“Racehorses”: An Issue of Temperament

Although I have written about this before, I am revisiting the issue of “orchid” in contrast with “dandelion” children, or what I typically call “race horses”. These are “high reactive” children who are temperamentally sensitive. In India my students have referred to them as “rose children” in contrast with “grass children”. Jerome Kagan is famous for identifying this group of 10-20% of the normal population who are “slow to warm up” to novelty – strange people and experiences (Kagan, 1998, pp. 70-76). They are like the children who clung to their mothers when the experimenter introduced the robot in Kagan and Snidman’s lab (Kagan, Snidman et al, 2018). These children are wonderful – in fact, I am partial to them because they tend to be so interesting and are often very creative – but they are much harder to parent. 

I recently consulted to a lovely family with a 3-yo who was definitely a “race horse”. She was beautiful and articulate and an amazing pretend player with her parents, who were great at scaffolding her play. However, when I invited her to join me in play, while her parents sat in two chairs in the same room, she clung to her father and refused. The parents’ response was so helpful that I showed it to them on videotape, and I wanted to capture it for the sake of other parents.

After my invitation, when the girl clung to her father, her mother first lay down the expectation – “Daddy is going to stay right here, and you are going to play with Alex.” Despite the fact that the girl maintained her iron grip on her dad, the mother’s articulation of the expectation was crucial. Also helpful was the way both parents worked together – neither undercut the other by taking over or by criticizing the other’s actions. As I began a pretend play that interested her, the child pulled her father from his chair towards the play area on the rug. At first he resisted, but I encouraged him to accompany her, and he lay on the floor near his little daughter while she enthusiastically joined me in play. 

When I showed the video to her parents I suggested that they keep a mental image of this experience of scaffolding their child through her anxiety about a stranger, to her successful engagement in play. In two steps – the clear articulation of the expectation, and the (in this case physical) presence of a parent during the transition, they made it possible for their little racehorse to enjoy a game with a new person. Her pride at this mastery experience was demonstrated the next day when she told her teacher, unprompted, “I went to Alex’s house. It was fun!” Her parents will have many chances to repeat this scaffolding during her lifetime. I can imagine them taking her to college – telling her that they are going to leave at a certain point, allowing her to cling while they help her set up her room, maybe even spending the night in a hotel nearby the first night, making sure she connects with her roommate, etc, to ease the transition. 

Where do racehorses come from? Generally speaking, temperament is inherited. That means that high reactive parents tend to produce high reactive children. However, it is not only the DNA that is passed on to the children. We have seen in other postings (cite) that epigenetic changes also are inherited. Epigenetic changes are the way the environment influences the genome. For example, trauma in the life of a parent may affect the structure of the methyl groups sitting on top of the parent’s DNA and impact how the gene is turned on and off Epigenesis accounts in part for how trauma is transmitted across generations. Grandchildren of Holocaust survivors often showed signs of disturbance in their stress regulation. The general feature of this transmission of trauma is lowering the threshold for stress reactivity. 

Kagan J (1998). Three Seductive Ideas, Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. 

Kagan J, Snidman N, Arcus D, Reznick J (2018). Galen’s prophecy:           Temperament in human nature, New York:Routledge.

Dealing with Stress Reactions

In many people, especially young children with developmental quirkiness, a combination of highly reactive amygdala (one of the primary brain centers that responds to threat) and poorly developed cortical inhibitory processes, can generate maladaptive reactions to even minor stressors. The task of the caregiver is to grow the capacity to inhibit these maladaptive stress reactions. 

One way to do this is to make links between the stressor and the perception of threat, building more benign associations than the initial ones. These links include a more realistic assessment of the perceived threat (the shadow, the provocative driver) through the engagement of the more mature inhibitory system that can allow for reflection about the situation. This linking is often accomplished with explanations. For example, “I think that the reason you pinched the other child is that he was sitting in your place.” This simple suggestion can be followed by a reflection on a more adaptive response such as, “Maybe next time you could tell him that was your place and ask him to move.” Such an explanation, in order to be helpful, usually requires the context of a “safe” relationship, one in which trust has been built up over a series of empathic interactions. 

Other ways to build this self-regulatory capacity include occupational therapy (OT) and behavioral therapies. OT is particularly helpful when it involves frequent opportunities to practice activities that support brain growth, either with frequent therapy sessions or – preferably – when the therapist works with the parents and the school to institute therapeutic activities in the child’s home and school. Many activities support the development of self-regulation. They include repetitive, rhythmic, motor activities such as drumming, swinging, walking, (Perry, 2006). I have had good experiences with singing, primarily because of the soothing quality of some music, but also because of the regulating quality of controlled breathing involved in singing. Regarding behavioral therapies, I am biased towards behavioral therapies that emphasize the relationship between the clinician and the child. 

Unfortunately, many parents and teachers grow impatient with the slow pace of these therapeutic interventions or with the intensity that is sometimes required. They can be helped with gentle reminders that these interventions are not designed to “cure” a problem, but rather to “grow” new brain capacities. 

Dealing with Stress Reactions

Perry B (2006). Applying principles of neurodevelopment to clinical work with maltreated and traumatized children, the neurosequential model of therapeutics, reprinted from Working with Traumatized Youth in Child Welfare, edited by Nancy Boyd Webb. 

Porges S (2009). Reciprocal influences between body and brain in the perception and expression of affect, In: The Healing Power of Emotion: Neurobiological Understanding and Therapeutic Perspectives, Eds: D Fosha, D Siegel, M Solomon, WW Norton & Co.

Understanding Stress Reactions

One challenge to parents and teachers dealing with very young children, or children with impulse control problems or temper problems, is stress regulation. We as humans have multiple neural systems to regulate stress. In humans, the perception of threat is registered as stress, on a continuum from mild anxiety to overwhelming trauma. Our life experience and our genetic inheritance influence the meaning we make of sensory input – visual, auditory, touch, postural sensations – creating a repertoire of meaningful associations over time. Potential threat initiates what Bruce Perry calls “a cascade of patterned neuronal activity in these primitive areas of the brain, which moves up to more complex parts of the brain” (Perry, 2006, p. 31-32).

In my clinical experience I see children whose repertoire of meanings include traumatic touch, for example in children who have experienced abuse. I also see children for whom certain kinds of touch is perceived as threatening not because they have been abused, but because their sensory system is over-reactive to certain kinds of sensory information. One reason for this can be developmental problems subsequent to prematurity or genetic vulnerabilities. This sensitivity can also be true of visual and auditory stimuli. For some children, a direct gaze can be overwhelming, because they have been traumatized by violent experience – such as the color red – or because their social engagement system cannot tolerate direct social contact. 

Although current thinking conceptualizes the stress response in a more complex way, the traditional and simpler way of understanding the stress response in terms of the “paired antagonism” of parasympathetic and sympathetic systems of the autonomic nervous system (Porges, 2009, p. 4). According to this model, the sympathetic nervous system governs what is the commonly known as the “fight or flight” response. An initial response to the perception of a threat, registered in the limbic system of the midbrain, especially the amygdala, may cause flight or an aggressive reaction. For example, if an individual sees a threatening shadow in his room, he may lurch backwards, or if he is provoked by a competitive driver, he may gun his engine. Usually, however, an inhibitory response in the cerebral cortex is stimulated to calms the individual in the first instance so that he can inspect the shadow and realize that it is a coat hung on a chair and in the second instance so that he can reason with himself and consider the dire consequences of road rage.

Perry B (2006). Applying principles of neurodevelopment to clinical work with maltreated and traumatized children, the neurosequential model of therapeutics, reprinted from Working with Traumatized Youth in Child Welfare, edited by Nancy Boyd Webb. 

Porges S (2009). Reciprocal influences between body and brain in the perception and expression of affect, In: The Healing Power of Emotion: Neurobiological Understanding and Therapeutic Perspectives, Eds: D Fosha, D Siegel, M Solomon, WW Norton & Co.

Interventions in Infancy

Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

Now we are ready to look at infancy. As a matter of a fact, this topic may be relevant to parents of preschool children, since these parents are often having second or third children when their first is in preschool. What we are talking about is showing parents what they can do to help their babies feel secure. If babies feel secure and safe in the infant-parent relationship, they are creating the expectation that reunion with their parent will bring comfort and safety. That expectation is correlated with a “secure attachment strategy”. When the baby is upset and cannot manage to comfort himself, he anticipates that his mother (or other primary caregiver) will comfort him, so when his mother approaches, he already begins to calm down.

The infant mental health mini-course that the nonprofit organization, Supporting Child Caregivers (SCC), teaches emphasizes the three tasks of parents – to protect, nurture, and enjoy their children. We believe that parents deserve the support of the community in raising their children. That support begins with ensuring the physical and emotional support of the pregnant mother and continuing to support the parents of the growing child. The more parents can be protected from stress, or the more they can be helped to deal with the stress in their lives, the more they can help their babies feel secure. Of course, stress can come in different packages. Most of the work SCC does is in developing countries, where there is a high incidence of chronic poverty, domestic violence, and serious illness.

However, my work in the U.S. has taught me that the stress on parents of infants even in affluent communities can be great. One important source of stress is isolation. In contrast with collectivist societies, our society does not offer new mothers easy access to alternative caregivers such as family members or neighbors. In the Indian villages I visit, mothers congregate around the village square. In the U.S., new mothers often do not have a natural way of connecting with other mothers with whom to share their worries and complaints and to gain useful information. I want to emphasize that I am not suggesting it is easier to bring up an infant in a poor country, but only that in addition to similar stresses, there are also different ones.

For example, parents of newborns in the U.S. are often burdened by the cultural demand to “multi-task”. In order to feel productive and organized they believe they must be getting many things done. It is hard to do that when you have a newborn. In order to be available to respond to the baby, it is necessary to let go of most other agendas. This can be stressful to some parents. Also, in the age of technology, parents are often “plugged in”. It is painful to observe mothers pushing their babies in strollers while they talk on their mobile phones to some distant friend, and to imagine what their sense their babies are making of the relationship.

Another big stress in Western culture is the responsibility given to parents to produce a perfect child. The expectation that good parenting produces a good child is a relatively recent one in the history of humankind. The corollary can lead to relentless self criticism- if your child has problems, then you are not a good parent. Let me clarify an important point. Whereas I have been emphasizing sensitive and responsive caregiving as a building block of healthy development, I do not mean to say that good caregiving ensures a healthy child. This is part of what I was referring to in the previous post as “uniqueness” of the child and the family.

Children are different. Infants are different. Ask any parent of more than one child whether this is true. One of my criticisms of Attachment Theory is that it does not account for the uniqueness of infants and the active role they have in making meanings about safety in the infant-parent relationship. Do we doubt that a premature infant makes the same meanings about comfort and safety as a full term baby, or that a baby with high reactive temperament can be made to feel secure as easily as a baby with an easy temperament?

Let me talk about interventions in the next posting.

Other Alternatives to the “Little Girl with a Curl” Problem

Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

The second option is consultation to the parents, for example, video feedback. This can be a very effective way of showing parents in visual form the nonverbal communication they might be unconsciously giving their child. The therapy takes the form of the therapist’s analyzing videotapes taken in the therapist’s office, or sometimes in the family’s home, and then looking at them together with the parents. For example, in one family video of mine, the father was stretched out across the floor in a supplicating position, trying to get his son to comply with my request that they play together. (Remember that effective limit setting contributes in important ways to the child’s sense of security.)

Feedback like this is usually followed by an invitation for parents to talk about what they might have been feeling that motivated the behavior they saw on videotape. Often, the self-reflection initiated by the video images helps the parents identify inner conflicts that interfere with their conscious intention of setting limits on their child’s behavior. For example, in this case, the father might recall the way he felt controlled by his mother when he was a small boy. This unconscious identification with his son might be influencing his difficulty collaborating with his wife in setting limits on the boy’s behavior. The main drawback in using this excellent technique is expertise. It is very difficult to analyze videotape and relatively few clinicians are trained in it.

The third option is dyadic or family therapy. This option is a good choice in that it can help both parent and child (or the whole family) become more aware of the way they actually behave in relation to one another in contrast with the way they imagine they behave. With reference to Attachment Theory, the therapist might be seen as a new source of security, creating a sense of safety experienced by both parent and child, and allowing both to take risks at trying new approaches that might have seemed too difficult at home.

There are many schools of family therapy. For example, there is “structural family therapy” in which the therapist focuses on identifying dysfunctional patterns of relationships within the family and disrupting them in the service of creating more adaptive ones. By contrast, a psychodynamic family therapy might focus primarily on the symbolic themes presented by the family in a play session. For example, in one family meeting, the “problem child” instructed his parents to “help (him) herd the animals into the barn because a big storm is coming!” Despite the parents’ conscious intention to support their son’s agenda, the play ended without getting the animals into the barn. The therapist thought that the family was showing her their problem – they were showing her how helpless they all felt to contain the impulsive aggressive outbursts of this little boy (“the storm”).

The final option is individual psychotherapy – play therapy – for the child, plus parent meetings. Play therapy requires a therapist who is trained in psychodynamic psychotherapy. That means that the therapist has learned to make sense of the symbolic representation in play of the child’s inner world. For example, if the child anxiously fingers a broken toy and then moves to play with something else, the therapist might imagine that he is afraid of his own or someone else’s aggression and its destructive potential, and the therapist will attempt to explore the child’s more elaborated fantasies. In this case, the fantasies might be about the child’s fear that his aggressive behavior towards his mother will hurt her and destroy their relationship, making him a bad boy and causing him to be abandoned. The therapist might then slowly support the child’s capacity to reflect on these fantasies, gaining insight into what thoughts and feelings motivate the aggression – for example, that the mother loves his sister better than him – and helping him discover a more complex landscape of meanings than the polarized all bad and all good ones the child started with. The work with the parents will focus at least in part on helping the parents understand their child better, gain empathy for him, and learn new approaches to setting limits. For example, in this case, the mother might find ways to help her son make a repair after hurting her, instead of punishing him with a lengthy time out.

It is hard to describe these complicated processes in such an abbreviated way, but I have tried to offer you some ideas about what to do to try to make the “Little Girl with a Curl” problem better. Returning to Attachment, you can see that problems with roots in infancy can be approached in various ways later on; there are many ports of entry. Each individual is unique and will make different meanings of themselves and their family relationships. I will talk more about this uniqueness and its relationship to Attachment Theory in my posting on interventions in infancy.

 

Growing the Attachment Strategies of Preschool Children

Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

I am going to offer several ways of doing this, with the understanding that I will continue to think about it and add more later.

The first option is to intervene in the school setting with the help of teachers and other school professionals. The second is consultation to the parents, for example, video feedback. The third is dyadic or family psychotherapy. The fourth is individual psychotherapy for the child; this would necessarily include meetings with the parents. These options are offered in order of increasing intensity of intervention with the idea that if parents choose an intervention of lesser intensity that proves ineffective, they may then choose a more intensive alternative.

Intervention in the school setting is predicated on the assumption that school is a safe environment; that means that the child is adequately compliant with the teachers’ directives, follows the school routine, can access the school curriculum, and can relate to peers relatively well. If the school is safe for the child, the teacher and parent can prepare him or her for appropriate behavior at pickup by breaking up the transition into manageable steps, previewing the experience, and having a teacher available to coach the child and parent through the reunion.

The parent should follow up afterwards with behavior designed to consolidate the positive reunion by encouraging the child to talk about her day and giving the child comforting feedback for difficulties and positive recognition for achievements. This is the tricky part, because the pattern that gets established when the child makes a fuss about pickup generates stress in both parent and child, so that warm, responsive communication at pickup time is usually contaminated with anxiety. Even when the pickup is successful, both parent and child are anticipating some negative experience. Also, there is an unconscious pull back into the problem pattern. That is because it is a habit, well practiced and therefore “simpler”, taking less energy in the short run, though more in the long run.

The parent can try to make declarative statements instead of direct questions that put the child on the spot – starting the comment with “I’ll bet” or “I wonder if” or “I’m thinking that”, for example, “I’ll bet that you liked the cooking activity today,” or “I wonder if it was sad for you that Martha was absent from school today.” If the child gives monosyllabic responses, just tell her that you guess she needs to rest after a long day and maybe you can talk about it later.

The thinking behind this plan is not strictly behavioral. It draws on Attachment Theory and nonlinear systems theory (odd bedfellows, actually) in that it seeks to practice more adaptive interpersonal patterns – reunion – over and over again, with the input of support (“energy”) from the teachers. If a new strategy for reunion after a separation is more successful and is practiced enough to become a stable part of the parent-child relational repertoire, it can facilitate the child’s development in a more general sense.

I will discuss the other options in subsequent posts.

The Problem of “The Little Girl with a Curl”

Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

A particular problem has come to my attention over the years consulting to a preschool – children behaving in controlling and sometimes aggressive ways to parents at school transitions. Teachers report that the child behaves badly with his or her parents at drop off and pick up. Often the teachers express amazement that the children who seems well behaved in school, can change dramatically when they are with their parents – boss them around, even push or hit them. Another behavior characteristic of this problem is the child running away from the parent or refusing to come with them at pick up time. It is difficult for even the most empathic teacher to avoid the suspicion that the parents are somehow allowing their child to mistreat them by not setting adequate limits for the child. Supportive evidence is sometimes found in parents restraining from disciplining their children in the school.

This situation reminds me of a Mother Goose rhyme that my parents read me when I was a young child about a “little girl with a curl”. The rhyme goes, “There was a little girl who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very, very good. But when she was bad, she was horrid.” I always secretly worried that I might be that girl.

Perhaps partly for that reason, I have given this problem a good deal of thought. My conclusion is that the answer to the mystery of the “little girl with a curl” mystery is rather complicated. The reason I say this is that when I talk to the parents of these children, I get a wide variety of answers about their child’s behavior in different settings. Some children are relatively well behaved in most settings and become suddenly noncompliant and belligerent at pick up time. Other children are compliant when they are involved in activities but become disorganized and unhappy during unstructured time at home and in school. Some children are usually cooperative but have difficulty with all significant transitions – bedtime, getting up time, leaving an activity, etc. Other children are always a handful.

What ties together all the children who fuss at pick up time and behave defiantly with their parents but not necessarily with their teachers? All these children are expressing difficulty with finding a positive strategy for reuniting with their parent. The subject of reunion strategies falls into the domain of a theory that informs much current developmental research and that has now also become popular in the vernacular – Attachment Theory. I have talked about Attachment Theory in other blog postings, because of its importance in research. The essential feature of Attachment Theory is that it presents the infant’s essential motivation as staying close to the parent in order to feel safe and secure. If the infant achieves the capacity to feel secure in his relationship to his mother, then he is free to explore the world, knowing that he can easily return to the safety of that connection.

We know that an important but primitive response to threat is running away or aggression. Remember that the “fight or flight” response of the sympathetic nervous system is one of the main “bottom up” as opposed to “top down” responses of the stress regulation system. That means that we must feel confident in our capacity to achieve security in order to use our thinking brain to tell us what we should do in a threatening situation. Transitions are inherently threatening, even small ones, because they require us to disorganize ourselves on the way to a new organization. That is, we have to stop playing in the sandbox in order to join Mother, get into the car, stay still in the car seat, etc. Playing in the sandbox is a complex organization involving a cognitive plan (building a castle), a motor rhythm (dig, pour, pat; dig, pour, pat), an affective and physiological state (contented, calm); and maybe even a compelling interpersonal experience (collaboration or competition with a peer). That is a lot to take apart in order to get into the car. And the hardest part is the disorganization in between the sandbox play and the car seat, between one organized state and the other. How do children manage that transition? It starts in infancy with the regulatory aid of the parent.

These interpersonal regulatory patterns that start in infancy gain power and stability as parent and child repeat them over and over again during the course of daily life. One pattern, that Attachment Theory would call “secure”, is demonstrated by the parent-child dyad who are able to support the child in managing all these disorganizing (and therefore threatening) experiences of – letting go his plan of building the castle, discontinuing the motor rhythm, interrupting the calm and contentment, and giving up the competition or collaboration – and maintaining adequate regulation and sense of security until the new car seat organization is established. I say “parent-child dyad” because I do not see this activity of facilitation transition as emanating exclusively from the parent. Although sophisticated advocates of Attachment Theory would probably agree with me, Attachment Theory largely tends to place the responsibility squarely on the mother, who carries attachment patterns within her even before her child is born, according to the AAI.

I will tell you how I use these thoughts about Attachment Theory in my search for answers to the “girl with a curl” problem in my next posting.

More on Family Values

Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

I would like to add another piece to the posting of the previous post on family values. It is related to “truth” but what I am actually referring to is “pretend”. A recent Harvard Gazette (March 27, 2017) issue referred to a panel at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society discussing “fake news”. The panel noted the difficulty defining the term with clarity since it can encompass anything from an opinion piece cited as news to state-sponsored propaganda. What I found most interesting about the article was the focus on the idea that “fake news” has a “cultural logic” that appeals to a particular audience (Xiao Mina, ibid). Another scholar on the panel, Sandra Cortesi, suggested shifting the focus from the question of whether something was “true” or “false”, to the question, “What do you value?”(Cortesi, ibid). It seemed to me, reading the article, that this speaker was onto something.

In the past half century, our society has experienced a disorganization that has included a fracturing of traditional values. Maybe some of that fracture is due to the radical change in the way we communicate and even relate to one another at a distance through screens. Maybe it has to do with the related effects of globalization and the breakdown of the comfortable boundaries that affect our sense of safety. Maybe it also has to do with changing economic factors such as the loss of certain reliable jobs and the pressure to innovate. I am sure that economists, social psychologists, and sociologists have many more answers than I. However, it does bring me back to my emphasis on family values and how important they are. If societal changes create strain on traditional family values, what do we do? Living together in a civilized society requires certain rules; can we afford to give up values like “truth”?

I had an even more sobering thought. Being a child analyst, I am fascinated by and committed to the value of pretend. But pretend depends on truth for its existence. How many times has a child reassured me (or himself) by announcing firmly during a play session when the mother doll was getting skewered, “Don’t worry. It’s just pretend. It’s not true.” The difference between “pretend” and “fake news” is that pretend is a creative act that represents a meaning intolerable in its original form, such as a murderous wish. A pretend murder in play has fanciful elaborations – and most important – it has the flexibility to be undone. In its pretend form, it can be transformed to allow new possibilities. Whenever a child plays “good guys and bad guys”, I wait for that wonderful moment when one of the good guys switches over to the bad guy side. Then I might say to the child, “Hmm. If that good guy switched sides to become a bad guy, I wonder if a bad guy could switch to become a good guy.”

In his play, the child is creating a space for dynamic transformations that make possible positive change. That is not true for fake news. The political untruths and fake news spread by this political administration and some of its followers have none of these features. They are rigid, stark, and reductive. The false equivalency between the accusation of Obama’s foreign birth (the “birther controversy”) and Hillary’s misremembering a glorious but false event (the helicopter under fire incident) should be evident, even without the continued restatement of the former and the embarrassed retraction of the latter. Fake news makes a mockery of the idea of positive change.

We as parents and supporters of parents, which should include all of us, now face the challenge of reviewing our family values and growing them into the contemporary world. In many ways we need them more than ever. Truth – lies spread over the Internet have motivated anguish and even suicide in our youth. Responsibility – refusing to take responsibility for one’s actions – such as Trump’s accusations of Obama’s wiretapping, or inactions such as the poor preparation for replacing Obamacare, has degenerated into infantile assigning of blame. Respect – lack of respect for the beliefs of others, such as immigrants of other faiths and even for one another with different points of view, makes dialogue impossible. Protest – against offensive government actions, on the other hand, can invigorate us and force our elected representatives to behave according to our values. And I must add compassion, for those who would lose their safety net if certain government policies were enacted, and for those suffering the unimaginable horrors of war in other parts of the word. Yes, now is a time more important than ever to strengthen our family values – to live by them and to teach them to our children.

Co-Parenting II

Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

Co-parenting frequently breaks down in parents’ efforts to organize home life or set limits. That may be in part due to the emergence of different parental styles in the planning process, such as when the parents are deciding on a bedtime for their child or establishing family rules. One parent may feel that the organizational plan (for example, setting a regular bedtime, the number of warnings a child is allowed before a consequence, whether a child is allowed an alternative meal choice, etc.) is too rigid, while the other parent feels it is not strict enough. These conflicts often arise from what seems natural or necessary because of the parent’s own experience as a child. Sometimes the parent believes that the way their parents treated them shaped them in helpful ways. Other times the parent believes that the way they were brought up was hurtful and insensitive to their needs. In addition to differences in the way they grew up, problems in “co-parenting” may also arise from basic difficulties the parents have negotiating a common agenda. One parent may tend to be more controlling or bossy than the other, provoking the second parent to dig in their heels or resentfully submit, etc.

When these problems occur, it is important to return to a focus on the child. What is the child telling you that she needs? If she is tired the next day, perhaps she needs an earlier bedtime or some other change in her bedtime routine. (Of course, telling her this when you are trying to get her to go to bed will not usually lead to a good result!) If she requests something else to eat at the dinner table, perhaps an alternative meal choice is justified. It is good to be flexible within limits. The problem comes when parent and child – or parent and parent – get into an escalating control struggle and share the perception that only one winner will emerge from the battle. The truth of the matter is that in a struggle, there are always two losers. That is because both parents and child want the child to grow up healthy and strong, but struggles build unhealthy and maladaptive patterns in the child’s mind which are reinforced with subsequent struggles. The pull to get into a struggle, often against a background of family tension, can interfere with generating or establishing healthier patterns of interaction. Good co-parenting occurs when one parent can see that the other parent is in danger of falling into a struggle pattern and can give them the emotional support they need to avoid it.

Children need routines and predictability, especially in families with co-parenting difficulties, or in families of children with school or behavior problems. Often these two things go together because difficulty co-parenting clearly interferes with effective parenting, and also because some children are harder to parent and generate more than usual stress in their parents. Children with school and behavior problems may lack the personal resources to accommodate to the typical demands of school and family life. A common set of problems that cause trouble in school and at home are problems organizing oneself in time and space. That makes transitions particularly challenging – the transition from sleep to an awake state or from an awake state to sleep, from an activity to homework, from a video game to supper, from a quiet indoor activity to outdoor play, from free play to paying attention to the teacher, etc. One way to help children in all these circumstances is to create routines and stick to them. Often children benefit from “visual cues” such as words or pictures on calendars. These cues must be kept in a visible place that is commonly visited, such as the kitchen or the bathroom. However, none of these aids will be useful if they are not practiced regularly and frequently. For example, it is helpful to refer to a calendar of the day’s events both at bedtime and at breakfast. This is an area of parenting that often breaks down. If two parents can maintain a routine, they are doing something right.

Co-parenting

Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

Co-parenting

Recently, a couple of parents came to consult me to ask me about “co-parenting”. This is a term that parents typically use to refer to working together as parents when they are divorced. In this case, the parents were married, but they still had trouble coordinating their parenting behavior. They attributed this difficulty to difference in parenting style. I have heard of this kind of difficulty many times before, and I particularly appreciated these parents seeking consultation about it.

Let me first say a few things about “different parenting styles”. Conflicts between parents may arise for a number of reasons. Three common reasons include: different experiences of being parented as children; chronic stress in the family; underlying conflict in the marriage. Often more than one of these factors is present at the same time. Let’s take them one at a time.

Suppose that the father was raised in an authoritarian family in which his parents were strict and what they said was law. The children would not dream of speaking disrespectfully to them, and discipline for transgressions was swift and sometimes harsh. The mother, on the other hand, was raised in a household with progressive values and style of discipline. In practice, that meant that the father was the “bad guy” disciplinarian and the mother the reluctant protector the child ran to when he fled the father’s discipline. This meant that the father felt unsupported in setting limits on the child’s behavior and the mother felt burdened with having to respond both to her partner’s and her child’s distress.

There is an answer to how to think about how to change this situation. Note that I do not say, “resolve the problem”. The answer about how to think about the situation is to put aside the conflict between the two parents and focus on the needs of the particular child. I will follow this line of reasoning in responding to the questions the parents in my practice brought to me.

The first question the mother asked me was how to manage the morning transition. She explained that her 8-yo son was always forgetting what he had to bring to school, and he not infrequently called her from school because he forgot some sports equipment or a piece of homework. The father expressed his frustration about his son’s disorganization and insisted that the mother ignore his calls and let him “learn from experience”, but the mother felt that to do that set her son up for failure.

Further exploration suggested that their son had a more general problem with organization that impeded his ability to make transitions. (Remember that to make a transition you have to take apart your current state of organization, such as eating breakfast at your kitchen table, and reorganize it in a new place and with new expectations, such as school.) With this in mind, the parents and I set up a routine (remember that routine and ritual are parents’ best friends!) for how to manage the morning transition. Children need routines and predictability, especially children with organizational problems (sometimes referred to as “executive function disorder”, though I do not like to use the term “disorder” in children if I can avoid it). Once we established their child’s need for external predictability and order, we could move on to discuss how each of them – with their different parenting styles – could work together to provide that for him. The father took in my explanation about how the child could build organizational capacities that were not yet in his repertoire by practicing routines created by both parents, and he volunteered to keep an eye on how the family maintained the routines. The mother said that she could validate the child’s feelings about being confused, overwhelmed, and criticized, while also holding to the routine. Both parents agreed to try to learn from each other in the process of helping their child grow stronger.

In my next blog posting I will consider the parents’ next question: “How do we translate the difference between our two parenting styles for our son so that he understands where we are coming from?”