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

Reference

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

Footnote

[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











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.


References:

[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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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. 

My Daughter Took Me to Burning Man

Originally published by the Huffington Post on September 10, 2014.

I checked my packing list for the long Labor Day weekend: antler headpiece, hair extensions, hot pants, fur coat, support hose and estrogen cream. My husband and I were going to Burning Man for the first time -- under the tutelage of our 26-year old daughter, Zai, her partner, Phil, and a large group of their friends.

We packed up the car with food and water for five days, drove to the Nevada desert, and, after a three-hour wait at the gate watching the sunset -- some waited 23 hours while the gates closed for rain on the playa -- it was our turn at the entrance. A distant din and twinkling lights beckoned in the otherwise dark void ahead.

"Welcome home," the young attendant smiled as she took our tickets. "First time?" We told her it was. "Birgins! Please get out of the car, roll in the dust, and ring the bell!"

It's easy to make fun of Burning Man from a distance, and many have. It's even easier up close: People stroll naked or half-naked, in Star-Wars-meets-Mad-Max-meets-Indian-guru garb. Sessions are offered on respectful fisting, penis worship, and making your own greeting cards by stamping your genitals with colorful paint on cardstock -- a craft I typically enjoy, though I've never used that particular stamp.

There is no Internet or cell coverage, no plumbing and no power grid. My husband Arjun gravitates to new experiences, and while I'd rather meditate in a lush forest, I was determined to keep an open mind. I respected our daughter and trusted that what she valued here would be revealed to me. After all, her visit the previous year had inspired her decision to leave a secure job and pursue her passion for metal working and furniture design. I wanted to know -- what could be so powerful here?

Read More

What Do Children Worry About and How Can Grown Ups Help?

When I was young, I worried so much that my parents called me Worrywart and bought me a stuffed toy with the same name. It wasn’t the best strategy—I was left feeling bewildered and wondering how to not worry—but what did parents know then? Research from the field of developmental emotion science finds that children who understand and manage their feelings are happier, have better relationships, and do better in school. But as a developmental psychologist I’ve often wished for resources to help parents deal with worrying in their children. So I was pretty excited when I found a lovely picture book recently at a professional conference: Is a Worry Worrying You?  by Ferida Wolff and Harriet May Savitz. This light-hearted problem solving “manual,” based on good emotion science, introduces young children to the idea that worry may be more optional and flexible than they believe—and that they may be able to do something about the suffering it causes them.

As a parent, I’m moved by the realistic examples in the book; as a developmental psychologist, I’m impressed by the sophistication of the advice contained it its slim 16 pages.

The cover illustrates the idea that we are more than our worries, and that worry is something that comes to us like an unwelcome visitor: “It doesn’t ask if it can enter. It just barges in. And it will stay as long as you let it.”

The feeling and qualities of worry are named and described. One of the first steps in managing a feeling is to recognize it—name it to tame it, we say: "A worry is a thought that stops you from having fun, from feeling good, from being happy." "Anyone can have a worry. Parents. Teachers. Brothers. Sisters. Friends." "You can feel tired from a worry. Or sad. Or sick. A worry can feel like a heavy sack is on your back. Only it isn’t there."

Most importantly, the authors offer many strategies for problem-solving. Research shows that young children ages 3-6 tend to ruminate, or spin their wheels, so they, especially, can benefit from help in problem-solving.  And older children who worry a lot believe they can’t solve the problem, though their problem-solving skills in other areas are equal to those of children who worry very little.

Read More

Many Words for Snow and Few for Emotion

Teachers from a school near the Arctic circle who work with children of mostly Inuit families find that this unique cultural group has a "limited vocabulary for talking about emotions as well as limited strategies for managing their emotions effectively." Recently these teachers travelled to Yale where researchers have developed a comprehensive emotion skills curriculum for children that trains the entire school community ("everybody with a face," they say) how to Recognize, Understand, Label, Express, and Regulate emotions (acronym RULER).

Read More

Mindfulness Practice in Schools? Slow down.

Meditation, my teacher used to say, is a vacation that you can give to yourself every time you tune in. For me, it’s a relief from stress and worry, a chance to hear the whispers of my own intuition, and space for my feelings that have not yet formed into words. More and more people are using contemplative practices, including educators who want to prepare their students with “21stcentury skills.” But a review in the June issue of the prestigious journal Child Development Perspectives warns that we should wait before adopting contemplative practices in schools: there just isn’t enough evidence on the benefits of contemplative practices for children to justify its widespread adoption.

There are many forms of contemplative or mindfulness practices—like meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, and the newer Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction—and they vary widely, but all have in common an important way of concentrating attention. Practitioners are guided to focus on the emotions, thoughts or feelings that flow through their awareness, without judging or getting caught up in them. For adults, these practices have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, alleviate pain and illness, and change areas of the brain that are related to regulating emotions, attention and mental flexibility. Meditation practice is even associated with the lengthening of the DNA telomeres, suggesting that it may slow aging at the cellular level.

The research on contemplative practices with schoolchildren, however, is a different story. According to Penn State researchers Mark Greenburg and Alexis Harris, there hasn’t been enough research on the subject, and what studies have been done lack scientific rigor. The majority of studies suffer from design flaws: small numbers of children, a wide range of practices, different kinds of control groups, and varying periods of practice, which makes it difficult or impossible to compare or draw conclusions. Many measures rely on self-report—where the children themselves describe the effects they experience—which yields questionable data since children often want to please adult questioners. Sometimes reports come from teachers or parents who, themselves, know about—or even participate in—the programs, another potentially biased source of feedback. And no studies look at the long-term effects of mindfulness practice in kids.

This is not to say there isn’t reason to hope that contemplative practices can benefit children.

Read More