What Parenting Style Makes Emotionally Healthy Kids?

A large study has confirmed that parents who are warm and non-controlling raise children who are happier and have better emotional well-being.

The study confirmed what is called “attachment theory”, a very well-researched concept that has proven that warm, responsive, attuned parenting is ideal for forming bonds with children.

The study certainly confirms good, old common sense. Yet, sadly, too many parents still believe they must be harsh and controlling, not realizing the long-lasting negative effect this has on children. Some of these negative effects even last a lifetime.

A good rule I like to use is for parents to focus less on behaviors and more on a child’s emotions. In other words, cut back on worrying if a child is behaving appropriately and observe and tune into the child’s underlying emotions. Ask yourself: “Why is my child behaving this way?” This will likely lead to a more compassionate parenting style, which is warmer and less controlling.



Managing Your Child’s Test Anxiety

In my third blog this September on school issues, let’s focus on how to understand and manage a child’s test anxiety.

Nervousness during test taking isn’t entirely bad. Some feeling of pressure can help improve performance. Yet overwhelming anxiety leads to decreased performance and perhaps even inability to complete a test. These results can then lead a child to feeling unsuccessful and fear test taking even more.

Underlying anxiety about test taking is a mix of beliefs and emotions — often a fear of failure accompanied by deep feelings of unworthiness tag-teamed by fears of being embarrassed in front of peers.

As neurobiologists tell us, our brain reacts to physical fears (“Watch out, a bear!”) and emotional fears (“Watch out, those girls are teasing you!”) in the same part of the brain. This survival center is powerful, but operates in a simple “on-or-off” manner.

Therefore, when internally generated thoughts of self-criticism arise (“I’m stupid and will flunk this algebra test and everyone will think I’m an idiot.”) this brain function gets turned on to the “fear” or survival mode.

When the brain is triggered into the fear response, all humans react with classic “fight-or-flight-or-freeze” behaviors. In test anxiety, usually it’s the “flight” and “freeze” behaviors. Students report feeling they want to run out of the room and that their brain just does not seem to work. Some report severe panic, with shortness of breath, sweating, muscle tension and feelings of dread and paralysis.

Neurobiologists also report that when the brain goes into “fear” mode, the cortex or thinking part of the brain does not work as well. Called “cognitive narrowing,” this natural reaction leads one to have poor recall, problem solving and deliberative powers.

Unfortunately, many parents, educators and even students view test anxiety by the end results — poor grades — and the child gets labeled as having an intellectual deficit. The sad irony is that the child’s fear of disapproval from others and from himself is so strong that he earns the bad grade he is so concerned about getting, seemingly confirming his worst fears. In reality, the child’s fear is just too strong he just can’t focus and perform well.

Combat test anxiety with your child with these tactics:

  1. As a parent, decrease your anxiety and focus on homework, school performance and grades.
  2. Increase the family’s overall focus on learning for learning’s sake, not to achieve a grade. Model a curious attitude and an attitude for lifelong learning by reading, going to a museum, learning something new.
  3. Teach and practice with your child self-calming skills, such as deep breathing, body awareness, and management of body tension and fidgeting.
  4. Teach cognitive interventions such as positive self-talk: “I am smart. I have studied. I can do this!”
  5. Teach and practice with your child skills such as mindfulness meditation.
  6. Ask your child to consider: “What is the worst thing that will happen if I fail this test?” She should start to see that it really is not such a big deal, even if she did fail.
  7. Ask your child about his fears of failure, his high expectations for himself and his self-image.

Let’s make learning fun, not stressful, for kids!

Re-thinking Homework Refusal in Teens

Have a teen who refuses to do homework? Some teens even do the homework, but do not turn it in or “forget it”, ensuring them a failing grade. This makes no sense to parents, who only read this behavior as irrational or oppositional:  “He’s just doing it to piss me off,” or “He’s just lazy and irresponsible.”

Instead, let’s look at this behavior through a compassionate lens, which gives us an understanding of the likely emotional underpinning of this behavior.

Teens who are brought into therapy always have issues with low self-worth (same goes for adults.) This is the core cause of issues with low motivation, depression, anxiety, and especially suicidal or self-harm tendencies.

So, if we understand low self-worth as the core issue, it plays out with homework in the following way.  A teen has come to believe she is “stupid,” yet she does not want to turn in homework and have this fault confirmed by earning a bad grade. So she refuses to turn in the homework or loses it, because it is easier to be labeled “lazy” or “oppositional” than confirm the fear that she is “stupid” or “worthless.” Not turning in the homework allows her to protect her self-worth to some degree by keeping alive the thought that she might not actually be stupid.  “I’m not stupid. I just didn’t do the homework.”

Teens are also extremely sensitive to peer judgment. A teen who feels “stupid” does not want to expose this presumed fault in front of her peers. Avoiding turning in homework may be one way they attempt to solve this problem.

Yet parents do not understand and teens often can’t or won’t express these fears. (Because admitting feelings of shame or low self-worth is very difficult to do!)

When parents respond with labels of “lazy” and “irresponsible,” this feeds the child even more shaming messages, guaranteeing the misbehavior spiral will continue.

Parents: Rethink your child’s reluctance to do homework. Find a time to calmly and gently inquire about how she feels when doing homework or how she feels about turning in the work. Try to uncover any fears about grades and feelings of low self-worth.

When you have this talk, don’t immediately reassure the teen that she is “smart.” Just listen. Be fully emotionally attuned. Reflect on her emotions and experiences.

5 Parenting Tips for Back-to-School 

As students put away the flip-flops and put on backpacks this back-to-school season, many parents dread the arguments over homework, the amped-up scheduling and other parental stressors. Here are some tips to help parents manage the September Stress:

  1. What homework? My first rule is simple: Stop asking about homework, hovering over your child and checking homework.

From what I hear regularly from patients, parents today seem to be far too involved in “helicoptering” about homework issues.

What are you teaching your child when you ask relentlessly and anxiously about homework? Is she learning lessons about her ability to disappoint you if she gets a bad grade?  Or maybe that you only care about academic success, not about her social or emotional fulfillment? Or that your self-image is defined by her grades?

Importantly, what are you teaching about personal responsibility when you daily remind an older child to do homework? Younger children need structure and direction most of the time. But as kids get along in elementary school these reminders should taper way off.

The way to teach about consequences is to let “natural consequences” occur. If your child forgets to do his homework, the result is he will feel embarrassed by his “0%” and realize he has disappointed himself, his teacher and his parents. He will not enjoy that sensation of shame, so he will likely change his behavior. By protecting him from learning this lesson you are not teaching him what I believe is one of the most important lessons of life — to acknowledge shame and learn be accountable for one’s behavior.

2. What, me worry?

Apologies for the antique cultural reference from my youth, but parents need to stop worrying about a child’s academic success.

Sure you want your child to be a “success.” But be honest.  Consider the real reason for your worry. Is this worry more about YOUR fears of looking like a failure as a parent if your child does not do well in school? Is this worry largely due to YOUR fear of getting the call from the teacher or principal about a forgotten book report or a poor behavior? Do you have high expectations for yourself and are you passing those perfectionistic traits to your child?

While it is easy to believe that your child reflects on your self-worth as a parent, let go of this belief. Free yourself and your child. Let your child be his own person and make his own path.

3. Put away the tech.

Studies have found that too much exposure to gadgets and games in childhood causes cognitive delays, attention problems, increased tantrums, sleep deprivation, increased impulsivity and more.

Two studies by the University of Southern Maine showed that college students who merely had a cell phone sitting on their desk while doing a simple cognitive test performed 20% worse than students who did not have technology nearby. Just the mental distraction of thinking about the cell phone seemed to worsen performance, even if the students didn’t actually use it.

If kids are working on a computer, have them shut other tabs to social media sites.

4.  Model your values.

You push your child to study and succeed academically. But when was the last time you read a book that was educational? Do you attend community education classes, visit museums or master a musical instrument? Do you watch PBS or educational TV shows? Do you discuss politics, current events, philosophy or religion at the dinner table or in the car?

5. Nix “How was your day?”

This article has 30 conversation-starter questions to use to replace that tired standby, “How was your day?”

In general, parents should focus on reducing anxiety surrounding school and making it a relaxing, enjoyable topic, so that kids experience learning as stress-free and maybe even fun!

Childhood Stress is Linked to Accelerated Aging

It has long been known that childhood trauma, such as abuse or death of a parent, can lead to psychological and behavioral problems. But this new study also shows that childhood trauma is linked to accelerated aging.

As reported in PsyBlog: “The results showed that both mental health problems and childhood adversity were associated with shortening of telomeres — caps on each strand of DNA which affect how the cells age.”

While I have not read the entire study, previous studies have shown that trauma does not have to be significant for it to affect a child. Trauma does not have to mean sexual abuse or being beaten. To a child, merely the lack of warmth of an accepting, loving parent is enough to be considered traumatic.

This makes complete sense is we understand attachment theory and look at the effect of chronic stress on the body and mind. Children have a biological need for safety and warmth. A child exposed to frightening situations early in life, such as domestic violence, crime or abuse,  becomes primed to remain chronically in “fight-or-flight” mode. The body’s arousal system is then perpetually “on guard,” which is exhausting mentally and physically.

Many people with “mental disorders” have problems with both fatigue and hyper-arousal. The body is not designed to remain in alert mode; it is designed to flee or fight, then immediately relax in the safety of our tribe.

Children with early trauma often have rarely experienced the safe haven of caring, nurturing parents or environments. If their trust has been betrayed through emotional or physical neglect or abuse, they may lack secure attachment to caregivers, which means they may also never know how to relax into the comfort of a caring relationship.

Studies like this confirm what makes common sense: The lack of a feeling of safety in childhood is linked to poor outcomes in both mental and physical health. Quite simply, feeling accepted, protected and loved are key components of childrearing. The rise in mental illness and now of accelerated aging and physical illness can be directly traced to a lack of warmth in parents and caregivers or a disruption in their care.

This makes it all the more clear that parenting education and early childhood interventions can have tremendous impacts on the mental and physical health of millions of people.