Sister and brother stick out tongues to each otherI don’t care how perfect you are as a parent, there are going to be some occasions when your children squabble. This is why Erma Bombeck’s timeless wisdom resonates: “Never have more children than you have car windows.” But as this warning also suggests, with a little mindful planning, parents can influence—to a great degree—how well children get along.

Most parents do try to encourage good relationships among their children, but even so, some siblings seem incapable of spending even a civil second in one another’s company, and there may not be clear reasons for this at first. If this describes your family, it’s worth considering that some of the following unconscious habits might be undermining your efforts.

1. Playing Favorites

When parents are surveyed on the subject of favoritism, nearly all respondents say that despite their best efforts to the contrary, they have favored one child over another at least occasionally. They also typically admit that they know favoritism is hurtful to children and that they try to avoid it as much as possible—and there’s good reason to do so. Unfavored children are vulnerable to depression and aggressive behaviors, and a reduced sense of self-worth and social responsibility. But favored children also suffer from harmful effects. They may feel empathy, or even guilt, for the “underprivileged” sibling’s experiences; or feel the loss of what might otherwise have been a close sibling relationship. Of course, just because parents may treat children differently does not mean their actions are necessarily “preferential.” But when differential treatment is necessary, it helps for parents to explain why it’s necessary.

2. Viewing sibling conflict as “normal” preparation for “real life.

Many harmful stereotypes could cloud parents’ understanding of the boundary between healthy and unhealthy sibling relationships, but this may be the worst offender. It’s true that children can learn a great deal about how to resolve conflict as they interact with their brothers and sisters, but the necessary skills are not automatically absorbed. Without clear boundaries and parental intervention, “ordinary” conflict can develop into chronic aggression, which in turn can escalate into violence. It may not always be easy for parents to recognize the line between normal developmental conflict and abuse, but researcher and psychologist John Caffaro offers a helpful guideline: “Violent sibling conflict is a repeated pattern of physical or psychological aggression with the intent to inflict harm and motivated by the need for power and control,” he says, noting that psychological attacks are frequently at the core. “‘Teasing’ often precedes physical violence and may include ridiculing, insulting, threatening, and terrorizing as well as destroying a sibling’s personal property.” Often one sibling (not always the oldest or biggest) consistently dominates in these conflicts, and the weaker or more passive child, having failed at all attempts to stand up to the aggression, will cease to resist in what researchers call “learned helplessness.” A common manipulative tactic among children is to say, “I won’t play with you if you don’t . . . [fill-in-the-blank].” This is not harmless teasing, says researcher Laurie Kramer. Rather, it’s full-fledged bullying.

Bullying perpetrated by brothers or sisters can be considerably more traumatic to children than peer bullying, because it occurs within the home on an ongoing basis and there is often no way of escape—and very little respite—for the sibling on the receiving end.

3. Tolerating conflict as a normal part of the general family atmosphere.

A retired professor of social sciences at Swansea University in Wales, Robert Sanders has extensive experience in working with children and families. In his 2004 book on the subject of sibling relationships, he summarizes that“factors such as the child’s temperament, the level of positivity in the relationship between the parent and children, differential negativity in the relationship that the parent(s) has with the children, and the level of conflict between the parents, all combine to influence the quality of the relationship between siblings, which may prove quite consistent over time between middle childhood and early adolescence.” While all these factors could, in theory, be modified, often they are not: patterns of behavior in dysfunctional families tend to persist unless someone or something becomes a catalyst for change.

4. Believing that it’s enough to discourage negative interactions between siblings.

Just because children don’t lash out at one another doesn’t mean they feel warmth in their relationship—and it’s the degree of warm feelings rather than the absence of negative ones that predicts children’s well being. This isn’t to say that children who feel warmth toward one another will never experience conflict, of course; but the goal for parents is to help children increase their ability to resolve conflict reasonably quickly and restore an atmosphere of active support. This may require parents to change their expectations: instead of brushing off hitting, name-calling and shunning as harmless behaviors, parents ideally would make it clear that they expect their children to treat each other with warmth and affection, and would reward such behavior when it occurs spontaneously. Positive reinforcement works wonders.

5. Neglecting to talk to kids about the “bonus benefits” offered by good sibling relationships.

Sibling relationships are likely to be the most enduring they will have in their lifetime. Like our parents, siblings are party to our early experiences, but barring unnatural death, they are likely to remain part of our lives much longer, outliving parents by 20 years or more. In addition, if siblings share both parents with us, we will typically have about 50 percent of our DNA in common. That means they are genetically more like us than anyone else on earth other than our parents. Considering that these relationships can contribute tremendously to the stores of resilience that will help carry us through the adverse events that are an inevitable part of life, it makes sense to ensure that they are as supportive and nurturing as possible.

With these 5 considerations in mind, what do you think the chances are that the siblings in this video will grow up to have close, supportive relationships in adulthood?

daylight savings timeI was going to write a post about Daylight Saving Time yesterday, but I was feeling very draggy for some reason. It couldn’t have anything to do with that tiny little nudge forward of the clock’s hour hand Sunday morning, could it? One measly hour out of my life, taken from the middle of a weekend. How much damage could that possibly do?

Turns out, the damage potential is pretty impressive. “People often feel draggy the day after they have to set their clocks forward in the spring but often shrug off that feeling as trivial,” says Erik Herzog, PhD, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St. Louis who studies biological clocks. “In fact,” he says, “jamming our biological clocks into reverse, as daylight saving time does, has serious consequences.” (Aha! I knew it!)

“Daylight saving time does not seem to help conserve energy, one of its original goals. Instead, the evidence is that the one hour advance of our wall clocks each spring is associated with statistically higher rates of traffic accidents over the following three days and heart attacks over the following two days,” Herzog says.DaylightSavingsTimeSm

You’ll want to check out Herzog’s research on his Washington University website, because Daylight Saving Time is only one of the ways we knock our circadian rhythms out of kilter.

In June of 2013 Herzog published research in the journal Neuron reporting the discovery of a crucial part of the biological clock: the wiring that sets its accuracy to within a few minutes out of the 1440 minutes per day.  Two networks (VIP and GABA), they have found, ensure the clock runs as a coordinated, precise timepiece but one that can still adjust its timing to synchronize with the environment.

“We think the neurotransmitter network is there to introduce enough jitter into the system to allow the neurons to resynchronize when environmental cues change, as they do with the seasons,” Herzog said. However, he explains, “since this biological ‘reset button’ evolved long before mechanical clocks, Elderly Navajo Womanartificial lights, and high-speed travel, it doesn’t introduce enough jitter to allow us to adjust quickly to the extreme time shifts of modern life, such as flying ‘backward’ (east) through several time zones.”

Understanding this system is important for understanding the health effects of messing with the body clock: in terms of daylight saving times, shift work, school starting times, medical intern schedules, truck driver hours, and many other areas where we attempt to push the body’s clock beyond its natural limits.

And as serious as heart attacks and traffic accidents are, researchers have also found that disruptions to the body clock caused by shift work contribute to obesity, and the World Health Organization lists shift work as a potential carcinogen.

It’s beginning to look as though feeling draggy is the least of my worries. It’s almost enough to make me consider moving to Arizona. But then . . . there must be research into the health effects of extreme heat, tarantulas and scorpions. I could look it up, but I think I’d rather take a nap.

OR, What Will Autism Be Like in 100 Years?

MileyCyrusI’ll confess: I didn’t come up with either of these titles on my own. They were simply two of the choices I was given by Hubspot’s new Blog Topic Generator Tool, which was unveiled to me (and presumably to many others) in an email last Thursday.  “Give us three nouns,” promised everyone’s favorite inbound marketing platform, “and we’ll give you a week’s worth of blog post titles in a matter of seconds.” (I’m paraphrasing, somewhat.) I gave them “autism,” “personality,” and “parenting.” At the end of this post you’ll find a screenshot of the other options I could have chosen. I’m sure you’ll agree I made the right choice.

Of course, as behooves any marketing guru, Hubspot does offer a fabulous disclaimer: “Our algorithm isn’t perfect,” they write. “After you have your titles, you may want to tweak them to be more relevant to your terms and grammatically correct.” To be honest, I wasn’t all that keen about tweaking (notice I didn’t say “twerking,” although you wouldn’t want to see me do that either).  

Rather, I chose to stick to what I was assigned, finding it very personally compelling. If only I had a snowball’s chance in Florida of coming anywhere close to living up to it, given that these subjects deserve serious treatment. At least, the subject of autism does, so that’s where our attention will be focused.  Forgive me, Hannah Montana fans, but I don’t think there are any connections to be made between the following recent autism studies and Miley Cyrus, although you’re welcome to challenge me in a comment if you feel otherwise. Nevertheless, I’m sure there are many Miley Cyrus fans who would appreciate a better understanding of autism, so welcome. Let’s start with these recent research reports:

1. Study Reveals Senses of Sight and Sound Separated in Children with Autism

January 14, 2014—Like watching a foreign movie that was badly dubbed, children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have trouble integrating simultaneous information from their eyes and their ears, according to a Vanderbilt study published today in The Journal of Neuroscience.

2. Hospital-Diagnosed Maternal Infections Linked to Increased Autism Risk

December 23, 2013—Hospital-diagnosed maternal bacterial infections during pregnancy were associated with an increased risk of autism spectrum disorders in children, according to a Kaiser Permanente study published Dec. 23 in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
(Full story . . . )

3. Probiotic Therapy Alleviates Some Autism-like Behaviors in Mice

December 5, 2013—Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is diagnosed when individuals exhibit characteristic behaviors that include repetitive actions, decreased social interactions, and impaired communication. Curiously, many individuals with ASD also suffer from gastrointestinal (GI) issues, such as abdominal cramps and constipation.
(Full story . . . )

4. Video Could Transform How Schools Serve Teens with Autism

October 17, 2013—Video-based teaching helps teens with autism learn important social skills, and the method eventually could be used widely by schools with limited resources, a Michigan State University researcher says.
(Full story . . . )

5. Study Provides Clues about Imitation or “Empathy Impairments” in Autistic Children

September 30, 2013—Researchers say it’s clear that some cases of autism are hereditary, but have struggled to draw direct links between the condition and particular genes. Now a team at the Johns Hopkins University School of MedicineTel Aviv University and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology has devised a process for connecting a suspect gene to its function in autism.
(Full story . . . )

6. Researchers Discover a Potential Cause of Autism

CHAPEL HILL, NC; August 28, 2013—Key enzymes are found to have a ‘profound effect’ across dozens of genes linked to autism, the insight could help illuminate environmental factors behind autism spectrum disorder and contribute to a unified theory of how the disorder develops. This represents a significant advance in the hunt for environmental factors behind autism and lends new insights into the disorder’s genetic causes.
(Full story . . . )

7. Autistic Children Can Outgrow Difficulty Understanding Visual Cues and Sounds

BRONX, NY; August 28, 2013—Scientists at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University have shown that high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD) children appear to outgrow a critical social communication disability. Younger children with ASD have trouble integrating the auditory and visual cues associated with speech, but the researchers found that the problem clears up in adolescence. The study was published today in the online edition of the journal Cerebral Cortex.
(Full story with video . . . )

8. Autistic Kids Who Best Peers at Math Show Different Brain Organization

STANFORD, CA; August 16, 2013—Children with autism and average IQs consistently demonstrated superior math skills compared with nonautistic children in the same IQ range, according to a study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.(Full story . . . )

9. Making the Brain Attend to Faces in Autism

A new study in Biological Psychiatry explores the influence of oxytocin

Philadelphia, PA; August 15, 2013Difficulty in registering and responding to the facial expressions of other people is a hallmark of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Relatedly, functional imaging studies have shown that individuals with ASD display altered brain activations when processing facial images. The hormone oxytocin plays a vital role in the social interactions of both animals and humans. In fact, multiple studies conducted with healthy volunteers have provided evidence for beneficial effects of oxytocin in terms of increased trust, improved emotion recognition, and preference for social stimuli.
(Full story . . . )

10. Elevated Gluten Antibodies Found in Children with Autism: But No Link to Celiac Disease

NEW YORK; June 20, 2013—Researchers have found elevated antibodies to gluten proteins of wheat in children with autism in comparison to those without autism. The results also indicated an association between the elevated antibodies and the presence of gastrointestinal symptoms in the affected children. They did not find any connection, however, between the elevated antibodies and celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder known to be triggered by gluten.
(Full story . . . )
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And yes, here’s a screenshot to prove that I did not make this up. (PS: I’ll let you know in my next post whether Hubspot is correct in its assessment that all you have to do is mention a celebrity to get people to read your blog):

BlogTopics

research-the science of gratitudeThere are so many things I love about Autumn days—and yes, we get them even in Southern California. A crispy edge to the air; pumpkins, cranberries and turkeys, falling leaves drifting by the window —(to borrow a little poetic imagery from Nat King Cole)—and of course, all the Facebook posts from friends who are counting down the days of November with reasons to be thankful.

Some of my friends have momentous events to be thankful for: the birth of a child, an engagement, a championship trophy. Some may seem less earth-shattering. “Today, I’m thankful that, for the first time in many years, I will be hosting Thanksgiving,” wrote one friend. “I’m thankful it’s going to be a short school week for my son,” wrote another. These two friends in particular have proven resilient through some difficult times over the years, and it struck me that they both took the time to express gratitude for some deceptively simple things. Could their “attitude of gratitude” be part of the reason for their resilience?

Knowing all my friends, I’m certain that their expressions of gratitude come from the heart and are voiced without the anticipation of payback. But in actual fact, the simple act of taking time to reflect on whatever we have to be grateful for does pay dividends, say researchers, no matter how great or small our gifts.

What kinds of dividends?

Beginning with the big picture, several studies point to gratitude as being an overall key to happiness. One way gratitude contributes to happiness is by strengthening our relationships with family and friends, not only because of the positive feelings we evoke in them when we thank them—but also because of the pleasure we feel when we make others feel appreciated. At the same time, however, we increase the degree of responsibility we feel for their future welfare which may make us more invested in strengthening the relationship further. This is good for our brain in all kinds of ways. We’re social beings, and the stronger our relationships, the happier we are in general. But there are also more specific ways gratitude pays us back.

Robert A. Emmons of the University of California-Davis and Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami are two of many researchers around the world who focus on the effects of gratitude. In a 2003 study, they looked at how gratitude affects well-being by comparing three randomly assigned groups of subjects over nine weeks. Each group had a different assignment: one was to report on five things they were grateful for in their lives. The second were to report on negative aspects: irritating or annoying events. The third  were simply to report on any events that “had an impact.”

As you’ve no doubt guessed by now, the “gratitude” group ended up with the most positive outcomes, both physically and psychologically. They had fewer symptoms of illness, spent more time exercising, reported higher levels of positive emotions, more sleep, better sleep quality, greater optimism and a greater sense of interpersonal connection than those in the other two groups. They also were more likely to have helped someone, or to have offered emotional support to others. A few years later, Emmons conducted a similar study with recipients of donated organs. Those patients who kept “gratitude journals” scored higher on measures of mental health, general health and overall vitality than those who simply kept routine notes about daily events.

Like Emmons and McCullough, researchers Giacomo Bono and Jeffrey J. Froh have also focused on gratitude, particularly in children and teens. (Their new book, Making Grateful Kids, is due out in February 2014. Stay tuned, I fully intend to review it here.) In research they presented at meetings of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2012, Bono and Froh found that “grateful teens are more likely than their less grateful peers to be happy, less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and less likely to have behavior problems at school.” Fortunately, say the researchers, if your teen isn’t yet up to snuff on the gratitude scale, never fear. This is a habit that can be developed.

This is good news, especially in light of Todd Kashdan’s 2009 study suggesting that men tend to have a more difficult time feeling and expressing gratitude than women.  Men tend to feel more burden and obligation when presented with gifts . . . and as a result, less gratitude, he found. This was especially true when the gift came from another man. “The way we get socialized as children affects what we do with our emotions as adults,” says Kashdan. “Because men are generally taught to control and conceal their softer emotions, this may be limiting their well-being.”

Whatever your gender, if you’re up for change in mental or physical well-being, you could do worse than to try the same exercise used in much of the above research: journal about the things in your life that you can feel grateful for. Even if you can only come up with five things a week, you stand a chance of improving your outlook. Of course, as you become adept at noticing more of the “little things,” like my two Facebook friends, you may be able to come up with far more than that.

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For more about the science of gratitude, you might want to check out these researchers whose work appears in recent journal issues from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology:

David DeSteno, Northeastern University

DeSteno’s work shows the social benefits of feeling gratitude: how it makes us more resilient, how it makes us more honest and cooperative, how it alters our financial decisions such that we favor the greater good, and how it makes us “pay virtue forward” without even knowing it.

Naomi Eisenberger, UCLA

Eisenberger’s work focuses on measuring gene expression and using brain scanning to examine some of the biological and neurological effects of being grateful.

5MythsA friend of mine recently pointed out that media articles promoting Bullying Prevention Month seem to focus on the effects of bullying more often than strategies for prevention. I had to admit she had a point, so I immediately went off to write an article that focused on prevention in her honor.

This isn’t it.

You knew that though, because you clicked on a link titled “5 Myths about Bullying.” And frankly, I have to say it was pretty brilliant of you to do it. After all, you can’t actually prevent something until you can recognize it, right? So before I give you a link to the article on Bullying Prevention, let’s be as sure as we can about what the behavior we’re trying to prevent looks like. We’ll start by defining bullying. This is not as easy you might think.

A Google search will turn up a range of definitions for the term bullying, but the definition most commonly accepted by researchers amounts to: persistent aggressive behavior that often involves a power imbalance and intention to harm. It sounds simple enough on the surface, but it becomes complicated quickly because the power imbalance may be real or perceived, intentions may not always be clear, and harm may be physical or emotional. The key part of the definition is actually the presence of recurring aggressive behavior. Without considering a pattern of behavior, everyone could be considered a bully: we’ve all caused interpersonal harm to someone at some time in our lives.

No doubt we each have slightly different images in mind of a “typical” bully. One of the most common stereotypes in the media is that of a big bruiser of a schoolboy physically threatening a smaller child—perhaps stealing his lunch money or harassing him on the playground. Another stereotype, usually assigned to girls, consists of a group whispering about an ostracized classmate. Both are valid representations of bullying behavior as far as they go, but if we are interested in making real strides toward bullying prevention, we need to dispel some of the myths that restrict our thinking. I chose five, so this obviously isn’t an exhaustive list, but it offers some of the most fundamental misconceptions. If you’d like to bring up others, by all means, please add yours as a comment below.

Myth #1:  Bullying is mainly a childhood or teen issue taking place in the context of school.

People bully others in all kinds of settings at all ages. At home, at school, in the workplace, and online, bullies can be found among every age group. In fact, those who bully in one context also tend to have problems in their other relationships. They may bully online, and may have displayed similarly aggressive behaviors in preschool years at home among siblings or playmates. After high school, they may move on to bullying coworkers, intimate partners and/or children.

Different forms of bullying may carry one or two unique characteristics, but in the main, say researchers, bullies display relational aggression along with deficits in social problem-solving skills. This does not necessarily mean bullies are always loners who are completely bereft of social skills. In some cases, otherwise socially engaged and/or self-righteous people may simply have learned to view the use of superiority or the degradation of others as acceptable forms of enforcing their will: perhaps after observing such behaviors at home, or through having themselves been victims of peer bullying.

Myth #2: Bullying is a harmless and necessary part of growing up. Kids will be kids, and they need to learn how to deal with life in the “real world.”

The best way for kids to learn how to deal with life “in the real world” is to be taught appropriate behavior toward others. While it’s certain we will each encounter bullies at various points in our lives, bystanders (whether adults or peers) should always intervene in bullying. Research finds that doing so does make a difference. Children can (and should) be taught prosocial skills whether they interact on a bus, a playground, at school, or online. As we are about to see, bullying is far from harmless and can impede, rather than encourage, the process of growing up.

Myth #3:  The effects of bullying are confined to its victims.

Those who are bullied indeed suffer, not only effects such as higher rates of incarceration and problems with health, poverty, and social relationships, but as one recent study found, “being bullied during childhood directly increases the likelihood of self-harm in late adolescence.” And the effects of social bullying in particular can linger long into adulthood in the form of mental health issues such as suicidal thoughts, anxiety and depression.

But bullying impacts everyone involved: including the bullies themselves and those bystanders who witness the behavior. As bystanders learn which behaviors are tolerated in their community, they may emulate the bully—or they may run the risk of falling prey to others who do. Bully victims who go on to become bullies themselves tend to end up with higher levels of all anxiety and depressive disorders, plus the highest levels of suicidal thoughts, depressive disorders, generalized anxiety and panic disorder. But bullies are also at increased risk for mental health issues, particularly antisocial personality disorder, a finding that held even after researchers controlled for other factors.

Myth #4: Cyberbullying is not “as bad” as face-to-face bullying.

Cyberbullying can be extremely stressful and may actually be worse than face-to-face bullying in some circumstances. Researchers have found that the degree of stress is much higher when humiliating photographs or videos are involved, since these materials can be proliferated across the Internet to an almost unlimited audience.

It’s true, of course, that a cyberbully may believe his or her actions are less hurtful than those of a schoolyard or workplace bully. However, this is a dangerous myth. All forms of bullying can cause intense emotional harm. It can be argued that traditional power imbalances (such as size and popularity) don’t exist in cyberbullying, but there are “non-traditional” or perceived power imbalances at work online that are not immediately obvious. For instance, when someone posts degrading or humiliating comments or photos about another person, the poster is often the only one with the power to remove them from public view. Depending on where and how the attack is posted, a victim may not even have access to a platform for responding, an imbalance of power that can impose a pervasive sense of helplessness and humiliation.

Myth #5: If we can define bullying precisely, it will be easy to recognize and address.

In a 2004 study published in the journal Children and Schools, researcher Faye Mishna found that even when children and adults agreed on a definition, they did not necessarily categorize the same incidents as bullying. One reason for this was that parents often did not see power imbalances or intention to hurt where children did, particularly in situations where bullying occurred among children that the adults considered to be friends and equals.

Mishna offers the example of one father describing a situation in which his daughter was bullied by friends. He and his wife struggled (in his words) “to get a sense of is it 50/50, or is it more your fault or more their fault?’” Another mother  wondered whether her daughter was really being bullied or whether the behavior could simply be considered ‘typical’ conflict.’  Was her friend being manipulative, or was it simply ‘an age thing” to attempt to control another child by threatening not to be her friend anymore?

Threatening to dissolve a friendship in an effort to control a playmate should not be considered harmless. It’s relational aggression, says University of Illinois researcher Laurie Kramer. “It’s very common and I think it happens because one child is essentially saying, ‘I’m frustrated that you don’t see the world the way I do, and that you don’t want to do what I want to do.’ It comes back to that lesson about perspective-taking and being willing to accept the other person’s feelings as valid, particularly when those feelings are different from their own. And there are ways to help kids learn how to have those conversations.” But adults won’t be having these conversations with children if they suffer under the misconception that kids should simply be left to work out their problems on their own.

Clearly this takes us back to Myth #2—and maybe even to the fundamental issue underlying bullying. The inescapable truth is that If children aren’t taught positive conflict resolution skills, leaving them to “work it out” is not going to magically endow them with the hoped-for “Aha!” moment. Unwanted behaviors that aren’t addressed can become habitual. That’s when they begin to slide from the category of “conflict” to “bullying.”

With these concepts in mind, where do we begin a strategy for bullying prevention? It would seem that laying the groundwork for prevention in workplaces, schools, and other institutions calls for creating a culture that refuses to tolerate aggressive behavior. But of course, there’s a level that’s even more fundamental than schoolrooms and workplaces.

Okay, you get the link to the prevention article now. There, that didn’t take long, did it? We still have two weeks left in Bullying Prevention Month:

Bullying Prevention Begins at Home

The Big DisconnectWhen I first undertook to review Harvard psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair’s new book, I imagined it would be the typical rant against modern technology. Titled The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, it certainly could have taken the easy route to success—which often seems to involve blaming all of society’s ills on the latest popular gadget, as though the human experience would be positively overflowing with love and sweetness and light if only we lived in a more innocent age (assuming there has ever been one). Of course, new technologies do tend to present new challenges, so Steiner-Adair could have been justified in sounding an alarmist note to ensure book sales, as social scaremongers have been known to do since even before the invention of the telephone. She could have taken such an approach. But she didn’t.

On the other hand, she didn’t ignore the challenges either. As I was pleasantly surprised to discover, The Big Disconnect  offers a fair and balanced assessment of our tech-infused culture, outlining the challenges—as well as pointing out the benefits—of digital connection, while also offering parents strategies for navigating digital dilemmas.

“A family is an ecosystem,” writes Steiner-Adair with co-author Teresa H. Barker. But even as we want this ecosystem to thrive, she says, we also realize that social media, texting, screen games, and other digital pulls can pose a risk to family well-being. “The good news,” she writes, ” is that we have everything we need to create sustainable families—loving, thriving human ecosystems. . . . It is never to late to turn a nurturing eye to family and in the process to update attitudes or patterns that aren’t working as you’d like.”

How does one go about doing this? In practical terms that include concrete, easily-implemented techniques, Steiner-Adair shows us how we can develop seven important qualities that are shared by the most resilient, sustainable families she encounters in her work as a psychologist and Harvard instructor. Essentially, she says, sustainable families:

1.  recognize the challenges posed by the pervasive presence of tech and develop a family philosophy toward its use. “The family has its own ways—tech and nontech—of hanging out, messing around, and geeking out,” Steiner-Adair writes.

2.  encourage play, and play together.

3.  nourish meaningful connection and thoughtful conversation that shares feelings, values, expectations, and optimism.

4.  understand the uniqueness of each person, encourage independence and individual interests, and foster their independence in the context of family.

5.  have built-in mechanisms for healthy disagreement. Parents set limits, act thoughtfully with parental authority, and do the hard parenting work of demonstrating accountability, authority, openness, transparency. Rather than simply demanding trust, they give their children good reason to trust.

6.  have values, wisdom, a link to past and future, and some common language that they share with family and friends.

7.  provide experiences offline in which children can cultivate an inner life, solitude, and connection to nature.

The real-life examples Steiner-Adair offers as support are convincing. They vividly illustrate the costs of ignoring these seven principles; and expose just how easily kids can conflate online illusions with real life scripts when their time spent in cyberspace outdistances time spent with those who love, guide and ground them in their physical space.

Clueless about how to make it clear to your kids that you love them and want to be there for them as they navigate choppy digital waters? Steiner-Adair addresses that too. After interviewing more than a thousand children about what makes a parent approachable, she brings it all back down to the issue of trust. Just as parents hope to trust their children, children crave to trust their parents.

Even as children’s lives become more complex, writes Steiner-Adair, “They continue, much as they did from birth, to watch us closely for cues that tell them whether we are approachable. They come to understand how each parent will react. . . . They develop a keen sense about which parent to approach with what kind of situation. Who goes ballistic over a B on a test? Who takes mistakes in stride? They learn when it’s okay to interrupt a parent at work and for what reason. And they know—or believe they know—when their parents are the last people in the world to approach. This is how we earn our reputation with them as reliable and trustworthy—or not.” No one is suggesting this is a new dynamic. But there’s no question that, like so many other social dynamics, it is heightened by our digital connectivity.

These are not straightforward times. As parents, we are still finding our footing in a world that has changed dramatically since we were children. To Steiner-Adair, this means that we need to be aware that the answers to our dilemmas are nuanced: meaning that there are complexities to them. We need to “resist facile, fast-twitch answers,” she says, and grasp the understanding that “the big questions about how we use media and tech are not simple.”

This does not mean we need to abandon what she calls “old truths.” Quite the contrary. Dealing with nuance does not mean abandoning truth: and the most basic truth, when it comes to children, is that they need our attention. “Children flourish in families that work hard at the hard work of being a family,” Steiner-Adair concludes. And while we haven’t yet succeeded in applying this kind of relationship on a global scale (as she argues we desperately need to do) nevertheless, “we can deepen connections, cultivate closeness, and push pause more often to savor the gift of time and the primacy of family.”

The research citations in this compelling book are extensive and impressive, but you don’t need to be an academic to connect with Steiner-Adair’s important message. Her common sense and positive tone offer parents a generous measure of confidence that, yes—it’s possible to foster secure family relationships even in our intensely digital age; as well as to set children on the path to successfully navigating their own relationships far into the future.

FacesOfEmotionSmBefore we get into the six dimensions of emotional style, a little background is called for. Most of us are familiar with the pop-psych approach to measuring personality, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), right? What may not be as well-known is the fact that this popular tool is based on Carl Jung‘s musings about the brain. Jung did the best he could to make guesses about the nature of personality in a pre-neuroscience world, but he was hampered by his time, mystic notions related to psychic energy, and limited research tools.

Skip forward about half a century, and you’ll find that, even though much more is known today about the brain, public practice hasn’t yet caught up. You will still find many schools and workplaces relying on a 50-year-old tool to make judgments about human potential; a tool which rests on the conventional assumption that we’re born with a specific personality and carry it with us until we die.

Looking at how little has changed in actual practice over 50 years, you would think the intervening revolution in genetics has happened silently, underground—without so much as fluttering the composure of the average human resources director or high-school counselor.

You know the revolution, I’m talking about, right? The one that overturned the idea that genetic equals unchangeable. I think most people have heard the phrase “nature plus nurture” by now, but its ramifications may not be so easy to grasp. The research is not controversial at all, and as neuroscientist Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley put it in The Emotional Life of Your Brain, it toppled the nature-versus-nurture debate “as thoroughly and dramatically as the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. Scientists made two startling, and related discoveries,” they write: “that a genetic trait will be expressed or not depending on the environment in which a child grows up, and that the actual gene—the double helix that winds through every single one of our cells—can be turned on or off depending on the experiences we have.”

To underscore what that means, they continue, “Contrary to the popular belief that if something is genetically based we’re stuck with it for life . . . even genetically based traits can be dramatically modified by how parents, teachers, and caregivers treat children and by the experiences children have.”

Yes, even traits we think of as innate parts of our personality. And even more interesting, some of the traits we’ve thought of as basic personality traits are not as basic as we once thought. Many of them are the result of a combination of more than one brain circuit related to emotion.

This is pretty big news, actually. What it means is that there is something more fundamental to who we are than what we’ve thought of as “personality.”

After studying the specific neural signatures that underlie what we’ve always thought of as “personality traits,” researchers have identified six dimensions, which Davidson refers to as Emotional Style. “Each dimension describes a continuum,” he and Begley explain. “Some people fall at one or the other extreme of that continuum, while others fall somewhere in the middle. The combination of where you fall on each dimension adds up to your overall Emotional Style fingerprint.”

The six dimensions are:

1. Resilience style: “If you have an argument with your significant other,” asks Davidson, “does it cast a pall on the remainder of your day, or are you able to recover quickly and put it behind you?” We fall between “Fast to Recover” or “Slow to Recover” on this dimension.

2. Outlook style: “Do you maintain a high level of energy and engagement even when things don’t go your way? Or do you tend toward cynicism and pessimism, struggling to see anything positive?” We fall between “Positive” and “Negative” on the Outlook dimension.

3. Social Intuition style: “Can you read people’s body language and tone of voice like a book? . . . Or are you puzzled by—even blind to—the outward indications of people’s mental and emotional states?” We are described as anywhere between “Socially Intuitive” and “Puzzled” on this dimension.

4. Self-Awareness style: “Are you aware of your own thoughts and feelings? . . . Or do you act and react without knowing why you do what you do?”  We fall between “Self-Aware” and “Self-Opaque” on this dimension.

5. Sensitivity to Context style: “Are you able to pick up the conventional rules of social interaction? . . .Or are you baffled when people tell you that your behavior is inappropriate?” On this dimension we’ll find ourselves somewhere between “Tuned In” and “Tuned Out.”

6. Attention style: “Can you screen out emotional or other distractions and stay focused? . . . Or do your thoughts flit from the task at hand to the fight you had with your spouse this morning or the anxiety you feel about an upcoming presentation for work?” We fall on this dimension between “Focused” and “Unfocused.”

Your “personality” is a cookie dough made up of differing dollops of these ingredients; with the old familiar personality traits being traced to combinations of these neural signatures . . . and we can adjust where we fall on these dimensions if we want to.

But we don’t have to. There is no ideal emotional style, says Davidson, but he also doesn’t see himself in the “I’m okay, you’re okay” camp. This, he says, is because, “some emotional styles simply make it harder to be a productive member of society, to forge meaningful relationships, and to achieve a sense of well-being.” That’s actually the test, he says. But whatever reason you may have for wanting to tweak your position on any of these dimensions, the point is that if you do want to alter your emotional style, you can. “Sorry, this is the way I was born,” is no longer a limitation.

This understanding might shed some light on why it can be so damaging to pin a “personality type” on a kid in grade school and set their life’s course accordingly. Or to skip hiring an employee based on a test that assesses his or her personality “potential” using the old “here’s who I am” paradigm.

But it may also come as a welcome realization: a gift, even. To think that we aren’t stuck with the aspects of our approach that aren’t working for us can be seen, in some respects, as an open door to a new way of life and a more effective way of relating to others.

Because at the root of it, the key to an effective emotional style is the key to the success of our relationships. And relationships are what make our lives worth living.

In future posts, we’ll go over some of the more familiar personality traits in more detail, tracing them to their underlying emotional styles. But you can catch a sneak peek at some of them in Emotions are Us, today’s featured article on Mom Psych.

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