreatment; the mother, who is supposed to be a source of support, is also the person who frightens the child. Such mothers may be directly maltreating the child, or they might have their own histories of unresolved trauma. Main and her colleague write, “[T]he infant is presented with an irresolvable paradox wherein the haven of safety is at once the source of alarm.”

This pattern can also result when the mother has a mental illness, substance addiction, or multiple risk factors like poverty, substance abuse and a history of being mistreated. Babies of mothers like this can be flooded with anxiety; alternatively, they can be “checked out” or dissociated, showing a flat, expressionless affect or odd, frozen postures, even when held by the mother. Later these children tend to become controlling and aggressive, and dissociation remains a preferred defense mechanism.[3]

The emotional quality of our earliest attachment experience is perhaps the single most important influence on human development.
— Alan Sroufe and Dan Siegel

How important is attachment?

“Nothing is more important than the attachment relationship,” says Alan Sroufe, who, together with colleagues, performed a series of landmark studies to discover the long-term impact of a secure attachment. Over a 35-year period, the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaption (MLSRA) revealed that the quality of the early attachment reverberated well into later childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, even when temperament and social class were accounted for.

One of the most important—and, to some ways of thinking, paradoxical—findings was that a secure attachment early in life led to greater independence later, whereas an insecure attachment led to a child being more dependent later in life. This conclusion runs counter to the conventional wisdom held by some people I’ve observed who are especially eager to make the baby as independent and self-sufficient as possible right from the start. But there is no pushing independence, Sroufe found. It blooms naturally out of a secure attachment.

In school, securely attached children were more well-liked and treated better, by both their peers and their teachers. In one study, teachers who had no knowledge of a child’s attachment history were shown to treat securely attached children with more warmth and respect, set more age-appropriate standards, and have higher expectations. In contrast, teachers were more controlling, had lower expectations, got angry more often, and showed less nurturing toward the children with difficult attachments—and who, sadly, had a greater need than the securely attached kids for kindness from adults.

The MSLRA studies showed that children with a secure attachment history were more likely to develop:[4]

  • A greater sense of self-agency

  • Better emotional regulation

  • Higher self-esteem

  • Better coping under stress

  • More positive engagement in the preschool peer group

  • Closer friendships in middle childhood

  • Better coordination of friendships and social groups in adolescence

  • More trusting, non-hostile romantic relationships in adulthood

  • Greater social competence

  • More leadership qualities

  • Happier and better relationships with parents and siblings

  • Greater trust in life

A large body of additional research suggests that a child’s early attachment affects the quality of their adult relationships, and a recent longitudinal study of 81 men showed that those who grew up in warm, secure families were more likely to have secure attachments with romantic partners well into their 70s and 80s. A parent’s history of childhood attachment can also affect their ability to parent their own child, creating a cross-generational transmission of attachment styles.

But early childhood attachment with a parent is not destiny: It depends on what else comes along. For example, a secure preschool child can shift to having an insecure attachment later if there is a severe disruption in the caregiving system—a divorce or death of a parent, for example. But the effect is mediated by how stressed and available the primary attachment figure is. In other words, it’s not what happens, but how it happens that matters. Children who were previously secure, though, have a tendency to rebound more easily.

Sroufe writes in several articles that an insecure attachment is not fate, either; it can be repaired in a subsequent relationship. For example, good-quality childcare that offers emotional support and stress reduction can mitigate a rocky start at home. A later healthy romantic relationship can offset the effects of a difficult childhood. And good therapy can help, too, since some of the therapeutic process mimics the attachment process. Bowlby viewed development as a series of pathways, constrained by paths previously taken but where change is always possible.

Without conscious intervention, though, attachment styles do tend to get passed through the generations, and Bowlby observed that becoming a parent particularly activates a parent’s childhood attachment style. One study looked at attachment styles over three generations and found that the mother’s attachment style when she was pregnant predicted her baby’s attachment style at one year of age for about 70% of cases.

What about parents who might not have gotten a good start in life and want to change their attachment style? There’s good news. Research on adult attachment shows that it is not the actual childhood experiences with attachment that matter but rather how well the adult understands what happened to them, whether they’ve learned some new ways of relating, and how well they’ve integrated their experience into the present. In other words, do they have a coherent and realistic story (including both good and bad) of where they’ve been and where they are now?

Support matters, too. In one of Sroufe’s studies, half the mothers were teenagers, which is usually a stressful situation. Sroufe found that the teenagers with good social support were able to form secure attachments with their babies, but if they didn’t have support, they were unlikely to form a secure attachment.

How to parent for a secure attachment and how to know if it’s working.

“The baby needs to know that they’re massively important,” says Sroufe. “A caregiver should be involved, attentive, sensitive, and responsive.”

“The baby will tell you what to do,” Sroufe explains. “They have a limited way of expressing their needs, so they’re not that difficult to read: If they’re fussing, they need something. If their arms are out, they want to be picked up. And if you misread them, they will keep on signaling until you get it right.” He gives the example of bottle-feeding a baby: “The baby might want a break, and she looks around. What does the baby want? To look around! If the parent misreads and forces the bottle back, the baby will insist, maybe snap her head away, or pull away harder.”

“How can I know if my baby is securely attached?” a client asked me about her six-month old. Clearly observable attachment doesn’t emerge until around nine months, but here are some clues that a secure attachment is underway:

0-3 months:

  • The baby’s physiology is just settling as the baby cycles quickly among feeding, sleeping, and alert wakefulness. Meeting the baby’s needs at different points in the cycle helps establish stability.

  • At this point, the baby has no clear preference for one person over another.

  • In her quiet, alert state, the baby is interested in the faces and voices around her.

4-8 months:

  • Attempts to soothe the baby are usually effective at calming her down. (Caveat: An inability to soothe might not be predictive of insecurity but rather point to one of a host of other possible issues.)

  • The primary caregiver has positive interactions with the baby where the back-and-forth is pleasant.

  • The baby has calm periods where she is interested in the world around her, and she explores and experiments to the extent she is physically able to—looking, grasping, reaching, babbling, beginning crawling, exploring objects with her mouth, hands, etc.

  • Infants begin to discriminate between people and start to show preferences. They direct most of their emotions (smiles, cries) toward the caregiver but are still interested in strangers.

  • They are very interested in the people they see often, especially siblings.

9 months:

  • The baby shows a clear preference for a primary caregiver.

  • The baby shows wariness toward strangers, though the degree varies with temperament.

  • The baby is easily upset when separated from her primary caregiver, though that, too, varies with temperament.

  • The baby is easily soothed after a separation and can resume her exploration or play.

9 months – 3 years:

  • The child shows a clear emotional bond with a primary person.

  • The child stays in close proximity to that person but forms close relationships with other people who are around a lot, too, e.g., babysitter, siblings.

Beyond this age, the attachment relationship becomes more elaborated. With language and memory, the rhythms of attachment and separation become more negotiated, talked about, and planned, and there is more of a back-and-forth between parent and child. By toddlerhood and beyond, an authoritative parenting style deftly blends secure attachment with age-appropriate limits and supports. A sensitive parent allows the changing attachment to grow and stretch with a child’s growing skills, yet continues to be emotionally attuned to the child and to protect their safety.

One of the best resources for how to parent for a secure attachment in the first few years of life is the new book Raising A Secure Child by Kent Hoffman, Glen Cooper, and Bert Powell, all therapists who have worked with many different kinds of families for decades. Their work is based squarely on the science of attachment, and they call their approach the Circle of Security. The circle represents the seamless ebb and flow of how babies and young children need their caregivers, at times coming close for care and comfort, and at other times following their inspiration to explore the world around them. The caregivers’ role is to tune into where on the circle their child is at the moment and act accordingly. Parenting for a secure attachment, the authors say, is not a prescriptive set of behaviors but more a state of mind, a way of “being with” the baby, a sensitivity to what they are feeling. The authors also help parents see the ways that their own attachment history shows up in their parenting and help them to make the necessary adjustments.

The neurobiology of attachment

“Attachment theory is essentially a theory of regulation,” explains Allan Schore, a developmental neuroscientist in the Department of Psychiatry at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. A clinician-scientist, he has elaborated modern attachment theory over the last three decades by explaining how the attachment relationship is important to the child’s developing brain and body.

Early brain development, Schore explains, is not driven just by genetics. The brain needs social experiences to take shape. “Mother Nature and Mother Nurture combine to shape Human Nature,” he writes.

Infants grow new synapses, or neural connections, at a rate of 40,000 new synapses a second, and the brain more than doubles in volume across the first year. Genetic factors drive this early overproduction of neurons, Schore explains, but the brain awaits direction from the social environment, or epigenetic processes, to determine which synapses or connections are to be pruned, which should be maintained, and which genes are turned on or off.

One of the first areas of the brain that begins to grow and differentiate is the right brain, the hemisphere that processes emotional and social information. The right brain begins to differentiate in the last trimester in utero, whereas the left-brain development picks up in the second year of life. Some of the regions that process emotion are already present in infants’ brains at birth—the amygdala, hypothalamus, insula, cingulate cortex, and orbitofrontal cortex. But the connections among these areas develop in specific patterns over the first years of life. That’s where input from the primary relationship becomes crucial—organizing the hierarchical circuitry that will eventually process, communicate, and regulate social and emotional information.[5]

“What the primary caregiver is doing, in being with the baby,” explains Schore, “is allowing the child to feel and to identify in his own body these different emotional states. By having a caregiver simply ‘be with’ him while he feels emotions and has experiences, the baby learns how to be,” Schore says.

The part of the brain that the primary caregiver uses for intuition, feeling, and empathy to attune to the infant is also the caregiver’s right brain. So it is through “right-brain-to-right brain” reading of each other, that the parent and child synchronize their energy, emotions, and communication. And the behaviors that parents are inclined to do naturally—like eye contact and face-to-face interaction, speaking in “motherese” (higher-pitched and slower than normal speech), and holding—are just the ones shown to grow the right-brain regions in the baby that influence emotional life and especially emotion regulation.

The evidence for epigenetic effects on emotion regulation is quite solid: Early caregiving experiences can affect the expression of the genes that regulate a baby’s stress and they can shape how the endocrine system will mobilize to stress. Caregiving behaviors like responsiveness affect the development of the baby’s vagal tone (the calming system) and the hypothalamic-pituitary axis (the system that activates the body to respond to perceived danger). High quality caregiving, then, modulates how the brain and body respond to and manage stress.

Schore points out that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a brain region in the right hemisphere, both has the most complex emotion and stress-regulating systems of any part in the brain and is also the center of Bowlby’s attachment control system. Neurobiological research confirms that this region is “specifically influenced by the social environment.” [6]

Stress management is not the only important part of emotion regulation. In the past, Schore explains, there was an overemphasis in the field of emotion regulation on singularly lowering the baby’s distress. But now, he says, we understand that supporting positive emotional states is equally important to creating [what he quotes a colleague as calling] a “background state of well-being.” In other words, enjoy your baby. It’s protective.

A baby’s emotion regulation begins with the caregiver, and the Goldilocks principle applies: If the caregiver’s emotions are too high, the stimulation could be intrusive to the baby, Schore explains. Too low, and the baby’s “background state” settles at a low or possibly depressive emotional baseline. Just right, from the baby’s point of view is best.

And babies are surprisingly perceptive at registering their feeling environment. Hoffman, Cooper and Powell write:

The youngest babies can sense ease versus impatience, delight versus resentment or irritation, comfort versus restlessness, genuine versus pretending, or other positive versus negative responses in a parent when these reactions aren’t evident to a casual observer. Little babies may pick up on the smallest sigh, the subtlest shift in tone of voice, a certain glance, or some type of body language and know the parent is genuinely comfortable or definitely not pleased.

Schore explains that in a secure attachment, the baby learns to self-regulate in two ways: One he calls “autoregulation” which is self-soothing, or using his own mind and body to manage feelings. The second is “interactive regulation” which is going to other people to help up- or down-regulate feelings. This twin thread of self-reliance and reliance on others, then, begins in the earliest months, becomes very important in the first two years of life, and continues in more subtle ways throughout the life span.

This all might sound daunting for a new parent, who could still be tempted to overdo the focus on the infant and how the connection is going—potentially leading to the same kinds of stress and guilt that the attachment parenting movement creates.

But fortunately, the caregiver doesn’t have to be 100% attuned to the baby and ongoing repairs are an important part of the process:

“The idea that a mother should never stress a baby is problematic,” Schore says. “Insecure attachments aren’t created just by a caregiver’s inattention or missteps. It also comes from a failure to repair ruptures. What is essential is the repair. Maybe the caregiver is coming in too fast and needs to back off, or maybe the caregiver has not responded, and needs to show the baby that she’s there. Either way, repair is possible, and it works. Stress is a part of life, and what we’re trying to do here is to set up a system by which the baby can learn how to cope with stress.”  Optimal stress, he explains, is important for stimulating the stress-regulating system.

Still, both Sroufe and Schore acknowledge the emotional labor of parenting. And they are vehement that parents need to be supported in order to have the space and freedom to care for babies.

“It takes time for parents to learn to read their baby’s signals,” Sroufe said.

Schore calls America’s failure to provide paid family leave—and we’re the only country in the world that doesn’t—the “shame of America.”

“We are putting the next generation at risk,” he explains, pointing to rising rates of insecure attachments and plummeting mental health among American youth. Parents should have at least six months of paid leave and job protection for the primary caregiver, and at least two months of the same for the secondary one, according to Schore, and Sroufe goes further, advocating for one full year of paid leave and job protection. And a recent study showed that it takes mothers a year to recover from pregnancy and delivery.

Intellectual and cognitive development have been privileged in our society, but it is our emotion regulation that organizes us, our existence, and how we experience life, Schore says. A study from the London School of Economics draws the conclusion that “The most important childhood predictor of adult life-satisfaction is the child’s emotional health…. The least powerful predictor is the child’s intellectual development.”[7] 

So where does this leave my friend Amelie?  The hard part will be navigating the distracting advice and creating the workarounds she needs for the lack of cultural support. But she enjoys her baby immensely, and I’m confident that she’ll form a secure attachment with Sylvie, as she trusts her own “right-brain” flow of empathy, feeling, and being, and tunes in to Sylvie’s own unique ways of communicating.

And Sylvie will do her part to draw her parents close. Because regardless of babies’ individual personalities—and whether they cry a lot or sleep very little, whether they’re breastfed or bottle-fed—they draw you in with their wide-open gaze, their milky scent, and their tiny fingers that curl around your big ones. Before you know it, they light you up with their full-body smile that’s specially for you, and they draw you near with their plump little arms clasped around your neck.

And the sweet elixir of the attachment relationship is underway.


[1] While many medications are considered safe to take while breastfeeding, complete side effects may not be fully understood. For example, recent research suggests antibiotics may change the test baby’s microbiome (the implications of which are unclear), and some antibiotics are thought to discolor developing teeth.

[2] This section refers to primary caregivers as mothers since this research focused just on mothers.

[3] This section was adapted from the chapter on Attachment, in D. Davies’ Child Development: A Practitioner’s Guide, Guilford, 2011.

[4] Sroufe, A. & Siegel, D. “The verdict is in: The case for attachment theory.”

[5] From Schore, A. (2017). Modern attachment theory, in APA’s Handbook of Trauma Psychology, p. 6.

[6] Schore, A. (2017). “Modern attachment theory.” In APA Handbook of Trauma Psychology: Vol 1 (publication pending).

[7] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ecoj.12170/full p. F720, in Layard,R., Clark, A.E., Cornaglia, F., Powdthavee, N. & Vernoit, J. (2014) What predicts a successful life? A life-course model of well-being. The Economic Journal, 124, p. F720-F738.

What Does a Developmental Psychologist See in a 40th Class Reunion?

When I told people I was going to my 40th high school reunion, I might as well have said I was jumping off a cliff. Almost across the board, the reaction was shock, though the reasons varied. Granted, I hadn’t been in touch with my classmates, so some degree of surprise was legitimate. But my friends and family also projected their own reasons: high school had been the “worst time of their lives”; that they had never “fit in”; they didn’t want to open their present lives to judgment. But I’m a developmental psychologist, and I wanted to understand what a reunion ritual might mean. Nothing is more interesting to me than discovering how children grow up and their lives turn out.

As the date approached, I finally became apprehensive myself. Most of us had been together since kindergarten, but what if I didn’t recognize people after forty years? After all, I now have silver hair and 40 additional pounds; others would also have changed. Or what if we didn’t have anything to talk about? How would I react to an old “flame,” or he to me? Could I finally uncover the story behind a friend who had so traumatically “dropped” me in sixth grade? When nervous jokes started showing up on the Facebook reunion page, I saw that I wasn’t the only one with anxiety. I recruited a childhood friend to go with me.

“I’m only doing this for you, you know,” Vic joked when she greeted me at my hotel. Our mothers went to high school together and been friends long before we were born. Vic remembers the fuzzy socks I wore in second grade and how my father had carried me into school in his arms when my broken leg was in a cast. I remember making vinegar and baking soda volcanoes at Vic’s house and singing soprano next to her in choir.

We arrived at the Curling Club (home to the winter sport of sliding granite stones on ice) to a frenzy of slightly boozed-up greetings. About a third of my class of 140 was there. A current of excitement crackled through the crowd—hails from across the lawn; flying wisecracks and boisterous teasing; and enthusiastic, if somewhat self-conscious, hugging. It was a relief to find my old friend Dave, who was just as unruffled as I’d remembered him—a straight shooter, unperturbed by his surroundings. He had worked for a time for my father, a milkman; his mother had been my beloved third grade teacher. I was happy to meet Dave’s wife, and a meaningful conversation ensued about parents, illness, children, and more.

Sociologist Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi has observed that high school reunions can trigger a sudden threat to one’s identity. In the space of a short gathering, we are called upon to reconcile past expectations with our present reality, among people who shared that past. At my reunion, the actual list of predictions that our peers had made about each other 40 years ago hid amidst the memorabilia. “Diana will run a computer dating service,” it read, and the old memory of craving connection amidst my chaotic environment flashed. Other predictions were equally unpredictive: that a high school romance would end in marriage (it didn’t) or that a career would peak in a grocery store stockroom (it didn’t); and predictions for women centered on marriage and children. Predictions can be entertaining, but since these weren’t about activating our best future selves, I regretted their presence. Reunions are not just happy gatherings, Vinitzky-Seroussi writes. They “telescope the life course” and create pressure to evaluate, or protect, or project our choices, often in the space of a very short, catch-up conversation.

But this was not our tenth or even twenty-fifth reunion, the early ones that Vinitzky-Seroussi studied. This was our fortieth, a time when life achievements are behind for most of us and some are even looking toward retirement. Fortunately, I felt well-anchored in the present, and I think others did, too.

The conventional wisdom about reunions is that people can surprise you, and I found that to be true. Who would have known that the quiet boy in the back of the band would be a pillar of the community as the trusted funeral director? Or that the guy who seemed lost in high school would be so crisp and successful at 58? Psychologists use the terms “equifinality” and “multifinality” to describe how very different paths can lead to similar outcomes, or, conversely, how similar paths can lead to very different outcomes. At the same time, our perceptions of what’s important changes, too: The kids who once dominated in popularity might now appear boring and superficial, and the former “outsiders” often turn out to be the really interesting ones. And yet when I asked Vic if she recognized everyone, she replied, “Not so much from their faces, but their energy—it’s the same.”

Even though we all shared a large part of our pasts, we couldn’t have truly known each others’ lives while we were children. A few kids had seemed to sail through with equanimity—they ran the student council at school and collected maple syrup at home–but even then, there were hints of malaise. I knew that it wasn’t right that the gentle, deer-like boy who sat in front of me in seventh grade homeroom smelled like alcohol and cigarettes. Another child was rumored to have been abused, though there was no action taken to protect her. I was a high achiever but suffered with parents who were in constant conflict; they struggled with mental health and substance use issues. Many parents were alcoholics before the disease was even named.

Psychologists now know that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are predictive of later physical and mental health problems, including heart disease, depression, and suicidality.  Research suggests that about a third of kids are lucky enough to escape trauma, but about a quarter suffer such high doses that it affects brain development, immune and endocrine functioning, and can create mental and physical disease systems that reduce the lifespan by an average of 20 years. How different might many students’ lives have been if an adult had recognized their feelings and had the skill to approach them and say, “You look down. What’s going on, and can I help?” Today, innovative schools throughout the country are feathering emotional skill development into their academic curricula, and studies show that both individual kids, and the school as a whole do better. Pediatricians, too, are beginning to screen for ACEs and offer early intervention services to families and children at risk.

Childhood is not easy, even at the best of times, and middle school is an especially stressful period. Conventional wisdom used to hold that it was the changing sex hormones that made kids “crazy,” but scientists now understand that puberty kicks off changes in the brain that make youth more emotionally sensitive, more sensitive to their social world, more willing to take risks, and more vulnerable to mental illness and addictions. Combine all of that with changes in schools, new peer groups, or family troubles, and you quickly get a pile-up of stressors that can be overwhelming.

Jockeying for status in peer groups begins as early as the fifth grade, and, in my day, peer dynamics were raw and lacking any guidance. Consistent with the research, it was the male athletes and the conventionally pretty girls (especially cheerleaders) who were conferred high status, and kids who were “different” were often marginalized—through teasing, exclusion, and gossip. Girls who physically matured earlier than average, or boys who matured later than average, were at greater risk, just as they are today. Too tall, too skinny, too heavy, too awkward, too shy, too country, too slow…the “faults” can be endless. 

Kids naturally form and re-form friendships, but without real social skills, the process can be excruciating. In sixth grade, I was shattered when my best friend of six years decided one day to simply stop talking to me. While it’s natural for a child to feel ready to find new friends, this particular friend had had no skills with which to explain her needs. Her silent treatment left a mark, and I used it both as a cautionary tale for my own children and an illustration in the college courses I taught on teen development. Research now shows that humans are such intensely social creatures that social ostracism lights up physical pain pathways in the brain; it can be more damaging than even physical abuse. Sometimes, I imagine how our friendship “breakup” could have gone differently, had we had the social skills kids can learn in school nowadays to navigate peer conflict. Though my well-being is no longer affected by that experience, I was curious to know my former friend’s side of the story. Yet when we greeted each other at the reunion, we didn’t get much beyond a hello. I took that to mean that it was not likely to be the place—or perhaps the person—where such a conversation could happen.

“Humans are storytelling, story-loving creatures,” says psychologist Matthew Lieberman, author of Social Brain, Social Mind. One of the most powerful ways we understand the experience of being human is by constructing a narrative of our lives. Young children begin this process as soon as they learn the word “I,” and parents begin telling them stories about when they were little. And at the other end of lifespan, elders engage in a “life review,” telling and retelling their stories to help them make sense of their lives.

Reunions—where our past selves meet our present selves—can be a special opportunity to re-weave our stories. I observed it happening all evening. One woman who had seemed defiant and tough in junior high apologized to the PE teacher, telling her that she hadn’t meant to be the teacher’s “nemesis” but in fact was a military kid who got moved around a lot.

“I never knew that,” the teacher breathed, empathically.

A man who had been a geek before geeks were cool enthusiastically shared that he was an inventor, held patents, had designed a part of the space shuttle and a medical device, and had made millions doing so.

A friend divulged her confusion about some same-sex experimentation that had gone on at a childhood sleepover. Of course there had been no framework for normalizing that, or even language to name it.

I, too, had a story to revise. When a popular biology teacher’s name came up, I shared that six years after we’d graduated, he had prevented my Lutheran church from marrying me and my husband, because my husband is from India. “He’s not a good guy,” I grumbled about the teacher.

The life stories flowed, from what it’s like for a Minnesotan to be transplanted to the Deep South, to taking care of grandchildren, to being the youngest in a senior citizen woodworking shop, to losing a child. There was a lot of loss and growth to process, as well as joy to celebrate.

One evening is not enough time together to truly span 40 years; it’s just a sliver of reality. But I happily put new numbers and email addresses into my phone. I want to keep up with some old friends, and I discovered new ones that I’d missed earlier.

And that old flame?

“I learned from you,” he told me. “Your family had high expectations, and I craved some of that.”

“You sheltered me at a stormy time,” I replied, remembering his laughter and easy-going manner.

Class reunion? For me, at least, it wasn’t so scary. What we went through together mattered, and bearing witness to one another’s stories—from our shared past and the years that had followed— felt like a good way to honor that.







How To Soothe a Crying Baby

My most exhausting parenting memories have to do with being unable to soothe a crying baby. My husband and I had two children three years apart, on our own, thousands of miles away from our families. We were both in the startup phases of our careers, and so we took turns: We swaddled the babies, walked the hallway, put them on the dryer, swayed to music, drove in the car, used pacifiers, sat in a steamy bathroom, and rocked in the rocking chair. For a couple of years, I was so tired, I could hardly string complex sentences together at work.

New parents know this drill. And there are two big questions that arise pretty quickly: “How do you get it to stop?” and “When can we start letting the baby ‘cry it out’?”

My own childhood was not a great guide. I grew up in a time and place where the attitude toward crying even among normal parents could be summed up by the dictum, “Quit your crying,” and “I’ll give you something to cry about.” I wanted to take a different path.

Developmental science, though, was a good guide:

photo credit: depositphotos.com

photo credit: depositphotos.com

Crying in the first three months of life

In 1972, Johns Hopkins University researchers Sylvia Bell and Mary Ainsworth conducted a groundbreaking—and now classic— study on infant crying. For two-to-four hours at regular intervals across the first year of life, they went into the homes of 26 mother-infant pairs and took continuous notes on baby-mother interactions. What they found was important news: Babies whose mothers responded consistently and promptly to their babies’ cries in the first three months of life cried less often and for shorter duration in the subsequent months.

These responded-to babies also transitioned more quickly to other, non-crying modes of communication, like facial expressions, gestures, and vocalizations, later in the first year. (A more recent review of studies of infant crying linked less crying to better language skills.)

What about the babies whose mothers didn’t respond to their cries? Some mothers  believed that if they responded, their babies would be encouraged to cry more, becoming more dependent and demanding—in a word, “spoiled.” This view is rooted in advice from the 1920s-‘40s from behaviorists like John B. Watson and promoted by the U.S. Children’s Bureau of Infant Care. Their opinion was that parents should have an emotionally detached, businesslike relationship with their children. An entity as powerful as the federal government advised that parents should not pick up their children between feedings, lest the baby become a “spoiled, fussy, and household tyrant” who makes a “slave of the mother.”(1) This advice was not based on scientific evidence, but extrapolated from operant conditioning and what was understood about the power of positive reinforcement. Today, nearly 100 years later, that advice has been hard to eradicate.

A predictable pattern

 Babies’ cries are important signals, their only communication device in the beginning. The cries are part of a stone-age “operating system” that are designed to draw the caregiver close for protection and survival and to help manage the body, brain, and feelings at the time of greatest helplessness. Just how the caregiver responds to those signals is important for wiring up a nervous system that will be as calm, organized, and integrated as possible; in other words, it’s foundational for later growth and development.

Cries run the continuum from gentle fussing that might start quietly and build up toward discomfort, hunger, or boredom, to loud, high-pitched cries that may be followed by breath-holding that signals alarm, danger, or pain. And there is everything in between.

Babies' cries are both similar and unique. Digital acoustical cry analyses captures qualities like frequency, energy, and signal-to-noise ratio and show that a pain cry has a different pattern from other cries (it’s high-pitched, loud, and sudden, with some breath-holding). Each individual baby’s cry also has a unique “cryprint.” That cryprint is something many caregivers recognize; that is, they know their own baby’s cries from that of other babies.

Though every baby is a little different, “normal” crying in the first three months of life follows a fairly predictable pattern:

  • Crying tends to start up at around two weeks after birth, peak at around six weeks, and gradually decline and stabilize at around three-to-four months. The six-week peak is seen in many cultures (and even in chimpanzee babies):

Each line represents a separate study of crying. Reprinted with permission from Barr, R.G., (1990). The normal crying curve: What do we really know? Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 32 (4), 356-362.

Each line represents a separate study of crying. Reprinted with permission from Barr, R.G., (1990). The normal crying curve: What do we really know? Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 32 (4), 356-362.

  • Most young babies have a fussy period. In newborns it’s often around midnight, whereas in older babies, it’s more often in the late afternoon or early evening. Extra holding, cuddling, or swaddling can help.

  • According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, two-to-three hours of crying a day is normal for babies in the first three months of life.

Why do young babies cry?

photo credit K. Merchant

photo credit K. Merchant

Babies under three months cry for many reasons: They’re hungry, they’re uncomfortable, they’re in pain, they’re too warm or too chilly, they want more or less stimulation, they’re wet, they’re transitioning from being asleep to being awake, they don’t like a hard surface or a scratchy fabric, and the list goes on.

For an exhaustive list of possible reasons for crying, and corresponding soothing techniques, see this list at reflux.org.

In addition, some babies just cry more than others, according to pediatric psychiatrist Barry Lester of Brown University, who has seen thousands of babies in his Colic Clinic at the Brown University Center for the Study of Children at Risk. Each baby has a distinct personality and a unique temperament that, in the beginning, have little to do with parenting. Some babies are reactive and easily upset, he says, and once they get wound up it’s hard to help them calm down. On the other hand, some reactive babies are easy to soothe and may even self-quiet after their parents back off for a bit. Some babies are not particularly reactive but are still hard to soothe; so for those babies, it takes longer to trigger crying, but once they start, they’re  hard to bring down.(2) And some lucky parents have babies who are just “easy”; they don’t cry much, and they’re easy to soothe when they do start.

Sometimes there is a mismatch between the baby’s needs and the parent’s ability to respond. Less experienced, first-time caregivers as well as those with less support, can easily overreact. Or caregivers may have personalities, feelings, or beliefs that get in the way of reading their baby’s signals, intentionally or unintentionally. For example, studies show that caregivers with restrictive attitudes, insufficient empathy, or a high stress response respond less well to their babies. On the other hand, too much empathy, e.g., taking on the baby’s cries as evidence of unbearable suffering, can lead to “empathic distress” in the caregiver, and in an attempt to control their own strong feelings, they might withdraw, or become overly-intrusive. Fortunate parents who’ve had positive childhood experiences—or who’ve come to terms with difficult ones—tend to find it easier to respond more sensitively to their babies’ cries.

Depressed caregivers have the hardest time responding to their babies, putting babies at greatest risk for poor outcomes. Pediatric psychiatrist Barry Lester writes that babies are highly attuned to their caregivers’ feelings, and as a result may even cry more in an unhappy environment.(3) Depression can appear in many forms, from the mild depression arising from parenting pressures and lack of sleep to full-blown, biochemical, post-partum depression. We also know that being unable to soothe a crying baby can itself trigger feelings of helplessness and depression. Sooner or later, almost every parent will break down in tears because no matter what she does, she can’t stop her baby’s crying. I remember being trapped in an airplane seat for four hours with hot tears leaking down my cheeks when I couldn’t soothe the baby in my arms. (I later learned that she had an ear infection, but there was nothing I could do in the moment except rock her gently in my arms and whisper calmly in her ear.) It is a humbling, exasperating feeling—and it’s important that parents not blame themselves, Lester urges.

Some babies cry in the first three months for no reason that professionals can understand. Psychologists and pediatricians refer to this as “endogenous” crying, meaning simply that the source is internal. Endogenous crying is uniquely human, according to Debra Zeifman, psychologist at Vassar, in her review of research studies on crying. Even our close relatives the chimpanzees stop crying when their needs are met or they’re picked up; only humans seem to have the kind of crying that can perpetuate itself regardless of the trigger.

Endogenous crying seems to resolve at around three months, when it becomes more “exogenous,” or linked reliably to external triggers. This shift from internal to external coincides with other developmental shifts, suggesting that there is a maturation of an underlying system—a “forebrain inhibitory mechanism,” or some aspect of the central nervous system—at around three months. For example, also at around the three-month mark, endogenous smiling is replaced by more social smiling, stimulated by a familiar face; newborn reflexes disappear and are replaced by more voluntary behaviors; the sleep-wake cycle settles down into a more predictable rhythm, and there are changes in EEG patterns.

And finally, in rare cases, some babies’ distinct cries (often very high-pitched or poorly phonated) may reflect underlying neurological disturbances. Scientists are working to develop acoustical cry analyses that can predict later developmental disorders such as autism.

But one important reason babies cry, Zeifman says in a vast review of studies of infant crying, may be that they have been left alone.

Holding, carrying, feeding: What’s the evidence?

Babies in Western cultures, says Zeifman, spend an exceptionally large amount of time alone compared to babies in less developed cultures. Western parents for the most part are discouraged from physical closeness and frequent feedings, and they’re often encouraged to ignore their baby’s crying. Western babies are carried an average of about 30% of their waking hours, compared to 80-90% of waking hours for babies in non-Western cultures.

Anthropologists think that continuous holding may have been a strategy to reduce infant mortality, the risk of which has been lowered dramatically in the West. Yet, practices that distance caregivers from their infants, many anthropologists and psychologists say, may contribute to more crying. In Why Is My Baby Crying?, Barry Lester points to a survey of over 180 societies that found that babies cried less when they were carried.(4)

In a randomized control study (the gold standard of studies) of supplemental holding, 99 Canadian mothers were randomly assigned to either hold their babies a minimum of three hours throughout the day (whether they were crying or not), or to a control group (where babies spent extra time in front of a mobile or abstract shape). At six weeks of age, when crying normally peaks, the extra holding had the greatest impact—reducing overall crying by 43% and nighttime crying by 51%.  Extra holding made a smaller but still positive difference later, at four, eight, and twelve weeks as well.

Supplemental holding reduced crying compared to a control group. Reprinted with permission, from Hunziker, U.A. & Barr, R. G. (1986). "Increased carrying reduces infant crying: A randomized controlled trial."  Pediatrics , 77 (5), 641-648.

Supplemental holding reduced crying compared to a control group. Reprinted with permission, from Hunziker, U.A. & Barr, R. G. (1986). "Increased carrying reduces infant crying: A randomized controlled trial." Pediatrics, 77 (5), 641-648.

When babies are carried, held, or worn, mothers can sense early on when something is wrong, and attend or soothe before a cry even erupts. There is no known downside full-time carrying to babies, either to their health or their psychological outcomes. Carrying and holding is, however, a lifestyle challenge in Western cultures—it is not easy for babysitters, daycare providers, or working parents to provide that extra holding to individual babies. However the benefits of it should just be more proof that we need better policies to support parents since it is unlikely that we’re going to change the way babies’ nervous systems and brains develop!

Feeding intervals also reduce crying in young babies. For example, a correlational study of two American subgroups—one from La Leche League and one control group—found that frequent feedings reduced crying in babies who were two months old but did not make a difference for four-month-old babies.

Given that more holding and more frequent feedings help the youngest babies cry less and be more comfortable, it may be possible that the amount of crying in young babies may be more flexible than we think, more amenable to care practices. If we place infants in playpens and cribs and don’t co-sleep, we may miss the early cues that babies are in distress. In Why Is My Baby Crying?, Lester goes so far as to say that Western caregiving practices actually train babies to cry. When we leave babies physically apart from caregivers until they cry, babies get the message “If you want me, call me.”(5)

Crying it out?

photo credit: K. Merchant

photo credit: K. Merchant

Some babies do defy the norm and stop crying when left to “cry it out.” In fact, a follow-up study to Bell and Ainworth’s classic 1972 work found that a few mothers who ignored their babies had babies who cried less. However, most researchers critique those findings on either methodological grounds or as a sign of “giving up” on the baby’s part—a despair and withdrawal that could ultimately lead to detachment. Modern baby gurus like pediatrician and author William Sears and psychologist Penelope Leach agree. Sears says that when caregivers let babies “cry it out,” babies  can lose trust in the “signal value of the cry” and maybe even in the caregiver relationship. Leach says that leaving a baby to cry it out can activate such high levels of the stress hormone cortisol and can deplete levels of oxygen that it can be toxic to a baby’s brain. “Crying it out” also undermines the important “serve and return” interaction that is the earliest basis of cognitive development.

A 2002 report summarizes the physiological changes that can happen when babies are left to cry hard:

  • Heart rate rises; there can be tachycardia, i.e., racing heart. Blood pressure increases by 135%.

  • Oxygen levels go down.

  • Blood pressure in the brain becomes elevated.

  • Stress response is activated, with elevated levels of cortisol. If uninterrupted, this creates a cascade of effects that can eventually damage the developing brain, affect the genes that regulate stress, damage the hippocampus, and result in later problems with learning, memory, attention, and emotion regulation.

  • Prolonged crying can lead to aerophagia, or air-swallowing, causing pain and problems with digestion.

  • Energy reserves are depleted due to rapid motor movements.

  • White blood cell count increases with vigorous crying, suggesting the body is preparing a survival response.

What about colic or crying that won’t stop?

Estimates of colic vary, from 10% to about 20-40% of babies in Western societies. Most pediatricians diagnose colic on the Rule of Threes: crying for more than three hours a day, for more than three days a week, for more than three weeks, in a baby that is otherwise healthy. But pediatricians don’t have any solutions; they simply  encourage parents to persevere until the colic runs its course, usually by around three months of age. The real risk of colic, they agree, is the stress it exacts on caregivers, placing those babies at high risk for abuse (and even shaken baby syndrome) when parents “lose it.”

As the Founder of the Colic Clinic, Barry Lester is the nation’s leading expert on colic, and he takes a strong stance. “Crying is normal,” he writes. “Colic is not. People who say that colic is normal not only are wrong; they also are doing a huge disservice to families who have colicky babies.”(6) In Why Is My Baby Crying, he defines colic as “an identifiable cry problem in the infant that is causing some impairment either in the infant or in relationships in the family.”(7)

His colic symptom checklist includes:

  • A sudden onset of crying—the episode seems to come out of the blue

  • A change in the quality of the cry (more towards pain

  • A change in the physical body—pulling legs up, doubling over, tightening of muscles;

  • The baby is inconsolable

The full checklist along with a cry “diary” can help caregivers and pediatricians problem-solve the excessive crying. Though the cause of colic is unknown, Lester has in some cases identified gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), pain, food allergies, and other sensitivities. But there is no predictable common theme, and most often, no cause can be identified. Yet families still need help, since colic can pose some developmental risk and family relationship problems due to the stress it creates.

Colicky babies are more likely to have difficult temperaments and feeding and sleeping problems, all of which can interfere with the settling of the nervous system in the first three months. Their cries and heart rates are different from those of normal babies. They are at risk for behavior problems in preschool as well as attention deficit, hyperactivity, sensory integration, and emotional reactivity.(8)

photo credit K. Merchant

photo credit K. Merchant

Colic can take away the joy of parenting and make caregivers feel helpless and incompetent, despairing, and even angry and hateful toward the baby. It’s helpful if caregivers can know the amount of crying they can handle (their “safe cry zone,”) and what strategies they can use when their coping starts to fail—deep breathing, soft music, walking, rocking—so that they can continue to respond calmly. But when the stress rises, it’s imperative that someone else be recruited to hold the baby and give the parent some relief. This is not always possible, of course, especially for single parents, but it’s important that caregivers find some way to care for themselves as well as their babies’ crying, Lester says.

Crying in later infancy.

Crying in the first three months of life is about regulating bodily needs, wiring up the nervous system, and feeling close to and safe with a caregiver.

Crying later in infancy becomes more complex, as it’s also related to a baby’s growing cognitive and emotional capacities. The graph below shows crying data from several studies over the first two years of life.

Reprinted with permission from Barr, R.G. (1990). The normal crying curve: What do we really know? Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 32 (4), 356-362.

Reprinted with permission from Barr, R.G. (1990). The normal crying curve: What do we really know? Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 32 (4), 356-362.

  • At around six to nine months, crying due to stranger wariness emerges. This is a normal, healthy sign that a baby understands who her “person” is, though again, different babies have different temperaments and will express more or less concern. Anthropologists think that stranger wariness served an ancient but important safety purpose of removing a baby from an incompetent or unsafe caregiver and reuniting the baby with her safe person. Very often the chosen caregiver that the baby attaches to is one specific person, even when multiple adults have cared for the baby. The baby might look at, reach for, or cry for her person when others are present, and then quiet as she is enfolded into safe arms.. But again, babies vary, and some attach just fine to multiple caregivers.

  • At around nine to twelve months, fear of strangers and fear of separation from a caregiver can peak crying again. This reflects a healthy cognitive growth; the baby can now anticipate the feeling of being alone, and she knows that crying is a kind of tether to the caregiver. This might especially coincide with dropping off at daycare, and skilled providers should be able to offer age-appropriate soothing.

  • Walking at 12-18 months can precipitate another burst of crying. As toddlers’ mobility carries them farther away from the caregiver, perhaps into a different room, they may suddenly realize that they are at sea.

  • Crying has another burst at around two years of age, when a baby’s growing sense of self and control over their own body meets thwarted goals and frustration. This coincides with the cognitive ability to plan action, to have deliberate wishes and intentions. As many developmental scientists say, this crying is not about the parents; it’s about the baby’s healthy growth.

How to soothe a crying baby in the first few months of life

photo credit K. Merchant

photo credit K. Merchant

The scientific evidence is clear: Responding to a baby’s cries in the early part of life is important to the baby’s well-being, establishment of a healthy nervous system, and subsequent growth. The hard part is to figure out how! Once a baby's obvious needs are ruled out, extra holding, frequent feedings, and the skin-to-skin contact of kangaroo care go a long way toward reducing crying. Putting on your own oxygen mask first—activating your own calm response—is crucial, and so is recruiting the support of other caring adults. Ideally parenting is not a solo activity, and we are all invested in the outcome!

Here are my favorite resources for techniques on how to soothe a baby:

  • For a long list of options, see Coping With a Crying Infant by Jeanne Clarey Bruening.

  • Harvey Karp’s book, The Happiest Baby on the Block, summarizes five steps for effective soothing: swaddling, holding, making a shushing sound, gentle jiggling while supporting the head, and sucking. For a shortcut, here’s a video.

  • Here’s how to swaddle a baby. As I write this, a new study has linked swaddling to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). However, it’s difficult to interpret the limited results. Deaths occurred most often when babies were on their stomach, less on their sides, and least on their back, all of which is true of SIDS when babies aren’t swaddled. Caution should be taken to swaddle correctly. Follow guidelines for back sleeping, and consider other options for infants older than six months (when the risk of SIDS doubled).

  • Pinky McKay’s book, 100 Ways to Calm the Crying, is a compassionate, respectful collection of ideas. It will soothe just in the reading!

  • Barry M. Lester’s book, Why Is My Baby Crying? The Parent’s Survival Guide for Coping with Crying Problems and Colic, written with Catherine O’Neill Grace, is a reassuring read for caregivers struggling with colic. He validates that parents who have babies with crying problems deserve and need support, and he has good diagnostics and suggestions. His Colic Clinic is in Providence, RI.

  • Here are twelve basic reasons babies cry, and how to soothe them, from The Baby Center.

  • Here is a Temperament Tip Sheet to consider the range of preferences for babies of different temperaments.


A final thought: Babies are born in a very immature physical state, with nervous systems and brains and bodies that have a long way to go—25 years, really—until they reach maturity. Parents and caregivers have to be flexible and adaptive in supporting the child’s current developmental needs. Different kinds of responses are important at different ages. For young babies, consistent affectionate responding is about meeting their physical and psychological needs, calming and integrating the nervous system, and creating a loving and trusting foundation to the relationship.

As babies grow—one to two years old and beyond—it may not be appropriate or even possible to soothe every cry. In fact, small bits of manageable stress in the presence of a caring adult help to “inoculate” a toddler for some of life’s vicissitudes and realities. But this is a gradual on-ramp, with a supportive adult. Later, new factors become important for parents to consider, like the development of language and cognition, the neurological ability to inhibit oneself, and the scaffolding of emotional skills. 

Whatever the age, a good cry can always go a long way toward letting off steam, communicating, and healing.



(1) U. S. Children's Bureau of Infant Care. Care of Children Series No. 2. Bureau Publication No. 8 (Revised), 1924. As cited by Bell, S. & Ainsworth, M. (1972). Infant crying and maternal responsiveness. Child Development, 43 (4), 1171-1190.

(2) Lester, B. with Grace, C.O. (2005).  Why Is My Baby Crying? The Parent's Survival Guide for Coping with Crying Problems and Colic. NY, NY: Harper Collins, p 89.

(3) Lester, p. 73

(4) Lester, p. 88

(5) Lester, p. 92

(6) Lester, p. 1

(7) Lester, p. 69

(8) Lester, p. 58





What Newborns Need for a Healthy Psychological Start

When I was a new mom, there were plenty of books about how to physically care for a newborn: how to swaddle, how to change a diaper, and how to treat skin conditions.  But there was next to nothing on how to care for a newborn’s psychological well-being. What’s important for infant mental health? Erik Erikson, the famed psychoanalyst of the sixties, recommended eye contact for the foundation of newborn trust—so I spent a lot of time looking at my newborn baby girl.

That’s a start.

photo credit  Sugarplum Photography

Since then, developmental scientists have learned a lot about what gets babies off to a good psychological beginning. And it’s deceptively simple: It’s about breath and heart; rhythm and timing; paying attention.


For nine months of pregnancy, the mother’s body provides everything a baby’s body needs: nutrition, oxygen, temperature control, and waste management. When the two bodies separate, the baby’s body has to learn to regulate all of these processes itself…amid myriad new sensations like sights, sounds, tastes, temperature fluctuations, restrictions, movements, and more. The simple coordination of the first breath with the heartbeat is itself a wonder of biological engineering.

As the baby’s body takes over its own bio-rhythms, it rapidly cycles through different states. In the space of one-and-a-half to two hours, the baby turns a tight schedule that keeps parents on their toes and is completely at odds with an adult sense of time. But how parents respond to these changing states forms a foundation for the baby’s later psychological and social development.

Generally speaking, there are six states, with transitions in between:

photo credit Nancy Kohli Haté

photo credit Nancy Kohli Haté

  1. Deep sleep: The baby sleeps quietly without moving, and breathing is regular

  2. Light sleep: The baby might move, may have irregular breathing and even startle at noises, or may experience eye movements in the dreamy sleep of REM sleep (rapid eye movement). Babies can cycle between deep and light sleep, even within an hour. Sometimes, in the first few months of life, babies wake between the deep and light sleep cycles and have difficulty returning to sleep. (Newborns sleep about 16 hours a day, and about half of that is in REM sleep.

  3. Drowsiness: In the transition between waking and sleeping (e.g., waking up, or conversely, going to sleep), the baby’s eyes may open and close, or even roll back. The baby might stretch, yawn, or doze.

  4. Quiet alert: The baby’s face is bright, eyes are open wide, and the body remains quiet. This is time when the baby takes in her environment on her own terms. She might be looking, or staring, or simply quietly focusing on what she sees, hears, or senses. This is a good time to give babies their space, to let them get used to feeling comfortable settling alone.

  5. Active alert: The eyes are open and scanning and alert, and both the facial expressions and body are medium-active. Babies are especially open to social interaction in this state, so this is a good time to gently engage with the baby, talking quietly, singing, touching.

  6. Crying/fussy: A baby cries, screams perhaps, and the whole body and soul can become quite stressed and disorganized. Babies are born nearly helpless, so crying is the best signaling system to recruit outside help to regulate a need. With experience, parents soon anticipate the various needs—to eat, to be comforted, to be changed, to warm up or cool down, for more or less stimulation, to be eased into sleep.

photo credit Rohan Haté

photo credit Rohan Haté

 The underlying biology: oscillators and pacemakers.

Scientists have so far pointed to two biological mechanisms that underlie infant states and that have implications for later psychological development: 

  • The oscillator controls the sleep-wake cycle. It develops in a fetus at about 30 weeks in utero, in a region called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which is in the hypothalamus just above the brainstem. Even in utero, a fetus begins a tiny sleep-wake cycle: researchers and mothers alike notice that in the last trimester, the fetus is more active at some times and in quiet sleep at other times. The cycle is short (called an ultradian rhythm), but after birth it begins the long march toward a circadian rhythm—one that harmonizes with the light and dark cycles of a 24-hour period. Before birth, the sleep-wake oscillator is sensitive to conditions in the fetal environment, like the maternal hormone melatonin as well as the intrauterine environment such as mother’s diet and exposure to light and dark. After birth, postnatal practices like the skin-to-skin contact called kangaroo care are related to longer periods of alertness and more organized sleep-wake cycles.

  • The cardiac pacemaker regulates the pace of the heartbeat and coordinates the heartbeat with the breath to alternately activate (in-breath) and calm (out-breath) the heartbeat. This is part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that originates in the brain stem and connects many organs in the body—the heart, lungs, eyes, glands and digestive tract. The ANS is roughly divided into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which goes on metabolic alert when the baby is in need or distress, and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which calms and soothes and restores the system once again.

Developmental scientists have become especially interested in the calming system arising from the vagal tone. The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve, a complex web of connections from the brainstem and reaching throughout the body that control and put the brakes on stress, shifting bodily resources away from fight or flight and back to “restore and grow.” Like the oscillator, vagal tone is also perceptible in the third trimester, around 33-35 weeks gestational age. After birth, it, too, is enhanced through the skin-to-skin contact of kangaroo care and even infant massage. Not surprisingly, sensitive care encourages a strong vagal tone.

Synchrony: the dance between caregiver and newborn.

 A new parent’s first challenge is to figure out how to react to a baby’s changing states. Granted, there is physical care involved—changing diapers, dressing, bathing, feeding, and more. But it is the process of joining a baby’s rhythm—not just physically, but psychologically, in harmony—that is most important for creating a strong psychological foundation. Psychologists have given this process many names: responsive care, attunement, and co-regulation.

Ruth Feldman, a psychologist at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and at the Yale School of Medicine, calls this coordinated interaction between caregiver and infant, “synchrony.” At first, she says, the relationship is biological: Pregnancy produces surges in the bonding hormone oxytocin in the mother, which primes her to attend to her baby (nonbiological parents generate oxytocin through interactions). In research studies, mothers with more oxytocin reported having more pleasurable feelings with their babies than mothers with lower levels of oxytocin. They were also observed to react in more sensitive ways, more often, to their babies’ behaviors.

In turn, as the baby is touched, or has skin-to-skin contact, or is breastfed, her nervous system is calmed, the biological clock organizes, and the vagal tone develops. Responsive, loving, warm care in the first weeks and months of life can even turn on or off the genes that regulate a baby’s stress.

Caring for a newborn changes parents' brains. As parents gaze at their newborn; talk gently; use soft, higher-pitched voices; and are positive, warm, and encouraging, their brain’s gray matter, or cell bodies, actually grow in the emotion and thought regions that support parenting behaviors.

Timing is important. In one of Feldman’s studies, when mothers appropriately chose the babies’ alert state to talk and touch their babies, the babies remained alert for longer periods of time.

[photo credits Kelly and Sahil Merchant, Mia Divecha]

The physiologies of caregiver and baby harmonize in the process. In one study, Feldman observed the heart rates of mothers and babies as they played with each other face-to-face. When the interactions were synchronized in an easy back-and-forth, the rise and fall of mother and baby’s heartbeats actually tracked each other, with a one-second lag. In other words, the mother—or any sensitive caregiver—helps to regulate a baby’s very heartbeat through loving, synchronous interactions. Feldman postulated that this is likely internalized by the baby as an “emotional sense of security that accompanies the child throughout life.” Other studies show that oxytocin levels, and even brain alpha waves, track between mother and baby in synchronous interactions as well.

Quick timing is also essential for soothing a distressed baby. In a now-classic study on crying, researchers Sylvia Bell and Mary Ainsworth at Johns Hopkins found that babies whose caregivers consistently responded quickly to their cries, cried less often and for shorter periods of time by the end of their first year.

Some parents need help synchronizing.

Many new parents intuit their babies’ needs—and/or learn to identify needs through observation—but others can benefit from some explicit coaching. Jenny Goyne is a postpartum doula who helps new parents through the stresses of the postpartum period and is especially dedicated to helping parents identify and work with their baby’s rhythms.

“I often encourage parents to just observe and watch their babies,” she says. For example, when the baby is quiet and content, she points out to the parent just how the baby is taking in her people and the world around her, and Goyne encourages parents to give the baby space to do just that. “Many parents feel they need to ‘do something,’” she says, “like sing a song, or entertain the baby, or exercise or stimulate them. There’s a lot of entertaining going on.”

“I remind them—this is all new to a baby. They’re just becoming aware of what’s around them and trying to make sense of all of it all. Babies, especially in the early weeks, also tire easily, and parents may not realize that when the baby looks away, or yawns, or begins to fuss or even cry, that they’ve had enough.”

photo credit Nancy Kohli Haté

photo credit Nancy Kohli Haté

Even breastfeeding can require some patience and self-restraint at first. It can take some time for the baby to find her way into it. In some cases, new mothers feel like they have to do something to make breastfeeding happen, which tends to stress the baby, and then the baby picks up on the stress and doesn’t want to eat. Many older mothers who are professionals and used to having answers just want to know what to do to make it work. “I often simply help them relax,” Goyne says. In other cases, mothers and babies benefit from coaching: some babies need coaxing to latch on, and there are strategies for making breastfeeding more comfortable for both mother and baby.  In some circumstances, breastfeeding is not even possible, so helping a mother come to terms with this may be important. “Conversations about what this means to a mother are important. There’s often a grieving process that needs to take place,” Goyne adds.

She also teaches parents to read the smaller nuances they might otherwise miss.

“Most people can tell the difference between smiling, crying, and sleeping, but we’re not so good at the subtleties of what babies are doing,” she says. For example, she points parents to the signs that a baby is about to transition between states, like the agitated movements or jerky motions or even hiccupping that can precede crying. Or the looking away that says she’s had enough. Anticipating babies’ needs can help keep their nervous systems organized for longer periods of time.

And then: Every baby is different.

“Babies don’t go by a book,” Goyne quips. “They have different temperaments. Some babies’ eyes are wide open. They’re taking in the world and are eager to interact. Others may be shy, or even a bit withdrawn. These babies need more space and perhaps less contact. The shy ones, especially, can make new parents feel insecure, sometimes causing them to work hard to get their baby’s attention, which can be quite overwhelming to a baby.”

“New parents might not realize that babies often enjoy having some time to themselves, to observe and experience the world without the parental filter,” says Goyne.

It doesn’t help that each practitioner tells a new parent something different. “The advice is not standardized,” she says. “You have to figure out on your own what works for your particular baby.” She supports parents in doing that by observing the baby and describing to the parent what she sees in terms of behavior and temperament, so that parents understand their own baby’s unique cues.

Some parents want to put the baby on a schedule to hasten the transition to “adult time,” but Goyne discourages that: “Babies don’t go by our clocks,” she says. “Many parents don’t realize that and think something’s wrong. They don’t know how to make sense of ‘baby time.’” Jenny’s job is done when parents gain confidence reading their baby’s signals—a few weeks for some, and up to three months for families with twins.

By three months, patterns of reciprocal interaction are well-established. By this time the baby starts to become skilled, herself, at initiating and sustaining interactions. She offers a social smile that makes the mom happy and the mom talks to her in return; the baby looks at an object in the distance and the father points and names the object; with a little encouragement from the baby, the grandpa excites her to screeching with silly play but quiets down when the baby crosses the threshold to being disorganized or upset. The adult is the baby's outsourced regulatory system.

Just how important this social connection is to a baby is demonstrated through the still-face experiment. Baby and mother face each other, cooing, talking, and touching, until the mother makes her own face stone-still and expressionless. The baby tries heroically to reengage the mother, even yelling and reaching for her, and when the efforts are futile, she falls apart in distress, sensing the connection is completely ruptured. When the mother reengages, though, the baby’s nervous system becomes calm, she smiles and re-engages, and the connection is restored.

The Goldilocks effect: Not too much, not too little, but good enough is best.

A cautionary note is in order for the overly-conscientious parent: Good enough is best. Within a normal range of interactions, babies, especially older ones, benefit from some variations in timings and styles. Babies get the gestalt of it. In normal human dialogue, mismatches and repairs are common. Infants get sensitized early to rhythm of these miscoordinations and interactive repairs, says psychologist Ruth Feldman at Bar-Ilan and Yale Universities.

Different adults have different kinds of rhythms, especially with older babies. For example, in research, fathers and mothers showed different kinds of interactive styles and different modes of co-regulation. With their five-month-olds, mothers typically played face-to-face and coordinated tiny, little interactions at a low-to-medium level of emotional arousal. They looked at things together, pointed, verbalized, and used gentle, affectionate touch. Fathers, on the other hand, were more exuberant: They laughed together and played physical games or games using objects. Their play was bigger, more open, and more exciting. They were just as synchronous, though, calibrating the back-and-forth between themselves and their babies; they were simply more emotionally intense and had different content. And mothers tended to be more synchronous with their daughters, and fathers with their sons, rather than the other way around. It's likely, though, that these kinds of patterns are not fixed but are flexible. The point is that babies can do fine with different styles of interacting.

It’s when the overall pattern is off that there is need for concern. Jenny Goyne described intrusive, anxious parents who feel the need to entertain a baby even when the baby is quiet and content. One study showed that these kinds of parents have higher activation in the amygdala, or fear regions of the brain in contrast to parents who are in synchrony with their infants and the reward regions (the nucleus accumbens) of the brain are activated. Psychiatrist Margaret Mahler has video footage of intrusive mother-infant pairs where the mother ignores the baby's signals that she wants to crawl or play her own way. When seen a year later, that baby is wrapped around the mother’s legs in anxiety, uninterested in exploring her world. Anxious mothers tend to miss the signals that their babies need space. In the process, they not only stress their babies; they also deprive them of the ripe opportunity to be content on their own, or to explore the environment on their own terms. 

On the other end of the spectrum, when mothers are aloof or depressed, they hardly engage at all in the normal back-and-forth that settles a baby’s nervous system. Maternal depression is predictive of some of the worst outcomes for babies. 

Important for future development.

Synchrony between caregivers and babies has lasting beneficial effects into toddlerhood and well beyond into adolescence, in almost every area that matters:

  • Emotion regulation, self-control, stress management: Feldman and her colleagues found that babies whose mother could follow their lead in infancy (3 months and again at 9 months), had better self-control at two years old than babies who did not have a synchronous relationship. This was especially true for babies with more difficult temperaments. Young children who’d experienced early synchrony were both more willing to pick up toys and put them away and more able to resist touching objects they wanted. Long-term studies show that early synchrony predicts lowered stress and better emotion regulation well into the teen years.

  • Social relationships: Babies who experience attunement with their caregivers become kindergartners who have more reciprocal, give-and-take relationships with their peers and they are better at resolving conflicts. As teenagers, they enjoy social relationships more and are more skilled at sustaining them.

  • Cognition: Two aspects of synchrony are particularly important to set the stage for optimal learning. One is the calm emotional state that is required for attention, learning and memory to happen. The second is the “serve-and-return” nature of the interaction, where babies learn cause-and-effect in their world, that the world is ordered, has governing laws, and is not chaotic. They become motivated only when they can make sense of the world and feel that they have some small bit of control and self-efficacy. Studies show that babies who experience synchronous relationships have higher IQs at two and four years old; their symbolic expressions—in language and play—are richer and more sophisticated; and their language refers more often to their own and others’ internal states, e.g., “I feel” and “You think.”

  • Attachment: Greater synchrony with caregiver in infancy is correlated with better attachment at one year, and fewer behavior problems at two years old.

  • Empathy: One study that followed babies from 3 months to 13 years old found that teenagers who had experienced synchrony with their caregivers as babies had greater empathy, suggesting that, as Feldman says, “synchrony sensitizes infants to the emotional resonance that underlies human relationships across the lifespan.”

You can’t spoil a baby.

photo credit Mia Divecha

photo credit Mia Divecha

New parents often wonder how soon their babies should become independent. The importance of the biological connection between sensitive caregivers and their babies should dispel those notions of independence. A baby cannot be spoiled, in fact the opposite is true. A baby needs a loving caregiver who gives her what she needs, on her terms, in order to wire up the major biological systems that create a foundation for later psychological and cognitive well-being. This synchrony is critical in the first month of life to organize and settle the nervous system, and it continues to remain very important in the sensitive period across the first year.





copyright Diana Divecha 2016



* * * 

Additional Resources

What do doctors screen newborns for? 

What are newborn reflexes?

Developmental milestones in the first month

Tips for grandparents of newborns

How to find a postpartum doula

Books on physical care of newborns and infants:

Mayo Clinic’s Guide to Your Baby’s First Year

Your Baby & Child, by Penelope Leach

The Essential First Year by Penelope Leach

Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5, by the American Academy of Pediatrics

The Baby Book, by William Sears

The Wonder Weeks, by Frans Plooij and Hetty van de Rijt




The Transition to Parenthood: What Happened to Me?

photo by Sahil Merchant

photo by Sahil Merchant

"Tell me about the joys of being a new parent," I prompted my niece, whose little baby is five months old. She is 34, works full-time, and is married to my nephew.

The transition to parenthood is profound, as many parents already know. Developmental scientists consider it to be one of the most massive reorganizations in the lifespan, changing the brains, endocrine systems, behaviors, identities, relationships, and more, of everyone involved.

Kelly's answers had a quiet and whimsical grace.

"There is nothing more beautiful in this world than his smile," she said. "Or watching him discover something new. Last night he found the upper register of his voice, so he spent five minutes shrieking at a high pitch, playing around with the newfound note."

Kelly is a beautiful person, so I wasn't surprised to hear her speak appreciatively about her young son. And, in recent and evolving research, scientists are charting a "global parental caregiving network" that gets shaped in a new parent's brain to bring about some of the very thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that Kelly and other new parents experience.

In 2014, Ruth Feldman, a researcher in Israel and at the Yale School of Medicine, conducted an experiment with her colleagues. They went into the homes of 89 new parents, collected samples of oxytocin (the bonding hormone), and videotaped the parents interacting with their newborns. Later, the researchers put the parents in a functional-MRI machine and replayed their videos back to them, observing which parts of parents' brains "lit up" when they saw their own infants (versus videos of unrelated babies) .

The researchers found two main regions of the brain particularly active in new parents. The first is the "emotion-processing network." This is located centrally and developed earlier in evolution than the neocortex (see below). It involves the limbic, or feeling, circuitry and includes:

  • The amygdala, which makes us vigilant and highly focused on survival

  • The oxytocin-producing hypothalamus, which bonds us to our newborns

  • The dopamine system, which rewards us with a squirt of the feel-good hormone to make us motivated and enjoy parenting

All together, this network creates a heightened emotionality in parents in response to their babies. In fact, according to researchers Laura Glynn and Curt Sandman, the volume of gray matter (or number of neural cell bodies) increases in the above regions in new mothers and is associated with their positive feelings toward their infants. (See Glynn and Sandman's review article on brain changes in pregnant mothers.)

The second region is the "mentalizing network" that involves the higher cortex, or the more thinking regions of the brain. This area, along with additional superhighways that develop between the emotion and mentalizing systems, focuses attention and grounds in the present moment: Who couldn't stare at a new baby forever? It also facilitates the ability to "feel into" what a baby needs: Areas of the brain that involve cognitive empathy and the internal imaging of, or resonance with, a baby, light up. These regions help a parent read nonverbal signals, infer what a baby might be feeling and what he/she might need, and even plan for what might be needed later in the future (long-term goals). These regions are also associated with multitasking and better emotion regulation. In other words, parents' brains are remodeled to protect, attune with, and plan for their infants.

Other research has found that hormonal changes in pregnant women dampen their physical and psychological stress response, as if to make more space to tune in to their babies' needs.

But along with all these changes, there seems to be a collateral cognitive hit: In a meta-analysis of 17 studies, 80% of women reported impaired aspects of memory (recall and executive function) that began in pregnancy and persisted into the postpartum period.

photo by Kelly Merchant

photo by Kelly Merchant

Mothers aren't the only ones whose brains are remodeled. The brains of fathers, too, light up in ways that nonparents' brains don't. Feldman and her colleagues found that while the emotion processing network is most active in the biological mothers she studied, it is the mentalizing networks that are more active in the brains of fathers who are co-parenting alongside moms. The more fathers engage in caregiving tasks, the more oxytocin they produce, and the stronger the activation in the mentalizing areas of the brain.

Interestingly, in gay dads who are primary caregivers (half of Feldman's subjects), both emotion and mentalizing systems were highly activated by engaging in parenting. (For more on how parenting changes fathers' brains, I recommend the fun read, Do Fathers Matter? What Science is Telling Us about the Parent We've Overlooked, by Paul Raeburn.)

In other words, parenting is a very plastic and flexible process. While pregnancy prepares a mother's brain for parenting, the act of caregiving can produce upticks in oxytocin (the bonding hormone) and create neurological changes that support parenting in many adults--dads, adoptive parents, and other alloparents (any caregiving adults).

photo by Kelly Merchant

photo by Kelly Merchant

Kelly's husband Sahil is open about the new feelings he's having as a dad. "Winnie [short for Winter] is a curious, cheerful little person, and watching him develop and experience the world for the first time brings me endless amusement and joy. With Winnie, I've found new depths of love--it feels like a very biologically driven emotion."

While he is drinking in the sweet elixir of his baby, Sahil is also running his feelings through the thought circuitries. "Besides being afraid of the regular things--injury, illness, and such--I am also sad that his innocence will inevitably be eroded over time, and that he will inevitably experience all the various pains involved in growing into an adult."

Kelly admires her husband's changes and says that one of her greatest joys is "watching my husband develop into an incredibly loving, nurturing, and giving father."

Parents, naturally, continue to develop as individuals, and the arrival of a baby stimulates self-reflection. Observing Winnie moved Kelly to reflect on what must also have been the miracle of her own beginnings. "I'm fascinated by the fact that I, too, floated in a sack of amniotic fluid; that I, too, saw my hand for the first time and probably stared at it for 30 minutes straight, waving it in the air. Or that I, too, might have been startled by my own sneeze, or gas, or yawn."

Sahil says, "Having a child has given my life more meaning. For example, rather than working to earn money just for myself, to purchase various objects and experiences, I now have a great reason to do so. I'm more careful now, too. I have a child who depends on me, so I feel like I need to take better care of myself, so that I can be my best possible self to take care of Winnie."


The joys of parenting are often felt more deeply than almost any other feeling humans are capable of having. But the challenges are great, too. "Every mom I knew was surprised by the impact of becoming a parent and wished she knew more about coping with it," writes Jan Hanson in Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships. Hanson is a nutritionist who co-authored the book with her husband, the neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, as well as OB/GYN Ricki Pollycove.

There are challenges to parents' physical health: recovery from pregnancy and delivery, the adjustment to breastfeeding, disturbed nutrition, fatigue, and insufficient sleep. As you would expect, Kelly reports that trying to stay rational, keep conflicts down, and drive safely are difficult on three hours' sleep and/or when she's been up, exhausted, since 4 A.M. She is experiencing what researchers know: That proper sleep is critical to health and well-being, including mood, decision-making, performance, and safety.

There are psychological adjustments to the new parenting role, too. Some parents need time to recover from a difficult or complicated birth process. For some, parenting demands can trigger strong unresolved feelings from childhood, especially if it was traumatic or troubled. Hormonal changes, along with sleeplessness and the constant demands of a new baby, can create surprising new feelings, too: anger, sadness, feeling trapped or isolated--even guilt, fear, and inadequacy. Some parents have to wrestle with having lost a previous child, or perhaps they are parenting a difficult or differently abled child. Kathleen Kendall-Tackett writes about these psychological challenges, and more, in The Hidden Feelings of Motherhood: Coping with Stress, Depression, and Burnout.

Having a new child introduces new challenges to the parents as a couple. Conflicts often increase in a relationship after the birth of a child, in part due to the "roommate hassles" of who will do what in the household as well as disagreements about parenting styles. Sometimes the sense of intimacy, closeness, and sexuality in a relationship can get derailed with the arrival of a little one. Couples are challenged to re-synchronize their relationship and develop a new sense of teamwork.

The couples who are most at risk for serious problems after the birth of a child, write parenting scholars Carolyn Pape Cowan and Philip Cowan in their book When Partners Become Parents, are those who were on the rocks before the child came along. Becoming a parent amplifies any pre-existing fissures in the relationship. Especially problematic are poor communication patterns--where one stonewalls, digs in, and/or refuses to budge, while the other escalates. In contrast, couples who have productive ways of working out new difficulties and challenges do the best adjusting.

After the arrival of a child, there are new logistics to deal with: new strains in managing a household, financial and legal concerns, when and how to go back to work, and figuring out childcare. Like many contemporary mothers, Kelly experiences the challenges as coming from both sides: the struggle to feel okay going back to work after three months versus the struggle to feel okay staying home without being criticized as a poor worker or an anti-feminist.

New parents also undergo a rearrangement of their social life, including how they interact with extended family and friends. Some friendship networks get reconfigured (not all childless people want to hang out with new parents). Kelly noticed that other people changed in their relationship to her as she became a parent. Many people offered unsolicited opinions, especially on the topics of sleep and clothing: "At times it felt that anyone who had once been a mother felt the need to say that my baby should put on more clothing. Even in 90-degree weather when he was sweating! And I was quite happy to be co-sleeping with Winter, but I was made to feel guilty about this on many occasions. Sleep is such a touchy topic, and many people tried to convince us to get Winter into a crib if we wanted what was best for him." Kelly found support from her sister who encouraged her to be firm about her internal compass in the face of many differing opinions: "Your only option is to learn to listen to yourself and know that you know your situation, and what works for your family, better than anyone else." Kelly adds that the most helpful exchanges are ones where she is encouraged to share how things are going, and in return hear a similar story and outcome. "Not only does it feel good to know I'm not alone in this, it educates me about what works much better than direct advice."

Rick and Jan Hanson and Ricki Polycove have seen so many thoroughly exhausted mothers in their practices that they identified a "depeleted mother syndrome," a condition where the mother's "outpouring, stresses, vulnerabilities, and low resources" are so overwhelming as to "drain and dysregulate her body."

The solution they recommend is threefold, focusing on lowering parenting demands, increasing supportive resources, and building resilience. Rick Hanson is a thorough, compassionate, skilled, and practical therapist, and Mother Nurture is therapy in a book: From one-minute soothers, to resolving childhood issues, there is much help in the way of cognitive, neurological, and commonsense approaches. Among other things, he provides suggestions for :

  • taking care of your body

  • small daily practices to improve outlook

  • reframing circumstances

  • concrete problem solving approaches

  • transforming painful emotions from the past

  • problem-solving sleep

  • vitamins to help with the nervous system

  • assessing neurotransmitters

  • staying connected to your partner with empathy

  • sharing the load

  • maintaining intimacy

  • healing hurt feelings

photo by Crystal Hanson

photo by Crystal Hanson

Kelly noticed that just as her identity started changing as a parent, there was a tendency for people to converse with her exclusively about motherhood. She was naturally thrilled that her loved ones were excited about Winnie, yet she longed for relationships that also nurtured her individual identity as a painter, a counselor, yoga enthusiast, and traveller. 

As an American, Kelly is not alone in this experience. Kathleen Kendall-Tackett writes that in many non-industrialized countries, the postpartum period is a special time of "mothering the mother." New mothers are considered especially vulnerable so their activities are limited, they're relieved of normal work, and they stay relatively secluded with their babies while other relatives take care of them. Along with that extra care, there are special rituals and gifts that mark this as an important period. American mothers, in contrast, are quickly released from the hospital and are often even expected to entertain guests who come to visit the new baby. That difference in support, Kendall-Tackett says, is why in industrialized countries about 50-80% of new mothers experience the "baby blues," and another 15-25% have full-blown postpartum depression. In more traditional cultures where new mothers are exclusively nurtured, postpartum depression is "virtually non-existent."

Kelly agrees: "A mother needs to be nurtured and cared for because she is doing nothing for herself at this point. Everything is being given to the baby and I find little time to do things like even wash my hair or take a bath. Or connect with a friend. Even getting a hug from my husband can be hard in those times when a baby is especially demanding. When I do get that hug, I need it more than ever before."

The transition to parenthood is a huge transformation. And America, with no comprehensive child-family policy and no federal paid family leave policy--is a particularly unsupportive place to have a child. But the accumulating research is pointing to just how sensitive and important this period is for families. With a little knowledge and some foresight, parents-to-be, and their loved ones, can better plan for the transition. The rise in popularity of the postpartum doula (a person, usually a woman, who is trained to help new families in the home) is a step in the right direction.

Rick Hanson encourages new mothers--and fathers--to insist that others take their needs seriously. "Treat yourself like you matter," he says.


* * * * *


Further reading (some of these are oldies but still goodies):

On coping with the challenging feelings of becoming a new parent:

On becoming a father:

Ten Reasons Teens Need an Emotion Revolution: My Speech to Lady Gaga's Foundation and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence

Developmental scientists are alarmed about American teens' well-being. Our teens are doing much more poorly, in many spheres, than teens in other countries, and indicators of mental illness have been rising among American teens in recent decades. 

On October 24th, I joined 400 high school student students, educators, policymakers, funders, and parents at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. We were there for an all-day summit to launch the Emotion Revolution--a movement to improve the emotional climate for teens at school.

Last spring, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence teamed up with Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation to conduct a survey of 22,000 diverse teens. The survey asked the teens how they were feeling in school and how they wanted to feel. In the first morning session of the Emotion Revolution Summit, the results were revealed:

  • Students surveyed reported that they are not feeling well at school. 80% of the top ten feelings were negative: tired, stressed, and bored, followed by anxious, annoyed, sad, alone, and depressed. (The remaining 20% was accounted for by "happy" and "good" or neutral.)

  • Students said they would rather feel happy, excited, and energized, along with safe, comfortable, valued, respected, connected, supported, balanced, and contented.

In response the Center, along with the BTW Foundation and Facebook, created a website called InspirED. There, teachers and students can find classroom activities of every size designed to foster exactly the feelings that students said they want to have. 

But it's going to take more than a resource center. Like any great change, helping teens feel good at school is going to take attitude shifts, policy changes, funding, and more.

I gave a talk at the Summit which laid out ten reasons, based on adolescent development, for why a revolution is necessary to bring a greater and more sophisticated investment in teens themselves, and in the environments they move in.

My 15-minute talk is here:

If you don't have time to watch, here are my points in a nutshell:

  1. Compared to teens in other developed countries, American teens are struggling in most spheres that matter.

  2. Developmental scientists, who study child and adolescent development, are calling the teen years the new Zero-To-Three. Zero-To-Three was an effort to pour money, policies, and programs into the first few years of children's lives, founded when the science revealed that what happens in a child's environment affects critical brain development. Well, now we're understanding that the brain changes that happen in the teen years are just as critical--and they need just as intense a focus. Never again in a person's life will there be such a window of opportunity.

  3. Beginning in puberty, the brain undergoes tremendous "pruning" of neuronal connections. The neurons that are necessary, and are still used, remain. The unnecessary ones get pruned, or cut out. ("Use it or lose it.") This means that teens' environments are important--what they are paying attention to becomes entrenched in the brain.

  4. A number of changes happen in the brain to make teens more emotional. They need strategies to deal with this intense emotionality.

  5. Due to imbalances in the development of brain systems, teens are "all gas and no brakes," which makes them take uncalculated risks, for better and worse.

  6. Teens are more sensitive to other people than are younger children or adults, and could benefit from more skills for handling their greater depth of feeling.

  7. Teens want to become independent, but they also want to stay connected to their parents--and have been telling researchers so for decades.

  8. This current generation of teens has strong values. They are less materialistic than earlier cohorts of teens, they care more about others, they are concerned for the environment, and they have progressive attitudes.

  9. Most human rights documents concerning youth give them the explicit right to have a say in the matters that affect them.

  10. Teens have led revolutions before.

If we give teens the skills they need and the respect they crave, who knows what force for good we could unleash?



What Does a Developmental Psychologist See in Burning Man?

When I sent my 86-year old father my photos from Burning Man, he replied that he didn't understand: Wasn't it for "hippie kids"? What was I doing there, and what did the experience do for me?

The Love Bus (photo by Zai Divecha)

The Burn is famously different for each participant. Some Burners go to strut and party, some to share their art, a few to network and get ahead. Approaching our 60s, my husband and I get the most pleasure from camping there with our 20-something kids who extended an open invitation for the second time. But I also go to stay fresh, keep up on emerging ideas, and to prevent the fixed mindset I fear might creep in with age.

Like everyone, I bring my own kaleidoscopic lens to the playa. In my everyday life as a developmental psychologist, I experience much of my social world through a chronological telescope: When I look at children, I see the adults they may become; when I meet adults, I see the children they likely were. I’m keenly aware that we are all developing, all the time.

And I recognize that we are not nailed uniformly to a single rung on some developmental ladder. While some parts of us are reasonably established in adulthood, some parts of us remain deep in childhood. Psychologists call this normal developmental unevenness décalage, a French word that translates to “lag” or “gap.” Many people are not stuck but move flexibly and adaptively—like various spiritual teachers I’ve encountered, whose equanimity is spacious and evolved, yet who can erupt with the laughter and delight of young children.

My headdress (photo by Zai Divecha)

At home, preparing for Burning Man, I gave myself permission to go the craft table and the dress-up corner to immerse myself in the elixir of creativity and make-believe. I emerged wearing a homemade caftan, wooden necklaces, and a medieval horned headpiece, along with a second headpiece of papier-mâché branches sprouting from a drywall skullcap anchored inside a turban. By the time I hopped on my bike at the edge of the playa, I could see my 10-year-old self in the mirror.

In my adult life, I advocate for improving childhood through my research, speaking, and writing. And there's much to do. In the first twenty years of life, we find out how the world works and we wrangle a place in it. For some, the process is kind, and for others it is bumpy yet manageable. For a surprising number, though, it is a tortured and traumatic path and they are deposited at the door of adulthood with handicaps and scar tissue. In a famous study of over 17,000 adults, about a third said their childhoods were free of “adverse childhood experiences” (one of ten serious conditions that can derail a child’s life), but about a quarter reported three or more types of traumas— a number that science now links to emotional and physical problems that persist well into adulthood.

And in a Hansel-and-Gretel world, the places meant to shelter, nurture, and protect children are the ones that do the most damage. Many children are traumatized in their homes, and show up at school unable to concentrate or manage their strong feelings. They are frequently misdiagnosed, drugged, punished or expelled. When adults have emotional problems, they are treated as mental health concerns, but when children have emotional struggles, they are often "behavior problems" to be controlled. Schools, too, can be unsafe:  Punishment is a popular but harmful approach to managing children, while cultivating kind, emotionally supportive school cultures is effective but slow to catch on. About a quarter of kids are bullied or harassed at school--an experience that can undermine the rest of their lives. Children do not enjoy the same relationship rights that adults are privileged with; they're made to return, day after day, to the places and people who abuse them.

Burners are a well-educated, modestly financially secure group, but emotional difficulties are equal opportunity. The playa is sometimes described as a kind of playground, but through my eyes it is unlike the one of our childhoods. This one acknowledges some real developmental concerns. Through installations, workshops, and talks, Burning Man offers a chance for some re-dos. Some rewiring.

And it can start with letting go of some of the grief collected on the journey so far. The Temple of Promise, a stunning Gothic cornucopia rising 97 feet above the playa—is a paean to both the normal and the outsized suffering of being human.

Temple of Promise (photos by Diana and Arjun Divecha)

Visitors walk through its increasingly narrowing form, leaving baggage, burdens, pains, fears, and mementos to be burned away at the end of the week. Messages fill and are hung from every available surface, and this year someone left three small suitcases. One woman vented an angry diatribe of suffering at the hands of an abusive stepfather and a complicit mother. Another message was written to parents who had died in a plane accident: “I have not been in a small plane since yours was taken down,” it said. “A friend has offered to fly me over this temple, and I am going to try to overcome my fear. My love is eternal.” On our fourth walk through the temple, my husband quietly released some of the sorrow of losing his mother three months ago.

Reflect (photo by Diana Divecha)

A giant 20-by-40-foot colored tear drop, called Reflect, was captured at the point where it hits water, to represent all the tears shed by those left behind when someone takes his or her own life.

In childhood, adult power hierarchies—based on social status, gender, ethnicity, even height and attractiveness—are replicated inside the school walls, and kids learn early who’s on top and who’s pushed to the exit ramps. Kids often punish each other for being different, and power structures like schools and other institutions use whatever behavioral control possible to keep kids “in line.” 

A 50-foot chapel called the Totem of Confessions contained dioramas of surreal and dreamlike black-and-white photos, oddities that might pop up from the subconscious into dreams or fantasies or fears, and that would likely be considered shameful by others. And as a reminder of ever-present judgment, there was a confessional in the interior of the chapel.

Totem of Confessions (photos by Diana Divecha)

Time Out Corner (photo by Diana Divecha)

A Time Out Corner appeared out of nowhere on the playa, recalling the frequent punishment—deserved or not—of our childhood transgressions. Timeouts for children are now understood to be ineffective, even harmful. Brain imaging studies show they light up the same neural pathways as physical pain.

Some days, after writing about bullying and trauma, I marvel that most of us make it to adulthood as well as we do. The striving to connect, to still try, to be able to still wonder, was manifest in the sculpture Love. There, two massive wire adult forms were seated back-to-back, heads down in withdrawal, while the glowing child inside each of them reached out for the other, touching hands.

Love (photo by Diana Divecha)

Identity Awareness    (photo by Diana Divecha)

Identity Awareness (photo by Diana Divecha)

At Burning Man, there is an invitation to sort out what is personal encumbrance and artifice, from what authentically belongs to us. A giant question mark, barely propped up by a human figure reminded us to question the source of our choices, the source of our identity.

One of the Ten Guiding Principles of Burning Man—radical self-expression—is a direct antidote to the censoring—and censuring—of growing up, making space to question the conventions we take for granted. We took part with our crazy clothes, our go-with-the-flow schedules (some of us got up before dawn when others were just going to bed), and our explorations of new topics (from beekeeping to twerking). We passed the “Dick Parade” where 150 men bicycled through camp, bottomless, while gentle hecklers (a thing) encouraged the liberal use of sunscreen. In its counterpart, women paraded topless in "Critical Tits." Overhead, a man flew a glider, naked. “You’re guaranteed to not be the weirdest kid in the classroom,” the online guide soothes. It would be easy to dismiss the naked experimentation as exhibitionism, but I'm sure some riders may have been struggling with their body image or  health concerns; for some it may have been a healing process from being bullied, targeted, or abused; and perhaps others simply wanted to walk through the wall of a conventional boundary. There are as many possible reasons as there were riders.

(Photos by Arjun and Zai Divecha)

(Photo by Diana Divecha)

But by radical, they mean deep, not crazy: Consent is the cornerstone of a civil community, the Burning Man literature reads. It doesn’t refer to just sexual and physical touch, but anything that “will radically alter the experience of another person.” Prompts to good behavior were everywhere.

Another principle, "radical inclusion," is the antidote to the emotional abuse and social exclusions suffered in childhood. The consistent expectation of kindness is refreshing and softening, and people are just more present. I felt my own guardedness melt just a bit, with hugs, gifts, conversations, and gentle heckles.

Developmental psychologists find that play is the cauldron of intellectual, creative, and social development in childhood, and according to the Burner census, many people come to the playa just for that. The playful mood is their "top priority."

Everything that can be climbed on, is:

(Photos by Arjun Divecha)

You can be a flamethrower, safely:

Serpent Mother (photo by Jordana Joseph); Fire safety rules (photo by Arjun Divecha)

Puns are everywhere:

Burning Man: What Where When (photo by Arjun Divecha); Camp Nevada (photo by Diana Divecha)

And a Disney singalong and Thriller flashmob are open to all comers—not something we normally have an opportunity to attend.

The Bunny March Against Humanity herds humans into a bus and they exit dressed as bunnies. Humans haven’t done such a good job of being in charge, the organizers say. So let’s give the bunnies a chance.

“The only cure for reality,” says the author Gary Lindberg, “is imagination.”

And finally, our sense of wonder was on full throttle much of the time. The location itself is dramatic, and the playa was saturated with one stunning installation after another. 

(Photos by Diana, Arjun, and Zai Divecha, and Julie Light)

The burning of The Man at the end of the week might not just represent an anger toward the political and economic establishment but perhaps a rebellion against the colonization of the heart and spirit as well.

This is a struggle we are all wired for. As we watched a group of young yogis strain, falter, and ultimately succeed in positioning themselves atop giant letters, an observer called out encouragement, shouting “This is what it is to LIVE!”

DREAM LIVE BE OK (photo by Arjun Divecha)


The Only Parenting Model You Need

Do these scenarios sound familiar?  A four-year-old has a meltdown because he refuses to wear his fancy new clothes to his cousin's wedding. Or a middle-schooler quits basketball after an altercation with the coach and announces she wants to change schools. 

These situations, and many more, can challenge even experienced parents. And parents looking around for advice today are met with a barrage of conflicting information.

But one parenting model has withstood fads and changing times. It's an approach backed by four decades of developmental research showing that it is the very best style of parenting for both children and teens. And it works well for all different kinds of families, regardless of their ethnicity, income, education, or structure. It's called authoritative parenting. And it deserves more attention.

Developed by Diana Baumrind in 1966 at the University of California at Berkeley, the authoritative parenting model has evolved over the years. But most importantly, studies show that children raised with authoritative parenting are the most psychologically well-adjusted. They are creative and intellectually curious, and intrinsically motivated to achieve. They have good social skills and remain connected to parents and friends. And they manage themselves well--they are self-reliant, self-confident, they take initiative, and they have good self-control.

What is authoritative parenting?

As Baumrind explains, authoritative parenting artfully combines qualities of responsiveness and demandingness

  • Responsiveness, or nurturance, refers to the warmth, love, understanding, and empathy that a parent offers a child. Responsive parenting accepts the child's unique needs, abilities, and perspectives, taking age and temperament into account. Responsive parents delight in their children and stay attuned to their feelings.

  • Demandingness, or control, refers to age-appropriate limits, boundaries, and expectation that parents set for children. Behavioral guidelines and standards are best clarified through discussion and explanation, preferably ahead of time, which exercises the child's ability to reason rather than blindly obey. Discipline and power-assertion are last resorts--best reserved for issues of safety. Children become more autonomous as they get older (the end goal is they manage their lives themselves), so the authoritative parent celebrates the child's small steps toward independence. Again, skilled authoritative parents keep their expectations appropriate, taking into account the child's developmental skills and temperament.

How might these elements be applied to a real situation? In the case of the preschooler above (a true story), the parents sympathized with the child's distress. They knew he tended toward a sensitive temperament--that he might have been overwhelmed by the new situation and new people, on top of the 18-hour car journey they had just made. (Children with different temperaments react differently to situations.) They knew, too, that children this age are just developing the neurological ability to manage and inhibit their own behavior. So the parents decided this was not a battle they wanted to fight. How he looked, they reasoned, was less important than his comfortable participation in the happy events. So they allowed him to wear what he wanted, and the family met their bigger goal of connecting with and enjoying their extended family celebration. 

What authoritative parenting is NOT

The two dimensions of responsiveness and demandingness can intersect in at least four ways. Each way yields different parenting behaviors and leads to different child outcomes.

  • Authoritarian parenting uses too much control and not enough nurturance. With these parents, it's "my way or the highway." An authoritarian parent might force the preschooler to wear the uncomfortable clothes or punish him for resisting. These parents want the child to "suck it up" without exploring what it feels like for the child. They value rules, obedience, and conformity, and they tend to be punitive, inflexible, and controlling. They do not value a child's growing independence but rather restrict his autonomy--often creating increasing conflict as the child grows. Authoritarian parents are not very interested in their child's point of view, since they are sure they know what's best. In the extreme, this type of parenting can devolve into abuse.

    Children raised by authoritarian parents tend to become more dependent and passive than those raised by authoritative parents. They have fewer social skills and are less self-assured. Not used to following their own initiative, they also tend to be less intellectually curious.

Roz Chast from   The New Yorker

Roz Chast from The New Yorker

  • Indulgent or permissive parenting, on the other hand is high in nurturance but low in control. These parents are child-centered to the point of indulgence, offering a lot of freedom but too few expectations or boundaries. Indulgent parents are often overly concerned with their child's happiness, or they may see any behavioral control or demand as an infringement on the child's "rights" (a position popular in the sixties). This approach can also describe the classic helicopter parent: Rather than helping the child to develop her own skills, a parent will overcompensate, doing her child's homework or running interference for a college-age child who doesn't get along with a new roommate. In the example of the middle schooler who has an altercation with a coach, the indulgent parent is sympathetic, allows the child to drive the decisions, but does not help the child cultivate skills: A middle schooler, however, can be better supported by helping her speak up, advocate for herself, or come up with alternative ways to solve her problem. Avoiding the problem, by leaving the school should be a last resort only when the benefits clearly outweigh the costs.

Children raised by indulgent parents tend to be immature, with little self-reliance or self-confidence, and they take less personal responsibility than children raised with authoritative parenting. Lacking their own strong internal compass, they are also more easily vulnerable to peer influences.

  • Indifferent parenting is low on both nurturance and control. These parents are neglectful, "checked out." They are self-centered and take little interest in the child.

    Children raised by indifferent parents have some of the worst psychological adjustment second only to hostile or abusive parenting. With little parental oversight or monitoring, these children tend to precociously experiment with sex, drugs and alcohol. They are more likely to be involved in delinquent behavior.

Why does authoritative parenting work?

Some behaviors and relationships are protective "developmental delivery vehicles," and authoritative parenting is one. It packages together a lot of elements that promote healthy development.

Responsiveness, for example, promotes the attachment bond, and when children have a strong attachment they naturally want to be more aligned with the parent.

Then, too, the discussion- and explanation-based approach helps children understand why to do things a certain way. As such, it promotes intellectual development by helping children to understand, and reason about, how relationships work, and to develop moral judgment and empathy. Back-and-forth discussion that respects the child's perspective is the best way to help her develop thoughts and ideas. In this way, she grows an internal compass of her own--one that will guide her when a parent isn't around.

High expectations are good, but children need the supports to achieve these. I insisted that my children learn to write thank-you notes but I let them pick out their notepaper and we made the writing session fun. They've continued the habit into their twenties. The same holds for the development of bigger skills: taking responsibility, being safe, gaining independence, learning assertiveness, and achieving psychological autonomy. These abilities come step by step, with each step identified and supported. And a warm and light tone helps. (For further reading, try Laurence Steinberg's classic, The 10 Basic Principles of Good Parenting.)

Authoritative parenting results from a highly effective balance of lovingness and high expectations. Depending on the situation and the child's temperament and development, this balance constantly shifts. But if parents can keep both dimensions in mind, they'll hit the sweet spot that enables the best long-term outcomes for the children.