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A-Z Toolbox for Successful Parenting

Posted on August 8, 2010 | Leave a comment

By Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

The A-Z Toolbox contains 26 parenting tools that contribute to successful parenting. By “successful” I mean parenting strengths or behaviors that are associated with building social, academic, emotional and moral competence in children and adolescents. Each of the tools has research (which is cited with links) which supports its inclusion in the toolbox. These tools can be interesting articles for your reading or they can inspire an action plan to invigorate your parenting with new vigor and skill. My goal is to show the importance of these family strengths in optimal family functioning and inspire parents to hone their skills where need be.

Most of the tools are mentioned in one form or another in our book Getting to Calm. However, this toolbox will be applicable to all ages of children (not just tweens and teens), and it can be a super-easy way to review your parenting strengths. Because the transcripts in Getting to Calm show parents how to interact with their children successfully, it should be considered the comprehensive training program for the toolbox list.

Just like any toolbox, the parenting tools can sit there in the toolbox list without their functions discovered, understood, or utilized. My goal in upcoming articles is to show the importance of these family strengths in successful family functioning and inspire parents to refine their skills where need be.

Before I get started on the tools, I want to offer a few explainers for the user’s manual. Continue reading →

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A is for Authoritative

Posted on August 25, 2010  | Leave a comment

A fine balance

When Henry got home from school, he went straight to his room to post a music review on his Facebook page, check ESPN for scores and watch some YouTube videos. 

Since the family rule is that there is to be no “play” or social time on the computer until homework is done, Mom’s blood started boiling the minute she heard Henry crooning along with his favorite hip hop artist. To cool herself off, she invoked her favorite mantra in meltdown moments: “You might be right, but are you effective?” She knew that to maintain her authoritative credibility, she needed to keep herself calm, firm and level-headed. Instead of barging into Henry’s room and yelling at him about the rule violation, she tried a different approach.

“Henry, what’s up with your breaking the homework rule?” Henry replied, “Mom, I’m downloading my history chapter, so chill out. God, you’re on me like a vulture.” Mom ignored the snarky reply and said, “Henry, I appreciate that you are downloading history text, but I expect you to turn off everything else anyway. You know the rule. I know that you can handle the independence of using your laptop in your room if you try hard enough. By the way, your voice is way better than that dude you’re listening to.” Then she made herself smile and exit. She heard him groan, exclaim and click off his fun stuff.

Henry’s mom is demonstrating authoritative parenting, which predicts adolescent achievement, emotional adjustment, competence and self-reliance in adolescents. If you did your own web search, you’d find that it’s the optimal parenting style for raising the kids that successfully launch to college at age 18. Authoritative parenting is composed of three critical dimensions (consider them the crown jewels of parenting): Continue reading →

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B is for Boundaries and Independence

Posted on September 7, 2010 | Leave a comment


Fences and Freedom

By Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

The parental control and socializing agenda discussed in the "A is for Authoritative parenting" tool couldn’t get very far without strong boundaries and a big campaign for independent functioning. A paradox in the boundary-making mission is that it relates to both protecting children from excessive freedom of action (e.g. rules related to curfews, bedtimes, and media exposure) and

nudging children toward responsibility for independent action (e.g. rules related to chores, self-reliance, and expectations for autonomy).

Picture the long, rocky and wending road of child development. If we put fences up on either side, especially in the beginning, the child is likely to stay on track. But we want to remove these borders increasingly so that the child can negotiate the road independently. The child will fall down, go off-track, and encounter many obstacles, but by managing these dilemmas and problem-solving opportunities with our assistance when needed, the child will develop increasing competencies.

Throughout my career I’ve been asked the question, “How does a parent know how much freedom and responsibility to give children as they grow up?” Obviously, there is no “one size fits all” answer, because children vary so much in the independence they can benefit from and handle responsibly. Of course age is a factor, but children who have built-in (biologically-based) abilities to self-manage can handle surprising amounts of independence while others with novelty-seeking, rambunctious personalities often require a taxing amount of parental supervision and monitoring.

The word “boundaries” refers to limits both in behavioral and interpersonal realms. In the parenting world, it refers to setting limits on children’s rights and privileges, establishing rules and structure, and protecting children from excessive and harmful freedom or indulgence. In the psychology community, personal boundaries refer to the emotional and physical distance between people that can run the gamut from too detached to overly-enmeshed.

Parents with firm parent-child boundaries (neither rigid and detached, nor permeable and enmeshed) are capable of making the best decisions about behavioral boundaries for their children because they are involved and empathic parents but don’t get overwhelmed by absorbing their children’s emotions. To be effective with carrying out most childrearing responsibilities, parents need firm personal boundaries so they can stay calm while enforcing rules and discipline even when their kids exhibit typical negative emotions or tantrums.

Providing boundaries and encouraging independence are tightly connected parenting goals. Children become competent by having rules and limits about behavioral expectations, and they survive and thrive by being both protected from too much and pushed toward enough independent functioning. Parenting involves a constant weighing of costs, benefits and risks when figuring out the balance of boundaries and freedom for each individual child.

Continue reading →

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C is for Competence Checklist For Parents of Tweens: A dozen do’s and don’ts

Posted on February 16, 2010 | Leave a comment


checked your list?

By Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

I was preparing a keynote speech for the 180th North Pacific Pediatric Society today and it occurred to me that I should share the highpoints directly with parents. Have you read about the research which shows how much medical care can be improved in intensive care units when checklists are followed? With the complex and emotional realities of home lives,

why should we expect raising rascals to be any less mentally taxing than the average surgery?

Research has documented that most teens will experience more moodinessemotional reactivity and risk-taking, all of which can be very challenging for parents. Tweens and teens can drive their parents crazy with the way they argue for the sake of arguing, lapse into illogical thinking and dramatic interpretations of their plights, have meltdowns over what seem like small inconveniences, find fault with everything (especially their parents), and become maddeningly self-centered. Power struggles and arguments mushroom on the home-front, and parents wonder where their sweet child disappeared to.

I want to provide parents with a checklist of parenting strengths (of which there is an expanded version in my co-authored book, Getting to Calm) which is associated with academic, social and emotional competence in maturing teens. My hope is that parents of 4th and 5th graders can institute as many of these practices as possible as they ready themselves for the “molting age.” Continue reading

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D is for DNA of successful parenting: Executive Functioning

Posted on September 25, 2010 | Leave a comment

By Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

The family dinner, structure and routines are all associated with optimal child development, but they

couldn’t happen without a parent’s organization, ability to execute a plan and values-informed judgments. These sentinel cognitive capacities are related to the DNA of success in modern life—and they are key parts of every parent’s executive functioning.

I consider executive functioning to be the DNA of parenting because it determines so much of how we run our lives, including prioritizing dinners, creating structure and maintaining routines. It’s our cognitive CEO—it allows us to plan ahead, problem-solve, meet goals and make discerning judgments. The evolution of the prefrontal cortex (packed into that big forehead of ours) made these analytic skills possible. And of course, some of us are better than others at developing them to our advantage in parenting children and running an orderly home.

No wonder only highly functional families seem to pull off the magnificent achievement of family dinners, consistent chores, prompt bedtimes, and media control! How else could parents manage grocery shopping, preparation of healthful meals, wise decisions about evening activities, carpools, and kids’ compliance with chores, rules and other responsibilities? Parental executive functioning makes possible authoritative parenting, boundaries, skillful negotiation between spouses and effective leadership in family matters.

Family dinners have become symbolic of wholesome family life. Articles in newspapersjournals and websites document their importance in contributing to child health. Researchers find that regular family dinners are associated with less alcohol abuse, drug use, eating disorders and depression in teens and lower obesity and better reading preparedness in preschoolers.

Are these fabulous findings related to a secret sauce in the dinner per se or the fact that kids are at home with their families benefiting from routine? Probably both, but let’s tackle the dinner part first. Communal eating as a family and tribe goes back as far as recorded history. Eating food together means we are looking into each other’s eyes (an opportunity for empathy!), enjoying nourishment as a group (allowing us to associate gustatory pleasure with family in our emotional brains!), and learning about each other’s lives (even our teenagers’ lives on occasion!)

One study documented that family dinners predict reading skills in young children better than parental bedtime reading. It was speculated that children’s language capacity was enhanced by their parents’ rich vocabulary and the interactive way that they answered their children’s questions and delved into their interests.

Now let’s unpack the magic of routines. Don’t you love it when you see your child automatically perform the duties that used to be a struggle (e.g. seatbelt buckling, clearing their dishes, getting ready for bed, etc.)? As creatures of habit we benefit from the fact that “the neurons that fire together, wire together”. Neural connections are  created by what we do, learn and get rewarded for. The learning process helps create super-highway paths in our brains so we can switch into an “automatic pilot” gear, ideally helping families move through morning and evening routines more smoothly if they are practiced consistently enough.

Routines help organize our children’s lives and give them a sense of predictability and security. Practicing routines over and over helps kids learn math facts, basketball skills and good dental hygiene. As parents establish certain good habits in their kids, they can expand the scope of their responsibilities. Some kids can actually make the family dinner, clean it up and self-govern themselves all the way through their evening routine!

Imposing the structure that allows children to practice routines should be considered one of a parent’s favorite tools because conditioned responses (“automatic pilot” functioning) do some of the heavy lifting of socializing kids. With young children, if we follow the daily sequence of bath, teeth-brushing, books, songs /blessings and kisses/hugs every night and exit their room at 8 p.m., then they (and their brains) will expect this routine and do it fairly automatically. If we vary the routine a lot in response to protests and whining, we are rewarding these behaviors and welcoming chaos into our evening.

It shouldn’t be surprising that research has demonstrated that family routines and rituals predict better grades, social competence and even better management of chronic illness among children. The parent with a high level of executive functioning is more likely to produce a kid that learns those same skills.

Still, in the hurly burly of modern family life, it can be really tough to figure out priorities around the “dinner-structure-routine agenda”. It requires “big picture” analysis of what’s most important to children’s health, development and long-term welfare. It takes well-developed executive functioning!

Here are some typical questions that parents bring to me in consultations:

Continue reading →

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H is for Health Maintenance—why don’t we do what we should do?

Posted on October 18, 2010 | Leave a comment


By Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

Parents often neglect their own health while caring enormously about the health of their children. Since children and teens learn from and model their parents’ behavior, parents’ personal health behaviors can be critical determinants of their children’s health profile. Furthermore—and this is a “duh”—parents make decisions related to their children’s health every day.


Since health guidelines are a dime a dozen, let’s get that easy part over first, and then I want to address the nitty-gritty of why optimally healthful lifestyles are so hard to come by, even for the most competent, loving parents among us. First, a checklist for you and your child or teen:

don’t smoke
don’t drink
use a seat belt
eat balanced and healthful meals, avoiding junk
sleep 7-8 hours a night
practice firearm safety
exercise 30-60 minutes a day
practice safe sex
seek health advice when needed
? think carefully about health decisions


(For nine other measures parents can take for strengthening a family’s psychosocial and immunological health, check out my acronym “REAL STRONG” in the blog article posted on 9/8/09 addressing flu resistance.)

Creating a checklist is easy. Doing it is another. Rather than citing research on fitness and kick-starting new healthful habits (also easily accessible on the web), I am going to focus on the role of emotions in decision making.

The checklist is evidence based and fairly non-controversial. Since practicing these habits is associated with significantly better health, we must ask ourselves, for the sake of ourselves and our beloved children: “Why don’t we do what is good for us to do?”

Adults have a tough time doing what is in their interest health-wise, and of course children and teens have even greater difficulty. Young children reason that “good is what I want”, which is the first stage of moral reasoning. Basically, kids are hedonists. Luckily, parents control a lot of the decisions related to a child’s food intake, athletic commitments, seat-belt usage, and sleep routines.

By the time teens are mature enough to control these decisions, they have better cognitive equipment for this deliberation and ideally, established good habits to draw on. Given that parents model, teach, decide and broker health decisions in such a central way, they can be considered the lynchpins for family health practices.

The excuse many people give for failing to give adequate emphasis to health—say, exercise, healthful meals, and sleep—is “not enough time”. However, we know that we have choices of how we spend our time and money, so isn’t our health emphasis just a matter of choice?

Yes, and no. It depends on what you mean by “choice”. Neuro-imaging and cognitive science research shows us that emotions dictate a lot more of our choices moment to moment than we ever imagined. Do you think you made a purely cognitive choice (e.g. contemplating the costs, benefits, risks and the consequences) when you clicked on the TV, ate those cookies or hit the snooze button to avoid your exercise class? Think (and analyze that “choice” idea) again.

The emotional centers in our brain often have more power over our behavior than our reason centers. Neurons in the emotional “old” brain, whether reacting to danger or pleasures, trigger faster than the neurons in the analytical parts of the neo-cortex. And when we are faced with personal pleasures like a new love interest, favorite junk food, or compelling acquisition, the emotional centers are fueled by the powerful neuro-chemical dopamine.  Dopamine sends the message, “Go get it now!”

The draw of sex, food and novelty may have insured our survival over the millennia, but our pleasure drive may also represent our modern undoing. Let your mind roll to obesity, addiction, greed, and all manner of hedonistic impulses for musing on that last sentence.

No wonder reasonable people philander, watch too much TV, over-eat and drink too much. Our brains remember pleasurable things; it often just wants what it wants when it wants it. Our only protection is the “executive functioning” capability of our prefrontal cortex, which allows us to recognize and inhibit the impulses of pleasure gluttony. The thinking capacities of our prefrontal cortex made the development of our moral compass possible. That is—when it is fully engaged. Oh, but then again—I already emphasized that emotions can trump reason and judgment—frequently.

 Continue reading →

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Tagged balanced life, fitness, health, health decision making, parenting

I is for Intellectual and academic development support

Posted on November 21, 2010  | Leave a comment


By Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

Is it a surprise to anyone that helping children do well in school is part of successful parenting? Virtually all parents want to reach this goal. As with so many noble parenting goals, the devil is in the details. Many well-intentioned parents do too much, too little or bark up

the wrong trees when it comes to school support. I will summarize the basics succinctly so that I can focus on some of the subtleties of the support role which are misunderstood by even the most competent of parents.

Many studies have shown that parental involvement with children’s learning predicts school achievement, which in turn predicts how well they thrive in life. The key ingredients include:

• High (but not unrealistic) expectations for school achievement
• A home environment that supports learning (e.g. setting aside homework time, preventing distractions like media, mandating bed times, maintaining good family relations and positive affirmations about work efforts)
• Involvement in the school and community
• Parents who role model intellectual curiosity, rich conversations at the dinner table, reading for pleasure and lifetime learning interests.

These recommendations are ubiquitous and uncontroversial. Now for the nitty-gritty of how the parent role can go haywire.

The student’s performance, attitude and feelings about school

As students proceed through elementary school, parents should expect their child to do satisfactory work, like school and feel comfortable there (mostly). If not, parents should consider meeting with the teacher and doing some problem solving, so that this pattern does not become entrenched. Children develop what I call an “academic identity” early in childhood: “I am a bad,/adequate/excellent student.” When children report that they hate school, it means that they are not thriving there, and the “hate” is a defense against the terrible feeling of vulnerability.

Concerns about learning problems, disabilities and attention deficit disorder can surface at any point in a student’s life. Children can  struggle or underachieve for many other reasons, including complications of their temperament, social or emotional issues, school context or family dynamics. Parents should seek the help of teachers and specialists to address these concerns. It is the parent’s responsibility is to help address these problems.

One of the developmental tasks of 6 to 12 year olds is to feel competent about what they do academically and socially. Hating school or doing unsatisfactory school work should be considered as perilous as being diagnosed with an illness. You’d take your child to a doctor wouldn’t you? He’s got the school blues? Schedule a meeting with the teacher!

If your child’s teacher advises an assessment, tutoring or any other recommendation, follow it unless you have a really good reason not to trust the teacher’s opinion. Parents that jump in, mobilize action plans, cheer on their kids, avoid blaming and take a problem-solving approach are heroes in my book. If the best of plans results in B’s and C’s (due to the complexity of the achievement problem) and the parents stay positive and supportive of their children, then they are super-heroes. It’s a crying shame how often well-meaning but anxious parents end up blaming their children for “poor motivation”. Negativity eats away at the parent-child relationship and does not enhance that flagging motivation. Continue reading →



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J is for Judgment Calls in Disciplining

Posted on  April 10, 2011 Leave a comment


By Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

Todd (age 16) was caught cheating on a test at school.

Anna (age 12) forwarded a text message to her whole class referring to a friend as a “fatty”.

Patrick (age 14) lied about his whereabouts, so he could go to an unsupervised all-night party.

At this point, are you making any assumptions about which child needs the most significant disciplinary intervention to learn from his or her mistake? The Latin root of discipline is “discere”, which means “to teach or to learn”. Punishment, or imposing a penalty beyond the negative consequences that may naturally occur from the mishap, can be a component of a parent’s decision, but not necessarily.

The parent’s goal when deciding disciplinary actions should be the child learning from mistakes. The art and science of this ambitious agenda involves parental judgment about how to best accomplish this objective.

When parents ask psychologists about disciplinary matters, one of our most common refrains is, “It depends”. It may sound dodgy, but deciding on effective discipline requires considering many factors, like age, circumstances of infractions, behavioral history, temperament, and parenting values. Judgment calls are needed to comb through the details and focus on “how can my child learn and grow from this experience?”  Continue reading →

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Tagged authoritative parenting, child discipline, parenting decision-making

N is for Negotiating skills and avoiding power struggles

Posted on October 30, 2011  | Leave a comment

By Laura Kastner, Ph.D.



“Mom, I’m going down to Sam’s house, OK?”

“No, Trevor. Dinner will be ready in 20 minutes. And you need to do your chores, which include setting the table.”

“Mom, I promised Sam that I’d help him with this magic card deck! It’s important! Please understand!”

“What I understand is that you push for an inch, and you take a mile. The answer is “no”. Stop badgering me, Trevor, and get to it.”

“Mom, are you deaf? You are killing me! I’ve done my homework and all I’m asking for is 20 measly minutes. Why do you enjoy torturing me like this?”

“Your attitude is really torturing me! Trevor, our rules are reasonable. First you do your chores, homework and dinner, and then you get free time. This isn’t new around here. Now, please set the table.”

“Mom, you only care about your rules. You don’t care about what I want! You’re so selfish!”

“Trevor, you are the selfish one. Your “20 minutes” turns into an hour. You want the whole family to adjust to your whims. The world does not revolve around you, as much as you’d like it to be so. Set the table—now!”

“You can set your own table. To hell with your dinner! I’m going to Sam’s!”

“Trevor, you brat, if you do that, there will be hell to pay!”

Pretty classic, huh? This mom seems perfectly reasonable in her desire to hold the line, especially since Trevor’s (14 year old) accountability on time limits is nil. And it’s also reasonable to want a child to fulfill his responsibilities first, in order to earn his privileges. Furthermore, this mom gets extra credit for even having a family dinner, insisting on chores and trying to be consistent with her policies and routines.

Then why does it feel like such a failure when he disobeys and runs out the door? Oh, sure—Mom can figure out a consequence later for his infraction. Perhaps her banning after-dinner socializing for a while will help him learn to buckle down and take her seriously when she is setting limits. But chances are he will be “playing back” mom’s calling him a brat, selfish and torturing her (deleting his side of the movie), so that he can feel entitled to victim status. The fact remains that this power struggle doesn’t end well, even if mom feels justified in her disciplinary actions.

We all want to be consistent in our policies. However, this mom might have been able to do so while averting a total breakdown in cooperation. And if she decided to negotiate instead, would it mean she was selling out on her policies?

Here are some guidelines about negotiations and avoiding power struggles with children:

  • Negotiate if you think that your child will learn as much from cooperating with a compromised deal than rule compliance.  You feel good about the negotiation, or else you might take it out on your child later on. It’s hard to appreciate the merits of collaboration when a child is acting up, but almost all people are more motivated to cooperate with rules when they feel a sense of reciprocity. Learning to engage in negotiation and emotional regulation is as important as complying with policies. You choose.

“Trevor, if you set the table right now and manage to be pleasant during dinner, I’ll get you out of this house and on your way to Sam’s by 6:45. Deal?”

  • See things from the other child’s perspective. When a child wants something diametrically opposed to what we want, we tend to lock into just justifying our position. This response often results in the child getting increasingly angry as we repeat our views.

“I know you think I’m inconsiderate to stick to the rules right now. From your perspective, I’m being selfish.”

  • Accept that children are intrinsically egocentric. Although it is a parent’s job to help them learn how to cooperate with others, lecturing them when they are extremely irate usually intensifies the conflict. Children “grow out of” being egocentric by living in a community and family cooperatively, not by talking about it when they are upset.

“I know that going to Sam’s house is the most important thing in the world to you at this minute.”

  • Convey empathy. Parents who merely state that they are sticking to the rules—add lecture, criticism, or tit-for-tat put-downs to the mix here—stimulate emotional arousal. Empathy does not mean that you are going to give it to them; in fact, appreciating another’s feelings (sincerely) is a good way to quell the extreme anger that arises when we are not budging.

“Helping Sam with his magic card deck is what you want right now and our rules are standing in your way. You think I’m insensitive to you for sticking with the rules when this is so important to you.”

  • Validate the child’s feelings without “but’s” (which actually invalidate your validation!) Responding directly to a child’s insults and allegations against you during a conflict will make the conflict worse. A “heart to heart” discussion about deeper matters, feelings and insults can come later if you still think it might be productive to air grievances.

“You’re really mad at me about rules that you think are stupid. It seems unfair that I get what I want, and you don’t get what you want.”

  • Maintain your cool, even if your kid doesn’t (as hard as it is when they are throwing poison darts at you). When we throw back the insults that they throw at us (e.g. putdowns, exaggerations and criticisms), we get on their immature level and destroy our credibility. Better that we try #1-5 above. At least then we are “keeping our side of the street clean”, so that there is less clean-up later. When children’s emotions start to flood, it’s important to end the interaction and not expect it to end on a positive note.  Although a clever exit route which side-steps overt abandonment is good (“Oh, sorry, I need to head for the john!”), the most important thing is ending it before we say things we regret.

I have an important qualifier here. If your child is extremely distressed, the approaches may not be successful in getting him to comply, calm down or negotiate with you. But there is a good chance that he won’t spiral into complete defiance, like Trevor’s ending rant: “You can set your own table. To hell with your dinner! I’m going to Sam’s!”

When kids are as riled up as Trevor, we need to have reasonable (even low) goals. I’d be impressed with any parent that managed to avoid counter-insults in a scenario like Trevor’s. If the parent either managed to negotiate a deal or stick to the policy without adding nasties on her side of the dialogue, I’d deem it a success–even if Trevor was in dramatic high gear. Until mom got into her counter mud-slinging, Trevor was more emotional than disrespectful.

As important as parental consistency is, so is a child’s trust in his parents. Listening and negotiating are ways that children learn to feel that expressing their feelings is worthwhile. Deciding when to negotiate or not is really a personal appraisal on the parent’s part—both have potential downsides (see “J is for Judgment calls”).

Encouraging children to communicate their needs, learn to negotiate and give input to their parents’ decision-making are key aspects of the authoritative parenting style which predicts optimal academic, social and emotional competence in mature adolescents (see “A is for Authoritative Parenting”).

Children are desperate to negotiate for more independence. Research has shown the cell phones give teens a conduit for this process and also allow parents to “invade” the social space of teens. Youth programs offer opportunities for children to negotiate for independence within approved-of settings. They also help children develop self-reliance and connection with adults.

Most kids don’t enter into the same kind of power struggles with other adults that they stir up with their parents, because they are not individuating from them! With other adults, they are almost always more respectful in negotiating their agendas and successful in regulating their emotions. Parents should remember this fact when appalled at the rude entitlement and hissy fits that kids display at home.

As any good communicator would discern, all of the points in the list above are good tips for dealing with power struggles with anyone! Feisty kids push our buttons with their provocative attacks because they can “get personal” with their insults and exaggerated protestations. In a perfect world for parents, kids would cooperate, comply with policies and think of others, but that is what they learn during childhood with effective parenting. They are not there yet! Silly us, to even expect it (yet).

Thinking of clever bids for negotiation is challenging in the fray of emotional tirades and stressful lives. Staying calm when our kids are slinging mud at us also seems utterly impossible. Even though validation works better than a rational defense of our household policies, we’ll only be able to manage it some of the time when exchanges are getting dirty.

It is natural for kids feel their needs and wants intensely and try to bargain, tantrum and threaten when they are emotionally aroused. It is also natural for us to dislike this process. We work hard to take care of our family’s needs, only to suffer the slings and arrows of irate kids. But kids are just being kids, and we are the adults, so we’re the ones that need to be skillful with their “normal” emotional tirades about their needs, wants and feelings. Whoa! Isn’t it good we’re only going for “good enough” and not straight A’s in our parenting skills?


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O is for Optimizing secure attachment

Posted on November 4, 2011 Leave a comment

When the average Joe and Jane Parent identify the most important ingredients in raising healthy kids, they’ll mention “love” in the top three every time. When you ask child psychologists this same question, they instead use the term “secure attachment”.  Since we all know that abusive parents claim to love their children, forgive me for moving on to a discussion of secure attachment. However, love is what most people would say makes life worth living and describes their feelings for their children. It is also the emotion that makes possible the magic juju of secure attachment.

A child is securely attached when the parent or caregiver is reliable, responsive, and attuned.  As a result, the child learns that the world is a stable place, safe to explore as he develops more and more a capacity to do so.  Initially, he explores with his eyes, mouth and hands, all of which serve to engage his loving parent. The securely attached child even stores his security in his brain in the form of neural connections which have been established through the delicate dance of responsive parenting over time. This security ends up predicting all manner of strengths that contribute to success later in life (more on that later).

Daniel Siegal, psychiatrist and researcher, is a bridge-maker in the study of secure attachment, because he has linked the worlds of child development, infant research, psychotherapy and neuroscience. He describes the “neurobiology” of attachment and how brain growth in the baby depends on positive connectivity of the caregiver and the infant. Learning and experience stimulate neural growth—literally.

Attunement is a sacred word in the secure attachment field.  An attuned parent “tunes into” the signals of the child and attends to the child’s needs. The baby is born with billions of neurons ready to connect, based on whatever her interpersonal experience may be. When the sensitive mom or dad coos, touches, soothes, revs up (or down) and feeds the baby according to her needs and comfort zones, BOOM—a symphony is born. Not only are neurons growing and synching up, but they are establishing a neural network that associates mom and dad with a sense of security.

Neuroimaging research corroborates what attachment researchers theorized decades ago about the vital importance of responsive caring for the infant—the baby’s brain is activated by caring interactions. But before anyone dreamed of neural movie shows, Mary Ainsworth observed hundreds of mothers and babies for hundreds of hours in order to understand “the dance” of optimal parenting.  She devised a lab procedure for measuring attachment patterns by categorizing behaviors during separations and reunions. Her discovery that about two-thirds of children are securely attached has held up over time and a multitude of studies.

Longitudinal research has documented that secure attachment with a primary caregiver predicts social, emotional, and academic functioning throughout childhood and into adulthood.  Children with secure histories had greater initiative, self-control abilities and capacities to make and keep friends than those with histories of anxious and insecure attachment.  Even while separating out the effects of social class, IQ and temperament, these findings held up. Furthermore, secure attachment was associated with an ability to form trusting romantic relationships in adulthood, greater resilience to stress and lower levels of mental illness.

As sublime as this research sounds for parents that feel pretty good about the first few years of their parenting life, it can be scary for those that remember hard times, high stress or turmoil. In the same way that you may have heard “genes are not destiny”, neither is early life. The plasticity of the brain allows people to have positive interpersonal experiences within and outside of the family that activate positive emotions and neural growth. Dan Siegal points out that the brain continues to remodel itself in response to experience throughout our lives. He postulates that we can even remove the legacy of early social deficits through therapeutic and loving experiences later on.

Temperament is a tricky issue for attachment experts. There is no question that kids with high energy, aggressive impulsivity and disruptive tendencies are harder to parent. Children who are anxious, reactive or avoidant are also more challenging. Let’s face it—it’s easier to soothe, entertain and discipline a child who isn’t screaming at the top of her lungs or hitting his sibling every other minute.

The one-third of kids who are “insecure” probably got that way as a result of interplays of many factors, including parent and child personality characteristics, a lack of support systems and rotten circumstances. As they say—“more research is needed” on this chicken-egg question about how much kids ended up with problems due to inborn temperament difficulty versus deficient parental responsiveness.

Parents often wonder what “responsive and attuned parenting” looks like with older children. Does “responsive” mean going along with teens when they tell you, “Leave me alone”, “I don’t need you” or “Just trust me”? (Not necessarily!)  If the baby smiles and relaxes when you walk them around facing out, there’s a good chance that it was an “attuned” response to baby cues on your part. When your young teen smiles approvingly when you give them an ATM card without rules, unlimited access to screens or approval for a co-ed sleepover, you’re nuts if you defend indulgence as “responsive” parenting.

Parenting that promotes secure attachment during middle childhood and adolescence is not just made up of loving moments, mutual enjoyment and connecting. In fact, it can often look and feel like “mean” parenting, because it involves saying “no” a lot, monitoring activities, and insisting on chores and rule compliance. Love is still the drive, but it is supposed to motivate us to do all sorts of hard (and unpopular) work as parents to get the prize—healthy children.

My operative phrase for parenting that optimizes secure attachment is figuring out “what is in the interest of the child”.  Since children are happiest when you give them stuff and give into their ploys for gaining an easier life, a child’s approving smiles are not good measures of your parenting. Oh, don’t get me wrong—smiles can still be a measure of wholesome and good loving moments—like when you are enjoying a joke, activity or conversation—they just aren’t foolproof. But that is true for all kids (of all ages) who would love to eat ice cream for dinner and watch movies all night.

Reading a child “cues” are only part of the story for how we figure out good parenting; the rest we derive from our knowledge about child development, our instincts, wisdom about childrearing, and values. The proof is in the pudding—do you like what you see in your child’s behavior, adjustment and sense of security?

Secure attachment includes smiling, nuzzling and feeding of the infant, but we must place it in context. It must happen in the context of our also going to work, getting to bed and answering some emails. In other words, we often disappoint our infants and we will do the same with our children and teens. Just as we only needed to be “good enough” as parents of infants, we only need to try for same goal with teens.

Teens who say “leave me alone” may need to be: (1) left alone; (2) given some space initially with another approach for connection a little later so that they know you care; (3) addressed directly about their feelings; or (4) given a combination of the former options. When teens are irritable and despairing, we need to figure out the best action from considering a whole host of factors with the assumption that teenagers often cannot articulate their feelings and needs. Whoa—talk about confusing!

Responsive and attuned parenting means knowing your child, his history and his current life dilemmas, so that you can interpret his “Leave me alone” refrain effectively. It also helps to know a bit about adolescent development, since teens can give contradictory signals, have mixed feelings and benefit from skillful connection with their parents even while giving “go away” signals.

Attunement is still a sacred art, whether practiced with infants, children or teens. Ideally, we are attuned to ourselves, not just our children. When we are toxic with fatigue or resentment (for our spouses, children, selves, bosses), it is best to get replenished somehow before returning to the dance of parenting.

How can we expect ourselves to “read” the cues of our children accurately or respond effectively when we are burnt out and irritable? This raw reality is why folks who lack family support and resources have it so tough. Life stress compromises parental attunement and responsiveness even in the best of circumstances.

Burnt out parenting days are one thing, but long term deprivation, loss or neglect constitute another realm of risk altogether. There are parent counselors, therapists and attachment promoters that have used attachment theory to promote forms of “attachment therapy” with children as modes of healing for early trauma. Controversy abounds, and I recommend skepticism until research helps us suss out the harms or benefits of these treatment approaches.

I remember a conversation I had with Mary Ainsworth in l978 when I was a doctoral student at University of Virginia. She told me that attachment was not merely about providing quality nurturing, but also about the baby’s experience of caregivers. She was speaking of the mothers she observed in Uganda; they were not intrusive or overly involved with their role in giving loving attention every minute. They were responsive, available and going about their routines in ways that seemed to work for them and their children alike. There was also a family and tribe of assisting caregivers.

Oh, she made it sound so simple (read: I heard it as “simple” way back then). While life in another century and country may sound simpler for babies during the l950’s, you know it has never been so (think war, poverty, disease—the usual pox on life). Still, the “secure attachment” dance seemed to have been orchestrated well for the mothers and babies in Uganda. 

We’ve been trying to figure out the “good enough” version of childrearing with respect to our culture and others ever since! But we know that this brain-love-connection-symphony between baby and attachment figure is central in the equation. Since parents and babies have been doing this dance for tens of thousands of years (and millions if you count our ancestors), it only makes sense that parents’ behavior with their young is an essential ingredient for optimal emotional, social and human development.

Promoting and maintaining secure attachment with our children until their brains are mature in their early twenties is a tall order. (And note that bodies become mature a full decade earlier, so don’t let bodies fool you as a total measure of maturity!) We need to know what children need from us over about twenty five years.

No wonder I have 26 tools in my Toolbox for parents!  Essentially, we all aspire to do a “good enough” job staying connected to our kids and building their competencies. Figuring out which of these tools to use, tweak or refine at any particular parenting moment is challenging. But maintaining secure attachment is of the highest priority since it is the neurobiological infrastructure of the parent-child relationship that allows the other tools to work. Inner security then permits them to explore the world, form lasting relationships and become successful adults.

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