parenting


John Gottman is best known for his research on couples (which I’ve written a few things about here) but I think that some of his most important work has been distinguishing two distinct parenting styles: emotion coaching and emotion dismissing. I’m reading his new book, The Science of Trust, right now, and he goes over these findings because it turns out these styles of relating to emotions have big ramifications on building or losing trust in one’s partner. I’ll write more about that as I come to understand it better. (And by the way, if you are a serious couples therapy nerd like me, this book is great. Check it out.)

The basic idea is that parents have different reactions to emotions in their children. We call these reactions “meta-emotions” because they are emotions about emotions. “Emotion coaching” means when an emotion shows up in your child, you treat it as useful information, you engage your child around it in a way that tells them it is OK to have that emotion. “Emotion dismissing” is the opposite. You communicate that they are choosing to have this emotion that you find unpleasant and that making that choice is unacceptable. (This is similar to a problematic parenting technique called “mystification” which I wrote a little about here.)

Clearly this is a potentially complicated phenomenon, because we can have different emotional reactions to each emotion in our kids. We may, for example, have a coaching reaction when a child shows, say, pride, but a dismissing reaction when they show anger. Or vice versa. And our reaction may be different in different contexts, like at home versus out shopping. And other cultural factors are at play, too, like gender or age of the child, which can cause us to react differently. For the following lists, Gottman is using the coaching/dismissing distinction with a broad brush. The list items are direct quotes from pp. 181-188, but the list titles are my paraphrases (note that “affect” is psych-speak for “emotion”):

What Emotion-Dismissing Parents Do:

  • They didn’t notice lower-intensity emotions in themselves or in their children (or in others, either). In one interview we asked two parents about how they reacted to their daughter’s sadness. The mom asked the dad, “Has Jessica ever been sad?” He said he didn’t think so, except maybe one time when she went to visit her grandmother alone and she was 4 years old. “When she boarded the airplane alone,” he said, “she looked a little sad.” But all children actually have a wide range of emotions in just a few short hours. A crayon may break, and the child becomes immediately sad and angry. These parents didn’t notice much of Jessica’s more subtle emotions.
  • They viewed negative affects as if they were toxins. They wanted to protect their child from ever having these negative emotions. They preferred a cheerful child.
  • They thought that the longer their child stayed in the negative emotional state, the more toxic its effect was.
  • They were impatient with their child’s negativity. They might even punish a child just for being angry, even if there was no misbehavior.
  • They believed in accentuating the positive in life. This is a kind of Norman Vincent Peale, the power-of-positive-thinking philosophy. This is a very American view. The idea is: “You can have any emotion you want, and if you choose the have a negative one, it’s your own fault.” So, they think, pick a positive emotion to have. You will have a much happier life if you do. So they will do things like distract, tickle, or cheer up their child to create that positive emotion.
  • They see introspection or looking inside oneself to examine what one feels as a waste of time, or even dangerous.
  • They usually have no detailed lexicon or vocabulary for emotions.

What Emotion-Coaching Parents Do:

  • They noticed lower-intensity emotions in themselves and in their children. The children didn’t have to escalate to get noticed.
  • They saw these emotional moments as an opportunity for intimacy or teaching.
  • They saw these negative emotions–even sadness, anger, or fear–as a healthy part of normal development.
  • They were not impatient with their child’s negative affect.
  • They communicated understanding of the emotions and didn’t get defensive.
  • They helped the child verbally label all the emotions he or she was feeling. What does having words do? They are important . With the right words, I think the child processess emotions usually associated with withdrawal (fear, sadness, disgust) very differently. I think it becomes a bilateral frontal-lobe processing. Withdrawal emotions still are experienced, but they are tinged with optimism, control, and a sense that it’s possible to cope.
  • They empathized with negative emotions, even with negative emotions behind misbehavior. For example, they might say: “I understand your brother made you angry. He makes me mad too sometimes.” They do this even if the do not approve of the child’s misbehavior. In that way they communicate the value, “All feelings and wishes are acceptable.”
  • They also communicated their family’s values. They set limits if there was misbehavior. In that way they communicated the value, “Although all feelings and wishes are acceptable, not all behavior is acceptable. (We had other parents who did everything else in coaching but this step of setting limits, and their children turned out aggressive.) They were clear and consistent in setting limits to convey their values.
  • They problem-solved when there was negative affect without misbehavior. They were not impatient with this step, either. For example, they may have gotten suggestions from the child first.
  • They believed that emotional communication is a two-way street. That means that when they were emotional about the child’s misbehavior, they let the child know what they were feeling (but not in an insulting manner). They said that was probably the strongest form of discipline, that the child is suddenly disconnected from the parent–less close, more “out.”

Teaching by Emotion-Dismissing Parents

  • They have lots of information in an excited manner at first.
  • They were very involved with the child’s mistakes.
  • They saw themselves as offering “constructive criticism.”
  • The child increased the number of mistakes as the parents pointed out errors. This is a common effect during the early stages of skill acquisition.
  • As the child made more mistakes, the parents escalated their criticism to insults, using trait labels such as “You are being careless” or “You are spacey.” They sometimes talked to each other about the child in the child’s presence, as in: “He is so impulsive. That’s his problem.”
  • As the child made more mistakes, the parents sometimes took over, becoming intrusive.
Teaching by Emotion-Coaching Parents
  • Gave little information to the child, but enough for the child to get started.
  • Were not involved with the child’s mistakes (they ignored them).
  • Waited for the child to do something right, and then offered specific praise and added a little bit more information. (The best teaching offers a new tool, just within reach. Then learning feels like remembering.)
  • The child attributed the learning to his or her own discovery.
  • The child’s performance also went up and up.
Outcomes for Children of Emotion-Coaching Parents
  • They had higher reading and math scores at age 8, even controlling statistically for IQ differences at age 4.
  • This effect was mediated through the attentional system. Coached children had better abilities with focusing attention, sustaining attention, and shifting attention.
  • Coached children had greater self-soothing ability even when upset during a parent-child interaction.
  • Coached children self-soothed better, delayed gratification better, and had better impulse control.
  • Parents didn’t have to down-regulate negativity as much.
  • Coached children don’t whine very much.
  • Coached children had fewer behavior problems of all kinds (aggression and depression).
  • Coached children had better relations with other children.
  • Coached children had fewer infectious illnesses.
  • As coached children got into middle childhood and then adolescence, they kept having appropriate “social moxie.”
  • Emotion-coaching parents also buffered the children in our sample from almost all the negative effects of an ailing marriage, separation, or a divorce (except for their children’s sadness). The negative effects that disappeared were: (1) acting out with aggression, (2) falling grades in school, and (3) poor relations with other children.
  • As Lynn Katz, Carol Hooven, and I reported in our book Meta-Emotion, coached children, as they develop, seem to have more emotional intelligence.
Steps to Learn Emotion Coaching
  1. Noticing the negative emotion before it escalates.
  2. Seeing it as an opportunity for teaching or intimacy.
  3. Validating or empathizing with the emotion.
  4. Helping the child give verbal labels to all emotions the child is feeling.
  5. Setting limits on misbehavior, or problem-solving if there is no misbehavior. If the parent doesn’t do this last step, the kids tend to wind up becoming physically or verbally aggressive toward other children.
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Most parenting psychology literature talks about four parenting styles, derived from the combinations of two parenting qualities, warmth (also called “responsiveness”) and demandingness, like this:

Parenting Style Warmth Demandingness
Authoritative High High
Authoritarian Low High
Permissive High Low
Neglectful Low Low

Parents who are both warm and demanding (having high standards) are called “authoritative” and considered in psychology to be the best parents. Parents who are both not warm and have low standards are called “neglectful” and considered to be the worst parents. Authoritarian parents and permissive parents (also called “indulgent”) come out in the middle somewhere, the first lacking warmth, the second lacking standards.

The table of parenting styles below is from Rodriguez, Donovick, and Crowley’s 2009 article, “Parenting Styles in a Cultural Context: Observations of ‘Protective Parenting’ in First-Generation Latinos.” In their work with Latino parents, they decided to add a third category, autonomy granting, giving us four new parenting styles: protective, cold, affiliative, and a new kind of neglectful. I’m still thinking about this, but it seems like it could be a breakthrough in parenting theory.

It will be interesting to see if this idea is meaningful in terms of outcomes for the kids of these different kinds of parents. There is evidence, for example, that the kids of authoritarian parents have a lot more trouble with alcohol abuse than those of authoritative, and kids of permissive parents have even more trouble than that. Will there be a significant difference on this outcome between authoritarian and “cold” parents, who differ only in their giving their kids the chance to mess up or not? How about between permissive and “affiliative”?

Parenting Style Warmth Demandingness Autonomy Granting
Authoritative High High High
Authoritarian Low High Low
Permissive High Low High
Neglectful Low Low Low
Protective High High Low
Cold Low High High
Affiliative High Low Low
Neglectful II Low Low High

Family therapy got started when the grandparents of the field, interested in cybernetics–the science of self-regulating systems–started studying communication in families. Some of the more interesting ideas they came up with were the three progressively more problematic kinds of contradiction. This is a summary of Virginia Satir’s version of those contradictions, from Conjoint Family Therapy:

Simple contradiction: This is when a person says two things that contradict each other straightforwardly, as when someone might say, “I love you but I don’t love you.” This kind of contradiction consists of assertions that are incompatible, but at least out in the open, in an easily decodable way. That means that the receiver of the message can easily comment on the contradiction, saying “I don’t understand what you mean. You didn’t make sense to me just then.”

Paradoxical (or incongruent) communication: A paradox is a special kind of contradiction, where the incompatible statements exist on different “logical levels.” That is, one of the statements is part of the context of the other statement. These are significantly more difficult to decode and comment on. The two logical levels in human communication are usually verbal and non-verbal behavior, where the non-verbal behavior is the context for the verbal. For example (from p.83) “A says, ‘I hate you,’ and smiles.” If A had said “I hate you” with an angry look on their face, that would be congruent, but what does “I hate you” mean in the context of a smile? This is more confusing than the simple contradiction, both because it is more difficult to track the two levels of communication simultaneously, and because we have unspoken social norms against commenting about how someone is speaking. Consequently, it takes more awareness and bravery to question the speaker’s intent when they present you with this kind of contradictory communication. (Satir calls paradoxical communication “incongruent communication.”) Being able to metacommunicate, or comment on the communication going on, is the major tool of the psychotherapist. We don’t usually know it, but this skill is the main thing we go to therapists for.

The double bind: The double bind is a special kind of paradoxical communication that was first laid out in Watzlawick and colleagues’ Pragmatics of Human Communication. A double bind is a paradox with two additional rules, giving four total requirements:

1) A verbal statement

2) A contradictory non-verbal context

3) A rule that you are not allowed to metacommunicate

4) A rule that you are not allowed to leave the field

This happens to people all the time. Children, especially, mercilessly, unconsciously, are put in this position a lot because they are not in a position to leave their parents “field.” They are completely subject to their parents on every level.

Here’s an example: A parent, obviously stressed out, tense, and in pain for whatever reason, says to their child, “I love you.” This puts the child into a double bind, because the statement is contradicted by the “I don’t love you” expressed by the parents’ body language and facial expression. That’s 1) and 2). Third is that the child can’t comment on the contradiction because they don’t have the tools, and even if they did, and said something like, “Mom, I hear you saying that you love me but it doesn’t really seem like you love me right now. It seems like you’re having other feelings,” the child would almost certainly be punished in some way for being insubordinate, for questioning the parent’s love, for questioning the parent’s word, for making the parent feel uncomfortable. Fourth is that the child is not allowed to leave the field. That is, even if they had the communication tools, the awareness, and the bravery, they have no where else to go if they are rejected by the parent. Their lives are dependent on the love and support of the parent. They are stuck in the field. To cope, they “learn” one or both of the following:

I am not lovable. My parent knows this, and I have figured it out, but at least they are pretending that they love me, which keeps me alive, so I’ll go along with the pretense that they love me.

I may be lovable, but love feels awful. Still, it’s the best thing available.

Then the child grows up and, having their own children, perpetuate the process, being a pretending-to-be-lovable parent with awful-feeling love to give to the next generation. Not only that, but they develop adaptations to this way of living that look like DSM-diagnosable Mental Disorder conditions.

Metacommunication and congruent communication: Notice that metacommunication is the key out of all of these situations. In the case of a true double bind, you might need the help of someone else’s (a therapist’s or friend’s) metacommunication, but metacommunication is still the key. Someone needs to stand up and say, “I’m confused! Can we slow down here and talk about what we’re talking about? What can you say to me right now that your body language and facial expression will agree with?”

I just read in Brock & Barnard’s Procedures in Marriage and Family Therapy about Wolin and colleagues’ research into rituals in alcoholic families. Apparently, the negative effects of an alcoholic parent were predicted better by the amount that family rituals were disrupted by the alcoholism than by the presence of alcoholism itself. For example, if the family continued to eat dinner together every night, continued with their bedtime rituals, etc, children remained about as well off as those in non-alcoholic households. But if the family rituals were destroyed, the children were much worse off, including much more likely to become alcoholic or marry an alcoholic themselves.

I haven’t read any of the original research, so I don’t know for sure if it is that these rituals actually provide resiliency or if the presence or lack of rituals served as a proxy measure for how bad the alcoholism was. It could also be a combination of the two. It does look like the family therapy literature considers that rituals promote resiliency in general, providing structure and comforting predictability for kids, and resulting in better outcomes. (I doubt they are bad for the adults, either.)  Something to think about, parents!

I’m learning about child abuse and neglect in my Child and Family Assessment class. Today I read about the ACE study, by the US Center for Disease Control. It is a huge study, with over 17,000 participants, where they gathered information about childhood abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction, and then proceeded to see what health outcomes and behaviors they could predict with that information. It turns out they can predict a lot. They’ve published 50 articles on the study and the research is ongoing–they are continuing to collect health information as the participants in the study age. I’ll present a few of their findings below. For more, see the ACE Study.

Here are some of their findings. I’ll paste in the definitions of the categories of adverse childhood experiences below. Strong correlations were found with the following:

  • alcoholism and alcohol abuse (4 or more categories of ACE meant 4-12 times increase)
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (that is, lung disease)
  • depression (4 or more categories of ACE meant 4-12 times increase)
  • fetal death
  • health-related quality of life (way more inactivity, severe obesity, bone fractures)
  • illicit drug use
  • ischemic heart disease (IHD)
  • liver disease
  • risk for intimate partner violence
  • multiple sexual partners (4 or more categories of ACE correlated with 50 or more sexual partners)
  • sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) (4 or more categories of ACE meant 4-12 times increase)
  • smoking
  • suicide attempts (4 or more categories of ACE meant 4-12 times increase)
  • unintended pregnancies

Here are the kinds of abuse, neglect, and dysfunction they asked about, quoted from the site:

Abuse

Emotional Abuse:
Often or very often a parent or other adult in the household swore at you, insulted you, or put you down and/or sometimes, often or very often acted in a way that made you think that you might be physically hurt.

Physical Abuse:
Sometimes, often, or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at you and/or ever hit so hard that you had marks or were injured.

Sexual Abuse:
An adult or person at least 5 years older ever touched or fondled you in a sexual way, and/or had you touch their body in a sexual way, and/or attempted oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you and/or actually had oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you.

Neglect

Emotional Neglect1

Respondents were asked whether their family made them feel special, loved, and if their family was a source of strength, support, and protection. Emotional neglect was defined using scale scores that represent moderate to extreme exposure on the Emotional Neglect subscale of the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ) short form.

Physical Neglect1

Respondents were asked whether there was enough to eat, if their parents drinking interfered with their care, if they ever wore dirty clothes, and if there was someone to take them to the doctor. Physical neglect was defined using scale scores that represent moderate to extreme exposure on the Physical Neglect subscale of the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ) short form constituted physical neglect.

Household Dysfunction

Mother Treated Violently:
Your mother or stepmother was sometimes, often, or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her and/or sometimes often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard, and/or ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes and/or ever threatened or hurt by a knife or gun.

Household Substance Abuse:
Lived with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic and/or lived with anyone who used street drugs.

Household Mental Illness:
A household member was depressed or mentally ill and/or a household member attempted suicide.

Parental Separation or Divorce:
Parents were ever separated or divorced.

Incarcerated Household Member:
A household member went to prison.

My mom sent me this in response to my posting the diagnostic criteria for AD/HD yesterday. She’s not a health care professional, but she did raise five boys. Since I’m the oldest I got to see her do it. I also got to benefit from her love of nature (and sending us out into it), reading to her kids, being affectionate with her kids, making nutritious food, and her skepticism of TV and traditional schooling. And many, many other things, like her faith in her kids. The first thing they told us in my class on psychopathology was that we were not to diagnose ourselves, our friends, or family, so I won’t, but I suspect that all of us (except perhaps Ben) fit the diagnostic criteria for AD/HD for periods of our young lives. She wouldn’t even feed us sugar, much less amphetamines, so it’s not like it was a close call, but thanks, Mom, for not feeding us stimulants!

Here it is:
“Be forewarned, this takes effort on the parent’s part!

“Here is my humble prescription for hyperactivity in children (who, by the way, are usually boys): First, TAKE HIM OUT OF SCHOOL!! Live in, or move to, a rural area. (Or at least make sure there is a wild area, like woods or a meadow, nearby). Each day, after he has slept as late as he wants to, feed him a highly nutritious breakfast that contains no sugar, no additives, no colorings. Just whole foods. Then, send him outside to play in nature. Make sure he gets plenty of sun exposure. Make sure he has some of these things: trees to climb, grass to lie in, rocks to scramble on, water to swim or wade in, wildlife to watch, dirt to dig in, and bushes to hide in. (Create a beautiful outdoor environment for him if your outdoor area is naturally very stark.) Make sure he has plenty of water to drink. Let him roam freely. At lunchtime have him come in for another nutritious meal of whole foods. No sugar. Only water to drink. After a cuddle and as much attention as he wants from you, send him back outside to play in nature. Let him play as long as he wants. When he wants to come back inside, he can be read to or told stories, he can play or read quietly, or he can just rest while listening to soft classical music, or take a nap. No TV. No computers. No gameboys… no screens of any kind. Nothing with headphones. Then, back outside to play until the sun goes down. Back in for another nutritious meal, and then he is put in the bathtub. He plays in the bathtub for as long as he wants (an hour or more in very warm water is good). Then, he has a bedtime routine (thorough teeth brushing and flossing- you do it if necessary- and then jammies). After that he gets read to for a LONG TIME in bed…an hour or more is good… until he is sleepy. Make sure he has plenty of hugs and cuddles and kisses and loving words as he drifts off. Follow this prescription every day until his hyperactivity is cured. By the way, this routine could be of benefit to “normal” children, as well. It works for calming and soothing and centering and bringing color to their cheeks, and a more cheerful attitude in general. And, I’d go so far as to say, adults should try it, too… to cure whatever ails them.”

This is a handout I got in my Medical Family Therapy class. The copyright at the bottom says “(c) 2005 National Eating Disorders Association. Permission is granted to copy and reprint materials for educational purposes only. National Eating Disorders Association must be cited and web address listed. www.NationalEatingDisorders.org Information and Referral Helpline: 800.931.2237.” I think that covers me. I’m willing to take the risk, anyway, because eating disorders are a huge problem. The most conservative estimates, using the most strict definitions, are that six million people in the US struggle with disordered eating. Estimates using less strict definitions (including Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified in the DSM-IV-TR), but still very realistic, are at about 20 million. And eating disorders are the most deadly mental disorder. If not treated, 20-25% of those with serious eating disorders die from them. You won’t find that statistic in many official sources, though, because for some very strange reason, coroners will not list Anorexia or Bulimia Nervosa as a cause of death. They prefer “Cause of death unknown” in those cases. Plus, eating disorders are learned behavior. Don’t let your kids learn the values that encourage disordered eating from you!

OK, here it is. It’s by Michael Levine, PhD:

1. Consider your thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors toward your own body and the way that these beliefs have been shaped by the forces of weightism and sexism. Then educate your children about (a) the genetic basis for the natural diversity of human body shapes and sizes and (b) the nature and ugliness of prejudice.

*Make an effort to maintain positive attitudes and health behaviors. Children learn from the things you say and do!

2. Examine closely your dreams and goals for your children and other loved ones. Are you overemphasizing beauty and body shape, particularly for girls?

*Avoid conveying an attitude which says in effect, “I will like you more if you lose weight, don’t eat so much, look more like the slender models in ads, fit into smaller clothes, etc.”

*Decide what you can do and what you can stop doing to reduce the teasing, criticism, blaming, staring, etc. that reinforce the idea that larger or fatter is “bad” and smaller or thinner is “good.”

3. Learn about and discuss with your sons and daughters (a) the dangers of trying to alter one’s body shape through dieting, (b) the value of moderate exercise for health, and (c) the importance of eating a variety of foods in well-balanced meals consumed at least three times a day.

*Avoid categorizing and labeling foods (e.g. good/bad or safe/dangerous). All foods can be eaten in moderation.

*Be a good role model in regard to sensible eating, exercise, and self-acceptance.

4. Make a commitment not to avoid activities (such as swimming, sunbathing, dancing, etc.) simply because they call attention to your weight and shape. Refuse to wear clothes that are uncomfortable or that you don’t like but wear simply because they divert attention from your weight or shape.

5. Make a commitment to exercise for the joy of feeling your body move and grow stronger, not to purge fat from you body or to compensate for calories, power, excitement, popularity, or perfection.

6. Practice taking people seriously for what they say, feel, and do, not for how slender or “well put together” they appear.

7. Help children appreciate and resist the ways in which television, magazines, and other media distort the true diversity of human body types and imply that a slender body means power, excitement, popularity, or perfection.

8. Educate boys and girls about various forms of prejudice, including weightism, and help them understand their responsibilities for preventing them.

9. Encourage your children to be active and to enjoy what their bodies can do and feel like. Do not limit their caloric intake unless a physician requests that you do this because of a medical problem.

10. Do whatever you can to promote the self-esteem and self- respect of all of your children in intellectual, athletic , and social endeavors. Give boys and girls the same opportunities and encouragement. Be careful not to suggest that females are less important than males, e.g., by exempting males form housework or childcare. A well-rounded sense of self and solid self-esteem are perhaps the best antidotes to dieting and disordered eating.

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