An only child can make the relationship between Mom and Dad uniquely complicated.
Here’s a typical weeknight scenario in our household: My husband, Tom, our 9-year-old daughter, Sylvie, and I feel like ordering in, and after a lengthy debate, we decide on pizza. Later, while the three of us are eating pepperoni slices and playing Bananagrams, Sylvie reminds Tom that our wedding anniversary is coming up and offhandedly mentions that my favorite flowers are peonies. After a few rounds of the game, we consider a movie. Sylvie proposes “Escape From New York,” a film that has piqued her curiosity after hearing her father repeatedly imitate Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken.
“I’ll look it up on Common Sense Media to see if it’s appropriate,” she volunteers, opening my computer. Unfortunately, she reports gravely, it’s for ages 16 and up. “‘Except for a severed head,’” Sylvie reads aloud, “‘there’s little explicit gore. An atmosphere of cynicism and darkness pervades, including a negative depiction of a U.S. President.’”
Tom points out that this sounds like his Twitter feed. But I balk at the severed head, which is a pretty big except for.
I would never have predicted that the hardest part of parenting would be that our only child would come to fully believe she is the third person in our marriage. This arrangement began roughly as soon as she learned to talk.
As family psychologists such as Dr. Carl E. Pickhardt, Ph.D., point out, only children often feel like one of the adults. As with our tripartite system of government, they view the daily running of the household as a three-way power-sharing agreement. This is an issue more parents may have to deal with, now that one-child families are gaining ground. According to a Pew Research analysis of 2015 U.S. Census Bureau data, today 18 percent of mothers at the end of their childbearing years have an only child — up from 10 percent in 1976.
Tom and I have fully enabled Sylvie to feel like one of the gang, because we go almost everywhereas a trio. We’re usually too cheap to hire babysitters, and tend to travel with Sylvie, too, as she slots fairly easily into our itineraries. As a result, Sylvie has gotten used to being included, consulted, part of our in-jokes. This is not uncommon, says social psychologist Dr. Susan Newman, Ph.D., who has spent decades studying only children — a term I loathe, as it calls to mind a kid alone in a shadowy room, whispering quietly to his sock puppet “friends.” (I think we should revive the much more sprightly “oneling,” used by 19th century author John Cole in his book “Herveiana.”)
But our efforts to “empower” our oneling and make her voice heard have begun to backfire. To paraphrase Princess Diana when asked about Camilla Parker-Bowles: There are three of us in this marriage, so it’s a bit crowded.
One reason for our fluid boundaries is physical. It’s almost impossible to maintain them in a Brooklyn apartment a realtor would euphemistically call “charming and cozy,” one with bizarrely porous doors that actually seem to amplify sound. But it’s also emotional: Tom and I, like many parents of our generation, make an effort to be open and communicative with Sylvie. (“You can tell us anything, sweetheart!”)
When I was growing up, I would never have dreamed of sharing anything remotely personal with my parents. I had two siblings, and our family dynamic was solidly Us vs. Them — my sisters and I were one unit, my folks another. I wanted a different kind of relationship with our daughter.
But one consequence of all this closeness is that our child feels insulted if Tom and I go out to dinner alone. If we’re on vacation, she balks at being “dumped,” as she puts it, in the Kids’ Club. She would be happy to Photoshop her picture into our wedding photos. If Tom and I give each other a hug, she has gotten in the habit of jumping in between us.
At least she doesn’t referee when we fight, as she did when she was smaller. A couples’ counselor put a stop to that when he advised me to put a photo of Sylvie in a drawer by my bedside table. Whenever I was about to lose my temper with Tom, he told me, I was to run to the bedroom, pull out the photo, and say to it: I know that what I’m about to do is going to cause you harm, but right now, my anger is more important to me than you are. I only had to repeat that brutal phrase a couple of times.
But Tom and I still squabble about minor stuff, like whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher — and when we do, Sylvie jumps in and takes sides. (“Mom, you did it last time.”)
As a self-flagellating parent, I was recently drawn to a book with the dire title “The Seven Common Sins of Parenting an Only Child.” Ooh, sins — what am I doing wrong? Among other iniquities — overprotection, overcompensating — Sin No. 6 resonated with me: Treating Your Child Like an Adult.
“It can become so pleasurable for parents of an only child to have a miniature adult by their side that they may lose sight of the fact that their kid needs to be a kid,” writes author Carolyn White, former editor of Only Child magazine. I read this aloud to Tom as Sylvie, nearby, perused the latest issue of Consumer Reports, ready to counsel us on our next car purchase.
Sylvie may be comfortable around adults, but she is still a child, one who lacks the reasoning abilities and experience of a grown-up — so I must catch myself when I absently reply to her questions about money, or other parents, before realizing, whoops, shouldn’t have told her that.
As Newman advises, “Before you allow your child to weigh in, take a pause and ask yourself, ‘Is this really a topic or an issue that a 9-year-old should be involved in, or is this a decision for adults?’ ”
Sylvie needs time away from us to be a kid — time to act silly and make jokes about butts and drone on about the intricacies of Minecraft. She has a group of good friends, but I do see her picking up on her middle-aged parents’ habits, such as calculating how many hours of sleep she got every morning. Her posse at home is squarely in midlife, as evidenced by her choice of songs for her ninth birthday party — among them, Barbra Streisand’s LBJ-era “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” We are not the kind of posse a 9-year-old needs. Maybe she hasn’t yet subbed out her school backpack for a WNYC tote bag, but the danger is there.
And all of this coziness hurts our marriage, too. So I have to remind myself, sometimes daily, to cordon off our relationship. Our marriage has needs that deviate from my needs as an individual, as well as our needs as a family. I have to constantly ask, what would be good for the marriage? It’s important, as a couple, to have your own roster of in-jokes. It’s refreshing to drop F-bombs with impunity, and to gossip freely about other parents without having to hastily turn it into a teachable moment for your eavesdropping child about How Gossiping Is Really About Feeling Insecure About Your Own Life Choices. And it’s nice — no, essential — to go out to dinner, just the two of you, and speculate on which members of the waitstaff are sleeping with each other. You know, grown-up stuff.
My wife gave birth to a child. The child gave birth to a new thought.
Philosophy has always appealed to me more than fatherhood. I used to imagine my life as a sequence of quiet contemplations, readings and travels. I did not think much about children, though I assumed I would have one at some point. Being a father was not something I associated with a life devoted to philosophy.
However, all of that changed when my daughter was born in 2014, three months after I defended my doctoral dissertation. In a span of a summer, I became both a father and a philosopher. The two merged in me and created an identity that was entirely new. Before her birth, I was primarily interested in political philosophy. I was drawn to the questions of social and political justice, liberalism and legitimacy. Then, as my child gestated in her mother’s womb, a new set of interests and ideas started to grow in my mind. My wife gave birth to a child; the child gave birth to a new thought.
Parenthood, as I was about to learn, provides many paths for reflection. Philosophers typically ask a whole range of questions about parenthood: Is there a moral justification for having children? What are the moral dimensions to raising a child? Now that I found myself a parent as well as a philosopher, I began asking similar questions: How should I raise my child? How can I be a good father?
As most parents of newborns know, the first months of parenthood are a mix of bliss, fear, frustration and most of all, sleeplessness. It was in those wee hours in the first months of fatherhood that my philosophical concern stumbled upon one particular question: Who will my daughter grow up to be? What will be her identity? As I observed her tiny bodily features, I kept thinking about the possible futures ahead of her. Will she be able to become whomever she wants?
There is an autobiographical background to this question. I was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina into a secular Muslim family, and lived in the country for most of the first 30 years of my life. Coming of age during a brutal ethnic conflict in the early 1990s, I was corralled into a cultural identity I was told belonged to me. Being persecuted for being Muslim generated a personal and cultural resistance in me. I adopted and celebrated that scorned identity. Gradually, I became a Muslim. I embraced the target on my back and made it my own. But adopting an identity as a form of resistance, as I learned quickly, can take one only so far. Like an ill-fitting polyester suit, this identity itched, and I yearned to wear something more comfortable.
Philosophy has been an invaluable part of my process of self-creation. It helped me learn and accept who I was, but it also gave me tools I needed to change the itchy suit for something more fitting. One of the first thinkers who inspired this process was Hannah Arendt. When I first learned about her understanding of freedom, I immediately recognized myself in her thoughts. For Arendt, freedom means the capacity for a new beginning. It is realized in the human capability for action, a feature all new human beings are endowed with. The root of freedom, for her, lies in the concept of “natality,” in the fact that each new birth represents the introduction of novelty into the world. Children are something radically new, a true embodiment of freedom and a guide to structuring our social world.
Arendt’s favorite historical example of natality is the American Revolution, a radical act of bringing liberty to the world. I realized that my longing for the New World was a form of longing for a new self. Once I settled in the place of perpetual novelty, New York City, I had another beginning to deal with: a child of my own.
I thought of Hannah Arendt a lot during those sleepless nights, as my daughter was adjusting to life outside the womb. If she is a radical novelty in this world, I remember asking myself, how can I help her preserve that novelty and not suppress her uniqueness? How can I raise this tiny new being and let her be herself and not somebody else? What could I do to raise my daughter as an original, and not merely a copy of me, my background or the cultural expectations of the time and place of her birth?
The sleepless nights were productive in more ways than one. First, I realized that Arendt was right: Children are radically new and must be treated as such. While this is sometimes hard to comprehend, especially for new parents who delight in recognizing their features imprinted on the newborn (“Look, honey, she’s got my nose!”), it is both morally and practically imperative that we do so. Regardless of the genes she inherited from her mother and me, my daughter is a unique human being, and I can’t possibly predict, yet alone determine, her future self. Will her identity confirm to my expectations? I have no right to expect that.
I have witnessed many parental disappointments in what their children grow up to be: fathers obsessing when their sons turns out gay, mothers in despair when their daughters reject their parents’ religion. Gay conversion therapies and estranged relationships between transgender children and their parents are the perfect example of parental expectations gone off the rails. I knew that I wanted to be better than that. But how?
For children to grow up as authentic human beings and not as products of their parents’ expectations, they must learn to understand that identities are built on reasons, in other words, reasonable justifications; the very concept of identity is derived from this concept of reasons.
If personal identity is a certain kind of belief about oneself, it is always the product of the relation between the person’s consciousness and some set of facts. According to this, there could be different kinds of reasons for identification, depending on the nature of different facts. Some of them are based on the way we are physically constituted. If a child feels more comfortable under the label of the gender opposite to (or in between or beyond) the one assigned to her at birth, then that is a reason for her to identify in such a way. Other reasons are based on historical, environmental and experiential facts.
If a child learns about another way of life, in school or through socialization, and decides to adopt it, then parents must respect that the child could have a valid reason to stray from their family’s culture. Preventing children from acting upon the reasons they recognize, without addressing their validity, betrays the value and the meaning of the parent-child relationship.
Second, I realized that parenthood is a perfect exercise in self-knowledge: One gets a chance for self-discovery. Becoming a father helped me to understand my philosophical outlook. Thinking about the reasons that could underpin my daughter’s future self helped me understand the reasons behind my own philosophical and personal identity. Namely, being an immigrant in the United States, I embody two citizenships and two cultures.
This embodiment is largely responsible for the kinds of philosophical issues that interest me. Although I live in the United States, I exist on the boundary between the two. I never cease to bewithout both referential systems: Bosnian and American. Duality is my existential default. So I am constantly aware of the workings of culture. Because I always see its edges, I keep asking questions about its core.
Even my idea about the child’s right to authentic identity embodies a duality of philosophical traditions that underpin it. For example, authenticity has traditionally been a rallying call of Romantics who, like Rousseau, believed that the progress of the Enlightenment erodes the uniqueness of individuals. We are all born originals but die as copies. The time between our birth and our death is shaped by civilization, which molds us in ways that are often contrary to those parts of ourselves that are given by nature. Insights of Rousseau, Montesquieu, Marshall Berman and other thinkers who wished to advance the cause of authentic existence have always had a special appeal to me.
Yet insisting that a person becomes authentic through access and evaluation of reasons reflects methods and ideas usually found in the tradition of Enlightenment thinkers. Unlike the Romantics, I hold that the use and promotion of reason helps us to truly be ourselves. Self-alienation is the product of an unreasonable mind. Like John Locke, I believe that identity is a product of consciousness and reason. We can’t be authentic unless we are reasonable.
Sleepless nights with a newborn are behind me. My daughter is a 4-year-old now, with an identity of her own and an iron-strong will to make things go her way. Yet the dread of an unexpected future could still grip me in the middle of the night and make me question everything, unsettling the prospects of quiet rest. The lullaby I need is nowhere to be found; all I can do is stare into the void, with no hope that it will stare back.
But when I see her sleeping serenely, I understand that the void is not to be feared. It is not a maelstrom of meaninglessness that will lead us into insanity. The void is a portal to our self. It is ours to fill with whatever we want — dreams, fears, ambitions. It is our only chance to become what we really are: parents to ourselves.
LIFE AS A PARENT: WHAT KIND OF FATHER WILL YOU BE?
Dedan K. Bruner
Growing up without a dad was my first lesson in parenting.
I was 35 years old when my mother gave me the box. It was during my first visit home to California from Washington, D.C., after sharing the news that my new girlfriend and I were expecting a child. The contents were sparse. Among them was a telegram that my mother sent to my father, who had been away in Botswana serving in the Peace Corps, announcing my birth. Also included was a letter my father wrote to my mother a few years later, stating that he was moving back to the United States and that my mother and I, along with my father, his new wife and their children, should all live together upon their return.
At the bottom of the box was a small stack of checks — these I remembered well. Right around New Year’s when I was 5 or 6, I received an envelope with almost a dozen $25 checks, each predated for a different month, plus a $50 birthday check for July.
Seeing the checks brought back a flood of memories. I’d hotly anticipated each one, and felt frustrated at how long it took for my mother, whom I called Bobby, to hand over my “birthday money.” I’d clung to those checks as evidence of my father’s ongoing support. So imagine my embarrassment as a teenager when Bobby confessed that the checks began bouncing a few months in, and she’d started paying me their value out of her own limited budget. Until that day, I’d naively believed my dad’s promise to fund my college education.
Bobby and I never talked about the box. We didn’t need to. My mother’s message was loud and clear: “What kind of father will you be?” The answer seemed simple. I had been thinking about the type of father I would be since I was a kid growing up without one.
Embraced by a circle of dads
When I found out I was going to be a father, I was working on Capitol Hill in a fast-paced congressional office. In the moments that weren’t consumed with congressional votes or meetings, one of our favorite pastimes was getting updates from the three office dads. There was Joe, our 30-something military liaison, who would tell stories about his twin daughters and his son who was born with cerebral palsy. Then Riley, our elder statesman, who along with his wife had decided in his 50s to adopt Ethiopian siblings. Finally, there was our boss, James, a father of three teenagers, the eldest of whom was diagnosed with autism.
These men loved being dads. While their journeys were different, their stories of breakthroughs, tiny victories and comic setbacks connected them and entertained us all. When I announced that I was going to be a father, they welcomed me to the club with the kind of love and support that I had never seen among men. They showered me with tips about car seats and college savings plans, and tons of little ideas to make each day special. Their energy was infectious and edifying. I knew I would be O.K.
Months later, when my daughter Ella was born, James showed up at the hospital with a copy of the local newspaper and the February 2011 issue of Essence magazine so my daughter would, as he put it, “always know exactly what was going on when she came into the world.”
Nine months after my daughter was born, her mother moved out. While difficult for both of us, it was for the best. At the time, she was a first-year law student with a rigorous schedule. There was no custody battle. We crafted a schedule that worked, splitting Ella’s time evenly between the two of us with built-in flexibility to absorb her mom’s studies and my busy seasons at work. Eight years later, while much has changed, the same plan is still in place.
Society does not expect a whole lot from dads, much less single dads. The bulk of the nurturing, and most of what we consider “raising” a child is said to be the work of mothers. Dads “provide,” give the occasional bit of “fatherly wisdom” and do all the “outside stuff,” like camping. As it turns out, toddlers need less fatherly advice and more clean diapers. Children do not require us to be “baby whisperers,” but they do require resilience. I discovered that running warm water through Ella’s hair was a sure-fire way to get her to fall asleep not because I’m good at being a father; on the contrary, I learned the hard way that changing a baby girl on an incline at 3 a.m. can cause pee to run down her back and into her hair — requiring an early morning bath.
Fatherhood means trial and error
Ask the average dad for advice on how to raise a son, and you’ll get tips on the proper age to start sports and how to deal with bullies. He might share his dreams for his son, strategies for discussing sex, and the proper way to grip a hand and lock eyes during an introduction. Ask the same guy for advice on raising a daughter and he’ll wince his silent condolences while recommending that you get a gun and forbid her from dating until she turns 30.
I adopted the philosophy that it didn’t matter if my kid was a boy or a girl — at least until puberty. There are no lessons that I would teach a son that I would not want my daughter privy to. Self-respect, consideration, compassion, kindness and good citizenship serve each gender well and can be modeled by either parent. While her mother is adamant that Ella not use “bad words,” I care more about making poor language choices — howshe uses her words. Every now and then, I offer my daughter amnesty — 10 seconds to get any curse words she really wants to say out of her system. The first time I offered, after I pinky swore that I wouldn’t tell Mommy, she said the “S-word.” Months later, when I offered again, she passed. While her mom and I may not always agree on strategies, our goals are the same.
No matter how hard I try, not everything I do will be right. My inability to style my daughter’s hair was frequently criticized by the women in our lives, and apparently nearly every kid on the playground. Several friends tried to teach me; I watched YouTube videos and bought expensive products, to no avail. One day after picking her up from school, my daughter hugged me and whispered in my ear, “I don’t think I want you to do my hair anymore.” The statement crushed me, not because of what she said but because I could imagine the ridicule she’d endured before reaching that conclusion.
A few days later, a neighbor called me over as we were returning home from school. Still sensitive from Ella’s rebuke, my guard was up. I was working through the best way to tell my neighbor to mind her own business when she said she appreciated seeing me as a father. She said she knew a lot of fathers but that she liked seeing me. Sometimes you don’t know how empty you have been until someone or something fills you up. Relieved, I thanked her. As we turned to walk away, she told me to bring Ella over Saturday morning so she could “figure out that head.” I laughed and dutifully agreed. To this day, she is still our go-to hair guru.
There is no secret (that I could find) to fatherhood. Being there and being engaged matter most. There are times when I cannot be there, but I remain engaged. When my daughter is with her mother, we chat before bed and again before school. While I enjoy my own pursuits, I also spend time planning activities and adventures to ensure that we get the most out of our limited time together.
On New Year’s Day this year, I launched On Fathering, an online destination that celebrates fatherhood the way the dads in my old office did. The goal is not to make money or hold myself out as an expert on being a dad, but rather to give fathers and fathers-to-be a safe space to explore the beauty of parenthood. With any luck, we’ll help banish the days when the best advice a new father of a daughter could receive is to “get a gun.”
WHY SOME CHILDREN ARE ORCHIDS AND OTHERS ARE DANDELIONS
W. Thomas Boyce
Many children are able to thrive in any environment, while others may flourish only under the most favorable conditions. New findings reveal the complex interplay of factors that creates “dandelion” and “orchid” kids.
One of the first skills taught to pediatricians and obstetricians is how to assess the physiological condition of a baby in the first few minutes after birth. As a novice physician, this was one of my favorite and most treasured duties—to be the first living soul to survey the condition of a never-before-seen human being, delivered red, squealing, and literally wet behind the ears at the end of a prolonged, critical, and one-way passage.
The formal assessment is done using the Apgar score, named for its inventor, Virginia Apgar, at one and five minutes following birth. Scores range from 0 to 10, the sum of a 0, 1, or 2 assessed in each of five areas of postnatal functioning, arranged into the acronym APGAR: Appearance (the pink or blue color of the body, hands, and feet); Pulse rate; Grimace (the crying or grimacing response to nasal or oral suction, or other stimulation); Activity (the degree and vigor of muscle flexion); and Respiration. Most babies receive scores ranging from 7 to 10. Those with scores below 7 may need more active and rapid stimulation or resuscitation, including a heated bassinet or a suctioning of the airway. For scores less than 4, we might insert a breathing tube to support respiration or even begin external heart compressions.
HOW DO KIDS COPE? To get a sense of how school-age children think about resilience, PT asked a few how they cheer up others or whether they have a go-to strategy for themselves. Their portraits follow.
Orchids and Dandelions
As a pediatrician for more than four decades, I have become vividly aware of the great unevenness—the disproportion—evident in the differences in health and development among individual children from the first moments of life. Even within single families, parents often tell me that all of their children were basically healthy, “except for Sarah,” or Julio, or Jamal. Pediatricians implicitly understand, from simple, day-to-day observation, that some children are inordinately affected by the forces that protect health and those that imperil it. And at the level of the community, we know that, within any given population of children, a small minority—about 20 percent of individuals—will suffer the majority of all illnesses and disorders.
Developmental science has convincingly shown that one of the origins of such differences is children’s early experiences of psychological trauma and adversity. Such experience can impede normal brain development, create obstacles to effective learning, and impair mental and physical health during childhood and over the remaining life course. This is why children growing up in poverty, children who are mistreated by their parents or others, and children exposed to violence within the family or community are all at risk for compromised development, educational achievement, and mental or physical health.
But all children are not equally susceptible to these effects. While some are powerfully affected by trauma, others are able to effectively weather adverse experiences, sustaining few, if any, developmental or health consequences. People tend to view these differences in susceptibility as attributable to an inherent vulnerability or resilience, imagining that some small number of resilient or “unbreakable” children have a special capacity to thrive, even in the face of severe adversity. Our research suggests instead that such variance is attributable not to innate traits but to differences in children’s relative biological susceptibility to the social contexts in which they live and grow, both the negative and the positive.
A majority of children show a kind of biological indifference to experiences of adversity, with stress response circuits in their brains that are minimally reactive to such events. Like dandelions that thrive in almost any environment, such children are mostly unperturbed by the stressors and traumas they confront. We think of them, metaphorically, as dandelion children. A minority of children—about one in five—show an exceptional susceptibility to both negative and positive social contexts, with stress response circuits highly sensitive to adverse events. Like orchids, which require very particular, supportive environments to thrive, these children show an exceptional capacity for succeeding in nurturant, supportive circumstances, but sustain disproportionate numbers of illnesses and problems when raised in stressful, adverse social conditions. We think of these as orchid children.
IVO, 10: “If someone is down, I try to promise them something complex, that takes some effort—and then I do it for them.”Photo by Karjean Levine
Developmental science is increasingly revealing that the relative indifference of dandelion children and the special sensitivity of orchid children to the character of their early environment are likely attributable to the joint effects of genes and social contexts. These epigenetic processes—in which environmental cues regulate the expression of genetic differences—are the likely regulators of children’s differential susceptibility to environmental influences. Recognizing this differential susceptibility is an essential key to understanding the experiences of individual children, to parenting children of differing sensitivities and temperaments effectively, and to fostering the healthy, adaptive capacity of all young people.
Origins of the Types
So, are orchids born that way, or do they become orchids by way of early life experience? Our first hint at an answer came from the very first moments of postnatal life.
What is especially interesting about the Apgar score is the degree to which the things it measures are controlled by the fight-or-flight autonomic nervous system involved in dealing with stress. Each subscore is an indicator of the body’s adaptation to the considerable physical (and possibly emotional) stressors of being born; low scores are a reflection of insufficiently adaptive responses. After all, birth is an extreme and unprecedented experience, and it is such experiences that tell us most about who we are as extensions of our individual biology.
Given that we all begin life by being plunged into an epic stress reactivity experiment, might we not wonder whether the Apgar score could tell us more than just whether we need to have our mouths suctioned or our bodies warmed? If lower scores were reflective of less adaptive, less compensatory fight-or-flight responses, might they also be telling us about a baby’s longer-term proclivity toward maladaptive responses to stress? Could our first extrauterine moments augur something important about our whole life yet to come?
That is exactly what we have found. Careful epidemiologic work by one of my doctoral students and a former postdoctoral fellow has found that in nearly 34,000 children from Manitoba, Canada, five-minute Apgar scores were predictive of teacher-reported developmental vulnerability at age 5 for a variety of developmental dimensions. For example, the teachers of children who had Apgar scores of 7 identified more areas of developmental vulnerability than they did for children with Apgar scores of 9 or 10, and kindergartners who had Apgar scores of 3 or 4 had more reported developmental vulnerabilities than did peers with scores of 6 or 7. (The teachers had no prior knowledge of their students’ Apgar scores.) The vulnerabilities that teachers reported might have included lower competence in following rules or instructions; an inability to sit still and focus; a relative lack of interest in books and reading; or an inability to properly grasp and use a pencil. At each lower step on the Apgar scale, such physical, social, emotional, language, and communication domains of development were all significantly more compromised five years later. Babies entering the world with greater fight-or-flight instability and less capacity for physiological recovery were more developmentally vulnerable.
EDDIE, 12: “To cheer up, I tell myself it’s going to get better; the problem won’t persist.”Photo by Karjean Levine
Nature vs. Nurture
One source of such variation in adaptive stability is surely genetic difference among infants, but genes alone do not make a child an orchid or a dandelion. As work by other researchers has shown, the genetic characteristics of children create their predispositions, but do not necessarily determine their outcomes.
For example, a consortium studying Romanian children raised in horribly negligent, sometimes cruel orphanages under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu, before his fall in 1989, discovered that a shorter version of a gene related to the neurotransmitter serotonin produced orchid-like outcomes. Children with this shorter allele (an alternative form of a gene) who remained in the orphanages developed intellectual impairments and extreme maladjustment, while those with the same allele who were adopted into foster families recovered remarkably, in terms of both development and mental health.
Similarly, a team of Dutch researchers studying experimental patterns of children’s financial donations—in response to an emotionally evocative UNICEF video—found that participants with an orchid-like dopamineneurotransmitter gene gave either the most charitable contributions or the least, depending upon whether they were rated securely or insecurely attached to their parents—that is, depending on factors that were not genetic.
We used to think that any trait or feature present at birth was “congenital” and therefore determined by genes or, in ancient terms, fated in the stars. A somewhat more contemporary version of this vision is known as genetic determinism, according to which all of our differences are firmly situated at conception in the merged DNA we inherit from our parents. We can think of this view as the “nature” side of the classic debate of nature versus nurture.
SAHANA, 7: “To cheer myself up, I play with my toys, call over my friends, and tell them jokes.”Photo by Karjean Levine
The Human Genome Project—the ultimate “nature” approach—promised to uncover the “genes for” autism, schizophrenia, heart disease, and cancer. But no such unitary genes or even sets of genes have been elucidated. It is now clear that who we become is not determined by a straightforward, one-to-one route from genes to behavior, or DNA to phenotype—the set of observable characteristics, such as eye color, personality, and behavior, that describe an individual. Our most vaunted, prized, and carefully articulated hypotheses pale in the face of the exquisite complexities of the natural world.
There’s an old pediatric adage that all parents-to-be are environmental determinists until they have a baby in hand, at which point they become genetic determinists. Here is what I mean: Before we have kids, we’re prone to seeing the misbehavior of a child as the product of flawed parenting. That kid throwing a tantrum at the table next to us in a restaurant? It’s obviously the parents’ fault for not controlling him—their nurture hasn’t accomplished what it needed to do. Once we’re responsible for our own felon-in-training, throwing the tantrum in the adjacent airplane seat, we hope that those around us understand that we’ve done our best, but the child came into the world with this temperament. It’s far more comforting to ascribe the behavior of our own noisy or troubling toddler to genes, for which we have only passive responsibility, than to our capacities as parents, for which we are more directly accountable.
In his book Either/Or, Søren Kierkegaard proposed that to fully understand the human condition, we need to dispense with the tendency to perceive the forces that form us as clear-cut dichotomies. Such binary views run counter to the complexities of our true character. Developmental science has in recent decades faced an “either/or” divide: The environmental view has demanded an allegiance to external causes, located within our social and physical contexts, and the genetic view has asserted that internal causes are preeminent, with genomes driving our phenotypes and lives. The positions have emerged as contradictory answers to the fundamental questions, “Why do some get sick and others do not?” and “Why are some so healthy and fulfilled while others are not?” We now know that it is almost never a matter of either/or, but rather both/and.
CALVIN, 9: “When I’m down, I think about things differently and try not to be nervous or stressed.”Photo by Karjean Levine
Unpuzzling Human Disposition
Every human disposition and disorder of mental or physical health depends on an intricate interaction between internal and external causes to take root and advance. The key to understanding human difference and to abating and preventing morbidity will involve a keener knowledge of how genetic difference and environmental variation work together to change biological processes. This approach to “unpuzzling” human nature and wellness brings us closer to understanding what makes orchids and dandelions bloom, wither, or move between these states over the course of a changing life. Both genes and social environments are almost certainly influential for both orchid and dandelion phenotypes, but it is likely the interaction of genes and environments that determine where the kids in my studies ended up on the graphs that we created to chart their behavior and health.
Human infants, even prior to birth, are remarkably and finely attuned to the dynamic features of their environment, first in the womb and later in the nest with which their parents surround them. The brain of the human fetus and newborn is a “black hole” of sensory capacity that can respond to its environment even before consciousness registers it. A newborn unconsciously adapts in the service of “early life programming,” as biological adjustments begin, without awareness, as soon as the brain begins to detect challenges. This early programming enhances the likelihood of short-term survival—at least until the capacity for reproducing comes online in puberty, but it may also have the downside of generating greater risks of chronic adult conditions, such as coronary heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and mental disorders. It is an evolutionary strategy of trading survival in the short run for diminished and less vigorous longevity.
We think that differential susceptibilities to the environment—and thus orchid and dandelion children—emerge in this way. In certain kinds of early social and physical contexts, important benefits to survival and thriving might accrue for children with special, enhanced sensitivities. Children reared in environments of continuous threat and predation, for example, might logically be protected by the vigilance and hawk-eyed attentiveness of orchid sensibilities. Millennia ago, having a few orchidish individuals within a hominid band might have been protective of the group, as attacks from animals and other groups arose. On the other hand, being an orchid might also be of great benefit to those living at the other extreme—in environments of exceptional safety, protection, and abundance. Here, the propensity of orchid children to be open and porous to environmental events and exposures would garner even greater advantages. Most children would thrive in such settings. Orchids would thrive spectacularly.
Outside of these most extreme conditions, however, being a dandelion must surely yield the greatest rewards at the smallest price. Dandelions seem impervious to all but the most virulent of threats and insults. Within the typical ups and downs of human societies, these are the individuals deemed resilient, hardy, and buoyant. Evolution should thus tend to favor a proliferation of orchid phenotypes at the extremes of environmental conditions, while dandelion phenotypes should predominate within the broad middle range of challenges. Sure enough, there is at least preliminary evidence that dandelions are disproportionately represented in settings where neither menaces nor great fortune predominate.
SIERRA, 9: “If I’m down, I think of my favorite things. My friend taught me this song [“My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music], and I sing it to myself.”Photo by Karjean Levine
Marking Our Genes
During a formative, seven-year sojourn in the frigid green wilds of Canada, at the University of British Columbia, I had the good fortune to meet Mike Kobor and Marla Sokolowski. Mike studies the molecular biology of the yeast genome, and Marla is a fly geneticist who discovered the foraging gene (known as for ) in fruit flies and is responsible for the work defining two major behavioral phenotypes in flies (and other species)—”rovers” and “sitters”— determined by DNA sequence differences in that gene.
Mike and Marla share a capacity for broadly envisioning the implications of discoveries in basic animal models for human societies: They discern our civilizations in our genes. We converged under the sponsorship of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), forming the Child and Brain Development Program, which Marla and I now co-lead. Our program quickly closed in on the captivating question of how genes and environments, especially environments of adversity and inequality, together produce known individual differences in susceptibility, behavior, health, and disease. The answer has proven key to a provisional understanding of where orchids and dandelions come from.
We have established that genetic variation—differences in the DNA code that makes up individual genes—plays a role in the genesis of orchid and dandelion children. Although many genes likely contribute to the phenotypes, those involved in brain development and function are almost certainly implicated. The expression of genes involved in emotion regulationand behavioral control, for example— features that are highly salient in orchids and dandelions—govern neurotransmitter communications among individual neurons.
But early environmental experiences undoubtedly play an additional role, especially exposure to adversity and threat and experiences of family or community support and nurture. Emerging science suggests that genes and environments contribute to the emergence of orchids and dandelions, additively and interactively, but until recently we had no real idea of how this interaction actually took place. The field that has now flooded this enigmatic landscape with new light is epigenetics, the science of how environmental exposures can modify gene expression without altering the DNA sequence of the gene itself. The Greek prefix epi—meaning “upon” or “above”—connotes how the epigenome, a lattice of chemical “marks” or tags, literally lies upon the genome and controls the expression or silencing of DNA.
KARSON, 6: “To cheer people up, I say to them, ‘Don’t worry, everything will be all right.'”Photo by Karjean Levine
Every type of cell we possess—blood, liver, lung, skin, brain—contains precisely the same genome, the same collection of genes with the same DNA sequences, half from our mothers and half from our fathers. The only way that the 200 or so different human cell types, each with a different structure and different functions, could be made from a single genome is if the functioning of our 25,000 genes could be independently controlled. That’s how the epigenome comes into play in embryonic development. Stem cells can become kidney cells or white blood cells only through the programmed, epigenetic regulation of those thousands of genes. Once a stem cell is differentiated—say, into a white blood cell—the functioning of that cell can also be adjusted (again, epigenetically) to accommodate or adapt to the conditions with which the cell or the whole organism is contending. For example, a child facing a seriously stressful environment might need to change white blood cells’ rate of division (increasing the number of available immune cells), the cells’ responsiveness to stress hormones (sensitizing them to the effects of cortisol), or their production of the molecules initiating and governing inflammation (such as the chemical messengers called cytokines).
So, the epigenome has two major functions: It regulates the differentiation of cells into their various types and tissues, and it facilitates an adjustment of cell function to respond to the conditions at hand. It does both of these by regulating the epigenetic chemical tags that attach to the genome, turning up or turning down the expression of the thousands of genes in each cell. It is a great and agile improviser.
Pianos and Equalizers
Think of the genome and epigenome like this: Your genes are the keys on a piano; each plays a distinctive note. But while a piano has just 88 white and black keys, your genome houses around 25,000 individual genes, making it thousands of times more complex. In the first kind of epigenetic regulation—cell differentiation—these keys can be played in different combinations, sequences, and timings to create a whole variety of different tunes—200 different ones, for each of the different types of cells in a human body. One corresponds to the production of neurons, another to white blood cells, yet another to skin cells, and so on.
Once cells are differentiated on this magnificent piano, the epigenome is then used for a second kind of process: the adjustment of cell function to the conditions the organism is encountering. Here, the epigenome serves as an “equalizer” that adjusts each cell’s functions, changing the way its tune sounds, like the levers on an audio equalizer adjusting the balance between sound frequency ranges to emphasize treble or bass notes. Although each type of cell always plays the same tune—a white blood cell will stay a white blood cell—the way that the cell functions can be adaptively adjusted to suit specific circumstances.
MILEVA, 7: “When I need cheering up, I snug with my stuffed animals.”Photo by Karjean Levine
For example, the body of a child encountering a major early life stressor, like maltreatment, might automatically adjust the functioning of many different cell types in order to adapt as well as possible to the experience. Adrenal gland cells might be called upon to produce more cortisol; nerve cells could activate the fight-or-flight system; white blood cells could respond to any physical injuries; and brain cells might dampen the child’s emotional response. And these would be only four adjustments among probably hundreds occurring at the same time.
Just as biobehavioral phenotypes, like orchid and dandelion children, are likely influenced by DNA sequence variations in many genes, it is probably also true that the effects of early experience on these phenotypes involve many epigenetic changes within multiple genes. Just which genes are different in sequence and where the epigenetic marks occur is still being worked out, for orchid versus dandelion, introvert versus extrovert, predispositions to depression versus predilections for joy, and other human differences.
What we now know with some certainty, however, is that most variation in human character, nature, and health will eventually be attributable to an interactive combination of differences in the DNA sequences of multiple genes, along with experience-driven differences in the epigenetic marks that shape the expression, or decoding, of multiple genes. What is wickedly complex in the number of variations involved is elegantly simple in design: Genes and experience interactively affect human destiny, and the epigenome is the physical link between a gene and its environment. You can think of human life as the song that issues from the epigenetic piano and its equalizer, the result of a complex compositional process shaped by both genes and environments. Each person is predisposed to play certain types of scores, like those of the orchid or the dandelion, but there is abundant space for unique variation and improvisation.
These are hard times for children, and so for parents. There has been a sea change in the nature of childhood over the last decade or two, one that makes it harder for children to learn the basic lessons of the human heart and one that ups the ante for parents who used to pass these lessons on to the children they love. Parents have to be smarter about teaching their children basic emotional and social lessons.
Before I became a father, I had spent nearly twenty years working in the field of developmental psychology, studying the emotional lives of children. But it was not until our daughter arrived that I began to truly understand the realities of a parent-child relationship. I had no idea of the intensity of feeling I would have for my child, or how thrilled I would be when she learned new things, or how much attention and patience it would require. And I remembered how dangerous the world can be, and I felt vulnerable because losing her would mean losing everything.
As a Jew whose parents escaped Austria during the Holocaust, I had respected the efforts of other theorists who rejected authoritarianism as a way to raise morally healthy children. They proposed that the family operate as a democracy and that children and parents act as rational, equal partners. My years of investigation into family dynamics began to yield new evidence that emotional interactions between parent and child would have an even greater impact on a child’s long-term well-being.
That greater impact on long-term well-being results in building a child’s emotional intelligence, which is important because, more than IQ, emotional intelligence seems to determine success in life. The ability to understand other people and work with them is critical to success in modern work life. It is also critical in relationships, and we know that having successful friendships and romantic relationships confers enormous benefits in health, wealth, happiness, longevity, and the success of one’s children.
Emotional intelligence informs Emotion Coaching as a parenting method
When it comes to parenting and emotional intelligence, there are two groups of parents that are so very different when it comes to the world of emotions. Emotion Dismissing parents are action-oriented, and don’t want to become emotional, and they see this as potentially destructive in themselves and in their children. Emotion Coaching parents are the opposite: accepting of emotions and explore emotions in themselves and others.
In our research, we found that the effects of these two approaches were dramatic. The children of the two kinds of parents were on totally different life trajectories. And when it came to divorced families with children, I was also surprised that emotion coaching buffered children from almost all the negative effects of their parents divorcing. Two kids with the same IQ starting at age 4 would have entirely different educational achievement at age 8 if their parents were emotion coaching, all mediated through differences in attentional abilities.
Even more powerful is that these results all appear to be cross-culturally universal.
Emotional intelligence in parenting begins with the self
What turns out to be really wonderful about our results is that, with emotional intelligence, one needs to begin with one’s self. It is important to understand one’s own feelings about emotions, and to learn that self-understanding comes from recognizing one’s own feelings. Emotions are our internal “GPS” through life. Opening up our own emotional world and being emotional is where we need to start, and it confers huge gifts.
Yet being emotional doesn’t mean you aren’t rational. The two often seem in opposition—emotional reactions versus logical responses. But you can have both. As a parent, you can also be emotional with your child—not abusive (which would be the opposite of emotional intelligence), but emotional. You can be angry, hurt, disappointed, tense, frustrated, and so on. This seems inevitable in parenting, and if you model a positive approach to handling your own emotions, your child will likely notice.
And you can let your child know that their anger is okay with you, that you can understand their anger. But you can also tell them that when they say that they “hate” you, this really hurts your feelings and it makes you not want to be around them.
Parents do not have to take abuse from their kids, and as part of teaching emotional intelligence, it’s okay to let children know when they are being hurtful or abusive, too. If you model an emotional yet respectful response to something like “I hate you,” children will pick up on that kind of response. They’ll know that what they are saying is actually hurtful. They’ll begin to understand how it makes you feel, which then can inform how they emotionally handle other relationships in their lives.
Our evidence shows that emotion coaching begins in the way parents interact with their babies. Babies can understand language long before they can talk. As early as ten months of age, emotion coaching parents are narrating their children’s play, asking them questions, communicating empathy, and giving reasons for saying “yes” or “no.” This has major consequences for the baby’s development, as does a positive relationship between parents. We even have a workshop called Bringing Baby Home that helps couples with the transition to parenthood so that their relationship is strong and models positive emotional behavior for children.
But it’s also never too late to become an emotion coaching parent. I have had parents start with adult children and say that they have been close to their kids for the very first time, ever. Emotional intelligence is not a static trait—it can be cultivated and learned at any point in life, by anyone, to their benefit and the benefit of those they interact with.
Here’s how it can start: one of the most powerful gifts you can give your child is an admission that you made a mistake, and apologizing and asking for forgiveness confers respect to the child. The child learns that it is okay to make a mistake and correct it. The child learns that it is possible to repair interaction. And the child feels that their emotions are respected and that you, instead of being authoritative, are capable of being an emotional equal.
Most importantly, the child learns that one can be loved without being perfect. That feeling of unconditional love, of being able to repair negative interactions, of being mindful of your own emotions and those around you—that’s a wonderful foundation upon which any child, with their parents’ guidance, can build a fulfilling and successful life.
30 HONEST LIFE TRUTHS YOU MUST KNOW BEFORE HITTING 30
Hitting the big 3-0 is
a monumental step for anyone. Are you equipped with the essential life lessons
to make it in the next decade of your life?
Let that little
factoid sink in for a moment…
The transition from
your 20’s to your 30’s will not come in predictable increments. Instead, you’ll
wake up one day, look in the mirror, and realize, “I’m in my 30’s.” It will
feel as if time flew by in the blink of an eye, and you feel as if you’re in a
different path. The lessons you learn won’t suddenly come rushing into your
head like a tidal wave of wisdom. Instead, you’ll feel a few slight changes
from how you perceived things when you were in your teens and 20’s.
30 life truths you
need in your 30’s
If you feel as if your
30’s are drawing near and you haven’t learned enough, here’s a refresher
course. Below are 30 life truths everyone should know by the age of 30:
#1 Your body won’t be
as fit and strong as you once were. Your metabolism slows down as you age, so you
can’t stay as fit as you used to be without a little elbow grease.
#2 Your 20’s will
catch up with you, so be prepared. All the cheap booze, cigarettes, bad sleeping habits and even
worse eating habits will catch up with you someday. Turn an unhealthy lifestyle
around before it causes irreparable damage to your body.
#3 It’s the perfect
time to invest in classic pieces in your wardrobe. Your 20’s are the time for fashion exploration
or keeping up with the trends. In your 30’s, appropriate work clothes and a
respectable wardrobe are more important.
#4 It’s now comfort
over fashion when it comes to clothes and shoes. The shoes that pinch your feet or that
too-tight shirt can make way for more practical pieces. Sure, some of them may
look dowdy, but they’re way more comfortable!
#5 Kids can be your
greatest joy and your greatest pain. No matter what your kids do, you will always find it in your
heart to love and forgive them.
#6 Everyone needs
passion in their lives. Whether it’s geeking out over a video game or harboring an
intense love for an author, your passion gives you that added zest for life.
#7 Experiences will
make you happier than possessions. The joy of getting new things fades over time. Experiences
like an out of town trip or a long meaningful conversation, on the other hand,
allow you to cherish those memories time and again.
#8 Staying at a job
you hate isn’t worth it. If you’re getting no fulfillment in your job, get out and open
yourself up to new employment options. Wasting your time in a job you despise
will only wreak havoc on your mind and body.
#9 Your plans won’t
always make it to fruition. The plans you had when you were in your 20’s will eventually
change according to who you’re turning out to be. Let it happen.
#10 Some good things
happen by luck, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t improve your chances. You’re lucky if you get your big break
by chance. But remember, you also need to work on your craft in order to be
celebrated in your field.
#11 Learning never
stops. Every single day can
be a learning experience. You may think you’re learning something irrelevant
today, but you never know when you might be able to use this information.
#12 The journey matters as much as, if not more than, the destination. Let’s use an analogy: When you were back in high school, were you more concerned about the lessons you learned and the friends you made or the piece of paper they give you when it’s over?
#13 You’ll change and
not everyone will like it. Our younger selves would have been devastated to know that
someone doesn’t like us. As you move forward in life, you’ll realize that it’s
not your job to please everyone.
#14 Some things are
worth waiting for, and it’s up to you to find out what those things are. It can be anything from the man or woman
of your dreams to that job vacancy you’ve been waiting for. The thing is, only
YOU can determine how much time you’re willing to wait for them.
#15 The past should not
dictate your future. You don’t wear
your mistakes and your failures on your sleeves. Not everyone will know, and
not everyone will care. Don’t let a dark past extend its stain into your
#16 It’s okay to
switch role models. You
may have idolized Lady Gaga, Beyonce or Barney Stinson in your 20’s because
they’re who you wanted to be. But when you’re in your 30’s you may be surprised
that your role model can be your parent, a historical figure or even a
#17 Your debts can
haunt your future. Unpaid credit
card debts, bank loans and student loans will affect your credit score. This
will greatly affect your credibility when you need to borrow money in the
#18 Everyone needs
simple pleasures. It’s important
to have that easy to do pick-me-up habit to get you through a particularly
stressful day. Whether it’s cuddling with your pet or having a slice of pie,
these little pleasures can give you the added boost you need to keep on going.
#19 You must learn to
embrace change to move forward. Things will change around you, whether you notice it or
not. Your key to embracing it is your ability to adapt and your willingness to
#20 Kindness and
compassion mean more than intelligence and riches. People will remember you more for the
kindness than for your clever quips or for those times you picked up their tab
at the bar.
#21 You will lose
friends along the way, and that’s okay! New jobs, spouses, kids and hobbies often cause friends to
drift apart. You don’t have to move heaven and earth to remain as close as you
once was. Instead, learn to let it go and form new friendships.
#22 You must love your
parents while they are still here. They won’t be there to guide you forever. Reconnect with them,
get to know them a little deeper, and most of all, learn from the wisdom they
can still give.
#23 A sincere apology
can mend a huge rift. No matter how
late your apology is, the impact can still be big enough to restore your
relationship to how it once was.
#24 Nothing feels
lighter on the soul than forgiveness. You don’t necessarily have to forget; but once you’ve
forgiven someone, you can slowly let go of the weight their wrongdoing has
borne upon you.
#25 Bad relationships
are there to learn from. Don’t
beat yourself up for being in a bad relationship. Learn from the experience and
pinpoint the warning signs so they never happen again.
#26 You can’t always
keep your promises, but work hard to keep them anyway. In order to avoid the awkward situation
of breaking a promise, be careful whom you make promises to.
#27 Love isn’t always
enough. In your relationships,
you may realize that no matter how much you love a person, there may be other
bigger things than can prevent you from having a future together.
#28 Intelligence is
contagious. Surround yourself with those who are smarter than you. We learn more from the people
surrounding us than we think. Mental stimulation in the form of intelligent
conversations can be one of the most fulfilling life experiences.
#29 Kindness can be
found in the most unlikely places. Boo Radley and the Good Samaritan are great examples of this.
Don’t let someone’s culture or appearance make you think that they’re not
capable of kindness.
#30 30 isn’t “old.” There’s that dread many 20-somethings
feel when they’re nearing 30. It won’t come as a barrage of stray grey hairs
and wrinkles. You can look and feel as fresh and as fit as you were in your
20’s but you’ll be armed with a lot more knowledge! Embrace your 30’s!
Life is all about
learning in all its different forms. The things you knew in your teens, 20’s,
30’s and 40’s will change in time. And within these changes are the life truths
you will learn at your own pace, in your own way. Embrace your 30’s as it
approaches, and don’t forget to take these life lessons with you!
STRESS: WHEN YOUR TEEN SWEATS THE SMALL STUFF, THE BIG STUFF, AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN
“I just need everything to go perfect tonight.”
That was the concern of my son’s chemistry
partner as she hurried through the lab, clearly distracted by the night’s
upcoming orchestra performance. Knowing that her parents had invited close
friends and extended family to the concert, she was adamant that her
performance needed to be flawless. Not just good—but flawless. One simple
mistake would mean total failure in her mind.
What’s wrong with wanting things to
be perfect? And why should we apologize for desiring nice things and impeccable
performances? Ilene Strauss Cohen, PhD, understands
that feeling. “It’s that feeling you get when you expect
things of yourself that you’d never expect from others,” she says in an article
for Psychology Today. “It’s working yourself to exhaustion in hopes that you’ll
feel whole, complete, worthy. It’s basing your self-worth on external
accomplishments, feeling like you have something to prove all the time.”
Welcome, my friends, to the world of
the modern teenager! This constant exposure to
pressure, combined with a desire for perfection, is pervasive and contagious,
and our kids are picking up on it at an alarming rate.
“Perfectionism lives and breathes in
your fear of making a mistake. When you’re afraid of what might happen, you
don’t always make the best possible choices,” says Cohen. At this time of life,
when choices affect the course of young people’s future opportunities, a desire
to perform their best and adapt to changes when necessary is a normal part of
growing up. But, in some cases, this internal need to achieve perfection often
has a paralyzing, anxiety-ridden effect.
The Anxiety and Depression
Association of America (ADAA) found
that anxiety disorder affects 30 percent of children and adolescents, but 80
percent of those affected never get help. With the exception of teenagers—who
transform into these emotionally-charged, high-maintenance, snack-devouring,
earbud-fashioned mounds of walking drama—you know your children better than
anyone. So, it’s important to recognize any changes in appearance, social
interactions, and habits. These could be signs of anxiety disorder.
is normal, but it sure doesn’t feel normal most days.
“Anxiety is a natural human reaction
that involves mind and body. It serves an important basic survival function,”
explain the experts at kidshealth.com. “Although
these situations don’t actually threaten a person’s safety, they can cause
someone to feel ‘threatened’ by potential embarrassment, worry about making a
mistake, fitting in, stumbling over words, being accepted or rejected, or
losing pride.” People also experience sweating, a nervous stomach, and a fast
pulse. These are all normal physical signs.
But when a young person is
constantly feeling anxious, she’ll become physically ill, preoccupied, distracted,
and tense; she knows something isn’t right. “Symptoms of an anxiety disorder
can come on suddenly, or they can build gradually and linger until a person
begins to realize that something is wrong,” say experts. “Sometimes anxiety
creates a sense of doom and foreboding that seems to come out of nowhere.”
Often, we know how we feel, but we don’t know why we feel this way.
If you see signs of anxiety, what
should you do?
punish the symptoms.
As frustrating as it feels to watch
your teen snap at siblings or isolate him or herself from friends or social
activities, don’t focus on the symptoms of anxiety. Instead, use those
situations as an opportunity to talk about what’s going on. “Hey Johnny, you
haven’t been yourself lately, and I know the ACT test is coming up soon. Can we
talk about what’s going on?”
If your teen responds and decides to open up about his
feelings, do a little mental happy dance in celebration of this rare event.
Then, listen. Really listen with your full attention as he talks about what’s
confront anxious feelings with logic.
At this stage, you’re not here to
provide an immediate solution. Rather, you are merely a sounding board for him
to express what has been building up in his head. Intense
anxiety isn’t based on rational thinking. So telling a teen to just “get over
it” or dismissing these feelings as a temporary phase doesn’t help.
“Anxiety is not a choice, and asking
an anxiety sufferer to just calm down is like asking someone with a broken
ankle to just stop having a broken bone,” says Donna Chambers. “Most
people wouldn’t dream of encouraging someone with diabetes to just stop having
high blood sugar, yet many people view mental health differently than physical
ailments.” Instead, simply lend a listening ear and assure your child that you
are here with your full support.
the worst that can happen?
Sometimes, putting stressful things
into perspective helps take away the power of those feelings. “I
like to list all the things that I can still do today, tomorrow and this week—which,
of course, is a lot of things—almost everything,” says Robert L. Leahy, PhD. “You
will quickly learn that your life is unchanged even if this apparently
upsetting event has occurred. It’s more a preference than a necessity.”
When we face situations where the
outcome is beyond our control—which is often the case for teens who try out for
a lead role in a play or apply to their top choice for college, for instance—we
feel helpless. But author Amy Morin, LCSW, says
that often the worst-case scenario isn’t as bad as we feared. “There’s a good
chance you’re stronger than you think,” says Morin. “Acknowledging that you can
handle the worst-case scenario can help you put your energy into more
coping tools early.
One of the best gifts we can share
with our kids is the ability to cope with pressure and steer clear of the need
for perfection. That means, as parents, we need to adjust our priorities as
well. For example, “Teens need to learn that the process of
learning is far more valuable than the grade on the top of the page,” says Katie
Hurley, LCSW. “Talk
to your teen about his/her preferred learning styles, what can be gained from
mistakes and failures, and how to apply new knowledge to future situations.”
Although parents are quick to share stories about past successes, it’s
important your teenagers hear about your struggles too.
“Teens hear a lot about what they
should do and what expectations they need to meet. It helps them to hear that
their stress and anxiety is understandable, and that you remember that need to
perform,” says Hurley. “Open and honest communication about the pitfalls of
adolescence helps normalize the process and relieves teens of the pressure to
succeed.” Sounds like good advice for Instagram-saturated parents as well.
By helping your teen recognize the
signs of anxiety, they will develop important coping skills that can support
them during the small stuff, the big stuff, and everything in between.
Young children don’t measure your love for them by how much money you put into their college funds, how clean the house is, or even the number of gifts you give them. As Dr. Anthony P. Witham once said, children have their own way of spelling “love”: T-I-M-E. Here are a few pieces of communication advice to make sure you are there for your children.
Take the time—trust me, you have it
Take some time every day and spend it with your kid. If you have more than one kid, make sure they each get some one-on-one time. Block time out in your busy schedule if you have to—just make sure you do it every day. Even if it’s only 15 minutes per day, it can make a huge difference in building good, quality communication habits with your kids and do wonders for your relationship.
Trust me: you can spare 15 minutes. You’re not that busy (even if you feel otherwise).
It’s vital that your attention is focused on your kids while spending time with them. Slow down and be present. That means putting your phone down, shutting your laptop, turning off that show, and devoting your undivided attention. You’ll be surprised how much of an impact it will make.
“When you’re overwhelmed with your responsibilities, it’s easy to toggle into automatic pilot with your kids,” says Dr. Harley A. Rotbart. “But if your mind is elsewhere during the precious moments you’ve worked hard to preserve, you have lost your kids’ childhood just as surely as if you hadn’t spent the time with them at all.”
Don’t just hear them out: listen
Your kids know when you’re really listening and when you’re just giving them the absent-minded nod followed by the “Uh huh, sure, honey,” run-around routine. When you take the time to be with your kids, make sure you’re listening. Open your ear holes and soak it up. It will not only help you build stronger bonds with your kids, but it will also make your children feel valued and loved.
Ask your kids about their feelings on things they care about. And you don’t know what your kids are into, now might be a good time to find out. Have fun with it. Laugh a little. Play and joke a bit.
But remember, you’re listening. This isn’t a time to lecture. This is a time to teach. You don’t have to do much at all besides pay attention and listen. And you don’t have to agree with everything your kids say to be a good listener, either. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about showing them that you love them. Make an effort to open up your ears and shut your mouth.
Do not tell your kids what you think they should feel, and don’t just assume you know what they’re feeling either. Let them express those feelings in their own way and in their own time.
Patience is a key element in showing that you care. And whatever you do, don’t minimize their feelings by saying things like “That’s dumb,” or “You’re silly, you shouldn’t feel like that,” or “Don’t worry. You’ll get it when you’re older.” Their feelings are real and should be considered and respected.
“When kids feel valued, loved, heard, and respected, they develop an identity based on these responses,” says Támara Hill, child/adolescent therapist. “Most children don’t demand much; they simply want to have a place in the world and in the lives of those they love.”
Don’t just be a role model: be a good one
When your children are grown, they’ll put you into one of two categories. Either you’ll fit into the “I want to be just like them,” category, or the “I don’t want to make the same mistakes,” category. These are also known as the “good role model” and “bad role model” categories.
Growing up, my dad’s most famous saying around the house was, “Do what I say, not what I do.” As teens, this was funny, especially when Dad got in trouble with Mom for saying it. When you’re dealing with little kids who can’t always communicate vocally, however, your example is paramount.
Use tones and words you want your children to mimic, because they will. If you’re yelling at your partner in front of your kids, don’t be surprised with the yelling starts between siblings. If you laugh when you say, “Stop, that’s not right,” you’re going to confuse your kids. Be clear and precise. Use words they will understand to describe what you are feeling. Doing that will help your kids to learn to get in touch with their own feelings and express them the same way.
Being a good parent is all about showing your children you love them. This comes with taking the time to be there, knowing how to listen, and being a good role model. If you can master those things, you’ll have a better chance of succeeding as a parent. Don’t miss out on their lives. They don’t stay kids for too long.
In today’s fast paced world, stress can easily take a toll on you. Situations like being held up in traffic easily raises stress levels. You cannot always avoid stress but there are simple effective exercises to calm you down and reduce stress in just 2 minutes.
There’s a well-known stress relief technique called box-breathing which is commonly used by Navy seals or people who work at very stressful environments like first responders. This technique has a direct effect on the functioning of the nervous system. It is a powerful yet simple relaxation technique aimed to return breathing to its normal rhythm.
This breathing is also known as resetting your breath. It helps clear your mind, relax your body and improve your focus. Most meditation classes use this technique to help their students re-centre themselves and improve concentration.
Follow the following simple steps to help you relax.
With your eyes shut, breathe in through your nose while slowly counting to four. Feel the air enter your lungs.
Now hold your breath slowly and count to four. Avoid inhaling or exhaling for 4 seconds. (Do not clamp your nose or mouth.)
Exhale slowly for four seconds.
Repeat steps 1 to 3 until you feel calm. Normally 4 minutes would work.
You can practice as many times as you want. Breathing deeply for few minutes can tremendously benefit your body and brain at stressful situations. It causes the vagus nerve which runs from the neck down to the diaphragm to send a message to the brain to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and shut down the sympathetic nervous system.
Sympathetic Nervous System:
This is the part of the nervous system responsible for rest, peace, relaxation and digestion. When facing any perceived threat, the body will instinctively either run or fight. Also known as the body’s fight or flight response. Box breathing prevents the adrenal dump and the fight or flight response.
In return, the body makes smart choices based on relaxed concentration, a brain wave state, referred to as Alpha.
Alpha waves brought about by deep breathing patterns Creates a positive feedback loop that brings back harmony between the mind and body.
This brain wave state is Also an indication of the eureka moments of compelling new idea. This enables you to create something out of nothing especially when in a challenging situation.
While the box breathing technique helps calm you down, it’s more important to avoid very stressful situations if you can. Too much stress over extended periods of time can create more complicated health issues. In fact most health related complications are due to stress.
Practice good Habits:
Balance your life with exercise and healthy foods and, when caught up in unavoidable stressful traffic, you can play some calming music while you work on the breathing exercise. This will distract you from the surrounding noise and, before you know it, you will be free from all the hustle and bustle. Stay healthy and stress-free.
Losing weight doesn’t
happen overnight, no matter how badly we wish it would. If you keep trying and
failing, here are some reasons why.
It doesn’t matter if
you want to lose weight before a vacation, before your wedding, because you
gained a few pounds over the holidays or if you simply just want to live a
healthier lifestyle, losing weight is a challenge, and it’s one that you really
have to be up for.
Sure, there are
different things out there like diet pills, wraps, and whatever else you might
see on a commercial that promise quick results, but the fact is that losing
weight does not happen overnight.
There is no “magic
pill” that automatically makes you drop down 2 pants sizes, and the reality is
it’s about making healthy decisions and being active. A body in motion stays in
Why you can’t seem to
shed those pounds
If you have been
trying to lose weight, but aren’t seeing any results, here’s some insight into
why. Some of these reasons are probably things you don’t want to hear, but they
are definitely things you need to hear.
#1 You’re not educated
about weight loss. If
you think going to the gym, and doing a light walk on the treadmill for 20
minutes or less, and then going home and eating chips, cookies, and other fatty
foods is going to help you successfully lose weight, you’re very wrong. Just
because you are going to the gym and working out, doesn’t mean you should then
go home and eat every fatty food in sight.
The key to losing
weight is being educated about what food you should be putting into your body,
and also knowing how many calories you should be burning, in order to meet your
desired goal. If you aren’t sure, do some research on the internet, go to the
library and check out some books, or start with a simple plan like making sure
to have more green items on your plate than white.
#2 You’re not
determined. Although you might
think you are motivated and really pumped up to lose weight, you’re probably
not, at least not enough. The only way you will truly ever see results, is when
you actually want something bad enough that you work harder than you’ve ever
If you go to the gym
2-3 days a week, but then eat pasta for dinner every night, or wake up and make
waffles for breakfast, then you’re basically throwing away every hard workout
session you’ve done. If you find yourself making up excuses like “I’m too
tired” or “my leg hurts” as reasons you can’t work out, you don’t want it bad
The next time you find
yourself making up excuses, do a quick Google search of Bethany Hamilton and Jason
Lester. These 2 athletes certainly didn’t use excuses and let having a hurt leg
or injury get in the way of them reaching their dreams and goals. So honestly,
what’s your excuse?
#3 You want instant
results. No matter how badly
you want to see instant results, you need to accept the harsh reality that it
just isn’t going to happen. No matter how many times those infomercials make
you a believer, and you continue to order whatever product, pill, or wrap they are
selling, you will not see results, at least not the real results you want.
Working out and losing
weight takes time, dedication, effort and motivation. You have to want it bad
enough, but the good news is that you can do it, once you accept the fact that
it takes time. So instead of falling for products making false promises, start
by making small goals that are within your reach, and you will slowly but
surely start to actually see the results you have been dreaming about.
#4 You might have a
thyroid problem. One
reason you might not be losing weight is because you might have thyroid
problems and not even know it. Women are 10 times more likely to have a thyroid
problem than men. Let me also mention that having a thyroid problem is by no
means something you should blame yourself for.
In fact, at least 30
million Americans have a thyroid disorder and half—15 million—are silent
sufferers who are undiagnosed, according to the American Association of
Clinical Endocrinologists. There are signs and symptoms you can be aware of to
know if you should consult your doctor.
If you find yourself
feeling anxious often, your appetite has changed, your brain feels foggy, your
sex drive is down, your skin is dry and your bowel movements are all over the
place, a thyroid problem might be to blame. In addition to this, you may also
notice that your menstrual cycle has changed, you have high blood
pressure, you feel cold all the time, your sleep is irregular, you’ve gained
weight or you start to notice your hair is thinning or falling out, you should
definitely get your thyroid tested.
Having a thyroid issue
is not the end of the world, and it is something that can be fixed, but again,
probably not overnight. Testing and treating thyroid disorders take time, but
are worth it for your health and happiness. And, if you do have a thyroid
disorder, then it will be nice to know why you haven’t been seeing the weight
loss results you’ve been working so hard to achieve!
#5 You do the same
thing over and over again. If you are doing the same workout routine over and over again,
and not seeing results, the answer should be pretty obvious. It’s because
you’re not progressing to the next level! Just like your skin can get used to a
certain cream that no longer works on your face, your body can get used to the
same workout and it no may no longer work.
The best way to lose
weight is to change it up: run one day, do interval training the next, or take
a workout class 2 days out of the week, instead of doing your everyday routine
of walking and weightlifting.
You can even change it
up simply by running on the treadmill a few days a week, and on other days,
running outside around your neighborhood. Whatever you do, just make sure that
you make this change to give your workout some variety. You’ll start seeing the
results you’ve wanted to see for a while!
#6 You’ve fallen
victim of relationship weight. When you first started dating your boyfriend or girlfriend, you
were probably very active about working out, and you wanted to, because you
wanted your partner to see the sexiest you possible—and they did! But now that
you’ve been dating for a while, you find yourself cuddling on the couch and
being much lazier when it comes to working out than you used to. It
doesn’t help if your partner isn’t motivated either, never wanting to do active
things with you.
So, if you can relate
to being a victim of relationship weight, it’s time you stop being this victim.
Stop being lazy! Start working out, and start taking care of yourself. You
don’t want to look back a year from now and wonder what the heck happened.
You’ll have no one to blame but yourself. Stop with your lazy ways right now,
and start getting back to the most amazing version of yourself.
I have a funny feeling
that once your lover starts seeing you getting in shape and living a healthy
lifestyle, they’ll want to start coming with you on your gym dates.
#7 Can’t give up
alcohol. If you are one of
those people who always has to have a glass of wine after work, or loves going
to happy hour and letting go of all the stress from your workday, that’s all
good and everything. But it’s not good when you do these things all the time.
Having a glass of wine
after work is relaxing, and it’s okay to go to happy hour from time to time.
But you shouldn’t be doing these things every single day of your life,
especially if you’re trying to lose weight. I know there are studies out there
that show wine is good for you, but there are also studies out there that says
having one glass of wine is equivalent to having a piece of cake.
The next time you want
that glass of wine, ask yourself if you want wine or if you would rather have
cake. Then, ask yourself if you would rather have cake, or if you would rather
lose weight. I’m sure your answer will be the one about losing weight. And
hopefully this will motivate you to get your butt in the gym!
#8 You obsess too
much. It is very possible to
get in the way of yourself, especially when it comes to weight loss. There is a
reason that counting calories or obsessing over the number on the scale
actually backfires on you when trying to lose weight. When you start becoming
obsessed with every number and calorie, you mess yourself up from achieving
The saying “everything
in moderation” is so very true, especially when it comes to losing weight, and it’s
so important to remember this. A great way to keep track of your progress is to
keep a journal. Write down your workouts, what food you eat, and whatever else
you want to keep track of. Once you’ve logged your information for the day, let
it go. Don’t sit there and obsess over the numbers and calories you burned or
consumed. Remember, losing weight is a marathon, not a sprint.
It takes a lot of hard
work and determination to lose weight. If you are trying to lose weight, about
to start, or have been for a while, it’s exciting to know what the future will
bring, and you should be excited! You are about to become the very best version
of you possible.
It’s also important to
be aware of these 8 reasons that seriously can keep you from achieving your
goals. Remember that losing weight takes a lot of hard work. It wouldn’t be
called a workout if it didn’t.
Remember above all
else, you can do this! You are fully capable of achieving your weight loss
goals. It starts from within. You have to want it for yourself, and be okay
with doing it all by yourself.