A Grain of Truth in a Slice of Pizza

Posted on Wed, Jan 29, 2014 @ 10:16 AM

FamilyMattersPizzaPost2Today's guest post comes to Family Matters from Dr. Ruth Nemzoff and Dr. Ellen Rovner, both Brandeis University scholars.


New York Mayor Bill de Blasio caused a stir when he ate pizza with a fork, reported The New York Times on January 11, 2014. This tidbit is not as newsworthy as the criminal activities of Italy’s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Nor is it as juicy as Bill Clinton’s White House liaison with an intern. But it gives us all a chance to examine how even small details of eating can cause big brouhahas.

De Blasio defended himself, “In my ancestral homeland, it’s more typical to eat with a fork and a knife.” True enough, every culture has its manners. We shudder to think how many of us have used the wrong end of the chopsticks to take from the serving platter or have not understood the subtleties of politesse when we eat curry with a chapatti and our hands.

It is more than obvious to state: Different families eat differently. While the way one eats is a marker of one’s background, it is not a marker of one’s character. So, then, how does a run-of-the-mill political outing to a pizza joint on Staten Island end up as a scandal now known as “forkgate”?

The obvious answer is that de Blasio’s latest job, leader of the oft-claimed (especially by New Yorkers) “Greatest City in the World,” means that whatever he does is news, whether he’s taking out his garbage in his pajamas or eating pizza with a knife and fork. But the fact is that similar “scandals” are played out every day between family and friends at ordinary dinner tables around the world.

The food we eat and how we eat it tells us loads about who we are, so it’s no wonder that we often conflate eating habits with personality and morality. Indeed, food behaviors often lead to judgments about a person’s character. How many times do we hear people sanctimoniously espouse their own nobility in eating environmentally correct or animal-rights-sensitive food? The implication is that bad people eat everything else. Those obsessed with eating healthy and local foods may sometimes have contempt for others who even occasionally chomp down fast food. Yet one person’s “healthy eating” is another person’s definition of orthorexia, a severe phobia about eating impure or unhealthy food.

Indeed, different backgrounds, different values and different definitions of hospitality, as the pizza fiasco shows, can lead to hostility. Often, name-calling follows: we cast one another as “snobs,” “show-offs,” “not like us” or “uncivilized.”

And the kinds of food we eat are only the beginning.

As de Blasio’s aghast supporters on Staten Island demonstrated, not only what one eats but how food is eaten can lead to vexing criticism and even more heartburn than pizza. Some of us prefer to sit down together to eat, while others like to grab a meal from the fridge. Some families follow Emily Post’s etiquette instructions, while others follow their own cultural conventions. None of these behaviors are bad. They just are different. What is bad, are supercilious attitudes toward manners, customs and ideas that are different from our own.

Pizza and de Blasio, regardless of culinary or political preferences, have much to teach us: a little understanding and a lot of respect go a long way to help the pizza go down more easily, even with a knife and fork.



Ruth Nemzoff is the author of Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with your Adult Children, and a popular speaker on the topic of parenting adult children, intergenerational relationships, and family dynamics. 

Ellen Rovner is a cultural anthropologist who began her professional career working with adolescents and incarcerated youth. She has directed a delinquency prevention program and battered women's advocacy project and is currently studying the cultural and emotional impact of food.

Tags: relationships, family, Ruth Nemzoff, Ellen Rovner, cultural differences, etiquette, manners, family conflict

Thoughts for Thanksgiving: Greed, Generosity, and Gratitude

Posted on Wed, Nov 27, 2013 @ 12:27 PM

Thanksgiving2013It's that time of year again, when gratitude becomes a topic of conversation all around us. Canada and the United States are not the only nations to pause in gratitude at some point during the fall season, and as it turns out, this is such a healthy activity that we might want to engage in it far more often than many of us do.

Studies highlighting the importance of gratitude and giving to personal well-being are piling up like autumn leaves, and they're hinting at some interesting connections.

When we express gratitude, say researchers, we experience fewer symptoms of physical illness; we exercise more; we sleep longer and better and report higher levels of positive emotion, greater optimism and a greater sense of connection to others. This sets off more than one beneficial cycle. For instance, improved sleep quality is not only a result of gratitude, but also a predecessor: as we sleep better we actually increase our capacity for gratitude. As our capacity for gratitude increases, we begin to focus more on our positive experiences than on our hassles and complaints. We're also more likely to help others with their personal problems and offer emotional support, thereby evoking feelings of gratitude in those we touch. 

Gratitude spreads, and so does generosity. People who receive benefits in "pay-it-forward" situations give to others more generously than in situations where they can just give whatever they want, say some studies. On the flip side, of course, greed is also paid forward. Unfortunately, the research tells us, the pay-it-forward effect of greed is even stronger than the pay-it-forward effect of gratitude and giving.

If only greed and competition could offer the same benefits to mental and physical health. Something that spreads its seeds as far and fast as greed should at least have something worthwhile to offer.

Those who think primarily in economic terms often suggest it does, of course. Remember Gordon Gekko's speech in the 1987 film Wall Street? His point of view would coincide with some economists and anthropologists who have long assumed that people make decisions in far more "cost-effective" ways than they may do in actual fact. Whole economic theories are based on the belief that people choose their behaviors through a sort of situational cost-benefit analysis. Yet psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics as a result of his research in judgment and decision making. What he found is that human beings (and that includes you and me) are not the rational agents economists and decision theorists have traditionally assumed. We are ruled by emotion at least as often as we are ruled by logical economy. Most often, we decide using a mixture of emotion and logic.

This opens the door to the idea that sometimes we make decisions, not on a cost-benefit basis, but on the basis of altruism, empathy, gratitude, generosity. Admittedly, we reap mental and physical health benefits when we decide to give rather than receive, or be thankful rather than judgmental and critical. But these benefits don't always look great on paper. Good health, happiness, rich relationships and a good night's sleep are hard to quantify. They are, however, some of the things that make life worth living. 

With this in mind, I decided to have a little fun with Gekko's Wall Street speech. Just a few minor edits that mostly entail substituting the word "gratitude" for "greed." The changes might not be all that relevant to the movie, but as a life creed I find I like it this way much better:

"The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that gratitude, for lack of a better word, is good. Gratitude is right, gratitude works. Gratitude clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the most fundamental spirit. Gratitude, in all of its forms; gratitude for life, for money, for love, knowledgehas marked the upward surge of mankind. And gratitude, you mark my words, will not only contribute to the health of each one of us individually, but to our malfunctioning institutions and society in general. Thank you very much."

Sleep well, be grateful, and give others a reason to be grateful too on this Thanksgiving and in the year to come.

Tags: greed, social relationships, gratitude, thanksgiving, generosity

6 Family Characteristics That Can Contribute to Bullying

Posted on Tue, Oct 15, 2013 @ 06:47 PM

AuthoritarianParentingIt's Bullying Prevention Monthtime to ask whether we've learned anything new over the past year about what contributes to bullying behaviors and whatif anything, we may be able to do to prevent them.

Since this is a blog focusing on family relationships, it makes sense for us to put aside our curiosity about what schools and communities should be doing and instead ask the question, "What can families do to help prevent bullying?"

By way of addressing this, one study published in April of this year suggests there is quite a bit we, as families, can do to help. The University of Warwick researchers who led the study found that when parents give their children opportunities to learn how to solve problems constructively in a warm, supportive atmosphere with clear boundaries (known as “authoritative” parenting) the likelihood of becoming either a victim or a perpetrator of bullying is reduced. In contrast, authoritarian parenting (characterized by harsh, negative parenting practices, including neglect) was associated with increases in bullying experiences.

While the effects of harsh (authoritarian) parenting were associated with both victims and perpetrators of bullying, children who are exposed to negative parenting—including abuse and neglect, but also overprotection—are more likely to become victims of bullying.

These findings back up research going back at least 30 years and suggest that researchers Ronald Oliver, Neal Oaks, and John Hoover were right in most of the essentials of their 1993/1994 list of six characteristics often found in families of bullies. As James R. Holmes rewords them in "The Bully in the Family: Family Influences on Bullying," families of bullies tend to have

  1. "Cool-to-cold emotional environment" with lack of involvement from the primary caregiver;

  2. Permissive parenting style—few rules or limits for behavior, little family structure

  3. Isolation of family from the community, and active social life or social involvement of family is lacking;

  4. Conflict between parents, and disharmony within the family;

  5. Inappropriate use of discipline—parents fail to punish aggression or may even reinforce it; and fail to reward prosocial behavior or may even punish it;

  6. Authoritarian parenting with high use of controlling and punitive discipline—parents try to maintain order with rigid household standards and rules.

Notice that two seemingly opposite characteristics are on the list: permissive parenting styles and authoritarian parenting styles. In fact, later research has likewise suggested that families of bullies may have both characteristics at the same time. They may be permissive (or even neglectful) in some circumstances and hostile and controlling in others. George Batsche and Howard Knoff's 1994 study of bullies and victims also found that parents of bullies sometimes have poor problem-solving skills and "teach their children to strike back at the least provocation."

This list notwithstanding, not all bullies come from families with poor problem-solving skills. If your child is on either side of the bullying dynamic (or both sides, as is sometimes the case) it isn't necessarily because you're doing something wrong as a parent. Nevertheless, you are likely to be the person who is best situated to help your child work toward change. 

As you do so, it is important to beware of messages that will undermine your efforts. These include messages like, "Bullying is a harmless and necessary part of growing up. Kids will be kids, and you need to learn how to deal with life in the 'real world.' Don't be so sensitive."

The inescapable truth is that the best way for kids to learn how to deal with life “in the real world” is to be taught appropriate behavior toward others. Bullying is far from harmless and can impede, rather than encourage, the process of growing up. While it’s certain we will each encounter bullies at various points in our lives, children can (and should) be taught prosocial skills whether they interact on a bus, a playground, at school or online. And these are skills parents can begin to instill long before their children go to school.



Tags: family relationships, bullying, parenting styles

More Than Simply Feelings: Emotions Are Us

Posted on Wed, Jul 31, 2013 @ 03:26 PM

RobotWithFeelingAs a family activity, we like to pick a TV series and work our way through it on Netflix a few episodes a week. Among our favorites have been such greats as Firefly, Dr. Who, Monk, and Psych—but our current series is the classic version of Star Trek. You know, the one with William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk, and Leonard Nimoy as the imperturbable and flawlessly logical Spock (whose first name is purportedly unpronouncable).

In the most recent episode we watched, the Enterprise and her crew had stumbled upon a wayward probe which had been lost in space for who-knows-how-long (having been originally launched in the year 2,000). Programmed to scan the makeup of any encountered life, its purpose had been accidentally altered to eliminate any life form that was found to be imperfect. The crew's mission, whether they chose to accept it or not (and yes, I'm old enough to remember that Nimoy also appeared in the series Mission Impossible) was to deactivate the probe before it realized all humans have imperfect thought patterns.

Fortunately, the probe scanned Spock's brain first and was suitably impressed by its order and efficiency. On the other hand, it was completely stymied in an effort to scan the brain of a female crewmember. In its even, emotionless robot cadence the probe noted, "That unit is defective. Its thinking is chaotic. Absorbing it unsettled me."

"That unit is a woman," Spock offered, as though no other explanation was needed. In metallic monotone the probe seemed to understand, "A mass of conflicting impulses," it acknowledged.

This was, after all, the sixties, I explained to two of my daughters, when they turned their wide eyes to meet mine in bewildered indignance.

But I wasn't only referring to the fact that the gender stereotype was outrageous. Just as outdated was the idea that an orderly brain was one in which logic had banished the messiness of emotion. Spock, the pinnacle of intelligence, was of a species that was free of the primitive feelings that held humans captive to illogical thought patterns and inferior decisions. Human males may have been flawed on that basis, but women were rated as even more emotionaland by extension even less capable of logic—than their male counterparts.

Fast-forward to 2013, and welcome to a new understanding of the role of emotion in human thinking. We now know that without emotion, logic fails. People can't actually come to a final decision using logic alone, however certain they may be that they can.

Not only that, our entire personalities rest on the basis of what researchers are now calling "emotional style."  Goodbye personality tests. Hello emotional style!

Feeling shy? Shyness is related to where you fall on the "social intuition" dimension. Notice I didn't say "extroversion" or "introversion." It's time for us to get dichotomies out of our head when it comes to personality traits. We aren't extroverts or introverts. We aren't optimists or pessimists. Rather (we are learning) we fall at various points on six dimensions, each of which has a neurally-based signature and each of which has partially genetic and partially environmental origins. Meaning that we can change where we fall on them if we want to. (Read: If our current position is cramping our ability to be productive in our lives, and keeping us from contributing to the welfare of othersa prerequisite to true happiness according to recent studies.)

Now hang on—no one is saying that emotion doesn't need to be regulated. But this is something we are best able to do with the help of others: within a setting of warm, compassionate, responsive interpersonal relationships.

Will it be easy to get over ideas that have been entrenched in our thinking for half a century or (perhaps) much more? Not likely. But we won't even take the first step in the process until we realize that there's no shame in emotion. More than simply feelings, emotions are at the center of who we are: our personality, our potential and our relationships.

You know this is true, right? Deep down, after all, who doesn't feel sorry for the efficient but emotionally bereft Spock? 

Tags: mind and brain, decision making, emotion

For PTSD Awareness Day: A Look at Resilience

Posted on Thu, Jun 27, 2013 @ 03:52 PM

The United States Senate has established June 27th as PTSD Awareness Day, the focal point of “PTSD Awareness Month."

This is not simply an American effort, despite the Senate resolution. The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) is also honoring PTSD Awareness month, right alongside the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) and the National Center for PTSD (which is a division of the United States Department of Veteran’s Affairs). 

Instead of focusing specifically on PTSD, however, I'd like to focus in this post on resilience: that important quality that helps us cope with crisis and heal after trauma. 

What is resilience?

From a psychological perspective, it describes our ability to return to a healthy emotional baseline after stress or trauma. We all have a certain degree of resilience, but how much depends on many different factors, including our history of interpersonal relationships, particularly in key developmental periods in childhood.

Fortunately, resilience is a capacity that can grow, and there are things we can do to strengthen it so we can reduce our risk of PTSD.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) lists some resilience factors that help protect against PTSD. These include:

  • Seeking out support from other people, such as friends and family

  • Finding a support group after a traumatic event

  • Feeling good about one’s own actions in the face of danger

  • Having a coping strategy, or a way of getting through the bad event and learning from it

  • Being able to act and respond effectively despite feeling fear.

The first two are especially important because it's in the context of our first caregiving relationships that our brain's initial substrate for resilience is built. Later, when our emotions are taxed to the limit, other people can help provide a scaffold for our emotions in much the same way as did our first caregivers.

The third factor listed, feeling good about one's own actions in the face of danger, is related to how well we are able to fit our experiences into a coherent narrative. It's well known that being able to do so helps us cope with all kinds of negative events, and of course one of the best ways to construct that narrative seems to be along the lines of seeing a positive outcome from the experience, as difficult as that task may seem.

Fortunately, certain coping strategies have proven especially effective in helping us construct a positive narrative. For instance, suggests University of British Columbia researcher John Helliwell along with his colleagues, doing good for others and working together as a community is one strategy that is particularly effective for helping people cope better with crisis. It also makes them happier. Part of the reason for their greater resilience, says Helliwell, is the fact that humans are more than simply social beings, they are so-called ‘pro-social‘ beings. In other words, they get happiness not just from doing things with others, but from doing things both with and for others.

Interestingly, people who have been through trauma—whether they succumb to PTSD or not—seem to have the instinct to work toward this coping skill naturally.

One study from the latest issue of the journal Psychological Trauma published by the APA’s Division 56 finds that people who have experienced trauma tend to be more prosocial and perceive more meaning in their life—even when they have more PTSD symptoms. Their traumatic experiences actually lead them to care for and help others more than those who haven’t experienced trauma.

In fact, wrote the researchers, when people said their volunteer work was related to a life experience, the most common motivations were negative life events. . . . (e.g., ‘My mother was hit and badly injured by a drunk driver. Ever since I have volunteered for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.’)”

“Our findings,” they wrote, “consistently indicate that trauma exposure is positively associated with engaging in prosocial [helping] behavior. Individuals who reported experiencing more traumatic events in their lifetime reported engaging in more helping behaviors during a 2-week period and more volunteer activities annually than those who had experienced fewer traumas.”

Certainly there are additional ways we can work toward building resilience. But as a giant step toward getting through a bad event, responding well and learning from it . . . helping others may be just the coping strategy the doctor ordered.



See Also:

Building Resilience in a Turbulent World

Give Sorrow More Than Words: The Neuroscience of Grieving

Tags: ptsd awareness day, ptsd awareness month, building resilience, anxiety and depression, grief and loss

Why Social Relationships Matter in the Classroom

Posted on Mon, Apr 29, 2013 @ 04:06 PM


Dr. Louis Cozolino is a respected leader in the relatively new field of neuropsychotherapy and a psychology professor at Pepperdine University. The author of several books on social neuroscience—the study of how human brains are hardwired to connect with one another—Cozolino argues in his latest work that we can overhaul our approach to education using new understandings from this field.

Most would say that the American public education system could certainly use overhauling; few would disagree that it's broken.

Among popular ideas for fixing it is that of bringing the findings of neuroscience into the classroom. This approach may be referred to as "brain-based learning," but it often involves focusing on individual concepts taken out of context and applied piecemeal. It isn't that these research findings aren't helpful, but as Cozolino points out, "renaming teaching as 'brain-based education' while keeping the present model in place is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." The challenge lies in identifying the most pressing problems of this model and where to begin in addressing them.

Three challenges that stand out to Cozolino are each related to the fact that the current educational model is based on the production industry. "This model has proven itself over the last 150 years and works exceptionally well for making automobiles, washing machines, and chicken nuggets," he says. But to make these products well, you need to use raw materials that are all the same, tools for stamping them that are all the same, and a clear vision for the end product. Our challenges are that our raw materials are children who vary widely in their makeup; their teachers—the tools used to form them—vary just as widely in their skills and approaches; and to cap it all off, we don't have a clear vision of our final product.

"Education is supposed to prepare young people for the future," Cozolino writes. "But what future?"

The mistake is not in the raw materials, the machinery, or even necessarily our assumptions about what skills children will need to succeed. Rather, Cozolino suggests, our primary problem is in mistaking human beings for industrial products. "When a teacher begins to think of his or her classroom as an assembly line, it's time to make chicken nuggets," he says. "If we are going to move forward, we will have to admit that a one-size-fits-all model of education is doomed to fail the majority of students and teachers.”

So how do we equip children with the education and skills they will need—not only to make their best contribution to society—but also for lifelong success, whatever success might mean to them?

"What has been missed thus far in essentially all books on brain-based education," Cozolino proposes, "is the recognition that the human brain is a social organ of adaptation." In other words, the brain is equipped to adapt as necessary to navigate its environment, especially through linking to and learning from other brains "in the context of emotionally significant relationships."

A single human brain doesn't operate in a vacuum. The release of important chemicals in the brain is controlled by social interactions, and the quality of these interactions determines how well we learn.  As Cozolino puts it, "our ability to learn is regulated by how we are treated by our teachers, at home and in the classroom."

Successful teachers stimulate students’ minds and brains to learn by creating an environment that is enriched with novelty, supported by positive expectations, and characterized by safety and acceptance so that anxiety is reduced. "Anxiety is the enemy of curiosity, exploration, and new learning," Cozolino writes. A mild sense of arousal is good for learning, but in higher states chemicals are released in the brain that shut down its ability to create new connections between neurons—that is, to learn.

Unfortunately, the industrial model of education promotes anxiety and fails to cultivate what Cozolino refers to as the human "natural habitat," which calls for a context of supportive, nurturing relationships where secure attachment bonds are cultivated. In such an environment, other brain-based research concepts have a chance to succeed. But they might as well be deck chairs on the Titanic without this foundation.

If the thought of attempting to cultivate this type of classroom seems daunting to teachers, Cozolino suggests it will be well worth the journey: "As human beings, we need to connect with our students as much as they need to connect with us." Those who come out on the other side, he says, will have a new vision of what it means to be a teacher, a new sense of passion and compassion, and "the empowerment that comes with engaging in and surviving a worthy challenge."



Tags: child development, social neuroscience, attachment relationships, mind and brain

The Best Man Wore a Tie

Posted on Mon, Apr 15, 2013 @ 06:09 PM

This week's post is from one of my frequent guest bloggers, Dr. Ruth Nemzoff. A friend and mentor from Brandeis University, Dr. Nemzoff offers valuable insight into some of the most challenging of family relationships. 

I once read that a dog was the best man at a wedding. I thought I was reading a spoof, but the story was real. I understand that your best friend may indeed be an animal, and you may want to honor that relationship by making the mutt the best man. However, man’s best friend can be a family’s worst enemy. Your in-laws, whether the parents, the siblings, or the extended family, may object to your choice because of allergies, fear, or the dog's behavioral problems. In fact, while animals give comfort to some, they give the sneezes, terror and trauma to others.

During interviews for my books about relationships between parents, adult children and in-laws, I heard the following complaints:

“I am allergic to the dog, but my brother-in-law insists on bringing the animal to the ceremony.” 

“I am terrified of animals and my adult children want to bring this beast to the wedding. They say I just have to learn to overcome my fear, but I think they are unsympathetic considering I was bitten as a child.”

“My fiancé’s sister’s dog jumps on the children, eats from the table, and barks—no way is he coming to the wedding.”

A great deal of sensitivity is needed if families are to recognize both the love and deep connection some members have with their pets, and the very real problems other members have.

Allergies are real. I did not believe it myself until I saw a young boy gasping for breath after entering a home with a cat. When we enter into a relationship with another person—whether it be a spouse, a partner or a friend—we can no longer assume that only we are worthy of consideration and love. The benefits of our connection come with the obligation to understand the needs of others. Allergic reactions are unpleasant for all. If you do have a family member who is allergic, ask them if their reactions are controllable with medicine and if they would be willing to take it so that you can bring your pet along. However, if their reaction cannot be tempered by medicine, or they are reluctant to take it, health trumps animal affection. Leave your animal at home.

When a family member fears animals, much sensitivity is required. Instead of disregarding their concern as trivial, acknowledge that they have a real terror of the animal. Ask them how you might work with them to help them overcome their fear. Some people are so scared that they are unwilling to approach the idea of loving your pet. But others may express an interest in coming to terms with their fear.

I, for example, was terrified of dogs. My best friend bred Briards—huge sheepdogs—and I was too scared to even walk into her house. I liked my friend so much that I was willing to tackle my fear to spend time with her. She, however, showed great consideration by always greeting me through the closed door, letting the dogs out of the house before I entered, then calming them down and letting them smell me while she held them by their collars. Instead of ridiculing me and reassuring me about how loving her dogs were, she helped me grow accustomed to them. I never grew to love them, but I did learn to tolerate them and to achieve my main goal, which was to enjoy my friend. I tried not to belittle her interest in animals, though I think she was perhaps more successful in understanding my fear than I was in understanding her passion. In families, acknowledging the full range of human emotion and reactions goes a long way toward enabling future connections.

In another instance, I realized my fear of animals was crippling me. I was afraid to walk in the woods. So I asked a neighbor to help me. She obliged by holding her dogs while I patted them on the back, then letting them sit quietly next to me. After several days, I found I could control my panic and could even understand the joy of having a dog look up at me, smiling.

As for the discipline of the animal, if your dog jumps on visitors, grabs food off of plates, barks incessantly, or interrupts dinnertime, you need to examine what you’re doing. In this instance, the discipline of animals is similar to the discipline of children. Would you allow your child to run all over the house, yelling and stealing food while you’re trying to have a nice visit with family? Though you may treat your dog as if it is your child, there is a need to rethink your frame of mind when your animal is more badly behaved than a two-year-old child.

The animal lovers feel their charges are part of the family. Those who don’t like them consider their owners rude and inconsiderate when they bring their much-loved companion to weddings or family events without even asking, while those who treasure their pet feel targeted when they’re not allowed to bring their pet to the wedding.

Just as you shouldn’t bring a baby to a wedding without asking permission, so too should you not bring your pet without inquiring. The tensions between one’s own needs and preferences and those of another are fundamental to human relationships. How we manage them creates or destroys our future interactions. There are no perfect answers, only imperfect people willing to put up with less than perfection. 

A dog can be the best man at a wedding, but I bet if he could talk, he’d tell both his lovers and his haters to be considerate of each other’s feelings.



Ruth Nemzoff,  Ed.D., Author and Speaker: Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008)
Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family (Palgrave/Macmillan, September 2012)

Tags: family relationships, pets and family

Is the Emotional Economy Suffering an Empathy Crisis?

Posted on Mon, Apr 08, 2013 @ 02:28 PM

When the world is in the throes of an economic crisis, everyone sits up and takes notice. After all, financial hardship hurts, both physically and emotionally. Without money, we become financially bankrupt and unable to supply our physical needs, which impacts our emotional well-being too. So, of course, we eagerly subscribe to news sources such as the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal, because we want to know how vulnerable we are to economic collapse at any given moment.

But are we equally concerned about our vulnerability to emotional bankruptcy? Are we fully alive to the potential fallout of a global empathy crisis? What would such a crisis look like?

The Oxford Dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another,” although an important dimension seems to be missing in this simple statement. I prefer the definition given by science writer Maia Szalavitz and child psychiatrist Bruce Perry in their 2010 book, Born for Love. “The essence of empathy,” they write, “is the ability to stand in another’s shoes, to feel what it’s like there and to care about making it better if it hurts.”

Szalavitz and Perry add theirs to the voices of many others who see empathy slipping as the tone of modern culture becomes increasingly harsh. To them, the indications of this change run the gamut “from calls for the legalization of torture to the actual practices uncovered at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and ‘torture porn’ movies like the Saw series.” They also cite reality shows that present the pain and misery of others for our ghoulish entertainment. 

But what about more subtle clues? For instance, how quick are we to jump to judgments about the intentions of others, or to offer smug “eye for an eye” solutions to complex problems? It can feel deceptively good to strike back, especially when we coat our strike with a veneer of concern and call it “tough love.”

Don’t misunderstand—firm boundaries are a vital expression of love. But the “love” part of the phrase is supposed to refer to the attitude that is clear and present in their enforcement. Unfortunately, the oft-prevailing attitude might well provoke a bystander to remark, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” 

It’s interesting that the term “tough love” was coined by therapists Phyllis and David York, who developed a program in 1979 to support parents of problem teens. The intent was to help parents lay down appropriate boundaries in a context of unconditional love

Since then, the term seems to have taken on a life of its own, however, and is now used to describe boot-camp approaches that overlook the love part of the equation almost entirely. It seems that many in our society believe love can accomplish more when unfettered by “soft” emotions like empathy and compassion. 

This is far from the case. Empathy feeds relationships; and the human brain develops in the context of relationships. When they are secure and we feel safe in them, we learn and grow. When we are stressed and afraid, learning shuts down. To think that fear, competition, anger and vengeance can reliably motivate others to new, positive ways of thinking is a serious miscalculation. And it would also be a serious miscalculation to suppose that politicizing empathy could have a positive outcome.

“Empathy is not just a warm, fuzzy feeling,” Szalavitz and Perry conclude. “It makes the modern world possible and allows the economy to grow. It’s not just a liberal thing: while conservatives may have attacked President Obama for emphasizing empathy in judges, the right wing’s opposition to violent and sexual media and its charitable missions recognize and seek to protect this quality.”

Suspicion and distrust are archenemies of empathy, which is one reason it’s much easier to extend empathy toward those in our “in-groups” rather than to outsiders. But it’s the ability to extend empathy beyond these natural barriers that is likely to make the difference in resolving some of our most complex global challenges. And while it may not solve all of them alone, Szalavitz and Perry rightly point out, “few of them can be solved without it.”

Tags: empathy, relationships, tough love

Attachment: More Than a Parenting Style

Posted on Fri, Mar 01, 2013 @ 09:39 AM

RadioMDsmHave you ever heard someone say that they don't agree with attachment?  Well, in all likelihood, what they really mean is that they don’t like the popular parenting styles that go by the label attachment parentingAttachment and attachment parenting are not interchangeable terms. Attachment parenting is simply one way that parenting gurus have tried to apply the scientific understanding of attachment theory. To say one disagrees with attachment is somewhat like saying one disagrees with the theory of relativity.

Unfortunately, Time’s famously provocative magazine cover that came out almost a year ago didn’t go very far in clearing up this kind of misunderstanding. The media debates that followed called on all the popular parenting experts, from attachment-parenting guru Mayim Bialik—who actually has a neuroscience degreeto Pamela Druckerman, an American freelance journalist living in France, who wrote about what she admired in the French parenting approach. Even the Tiger Mom was dragged into the debate, although her book was actually a personal memoir rather than a parenting book. 

Of course, the point was to get everyone into debate mode, because that’s what often sells—so the media frenzy focused on the differences between the approaches rather than the similarities.  And there were similarities to be seen if you understand what attachment is. Unfortunately, as brain researchers tell us, the way our brain works in debate mode is that we typically decide what arguments to buy into—not by weighing the issues, although we like to think that’s what we do—but by jumping to emotional conclusions about what we like or don’t like, and we do it pretty much at first sight without thinking much about grey areas. 

This is essentially what happened in the attachment parenting debate that played out in the media after Time’s story was published. And it did play out mostly in the media—real mothers are too busy to obsess very much about what other mothers may be doing. 

Unfortunately, during this debate the opportunity to actually inform parents about what children DO need was completely missed, disappearing down that huge chasm that exists between research and popular opinion. It’s not just that opponents of attachment parenting that misunderstand attachment research. Even its supporters don’t always understand. And the media is no less in the dark.

As just one example, you might have seen the term “attached parents” in some books and articles.

This term is scientifically meaningless. It reflects a basic misunderstanding of attachment bonds. By definition an attachment bond is one in which you’re seeking security and comfort, and of course, parents aren’t looking to their kids for security and comfort, so you wouldn’t say a parent is “attached.”  The other side of that is that all children—even abused children—become attached to their caretakers. They will have a dysfunctional attachment style because they aren’t receiving the security and comfort they desperately need, but they are still “attached.” 

Of all the other attachment relationships we grow up to have throughout our lives, our parents are especially important because we need them to provide security and help us regulate distress during a crucial period of brain development: the first two years of life. The process of parent-infant bonding teaches us to make certain assumptions about our social world, including how we should expect others to respond to us in the future. So it’s laying the foundation for our future emotional and mental health. Sometimes what we’re learning is very tragic—and of course we’ll see the results down the road. And research is finding that it’s not only mental health that suffers when there’s dysfunctional attachment, but also physical health.

On the other hand, when parents do engage—when they attune to a child’s needs and respond with comfort and security, the attachment is “secure,” and we have the foundation we need for emotional regulation and general well being.  

Is attachment parenting the only way to work toward secure attachment? Not at all. It can take you there, but so can many other approaches. In fact, Attachment parenting is just as scientifically meaningless as the term “attached parent.” It implies that there is a specific set of parenting practices underlying secure attachment. This isn’t the case. There is attachment research . . . and then there are a lot of different people’s ideas about how to apply what we’ve learned from that research.

When researchers John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth first developed attachment theory in the 50s and 60s, they weren’t trying to define limits for how long babies can be allowed to cry or how old they should be when they’re weaned. Instead, they focused on the core idea that our emotional and social development depends heavily on responsive relationships with caregivers during early life. For more than half a century, almost every field related to the development of the mind for has continued their research—and in the last 20 years neuroscientists have been out in the forefront with new tools that allow us to confirm that in all the essentials, Bowlby was right.

The very different term, attachment parenting, was coined by parenting gurus. It initially outlined an approach by pediatrician William Sears in The Baby Book, a popular parenting manual written in 1992, but more recently it has been applied to the slightly different approach popularized by Bialik. Her book, Beyond the Sling does not refer to Sears at all, focusing instead on Bowlby’s research. Of course, Bowlby himself didn’t actually coin the phrase “attachment parenting.”  And he certainly didn’t set down a prescribed list of parenting practices.

To be fair, neither does Bialik, when it really comes down to it. She is pretty straightforward in admitting that many of her recommendations go beyond “good-enough” parenting and may not be for everyone. But the core of her philosophy does square with Bowlby’s attachment theory because it’s all about being attuned and responsive to the needs of children. That said, so is the philosophy behind Druckerman’s “French” parenting. And even the Tiger mom, by the end of her book, came around to realizing her confrontational approach wasn’t working.  Clearly any parenting philosophy that advocates empathy—and a sensitive emotionally responsive approach is going to be in the right ballpark.

This is good news for parents. The takeaway point is, if last year’s cover of Time didn’t resonate with you, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. You don’t have to be a proponent of attachment parenting to apply attachment research to your own parenting style. The important thing is to stimulate the right kind of growth in your child's brain through attuned, responsive interactions, thereby laying the foundation for empathy, self-regulation, and the social and emotional intelligence that will support his or her mental health far into the future.


Attachment: Battleground in the Parenting Wars?
It may be the latest buzzword in parenting circles, but the concepts underlying “attachment parenting” aren’t clearly understood by most people—including many of those who practice it. Exactly what is attachment, and what does it have to do with parenting?

Tags: attachment, attachment relationships, attachment parenting

A Day of Mourning

Posted on Fri, Dec 14, 2012 @ 08:45 PM

Today’s tragedy in Connecticut has touched all of America, and in fact, the world. We all grieve painfully with the parents, teachers and students of Sandy Hook Elementary School and the community of Newtown.

Although our condolences fall sadly short, especially to the parents involved, they are offered with all our hearts: we are all anguished by these unspeakably tragic losses.