Developmental Science

Diana Divecha, Ph.D., writes about her favorite research on parenting and children's development

A Developmental Approach to Guiding Young Teens’ Technology Use

Scientists are finding that during early adolescence, around ages 12-15, the brain undergoesiStock_000039980758Small one of the greatest remodeling projects of any other point in the lifespan. The purpose is to prepare teens for adulthood—to stand on their own, to make decisions, to secure resources, reproduce, form partnerships, and create community. And brain restructuring isn’t the only alteration.They experience changes in all spheres: neurological, cognitive, social, psychological, and physical.

Meanwhile, technology is evolving at warp speed. A biological generation is 20-30 years, but scientists estimate that a “technological generation” is only seven years. According to Moore’s law, it could be even faster: The pace of technological change may actually be doubling every two years.

How does this rapid rate of technological innovation intersect with the tectonic changes of early adolescence—and how should you respond as a parent?  

1. Inform yourself about technology.

It’s helpful to stay current with technology issues that can affect your teens, both for your own reality-testing and to help “scaffold” kids’ technology use. It’s helpful if parents can sort out fact from fiction about teens’ Internet use: to stand calm in the face of media-generated “moral panics”; to learn how teens are really using social media; and to understand the battle over our teens’ attention, intention, and self-direction.

For a thorough, research-based, and balanced consciousness-raising about technology, check out Howard Rheingold’s book Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. Rheingold’s book is filled with specific and helpful insights. For example: “There is nothing more important than for kids to learn how to identify fake communication.” Websites can be “cloaked” (sponsored in hidden ways by agenda-driven organizations whose involvement is not obvious, for example the Ku Klux Klan hosting a website on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr). Kids need to be detectives, he says, and use multiple strategies to triple-check the authority of sources. Many young people don’t understand how online content is actually generated—for example, that their Google searches are biased by algorithms generated by their previous searches, or that  editing discussions on Wikipedia can be useful to discover controversial themes about a topic.

Contrary to popular belief, kids are not inherently smart about the Internet, danah boyd says in her book It’s Complicated. Scholars say that the terms “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” are inaccurate and misleading—kids are actually more naïve about technology than we want to believe, especially those from low socioeconomic backgrounds who have trouble reliably accessing and knowledgeably using the Internet. If we want our teens to be empowered by technology, we need to give them the skills to succeed, and that starts with being informed ourselves.

2. Support teens’ relationships online and off.

One of the ways nature starts to nudge young teens out of the nest is by making them interested in—in fact, super-sensitive to—their social world. Peers take on new importance around age 12-13 years old, as teens begin to individuate from their parents and seek new tribes.

Social media, then, becomes an important extension of their social lives.  Far from being a time-waster, boyd says in It’s Complicated, tending relationships online not only meets their relationship needs, it helps them overcome the ever-increasing challenge of actually seeing each other in real life—thanks to overscheduling, limited mobility, greater distances between friends, and fewer public spaces for teens. By tagging friends, teasing and commenting on feeds, or uploading photos, adolescents are extending the pleasure of the offline relationships—what their parents used to do on the phone, passing notes, socializing on the bus, or loitering downtown.

iStock_000017988431SmallBoth in-depth interviews and survey research show that for the most part, teens seem to handle their online relationships pretty well. More teens report that they had an experience online that made them feel good, or feel closer to other people, than teens who did not use social media. Most teens effectively manage their reputations and their privacy online, pruning content, deleting contacts, or withholding personal information; and the majority know that sexting is off-limits. The Internet even seems to facilitate teens’ developing identities, with easy access to communities with diverse interests: A teen can find someone like themselves, somewhere, on the Internet.

But there are vulnerabilities. Younger teens, especially, can be easily dysregulated by their peers. For example, laboratory studies have shown that teens—more than children or adults—release a greater amount of the stress hormone cortisol when they’re doing a task and think someone’s watching. One study showed that teen girls get more anxious and depressed than adults when they are excluded from a game. And studies using driving simulations show that teens can be as accurate as adults when “driving” alone, but they make more mistakes and have more accidents when a peer is sitting beside them in the passenger seat.

The conventional wisdom that young teens are emotionally sensitive is true. They feel more intensely and have higher highs and lower lows. And brain scans confirm this. The limbic system in teens—the seat of emotional reactivity in the brain—shows greater activation compared to both children and adults.

Social media is visible, scalable, and permanent—that is, a comment or photo can be seen by all, forwarded infinitely to other audiences, and live on the Internet in a permanent record. For teens who have difficulty regulating their feelings—or are targeted by those who can’t—these elements in combination with developmental vulnerabilities can make for a perfect storm.

How can parents help? Adults can co-construct their teens’ online social experience in a number of ways:

  • Help kids navigate the various contexts of their relationships. One of the mistakes teens make online is to forget that people from different parts of their lives all see the same messages, something boyd calls “collapsed contexts.” Talk explicitly about—and model—healthy relationship skills. Empathy, perspective-taking, and conversation skills learned offline will show up in online “netiquette.”
  • Acknowledge that teens are starting to deal with sexual feelings—being attracted to, and being the object of attraction from, others. Stay in conversation with them to help guide them toward healthy, age-appropriate, sexual behaviors.
  • Encourage different kinds of relationship skills in real life. Many professionals say that young people lack face-to-face negotiation skills. How to talk and write to people of different power levels, how to resolve conflict, and how to network, are complex and nuanced skills necessary for a successful adult life. Online interactions are asynchronous (one person comments at a time often with a gap in-between), but face-to-face interactions involve reading a lot of social cues simultaneously and making intelligent decisions quickly.
  • Be available when teens are ready to talk about how their social lives are going. iStock_000006895182SmallThis is often late at night or in the car or doing the dishes or on the basketball court…on teens’ own timelines.
  • Support real-life gathering spaces. Make it clear that your teens’ friends are welcome to gather at your house (all you need is food and a little space), or be willing to drive them to friends’ homes. Look out for your teens’ friends, and make friends with their parents. Not only will your teens feel supported, but these networks will eventually come in handy.
  • Though most teens manage their online reputations and privacy pretty well, it’s inevitable that teens will make dumb mistakes—it’s the privilege of adolescence. In the old days, someone might repeat a bungled flirtation or a thoughtless remark to a few people, but now the Internet amplifies mistakes in ways we parents never dreamed of. Talk with your teen about hitting their emotional pause button before playing out thoughts and feelings online.
  • Everyone seems to look happy on Facebook. Discuss the “performative” aspect of social media—that offline lives almost always look different from how they appear online. At the best of times, young people engage in a lot of “impression management” in the hopes of fitting in and controlling their social status. On social media, it’s easy to feel excluded, or be confused by “humblebragging,” or have FOMO – the fear of missing out.  “It’s almost impossible to not compare yourself to others,” says Yale psychologist Robin Stern. “It can be helpful,” says Stern, “to have frequent conversations with a teen to support their hold on reality.”
  • And finally, hang on to the courage of your values. The pressure to live online is real but ultimately optional. Social media was created not as a benevolent entity but as a profit-making business that has made a few people rich but is agnostic to kids’ development.

3. Look out for their intellectual development.

Every technological change, from the creation of the pencil to mandatory formal schooling, co-constructs young people’s cognition and intellect. That is a fact. But what, exactly, is the effect of the Internet on our teens’ intellectual development? There are no black-and-white answers to that yet—because there is just not enough research—and  even expert opinion is all over the board. For example, Harvard’s Steven Pinker is cavalier, technology scholar Cathy Davidson is enthusiastic and practical, and journalist Nicholas Carr is worried.

As a parent myself, I’d be wary, depending on a child’s age. In the view of many developmental psychologists, early childhood is “smorgasbord” time—a period when exposure to lots of different kinds of activities can both reveal and create a child’s interests and strengths and vulnerabilities. Too much of anything, including screen time, becomes limiting. Real-life play is the “work of childhood”—where children explore and discover the natural laws of the world as they bang on objects, pour fluids, and drop things. Immediate back-and-forth interactions with real people—friends and siblings and parents—lay the foundation for later social skills, moral development, self-regulation, agency, and creativity. And unfettered access to their own internal rhythms–tuning in to when they need to rest, or recharging with parents, or exploring, or daydreaming–is the foundation of self-regulation.

But by the early teen years, ages 10-14, the brain is starting to specialize. Vigorous pruning of unused neurons begins and makes the brain more efficient. We see this on brain scans as the amount of gray matter, or cell bodies, declines. Because the “neurons that fire together, wire together,” whatever teens are doing or focusing on can become particularly well-established. Whether teens are vegging on the couch, playing sports or music, or building robots, early adolescence is a sensitive period for consolidating skills. If younger children are generalists, teens are starting to become specialists—getting more competent in areas they’re interested in. iStock_000015452855Small

At the same time, the number of connections among brain cells proliferates. We see this on brain scans by the increase in white matter, the fatty myelin sheaths that house the connecting part of the neurons. This reorganization helps thought become more abstract and integrated and logical, and makes for an especially fertile period of creativity. Teens are attracted to novelty—a desire that makes them venture out into a wider and unknown world—and their brains are looking for new synaptic connections. The Internet can be an important resource in the creation and reorganization of teens’ intellect and creativity. Indeed there is some evidence already that it can enhance creativity in music and graphic arts.

But some worry that heavy Internet use in general can render teens more intellectually superficial iStock_000011186952Smalland inaccurate as they quickly shift their attention from topic to topic. Stanford scholar Cliff Nass, who lived in a freshman dorm alongside students, observed that freshman who were heavier online multitaskers wrote English essays that were simpler and more disconnected than other students. Nass’ now-famous studies on multitasking show that though a small number of people can multitask well, for most, multitasking carries a high mental cost. In general, heavy multitaskers get less done and show a greater degradation of performance. Many highly regarded scientists say technology is “rewiring our brains” in a detrimental way—that our brains are not evolved for the “nonstop interactivity” and that multitasking, in particular, has “lingering cognitive effects.”

And yet others, like Pinker, say that the Internet makes us smarter, offering unprecedented access to tools and content and people. Cathy Davidson says in her book, Now You See It, that multi-tasking might be beneficial and may create rich, new, cognitive maps of a higher order that just reflect new ways of thinking. She points out that expert online teen gamers are thought to make outstanding future political and business leaders because they master large, diverse systems, deal with constant novelty, and stay steady in the face of change, in order to win. And even Rheingold is careful to acknowledge that we shouldn’t preemptively make dire predictions about long-term effects of new technology based on old ways of thinking.

Having studied and taught about children’s cognitive development for years, my own bias is this:

  • It is our job as parents to help children discover their potential, to support their emerging strengths, and to help them shore up their vulnerabilities. Many kinds of cognition are both important and useful in personal and work lives—reflection, analysis, creativity, spaciousness, quiet, speed, integration, etc.
  • Teens’ unique strengths and interests become more clear, especially in the mid- to late-teens, and it is helpful to support and reinforce these emerging talents. At the same time, unless they’re unusually focused and their future careers are already clear (which is rare), exposure to a breadth of cognitive abilities fosters flexibility for many kinds of work and interests. That said, you have to work with your own unique teen, and fostering breadth may not always work. When I encouraged my very active 13-year old to take a meditation class to learn to focus and relax, it backfired. It wasn’t for her, and she may never focus on her breath again. But she’s in engineering school now, reasonably adjusted, and doing fine.

4. Foster and protect your teen’s developing personal empowerment.

photo credit: Holly Fetter

photo credit: Holly Fetter

The early teenage years are a sensitive period for the emergence of personal power. This is when teens begin to individuate, unhooking their identity from their parents and beginning the journey to find their own identity. They know who they’re not (their parents), but they don’t yet know who they are.iStock_000005443201Small

Enter into this fragile sprouting of their identity, the manipulations and pressures of the outside world. Many scholars have written about the vulnerability of this period—how girls’ voices can go underground, or how boys can be hassled out of close, same-sex friendships, leading to depression and anxiety. Educators and business leaders see our teens mainly as future workers. Corporations go after them as potential consumers. There are many forces that wrangle with us over our children’s developmental arc and the Internet has widened the pipe through which the outside world enters our children’s lives.

Advertising is particularly insidious and today’s teens are growing up in a uniquely, commercially saturated environment. Advertisers spend millions of dollars a year exploiting the science of attention to get viewers to tune into or out of whatever they want. A Pew survey found that teens are regularly advertised to, including content that 30% of teens say is “inappropriate for their age.” Advertising now reaches its tentacles into “integrated platforms”—see here for a description of how advertisers use “immersive websites, advergaming, viral marketing, mobile ads, social media marketing and precise behavioral and location targeting” to blur lines of ads, content, entertainment, and social media.

Happily, many teens are wise to these forces. In a recent talk at UC Berkeley, boyd described how the teens she talked to delighted in small acts of resistance, messing with advertisers’ algorithms or sending messages that make diaper ads show up on their friends’ feeds—a special kind of teen humor.

  • Perhaps more than ever, it’s important for teens to develop an “internal locus of control”—the knowledge and skills to control their own actions in the world. At a personal level, teens learn to take themselves seriously when parents engage respectfully with teens’ feelings and perceptions. But it’s also helpful to have an ongoing conversation that is critical of the media-saturated world in which we live, much as we once did about the effects of television. Making the invisible forces apparent takes away some of the power over us. “Today’s digital literacies,” says Rheingold in his introduction to Net Smart, “can make the difference between being empowered or manipulated, serene or frenetic.”

5. Foster self-awareness.

Knowledge helps, but so does self-awareness.

The prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that can observe itself, is the self-regulator, the executor that makes decisions about thoughts and feelings—is present from birth but develops significantly in adolescence and doesn’t finish consolidating until around age 25. Because this self-awareness is just emerging, it is hard for teens to step outside of themselves to evaluate what’s happening to them. Man sitting in meditative lotus position with notebook

Technology expert Linda Stone says that attention is one of the most powerful tools of the human spirit—and she says we can magnify it with meditation and exercise, or we can deplete it with hyperconnectivity. She noticed that when people are online, checking e-mail, surfing websites, and scanning for information, they don’t really switch between screens with the whole of their attention (as multitasking implies), but they engage in a continuous partial attention—paying a little bit of attention all of the time. This state exacts a cost, she says: Breathing becomes slower and more shallow and the mind stays hyper-alert—something the body experiences as a constant demi-crisis. In small doses, this can be functional, but in large doses can make us feel overwhelmed, overstimulated, and “ultimately powerless.”

  • There is more competition now than ever before for teens’ attention. Teens who want to be in control of their lives will increasingly need to monitor how they focus and manage—or give away—their precious attention. Parents can support younger teens by helping them to set up realistic goals for a task; create short, manageable timelines together; and agree on how to screen out peripheral information. Check in periodically to see how teens are doing. This practice will help them to develop the muscles to stay in control of their own attention and make conscious decisions—under their own direction—about when to deviate from their own goals. Emerging research in other areas suggests that self-awareness and self-management can be cultivated earlier than we thought if taught in age-appropriate, supported ways.
  • It’s also helpful for teens to check in with themselves periodically about their emotions. Is hanging out on social media making them feel connected and happy, or sad and excluded, or inferior? Pausing to acknowledge how they feel can allow them a choice to either maintain the feeling or do something to change it.
  • Because different brain systems come online at different ages, there is an imbalance in teens’ emotionality and their ability to manage those feelings. Their resistance to peers’ influence gets better over the teen years, but it’s particularly challenging at 12-14. One in five teens regret something they post on social media. It’s helpful, then, for teens to practice taking a “meta-moment”—a pause between being triggered and responding—in order to choose a path with the outcomes they really desire.
  • Teens are also in the process of learning to manage their time. Their cognitive understanding of a sense of time gradually improves, but their ability to plan ahead and connect actions with consequences actually takes a dip around 12-14. If-then thinking can also be elusive, e.g.,“If I play online games now will I have time for my homework?” So teens can definitely benefit from a time structure gently imposed by parents, and help processing future-oriented decisions, until they get better at it themselves.

6. Prioritize offline connections—they’re still the most important

Contrary to popular belief, teens say they prefer face-to-face interactions rather than online ones. Teens rely on their secure human relationships to anchor and guide them, from infancy through adulthood. In fact, scholars call relationships with people who care, “developmental delivery vehicles,” for all the goodness—validation, information, structure, safety, love, and warmth—packed into them. (For a beautiful discussion of how in-person relationships affect us differently than online relationships, see Barbara Fredrickson’s article here on the physiology of offline connections.)

Both teens and adults express concern that family members spend too much time online at the expense of in-person connections. As a parent, of course, you should practice what you preach—kids want you to turn off your devices and tune in to them. Make no mistake: Even though teens are trying to become autonomous, they, too, still want to maintain close connections and have conversations with their parents about things that really matter. They have been telling researchers so for decades.

7. Watch out for when things go wrong

There’s a lot to be dysregulated by in the early teen years—heightened emotionality, salience of peers, incomplete self-management skills, poor judgment of time. To add fuel to the fire, the surges of dopamine that teens get are much greater than in either childhood or adulthood—so everything is just that more exciting and rewarding. This makes risk-taking more likely (nature’s design so that teens will happily venture out into the world) and addictions more possible. A 2009 study showed that one in ten youth gamers are pathologically addicted. Though most teens (71% surveyed) know that sexting is wrong, some have actually been charged with sexual offenses since they are in possession of explicit photos of a minor. (Professionals argue that sexting reflects a growing interest in sex—and a naïveté about technology—rather than a criminal intent, and should be treated as such.)

If you’re lucky, your teen will bring his/her problems to you. Yale psychologist Robin Stern suggests that at those times, respond first with empathy or a hug, while you check in with yourself to manage your own triggers, anxiety, and beliefs. Then, make space for your teen to just express his or her feelings and concerns with gentle prompts and encouragement. And finally, explore problem-solving together.

On the other hand, sometimes parents notice changes in their teen that signal problems that aren’t being spoken about, says Stern. In that case, she recommends that parents first think about the goals of the conversation they want to have. Then watch for a good time to talk. Begin gently: “I noticed that you looked sad when you got offline….”  More conversations starters can be found here and here. And then continue as above.

How can you tell if your teen is struggling? Pay attention. Lots of teens “cry out” on the Internet, and boyd notes that if a teen does something dramatic online, it’s likely that she is having a hard time offline and needs loving care. Stern says that any significant changes in behavior can signal that something’s up: less appetite, more appetite; sudden changes in friends or suddenly no invitations from friends; withdrawal or hyperactivity; an inability to function in normal life.

If you haven’t had an obvious signal that anything’s wrong but are still wondering if your teen is doing okay, I recommend reviewing four areas of your teen’s life:

1) Is their sense of self reasonably intact? Do they seem to have good self-esteem? Can they express themselves and mostly get their needs met appropriately for their age?

2) Are their relationships intact? Kids vary enormously in the number of friends they enjoy, but everyone should have at least one friend. Can they talk to adults? Do they have other appropriate relationships they enjoy?

3) Are they doing reasonably well cognitively/intellectually for their age? Do they have interests, pursuits, hobbies?

4) Is there an absence of notable pathology?

If these areas seem okay, your teen is probably doing just fine.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to helping your unique teen manage technology, but understanding their development can help inform your decisions. Beyond that, enjoy your teen and continue to connect in ways that you both enjoy—that’s the glue in your relationship, the sunshine to their flower, and the guiding star that will get you through the rough spots.


What Happens to Children When Parents Fight

When I was a child, my parents’ fights could suck the oxygen out family father mother daughter dispute screaming silhouetteof a room. My mother verbally lashed my father, broke jam jars, and made outlandish threats. Her outbursts froze me in my tracks. When my father fled to work, the garage, or the woods, I felt unprotected. Years later, when my husband and I decided to have children, I resolved never to fight in front of them.

“Children are like emotional Geiger counters,” says E. Mark Cummings, psychologist at Notre Dame University, who, along with colleagues, has published hundreds of papers over twenty years on the subject. Kids pay close attention to their parents’ emotions for information about how safe they are in the family, Cummings says. When parents are destructive, the collateral damage to kids can last a lifetime.

As a developmental psychologist I knew that marital quarrelling was inevitable but I also knew that there had to be a better way to handle it. Cummings confirms: “Conflict is a normal part of everyday experience, so it’s not whether parents fight that is important.  It’s how the conflict is expressed and resolved, and especially how it makes children feel that has important consequences for children.” Watching some kinds of conflicts can even be good for kids—when children see their parents resolve difficult problems, Cummings says, they can grow up better off.

What is destructive conflict?

In their book Marital Conflict and Children: An Emotional Security Perspective, Cummings and colleague Patrick Davies from the University of Rochester identify the kinds of destructive tactics that parents use with each other that harm children: verbal aggression like name-calling, insults, and threats of abandonment; physical aggression like hitting and pushing; silent tactics like avoidance, walking out, sulking or withdrawing; or even capitulation—giving in that might look like a solution but isn’t a true one.

When parents repeatedly use hostile strategies with each other, some children can become distraught, worried, anxious and hopeless. Others may react outwardly with anger, becoming aggressive and developing behavior problems at home and at school. Children can develop sleep disturbances and health problems like headaches and stomachaches, or they may get sick frequently. Their stress can interfere with their ability to pay attention and create learning and academic problems at school. Most children raised in environments of destructive conflict have problems forming healthy, balanced relationships with their peers. Even sibling relationships are adversely affected—they can become overinvolved and overprotective of each other, or distant and disengaged.

Some research suggests that children as young as six months register their parents’ distress. Studies that follow children over a long period of time show that children who were insecure in kindergarten because of their parents’ conflicts were more likely to have adjustment problems in the seventh grade. A recent study showed that even 19-year-olds remained sensitive to parental conflict. Contrary to what one might hope, “Kids don’t get used to it,” says Cummings.

In 2002, researchers Rena Repetti, Shelley Taylor, and Teresa Seeman at UCLA looked at 47 studies that linked children’s experiences in risky family environments to later issues in adulthood. They found that those who grew up in homes with high levels of conflict had more physical health problems, emotional problems, and social problems later in life compared to control groups. As adults, they were more likely to report vascular and immune problems, depression and emotional reactivity, substance dependency, loneliness, and problems with intimacy.

Some parents may think that they can avoid impacting their children by giving in, or capitulating, to end an argument. But that’s not an effective tactic. “We did a study on that,” Cummings said. According to parents’ records of their fights at home and their children’s reactions, kids’ emotional responses to capitulation are “not positive.” Nonverbal anger and “stonewalling”—refusing to communicate or cooperate—are especially problematic.

“Our studies have shown that the long-term effects of parental withdrawal are actually more disturbing to kids’ adjustment [than open conflict],” says Cummings. Why? “Kids understand hostility,” he explains, “it tells them what’s going on and they can work with that. But when parents withdraw and become emotionally unavailable, kids don’t know what’s going on. They just know things are wrong. We’re seeing over time, that withdrawal is actually a worse trajectory for kids. And it’s harder on marital relationships too.”

Kids are sophisticated conflict analysts; the degree to which they detect emotion is much more refined than parents might guess. “When parents go behind closed doors and come out acting like they worked it out, the kids can detect that,” says Cummings. They’ll see you’re pretending. And pretending is actually worse in some ways. As a couple, you can’t resolve a fight you’re not acknowledging you’re having. Kids will know it, you’ll know it, but nothing will be made in terms of progress.”

On the other hand, he says, “When parents go behind closed doors and are not angry when they come out, the kids infer that things are worked out. Kids can tell the difference between a resolution that’s been forced versus one that’s resolved with positive emotion, and it matters.”

How do researchers study conflict?

Researchers use several methods to see how parents’ conflicts affect their children, in the home and in the laboratory. At home, parents are trained to keep records or diaries of their fights, including when they fought, what they fought about, the strategies they used, and how they thought their children reacted. In the laboratory, parents are recorded while discussing a difficult topic, and their strategies are analyzed.  Children are shown videotapes of adults’ or even their own parents’ conflicts and are asked about their reactions: How would you feel if your parents did that; how would you describe what your parents are doing? Some studies also gather information from teachers, school records, or even record children’s physiological responses while watching a videotape of adults or their own parents fighting.

In a remarkable 20-year old study of interparental conflict and children’s stress, anthropologists Mark Flinn and Barry England analyzed samples of the stress hormone cortisol, taken from children in an entire village on the east coast of the island of Dominica in the Caribbean. Children who lived with parents who constantly quarreled and fought had higher average cortisol levels than children who lived in more peaceful families.  As a result, they frequently became tired and ill, they played less, and slept poorly. Overall, children did not ever habituate, or “get used to,” the family stress. In contrast, when children experienced particularly calm or affectionate contact, their cortisol decreased. Both animal and human studies show that chronic activation of the stress response can change the architecture of a developing brain: turning on or off genes that regulate stress; damaging the hippocampus which can lead to impairments in learning and memory as well as the stress response; and interfering with myelination of the brain which affects the quality of nerve signal transmission.

The long-term protection of constructive conflict           

“Some types of conflicts are not disturbing to kids, and kids actually benefit from it,” says Cummings. When parents have mild to moderate conflict that involves support and compromise and positive emotions, children develop better social skills and self-esteem, enjoy increased emotional security, develop better relationships with parents, do better in school and have fewer psychological problems.

“When kids witness a fight and see the parents resolving it, they’re actually happier than they were before they saw it,” says Cummings. “It reassures kids that parents can work things through. We know this by the feelings they show, what they say, and their behavior—they run off and play. Constructive conflict is associated with better outcomes over time.”

Even if parents don’t completely resolve the problem but find a partial solution, kids will do fine. “Compromise is best, but we have a whole lot of studies that show that kids benefit from any progress toward resolution,” says Cummings.

Fighting escalates when partners become parents.

According to family therapist Sheri Glucoft Wong, of Berkeley, California, just having children creates more conflicts, even for couples who were doing well before they became parents. “When kids show up, there’s less time to get more done,” she says. “All of a sudden you’re not as patient, not as flexible, and it feels like there’s more at stake. People who make that adjustment successfully talk about it. They make the implicit explicit. Have compassion,” she adds.

What do parents fight about?

“I’ve been doing family therapy for four decades, and digital issues have really, really added new challenges to families,” says Glucoft Wong. “How much screen time is okay, can kids text in the car, expectations about immediate connectivity, and resentment when someone doesn’t return a call right away. Couples’ relationship time is diminished because partners are spending more time interacting with online relationships, dinnertime conversations are interrupted to fact-check, and entertainment is constantly available. There is a whole new etiquette to work out.”

“Roommate issues” are the second big category, according to Glucoft Wong: who does what, when; comings and goings; sleeping times and arrangements, and carving out time for the parents to connect with each other. And finally, there are the usual issues of money, in-laws, friends, values, parenting, discipline, and roles.

Should parents work out their conflicts in front of their kids?

Both researcher Cummings and therapist Glucoft Wong are circumspect. Cummings: “You should be careful about the fights you have in front of your kids. What our research is showing is that parents tend to have worse fights in front of their kids. They’re unable to regulate themselves.”

Glucoft Wong’s philosophy is that home is a training ground for real life: “Little eyes are watching, and little ears are listening,” she says.

Both Cummings and Glucoft Wong agree that children can benefit if parents manage conflict well. “Parents should model real life…at its best,” says Glucoft Wong. “Let them overhear how people work things out and negotiate and compromise.”  But both agree that some content is best kept private. Discussions about sex or other tender issues are more respectfully conducted without an audience. Glucoft Wong encourages parents to get the help they need to learn to communicate better—from parenting programs, from books, or from a therapist.

My own parents’ conflict no longer has the hold on me that it once did, thanks to careful work and a loving marriage of my own of thirty years. Our two daughters are now in their twenties and forming partnerships of their own, and I hope that the lessons of their childhood hold. When they were preschoolers and interrupted our disagreements with concern, my husband and I would smile and reassure them with our special code: I held my thumb and  finger an inch apart and reminded them that the fight was this big, but that the love was this big – and I held my arms wide open.


Tips for Resolving Conflict

 Glucoft Wong shares her top five tips to help parents resolve conflict, maintain a loving relationship, and role-model effective problem-solving for children:

  1. Lead with empathy: Open the dialog by first letting the other person know that you see them, you get them, and you can put yourself in their shoes. Example: “I know it must be hard to leave work….”
  2. Give your partner the benefit of the doubt. Assume the best intentions and help yourself remember that you love each other by adding an endearment. Example: “I know you didn’t mean to team up with the kids against me, Sweetheart….”
  3. Remember that you’re on the same team. Deal with issues by laying all the cards on the table and looking at them together to solve a dilemma rather than digging in on opposing sides. Then problem-solve with one another. That way you both “own” the solution.
  4. Constructive criticism only works when your partner can do something about what happened. If the deadline for soccer signup was already missed, remedy the current situation as best as possible and talk about how to do it better next time. Blaming won’t fix anything that’s already happened.
  5. Anything that needs to be said can be said with kindness. Disapproval, disappointment, exasperation—all can be handled better with kindness.



Nine Big Changes in Young Teens that You Should Know About

When children are young, it’s easy to celebrate their developmental changes. We’re excited to write down their first words and send photos of first steps to grandparents.

We also naturally scaffold their learning by breaking tasks down into manageable parts. We speak in short, simple phrases when they’re learning to talk; we open our arms toward them when they’re beginning to walk; we ease their little arms into sleeves as they’re learning to dress; and we practice, practice, practice tying their shoelaces with them.

At the same time, we mitigate their risks. We baby-proof the house, clear the coffee table of breakables, and put gates across stairwells.

But something breaks down midway on the journey to adulthood. Around about twelve years of age, our children’s behavior can become perplexing to us. It can feel like they just want to push against us, replace us with peers, make bad decisions, and get into trouble. Suddenly, it’s no longer clear to parents exactly what development we’re supporting–and it’s easy to back off, get judgmental, and start reacting. As a result, both parties can feel abandoned.

Fortunately, we have new information to help us understand this period. Advances in brain science and imaging now let us peer under the hood, so to speak, to see more clearly what is going on at this age. And if we understand the developmental changes better, we can better tailor our support to help them navigate through with greater ease.

Scientists are finding that the ages from 12-15 mark perhaps the period of greatest change of any other point in the lifespan. Modifications driven by thousands of years of evolution begin to remodel the teenage brain–just as they do in other mammals in their adolescence. Perhaps not surprisingly, these changes are organized around preparing for adulthood–for reproduction, and for securing sexual, social, and economic resources.

What are the key changes that happen in early adolescence?

1. Neurons get pruned. The pruning of unused cell bodies in the brain happens throughout the lifespan, but there is especially vigorous pruning from ages 10-14. How do we know? The amount of gray matter (cell bodies) reduces in brain scans over this period. What does this mean? Because “the neurons that fire together wire together” (a common refrain of neuroscience), it means that whatever kids’ brains are doing at that time becomes particularly established. If kids are playing sports, learning music, doing art, or tinkering with apps and robotics, those are the connections that will be made. And if they’re lying on the couch watching TV and eating Cheetos, those are the connections that will be made. Use it or lose it, brain scientists say.

The advantage of pruning is that the brain becomes more efficient. If younger children are generalists, Dan Siegel says in his new book, Brainstorm, teens are preparing to specialize. But this is also the time when a genetic predisposition for mental illness may emerge, as the pruning is thought to reveal vulnerabilities in underlying circuitry.

2. Connections among neurons increase. In early adolescence, the number of connections among brain cells increase, and this integration of wiring continues into emerging adulthood, consolidating (but never ending) around age 25. Again, we know this from brain scans, as we see an increase in white matter, the fatty myelin sheaths that house the axons, or the connecting parts, of the neurons. Another resulting change: Thought becomes more integrated and complex, and reasoning and logical thinking improve. This is when kids begin to like to argue–making and testing these new connections and practicing this newfound skill, just as they used to practice dropping things in infancy or toddling about when they first learned to walk.

What can you do as a parent to support this phase? Try to avoid getting caught up in the content of the argument and instead help your child to think and reason well. When my two daughters wanted to get piercings (they now have 14 between them), my husband and I told them to make their case: find out what the risks were (e.g., infection, aftercare, costs, reversibility, etc.) and stack those against the benefits. This exercise let them hit the pause button and practice reasoning with both facts and feelings.

This integration of neurons also creates a period of great creativity, and nowadays opportunities to express their inspirations  have exploded for many middle schoolers. Kids are getting involved in iStock_000002340879Smallthe maker movement, technology, social entrepreneurship, robotics, and app development, in addition to the enduring fine and dramatic arts, music, creative writing, and academics. When our daughters entered this stage, we told them that they could earn their own money for discretionary items but we would happily purchase the creative supplies they needed for projects. It’s a wonderful time to step in to support your children–when their brains want to make new connections and they are not yet hampered by conventional thoughts and approaches.

3. Different brain systems come online at different times, in particular the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system, in the mid-region of the brain, evolved earlier and runs the feeling circuitry. It is the seat of emotional reactivity–the fight-or-flight system and associations of feelings with situations, experiences, and relationships. It tells us what is important to us. Brain imaging studies show more activation in the limbic system in the early teens than in either childhood or adulthood. As a result, their feelings are more intense and they have higher highs and lower lows. It’s not unusual for them to overreact to a neutral comment like “how are you?” or “did you get my e-mail?”

In Brainstorm, Dan Siegel writes that it takes 90 seconds for an emotion to rise, peak, and fade (if not continuously triggered). It behooves parents, then, to pause, breathe, and choose a constructive response while waiting for the teen’s (or their own!) feeling to subside. Even younger kids can choose better responses when they’re encouraged to pause for a bit. At the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, we teach the “meta-moment” tool…to pause when a feeling gets triggered, breathe, wait, and then choose the best response.

Siegel points out that the heightened emotionality of young teens actually offers an advantage–an unparalleled “emotional spark” that is useful to fuel their launch into an uncertain adulthood and enriches their lives with passion…something we could all use more of!

All this time, the prefrontal cortex–the self-manager, the executive that makes decisions about thoughts and feelings, the self-regulator–is playing catch-up. It evolved later in human history, and though present from birth, it doesn’t finish elaborating and consolidating until around age 25. It is also the seat of abstract thought, and its development and integration allows multiple dimensions of thought to be coordinated and intersected. Reasoning in science and the humanities becomes more complex, thoughts are pondered, conclusions can be formed.

Part of self-management is understanding the bigger picture. I’m sure as a parent you’ve had the experience of kids being unable to plan ahead and weigh future acts. While the cognitive understanding of a sense of time gradually improves (for most adults!), the ability to envision the future and understand consequences actually takes a dip around 12-14–making some kinds of processing just out of reach of young teens. Processing like this will be nearly impossible: “Is going to the rock concert on Friday night worth a possibly lower PSAT score Saturday morning?”  “I think I should talk to my parents before I accept an invitation to so-and-so’s house.”  “If I join the football team, will I have time for my studies?”

Throughout development, these brain systems learn to talk to one another--in fact some say that the pattern of communication between the two systems characterizes our personality. And in early adolescence, the relationship between them is particularly uneven–emotions often rule and rationale seems spotty.

It is my belief that we have not yet begun to exploit the power of the frontal cortex. Anecdotal evidence suggests that when we explicitly teach children as young as five and six the skills of self-management, self-awareness, self-regulation (meta-skills that were thought to be possible only in later adolescence), they do learn them and use them. I hope that in 50 years we will look back and think we were very emotionally primitive at this time and that kids in the meanwhile have become skilled at using their prefrontal cortex to harness and channel their feelings to inform their actions and fuel their passions. But as of this writing, the two systems are especially out of balance in the early teen years, 12-15.

4. Kids become super sensitive to their social world. This shift makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: in adulthood they’ll need social awareness to go out and form new relationships, bond, mate, coordinate over resources, and create community. Megan Gunnar, psychologist at the University of Minnesota, along with colleagues, brought kids into the laboratory to do a task, and told them that they were being watched by their peers. She measured their cortisol levels to gauge how stressed they became. The stress levels of younger kids–nine-years, 11 years, and even 13-year old boys–hovered around the baseline. But stress spiked for girls at 13. And by 15, both boys and girls were significantly stressed doing the task when they thought others were watching. This is the age when teens develop an “imaginary audience” and think that people can see them all the time, even inside their head into their thoughts and feelings. They also engage in “impression management,” going to extra lengths to shape themselves to fit in and belong.

Naturally for youth this age, social pain cuts extra-deep. In fact, being excluded lights up more of the pain-processing area of the brain than getting physically bruised does. In a study of social exclusion playing an online ball toss game, teen girls showed a greater drop in mood and a spike in anxiety than adults when they were excluded. And this wasn’t even real life but a virtual experience. As I mentioned in the previous post, this year I tracked school shootings and suicides due to bullying, and most of them involved kids in this highly sensitive and dysregulated period, ages 12-14.

There is an upside, though, to all this sensitivity. When these strong social feelings are honored and supported and channeled well, kids in middle school can show unmatched kindness to others, generous acts of inclusion, and empathy toward their peers.

5. Dopamine is at an all-time high. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter involved in reward behavior, and it is higher in early adolescence than at any other point in the lifespan. This also makes sense: It takes a lot of energy to leave the nest, and nature has equipped the leavers with feel-good chemistry to take new chances. The downside, though, is that dopamine can seal in behavior with those feel-good experiences, and can be a deadly combination with reward-seeking behavior and substance use/abuse.

Risk-taking behavior, especially for boys, spikes at 12-13, stays high until 16-17, and then declines through later adolescence. Because of this spike, it’s important for us to help our boys especially, but all kids, to find forms of competition, risks, and gambling, that are safe and productive.

6. Peers can undermine decision-making. Young teens get especially dysregulated in the presence of their peers–to the point where their safety can be jeopardized. In a famous study of a video driving simulation, teens who “drove” alone did so about as well as older teens and adults. But when a peer was in the passenger seat, they suddenly made more dangerous decisions and “crashed” more often compared to the others. The presence of peers, then, can create risky situations. One famous developmental psychologist joked that he wouldn’t leave young teens alone with peers at all! I wouldn’t go that far, but I would lightly monitor, invite peers to hang out in your home, and encourage positive peer groups. It gets better, though, and teens gradually become more resistant to peer influence over the course of adolescence until they finally land safely in emerging adulthood, around 20-23.

As a parent, it’s important to help scaffold your child’s reasoning and decision-making–while remembering that dopamine is surging, and they are super sensitive and emotional. (Translation: tread gently.) The gap between high emotionality and low self-management in the early teens creates the period of greatest vulnerability. And just as we gently ease their arms into their sleeves when they’re little, we should gently guide them to reason through complex situations. Just as we put gates across stairwells when they are young, it is up to us to monitor and block them from dangerous situations in their teens. Parenting that is warm and loving, yet sets clear limits, is the most successful. And never fear, the vulnerability gap starts to close around 15-16, and inverts by 18-21, when self-regulation exceeds emotional arousal.

7. Teens need more sleep and need it later on the dial. Teens need about 9.2 hours of sleep per night compared to adults’ 7-8 hours. Their changing circadian rhythms move them about three hours up the clock, and it becomes biologically impossible to go to sleep any earlier. iStock_000017171467SmallAt the same time, though, they need to rise later, and school start times don’t allow that. As a result, most teens are sleep-deprived, with serious consequences. Sleep deprivation is linked to slowed reaction times, impaired recall, disciplinary problems, moodiness, depression, tardiness, absenteeism, injuries, and accidents. In an experiment in the Minneapolis area, when schools started later, students felt less sleepy, got higher grades, had fewer depressive feelings, fewer conflicts, and less bullying–and SAT scores went up.

8. Sexuality. Teens have to cope both with changes in their bodies as well as new feelings of attraction–to and from other people. These new feelings can give rise to lots of “sexual policing” of others’ behavior (especially online), sexual harassment, inappropriate behavior, sexualization and objectification of girls, and homophobia, especially for boys. A thorough, qualitative study of teen boys showed that their homophobic harassment of one another resulted in about 75% of them giving up their close friendships with other boys. They mistakenly assumed it was a necessary part of growing up, and it left them bereft, at sea, and depressed.

First sexual experiences can also occur at this time. Sadly, a study of 100 women’s first sexual experiences found that only 10% of women had a positive experience the first time, so parents of iStock_000012266234Smalldaughters might want to be particularly conscious about offering guidance. My mantra to my own girls became, “safe sex: emotionally and physically.” Psychiatrist Lynn Ponton’s book, The Sex Lives of Teenagers, is an excellent resource on this topic. My older daughter, whose background is in sexual health, gives guidance to parents on discussing sexuality here. Cultivating an ongoing, developmentally appropriate, healthy discussion about sexuality from childhood can set kids up for a respectful, safe, and empowered orientation to their emerging sexuality.

And finally, if I have a developmental soapbox, it is this:

9. Individuation is the process of becoming more independent and autonomous while staying connected to loved ones. Teens often seem to push against parents, but if you look closely, it’s usually over superficial matters, like pop culture. Don’t worry: In close families, kids’ values about important matters generally align with those of their parents over time. For many of the reasons described above, parents’ time with early teens can feel rocky and rejecting, and parents can very wrongly misperceive this as their teen rejecting them. But I want to be very clear about this: Teens iStock_000014656748Smallwant to stay connected to their parents–and have been saying so to researchers for decades. Make sure to cultivate joyful interests, rituals, or hobbies with your teens that keep bringing you back to each other and that balance out the bumpy spots.

The ages from 12-15 is the period of greatest biologically-driven disequilibrium but also a period of great potential. How parents navigate this time with their teens–celebrating their power, enjoying them, appreciating their gifts, scaffolding their development, and mitigating their risks–has a huge impact on setting their compass on a steady course into adulthood. Respect your teens, and have fun.

* * * * * 

Here are some of my favorite, helpful “how-to” resources for guiding this age group:

Dan Siegel’s Healthy Mind Platter

Laura Kastner’s books, Getting to Calm; and Wise-Minded Parenting

Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s book, How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen so Teens will Talk. (It never goes out of style.)

Terri Apter’s book, Altered Loves: Mothers and Daughters During Adolescence

Tricia Mangan’s book, How to Feel Good: 20 Things Teens Can Do

Ritch Savin-Williams’ book, Mom, Dad, I’m Gay

Linda Spear’s book, The Behavioral Neuroscience of Adolescence

How Can Parents Help Prevent Bullying in Middle School?

Bullying Prevention Awareness Month is over, and unfortunately it had a horrific run of high-profile tragedies: two teacher fatalities at the hands of students, several bullying-related suicides and attempted suicides, two Florida bullies charged with felonies, and a 14-year-old shooter charged as an adult. Once again, we’re left to face the grim reality that bullying is alive and well in our culture.

But there’s something that all of these cases had in common—and that the news media didn’t notice. All of the kids involved in these events were 12-14 years old.

No surprise, from a developmental perspective. The onset of puberty remodels the developing brain—both for humans and for many animal species—in a way that makes young adolescents especially sensitive to their social world. The reason for this can be understood through an evolutionary lens: Reproduction requires social skills—mating, parenting, fitting in to the social niche, coordinating to secure resources, taking care of the community, etc. So it would make sense that while bodies are being reshaped to produce offspring, brains would also simultaneously change to make us more socially receptive and active at that time.

How does puberty make teens more susceptible to bullying?

A Sensitive Developmental Period

A Sensitive Developmental Period

Recent research on the teen brain shows that adolescents, compared to both children and adults, are exceptionally sensitive to social dynamics. In brain-imaging studies, teen brains show more activation in regions that process rewards, motivations and emotions (the socioaffective circuitry in the subcortical, limbic regions) compared to children and adults. As a result, teens can feel more intensely, especially about social interactions. They more easily feel judged, threatened, and evaluated by others.

In laboratory studies where kids thought they were being watched by peers while they performed a task, the stress hormone cortisol spiked for girls at 13 and remained high for both boys and girls at 15. When excluded from a ball-toss game, young and middle adolescents showed a greater drop in mood and rise in anxiety compared to adults. And in driving simulations, teens made riskier and more dangerous decisions in the presence of peers, compared to adult drivers.

Along with this greater social dysregulation, the self-control system emanating from the frontal cortex, which is present from birth, is gradually being elaborated in the teenage brain. When teens do tasks and make decisions that don’t involve emotions, they can perform as well as—sometimes even better than—adults. But when decisions involve emotions and social dynamics, the dysregulation often overwhelms teens’ emerging self-control. The two brain systems come online in different strengths at different times, and the relationship between them is at its most vulnerable in early puberty.

What can schools do to prevent bullying?

I spent my bullying prevention month, in between bouts of heartbreak for the families, writing and speaking about what schools can do—not merely to try to handle bullying once it has happened but to prevent it from happening in the first place. Frankly, we know from the research that current, punishment-based bullying-prevention approaches are not working. In my view, and that of my colleagues, that’s because they don’t address the source of the problem, the feelings that the bullies are acting out—and that the school and community system haven’t been taught to handle. Schools need to take a meaningful, holistic, science-based, and emotionally focused approach to the problem.

Disclaimer: I work with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and I do believe they have the best prevention program. In a recent presentation at Yale, I made the case, with colleagues, for why we should be teaching emotion skills from preschool through high school to prevent bullying. We already know enough—and the data continue to come in—to see that this makes a huge difference. See a shorter description of the argument in my op-ed piece, written with my colleague Robin, here.

Check to see if your school has a systematic emotion-skills curriculum in use from grades K-12. If not, you might suggest that as a place to start preventing bullying as well as building other skills for success.

What can parents do to prevent bullying in middle school?

Most bullying prevention advice to parents falls along the lines of, “Watch for signs that your child is being bullied” and “Have conversations with your kids.” Both are important but not truly preventative: They’re directives for when bullying has already happened.

First, there are multiple players in a bullying scenario, each with different characteristics. And there are ways to help prevent your child from inhabiting any of these roles—and to set up your child to make good choices if she does end up there:

  • Bullies by definition use power over other kids. In a longitudinal study of middle school kids, the ones that became chronic bullies had a lot of conflict with parents and peers, and lacked moral skills. There’s a lot you can do as parent to minimize these vulnerabilities.
  • Children who are bullied are usually perceived to be “different” in some way. Though there’s only so much one can do to control others’ behavior, children can be taught a little bit about how to navigate their “differentness” in their peer context. Children who are bullied also often have social difficulties—and there’s a lot you can do to help that.
  • Bystanders might collude with bullies. But more often than not, they simply don’t know what to do. Parents can do a lot about that.

There’s no magic key to prevent bullying, but research in developmental science offers a lot of suggestions for parents. One important study tracked almost 900 middle school kids for seven years and found that about 42% never bullied at all, while about 10% became serious bullies. The remainder—almost half of kids—experimented with bullying but gave it up as they learned better ways of interacting. So it’s likely that with just a little focus from parents and schools, the vast majority of bullying could easily be eliminated.

The parent’s role in bullying prevention becomes a lot less mysterious if you understand it as an outcome of basic, healthy parenting. That is, when you create an environment in which children are loved, supported, and guided in healthy ways, in which their needs are seen and valued and met, you’re also creating an environment in which bullying is a lot less likely to happen—and if it does happen, in which your child has healthy boundaries and is more resilient.

Early prevention:

Foster healthy parent-child relationships

Cultivate a healthy attachment bond with your child from the beginning. That bond is one of the major protective blankets that are predictive of a healthy sense of self, achievement, social skills, and resilience over the long run. Also, children naturally want to cooperate with parents when they have a healthy attachment.

Enjoy your children. That, too, is one of the strongest, all-around protectors of children’s development. Make sure to balance stress with fun. There should be at least as much positive neurochemistry bathing their brains as there is stress, and ideally more. Parents’ pleasure in their children is like sunshine to flowers. It enhances their self-worth, sets a bar for the quality of relationships, and fosters better overall health and optimism.

Support healthy social skills: friendships and boundaries

Support the development of your children’s friendships. Make your house fun for kids to be at (you’ll learn a lot). Drive them to each other’s houses. Make friends with other parents: You’ll need that network in middle and high school. Foster friendly relationships with your children’s friends. Cultivate a reputation as having a home that is open, welcoming, and safe for friends. When your children’s friends are in your home, strike a balance between being available and respecting their privacy.

Support children’s friendships in multiple spheres. That way, if things are bumpy at school, as they will inevitably be, kids have other peer groups that still feel good—a sports team or drama class or Girl Scouts or neighbors or cousins. It makes kids less vulnerable.

Support your child’s healthy boundaries. What does that look like? Some examples from my own parenting: I wouldn’t let other adults kiss my kids unless my kids allowed it; when another adult said something unkind to my daughter, I encouraged my daughter to let the adult know it hurt her feelings; and I have “educated” clerks who have scared or come on to my daughters.

Model healthy assertiveness yourself.

Help your children learn to exit situations where other people’s behavior deteriorates, or becomes unacceptable. For example, for preschoolers, parents might step in and say something like, “If it’s not fun anymore maybe it’s time to stop.” For teenagers, it’s helpful to make a safety contract that insures that he or she can get out of sticky situations. Ours, which was provided by our children’s school, read something like this: “If you’re ever in a situation where you feel uncomfortable, I will pick you up, no questions asked. You can use me as the bad guy to leave, e.g., ‘I’m bummed but my parents want me home by…’”

Encourage kindness. Vivian Paley’s classic book about inclusive play among kindergartners (and other elementary school children) is very helpful in this area: You Can’t Say You Can’t Play.

Use respectful, not power-assertive, parenting strategies.

I used to ride horses, and training huge fight-or-flight animals taught me a thing or two about parenting. If I wanted to turn the horse, I kept the rein on the outside of the turn taut and firm against the horse’s side, communicating, in other words, “You may not cross this line.” At the same time, I kept the rein on the inside of the turn soft and slack, communicating, “You may make several choices in this direction.” I remained the ultimate decider, because letting the horse run away with me would be a disaster. Yet somehow the artful combination of direction, boundary, and joyful back-and-forth created a unified, uplifting experience. Riding—and parenting—is a constant stream of such micro-decisions about direction and who gets to have their say. And parenting is a gradual process of handing over those reins to our offspring.

Many bullies have themselves been treated badly. Of course, it should go without saying that it’s crucial that parents not bully or intimidate children—or use authoritarian tactics. The Balinese say that if you yell at a child, her spirit can fly out of her body. Decades of research draw similar conclusions. Instead, psychologists recommend an authoritative parenting style—neither permissive nor dominating—that sets clear expectations; helps children meet those expectations; allows consequences for violations of limits; uses age-appropriate, democratic decision-making; and is warm, loving, and pleasurable. Authoritative parenting is predictive of all kinds of good outcomes: Kids feel good about themselves, they achieve more, and they have better social skills. If there’s one parenting framework to learn, it’s this one.

Teach and model healthy ways to resolve conflict. Practicing negotiating conflict helps children develop an internal compass, so that they can feel from inside what respectful power-sharing is, as opposed to an abuse of power.

Know what your kids are doing. Researchers call this awareness “parental monitoring,” and it, too, is a strong predictor of child outcome. This is not intrusive tracking but rather a light awareness of where and how your child is doing that comes through communication both with your child and the people around him/her.

Pick your battles. Appearance, music, and other aspects of pop culture are all superficial issues on which kids have been staking their “differentness” from parents for generations. My kids had 17 body pierces between the two of them: I thought they would spring leaks. The big stuff—values, behavior, education, treating others kindly, developing themselves, and feeling good—are worth fighting for. In healthy parent-child relationships, research shows that the majority of kids end up emulating their parents’ values as young adults anyway.

Talk to kids and LISTEN. Research shows that children crave conversations about the things that really matter. Toward the end of middle school, talks about gender identity, sexuality, and sexual orientation become important, for both boys and for girls. These connections may minimize gender-based harassment. The good news is that kids want to have trusted adults to talk to, and they are reaching out more and more.

But timing and setting matter. Talk when, and in places where, your child is more comfortable: on walks, late at night, riding in the car, doing dishes together. Before the talk, take a moment to check in with yourself and manage your own feelings. Then listen to your child without guiding the conversation anywhere but toward what he/she wants to express, reflecting what you hear and validating feelings. After that has run its course, gently move toward problem-solving together.

Have regular family meetings where everyone has a voice. There are lots of books on family meetings.

Work with your child’s unique temperament and personality. Some kids are super- sensitive to their environment and can be shy, introverted, or easily overwhelmed. Other kids may be extroverted, energetic, or need an audience. What works for one child may not work with another. Gauge your guidance accordingly.

Support healthy development of self

Support basic health. It is tough to accomplish, but kids need enough sleep! Teens’ circadian rhythms are changing, and that makes them sleep later and wake later. This doesn’t mesh with school schedules so make sure that there’s time for catch-up sleep on weekends. Healthy food is also important, as is exercise.

Pets can be wonderful companions when things are tough elsewhere.

Help kids develop their interests.

Schedule special time—one-on-one time with each individual child once a week, preferably where they get to choose the activity. It’s a time for them to have your undivided attention and know that they’re important to you.

Promote age-appropriate independence. My mantra was, “For each increasing freedom, there’s a concomitant responsibility.” You want to stay overnight at a friend’s house? I need to be sure that you get a reasonable amount of sleep. You want to go downtown? I need you to call me and let me know you arrived safely. Set your kids up for success.

Don’t mistake kids’ developing autonomy with rejection of you. They are beginning the long journey to define themselves, but they don’t actually want to break the relationship with you…even though at times it can feel like all they do is push back. Look for strategies to manage those times.

Build webs of support around children

Know other parents and talk with them. If your child is going to a friend’s house, make a connection: “Thank you for having Joey over tomorrow night. I just wanted to check and see, will you be there? Is there any way I can help?”

It almost goes without saying, but…

Make sure that bullying is not happening in the home, either between adults and children or among multiple children (siblings, cousins, etc).

Delay, or avoid altogether, exposure to violent imagery—TV, movies, games, toys. Here’s a resource to help manage media.

A word on social media: For young teens 12-14 who are already super-sensitive to social activity without many positive coping strategies, social media use can be like adding gasoline to a flame. True, social media can have lots of advantages, like supporting friendships and staying in touch with distant friends and relatives. As with TV, it all depends on how it’s used—and it’s good to be aware of how your kids are using it, good to have a running discussion about it, and good to have etiquette rules about it. There are lots of online resources with guidelines to help.

Low-level intervention:

What about when low-level bullying starts to happen? A phrase, a conversation, or a you’re-on-notice, can sometimes help to defuse things early and prevent escalation. In many cases, they simply need a learning moment—a boundary, a limit, an early chance to correct their behavior. Even for true bullying among middle school kids, studies show that “bystander intervention” stops most incidents quickly.

When a snarky peer repeatedly made my daughter the odd-one-out in a carpool—which I was driving—I first tried coaching my daughter (“It’s not okay to be treated like that”). When that didn’t stop the triangulation, I tried saying something to the girl. Finally, I called the mother, explained what was happening, and let her know that I wouldn’t be able to drive her daughter if this continued.

Another example: When a boy in my carpool made homophobic slurs against another boy, I first said, “Hey, that’s not okay.” When it continued, I pulled the car over to the side of the road, turned around, and said, “This is not allowed in my car. If it continues, I will let you out, call your parents, and have them drive you the rest of the way.”

By the time my daughter was in the 8th grade she came to the defense, in a very public way, of a girl who was on the receiving end of widespread taunting and teasing. Cultivating upstanders is possible.

If hurtful, full-blown bullying happens:

  • Stay safe
  • Decide whether to report it, and to whom
  • Protect your kid
  • Decide if outside help is needed
  • Decide whether to engage the school

Most bullying takes place at school, so until schools take the development of children’s emotion skills seriously, I’m sad to say it may continue there.

But in the meantime, there is a lot we parents can do at home to raise children who would never dream of bullying, or who would step up in resistance, or go for help when it happens.

The increased sensitivity that happens in middle school as a result of changes in the brain also presents vast opportunities for good if we adults stay attuned to it. As the songwriter Jewel says, “Please be careful with me. I’m sensitive and I want to stay that way.”   We are on the brink of growing a healthier generation of children.

How to Parent Emerging Adults

Compared to my or my parents’ generation, young people today are taking longer to reach adulthood, thanks to the social and economic changes of modern society.  They take more time to explore relationships and to educate themselves for the complex information-based economy. Many face unemployment and have to live longer at home–and if they do work, it is not unusual to change jobs many times before they turn 30. Fewer are getting married and if they do, they marry later and have fewer children.

Scholar Jeffrey Arnett, of Clark University in Massachusetts, now calls this period from ages 18- to 29-years old, emerging adulthood, a period so unique it deserves to be considered its own distinct phase of the lifespan.

Parenting this age group is also a new ball game. The biggest challenge–since emerging adults are in some ways grown up and in other ways not–is to figure out when to step in and assert parental authority and when to hold back…all the while remaining emotionally connected and respecting their growing autonomy. Arnett teams up with Oakland, CA writer Elizabeth Fishel to interview parents, professionals, and emerging adults, themselves, in order to gather the best advice on just where to find that parenting line… in areas of romance, job-hunting, communication, the Internet, and more.

I reviewed their book, When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up? Loving and Understanding Your Emerging Adult, on the Greater Good Science Center website.

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The important news is that our emerging adults still need our continued parenting. Rest assured, it does not mean that something is wrong. In fact when parents step in and help appropriately, their emerging adults do better in the long run–in their psychological well-being, their self-esteem, and even the standard of living they achieve.

We parents can mistake our emerging adults’ exploratory meanderings and trial-and-error attempts as floundering, but they feel, even while struggling, that they are thriving and they are confident about their future. They are also, say Arnett and Fishel, the most “generous generation” to come along, giving of their time and talents in far-flung regions.

And happily, the research shows that the majority of emerging adults land safely in adulthood–where they become financially stable, make independent decisions, and take responsibility for themselves. 

Time to Step Up for Disabled Children

The European Union and 127 countries think protecting disabled children’s rights is a good thing to do, but the US Senate? Not.

See the NY Times Editorial that takes the Senate to task. photodisabledchild

“The new United Nations report finds that children with disabilities are the least likely to receive health care or go to school and are among the most vulnerable to violence, abuse and neglect, especially if they are hidden away in institutions because of social stigma or parental inability to raise them.”

“The disabled children and their communities would benefit if the children were accommodated in schools, workplaces, vocational training, transportation and local rehabilitation programs.”

How to Raise Your Child’s Intelligence before Kindergarten

We parents spend a lot of time, energy, and money to advance our children’s intelligence.

Researchers have just made that job a lot easier by identifying the four most effective things we can do before kindergarten to give our children the best start on their intellectual development.

Full disclosure, I’m not a fan of the focus on “intelligence.” It is too narrow a concept–the tests for it are culturally biased in favor of White middle class kids, there are many ways to be intelligent and successful that the tests don’t measure, it is not predictive of life success, and social and emotional skills are just as important as intellectual ability. That said, in the right hands an intelligence test can be a useful diagnostic tool, and the term intelligence  offers one way to talk about intellectual, or I prefer the broader term “cognitive,” skills. But I admit, I couldn’t help but peek at this research if even to compare it against how I nurtured these qualities in my own children. A common theme jumped out at me, which I’ll get to.

New York University researchers John Protzko, Joshua Aronson, and Clancy Blair looked at 74 interventions that were designed to raise children’s intelligence from the prenatal period to kindergarten with the goal of uncovering the most effective ones. They included only studies that met the gold standard of research design–the randomized control study–and they published their findings in the January issue of of Perspectives on Psychological Science. 

What did they discover? Four significant building blocks of intelligence in early childhood:

1. Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFA) supplements for pregnant mothers and newborns – IQ gains of more than three and a half points.

Pregnant mothers are encouraged to take many kinds of supplements but only LC-PUFA–found in foods rich in Omega-3s–raised young children’t IQs, either when pregnant mothers were given the supplement or it was added to infant formula. The fatty acids are thought to be essential building blocks for nerve cells in the prefrontal cortex–and the body can’t produce them on its own. One study showed that very young children who received the supplements for 8 weeks showed more activation in the prefrontal cortex than those who did not.

2. Cognitive complexity and language-rich environments – IQ gains of more than seven points.

Exposure to cognitively rich activities—books, puzzles, interesting verbal interactions—was found to raise young children’s IQs by more than seven points. These activities were particularly effective for children from economically disadvantaged homes who attended specially designed day care centers that offered these opportunities. Parents at home can also be trained to offer the same kinds of stimulating activities. Not all intellectual stimulation is the same, though: Music, computerized games of attention skills, and nonverbal reasoning tasks did not raise IQ.

For decades, we’ve known that when adults talk with young children it stimulates cognitive development. These analyses showed that one unique style of conversation, in which the adult encourages a child to reminisce about or narrate her experiences, is especially effective. In one study of 20-month-olds, mothers were trained to draw out a child’s stories with open-ended questions, to listen well, and to encourage the child’s interests. The result? Compared to a control group, the children had a six point rise in IQ.

3. Interactive reading, especially before age 4 – IQ gains over six points.

Close up of story timeAgain, we’ve known for some time that reading to children enhances their cognitive development. This analysis showed that it’s the interactive nature of the reading process that’s most helpful. When parents help children learn to read, when they ask open-ended questions, when they follow the child’s interests in the story, children benefit. It’s the active participation of both parties that fosters the deeper thinking skills.

 4. Attending a quality preschool, especially those that emphasize language development – IQ gains over seven points.

 Sending children to preschool alone made a four-point IQ gain, but preschools with a focus on language skills created a seven-point gain, again especially for economically disadvantaged children. Language-rich programs expose children to new ideas, labels for concepts, and new problem-solving opportunities, all important early intellectual skills. Shorter programs were just as effective as longer programs.

So what does this mean?

The authors take care to say that this study is not the final word on children’s intelligence and that more work needs to be done. They’re in the process of creating a large Database of Raising Intelligence to sort out strategies that work from those that don’t, and to determine the sensitive periods, or windows of opportunity, for various intelligence-raising interventions for children who need them.  For example, it didn’t seem to matter whether economically disadvantaged children received an earlier center-based intervention or one that took place a little later.

Many parents believe that the more they stimulate a child, the farther ahead a child will be. The common thread I see in this research, and something that developmental psychologists already know, is that the best environments for children are ones in which an adult is interested in and enjoys a child. (My grown daughters fondly remember their dad’s science demonstrations in the fireplace.) Psychologists say that relationships are “developmental delivery vehicles.” That is, an adult’s genuine interest translates naturally into language-rich interactions that sensitively and joyfully teach children on multiple levels simultaneously, and the physical and emotional closeness and undivided attention convey security and help focus a child’s learning.

And don’t forget the fish oil.