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E is for Emotional and Social Learning Skills

Posted on September 16, 2011  | Leave a comment

By Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

NEWS FLASH! Twenty years of research has established that emotional intelligence—social and emotional skills—truly does foster success in kids. Parents should be craving this stuff for their kids more than perfect SAT’s and Olympic level athletic skills! In fact, it’s so integral to educational achievement and mental health that congress is funding “social and emotional” learning programs for school classrooms and war veterans.

Why aren’t parents buzzing about this? Why is there still more obsession with grades, AP class enrollment and talent development than sharing intimate and positive moments in the family? Is emotional intelligence just “too mushy” a concept, since you can’t measure it as easily? Perhaps—but I think the big rub is that it is best developed in the home. Many parents would rather go “buy a package” than be accountable themselves for demonstrating healthy social and emotional behaviors for…hmmm…a couple of decades.

What is the parenting package that helps to develop this vital essence?

I have created an acronym (RELATE) to identify the emotional and social skills we want to model and encourage in the home. These skills predict higher achievement, better emotional adjustment and more successful relationships in your child’s future.

R Remain calm so that you can interact with loved ones in respectful ways.
E Express emotions appropriate to the situation and the child’s age.
L Label emotions, giving your children a broad vocabulary for expressing their own.
A Acknowledge the cause of your emotions, without blaming, just describing.
T Take responsibility for managing your negative emotions, especially while in conflict.
E Empathize with your child’s feelings genuinely.

Remember that empathy does not imply agreement or giving into a child’s rage, protest or demands. Capable and authoritative parents are compassionate, but they don’t spoil their kids. They appreciate that children can be wildly intense, disappointed, anxious, angry and irritable, but they don’t react to these emotions. They hold the line on behavioral expectations, but accept that children have messy feelings.

Kids can be quite disrespectful when they experience their messy and negative feelings. Even tweens and teens can’t regulate their emotions consistently due to the immaturity of the prefrontal cortex (the “thinking” and “impulse control” center of the brain). Neurobiological maturation is a long term project that takes over twenty years. As the parent, you are the one who is supposed to have self management skills up and running, not them. Being patient and skillful with children who truly are “works in progress” is what our book, Getting to Calm, is all about.

What is “good enough” parenting and why is it harder to achieve these days?
Let me reassure you that when psychologists implore families to think more consciously about how they are interacting with their children at home, we are only aiming for good enough. Still, it can be a monumental task to slow down in our modern lives so that we can behave in thoughtful, authoritative and loving ways which support secure attachment. The key is balancing discipline, wholesome fun and attuned, responsive interchanges (henceforth here, called “good enough” parenting). As children morph into tweens and teens, living these values and deciding priorities becomes increasingly complex.

By the time your kids are tweens (ages 8-12), good enough parenting represents a decade of skillful, executive decision-making and a heck of lot of self-discipline. What does it look like in normal life? First and foremost, it requires turning off electronics (yours and theirs) and being home so that you can have relational time—listening, laughing, admiring, playing, appreciating, and sharing thoughts, feelings and experiences. If this kind of quality time doesn’t involve a lot of money and gadgetry, and is either activity-oriented (bikes, walks, or games anyone?) or conversational face time, good for you. We develop empathy through looking at one another and activating mirror neurons with kindly moments together.

We need to read to our children as much as possible during this decade. This portion of the evening evolves increasingly into homework and study time in the second decade. Parents of young children fret too much about creating early readers and focus too little on oral reading, going the library and enjoying fabulous books together.

Reading together is so nurturing, free and simple, and so immensely important to educational success, we must ask ourselves why it is often a lost art in family life. It has a simple and complicated answer: it represents a parental commitment of time—and lots of it. Time is a finite resource and most of us feel like we don’t have enough of it. We have a million and one excuses for why so many of us wish for but don’t achieve enough quality relational time with our families, but it comes down to prioritizing it.

Before you write me off as a Luddite, let’s get back to the endgame here.

Parental love, college preparation and a transition to adulthood

Most parents agree on what we want for our children. For starters, we want them to be successful, independent and well-adjusted. By the teen years, achieving these goals means that your child makes the academic grades which result in college admission, is capable in relationships, copes with stress in adaptive ways and feels secure about launching from the home.

Parents also want their children to be healthy, happy and wise. By the teen years, optimal health certainly includes a certain amount of athletic, social and extracurricular activities (See my blog on a checklist for parents of teens). It also means (ideally) not abusing drugs, not becoming depressed or anxiety disordered and not making stupid mistakes that get them thrown out of school or into the slammer. Notice the “not’s”? By the time you’re parenting teens, you know how critical mental and physical health is to everything else.

What parents seem not to realize is how much these goals rely on relationships in the home and their own social and emotional functioning during the first decade of life. You can “get away” with over-busy, electronic-laden and entertainment-filled years, but it is dreadfully hard to pull the plug on tweens and teens and start learning RELATE skills in the second decade without a firm grounding in the first.

I admit that face time and dinners with kids are often boring, filled with fracas and packed with emotional button-pushing. No wonder we turn to email, TV, “look good” child activities, and work, and let them have access to on-line everything—all in our own private spaces. It’s easier! Way easier. But then, what about the big chunks of time we need for investing in RELATE skills so that kids can develop emotional and social competence? And of course, only by committing to family time do we encounter those magical moments of loving bliss.

Lest you think that those in need of this emotional intelligence agenda are “those other high risk” families (you know—the ones suffering from poverty, abuse and other social ills), think again. Compared to less privileged families, research has documented that affluent teens have higher levels of depression, anxiety, and drug abuse, which is associated with academic pressure and disconnection from parents. If that isn’t an endorsement for enhancing the quality of family time and watching your word count related to haranguing about school, grades and tests, I don’t know what is.

The winners in the end will be those children with parents who RELATE to them

Summarizing this important information is the easy part of public health promotion. What psychologists like me muse about to no end is how so many well-intentioned, loving parents stray off the mark in achieving “good enough” parenting because they haven’t prioritized family connection. Exclusively pursuing high grades, premier athletics and talent development just seems so much more enriching for child development than making time for some hanging out at home. And we’ve become so accustomed to being distracted and over-wired, we don’t know how harmful it is to emotional and social learning. Affiliating with family and friends—faces turned toward one another and smiling, responding and even quarreling—has become a profoundly endangered resource, even though we evolved doing just this in our social circles for millions of years.

Parental modeling of emotional and social skills sounds simple, but today it represents a hot commodity. It’s harder than it sounds. It requires canceling some lessons, night meetings, and HBO. It means banning on-line access for everyone during your “special time”. Who would ever have imagined when we were kids that “the next big thing” would not be a technological breakthrough but instead a family sanctuary?

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F is for Fun, Quality Time and Good Connection

Posted on September 16, 2011  Leave a comment

By Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

Do you have F.A.D.D.?  Family Attention Deficit Disorder? Oh, no! Another shrink identifying a deficit syndrome! Yeah, well, it’s true. We have a severe shortage of quality time filled with fun, laughter and engaged family interactions without screens. Teens report that they want more time with their families. But they say the same thing about sex ed. And yet when parents kick start either agenda, teens will roll their eyes, groan and try all kinds of avoidance. It takes a huge commitment to overcome teen resistance and create good times at home without screens, but it’s worth it. Here’s why…

Research studies on the parent-child love bond have associated “warmth”, “cohesiveness”, “secure attachment” and “connectedness” with healthy child development. Loss of this “good feeling glue” exposes your kids to all sorts of problems. Once the reservoir of good feelings in a family dries up, everything else starts shriveling up too—like children’s cooperation, self esteem, academic achievement, resistance to negative peer influence, and the impact of your discipline.

While boundaries, discipline and other resources are also related to optimal healthy development, the parent child relationship is critical, and it needs to be nourished with good times together. The parent role of civilizing kids is so onerous that we must have happy times to compensate for all the drudgery!

So, what are some ideas for how to spend quality time with tweens and teens?

• Volunteering—search the web and find activities you can do together. Trail or park maintenance, kitchen help at shelters and helping at food banks are always good options.

• Preparation of family dinners—rotate the head chef role; on your teen’s night to be head chef, invite his or her friends.

• Backrubs—most teens participate in athletic activities (or should) and can always enjoy a back or foot rub (better yet, take a massage class together first).

• Music tutorial—have your teen teach you about his or her music collection and then get help loading your favorites on to an IPod for you.

• Board games—Taboo is our family favorite. We love buzzing each other obnoxiously when we make mistakes.

• OK, OK, watching a video together with pizza and root beer floats can be great bonding, even if is a screen thing. At least you’re together…just try to go bowling, biking and skating another time.

It’s harder than it sounds. Life is horrendously busy, packed with work, kid activities, socializing, chores and way too much media. Like a stealthy infectious disease, electronic devices (T.V., internet, cells, video gaming) have invaded our homes and stolen from us our sacred, direct connection with one another. We’re so used to these electrical separators that we don’t even know how dangerous they are. Plus, pulling ourselves off these rewarding dopamine machines can render us screaming meanies.

Kids can deep six even our best efforts to instigate good times. They’re so good at it that parents often simply give up. YOU CAN’T! Parents must invest in efforts to infuse the family bank account with good feelings and positive emotions, because kids (especially teens) will be making lots of withdrawals when they have their negative moods. They can’t help it. Negativity and turmoil just naturally stem from puberty, brain remodeling and stress from school, peer dynamics, and growing up. Our only recourse to build the bank account up again!

As a psychologist, I work with struggling families that have serious deficits in their levels of happiness, positive engagement and laughter. Like any canary in the coal mine, this deficit serves as a warning for how bad juju can infect even an ordinary world-weary family if your resistance is down.

Life has many unanticipated slings and arrows that make the going tough, especially in a recession. The path to seeking any rosy time together can be thorny indeed. But as Mark Twain said, “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.”

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G is for Getting to Calm Skills

Posted on September 16, 2011 | Leave a comment


"Mom, you're ruining my life!"

By Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

One of the hottest topics in clinical psychology these days is what we psychologists call “emotional regulation” You might know it as “self control” or “emotion management” and understand that it’s important, because without it, kids would not be able to handle disappointments, follow rules and adapt to upsetting circumstances—and neither would we!

Dealing effectively with negative emotions is important for kids. It helps them deal with mean peers, painful break-ups, and unfairness or misunderstandings.

Self control is a powerful predictor of future success. Young children who can control their impulses and delay gratification end up having better lives and becoming big achievers.

How do kids develop this wonderful skill? Effective emotion management is partly determined by genetics, but a lot depends on what happens in that most intimate, important and labor-intensive relationship with parents. So let’s start with the parent part of the equation.

We like to focus on the loving times we spend with our kids, but let’s face it, we all lose it sometimes. Everybody has tempers that flare and buttons that get pushed—some more than others—and it causes neurons to fire in the most primitive part of the brain (called the “amygdala”). That’s why parents often start acting and sounding like children themselves!

“Flooding” occurs when people get anxious, fearful, or angry. They report that they “lost it” (their mind, temporarily), “melted down” (like a nuclear reactor), and “hit the wall”(and they might have). Brain scientists call this an “amygdala hijack,” which is an apt term, since the emotional brain truly does ambush your thinking brain (the “prefrontal cortex”) and holds it hostage until you cool off.

This hijack is why good parents end up yelling, criticizing, swearing, belittling and threatening, even though we all know that communicating this way doesn’t help us get through to our kids — and can hurt our relationship.

What’s a good parent to do? Try the C.A.L.M. approach:

  • C—Cool down (get your heart rate down, self soothe, breathe deeply).

  • A—Assess your options (What are the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches

    you might take for patching up the spat and problem solving? Talk now or later?

    This step automatically engages the prefrontal cortex so that good judgments can be

    made right after the cool down).

  • L—Listen with empathy (When re-engaging your child, acknowledge your child’s

    feelings first, without any “but’s”. Empathy doesn’t mean approval or agreement,

    but it does open up communication channels).

  • M—Map a plan (Use your calm and wise mind to figure out realistic goals and how to reach them).

You’ll need to role model this hundreds – maybe even thousands! — of times before you can expect your kids to do the same! Read more about it here.

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L is for Limiting Risk-Taking

Posted on September 16, 2011 | Leave a comment

Andy loves to watch things blow up. He likes violent computer games, fireworks and paint-ball. He’s already been caught purchasing M-80’s online. His parents wonder what Andy’s obsession about explosives is all about.

Jayne is one of those girls who liked to act like a teenager when she was 6 years old, especially the sexy ones depicted on MTV and in celebrity magazines. She loves make-up, shopping and suggestive dancing. It was all her parents could do to keep her from having sex before the age of 14.

Conrad is a regular guy who loves sports, his buddies and fun. Early maturation, good looks and popularity landed him invitations to parties and dates in middle school. At 13, his parents feel like they need to police his phone, computer and even his bedroom windows.

The biological drive for risk-taking is influenced by both genes determining temperament and the brain/hormonal changes of early adolescence. Andy, Jayne and Conrad want to experience excitement due to hard-wired and genetically-programed predispositions originating in their brains. Articles on zeal and yearning delve into the nature of these motivational forces and the ways they can produce both impressive competency-building and scary risk-taking.


A parent’s job is to encourage the competence agenda and limit the risk potential. Since risk-taking is part and parcel of the teenage years, the challenge is to harness the abundant energy available for arousal-seeking and channel it into productive and relatively safe goals.

No wonder parents love to sign their kids up for sports, clubs and volunteering. The more time spent in activities, the less available for risk-taking. Plus, these highly engaging pursuits help to develop teens’ skills, values and character. Not surprisingly, research has demonstrated the link between extracurricular activities and positive adjustment in teens.

Worn out families suffering from poverty, unemployment or illness will frequently lack the resources for securing these pro-social opportunities for preventing problem risk-taking. And when teens move into the “I don’t want to, and you can’t make me” phase, it can require an authoritative and tenacious parent to impose the parent mandate that teens participate in sports, school clubs and service.

But even the most high functioning and engaged teens can get in trouble running with their herd without adult supervision. Have you ever heard the joke about figuring out your teen’s IQ on Saturday night? For every peer that’s added to the mix, drop the group IQ by 10 points. In other words, when arousal is high, judgment is low.

Like virtually all parents of teens, the parents of Andy, Jayne and Conrad are worried about sex, drugs and violence. They want to limit risks while allowing them to develop their unique identities, enjoy their social lives and build competencies. Pulling this off is easier said than done.

Limiting health-compromising risk-taking is the goal—not preventing any exposure to risk. Preventing all risk would require putting teens in a protective gulag somewhere. Childhood is never devoid of risk; so instead, parents need to set their sights on risk-reduction or “limiting risk”.

Parental monitoring is one of the best ways for parents to keep their kids out of trouble. Monitoring includes supervision, knowing where your kids are, and having rules and policies which result in consequences for noncompliance. Research has documented the relationship between parent monitoring and lower rates of risk-taking, including delinquency, teen pregnancy, drug use, and school failure.

Another phrase we health practitioners use a lot is “controlled risk”. If the teen is a born adrenaline junkie, it’s better to encourage ski racing or helidrome cycling than leave her free to find her “highs” in other ways every weekend.

Andy, Jayne and Conrad turned out beautifully, thanks to their parents’ hard work managing risky business. Andy completed a challenging university program in construction management. Jayne sells software to hospitals and is a rising star. Conrad works in finance.

Truth be told (I was their shrink, so I was there)—life was hell for those parents when they were dealing with teen antics, mistakes and risks. But they prioritized building competencies, parental monitoring and the delicate dance of limiting risk-taking, all while maintaining their loving relationships. The rewards of high functioning young adulthood came later.

Even if we do figure out ways for our kids to have fun, build skills and limit access to sex, drugs and personal dangers, a parent will always worry about risk—it is built into our Darwinian code. Protective parents help their children survive adolescence.

Nevertheless, there are disadvantages to overprotection and over-control. A child may rebel against the hyper-control or authoritarianism. Furthermore, a child that isn’t allowed to bike to school, ride buses to a job, or travel internationally misses the opportunity to experience self-discovery and competency-building.

Yep—all sorts of independent actions can result in risk. Parents will do their own “cost/benefit/risk” analyses about what they allow their child to do or not do. There is no recipe for the right amount of freedom to give a child, since parents have different philosophies, tolerance levels for risk and personalities in their kids.

Risk raises anxiety in parents. I don’t think my personal obsession with child injury resulted from just my work on an inpatient unit at a children’s hospital. It’s rational to be emotional about our babies’ welfare! Heck, kids can incur mortal wounds from a jungle gym, not just from ski racing. Luckily, mine have survived both (so far). Parenting is one long risk-taking experience, for the parent and the child.

Posted in toolbox

M is for Money Management (And Resisting Indulgence)

Posted on September 16, 2011 | Leave a comment

By Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

Call it “entitle-mania” (we did in Getting to Calm and a past ParentMap article), or indulgence, or just plain spoiling, but many families do it and wish they didn’t. The U.S. financial sector is not the only economic system that needs fixing. Most families admit to lacking optimal policies for teaching their kids the value of a dollar. They also acknowledge that spoiled kids are a big pet peeve. The trap is easy to identify—kids are easier to deal with when you give them the stuff they want and a break on chores.

One parent I see in my practice put it this way, “I know I should “just say no, but I hardly even see my son because of his busy high school schedule. Plus, he’s always so grumpy and annoyed with me. When I buy him what he wants or do his chores for him, he turns all sweet and affectionate. I can’t help myself—I give in all the time.”

As parents, it is our responsibility to prepare children for the adult world in which they will need to live within a budget and do a lot of drudgery and household chores. Therefore, we need to incorporate these experiences into a child’s life from early on. Even two year olds can put their toys away and pour kibble into the pet’s bowl. By adolescence, they should be helping with just about every household task at some point. Yes–even if they are studying for SAT’S, taking AP’s and keeping up their GPAs.


Typically, parents will tell their kids the rational reasons for chores. They might say something, like “You are part of a community from which you receive many resources, and therefore you need to contribute”. The crazy thing is that many parents actually think that this explanation will result in agreeable compliance from their children! However, a more common response is dragging of the feet, objections and outcries of injustice. And if this kind of protest gets your kids out of their chores, then the infectious disease called “indulgence” has sneaked into your home.

The raw truth of the matter is that children are born hedonists. The pleasure principle rules: “I want what I want when I want it.” It’s up to parents to impose a system whereby they learn to delay gratification and cope with the frustration they feel when they are doing yard work instead of social networking. In fact, one of the best systems for getting compliance is to establish a system whereby they get access to their fun stuff only after they finish their chores to your satisfaction. First they do what you want (e.g. chores), and then they get to do what they want (e.g. access to screens). Let behavioral theory be your parenting friend.

Teens Research Unlimited reported that the median amount of allowance per week among 12-18-year-olds was $50, but the teens from homes with household incomes above $100,000 were given $175 per week. Some did some chores for money, but a large proportion of pocket money for children is in the form of handouts.

There have been decades of debate about whether to connect allowance with chore completion or to give allowance as a separate policy. Personally, I have come to believe either way can work as long as the parents are consistent. The essential goal is that parents have successful policies in place whereby kids do regular chores and live within a conservative budget. If parents accomplish this noble goal, they are way ahead of the national average.

Allow me to repeat myself: the goal is that children learn to be responsible about doing household duties and saving money for a portion of their purchases, not that they are happy and agreeable about it. Financial policies and chores put a big crimp in kids’ pleasure principle. However, young adults reared with these policies are grateful to their parents, even though as children these onerous responsibilities were likely to be the bane of their existence. They end up glad they didn’t become the spoiled brats that some of their indulged peers turned into.

Imposing policies around money and chore management is one of the classic parental dilemmas: “Pay now or pay later.” If you enforce rules regarding daily chores and budgets, you’ll encounter negative moods, resentment and conflicts, but you’ll raise a teen with values and character that you (and your teen) are proud of.

Cave to their desires and their protests, and you’ll avoid nasty exchanges and often get a smile, but you’ll kick yourself for the indulged young person that you helped to create. Furthermore, kids with a case of the “gimmies” are not happy kids. The earlier mentioned infectious disease called indulgence makes them smile initially, whine with dissatisfaction fairly soon and tantrum for a new fix shortly after that.

I worked with a family once—let’s call them the Smiths—that needed and wanted a grand overhaul. The tweens, 9 and 11 year old boys, lacked chores, self-discipline and budgets. The parents were disgusted with themselves as they described how their kids did not “lift a finger to help, threw tantrums to get what they wanted and expected to be waited on, hand and foot”. They admitted that they didn’t even like their kids much of the time, even though they loved them deeply, which was part of the “problem”—it was hard to deny them their wishes.

The good part of this story is how serious the parents were about committing themselves to change. It took over a year, but here is the system they implemented.

1. Daily chores are completed in order to earn screen time (e.g. a list is posted that includes garbage, dinner, and room duties). If the chore is not completed by X time, no privilege.

2. Weekend chores are completed before social outings are allowed (e.g. yard work and special projects related to helping parents, around 1-2 hours).

3. Parents review policy, monitor it daily, withhold privileges and re-negotiate it as needed.

4. Parents keep a ledger sheet to keep track of allowances, 10% of which goes to a charity of each child’s choice and 20% of which goes to a savings account. That leaves 70% which is the child’s “spending money”, payable upon request of the child.

5. Parents update agreements with children regarding the allowance amount as the child matures, stipulating what parents pay for (e.g. shoes, athletic equipment, etc.) versus what the child’s spending money is designated for (e.g. music, movies, food outside the home, etc.).

6. Children use their spending money as they please. Purchases using money from savings account require parental approval.

7. Sizable financial gifts from family members go into savings accounts. Family members give moderate “spending money” gifts directly to children, still with parent consent.

(The parental controls with relatives are in place to protect parental values regarding saving for large purchases, securing a budgeting process and the teaching of delayed gratification).

The initial implementation of the system was, of course, a mess. The kids threw giant tirades about the new policies in a dynamic known as “extinction surge” among psychologists. If parents stop delivering goodies, then kids will intensify the protests. (When experimenters stop dispensing pellets to pigeons that have received them for pecking a bar, the pigeons start pecking the bar like crazy). This “surge” of attempts to get the parents to weaken their resolve should be expected and endured. Consistency pays off. The kids will cease their protests when they figure out exactly how they can and cannot receive their rewards.

Behavior management and financial policies sound great in theory. But between mapping the plan and successful implementation lies the treacherous realm of emotions. It took a year for the Smiths to get their system in good working order because we had to iron out mom’s sensitivity to kids’ outbursts, dad’s conflict avoidance and the marital disagreements about “how much is too much”. Money management is one of spouses’ greatest sources of conflict. So is parenting. So is misbehaving children. No wonder it is a mine field. But don’t put it off. Pay now or pay later.

Posted in toolbox

S is for the Socratic Method

Posted on September 16, 2011 | Leave a comment


Can you ask questions that your teen wants to answer?

By Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

Today in my office, a 15 year old teen taunted his mom by saying, “Colton is my hero—he outran ‘The Man’!” She had been commenting on an article in our local paper in which I likened the barefoot bandit to a modern day Jesse James. Perfectly on cue, his provocative statement incited the mom to lecture about moral turpitude and the horrors of living a life of crime. Do you imagine that her son absorbed any moral lessons while he laughed in her face?

When your teen declares that marijuana should be legalized, college is a waste of time, or manners are stupid, how do you reply? Do you respond with comments about (and criticisms of) the particular topic at hand? Or do you take a few seconds and breaths for “getting to calm”, so that you can figure out the best approach for discussing important matters with your teen?

We called our book “Getting to Calm: Cool-headed strategies for parenting tweens and teens” because teens push parents’ emotional buttons so easily, frequently and intensely. When we are upset by our kids, we fall into the trap of reacting rather than responding wisely. Even though we know that negative responses—like criticism, sarcasm, lecturing, ridicule, contradiction, and dismissiveness—are likely to lead to blow-ups or shutdowns, they are common reactions when our children express ideas that make us worried about their health and welfare.

In my next series of articles posted here, I am going to describe some tools that parents can use with some of the classic challenges we face while parenting teenagers. The first tool to be discussed here addresses the situation in which a teen throws out an idea we think is hare-brained, if not potentially harmful. I call it the “Socratic Method” because it enhances analytic thinking, helps parents understand their teens’ internal worlds and avoids power struggles. Here’s how it works—

The goal of using the Socratic Method is to flesh out your teen’s notions and perspectives through guided inquiry. It is not to win an argument, persuade or make a teaching point. It involves asking questions without an agenda other than inquiry. The parent’s tone should be neutral, interested and respectful. Socrates is known for stating that he was a man of ignorance. Keep this in mind. You are ignorant—looking for insights into the mind trails of your teen’s psychological and intellectual world.

Using the teen’s statement about Colton Harris-Moore above, some examples of Socratic-like questions are listed below. Ideally, each teen response would lead to your own “linked” line of inquiry which would help clarify their assumptions and perspectives; thus, these questions are jump starts for that unfolding process—not to be considered as “interview” questions!

  • “What makes Colton more of a hero to you than any other 19 year guy running from the law?”

  • “If he committed crimes that involved violence against persons, rather than just property, would that make a difference to you?”

  • When young people refer to “The Man” these days, what are you referring to exactly?”

  • “How would Colton be different than a hero who developed an AIDS vaccination, and would you enjoy reading about them in different ways?”

  • “Does reading about Colton’s sad family history change how you feel about his being a hero?”

  • “How does the concept of “The Man” make  young people naturally want to root for the opposition?”

The Socratic approach does not teach moral values. It only relates to moral education in so far as it may stimulate a deeper analysis of complex ideas. Topics like the legalization of drugs or the merits of a college education are “hot button” issues for most parents. A sarcastic, dismissive or critical response is common, even though it is not effective in producing a teen’s deeper thinking on the matter!

Parents ask me routinely how to improve their relationships with their challenging teens. It is so easy to list important things like, “Keep the positive interchanges outweighing the negative ones by five to one”, “Stay calm in spite of her moody personal attacks”, and “Listen for understanding instead of lecturing.” We fail frequently, because our buttons are pushed and we react emotionally. First we must bite our tongues, then we should take some breaths, and then we should figure out what (if anything) may be constructive to say at that point in time.

Sometimes when teens make wild declarations (e.g. “All my teachers are bigots and fakes”), they may be letting off steam, merely baiting us, or spoiling for a fight. Other times they are exploring their recently expanded mental and psychological worlds. When teens use their newly minted cognitive skills to skewer adult values, imperfections, and inconsistencies, it can be very uncomfortable and provocative. It can also be an opportunity to have some really interesting conversations!

The big challenge is to keep cool-headed so you can use your own mental powers to choose effective strategies for engaging the maturing but immature brains of your teens. Put yourself on a “getting to calm” protocol, decide to see your teen as a fascinating person, be as ignorant as Socrates and learn about your teen’s logic skills, opinions and feelings with “The Method.”

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T is for Temperament Management

Posted on October 4, 2011 | Leave a comment

Conventional wisdom regarding temperament recommends that parents “work with your child’s temperament, not against it.” What this sage advice means is that you seek to understand your child’s inborn personality, accept its genetically-based limitations and cultivate its associated unique assets. The biological nature of temperament renders children blameless for certain unsavory tendencies they inherited, whether little Joey exhibits moody reclusiveness or a daredevil streak. As parents, we want to make the most of our kids’ personality strengths and minimize the potential harm of what could be weaknesses.

A shy, reactive child will be slow to warm up to new situations, need strong encouragement about participation in activities and thrive best in certain low-stress niches. His well-informed parent will understand that he needs firm nudges to join social groups but avoid overwhelming him with excessive expectations, especially in unfamiliar circumstances. The high-energy and thrill-seeking child will love activity, risk and stimulation. Her savvy parent will accept the chaos that accompanies her personality type and provide opportunities for her to explore her curiosity safely, learn to curb her excessive zeal and cope with limits.

Basic aspects of temperament endure from the cradle to the grave, but in between the role of nurturing is huge in shaping a child’s life. The introverted child may become a famous professor or a hermit, and the aggressive extrovert may become a successful entrepreneur or a con artist. Parent navigation plays a big (but not all-determining) role in the map-quest. Good and bad random events, neighborhood, school and financial resources also play large roles.


Although there are many theories and systems of categorization, cross cultural research has shown that temperaments are distinguished by the degrees to which we experience and express fear, aggression and sociability. While all sorts of genetic code contribute to our budding personalities, a grand central station mediating our “nature” is our arousal system.

An ancient relic in our old emotional brains, called an amygdala (one in each hemisphere), evolved over millions of years to protect us from dangers and help us survive. It detects and reacts to perceived threats, triggering the “fight or flight” response. Fear allows us to detect and avoid danger, aggression enables us to fight it, and sociability gives us the capability of coping with it and collaborating with others.

Threats can be real or imagined, life-threatening or innocuous. The arousal system sets off a physiological “stress” alarm that determines whether your baby likes the rattle or screams bloody murder. It influences whether your preschooler runs happily into class or begs to stay home with a (real, painful, neurochemical-induced) stomach ache. It contributes to whether your teen joins a bunch of clubs or refuses to join any at all.

Obviously, these temperaments exist on a continuum, and the most challenged parents (and children) are dealing with the extremes of high and low arousal. The fearful, avoidant and easily overwhelmed child with over-reactive amygdalae will dread the unfamiliar and perceive danger everywhere. The child with under-reactive amygdalae will be risk-prone and boldly seek excitement everywhere. The parent’s challenge is to nudge the avoidant child forward and pull the sensation-seeking child back, so they can both explore the world safely and fully, while learning how to self-regulate their hyper and hypo arousal systems.

Kids with either kind of extreme arousal system are lucky if they have high sociability in the mix of their temperaments (which is linked with serotonin, the “well-being” neurotransmitter). This genetic gift will mean that the anxious kid will still want friends (or at least one or two) which helps her deal with stress. And the brash, wild kid with sociability will be motivated to handle negative feedback when she is over-the-top with her dominant and bossy impulses.

On the other end of the continuum, opposite high sociability, is irritability. These kids are annoyed easily, which for some will erupt in aggressiveness, high anxiety, depressive tendencies, or a combination of these features. Parents of these children are tested to their utmost to avoid judgment and instead offer compassion and resourceful strategies to help their children self-soothe, cope and problem-solve (see my“7 Tips for managing meltdowns” post). The equanimity and resilience that can come with sociability and a positive mood can be genetic gifts. However, we also know that tempestuous, melancholic and intense personalities have created brilliant works of art, science, music and literature.

The low reactive/high-energy child

The child who is fearless about trying new things, high-energy and intense has upsides and downsides in his temperament type (see “Z is for Zeal” post). Of course, parents wish for “just the right amount” of reactivity and energy—appropriate fear for danger and risk, together with passion for school, extracurricular activities and a future career-building. We like the idea of “fire in the belly”, but not so much that little Janey runs off the rails with her plans to become the next Beyonce by age 14, or so little that little Johnny only wants to play alone with his computer in the basement.

A kid I worked with a while back got into academic trouble because all he wanted to do was skateboard tricks for countless hours (until it was snowboarding season, that is). After the six year college plan, he established a customized fitness center which became a successful business venture. The fact that no one would have guessed that this high-energy kid would end up a highly motivated entrepreneur at the age of 30 is a testament to the mystery of child development…and to the dedication of parents who kept leveraging their support for staying on a responsibility track.

A parent’s first challenge with a high energy and risk-taking kid is to accept that trying to tame “sensation-seeking” is like riding a bucking bronco. Parents of children with “spirited”, “difficult” or ADHD temperaments are thrown for a loop when they dutifully restrain their kids’ impulses to kick up a storm and fly high. Vertigo should be expected.

A child comes by a high-energy, risk-prone temperament as innocently as any genetic trait, like blue eyes or left-handedness. However, parenting plays a significant role in how the child’s energy level is harnessed, regulated and directed. High zeal kids can end up troubled, flat-lining or quite successful. Parenting these kids is a marathon event, and it requires more stamina and skill to guide the gonzo energy into positive outcomes.

My experience as a psychologist counseling kids with extreme temperaments is that they all benefit from extra-specially skilled parents. All kids need their parents to praise good behaviors, ignore low-level messes, develop their talents, and keep a sense of humor. But since high energy kids kick up so much dust, parenting efforts need to be multiplied to manage conflicts and keep the lid on risk-taking while outlets for high-energy fun and expression are established.

It is inevitable that parents of extremely high energy children get mad and upset at their child for the collateral damage that comes with a bucking bronco. Havoc at home, school and everywhere else is an everyday reality.

When these high-zeal kids are young, they are likely to frequently end up in melt-downs when they get riled up with emotion. As teens, they still can, especially with the expected increase in moodiness, reactivity and risk-taking associated with pubertal and brain changes. With the immaturity of the impulse control system and hormones at all-time highs, these bucking broncos can look like wild, wild horses when loose on the prairie (read: when unsupervised).

Parents will want to anticipate situations that are likely to trigger zeal gone amok. Any activity that jacks up high-energy to a frenzy level is likely to be risky. Thus, parents of these kids are especially advised to increase supervision and safety plans for big events (school field trips), fun outings (birthday parties, sleepovers), and special social occasions (prom and graduation).

As a group, teens benefit from parental monitoring. High energy teenagers who are “low reactives” to the specter of risky business need even more supervision than the average teen for obvious reasons (see “L is for Limiting Risk-taking“).

Sensation-seeking teens are at higher risk for teenage pregnancy, substance use, truancy, smoking, and juvenile crime. Since parental monitoring and restricting freedom when necessary can be such a huge bummer for risk-attracted kids, parents need to work twice as hard to maintain good relationships and positive feelings in the home during the rambunctious adolescent years.

The high reactive/sensitive child

Highly sensitive children react strongly and negatively to novelty and have trouble moving out of their comfort zones. Highly sensitive children are not necessarily low in energy, but they are low in tolerance for trying new things. New experiences trigger the false alarm system in their “fear and anxiety” centers. Children who are shy, anxious and avoidant will try to get out of doing anything that raises their distress levels.

On a subjective distress continuum of 1 to 10, extremely sensitive children will give you a 7-10 level “reading” for how it feels to join a team, club or group. Ideally, a registering of “10” should be reserved for a life-threatening emergency, not a birthday party. Novelty and uncertainty are negative emotions for these kids (as boredom is to the low reactive, high zeal kids). Trying out for a play? Going to sleep-away camp for a month? Attending the first dance in high school? One kid’s nightmare of a new situation is another (high zeal) kid’s idea of heaven on earth.

Highly sensitive kids need their parents to nudge them forward into the big social world, just as low reactive/high zeal kids need parents to pull them back. There is a catchy phrase in neuroscience for describing how people naturally seek their emotional comfort zones: “individuals seek their optimal state of arousal”. High-energy kids rev themselves up to feel good, whereas shy and anxious children will avoid, avoid and avoid.

Anxiety and sadness squelch zeal and motivation. Parents need to encourage their children to be brave and push past their inclination to minimize discomfort by avoidance. These kids can’t help it that they get triggered by their low threshold for fear and anxiety. But like the hyper kid that needs to learn to self-control, the highly sensitive child needs to develop skills for coping with anxiety states and forging ahead.

Engineering new experiences for these children and teens can kick-start the discovery of zeal when the initial anxiety or adversity abates. The challenge is finding settings that provide the dual functions—anxiety that can be tolerated and growth experiences that can unleash zeal and gratification over time.

Parents need to be tenacious. They can give their children a deadline for choosing a sport or extracurricular activity, telling them that they get to choose “which” activity, but not “whether” they will commit to something. And if the child refuses, the parents should present a united front and choose for the child. For shy or reluctant children, a more benign option will be a non-competitive context with adult support, like martial arts, African drumming or volunteering at a retirement home. They can always choose an alternative—but there needs to be one! (or two!)

Parents need to be creative. In the same way that parent of high zeal kids might broker time with homework in exchange for social freedoms, parents of anxious and avoidant kids can allow solo time to be contingent on a certain amount of time spent with friends and activities outside the home.

A sensitive child’s reactive, fearful and cautious tendency usually continues in some form through childhood and adolescence. The good news is that parents who continue their nudging, exposing their kids to incremental challenges, may be happily surprised at the growth spurt that can accompany the college launch. College usually provides a huge leap forward in social competence, since it provides daily exposure to a zillion new experiences.

Personality kaleidoscope

Psychologists tend to use the word “temperament” for referring to the stable traits of infants and kids and the word “personality” for those of adults. Kids, like their parents, vary along all sorts of continuums of personality features. One well-researched system describes the “Big Five”: openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and negative/anxious reactivity.

Low and high reactivity of children, along with their sociability index, map onto these Big Five personality dimensions over time. Parents observe how open their children are to new experiences, how anxious they are to follow rules and expectations, how much they enjoy being with people, and how easy-going and resilient they are with social interactions. And like their parents, children have their own particular combos of these dimensions.

There have been thousands of studies documenting the enduring nature of personality characteristics. However, there are also volumes written about the “nurture” part of parenting and the environmental influences over a life time which alter these characteristics tremendously. And outside the ivory tower of studies, the real world of childrearing lives on, where parents develop their children’s personality strengths and finesse the weaknesses the best they can.

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