The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting

THE RELENTLESSNESS OF MODERN PARENTING

Claire Cain Miller

Renée Sentilles and her son Isaac eating dinner at their home in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. She is raising him in a much more hands-on way than she was raised.

Raising children has become significantly more time-consuming and expensive, amid a sense that opportunity has grown more elusive.

Parenthood in the United States has become much more demanding than it used to be.

Over just a couple of generations, parents have greatly increased the amount of time, attention and money they put into raising children. Mothers who juggle jobs outside the home spend just as much timetending their children as stay-at-home mothers did in the 1970s.

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The amount of money parents spend on children, which used to peak when they were in high school, is now highest when they are under 6 and over 18 and into their mid-20s.

Renée Sentilles enrolled her son Isaac in lessons beginning when he was an infant. Even now that he’s 12, she rarely has him out of sight when he is home.

“I read all the child-care books,” said Ms. Sentilles, a professor in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. “I enrolled him in piano at 5. I took him to soccer practices at 4. We tried track; we did all the swimming lessons, martial arts. I did everything. Of course I did.”

While this kind of intensive parenting — constantly teaching and monitoring children — has been the norm for upper-middle-class parents since the 1990s, new research shows that people across class divides now consider it the best way to raise children, even if they don’t have the resources to enact it.

There are signs of a backlash, led by so-called free-range parents, but social scientists say the relentlessness of modern-day parenting has a powerful motivation: economic anxiety. For the first time, it’s as likely as not that American children will be less prosperous than their parents. For parents, giving children the best start in life has come to mean doing everything they can to ensure that their children can climb to a higher class, or at least not fall out of the one they were born into.

“As the gap between rich and poor increases, the cost of screwing up increases,” said Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who studies families and inequality. “The fear is they’ll end up on the other side of the divide.”

But it also stokes economic anxiety, because even as more parents say they want to raise childrenthis way, it’s the richest ones who are most able to do so.

“Intensive parenting is a way for especially affluent white mothers to make sure their children are maintaining their advantaged position in society,” said Jessica Calarco, a sociologist at Indiana University and author of “Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School.”

Stacey Jones raised her two sons, now in their 20s, as a single mother in a working-class, mostly black neighborhood in Stone Mountain, Ga. She said she and other parents tried hard to give their children opportunities by finding affordable options: municipal sports leagues instead of traveling club teams and school band instead of private music lessons.

“I think most people have this craving for their children to do better and know more than they do,” said Ms. Jones, who works in university communications. “But a lot of these opportunities were closed off because they do cost money.”

‘Child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing’

“Parent” as a verb gained widespread use in the 1970s, which is also when parenting books exploded. The 1980s brought helicopter parenting, a movement to keep children safe from physical harm, spurred by high-profile child assaults and abductions (despite the fact that they were, and are, exceedingly rare). Intensive parenting was first described in the 1990s and 2000s by social scientists including Sharon Hays and Annette Lareau. It grew from a major shift in how people saw children. They began to be considered vulnerable and moldable — shaped by their early childhood experiences — an idea bolstered by advances in child development research.

The result was a parenting style that was “child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor intensive and financially expensive,” Ms. Hays wrote in her 1998 book, “The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood.” And mothers were the ones expected to be doing the constant cultivation.

The time parents spend in the presence of their children has not changed much, but parents today spend more of it doing hands-on child care. Time spent on activities like reading to children; doing crafts; taking them to lessons; attending recitals and games; and helping with homework has increased the most. Today, mothers spend nearly five hours a week on that, compared with 1 hour 45 minutes hours in 1975 — and they worry it’s not enough. Parents’ leisure time, like exercising or socializing, is much more likely to be spent with their children than it used to be. While fathers have recently increased their time spent with children, mothers still spend significantly more.

Ms. Sentilles’s mother, Claire Tassin, described a very different way of parenting when her two children were young, in the 1970s. “My job was not to entertain them,” said Ms. Tassin, who lives in Vacherie, La. “My job was to love them and discipline them.”

Of her grandchildren, Isaac and his three cousins, she said: “Their life is much more enriched than mine was, but it definitely has been directed. I’m not saying it doesn’t work. They’re amazing. But I know I felt free, so free as a child. I put on my jeans and my cowboy boots and I played outside all day long.”

The new trappings of intensive parenting are largely fixtures of white, upper-middle-class American culture, but researchers say the expectations have permeated all corners of society, whether or not parents can achieve them. It starts in utero, when mothers are told to avoid cold cuts and coffee, lest they harm the baby. Then: video baby monitors. Homemade baby food. Sugar-free birthday cake. Toddler music classes. Breast-feeding exclusively. Spraying children’s hands with sanitizer and covering them in “natural” sunscreen. Throwing Pinterest-perfect birthday parties. Eating lunch in their children’s school cafeterias. Calling employers after their adult children interview for jobs.

The American Academy of Pediatrics promotes the idea that parents should be constantly monitoring and teaching children, even when the science doesn’t give a clear answer about what’s best. It now recommends that babies sleep in parents’ rooms for a year. Children’s television — instead of giving parents the chance to cook dinner or have an adult conversation — is to be “co-viewed” for maximum learning.

An American phenomenon

At the same time, there has been little increase in support for working parents, like paid parental leave, subsidized child care or flexible schedules, and there are fewer informal neighborhood networks of at-home parents because more mothers are working.

Ms. Sentilles felt the lack of support when it became clear that Isaac had some challenges like anxiety and trouble sleeping. She and her ex-husband changed their work hours and coordinated tutors and therapists.

“Friends are constantly texting support, but no one has time,” she said. “It’s that we’re all doing this at the same time.”

Parenthood is more hands-off in many other countries. In Tokyo, children start riding the subway alone by first grade, and in Paris, they spend afternoons unaccompanied at playgrounds. Intensive parenting has gained popularity in England and Australia, but it has distinctly American roots — reflecting a view of child rearing as an individual, not societal, task.

It’s about “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” said Caitlyn Collins, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis whose book, “Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving,” comes out in February. “It distracts from the real questions, like why don’t we have a safe place for all kids to go when they’re done with school before parents get home from work?”

In a new paper, Patrick Ishizuka surveyed a nationally representative group of 3,642 parents about parenting. Regardless of their education, income or race, they said the most hands-on and expensive choices were best. For example, they said children who were bored after school should be enrolled in extracurricular activities, and that parents who were busy should stop their task and draw with their children if asked.

“Intensive parenting has really become the dominant cultural model for how children should be raised,” said Mr. Ishizuka, a postdoctoral fellow studying gender and inequality at Cornell.

Americans are having fewer children, so they have more time and money to invest in each one. But investment gaps between parents of differing incomes were not always so large. As a college degree became increasingly necessary to earn a middle-class wage and as admissions grew more competitive, parents began spending significantly more time on child care, found Valerie Ramey and Garey Ramey, economists at the University of California, San Diego.

Parents also began spending more money on their children for things like preschools and enrichment activities, Sabino Kornrich, a sociologist at Emory, showed in two recent papers. Rich parents have more to spend, but the share of income that poor parents spend on their children has also grown.

In states with the largest gaps between the rich and the poor, rich parents spend an even larger share of their incomes on things like lessons and private school, found Danny Schneider, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues in a May paper. Parents in the middle 50 percent of incomes have also increased their spending. “Lower socioeconomic status parents haven’t been able to keep up,” he said.

Besides having less money, they have less access to the informal conversations in which parents exchange information with other parents like them. Ms. Jones recalled that one of her sons liked swimming, but it wasn’t until he was in high school that she learned about swim teams on which he could have competed.

“I didn’t know because I don’t live in a swim tennis community,” she said. “Unfortunately colleges and universities tend to look at these things as a marker of achievement, and I feel like a lot of kids who have working-class backgrounds don’t benefit from the knowledge.”

Race influences parents’ concerns, too. Ms. Jones said that as a parent of black boys, she decided to raise them in a mostly black neighborhood so they would face less racism, even though it meant driving farther to many activities.

This is common for middle-class black mothers, found Dawn Dow, a sociologist at the University of Maryland whose book, “Mothering While Black: Boundaries and Burdens of Middle-Class Parenthood,” comes out in February. “They’re making decisions to protect their kids from early experiences of racism,” Ms. Dow said. “It’s a different host of concerns that are equally intensive.”

The growing backlash

Experts agree that investing in children is a positive thing — they benefitfrom time with their parents, stimulating activities and supportive parenting styles. As low-income parents have increased the time they spend teaching and reading to their children, the readiness gap between kindergarten students from rich and poor families has shrunk. As parental supervision has increased, most serious crimes against children have declined significantly.

But it’s also unclear how much of children’s success is actually determinedby parenting.

“It’s still an open question whether it’s the parenting practices themselves that are making the difference, or is it simply growing up with college-educated parents in an environment that’s richer in many dimensions?” said Liana Sayer, a sociologist at the University of Maryland and director of the Time Use Laboratory there. “I don’t think any of these studies so far have been able to answer whether these kids would be doing well as adults regardless, simply because of resources.”

There has been a growing movement against the relentlessness of modern-day parenting. Utah passed a free-range parenting law, exempting parents from accusations of neglect if they let their children play or commute unattended.

Psychologists and others have raised alarms about children’s high levels of stress and dependence on their parents, and the need to develop independence, self-reliance and gritResearch has shown that children with hyper-involved parents have more anxiety and less satisfaction with life, and that when children play unsupervised, they build social skills, emotional maturity and executive function.

Parents, particularly mothers, feel stressexhaustion and guilt at the demands of parenting this way, especially while holding a job. American time use diaries show that the time women spend parenting comes at the expense of sleep, time alone with their partners and friends, leisure time and housework. Some pause their careers or choose not to have children. Others, like Ms. Sentilles, live in a state of anxiety. She doesn’t want to hover, she said. But trying to oversee homework, limit screen time and attend to Isaac’s needs, she feels no choice.

“At any given moment, everything could just fall apart,” she said.

“On the one hand, I love my work,” she said. “But the way it’s structured in this country, where there’s not really child care and there’s this sense that something is wrong with you if you aren’t with your children every second when you’re not at work? It isn’t what I think feminists thought they were signing up for.”

When a New Mother’s Joy is Entwined With Grief

WHEN A NEW MOTHER’S JOY IS ENTWINED WITH GRIEF

Claire Zulkey

Maggie Nelson’s Mother’s Day tradition is to take a family photo at the grave of her daughter Emily, who was stillborn.

Every Mother’s Day, Maggie Nelson, her husband Mike, and their three young children head to the cemetery to take a family photo at the grave of their daughter, Emily. She was stillborn in 2010, but her twin, Mikey, now 7, survived.

“People say, ‘That’s kind of sad,’ but I can say, ‘I’m a proud mom of four. Here I am with all of them,’” Ms. Nelson, 39, said of the photos of her and the kids gathered on the grass by Emily’s stone plaque. A Bloomington, Ill., kindergarten teacher, she is a member of an unofficial sorority of women who experienced acute grief while postpartum.

The grief of fathers, adoptive mothers and other relatives after a family death is no less real, but postpartum women in mourning endure a particularly complicated blend of physical and emotional duress.

First, there are factors that can affect any new mother: the physical discomfort of childbirth, the lack of sleep and anxiety about the baby.

After giving birth, a new mother experiences rapid drops in levels of estrogen and progesterone and steep increases in prolactin. This can result in strong feelings of fatigue, irritability, insomnia and sadness known as the baby blues, which the National Institute of Mental Health says affects up to 80 percent of women.

This is not the same as the more intense, ongoing postpartum depression, which doesn’t reveal itself immediately, says Christiane Manzella, a senior psychologist who specializes in bereavement at the Seleni Institute, a women’s counseling center in New York.

Grief disrupts the body in different ways, with effects that can include a weakened immune system, a perilous situation for a new mother.

“I was a mess, to put it in a nutshell,” said Gayle Brandeis, 50, a Nevada writer whose mother committed suicide in 2009, days after Ms. Brandeis gave birth to a son. She experienced bouts of dizziness and had difficulty catching her breath. “I was really worried that my milk would dry out. I had a lot of stitches and walking was very painful,” she said. “I felt so disoriented in my body.”

Bereaved new mothers need people to remind them that there are no wrong feelings.

“It feels incredibly isolating because you’re supposed to be happy,” said a Boston-area 47-year-old mother of two who works in marketing and asked to be identified only by her first name, Susan. In 2012, when Susan was on bed rest with a high-risk pregnancy while living overseas, her mother died unexpectedly. She could not travel for the funeral and was able to attend only via Skype. When Susan eventually gave birth to a daughter, her relationship to her baby was not what she expected. Her daughter had acid reflux, screamed a lot and slept little.

“I thought there would be this bond that I wouldn’t want to break because she was somehow my mom incarnate. It wasn’t that at all.” Throughout this experience, Susan, like most grieving new mothers, wondered, “Is this normal?”

Pediatricians are on the front lines of spotting signs of postpartum depression in new mothers, since they see babies and mothers sooner and more frequently than obstetricians. Dr. Dafna Ahdoot, a Los Angeles pediatrician, has helped grieving new mothers who were anxious about their surviving baby’s health, concerned over whether they could take their newborn to an out-of-town funeral, or worried that their grief would negatively affect the baby. She advises grieving new mothers to prioritize their own eating and sleeping by securing help with night feedings and switching to formula feeding as needed if breast-feeding is too difficult.

Many therapists specialize in postpartum depression or grief and can address both. “It’s so hard to tease those symptoms apart,” says Juli Fraga, a San Francisco psychologist who specializes in postpartum depression.

A woman may think: “‘Why wouldn’t I be crying? I’m not sleeping.’” She helps her patients try meditation or breathing exercises to reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and then discuss, as needed, next steps like seeing a psychiatrist or integrative medical options.

Not all women have access to or even desire professional support. With initiatives like Therapy for Black Girls, the mental health community is working to build a bridge to African-American women who may mistrust medical institutions.

“African-American women are at higher risk for premature birth, and so we are losing our babies,” says Keisha Wells, a counselor in Columbus, Ga. “If you’re dealing with that and you don’t have anybody to talk to and you’re a person of color, that’s added sorrow.” Ms. Wells did not have access to this type of mental health care 11 years ago when her twin sons, born prematurely, both died. But she said she found comfort in faith-based support.

In the first weeks after a birth paired with a death, close loved ones can lighten a new mother’s load by making thoughtful executive decisions. Ms. Nelson’s twins’ room was painted half pink and half blue, and set up with two cribs. Friends repainted it and removed Emily’s crib. “Nobody asked,” Ms. Nelson said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to be asked. It had to happen, and friends and family had to take care of it.”

More than anything, most grieving new mothers need to express their grief. After Ms. Nelson took Mikey home, a friend brought over a picnic dinner.

“She put the basket on the counter, took both my hands in her hands and said ‘Tell me about Emily,’” Ms. Nelson recalled. She said she appreciated that opportunity. Other well-intentioned people misunderstood and said, “I didn’t mean to make you sad,” when she’d start to cry. She said she wanted to tell them: “Emily’s death makes me sad. You talking about her makes me hope-filled, it makes me proud. The tears are going to come, but let me do that.”

Many grieving mothers find solace in the stories of others, be they in books, online or in groups.

Ms. Nelson was intrigued by the show “This Is Us,” in which the main characters lose one of their triplets at birth and impulsively decide to adopt an abandoned baby. “The first episode made me angry that they were like, ‘We’ll just take this baby home instead,’ but when they later showed the raw emotions that she had, I was a little more on board,” Ms. Nelson said.

Mourning new mothers eventually find a way to honor both their lost loved one and their child using what is known as a continuing bond grief paradigm. Dr. Manzella said that it can be compatible with the ongoing waves of grief many mothers who have gone through loss experience, and that the thinking about grief has evolved from the “accept and let go” ideas in the classic “five stages of grief” model of the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. “Why not continue loving in absence and getting solace from the sense of love?” she said.

Sometimes, finding a way to mark the loss can help.

Each year, Ms. Nelson and her family honor Emily’s birthday a day before Mikey’s, since her heart stopped beating the day before he was born.

“I have my day to be sad,” Ms. Nelson says. “We go to the cemetery with balloons. The kids are fully involved. Then the next day is all about Mikey.”

Dealing With Interfering Grandparents

DEALING WITH INTERFERING GRANDPARENTS

Carla Bruce-Eddings

How to navigate a challenging relationship.

Parenting can often feel like trying to survive amid barely controlled chaos, so having a wise, experienced grandparent to help out can be lifesaving. But if that grandparent has trouble adhering to basic boundaries, it can feel as if the chaos has maddeningly multiplied.

When families expand, there is a significant shift in roles and responsibilities — one that is easy to make light of until conflicts emerge. Frustrating as these conflicts may be, it’s important to keep in mind that lots of families experience them. Joanne Gottlieb, L.C.S.W., a New York-based licensed clinical social worker, cited religious practices, disciplinary styles, technology and diet as some of the most common areas for intergenerational parenting conflict.

“I would place ‘intrusive grandparents’ in the general category of challenges that adults and couples face in managing relationships with their respective families of origin, and with parents in particular,” she said. “This is a constant theme of therapy.”

So how to best navigate the convergence of these new roles so that everyone feels respected and valued?

  • The moment you notice a negative pattern emerging, deal with it quickly. Don’t wait until you are ready to tear your hair out to approach Mom or Mom-in-Law.
  • Choose a time when everyone is calm to discuss conflicts — and remember that your parent or parent-in-law has your best interests at heart, and your child’s too. Put the child’s needs first – not your own.
  • Bear in mind that child-rearing advice often changes from one generation to the next, so there are bound to be some ideas that a grandparent subscribes to — most likely ones that you were raised with — that you find outdated now.

It’s vital to remember, in the thick of it, why grandparents’ presence in your child’s life is so crucial. “Grandparent love and knowledge is essential to a child’s self-esteem and self-identity,” said Roslyn Hunter, L.C.S.W., a psychotherapist in New York. “They need to see themselves as part of something larger than their parents. They need to find their place and feel part of a family that has a history.”

To try to resolve conflicts, therapists suggest you should say what you need to say — clearly, respectfully and, if necessary, more than once. Meagan Hammerbacher, mom to a 3- and 5-year-old, is committed to clear and consistent communication with her mother-in-law — even if it hasn’t yielded the desired results just yet.

“I have asked my mother-in-law multiple times to please refrain from giving my children sweet treats and sugary drinks, and to consider the food that she generally feeds my children. Sadly, she rarely listens to my requests,” she said. Enlisting her husband to join the discussion was difficult at first, but she encouraged him to attend a few therapy sessions to feel more comfortable about opposing his mother, and now they are on the same page.

Such harmony between partners is the ideal first step in approaching tough conversations with a parent or parent-in-law, but it has not led to harmony in this case. “In all honesty I do not see the situation being resolved because his mother is of a different era,” Hammerbacher said. “I have realized that she is never going to listen to me and follow my directive, and it is not worth the constant fight with my partner because he does not want to fight with his mother.”

Until she feels ready to re-approach this conversation, Hammerbacher has decided to back off: “The only other resolution is to teach my children about healthy eating so they can advocate for themselves,” she said. “It is more likely that she will listen to my children when they tell her ‘Grandma, that food is not good for me!’ ”

Other parents live with their frustrations for the sake of the overall relationship. For Tanya Copenhaver, 41, continual conversations with her mother about her 4-year-old have been stressful, but she has decided she can deal with the dynamic. “I often feel judged by my mother when it comes to my parenting,” she said. “I used to let these things really bother me, and often, I still find myself starting to defend myself.” But she has come to realize that her mother truly does have the best intentions, misguided as her efforts sometimes feel.

“Often I bite my tongue and remind myself she means well and loves my daughter dearly,” Copenhaver said. “And I remind myself that the benefits of having my mom so involved in our lives far outweighs the frustration I feel.”

Grandparents find navigating this relationship tricky, too. Keesha Davis has strong opinions when it comes to her 1-year-old granddaughter, but over the course of her first year, she has intuited the best times to speak up and to remain silent. “I’m still adjusting … I’ve learned to just be quiet, observe and chime in when I really think I should chime in,” she said. Recently she had a disagreement with her daughter and daughter-in-law about giving their daughter apple juice while babysitting. While the mothers stood firm — no juice — Davis told me that they are open to advice in other areas. “I think they’re coming to terms with saying, ‘You know what, my mother is very logical when it comes to certain things,’ ” she said. “I’ve raised kids, I babysit kids. … So they do sit back and say, ‘Wait a minute. What she is saying is correct and we can benefit from listening.’ ”

Try to bear in mind that each generation has its own parenting beliefs, and parenting advice has changed over the years. Today’s grandparents put their babies to sleep on their stomachs and used crib bumpers — practices that are no longer followed. Parental bans on corporal punishment can also be perplexing for grandparents, many of whom adhered to the “spare the rod” justification for spanking.

In these cases, making your stance crystal clear from the start is of utmost importance, Gottlieb said. “The parent needs to communicate clearly that physical discipline is not permitted,” she said. “If the parent is not sure that the grandparent, or any caregiver, will respect this wish, then I would advise that the parent not leave their child alone with that person.” Try to avoid long explanations or arguments; your rationale can be as short as a simple reminder that cultural norms have changed, so much so that a child’s mentioning in school that he was hit could prompt a call to child protective services.

“I would say that one of the frequent issues is cultural, particularly for immigrant families,” Hunter said. “Grandparents expect parents to follow cultural traditions from the old country. Parents often resist because old traditions are not practical for modern life.” In these cases, it’s important to avoid the instinct to be dismissive or overly critical of a practice that you may not understand. After all, your parent raised you. Talking through the reasons for your parenting decisions, and listening to grandparents talk about their own philosophies, may not lead to a quick solution, but it will help promote understanding and reduce discord.

Hunter reminds parents that they have the final word. “It’s important to remember that grandparents do not actually hold more power than the parent — even if the grandparent in question is providing some kind of support,” she said. If a parent asserting herself to advocate for her child jeopardizes the relationship with the grandparent, or vice versa, that is a different issue. “In either case the child’s needs are not being put first,” Hunter said. “The adult’s needs are being put first with the child being used as a tool.”

Parenting is a lifelong job; it doesn’t end when a child has entered adulthood. You are charged with creating a safe, nurturing environment for your child, as well as learning from the wisdom and, yes, missteps of your parents. A three-generation dynamic should feel fluid and mutually supportive, especially during times of conflict, experts stressed. Demonstrating positive examples of communication and compromise with a parent or parent-in-law will help your child navigate her own approach to problem solving, as these are skills that “make emotions and the world feel manageable,” Gottlieb added.

Finally, it always helps to take a deep breath and remember that your child has different needs from the other people in her life. Despite Tanya Copenhaver’s occasional misunderstandings with her mother, she is willing to turn a blind eye from time to time for the sake of offering her daughter a crucial childhood benefit: “Grandma’s house isn’t home, and grandparents get to have a different relationship with our children than we do,” she said. “When I’m not there, it’s O.K. if my daughter eats an extra candy or gets to eat applesauce, graham crackers and a marshmallow for lunch. Those are memories she will have forever.”

Remembering her own loving relationship with her grandmother, she added: “I can only hope that my daughter gets to experience that special bond with my mom.”

My Marriage Has a Third Wheel: Our Child

MY MARRIAGE HAS A THIRD WHEEL: OUR CHILD

Jancee Dunn

Jancee Dunn, left, with her daughter Sylvie and husband Tom.Creditvia Jancee Dunn

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.

Jancee Dunn and her family. 
Jancee Dunn and her family. Creditvia Jancee Dunn

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 Reportsready 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.

Becoming Parents to Ourselves

BECOMING PARENTS TO OURSELVES

Eldar Sarajlic

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?

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

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.

ZURI, 7: “To cheer myself up, I think of all the good times I have in my life.”
Photo by Karjean Levine

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.

Photo by Karjean Levine

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.

Photo by Karjean Levine

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.

Photo by Karjean Levine

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” autismschizophrenia, 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.

Photo by Karjean Levine

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.

Photo by Karjean Levine

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.

Photo by Karjean Levine

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.

Photo by Karjean Levine

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.

Excerpted from THE ORCHID AND THE DANDELION: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can ThriveCopyright © 2019 by W. Thomas Boyce, M.D.  Published by Alfred A. Knopf.

Emotional Intelligence Creates Loving and Supportive Parenting

EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE CREATES LOVING AND SUPPORTIVE PARENTING

John Gottman

In the foreword to my book, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, famed researcher on emotional intelligence, Daniel Goleman, writes:

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.

When to start with Emotion Coaching—our program to teach emotional intelligence

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

30 HONEST LIFE TRUTHS YOU MUST KNOW BEFORE HITTING 30

Team Lovepanky

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 future.

#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 fictional character!

#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 future.

#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 trudge on.

#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

STRESS: WHEN YOUR TEEN SWEATS THE SMALL STUFF, THE BIG STUFF, AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN

J’Nel Wright

J’Nel Wright

“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.

Anxiety 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?

Don’t 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 going on.

Don’t 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.

What’s 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 productive exercises.”

Introduce 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.

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