Teens and young adults who come from troubled backgrounds have a greater
risk of killing themselves, a new study suggests.
Kids exposed to suicide in the family, parental mental health disorders and substantial parental criminal behavior had the highest suicide rates, the study found.
The findings "emphasize the importance of understanding the social mechanisms of suicide and the need for effective interventions early in life aimed at alleviating the suicide risk in disadvantaged children," according to study author Charlotte Bjorkenstam from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, and her colleagues.
The research included almost 550,000 people from Sweden born between 1987 and 1991. The study participants' health was followed until age 24. During the follow-up period, there were 431 suicides.
The researchers investigated the links between suicide and seven indicators of childhood adversity between birth and age 14. These included: death in the family (suicide analyzed separately); parental substance abuse; parental psychiatric disorder; parental criminality; parental separation/single-parent household; household receiving public assistance; and residential instability (two or more changes in place of residence).
Other than parental separation/single-parent household, all the childhood adversity indicators were associated with about a twofold increased risk of suicide, the study authors said.
The risk was especially high among those with two or more childhood adversities, according to the study published April 20 in the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal).
The researchers said in a BMJ news release that the study "provides clear evidence that childhood adversities that are common in the general population are associated with an increased risk for suicide in adolescents and young adults."
However, it's important to note that the study cannot prove a cause-and-effect relationship. It was only designed to find an association between suicide and certain childhood difficulties. The overall risk of suicide in young people is very low, and most children who experience such adversities won't go on to take their own lives.
By Robert Preidt
20 April 2017
In his Sound Relationship House Theory, psychologist and marriage guru John Gottman defines the attitudes and skills that lead to strong friendships in marriage, delineating them as the “floors” or principles of good marriage. Many apply well to a range of friendships, including mentorships. In the following sections, three core principles of his theory are applied.
Construct an inner road map
To build a strong relationship, mentors should create a “roadmap” of their mentees’ inner psychological world, including his or her “hopes, dreams, values, and goals”. This is accomplished by asking questions and remembering the answers. Indeed, we found that 15 year olds described being “gotten” liked, and understood specifically in terms of adults remembering things from previous conversations, e.g., “How did that skateboard competition go? What was your aunt’s wedding like?” These kinds of touch points signal that the adult was not only fully present during the conversation but internalized it. Adults should ask open-ended questions that they are interested in knowing the answer to, not closed, perfunctory questions. Such questions are particularly salient for children and adolescents, who are struggling to determine who they are. Criminal defense lawyer, Socrates De La Cruz, once described the salience of being asked about his goals. “When I first met [basketball coach] Steve, I was the product of the housing projects, a product of a single-parent home looking for guidance and attention. I was in and out of trouble. One day Steve took me aside and said, “Do you know what the word goal means?” I knew what a goal was in hockey or soccer and I knew what a field goal was in basketball, but when he started talking about setting goals and trying achieve goals, it was like he was speaking Chinese … it was just one conversation, one afternoon on the baseketball court, but it opened a door in my life.”
Dale Carnegie famously wrote that “The royal road to a person’s heart is to talk about things he or she treasures most,” observing that you can make more friends in two months by becoming genuinely interested in other people than you can in two years of trying to get people interested in you.” We all know this, but the pull to talk about ourselves or space out, or to glance down at our watch or an incoming text can damage the sense of being liked, heard, and understood. Such feelings may increasingly arise in our wired society, where gentle conversations compete with a barrage of compelling distractions. Indeed, in a recent survey, we found that the strongest predictor of youth’s feelings of alienation in mentoring relationship was when they endorsed the item, “I feel ignored” or noted that the mentor didn’t listen. Explicitly teaching mentors listening skills as well as the importance of putting away their phones and other distractions and focusing on their mentee during the time they are together may be helpful in this regard.
Mentees may be more likely to open up when there’s fun and levity in the relationships. In our study, laughter and joking around was high on the list of things that made the 15 year old feel understood by adults. Humor appears to be particularly effective strategy for encouraging feelings of closeness and willingness to disclose. A growing number of studies have highlighted the value of laughter, as it encourages people to open up. Even if there is humor, few youth will open up if trust is lacking. In fact, the two main factors that define trust are reliance (relying on another’s skills, knowledge, judgement, or action) and disclosure (sharing information of a sensitive nature) (Dietz, 2011; Gillespie, 2012). In other words, youth need to know that their mentors are reliable, honest, tuned into them, and protective before they will confide about their hopes and dreams (Rotenberg 2012). Through an intensive analysis of data on trust, my colleagues and I (Levine, Spencer, & Rhodes, 2017), found that a key determinant of trust was transparency and consistency around scheduling meetings. Mentors’ occasional disclosures of something personal about themselves was also helpful, as it signaled that the mentor had trust in the youth.
Share fondness and admiration
“Our deepest desire is to be appreciated, so show genuine appreciation 0– not through flattery but through praise of specific behaviors and attributes.” Dale Carnegie
Gottman describes this principle as not only noticing but expressing appreciation for positive attributes. As he notes, it’s basically “a habit of mind that scans our world for things to admire, be proud of in our partner, and appreciate. This is the opposite of a critical habit that scans for our partner’s mistakes. Then the appreciation needs to be expressed verbally or nonverbally – it can’t stay hidden. This is the idea of catching someone doing something right and thanking them for it, of actively building a culture of appreciation and respect in the relationship.” Of course, mentors also need to feel valued and appreciated as well. In one study of mentor-youth dyads, we found that mentors’ sense that their mentees were not improving, would rather be doing something else, or were not interested in the relationship contributed to mentor’s negative perceptions of closeness.
Have a “Toward” orientation
Gottman has observed that, in any interaction, there are countless ways, both verbal and nonverbal, that people let their needs be known. They’re making what he calls “bids” for emotional connection: “They are asking for attention, interest, conversation, humor, affection, warmth, assistance support and so on. These tiny moments of emotional connection form an emotional bank account that gets built over time…the fundamental law of turning toward is that it leads to more turning toward.”
In Renee Spencer’s interviews with successful mentors, she uncovered an exquisite example of a mentor taking a “toward” approach. Louisa, a successful marketing director was matched with Anna, a socially anxious 14 year old. Despite time, consistency, and her best efforts, Luisa felt that there remained a hidden barrier, a shyness and vulnerability, that prevented Anna from fully opening herself to Luisa’s interest and support. Over time, Luisa grew frustrated – it always fell on her to initiate contact, make plans, carry the conversation, etc. One evening in October, three and a half months into the relationship, Anna unexpectedly reached out to Luisa, who knew instinctively that Anna had had to overcome a wall of anxiety to dial her number. Yet she also sensed excitement in her quiet voice as she tentatively asked, “Um..would you like to go to Salem with me on Thursday or Friday?’
“And this was a huge step” Luisa recalls, “because it was the first time that she had called me and asked me to set up a time to hang out and she had come up with the activity. So I was juggling all kinds of Halloween plans…and immediately I was like ‘Absolutely.’ So I turned down all these plans, with these parties just because it meant so much to me that she had called with an idea. And I was gonna make it happen, you know?”
In private conversations, Luisa and Anna each described this trip as a critical experience of emotional bonding. Gottman notes that responses such as Luisa’s, along with the other approaches described above, create a positive feedback loop that lead to more opportunities for closeness. And, like a like a good house, they buffer the inevitable winds of conflicts and disappointments that may arise.
By Jean Rhodes
12 April 2017
Many U.S. teens engage in risky sexual behaviors, making our teen pregnancy, abortion, birth, and sexually transmitted infection (STI) rates unusually high. The information and cultural messages teens hear about sex and pregnancy play an important part. But what messages are teens hearing, and how are they responding? These questions are the focus of my new book, Mixed Messages: Norms and Social Control around Teen Sex and Pregnancy.
My research team interviewed young people from a wide variety of backgrounds and communities, focusing on college students and teen parents and asking them about messages related to sex and pregnancy they heard during high school. Our participants described a complicated social world filled with strict rules, inconsistencies, silence, gossip, control by adults, and pushback from teens.
Teens are hearing mixed messages that are combined with a lack of support from adults. Our participants talked about hearing strong opinions against teen sex and pregnancy from parents and other adults, but these opinions were rarely backed up with much concrete information or support to help teens conform to them. Our participant "Isaac" (all names are pseudonyms) said that parents in his community told teens, “Don’t get pregnant. I don’t care how you do it. I’m not going to give you condoms. You’re not supposed to get pregnant when you’re seventeen.” Parents often threatened severe consequences if teens broke their rules, all the while not usually providing contraception or concrete advice about how to successfully navigate a romantic relationship or potential sexual situation. Many young people reported feeling scared, powerless, and unsupported.
An important part of this climate around teen sex and pregnancy are the conspiracies of silence that teens, parents, and other people engage in. Because the rules against teen sex and pregnancy are usually strict and the threatened punishments for breaking them so severe, teens and the people who care about them are motivated to turn a blind eye to any rule violations. In nearly all families, this meant avoiding what Veronica called the “me having sex talk.” To accomplish this, both parents and teens sidestepped the topics of sex and pregnancy or talked hypothetically about them. This strategy kept many teens from getting concrete advice about their relationships and behaviors, accessing contraception, and talking to an adult about whether they are ready for sex.
Teens’ friends aren’t able to provide the support teens need, and they often present a real danger to teens. But this danger usually isn’t what we might expect. Most friendship groups are not pressuring each other to have sex or get pregnant. Instead, peers are dangerous because they are relying on each other for information and practical support that they aren’t really able to provide. This can lead to misinformation and bad decisions. Peers are also dangerous because they socially exclude each other in hurtful ways based on rumors and innuendo that are often not true. Because high school students are stuck spending all day with their peers, the threat of social exclusion makes the world of friends and peers a risky place for teens. Participants told stories of people yelling “Baby killer!” in the school hallway to a girl who, it was rumored, had an abortion; pregnant girls dropping out of school because of poor treatment from students and teachers; and sexually assaulted girls being made laughingstocks. Close friends were often supportive, but the wider circle of peers represented a threatening and powerful arena of social judgment in which unfounded rumors were enough to condemn a teen.
Finally, I found that the messages your teen hears depends a lot on the local community. There were striking differences in the messages U.S. teens hear about sex and pregnancy. In some less religious communities, abortion was begrudgingly tolerated as what Claudia called “the easiest, cleanest, most discreet thing.” In some more religious places, abortion was such a grave sin that some people praised teen mothers for having chosen not to have one. Teens in wealthier communities heard strong messages about not messing up their bright futures, and the implicit promise of money for college may have encouraged them to refrain from sex or to contracept very consistently. In all communities, though, teens were told that sex is a bad idea, yet many of them became sexually active anyway, often not using contraception carefully and sometimes ending up pregnant. This suggests that our cultural messages aren’t working the way we would like them to.
What can parents and other adults do to help remedy this situation? I argue that it is important to communicate openly with teens and empower them to make their own thoughtful, mature, and ethical decisions. Their decisions can be better if they get support and information from people they trust. Then hold them to high standards regardless of their sexual decisions. If, like most teens, your teen becomes sexually active at some point, help him make sure that decisions don’t threaten his future or compromise his own ethics or his relationships with family members and friends. Paradoxically, by making teens feel less scared, powerless, and unsupported, we may be able to gain more leverage over their behavior and reduce the risks they face.
By Stefanie Mollborn
14 April 2017
Stefanie Mollborn is an Associate Professor in Sociology and the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Attachment research studies the dynamics of interpersonal relationships beginning with the earliest connection between humans, that of primary caregiver and infant. Attachment behavior from early childhood guides brain development, impacts the levels of cortisol released in response to stress, and has important consequences for emotional and social development.
According to Karlen Lyons-Ruth, a developmental psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, “the attachment system is “ a psychological version of the immune system.” It combats and reduces stress much like the immune system is the biological structure for fighting physical disease. She and her colleagues have used standard coding measures to analyze the interactions between parent and infant in the first months of life. They identify a type of emotion communication between parent and child called “disorganized attachment.”
In these research experiments, developmental psychologists study patterns of caregiving and infant response. They typically focus on emotional communication during moments of distress for the infant and the corresponding capacities of the caregiver to soothe, calm, offer protection to the infant and help them regulate emotion. Attachment research also examines the moments of the mother’s reunion with the child, as for instance when she returns to the room where the infant is after having been absent.
What happens between mother and child in moments of distress? When attachment functions well the caregiver defends the infant from fear, emotionally “buffering” the infant and reassuring him or her they are safe from harm. When attachment is sensitive and attuned, the caregiver provides a safe base from which the infant can explore.
In disorganized patterns the parent is unable to function in the protective role of caregiver or to identify with a child’s subjective needs. Lyons-Ruth observed what she calls “parental affection communication errors” between caregiver and infant. Affective communication was disrupted, mismatched or out of sync. When faced with threat the child turns to the primary caregiver, which can be a mother or father, with the expectation they will receive protection and reassurance. In disorganized attachment, the parent reacts to the child’s upset by being frightened or frightening to the child, themself – compounding the child’s fear. American academic Mary Main calls disorganized attachment “fear without solution.”
Such caregiving patterns strongly predicted disorganized attachment. Under these circumstances, the distress of the child is never marked, recognized or mirrored by the mother. Instead the mother transmits mixed signals of approach/avoidance, for example by trying to sooth the infant, but standing out of reach or by laughing at the infant while trying to placate. This in turn, induces feelings of confusion in the child. To them, the parent’s behavior is unpredictable and erratic. The disorganized response of the child in effect duplicates the unintegrated communication of the mother.
Some researchers hypothesize that disorganization of infant attachment comes from the parent’s own unresolved fears, which are transmitted to the disturbed child the behavior that itself arouses fear in the infant. The child is conflict about whether to approach the caregiver because the parent becomes a paradoxical figure, both the source of anxiety and the safe haven.
Two subgroups of disorganized attachment were detected in these research experiments: disorganized secure attachment and disorganized insecure attachment.
1). Disorganized secure attachment (disorganized-approach) results from “helpless” mothers who fail to respond to the child or take initiative when the child is distressed. They counteract the infant’s fear by withdrawing, moving away. They seem inhibited and fragile. Yet the infant often persists in trying to approach the caregiver although the child does so tentatively, with apprehension and uncertainty. Many mothers of in this subtype eventually acquiesced in soothing their infant. Yet overall these “helpless” mothers did not act with confidence or provide adequate emotional structure in response to the child’s emotional needs. Researchers found this type of interaction characteristic of low-risk mothers from a middle class income. This type of mother perceived the child as uncontrollable, unmanageable, and was overwhelmed by their needs.
2). The second subtype observed was disorganized insecure attachment (disorganized-avoid/resist). This behavioral profile showed mothers who more openly rejected the child in moments of the infant’s distress. These caregivers exhibited threatening, hostile and intrusive behaviors. They were unable to recognize the child’s vulnerability in times of fear arousal or their own feelings of susceptibility. Studies suggest these mothers had often experienced physical abuse themselves or been a witness to violence.
Lyons-Ruth concludes that both these subtypes present a “helpless/hostile” model of disorganized attachment relations. Certain trajectories of development were observed in studies that lasted over a period of several years beginning with the child’s infancy. In these studies, disorganized attachment resulted in the later parentification of the child or what Lyons-Ruth calls “role-confused behaviors” between parent and child. Over time, the child psychologically assumed parental functions in the relationship since the caregiver appeared incapable of doing so. The child adopted relational strategies of role-reversal and began to care for the mother who acted helpless and fearful when confronted with a fearful situation. In other words, a confusion of roles eventually occurred when the parent was unable to defend the child from threat and execute usual parental tasks -- so the child became caregiver to the parent and then brought this dynamic into other social relations with peers once they began preschool.
Two different kinds of caregiving styles resulted once these children reached age 6. One group of children was solicitous and overly-concerned with regard others in their expanding world. In social interactions outside the home, these children tended to focus on others and disassociate from their own needs. Within the school environment these kids were observed to inhibit their own play and exploration.
The second group of children, mirrored their “hostile/intrusive” mothers and developed behaviors that were punitive in relation to the needs of their school age peers. These children also expressed “chaotic play” at preschool through “themes of unresolved danger and blocked access to care and safety,” according to the research.
Role-confusion in the early attachment phase is problematic because it interferes with the child’s own age-appropriate developmental tasks. Important for the growing child is the ability to overcome situations of threat and insecurity and to then turn toward other achievements and psychological challenges. But many children who had disorganized attachment patterns in infancy began to develop a “false-self” in preschool by focusing on the needs of others at the expense of their own needs or by responding in an impatient, hostile way to their own needs, as well as those of their friends.
These studies conclude that without family interventions that expand the caregiver’s range of emotional responses to the infant when the child is confronted with a threat and fostering new skills for balancing the needs of self and other, patterns of disorganized attachment and role-reversal are perpetuated across generations when infants whose fears go unanswered later become parents themselves.
Lyons-Ruth, K. (2002). The Two-Person Construction of Defenses: Disorganized Attachment Strategies, Unintegrated Mental States, and Hostile/Helpless Relational Processes. Journal of Infant, Child & Adolescent Psychotherapy, 2(4), 107-119.
Vulliez-Coadya, L., Solheimb, E., Nahumc, J. P., & Lyons-Ruth, K. (2016). Role-Confusion in Parent-Child Relationships: Assessing Mother's Representations and its Implications for Counseling and Psychotherapy Practice. The European Journal of Counseling Psychology, 4(2), 205–227.
By Molly S. Castelloe
12 April 2017
What pushes a teenager to suddenly drop out of high school? The answer: any number of very stressful "trigger" events that occur in their final few months in class, researchers at Université de Montréal's Public Health Research Institute have found.
In fact, adolescents exposed to severe stressors are more than twice as likely to drop out in the following few months compared to similar schoolmates who are not exposed, says the study led by UdeM pyschoeducation professor Véronique Dupéré.
The stressors are not always school-related. In fact, most occur away from school and can involve family members (divorcing parents, for example), conflicts with peers, work issues (being laid off), health issues (a car accident) and legal issues.
Previous studies of high-school dropouts have concentrated on individual triggers, such as teen pregnancy. The UdeM study, published in late March in Child Development, looked at a wide array of severe events across the spectrum of adolescent experience, in and away from school.
"That's how we were able to show for the first time that the prevalence of these events is quite high in the months preceding a student dropping out of school," Dupéré said. "It happens quite frequently, and it's not just one type of event they're exposed to; there are many."
Dropping out is usually seen as the result of vulnerabilities a student has exhibited in school over a long period, including learning problems at an early age. What is less well-understood is why students with no history of difficulty in school quit suddenly, or why vulnerable students who quit do so at different times, some earlier than others.
The UdeM study looked at 545 adolescents of about 16 years of age at 12 public high schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods in and around Montreal between 2012 and 2015, where the average dropout rate was 36 per cent, more than twice the Quebec average. The students were interviewed at length about stressors in their life over the previous year. One third of the participants had just dropped out, another third were schoolmates with a similar academic profile and family background, and a final third were average, not-at-risk students.
The interviews focused on two types of stressors: "discrete" events (e.g., the relapse of a bipolar parent) and chronic difficulties lasting at least a month (e.g., incapacitation due to a concussion). Adolescents were asked about stressors in school, at work, in housing, with money, involving criminal or legal issues, accidents or health problems, personal relationships (with friends, family and romantic partners), and more. Specific questions then honed in on areas such as education: course failures, program or school changes, conflicts with teachers, suspensions and such.
The study found significant differences between dropouts and the two other groups in their exposure to severe stressors in the three months before the interview. In those three months, exposure to at least one severe stressor spiked among dropouts and reached nearly 40 per cent, more than twice as high as that of at-risk and average students (18% and 16.8 %, respectively). Moreover, the results showed that exposure to two or more severe events was 12 times higher among dropouts (6%) than among at-risk (0.5%) and average (0.6%) schoolmates.
About one-third of the severe difficulties that dropouts faced were school-related (23% involved protracted course failure, 6% involved chronic conflicts with school personnel), whereas one-quarter (25%) involved recurring family conflicts. Chronic health problems made up 18% of the overall total, distributed about evenly between the participants themselves and their significant others. Problems with peers and romantic relationships accounted for 16%, recurring criminal or legal problems were rare (2%), and the final 10% were miscellaneous problems.
Other studies have suggested that disruptive events like pregnancies, arrest, hospitalization or changing schools are associated with increased chances of dropping out. The UdeM study goes further, showing that about two out of every five dropouts are exposed to some kind of significant stressful event several months before quitting school. In other words, recent stressors are quite common among dropouts, more so than previously thought. The new study also clarifies when stressors matter for dropping out: in the few months following exposure.
"These findings show that the risk of high school dropout is not predetermined over the long run," Dupéré said. "Rather, it fluctuates and becomes higher when adolescents have to deal with challenging situations in their lives. School personnel thus need to be aware of their students' changing needs in and out of school to provide them with the right kind of support at the right time."
Source: University of Montreal
10 April 2017
Shame affect is a complex, multidimensional emotion which has been identified in many children who have been abused or neglected. Situational shame is also experienced by many individuals when they are in shame-producing situations. These include places where they may feel a sense of exposure, ridicule or embarrassment.
Many children who are brought in for therapy have a mixture of depression, anxiety, anger, shame and confusion. How internalized (chronic) shame affect, based on their history of being shamed, impacts on their current feelings of shame as they start treatment, is not clearly understood. Certainly, the severity of internalized shame, as well as the severity of the current shame-producing situation, will play a role in the development of their shame affect. There may be a complex interaction between these types of shame and how children experience it.
Children who grow up with distanced parents, who are often critical and harsh, are prone to develop low self-esteem and shame. Those who internalize shame have chronic feelings of inferiority. They often have memories of failure and ridicule.
Shameful feelings can easily be triggered during daily events. Shame manifests itself in the form of social anxiety, negative self-talk, anger or aggression, or submissive behavior A client who has ongoing memories of rejection and shameful events may develop a distorted view of himself. A child may come to think she is defective and unworthy. This may impact children’s social interactions, academic performance and goal attainment. It seems clear that any child who feels worthless and unwanted will have severe trouble motivating themselves to succeed in school or in social activities.
It is also a natural response for a child to want to hide, or refuse to speak, when they feel shameful. It is a way to seek safety and to temporarily escape. They may also expect a new therapist to treat them the way an abusive caregivers did. In some cases, the child will become verbally aggressive and blame everyone, including the new clinician, for their various problems.
They may ask, “Why can’t you get me into a better home right away? You are not going to be able to help me, no one can. You probably don’t care about me either.” This may be a mixture of shame induced anger and rage. Therapists who observe this reaction often think it is resistance.
Perhaps a more therapeutic approach would focus on why this child is so angry. Angry outbursts may help them temporarily push away shame affect. They are feeling angry toward themselves and others, and unwanted. The child may also be testing the clinician to see if they will reject or accept them. A caring and compassionate therapist – or adult in a child’s life – can provide a strong, corrective emotional experience for this type of child by consistently showing them that they are valuable and special.
Some critical questions need to be addressed. Is the child upset with themselves for any of their past conduct? Do they feel like a failure? Do they have suicidal thoughts?
How can we help children who attend therapy when we know they have shameful feelings as they begin treatment? Therapists can ask them how they feel as they start sessions. Is it easy or hard for them to speak about their family and how they were treated? The clinician can also give them credit for cooperating or attending the sessions, even though they may not want to be there.
Self-blaming and global self-disgust may be present as well. Using a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) approach, the therapist can help the child slowly shift their rigid thinking process. This type of child often thinks they are a worthless loser who always gets into trouble. The goal would be to help them recognize that some of their past behaviors were wrong and unacceptable, but they, as a person, are good and valuable. (Psychologist Albert Ellis uses this approach). This, in essence, is helping them feel guilty about their past behavior, rather than shameful about themselves. Guilt is more adaptive in that it can lead to remorse and self-correction.
Of course, many children struggle to make sense of their past experiences. Why were they treated so poorly? It is very confusing and difficult for a young child to comprehend what has occurred to them. They may come to blame themselves and think they deserved to be punished. During therapy this particular issue can be addressed.
The client will need to slowly internalize the concept that they did not do anything that would warrant any form of abuse. This will take time and patience. Once the therapeutic alliance is established the child can speak about their past shameful experiences. Verbalizing their feelings and receiving supportive feedback will help them recover.
Clinicians also need to keep in mind the potential for counter-transference. They can have positive or negative reactions to a child, who could also remind them of someone they know. The therapist may feel frustrated, annoyed, confused or excited when they meet with the child. They may also feel shameful when they feel stuck and unable to help the child make needed changes. They may also change the way they treat the child – perhaps they give extra time to someone they admire, or less time to the client who is irritable and challenging. Clinicians need to monitor their work habits and ask their supervisor for objective feedback.
In sum, shame affect is an important underlying emotion. Therapists may, at times, overlook shame, since it is often hidden by depression, anxiety, and outbursts of anger. Hopefully, with additional training and awareness this important emotional will be identified and treated.
By Phil Feldman
10 April 2017
Phil Feldman, Ph.D., LCSW, teaches at Rutgers University, Graduate School of Social Work and has experience working as a psychotherapist and clinical supervisor for 27 years. He is the author of “The Psychotherapy Manual, The Co-occurring Disorders Manual and Shame Affect Theory, Research, and Clinical Treatment.”
A Hungarian film titled “Sing” recently won the Oscar for best short film. “Sing” tells the story of young Zsófi, who joins a renowned children’s choir at her elementary school where “everyone is welcome.”
Soon after joining, Zsófi is told by her teacher Erika not to sing, but only mouth the words. On the face of it, she accepts her teacher’s request stoically. But later in the movie, her anguish and pain become obvious, when she reluctantly tells her best friend what happened.
The movie goes on to reveal that Zsófi isn’t the only choir member who has been given these hurtful instructions. The choir teacher’s defense is, “If everybody sings, we can’t be the best.”
I have been a professor of music education for the past 28 years, and I wish I could say that the story of a music teacher asking a student not to sing is unusual. Unfortunately, I have heard the story many times.
In fact, research shows that many adults who think of themselves as “unmusical” were told as children that they couldn’t or shouldn’t sing by teachers and family members.
All children are musical
Children are natural musicians, as they readily sing, dance and play music from the time they are infants. People ask me all the time how they can tell if their child has musical talent. I assure them that their child – indeed every child – has musical ability that can be developed into a satisfying and lifelong relationship with music.
However, as they get older, some children begin to get messages from peers, family members, the media and (unfortunately) music teachers that they may not be very musical – that they don’t have “talent.”
The ‘talent’ mindset
Shows like American Idol have promoted the notion that singing is a rare ability reserved for the talented few, and that those without such talent entertain us only by being ridiculed and weeded out.
This “talent mindset” of music runs counter to what psychologist Carol Dweck calls the “growth mindset” that is considered critical for learning: Students who view their success as a result of hard work will persevere through challenges, while students who believe their success lies with some innate ability – like “talent” – are more likely to give up.
My own research found that if children have a negative view of themselves as singers, they are much less likely to participate in music of any kind.
These self-perceptions of a lack of musical talent can then become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Research shows that adults who dropped out of music as children may lose their singing skills through lack of use and opportunity.
Kids who love music but do not think of themselves as musical could miss out on many of the social and cognitive benefits of music participation, on the experience of feeling connected to others through song. These benefits have nothing to do with talent.
Get children singing
How can we send children the message that singing is for everyone? I argue that change could begin both at home and at school.
For example, if you are a parent, you could sing the music you loved growing up and not worry about how good you sound. Having an adult in the home committed to music and singing without shame may be the most powerful influence on a child. You could sing with your kids from the time they are little, sing with the radio, sing in the car or sing at the dinner table.
As for my fellow music teachers, I ask that you encourage all of the children in your classrooms, schools and communities to sing whenever and wherever they get a chance. The sad truth is, when we, the musical experts, discourage a child from singing, it can deliver a fatal blow to the child’s musical self-image.
Music teachers need to teach in a climate of collaboration and participation where all voices are heard and valued – not one of audition and competition where only the best can sing.
The movie “Sing” is actually titled “Mindenki” in Hungarian, which means “Everybody.” That’s the uplifting message that Zsófi and her choir mates teach Miss Erika in the end. Singing is not reserved for the few: Either everybody sings or nobody should.
By Steven M. Demorest
25 March 2017
Steven M. Demorest is Professor of Music Education at Northwestern University
Many well-meaning parents tend to over-share what’s going on in their personal lives with their kids – whether it’s by telling them about their most recent conflict at work or complaining about issues at home with their partner.
But according to psychologists, continuously confiding in your child can be damaging to their long-term emotional well-being. And while an isolated incident of rehashing a bad day at work won’t cause harm, regularly discussing adult problems the way you would with a peer, forces children into inappropriate parenting roles similar to that of proxy therapists or surrogate spouses.
“Children should not be serving the intimate needs of a parent, or placed in the role of secret-keeper,” says Lisa Hooper, a researcher and professor at the University of Louisville. In divorced families, for instance, parents can fall into the trap of relying on their kid as a “confidant” – by revealing private information in the way of venting about the father/mother, or by having them mediate conflicts.
Experts believe this kind of behaviour creates an atmosphere of neglect, because children are made responsible for looking after the emotional and psychological well-being of the parent while suppressing normal childhood needs.
Hooper notes that “when a child starts serving as a friend to the parent, and the parent is getting his or her needs met through the child, that becomes problematic.”
Her research has shown that the effects of childhood parentification can be long-lasting and multi-generational. In one study published in the Journal of Family Therapy, data was taken from 783 university students to evaluate the link between their childhood roles and responsibilities with their later adult psychological functioning. It found that people who experienced early parentification were at an increased risk of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and substance misuse as an adult.
“Parents and caregivers ought to be at the top of the hierarchy in the family system,” says Hooper. And while it’s true that children who take on more adult-like roles can have positive outcomes, such as a strong work ethic, resilience, and self-sufficiency, when taken to the extreme, you’ll start to see kids anxiously caring for others, compulsively overworking, and striving to juggle their responsibilities at school with their role of confidant at home.
“A child imbued with a very early sense of responsibility may carry that trait forward with them forever,” says Gretchen Kubacky, a clinical psychologist and relationship expert in Los Angeles.
Despite good intentions, learning where to draw the line can be especially tricky for parents who want to be seen as their child’s “best friend”. In many cases, it’s because they have their own history of attachment issues caused by growing up with distant, rigid, or neglectful caregivers – and now tend to overcompensate by becoming overly involved in their kid’s life.
“Friendship is reciprocal, based on a mutual sharing of equanimity and equality,” says Fraga. And children simply don’t possess the same emotional maturity and understanding that adults do. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be loving and caring, but that you distinguish between being honest and supportive, and maintaining appropriate boundaries.
Fraga believes that line is being crossed more and more these days with our culture of over-sharing on social media and influences in pop culture. An example of these blurred boundaries can be seen on the hit TV series Gilmore Girls, in which the mother-daughter relationship between Rory and Lorelai has long been characterised by an enviable quality of closeness. But as with many parent-child friendships, the consequences don’t show up until after adolescence.
In previous seasons, Lorelai comes across as a mother with a penchant for over-sharing with her teen daughter, often blurring the line between parent and bud. This light form of parentification can seem harmless, but fast-forward to a now 32-year-old Rory, and the lax boundaries she shared with her mom come back to haunt her. The new season reboot, A Year in the Life, offers a portrait of a Rory who struggles with bouts of anxiety, and difficulty trusting in her own decisions regarding her career and love interests.
“As adults, children who have been parentified tend to lack confidence and (have) an inability to believe that they can think their way through the simplest of life’s problems,” notes Fraga. “It can really eclipse a person’s ability to receive and to be loved as adults, because it’s too dangerous to let someone in when you’ve been crashed into.”
In his book, Lost Childhoods: The Plight of the Parentified Child, author Gregory Jurkovic wrote that children who take on parental roles during their formative years are later plagued by interpersonal distrust, ambivalence, involvement in harmful relationships, and a destructive sense of entitlement as adults.
“Boundaries should be able to be flexible, and expand and contract based on what is age-appropriate,” says Hooper. It’s fine for parents to share daily happenings with their kids but essentially, it comes down to sharing information according to a child’s development, and no more than what they can deal with. Ultimately, responsible parenting isn’t synonymous with holding back or showing indifference, but an ability to differentiate between where you end and your child begins.
5 April 2017
The first conference on protecting children and youth from the risks of social media activities was held in Kuwait from 21 to 23 March 2017. It aimed at examining innovative ways and measures on how to protect young people from the dangers and challenges of the social media, related to ethical, legal, social and educational aspects.
The event was organized under the patronage of His Highness, the Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah and gathered renowned experts from Kuwait, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) States, Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, the United States of America, Mexico and INTERPOL, to joint efforts and strengthen cooperation for addressing rising threats posed by the new virtual reality.
At the opening ceremony, on behalf of the Kuwaiti Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister, Mr Sheikh Khaled Al-Jarrah Al-Sabah, expressed hopes that this conference will raise further awareness about the important issues at stake and present possible solutions. He further referred to the crucial role of parents in protecting children from the negative impact of social media. “The first line of defense for protection lays with the family, and particularly the parents, through controlling and observing the websites and programmes children use, in addition to warning them on the harmful ones,” he said.
Dr Boyan Radoykov, from UNESCO’s Knowledge Societies Division, Communication and Information Sector, underlined that ensuring safe cyberspace for young people must remain high on the national agendas, strategies and legislation. He then presented the work of UNESCO and its Information for All Programme (IFAP) in this area and emphasized that “embracing coherent ethical guidelines is essential in face of increasing globalization”. “Thus, the definition and adoption of best practices and voluntary, self-regulatory, professional and ethical guidelines should be encouraged among media professionals, information producers, users and service providers with due respect to freedom of expression,” he added.
Content in cyberspace can have far-reaching and harmful consequences for children and youth. A mass of unverified, contradictory information is made available to them, some of which is highly emotive, that can have a long-term effect on their stability and personality. Furthermore, extremist groups are increasingly effective in using Internet and social media in order to promote hatred and violence. The participants thus agreed that using lengthily social media could have a considerable and sometimes negative influence on children, who may suffer from health and psychological problems, in addition to being subjected to cybercrimes, identity theft, blackmailing or even to sexual harassment.
As a consequence, the involvement and increased cooperation among governmental bodies, educational institutions, international organizations, private sector and NGOs is required in order to ensure an enabling online environment and to teach the children in positive ways to use social media. In that respect, Media and Information Literacy programmes (MIL) are essential. UNESCO’s representative insisted that Internet should be used as a tool to empower young people, enabling them to express and reach their aspirations for the benefit of all society. This calls for new skills in media and cultural literacy, as well as quality education and new forms of global citizenship.
The participants also called on the moral corporate responsibility of the Internet providers that should be fully involved in finding solutions and in dealing with threats that are targeting children and youth in cyberspace.
Ethical principles for knowledge societies derive from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and include the right to freedom of expression, universal access to information, the right to education, the right to privacy and the right to participate in cultural life. The international debate on information ethics addresses the ethical, legal and societal aspects of the applications of information and communication technologies (ICTs). UNESCO, through its Information for All Programme (IFAP), seeks to address these challenges towards equitable, inclusive and participatory global knowledge societies.
30 March 2017
We're all familiar with the naughty step, a perennially popular parenting method recommended by everyone from TV parenting experts to health professionals alike.
The idea is simple: if your child is doing something you don't like, then ignoring the behaviour and punishing the child by removing him or her to a step, stool, or spot, for a few minutes will ultimately extinguish the behaviour.
This is supposed to work for two reasons – one is that it is presumed children only 'act up' to get our attention, therefore if we ignore the behaviour we don't like they will stop acting that way and the other is it presumes that punishment makes children consider their wrongdoings and resolve to 'be better' next time. Only the idea is wrong.
Firstly, the assumption that children misbehave to get our attention is confused. Children don't deliberately 'do naughty things' to make us stop and give them our time. Children have a different brain structure to an adult and in almost all instances, they behave in a certain way, one that adults find undesirable, because they cannot stop themselves from doing so.
On the flip side, it is true that children need parental attention and unfortunately, in our busy modern society, they are often grossly lacking it. It is true therefore, that a child whose behaviour is regressing is probably a child who is crying out for more time and attention from their caregiver.
What they need however, is positive time and attention; hugs, conversation, somebody to listen to them, somebody to help calm the big feelings they are feeling, somebody to make them feel safe and secure.
The attention they get from the naughty step is anything of the sort. Instead of viewing 'attention-seeking behaviour' as negative and something to be punished, parents would do well to see it as the child's way of saying "I'm feeling overwhelmed right now, I can't stop doing this and I need your help to calm me and help me to control myself". Once again, excluding a child by placing them on the naughty step is exactly the opposite of the response they need.
Secondly, the assumption that punishing a child, by exclusion and withdrawal of attention, will result in them thinking about what they have done wrong and resolving to change their behaviour in the future is incredibly naïve, because it simply doesn't happen. Under the age of three years, the neocortex (the frontal section) of the brain is exceptionally immature, the neural connections are not yet fully formed and, as such, we may consider it underdeveloped. This segment of the brain is the most mature section: it differentiates adults from children and intelligent mammals – such as humans – from our less intelligent cousins in the animal world. The frontal cortex of the brain is the segment that is responsible for impulse control, emotional self-regulation and critical, analytical and hypothetical thought.
In layman's terms, if this section of the brain is not fully matured (as is the case with small children) we should not expect the child to be able to control their own behaviour, calm themselves down, really think about what they have done and the implications of their actions and/or motivate themselves to 'do better' next time.
Neuroscience proves, without doubt, the naughty step is an ineffective discipline method. It may appear to work, in that it provokes a superficial reaction of a more quiet and withdrawn child, but this response is produced because the child has been conditioned to internalise their emotions, or in other words keep them inside while maintaining an outward appearance of calm and quiet.
At first glance this might be a good thing – at least for the caregivers who now have a quieter child – however, for the child it is potentially highly damaging. Internalising emotions in early childhood can result in the child being unable to express their emotions in the tween and teen years, leaving them more prone to self-harm, eating disorders and depression.
They may also externalise these emotions at a later point, when they have reached an almost toxic level to keep inside – resulting in violent 'lashing out' behaviour such as bullying.
Of course, this may not happen, but both are a possibility when you 'teach' your child to not express their emotions at a very young age.
Most parents would be horrified at the idea of teaching their children to not talk to them about their concerns, worries or difficulties, for fear of repercussion if they do. This is exactly what the naughty step promotes, however. A young child cannot talk in-depth about their feelings, they can only do this through their behaviour, but an older child, tween and teen can.
One of the best ways you can ensure a close and open relationship with your child as they grow, especially into the teen years, is to listen to them in their early years.
'Naughty behaviour' is just that – behaviour. You don't have a 'naughty toddler', you have a child who is unable to control their impulses because of their immature brain structure, a child who cannot calm themselves and a child who has not yet grasped the idea of empathy.
Empathy, or the understanding of other's feelings, is an advanced skill that really does not begin to emerge until after the child's seventh birthday.
When we consider all of this, we quickly understand that the naughty step misunderstands the needs of young children and, more saliently, the physical and psychological development of the child.
While these techniques may seem to work in the short term, they are not 'working' for the reasons the experts tell us, they are not bringing about an internally motivated and long-lasting change in the child and it is quite likely that usage will result in bigger, more concerning issues as the child ages.
The best way to discipline? Understand the child's true neurological capabilities, provide an environment where they feel able to share their feelings with you – and gently guide their behaviour by acting as a role model yourself.
By Sarah Ockwell-Smith
22 March 2017