Focus on the Empathy

In an opinion piece by Katie Hurley for the Washington Times, the topic of “shake it off parenting” is explored, along with a personal look at the kind of impact it can have on a child.

First, let’s take a step back and define “shake it off parenting” (SOP) as told by Hurley. In essence, it is the opposite of helicopter parenting. Instead of the parent or authority figure hovering closely over their child’s life, and in many cases making decisions for them, SOP takes it in a completely opposite direction.

In a way, this is understandable. It’s demonstrably unhealthy for children to expect someone to pick up the pieces of their mistakes and shortcomings. However, when we encourage kids to “shake it off”, we are sacrificing a crucial developmental moment: learning to empathize with others.

Next time your child  is down, talk about it with empathy.

Next time your child is down, talk about it with empathy.

The SOP parent is one who is obsessed with a child succeeding on their own. Unlike the helicopter parent, for the SOP a child’s experiences with failure are tantamount to success later in life. But perhaps this kind of parent-child interaction misses the point. Through this myopic parenting lens, parents’ dreams of a successful life for their children could backfire. Hurley cites a longitudinal study that sheds light on parenting styles as it relates to child’s future happiness. The findings, that children who perceived their parents as empathetic turned out to be happier in adulthood, runs counter to many common assumptions.

In contrast is a study by the Harvard School of Education. In this one, children expressed that their parents were more concerned with personal achievement and happiness than demonstrating some kind of care towards others.

With this information firmly under her belt, Hurley argues that SOP has three negative effects on children:

  • As discussed above, it saps them of empathy. Children are not given the space or experience to find the value in understanding the feelings of others.
  • Achievement loses its intrinsic value. Children learn to compete for competition’s sake, and knock down others on the way to the top. They can fail to understand the situational differences between them and someone else.
  • Shaming children dampens self-confidence. When they are hurt physically or emotionally, and their feelings are dismissed or they are told to “toughen up”, they may question their own strength and self worth.

It’s interesting to see these observations from the opinion of a parent. It may be an opinion, but the data is in: we can’t underestimate the role of empathy in a child’s development.

Should You Be Concerned About Teens’ Use of Social Media? Yes.

Several studies out of the UK have been focused on the relationship between adolescents and social media. As teenagers develop, do the rush of comments and likes have any impact on their mental health and well-being?

It would seem that they do.

Teenagers seem to have a need to respond to social media engagement as soon as frequently as possible, just as if they obligatory real-world interactions. This feeling goes beyond social media apps, and can even be observed in basic SMS exchanges.

One study surveyed over 450 teenagers regarding when they used social media and the impact it had on mental health and quality of sleep. It found that the combination of a high emotional investment in social media, along with heavy usage in the evening, led to lowered self-esteem and heightened anxiety. Predictably, it also had a measurably negative impact on sleep. Another study also examined the impact social media had on health, but regardless of time of day. This second study found that adolescents who regularly used some platforms for over two hours had higher stress levels, and a few even were more likely to report suicidal thoughts.

The adolescent brain is still developing, and that means that we must emphasize responsible usage of social media during this crucial period of mental development. The data is in, and social media can be addicting. The question isn’t how to avoid using it— these platforms are here to stay, and in many instances provide some kind of social good! Instead, we should work to avoid over-reliance. Sometimes, it’s OK to unplug and let their minds wander.

Do Your Kids Care About Your Screen Time?

Any time new technology is introduced, it is bound to have an impact on the way children interact with their parents, and vice versa. In the mid 2010’s it’s no longer enough to say we are “increasingly becoming” connected around the clock— we are connected around the clock. Emails can find us at any hour of the day, and a long distance phone call can be taken at a cafe as easily as it can be at home. Even on days when you can’t get into the office, you can get some degree of work done from the comfort of your living room.

In all of the examples above, we correctly assume that the hypothetical human in this situation is a fully matured adult. But how do children interpret this connectivity? In a recent piece for Psych Central, mental health counselor Kristi A. DeName, M.S.explores the impact that mobile technology has on young children.

work desk with computer and iPad

How you interact with your screens could have a negative impact on your kids.

She opens with a short anecdote concerning a six year old client of hers. When the child calls to their parents, they are often so engrossed in whatever they’re doing, that they sometimes fail to even acknowledge the child’s need. This, writes DeName, leaves her patient feeling sad.

Granted, some children are more disposed to feelings of anxiety and abandonment of others. But even for those who are not, there is a reason why our mobile usage could leave them feeling confused: they do not grasp that on the other side of your screen is someone or something that requires your mental output.

DeName notes that when a child sees two adults speaking, they learn that it is rude to interrupt for a non-urgent reason. Eventually, they realize that it’s rude to cut into a conversation between two people, period. However, to children seeing an adult on a tablet or smartphone is just like seeing them in front of a TV or computer. An adult is likely silent, while engaged in these activities, so to a child nothing of importance could possibly be going on.

Children grasp concepts like object permanence and social norms by their own understanding through multiple exposures. These things simply cannot be taught, as reading or math can be. Technological interactions are no different. At the end of the day, either the parent can become more aware of how they use their devices, or children can be forced to learn the hard way— at the risk of their own self-worth. The answer is obvious: parents should practice a mindful awareness.

A Closer Bond

Take a moment to think back to when you were a young adult. Or, if you’re a young adult today, imagine your parents at your age. Between all the memes and jokes about Boomers and Gen X’ers graduating college and starting a job at 21, then starting a family and owning a home by 24, lies a grain of truth.

As it turns out, children today are more attached to their parents than they were several decades ago. And the attachment isn’t negative or overly dependent; it’s actually quite healthy. According to a recent post by Medical Daily, the mix of technology, a tough job market, and a greater emphasis on education instead of raising a family has driven children closer to their parents.

The implications on child psychological development are many, and must be responsibly acknowledged by both parents and their older children. With a third of young adults (18-25 years old) living at home, parents may not easily realize the developmental line between their young child and their rapid entry into adulthood. Predictably, smothering young adults like they are young children can have undesirable consequences as they transition into the workforce.

But why are so many grown children living at home in the first place? It’s not because they’re feckless and lazy. Instead, culture now emphasizes the knowledge over property. It’s the norm for kids to pursue an undergraduate education. And with the economy and job market taking a turn for the worse towards the end of the last decade, it makes sense that recent graduates are moving back home.

Equally important is the increasing age of marriage. Instead of marrying in the early 20’s, young adults are staying single for longer while they get more footing on their careers. Because of a lack of marital or familial obligations, they can continue to have frequent interactions with their parents.

Technology also brings parents and children closer together than ever before. Even for those not living at home, they are able to stay in touch thanks to the ubiquitousness of mobile phones, video phones like Skype, and social networks such as Facebook.

Calming Your Child

I’ve written before about the effects that a parent’s anxiety can have on their children. But studies have shown that an increasing number of children are dealing with their own anxieties. Interestingly enough, a lot of this can be blamed on today’s social environment. For example, helicopter parenting is on the rise, and it is easy to see how a parents breathing down children’s’ collective necks can put a lot of pressure on our youngest members of society. Educational organizations are becoming increasingly dependent on tests and exams; knocking them out of the park seems like the only option for success. And then there is social media, which now seems tied to a child’s self-esteem. Will this Instagram post get a lot of likes? What is no one comments on my recent facebook activity? An anxious child is far from an anomaly.

Writing for Quartz, Jenny Anderson sets out to answer one question: “What is the best way to calm your child?” She consults the research of Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist who offers some counterintuitive advice. Instead of heading straight to therapy to confront anxiety and its complications, she offers some more simple alternatives to try out first.

Breathe: Breathing is so automatic that most times we hardly think about it. For a child, however, getting worked up often equates to shallow and rapid breaths. While it may seem inconsequential— a juvenile response to trivial issues— such breathing patterns reduce stress systems and relax the central nervous system, which controls the brain and spinal cord.

Find a Happy Place: Hurley calls this “guided imagery”. And no, this isn’t a spin on the classic bedtime story. Instead you should encourage your child to close their eyes and envision an almost dream like scenario. Then just talk them through it. Ask them questions such as “what do you see?”, “what animals are there?”, and “what colors stand out?” However, do not engage in an exciting way. Afterall, the whole point of the exercise is to calm. Doing so in a monotonous voice is the way to go.

Engage the Brain: Hurley suggests that we teach kids to differentiate between a “happy” brain and a “worry” brain. When some stimulus or activity activates the “worry” function, kids should audibly engage it with a firm “no”, followed by some positive statement. In the Quartz article she uses the example “stop it worry brain, I know I can make friends here.” Furthermore, practicing while in a peaceful state of mind puts them in a better position to take a stand when the stakes are much higher.

Parent the Child You Have, not the One You Want: Remember in the previous post on anxiety when I discussed how kids can pick up on your habits? It remains true here. Holding your children up to a particular standard is not conducive to their self-esteem; at the end of the day they can become overly-worked up about pleasing you. Your child is on the sensitive side, you are honestly wasting time by telling them to “toughen up”. Everyone has their own temperament, and they should not be changed. Instead, you should focus your attention on how you can make your child comfortable with whatever skin they were born in.

Impacts of Anxiety

Sometimes anxiety makes life difficult for the people who live with it. They are subject to symptoms like panic attacks, which make it seem as if life itself is put on hold. However, even though anxiety is a very serious condition that affects an individual’s mind, it can have a deep impact on others.colorful wooden blocks for children [Read more…]