Guide to Managing Media for Tweens and Teens

GUIDE TO MANAGING MEDIA FOR TWEENS AND TEENS

Jill Murphy

With kids consuming more media than ever before, parents need new rules for how to manage it.

The Common Sense Census: A Day in Teens’ Digital Lives

Today’s kids are immersed in media. More than ever before, tweens and teens are watching, reading, listening, creating, and communicating throughout their entire day. It’s become harder to distinguish between screen time and just … time. The Common Sense Census found that American teens average about nine hours of media per day and tweens about six per day. This doesn’t include time spent doing homework on a computer or tablet or reading books for school.

Beyond the amount of time kids are spending with media, the Common Sense Census identified several patterns, from what boys and girls do differently to their favorite media activities. If you’re wondering how this all affects your kid — well, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. But what’s clear is that parents, teachers, and supportive adults can help support kids in using media and tech in healthy, productive, and responsible ways. Here are tips for parents:

Parents should feel empowered to set limits on screens of all sizes. Devices are a huge part of screen time, and kids need support in establishing balance and setting limits. Depending on your family, these rules can be as simple as “no phones at the dinner table” or “no texting after 9 p.m.”  

Encourage your kids to be creative, responsible consumers, not just passive users. Media can be incredibly productive, educational, and empowering. Helping younger kids find great content and get access to quality books, complex movies, challenging games, and safe apps and websites fosters a positive relationship with media.  

Help kids understand the effects of multitasking. Our research shows tweens and teens think multitasking has no impact on the quality of their homework. As parents, we know that helping kids stay focused will only strengthen interpersonal skills and school performance. Encourage them to manage one task at a time, shutting down social media while working online for homework or engaging in conversation.  

Talk the talk, walk the walk. Lead by example by putting your own devices away during family time. Parent role-modeling shows kids the behavior and values you want in your home. Kids will be more open and willing participants when the house rules apply to you, too.

How to Set Screen Rules That Stick

HOW TO SET SCREEN RULES THAT STICK

Caroline Knorr

Easy tips for limiting kids’ computer, TV, game, and movie time.

In many homes, getting kids to turn off their cell phones, shut down the video games, or quit YouTube can incite a revolt. And if your kids say they need to be online for schoolwork, you may not know when the research stops and idle activity begins.

When it comes to screen time, every family will have different amounts of time that they think is “enough.” What’s important is giving it some thought, creating age-appropriate limits (with built-in flexibility for special circumstances), making media choices you’re comfortable with, and modeling responsible screen limits for your kids. Try these age-based guidelines to create screen rules that stick.

Preschoolers. There are lots of great TV showsappsgames, and websites geared for this age. But too much time spent in front of a screen can interfere with activities that are essential for growing brains and bodies.

  • Go for quality and age-appropriateness. Not everything for preschoolers needs to be a so-called “brain-builder,” but there’s a difference between mindless and mindfulentertainment. Our reviews can steer you toward titles that help preschoolers work on developmental skills like sharing, cooperation, and emotional intelligence.
  • Sit with them, and enjoy the discovery process. There will always be moments when you need to rely on the TV or an app to distract your preschooler while you get something done. But as much as you can, enjoy media together. Little hands and developing brains really benefit from your company (and guidance!).
  • Begin setting limits when kids are little. Habits get ingrained early, so try to establish clear screen-time rules when your kids are young. For games, apps, and websites, you may need to set a timer. For TV, just say “one show.”

Elementary and Middle Schoolers. At this age, kids love TV shows, games, movies, and online videos. They begin to explore more and hear about new shows and games from friends. Because they can access these things by themselves, it’s crucial to continue to supervise their activities and help them stick to your rules.

  • Start with an endpoint. Use whatever tools you have — your DVR, Netflix, OnDemand — to pre-record shows, cue them up, or plan ahead to watch at a specific time. That way, one show won’t flow into the other, and you can avoid commercials. If your kids are into YouTube, search for age-appropriate videos, and add them to a playlist to watch later. Because most games don’t have built-in endings (and are, in fact, designed to make kids play as long as possible), set a timer or some other cue that says “time to stop.”
  • Help them balance their day. Kids this age need guidance from you on a daily plan that includes a little bit of time for everything. And staying involved works: Kids whose parents make an effort to limit media use spend less time with media than their peers do, according to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study. Use the American Academy of Pediatrics’ worksheets to create a family media plan. 
  • Practice what you preach. It’s tempting to keep reaching for your phone to check email, texts, Facebook, or the news. But your kids will be the first to call you out for not “walking the talk.” Plus, they’ll pick up habits from you. Model the media behavior that you want your kids to emulate.

High Schoolers. You’ll have more success with teens if you explain the reasons why too much screen time is harmful. For example, social media may contribute to anxiety

  • Help them make quality choices. You still have a say in what they see, hear, and play. Put in your two cents about the importance of quality shows, games, and movies.
  • Crack down on multitasking. High school kids who’ve discovered texting, IM, Facebook, and music tend to do them all at once — especially when they’re supposed to be doing mundane tasks like homework. But a University of Michigan study found that humans are terrible multitaskers and that the practice actually reduces the ability to concentrate and focus.
  • Find ways to say “yes.” Look for movies they can watch. Find games you’re OK with. If your teens ask to see something you don’t approve of, help them find alternatives.

The 6 Types of Relationship-Strengthening Conversations Intentional Couples Have

THE 6 TYPES OF RELATIONSHIP-STRENGTHENING CONVERSATIONS INTENTIONAL COUPLES HAVE

Kyle Benson

“Few dating couples would get married if they had as little focused conversation as most married couples do.” – Dr. Bill Doughty, The Intentional Family

How couples talk to one another and what they discuss determines the way partners stay emotionally connected within their relationship.

For example, dual-income couples with kids, as observed by researchers, focused on mostly talking about household chores, daycare, and groceries.

I don’t know about you, but talking about picking up celery at the grocery store doesn’t make me feel loved.

The key to intentionally creating an intimate relationship is having a variety of conversations, almost like adding different spices to the meals you cook. Each spice offers a new flavor of deliciousness.

Some spices are rather dull but necessary to build baseline substance; some are bitter and are an acquired taste; and others create an indulgent sensation of pleasure.

Type 1: Routine Conversations

Routine conversations include discussions about chores, who’s taking the kids to what, what’s for dinner, and scheduling events, including date night.

These conversations are essential to accomplish practical things and to prevent items from falling through the cracks.

However, most often these conversations do not create a felt sense of emotional connection and intimacy. When Stacy asks Dave to vacuum, it’s unlikely Dave will gaze into her eyes and in a loving voice say, “I am going to vacuum this entire house!”

When couples end up unintentionally devoting the majority of their time and energy to routine conversations, their emotional intimacy will begin to fade, since they end up having nothing left over to energize their relationship.

It’s important to remember to be mindful of your tone of voice and to be conversational, rather than demanding or critical when having these types of conversations. Sometimes the routine conversation about plans can quickly lead to an escalated conflict based on how partners say things.

If household management is a conflict in your relationship, read: 4 Common Solvable Problems in Romantic Relationships

Type 2: Friendship-Strengthening Conversations

Couples often fall in love by getting to know each other. And then they often fall out of love because they forget to continue to get to know each other over the years. They stop asking questions and stop learning about each other and themselves.

“When we are no longer open to getting to know our partners, we are no longer open to a relationship and love.” -Kyle Benson, The Human Heart Was Made To be Known And Loved

Being known by and knowing your partner is what builds a strong friendship in your relationship. In secure, happy, and long-lasting relationships, partners are each other’s best friends.1

They share funny stories about the kids or work and listen to each other. Each one knows their partner’s frustrations, as well as their joys, personality quirks, hopes, and dreams.

Couples heading for trouble allow conflicts to consume friendship conversations—so much so that they stop asking intimate questions.

The good news is the research on relationship workshops 2 indicate that couples cherish the idea of becoming close friends and can do so instantly. Being a friend is less about learning skills and more about shifting your attitude.

Friendship talk is the number one way to make sure that you and your partner remain connected and in-tune with one another. The goal of friendship conversations is to have uninterrupted time to just be together and continue to learn about each other.

Tips for Continuing to Build a Strong Friendship:

  1. Consistently ask open-ended questions that get to the heart of who your partner is in this moment (Hint: The 7-Day Emotional Connection Challenge is a great starting point).
  2. Check in with your partner about upcoming events in your life as individuals and as a family.
  3. Share good news and celebrate, even in small ways, such as giving a high five or big kiss. Or bigger ways, such as with dinner, drinks, and/or dessert.
  4. Share important memories from your childhood when they come to mind.
  5. Talk about personal or life goals and dreams.
  6. Share personal projects you’re working on or interested in. Ask your partner what they love or find pleasurable and meaningful about the project they are working on.
  7. Schedule a playdate with each other and do something exhilarating together.

“A friend is someone who is glad to see you and doesn’t have any immediate plans for your improvement” – Bill Coffin of the U.S. Navy 3

Articles to help you:

If you don’t prioritize having friendship talk, and you eventually stop having them completely, both partners will forget why they fell in love with one another (or even why they like each other) in the first place.

“Enhancing friendship in your marriage is an investment that will pay off over time in happiness and relationship satisfaction.” – Fighting For Your Marriage

Type 3: Support Conversations: “I Have Your Back”

When your partner is hurting what do you do? How do you offer support that your partner needs?

“When you’re hurting, the world stops, and I listen.” – Dr. John Gottman

Research has shown that emotional and physical support from a lover enhances personal well-being, especially under stress. 4 Researchers also discovered that feeling confident you can get the support you need and want from your partner is just as important as receiving that support.

“Although there is some mystery about whom we fall in love with, there is less mystery in what makes for a successful, rewarding relationship…Two of the key elements…are a safe haven and a secure base.” – Wyndol Furman

Dr. Furman 5 advises dating partners not to commit to a relationship unless they have been through a difficult time and each found their partner was supportive in a way that was helpful.

Essentially, relationship security is having faith that your partner will be there for you when you need them. This is the essence of a secure attachment bond.

In attachment world, we evaluate how well partners offer each other a safe haven—a place of emotional and physical refuge—when one of them is hurt, and a secure base from which they can go explore the world with curiosity knowing that they have a person who is cheering them on and will be there if needed.

Making time to give and ask for support is a key way in which you can show your partner that you care for them, understand what they’re going through, and have their back. How we provide that support and what we say is crucial. As much as it might be second nature to offer advice to your partner during their trials, support talk involves listening, validating, and just being there for your partner.

Not only does this help them feel secure in the relationship, but also helps put negative assumptions (“she doesn’t care about me”) at ease, so that feelings of not feeling cared for during small events aren’t triggered during more serious events.

Types of support:

  1. Being there physically (in-person, on the phone, via text, etc.).
  2. Doing things you may not normally do that make life easier for your partner when they are going through a stressful time.
  3. Offering encouragement if your partner is going through something stressful, such as a job interview or something scary to them.
  4. Listening to your partner vent. Don’t try to solve problems for your partner, just listen. A great way to practice this is to have a stress-reducing conversation. “Scheduling formal griping sessions can prevent the spillover of everyday stress into your marriage” – Dr. Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
  5. Offer emotional support when your partner is going through a difficult time.
  6. Support goals and dreams. “In a successful relationship, your partner encourages you to develop your interest and talents…[Y]our partner is your number-one fan” – Wyndol Furman
  7. Offer physical touch and support, such as a long hug, cuddling, and hand-holding. This offers your partner a felt sense that you are there for them even without saying a word.

It’s important that partners not only offer support but also talk openly about the types of support they need and how they offer support.

Like love languages, some forms of support are more meaningful to your partner, even ones that you may not find meaningful. Learning to offer support in the way that is most meaningful for your partner can drastically improve how supported your partner feels and vice versa.

Type 4: Conversations Centered on Affection and Appreciation

To build a strong relationship, it’s vital to create a culture of love, respect, and care. You can do this in small ways that can create lasting changes over time.

“Small things often.” – Dr. Gottman’s motto

Make an intentional effort to think relationship-enhancing thoughts and to verbalize or make loving gestures towards your partner.

Saying things even as simple as,

  • “I appreciate that you took the garbage out today. I love how I can count on you to help out around the house.”
  • “I love how you listen to what’s going on in my life. It makes me feel important and I appreciate that I can share that with you.”
  • “I cherish how much you care for our kids. It’s amazing to watch you parent and I truly admire how great of a person you are.”

Can you imagine what your relationship would be like if you and your partner regularly made statements and gestures like this to each other?

Take time to ask your partner what makes them feel most loved:

  • What makes you feel most loved by me?
  • What forms of affection, physical or verbal, help you feel important and loved?

Just as there are two experiences in every relationship, there are at least two different ways of feeling loved. Understanding and loving each other in the way each unique partner feels loved keeps the relationship strong.

Type 5: Relationship Enhancement Conversations (Conflict)

As much as we may hate conflict talk, it is necessary to make sure challenges, disagreements, and conflicts are dealt with constructively.

All relationships have conflict, but how lovers talk to each other about challenges determines how well the couple manages the problems to create win-win solutions.

“Within your conflicts, lies the greatest opportunity for intimacy.” – Dr. John Gottman

For couples, I recommend scheduling a weekly State of the Union meeting because the most effective intervention is prevention.

Here is the State of the Union meeting structure:

  • Set aside 30 minutes to an hour and find a place where both partners can be fully present and engaged. This means no distractions. Finally, check in with yourself to make sure you are ready to talk emotionally and are open to your partner’s experience and perspective.
  • Share five things you love, cherish, and/or appreciate about your partner. This reminds you that you love each other and are allies.
  • Pick a speaker and listener. As the listener, ask the speaker the following: “What went well in our relationship this week?” Listen, summarize what you heard, and validate your partner’s experience. Then switch.
  • Once you both feel like you’ve shared all the positives, then have the listener ask, “What occurred this week that we can improve on?” The goal is just to make a list (if necessary), not to actually start discussing the events or issue. Then switch roles.
  • After you have your improvement items, pick one key topic and choose a speaker and a listener. Switch roles throughout the conversation and focus only on understanding each other completely.
  • After both of you can say, “I feel completely understood,” then work together to find an agreeable win-win solution. Even if it is just something temporary you are trying out for the next week. Sometimes you won’t even need this. Just discussing it may be enough because feeling heard and validated is all partners need.
  • Finish by acknowledging each other for staying engaged and by saying one thing you love about each other. Then ask, “What is one thing I can do to help you feel more loved this week?”

Imagine how much your relationship would improve if you were proactive about what went well and what areas need some adjusting in the relationship?

For those conflict avoiders, doing this actually leads to less “out of nowhere” conflict in the relationship. I know you hate that kind of conflict. Not to mention you might learn a thing or two about what you do well and what your partner cherishes about you.

Do you also notice all the positivity embedded in the conflict conversation?

There is a magic ratio of positive to negative interactions even during the conflict that helps keep the conversation constructive and beneficial.

Remember to speak soften and do your best to listen non-defensively. The articles below will help you with this.

“Whether you are the listener or the speaker, you have equal responsibility for the success of the conversation.” – Patt Hollinger Pickett, PhD

Mindset:

Speaker:

Listener:

Examples:

intimate-relationship-conversations

Type 6: Sensuality & Sexuality Conversations

As I shared in a previous article, Couples That Talk About Sex Have Better Sex. This includes not only sexual acts but also forms of foreplay and romance.

Trying to guess what turns your partner on by the sounds they make in the bedroom is kind of like pinning the tail on the donkey blindfolded. You’re guessing. This is why openly talking about it can be helpful. 6

Furthermore, research has estimated that 85% of sexual challenges can be resolved by giving partners permission to explore their sexuality and having accurate information about desire, arousal, and sex. 7

In long-term relationships, the tendency is to skip the sensual aspects of lovemaking and get to the mechanics of the peak act.

The lack of time and energy spent playfully and curiously exploring each other’s bodies and minds can lead to partners feeling like they are growing apart or that they are used as an object, rather than being relished in as a sexual being.

“There needs to be a place for romance and for sexual talking and touching your relationship – both in and outside the context of making love.” – Fighting for Your Marriage.

Helpful Tips:

  • Create a body map of your partner and while touching all parts of their body they are comfortable with you touching, make a mental note of the areas they find sensitive and pleasurable.
  • Passionately kiss your partner at random times without getting intimate.
  • Take your time exploring each other’s genitals and exploring your own. They’re all beautiful. (Hint: Read Come As You Are to learn more about your body)
  • Try novel places, positions, and ways of touching or being intimate with each other.
  • Ask each other questions to learn about each other’s turn-ons and -offs. (Hint: The Gottman Card App has questions about sex).
  • Make sure your relationship is strong, too. Often it is not having a strong friendship, lacking commitment, feelings of insecurity, or nasty conflict that cause sexual desire to die in a relationship.
  • Read some books and watch videos from certified sex educators, who embody sex positivity, to learn more about yourself and your partner.

Helpful articles:

Reflection

How many of these types of conversations do you have in your relationship? What types of conversations would you like to have more of?

  1. It is my belief that lovers should be each other’s best friends. Research from Gottman, Prep, and other approaches. I think this can also be taken too far if romantic partners expect and sometimes demand their partners to be everything for them. Esther Perel talks more about this in her Ted Talk
  2. (a)Babcock, J. C., Gottman, J. M., Kimberly, D. R., & Gottman, J. S. (2013). A component analysis of a brief psycho-educational couples’ workshop: one-year follow-up results. Journal of Family Therapy35, 252–280. doi: 10.1111/1467-6427.12017. (b)Hawkins, A. J., Blanchard, V. L., Baldwin, S. A., & Fawcett, E. B. (2008). Does marriage and relationship education work? A meta-analytic study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76, 723–734. 
  3. This quotation comes from the book Fighting for Your Marriage by Markman, Stanley, and Blumberg, pages 228–229. 
  4. (a)Bodenmann, G., & Shantinath, S.D. (2004). The Couples Coping Enhancement Training (CCET): A new approach to prevention of marital distress based upon stress and coping. Family Relations, 53, 477–484 (b)Johnson S.M., Moser M.B., Beckes L., Smith A., Dalgleish T., et al. (2014) Correction: Soothing the Threatened Brain: Leveraging Contact Comfort with Emotionally Focused Therapy. PLOS ONE9(8): 1054-1089. 
  5. Furmen, W. (2001). What should fools find in love? In J. R. Levine & H. J. Markman (Eds.), Why do fools fall in love? San Francisco: Jossey Bass. 67-71 
  6. This can be difficult depending on family, religious, and cultural messaging. If you are open, I would challenge exploring this so you can have a more positive relationship with your sexuality. 
  7. This comes from research on the PLISSIT model of sexual education and therapy. For example, John was sexually frustrated with Jane because she never initiated sex. John’s sex-ed courses never taught him that men, typically, tend to have more spontaneous sexual desire than women. And women typically have a more responsive sexual desire that is context-dependent. By strengthening the romantic relationship and creating an environment for responsive desire in the relationship the sexual frustration was no longer an issue. 

Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder Is Now Officially Recognized

COMPULSIVE SEXUAL BEHAVIOR DISORDER IS NOW OFFICIALLY RECOGNIZED

Brad Hambrick

Sexual addiction is becoming an official mental health diagnosis. The World Health Organization (WHO) met in May of this year and adopted the new ICD-11, which includes the diagnosis of Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder (CSBD).

Covenant Eyes users might think, “What does this mean for my struggle with porn? How should we approach this diagnosis?” These are important questions that I want to help you think thoroughly about.

What Is Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder?

If you care to read the official definition for CSBD, here it is. These types of definitions can be technical, but they’re important to understand:

“Compulsive sexual behavior disorder is characterized by a persistent pattern of failure to control intense repetitive sexual impulses or urges, resulting in repetitive sexual behavior over an extended period (e.g., six months or more) that causes marked distress or impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning.”

What are the implications of this that we can clearly affirm?

  • There are good expressions of sexual behavior and bad expressions of sexual behavior. The ICD would say healthy and unhealthy. Christians would add holy and unholy. Healthiness and holiness are not competing concepts, and both should be considered important in this conversation.
  • Sexual behavior has the propensity to be ensnaring and can disrupt many areas of life. This is aligned with the Christian view that sin has a predatory intent to destroy people’s lives.
  • For a habit to become enslaving, an extended period of repetition is required. This is common sense.
  • Pornography is not a victimless activity; many people are negatively affected. This counters one of the most common lies in our culture about the innocence of viewing pornography.
  • There is hope for change. The entire point of placing diagnoses in the ICD is that these diagnoses represent experiences for which some degree of freedom or relief is possible.

Why Was CSBD Included as a Diagnosis?

While it may get a little nerdy, to evaluate the inclusion of CSBD in this diagnostic structure we also need to consider why this diagnosis was added.

“Although this category resembles that of substance dependence, it is included in the ICD‐11 impulse control disorders section in recognition of the lack of definitive information on whether the processes involved in the development and maintenance of the disorder are equivalent to those observed in substance use disorders and behavioral addictions. Its inclusion in the ICD‐11 will help to address unmet needs of treatment seeking patients, as well as possibly reducing the shame and guilt that distressed individuals associate with seeking help.”

So to summarize:

  • Researchers are unsure if CSBD has the same physiological features as substance dependence. Uncertainty on this point is why they don’t use the more common label of sexual addiction to describe this experience.
  • A large number of people struggle with compulsive sexual behavior. Diagnoses are included in the ICD when it becomes common enough that clinicians see an increase in prevalence for an experience.
  • The official diagnosis makes it easier for these individuals to be reimbursed for counseling. Insurance companies require a diagnostic code to reimburse for services, which made it difficult for individuals to receive counseling. Adding a diagnosis to the ICD is as much about third party reimbursement as it about discovering something new.
  • It allows for better research on compulsive sexual behavior. Research helps us to differentiate speculation from empirically verifiable approaches to working with a given life struggle. This kind of research should enrich both professional and lay-based care strategies.

Does This New Recognition Present Any Concerns?

Sexual behavioral can get out of control. When it does, lots of people are affected, and WHO wants insurance companies to reimburse for counseling. If we want people to be free from destructive sexual behavior, this all seems fine. But are there any reasons to be cautious with this new label?

When a pattern of behavior receives a diagnostic label, it often creates an external locus of control. Diagnostic labels lead us to think something is happening to us rather than being done by us. There is some concern that this label could reinforce a sense of passivity towards change and a lack of ownership for one’s choices.

The moral nature of the activity can be lost with a label. Too often we fail to realize that something can be both unhealthy and immoral. We treat it as an either-or instead of a both-and. There is some concern that this diagnostic label could distract from the role of repentance in change.

Also, we often assume the remedy for a diagnosis will be medicinal. Again, this doesn’t need to be either-or. The remedy for diabetes involves both insulin and exercise. If there is a medicine that can help with impulse control, we should be happy. But regardless, the fruit of the Spirit known as “self-control” will be required in both taking the medicine as prescribed and other behavioral choices towards righteous living.

How Should We Approach This New Diagnosis?

The answer to this question will vary from person to person. Diagnostic labels are a tool. Any tool can be used for good purposes. In contrast, any tool can also be used for destructive purposes. The problem with tools is usually not with the tool, but with how a given individual utilizes that tool.

If you serve as an ally for someone who comes across this new diagnosis, affirm the following:

  • Your friend is not alone in their struggle. This can help alleviate some of the stigma associated with sexual sin.
  • Sexual activity has an enslaving tendency. If someone fights a bear and loses, we don’t call them weak. It’s the nature of the bear to be stronger. When someone engages sexual sin and becomes enslaved, it doesn’t mean they’re uniquely weak. It means it’s the nature of this activity to be enslaving.
  • Even secular health experts (meaning, those without the bias of Christian morals) want individuals enslaved to sexual activity to have access to help in the pursuit of freedom. Appealing to secular experts helps reveal the frustration point, “I only need to change because I’m a Christian and God’s hung up about sex,”which is not true.

If you serve as an ally for someone who comes across this new diagnosis, caution the following:

  • Your choices matter. A label can explain why change is hard; it is not a reason to quit trying.
  • Abstinence and repentance are not the same thing. A secular counselor would just want you to stop engaging in self-destructive behavior (abstinence). God invites you to a restored relationship with Him (repentance).
  • No amount of science will make change easy. But the work is worth it. If there is anything we can learn from science to make our efforts at change more effective, we will. But just like science has taught us a great deal about dieting, those advances in science haven’t made losing weight easy. Peer support and wise choices are still the central elements to change. So, let’s keep going together.

If you are interested in history of diagnostics, I would recommend Allen Frances’ book Saving Normal. Dr. Frances is a psychiatrist who loves his profession but is concerned about overmedicating normal physical struggles. Here is a brief excerpt from his book and few reflections to whet your appetite to read more.

Why Getting My 11-Year-Old a Phone Was One of the Best Parenting Decisions I’ve Ever Made

WHY GETTING MY 11-YEAR-OLD A PHONE WAS ONE OF THE BEST PARENTING DECISIONS I’VE EVER MADE

Leticia Barr

There was never any question in my mind that when our daughter started middle school, we would get her a smartphone. My husband and I work in technology-related fields and knew the benefits and drawbacks to getting her a phone at age 11. Instead of pledging to Wait Until 8th — delaying the introduction of a smartphone — we’ve spent the middle school years actively discussing and navigating the perceived dangers of the device while enjoying the unexpected advantages of it as a communication tool to strengthen our relationship. And you know what? It’s been one of the best parenting decisions we’ve ever made.

It’s rare to find good news about tweens, teens, smartphones, and social media. But in our house, the very tool that we purchased for our middle schooler to stay in touch with us has had surprising benefits during the critical adolescent years.

On any given day, I can usually count on at least one type of communication from my now 14-year-old daughter, who will start high school next year. This morning I sat down in my home office to get started with my work for the day and noticed that my daughter had updated her Instagram Story while waiting for the bus. She sent friends good-luck wishes for the week’s tests and a series of funny memes as a stress reducer. Her InstaStory was thoughtful and sweet and let me know that this week is going to be rough — even though she didn’t say it on her way out the door.

During the middle of the day, I noticed she posted during lunch when she was allowed to have her phone out at school. She breathed a sigh of relief that testing was over for the day and sent me a private message, responding to my InstaStory laughing at the day’s antics of our backyard chickens. On the bus home, she sent me a photo of a cat whose head was stuck through an entire pizza, followed by laugh emojis.

“Cat pizza? Really?” I asked as she walked in the door after school.

“Cat pizza!” she exclaimed, erupting in a fit of laughter. We talked about how ridiculous the meme was as she made her way to the fridge. She grabbed a stick of string cheese, and, holding it with one hand, she thrust the phone in my face with the other, scrolling through a series of memes that were just as hilarious. We were both laughing when her sixth-grade brother walked in the door a couple minutes later. Soon she was sharing what she had just showed me minutes before, and he was sitting there, shaking his head and smiling. Later the whole scenario was recounted for my husband at the dinner table. He had trouble understanding why this whole thing was funny until he was subjected to the meme thread, too. I guess you could say that social media has the power to bring us together as a family, even if we’re bonding over cat pizza.

While the decision about when to get your child a smartphone differs for every family, my husband and I don’t have any regrets about putting devices in our kids’ hands earlier rather than later. Sure, there have been downsides. We’ve learned exactly how quickly 2GB of data evaporates when kids are watching YouTube videos on the bus, witnessed the explosion of text messages in a group chat upon leaving the house to play a soccer game, and talked through some tough things before we meant to in the high school years. Text and private messages have been scrutinized together during conversations about how hard it is to convey tone through a screen. We’ve seen friendships wax and wane. But many of those ups and downs are as much hallmarks of adolescence as fallout from smartphone and social media use. And at every step of the way, parental involvement has been key.

If you’re looking to use social media as a positive way of communicating with your teen, here are three takeaways from our experience:

Realize the importance of learning together. While you may feel that you have a grasp on today’s social media tools, new ones are popping up every day. I remember when my daughter asked if she could download Sarahah. She said that some of her friends were using it, explained what it was used for, and asked if she could join, too. Before saying yes, I did my homework. I read the Common Sense Media review, polled fellow parent friends on Facebook, and did a quick Google search to get up to speed on the general parent sentiment. It’s not easy to parent in the digital age when new apps, social media platforms, and devices are coming out, but it’s important for families to work toward teaching responsibility and creating conversations, rather than just saying no.

Use the same social media tools as your kids. Not only does this familiarize you with the platforms, but having an account facilitates communication and conversations about the things that are important to your teens. My daughter and I communicate regularly through Instagram, and even though we don’t have a Snap streak going, I can still keep an eye on the content she posts.

Be respectful about what you post and the way you interact with your teen on social media platforms. While social media tools are great methods of communication, be aware of what is and isn’t OK. As my daughter has gotten older and her friends have become more social media savvy, I’m even more careful about what content I post. I’ve always checked with my kids to ensure the photos I’m sharing get their stamp of approval, partly because I know their friends can see what I post. Have a conversation with your teen about what is and isn’t OK, and know that what they may deem appropriate now might not be in the near future.

Helicopter Parenting: From Good Intentions to Poor Outcomes

HELICOPTER PARENTING: FROM GOOD INTENTIONS TO POOR OUTCOMES

Sandi Schwartz

Do you stand over your child’s shoulder when they do their homework? Do you find yourself directing your kids’ every move? “Pick up this, clean up that, sit up straight, finish your homework, study hard, say thank you.” Do you spend a good chunk of your day obsessing about your children’s success, like will they make the sports team or school play, and will they get into the top-notch college you (yes, you!) always dreamed of?

I hate to break it to you, but you may be a helicopter parent—a term which is commonly used but also has a basis in research on specific parenting behaviors and their effects on children.

Most parents want the very best for their children, and so they’ll go to great lengths to be wonderful providers and protectors. The deep love and care that parents have for their children can even push parents to, well, be a bit over-the-top. And helicopter parents are known to be overly protective and involved in their children’s lives.

The term paints a picture of a parent who hovers over their children, always on alert, and who swoops in to rescue them at the first sign of trouble or disappointment. The term was first coined in 1990 by Foster Cline and Jim Fay in their book, Parenting with Love and Logic, and it gained relevance with college admissions staff who noticed how parents of prospective students were inserting themselves in the admissions process.

Helicopter parenting can be defined by three types of behaviors that parents exemplify:

  • First, information seeking behaviors include knowing your children’s daily schedule and where they are at all times, helping them make decisions, and being informed about grades and other accomplishments.
  • Second, direct intervention means jumping into conflicts with kids’ roommates, friends, romantic partners, and even bosses.
  • Third, autonomy limiting is when students think their parents are preventing them from making their own mistakes, controlling their lives for them, and failing to support their decisions.

We all want to love our children as much as possible and protect them from the dangers in our society. We live in an increasingly competitive world and want to give our kids every advantage possible. But if we over-parent and smother them, it can backfire big time. A collection of research in recent years shows a connection between helicopter parenting and mental health issues like anxiety and depression as children get older and try to make it on their own.

The negative impacts of helicopter parenting

In 2010, a study by researcher Neil Montgomery, a psychologist at Keene State College in New Hampshire, found that overprotective parents might have a lasting impact on their child’s personality by prolonging childhood and adolescence. Approximately 300 college freshmen were surveyed about their level of agreement with statements regarding their parents’ involvement in their lives. The results showed that 10 percent of the participants had helicopter parents. The research also revealed that students with helicopter parents tended to be less open to new ideas and actions, and were more vulnerable, anxious, dependent, and self-conscious.

A 2016 study from the National University of Singapore published in the Journal of Personality indicated that children with intrusive parents who had high expectations for academic performance, or who overreacted when they made a mistake, tend to be more self-critical, anxious, or depressed. The researchers termed this as “maladaptive perfectionism,” or a tendency in children of helicopter parents to be afraid of making mistakes and to blame themselves for not being perfect. This happens because the parents are essentially—whether by their words or actions—indicating to their kids that what they do is never good enough.

Another 2016 study evaluated questionnaires about parenting completed by 377 students from a Midwestern university. Students responded to statements about the type of parents they have, how often they communicate with their parents, and how much their parents intrude in their lives. The students also completed a number of tests to discern their decision-making skills, academic performance, and symptoms of anxiety and depression. Results showed that higher overall helicopter parenting scores were associated with stronger symptoms of anxiety and depression.

According to that study, helicopter parenting “was also associated with poorer functioning in emotional functioning, decision making, and academic functioning. Parents’ information-seeking behaviors, when done in absences of other [helicopter parenting] behaviors, were associated with better decision making and academic functioning.”

In addition, the journal Cognitive Therapy and Research published research in 2017 suggesting that helicopter parenting can trigger anxiety in kids who already struggle with some social issues. A group of children and their parents were asked to complete as many puzzles as possible in a 10-minute time period. Parents were allowed to help their children, but not encouraged to do so.

Researchers noted that the parents of children with social issues touched the puzzles more often than the other parents did. Though they were not critical or negative, they stepped in even when their children did not ask for help. Researchers think this indicates that parents of socially anxious children may perceive challenges to be more threatening than the child thinks they are. Over time, this can diminish a child’s ability to succeed on their own and potentially increase anxiety.

So how does all this hovering cause mental health problems in our children?

First of all, helicopter parents are communicating to their children in subtle (or not-so-subtle) ways that they won’t be safe unless mom or dad is there looking out for them. When these children have to go off on their own, they are not prepared to meet daily challenges. This inability to find creative solutions and make decisions on their own can cause a great deal of worry since their protector is no longer around to help them.

Because these children were never taught the skills to function independently, and because they may have been held to unattainable or even “perfectionist” standards, children of helicopter parents can experience anxiety, depression, a lack of confidence, and low self-esteem. Another issue is that if these kids have never experienced failure, they can develop an overwhelming fear of failure and of disappointing others. Finally, if we don’t let our children have the freedom to learn about the world and discover their purpose and what makes them happy, they will struggle to find happiness and live a balanced life—all impacting their mental health.  

What we can do to break the helicopter habit

All parents know that parenting is not easy. Having children and raising them presents innumerable challenges and surprises, but also immense joy and connection. Now that we know that overparenting only leads to more problems for our kids, we can make the following adjustments in our parenting approach:

  • Support your children’s growth and independence by listening to them, and not always pushing your desires on them.
  • Refrain from doing everything for your children (this includes homework!). Take steps to gradually teach them how to accomplish tasks on their own.
  • Don’t try to help your children escape consequences for their actions unless you believe those consequences are unfair or life-altering.
  • Don’t raise your child to expect to be treated differently than other children.
  • Encourage your children to solve their own problems by asking them to come up with creative solutions.
  • Teach your children to speak up for themselves in a respectful manner.
  • Understand and accept your children’s weaknesses and strengths, and help them to use their strengths to achieve their own goals.

Parents should, of course, do the best they can for their kids. Impulses to involve ourselves in our children’s’ lives often come from a sense of duty, and of unconditional love. We can harness those desires to give the most we can to our kids by resisting helicopter parenting, which can lead to poor outcomes in adulthood.

Instead, try letting your children discover themselves—their weaknesses, strengths, their goals and dreams. You can help them succeed, but you should also let them fail. Teach them how to try again. Learning what failure means, how it feels, and how to bounce back is an important part of becoming independent in our world.

Beyond the Talk: Teaching Your Kids About Consent

BEYOND THE TALK: TEACHING YOUR KIDS ABOUT CONSENT

Kateyn Ewen

The talk. The birds and the bees. The awkward conversation with your parents you dreaded as a child. It probably went something like this: “Well, when two people love each other very much…” followed by a vague description of the physical act of sex, contraceptives, pregnancy, and STIs.

But were you ever taught about consent? What about affirmative consent? Did your parents and the adults in your life practice consent with each other, and with you? The #MeToo stories about non-consensual interactions, specifically ones that live in the grey area or ones that happen in childhood, are something we should all strive to eliminate from the next generation by educating our kids today.

It is approximated that 63,000 people under the age of 12 are victims of sexual abuse every year. One in six boys and one in four girls are sexually abused before the age of 18. And those are just the ones who report.

If we can teach our kids about consent and show them how to practice it through our actions, through those little teaching moments, then maybe, these stories can be less common.

Here are seven ways to teach your kids, and the kids in your lives, about consent.

Practice consent by example
Before children even learn to speak, they learn by observing and mimicking the world around them. It’s called observational learning. By practicing consent with our partners, friends, and other children, we can begin to model what consent should look like to those ever-watchful eyes.

This also extends to how we practice consent in our relationships with our children. By giving children choices in expressing consent in how they would like to be touched, we teach them how to express it when we’re not around. For example, If you want to kiss your child goodnight, ask them, “May I give you a kiss goodnight?” and respect their answer.

Give them bodily autonomy
Giving children choice is a gateway to giving them the tools to express their consent. You can ask your child “Do you want to wear your blue shoes or your yellow shoes today?” In the same way, it is important to give children options when it comes to their body. For example, if they have a rash and they need ointment you can say, “You need ointment for your rash, do you want to put it on, or can I help you?”

Giving children simple choices every day shows them that they have bodily autonomy so that they can carry that into other interactions. In the same way, it is important to not take that bodily autonomy away from your children. A common way children lose their bodily autonomy is through adults coercing them to hug and/or kiss relatives and friends. It’s important to show children that they have a choice. If they say no, you can give them alternatives, like “How about a fist bump?” but the key is to respect a “no” that may follow.

Teach them to listen to their bodies
Consent isn’t just a verbal interaction, so it’s important that we teach children to listen to their bodies. What feels good and what doesn’t feel good to them? Teaching them what it feels like to be present in their physical self, and what it feels like to have their physical needs honored and met, is key to them being able to appropriately express their needs later.

Teaching children about their physical pleasure is something that Sue Jaye Johnson, a journalist and filmmaker, talks about working through with her daughters. In an interview for the Future of Sex Podcast, she talks about how her daughter will ask her to rub her back and how she then asks “Well, how would you like me to rub your back?” giving her daughter the space to think about her pleasure and express her physical wants in a productive way. In the same way, we also need to teach our children to listen to their gut feelings and instincts. Our bodies are a powerful tool in telling us that something doesn’t feel right. By encouraging children to give credence to these feelings and voice them, we encourage an understanding of their own pleasure and needs and how they might express that to future partners.

Give them the tools to express their physical wants and needs
Once a child has language at their disposal, we can begin to help them express their wants and needs though their words. We can teach them polite ways to decline affection like “No, thank you. I don’t want to hug right now.” But we should also be teaching them that they can just say “no” and that that’s ok, too.

Rather than teaching our girls the narrative that if a boy teases you, he likes you, we should be teaching our kids that if they don’t like something and ask someone to stop, they need to stop. If their words aren’t heeded, that may be the appropriate time to involve an adult or remove themselves from interaction with the offending kid. In the same way, it is important to teach kids to ask permission, with words and gestures. They can offer a hand to hold or hold out their hands for a hug, but they also need to ask, use their words, and know that someone may say no.

Teach them how to handle physical rejection
While we need to teach our kids how to say no, we also need to teach our kids to recognize and accept the rejection of affection. It’s important to encourage them to stop when someone says no, and to step in as adults when we recognize our kids being affection aggressors, holding other kids a little too long or a little too hard.

We can teach kids to accept rejection and redirect them. We can tell them that just because a friend doesn’t want a hug, that that doesn’t mean they don’t love them and we can direct them to show affection in other ways. You can tell your child to use words of affirmation, acts of service, or gifts to express affection. While channeling affection is important, it’s also important to just teach that it’s ok that someone doesn’t want something, in the same way that they may not want things at times. They are in control of their bodies, just as someone else is in control of theirs.

Turn awkward moments into teaching opportunities
Something I’ve talked a lot about with peers is how their parents handled sex scenes in movies and television growing up. As a millennial, the general binary in my generation is parents who fast-forwarded through sex scenes and parents who made you endure the sex scenes in a tense silence. In addition to this binary, there are a lot of movies and shows from my childhood, and from generations prior, that display non-consensual interactions in a way that makes them seem okay.

What if we didn’t let that slide? What if we took media and created a dialogue, especially with older children and teens? If you’re watching a movie with your kid that has a sex scene, use the time that could be spent being awkward to talk about what’s being done right and what the characters should be doing regarding consent in the interaction.

Believe them and advocate for them
Finally, and most importantly, it is essential to believe children and advocate for them. If your child expresses discomfort or unease, ask them about their feelings and validate them. This is a crucial step of Emotion Coaching. When you believe them, it creates an open channel for communication between you. It teaches them them to trust you and trust their own instincts. So in turn, they might also believe the story of someone else.

Ask them if they want or need intervention. It’s then your responsibility to advocate for them with whomever is making them uncomfortable. That might mean talking to a parent, teacher, coach, or other adult. Sometimes we’re the ones that need to step in and have those tough conversations until our children are old enough to have them on their own.

Rather than having “the talk” with your kids, think of teaching consent as an ongoing dialogue—a million little conversations and day-to-day actions that can help them feel comfortable and safe in their own bodies, and respect the sanctity of someone else’s.

Managing Fear After Mass Violence

MANAGING FEAR AFTER MASS VIOLENCE

Jessica Grose

My older daughter was less than a week old when the Sandy Hook school shooting happened. I remember clutching her body to my chest and watching cable news, horrified by the world I had brought her into. For days after, I worried about taking her outside our home and into crowded places. I had a pungent, spiky fear that felt very real in the moment. If someone could gun down a bunch of 6-year-olds, I thought at the time, the notion of safety was ephemeral.

There have been more than 200 school shootings in the United States since Sandy Hook, and upward of 2,000 mass shootings, including the recent string of violence at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, at an El Paso Walmart and in Dayton, Ohio. While anyone’s anxiety could spike over so much death occurring in just a week in places that have a patina of wholesomeness, like a store or a food festival, parental anxiety may be particularly painful. Hearing about brave victims like Jordan and Andre Anchondo, who died in El Paso shielding their baby son, Paul, from gunfire, is harrowing.

Parenting is an ongoing process of learning to tolerate the idea “that you cannot entirely keep your children safe,” said Dr. Alexandra Sacks, M.D., a reproductive psychiatrist based in New York City, who called this struggle the “existential paradox” of parenthood.

I spoke to two psychiatrists and two pediatricians about how parents — and their children — can deal with increased anxiety and fear in the aftermath of these shootings.

Understand that a few days of increased anxiety is normal. “It’s an appropriate response to a really traumatic event,” said Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University School of Medicine. If you need more downtime at home in the few days after such upsetting violence, you should feel empowered to take that space, Dr. Lakshmin said. And acknowledging your feelings is key — avoiding or pushing them down won’t make them go away.

Reach out to parent friends. Connecting with your community to talk through fears can help, Dr. Lakshmin said. That’s particularly true for parents of color or those from religious minorities, who may feel especially acute anxiety in this moment because of the white extremist ideology of many recent mass shooters.

Try to stick to your routine. “Every time a shooting happens, our sense of reality falls apart,” Dr. Lakshmin said. “The world you thought you were living in is not the world you’re actually in.” So trying to maintain your routine keeps you tethered to your day-to-day life. Overcoming your fears by taking your kids to the park, to the store or to camp as planned can help to keep the anxiety from overwhelming you.

Channel anxiety into action. Finding a way to contribute in the aftermath of a tragedy, whether by volunteering with organizations that work to prevent mass shootings or by helping a community affected, can help redirect your fears, Dr. Sacks said. The El Paso Times published recommendations for its community, as did the Dayton Daily News.

Step away from the news. If you find that reading or viewing the details of violent events is triggering your anxiety, try to edit your media diet, Dr. Sacks said. “I do hear from parents that they can be drawn to catastrophic things that happen with children in the news,” she said. “It’s incredibly painful to them, but they feel a pull toward these stories in their empathy and identification.”

It’s helpful to minimize kids’ exposure to news as well, said Dr. Jackie Douge, M.D., a pediatrician based in Maryland and a fellow at the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Don’t dodge the hard conversations. If you suspect your kids know about an incidence of mass violence, you should ask them what they have heard, said Dr. Nia Heard-Garris, M.D., an attending physician at the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. “You don’t want to give so much information that you’re introducing trauma yourself,” Dr. Heard-Garris said. But “you also want them to trust you,” that you’re not hiding difficult things from them. If you start with what they know, you “can try to address any misconceptions, or rumors, any anxieties right then and there,” she said.

While “it’s affecting all children” negatively to hear about particular communities singled out for violence, Dr. Heard-Garris said, parents of kids who hear about their religious or racial communities being targeted can send them the following message: “I know there’s a lot of bad stuff happening in the world, but it’s my job as a parent to try to keep you safe.”

Destiny Chavez, 26, brought her two sons Ares, 6, and Arian Aguayo, 2, to pay their respects at the victims’ memorial on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019 in El Paso, Texas.Calla Kessler/The New York Times

Know when to get help. If you find that you’re anxious for more than a week, or if your sleep, eating or other routines are disrupted, it may be time to talk to a therapist. “If you’re finding these intrusive thoughts are not controllable and they become so loud that you’re taking a circuitous route to get to work, or not letting your kids go to soccer practice, that’s when I would say it’s time to see a therapist and have a more structured space to unpack these fears,” Dr. Lakshmin said.

The same goes for your kids — a little additional fear or anxiety is normal after traumatic events, but if their anxiety is affecting their relationships, sleep or their behavior at school, talk to your primary care provider, Dr. Douge said.

Your child’s fears may be triggered again by school lockdown drills, which millions of children experience each year, and which may leave kids traumatized. All you can do with the recurrence of fear is to reassure kids that these tragic events are still rare, overall, and that their home is a safe place for them to unpack their worries. Tell them: “Your teachers, your doctor, your pastor or rabbi, we love and care about you,” Dr. Heard-Garris said, and that home is “where they have this refuge from this crazy world.”

World Peace Starts at Home

WORLD PEACE STARTS AT HOME

The Gottman Institute

Can we really achieve world peace? Using findings from studies on love and diplomacy, Julie Schwartz Gottman explores how to create peace in the world by dissecting human communication in her TEDx Talk, World Peace Starts at Home

She explains that no matter the argument, both diplomats and couples are most successful when they postpone persuasion until they understand each other’s position. 

As she creates more peace in the home through the work of The Gottman Institute, Julie hopes to also create more peace in the world.

This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community.

John Gottman and Brené Brown on Running Headlong Into Heartbreak

JOHN GOTTMAN AND BRENÉ BROWN ON RUNNING HEADLONG INTO HEARTBREAK

Kerry Lusignan

To a seasoned couples therapist, the telltale signs of a relationship in crisis are universal. While every marriage is unique, with distinct memories and stories that capture its essence, how it looks at its core, the anatomy so-to-speak, adheres to certain truths. The bones of love, what builds trust (and breaks it), what fosters connection (and disconnection) we have widely come to understand through the work of Dr. John Gottman.

Gottman, renowned for his research on marital stability and demise, and recognized as one of the ten most influential psychotherapists of the past quarter-century, has at this stage of his career amassed over 40 years of research with 3,000 participants. The quality and breadth of his studies are recognized as some of the finest and most exemplary data we have to date, and serve as an underpinning for how we understand what makes love work.

Enter Brené Brown, a self-described researcher, storyteller, and Texan. She’s gritty and funny, and like Gottman, a formidable researcher. Over the past two decades, Brown has studied shame, vulnerability, courage, and empathy. She’s published five New York Times #1 bestsellers, and over 40 million people have viewed her TED Talk on vulnerability. Her passion for living a wholehearted life is contagious and convincing. Her research has confirmed a core human need to belong and connect, and at a time when many of us are feeling the absence of such, she’s tapping a deep well—inspiring a tribe of the wholehearted, people committed to practicing shame-resilience, Daring Greatly, and embracing vulnerability.

Gottman coined the term “Masters of marriage” to describe the couples in his research whose relationships not only endure, but thrive. These are people who cultivate trust, commitment, responsiveness, and an ability to cherish their partner’s feelings throughout a lifetime. Brown speaks of the “wholehearted” individuals who engage their lives from a place of worthiness. They cultivate courage, compassion, and connection. Both groups, the masters of marriage and the wholehearted, display a host of traits that we now know are associated with health and thriving.

Having had the good fortune to train in both the Gottman Method and The Daring Way® (an experiential methodology based on the research of Brené Brown), I cannot help but wonder, what life would be like if we could take our cues from the masters of marriage and the wholehearted? How might this shape who we are as individuals in a partnership? What might the ripple effects be to our children and society at large if we aspire to love as Gottman and Brown are suggesting?

The implications of following in the footsteps of the masters and the wholehearted are huge. The Harvard Study of Adult Development, the most extensive study of its kind, has taught us three things. First, that loneliness can kill as surely as smoking or alcoholism, and that when we are connected, we live longer and healthier lives. Second, the quality of our relationships matter. It’s not the number of friends we have, or whether or not we are in a committed relationship that predicts thriving. Being in a high-conflict marriage is bad for one’s health. It is worse than divorce. Third, good relationships don’t just protect our health. They protect our mind. Memory loss and cognitive decline are more prevalent in lives permeated by conflict and disconnection.

And if that is not compelling enough, Brown’s research on the implications of shame paints a similarly grim picture, depicting shame as correlated with loneliness, depression, suicidality, abuse, trauma, bullying, addiction, and anxiety.

So while love may not heal all wounds, it is undoubtedly a panacea for preventing them.

Gottman and Brown give us a map—a macro perspective of the wilderness of our hearts, and the wildness of love. It’s a rocky path, fraught with challenges and risk. But vulnerability is inherent in any stance that places courage above comfort. And should we decide to follow it, the destination it promises to take us to is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

The paradox of trust 

Gottman, in his book The Science of Trust, astutely asserts that loneliness is (in part) the inability to trust. And sadly, the failure to trust tends to perpetuate itself. For when we don’t trust, over time, we become less able to read other people and deficient in empathy. He states, “Lonely people are caught in a spiral that keeps them away from others, partly because they withdraw to avoid the potential hurt that could occur from trusting the wrong person. So they trust nobody, even the trustworthy.” 

According to both researchers, it’s the small interactions rather than grand gestures that build trust and break it. “Sliding door moments,” as Gottman calls them, are the seemingly inconsequential day-to-day interactions we have over breakfast, while riding in the car, or standing in the kitchen at 9 p.m. Within each act of communication, there is an opportunity to build a connection. And when we don’t seize it, an insidious erosion of trust ensues, slowly overtime.

Our relationships do not die from one swift blow. They die from the thousand tiny cuts that precede it.

But choosing to trust is all about tolerance for risk, and our histories (both in childhood and with our partners) can inform how much we are willing to gamble. Brown speaks to the paradox of trust: we must risk vulnerability in order to build trust, and simultaneously, it is the building of trust that inspires vulnerability. And she recommends cultivating a delicate balance, one where we are generous in our assumptions of others and simultaneously able to set firm boundaries as a means to afford such generosity—being soft and tough at the same time, no small feat. 

When our stories write us

According to Gottman, the final harbinger of a relationship ending is in how couples recall memories and the stories they tell. Memories, it turns out, are not static. They evolve, change, and are a living work-in-progress. When a relationship is nearing its end, at least one person is likely to carry a story inside themselves that no longer recollects the warm feelings they once had for their partner. 

Instead, a new narrative evolves, maximizing their partner’s negative traits, and quite likely, minimizing their own. “Self-righteous indignation” as Gottman aptly refers to it is a subtle form of contempt and is sulfuric acid for love. This story, laced with blame and bad memories, is the strongest indicator of an impending breakup or divorce.

But, as Brown cautions, “We are meaning-making machines wired for survival. Anytime something bad happens, we scramble to make up a story, and our brain does not care if the story is right or wrong, and most likely, it is wrong.” She points out that in research when a story has limited data points, it is a conspiracy, and a lie told honestly is a confabulation. 

In social psychology, this pre-wired bias is referred to as the fundamental attribution error (FAE). The FAE speaks to our tendency to believe that others do bad things because they are bad people, and to ignore evidence to the contrary while simultaneously having a blind spot that allows us to minimize or overlook what our behaviors say about our character. In short, we are partial to giving ourselves a pass while not extending the same generosity to others.

When our minds trick us into believing we know what our partner’s intentions, feelings, and motives are we enter a very dark wood—one where we truly can no longer see the forest for the trees. The ramifications of this are significant because the stories we tell ourselves dictate how we treat people.  

In portraying ourselves as a hero or victim, we no longer ally with the relationship, but rather, armor up and see our partner as the enemy. And if memory is malleable, and we’re prone to spinning conspiracies and confabulations, there is a strong likelihood that we run the risk of hurting ourselves and those we love in assuming this stance.

Acknowledging our tendencies towards mishaps and misperceptions is not easy. It requires a certain humility, grace, and intentionality. But as Stan Tatkin points out in his TED talk, Relationships are Hard, “We are mostly misunderstanding each other much of the time, and if we assume our communication, memory, and perception is the real truth, that is hubris.”

The wholehearted and masters of marriage bypass such hubris and navigate the terrain of relationships differently than those who get lost in the wood. If we want our relationships and quality of life to thrive, it’s essential we take our cues from them and cultivate new habits.

Embracing emotions (and the suck)

To do so, we must first expand our emotional repertoire to include a wide range of feelings, not just our go-to ones. “Emotion-embracing,” as Gottman calls it, is a central building block for healthy relationships. We are aiming for what Pixar’s Inside Out so brilliantly depicts: inviting sadness, joy, anger, disgust, and fear all to the table. 

Put simply, Brown suggests we “embrace the suck,” stating that the wholehearted demonstrate a capacity to recognize when they’re emotionally ensnared and get curious about their feelings and perceptions. 

Both Gottman and Brown draw on the Stone Center’s Strategies of Disconnection, which propose that people respond in one of three ways when hurt: by moving away, moving toward, or moving against that which feels painful. And what I find interesting is that while Gottman advocates for turning toward your partner when injured, and Brown speaks more to leaning into (and getting curious about) our own uncomfortable emotions, both are emotion-embracing and courageous stances that emphasize mutuality over individualism.

Unfortunately, most of us are not taught as children to embrace painful feelings. It’s counterintuitive and goes against our neurobiological wiring. If we have a traumatic history, all the more so. And our society by-and-large is an emotion-dismissing culture. But as Brown cautions, there’s a price to pay when we selectively numb emotions: when we numb our painful feelings, we also numb our positive ones. So, if we want the good things in life (and I think most of us want the good things), then it’s a package deal. 

Running toward heartbreak

If the most significant indicator that a relationship has reached a tipping point is a rewritten story devoid of fond memories, then it stands to reason that a narrative free from blame, interwoven with curiosity and even goodwill is indicative of love that will last. Therefore, one of the central tasks of any healthy relationship is to co-create stories from a lens of “we” versus “me.”

It involves little (and big) reckonings as Brown calls them, sliding door moments where we pause long enough to reflect and ask ourselves (and each other), “What is going on right now?” Together, we cultivate a broader understanding of a disagreement or hurt feelings, one not possible when left alone in our heads to spin narratives that defend our most vulnerable parts and simultaneously ensure that we will go to our grave more swiftly, lonely, and armored.

When I reflect on the lessons of Gottman and Brown, one concept stands out: we must run headlong into heartbreak because there are things far worse than having our hearts broken. Such as the harm we inflict on our loved ones when we disown pain and transmit it onto them. And the legacy of trauma that ripples into our children’s hearts and the generations to come—veiling us in a seemingly impermeable barrier to vulnerability and all the fruits that go with it.

And let us not forget the Harvard Study of Adult Development and the toll that a conflict-laden life combined with emotion-dismissing has on our health.

Yes, running headlong into heartbreak is running directly into vulnerability. It involves uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. But, as Brown reminds us, vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. 

Should we choose this path, there will be moments (likely many) where we find ourselves facedown in the dirt because the road to wholeheartedness guarantees we will get our hearts broken—again and again. But, in choosing to embrace heartbreak, we empower ourselves to experience the myriad of ways love manifests itself and the beauty life affords us. In the end, it’s not a question of if we will experience heartbreak but of how.

What will you choose?

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