Monday, August 12, 2013

5 Things a Psychologist Should Tell a New Parent (but rarely does)!

Jessica Glass Kendorski, Ph.D.

As a psychologist and mother of two, I have had the opportunity to read copious amounts of psychological research on parenting and children, while simultaneously experiencing the new parent anxiety that I must employ every available resource to ensure my children are happy and successful. Parents are bombarded with tons of advice and information, and the amount of options available can be enormous and overwhelming. This can create a sense that we must do everything to ensure that our children have the best start to life possible, paired with the anxiety of the possible regret we would feel if we missed something.
Of all the things parents are told they should do here are a few things that parents are rarely told. (Note: Some of this information applies to children who are developing typically. If you have a concern regarding a child's development you should contact a medical professional).
1.       Your baby can’t and probably should not read: Babies are born to discover their world through exploratory learning and social interaction, and are quite good at this. Reading to your children at an early age and throughout childhood is essential to developing early language skills and social/emotional development. However, programs that overly stress academic learning at a young age are not particularly helpful to children since the brain is not ready to handle this task. As Dr. Sam Wang, Associate Professor of Neuroscience at Princeton University points out, "Language is acquired quite well before the age of 6, but trying to force your children to read before the age of 4 is an effort that doesn't work very well because the brain is not very well-equipped to tell the letter 'b' from the letter 'd' and so on." Trying to force a child to perform a task that he/she is not developmentally ready to perform could cause frustration, which may lead to inappropriate behavior and hindering the innate curiosity to learn. It is important to understand typical development and learning readiness rather than trying to teach children tasks which they may not have the skills to perform.

2.       Maturation Is A Wonderful Thing: And will eventually solve many of a child's current behavior and social difficulties. There is a tendency as humans to believe things are permanent. Children will and should perform many behaviors that would not be appropriate as an adult.  As opposed to focusing exclusively on these behaviors, adults should take note of how they view and respond.  Let's take toddler biting as an example. Biting tends to be a very normal part of a toddler's repertoire, as they do not have other ways to communicate and express frustration. How we respond to this fleeting stage of biting is important (See: It is equally important to place this developmental stage in perspective, understanding that as communication and social skills develop, the biting and other inappropriate behaviors will decrease. Take heart, for this too shall pass.

3.       Sometimes Time-Out should be put in Time-Out: Time-out is effective in reducing a behavior IF used appropriately, and sometimes it is difficult to use the right way. Time-out by definition is time-out from reinforcement. More specifically, a child needs to be engaged in something reinforcing for a time-out to be a successful consequence (specifically reducing the behavior). Case in point, if you ask a child to eat his broccoli and he refuses, and you send him to time-out, in essence you are removing him from the dinner table and the sight of the revolting (in his eyes) piece of broccoli. You may be doing exactly what he wants you to do, which will have the effect of increasing the likelihood that he will refuse to eat broccoli the next time it is presented. However, if your child is having a great time on the playground and hits another child and you remove him from the playground (assuming he wants to be there), that should be an effective use of time-out to reduce hitting behavior. Additionally, there tends to be an overuse of time-out and subsequent neglect of other quite effective methods for supporting the challenging behavior of children. Techniques such as teaching behaviors that you want to see (eating nutritious foods and why); Reinforcing specific behaviors (eating vegetables, keeping your hands to yourself);  And reinforcing a low preferred behavior (eating broccoli) with a high preferred behavior (eating a cookie), known as the Premack Principle. Time-out is one tool in the parenting bag of tricks, there are many others.

4.       Gifted is rare: You know the saying "Everyone thinks their child is a genius?" Well it's likely true and we do. But guess what, geniuses are extremely rare. A child can have high intelligence, be an excellent student, have talents in a variety of areas, and still not be gifted. This is likely because different states, counties, and districts, have varying criteria for how they define giftedness (some correctly identify gifted children better than others). Often, truly gifted children will require some form of support in school in specific areas of difficulty related to high intelligence/giftedness. Although the specific definition of giftedness varies, one thing most agree on is its rarity.  As Dr. Stephen Pfeiffer, Professor at Florida State University states "a generally agreed-upon definition, gifted children are those who are in the upper 3 percent to 5 percent compared to their peers in one or more of the following domains: general intellectual ability, specific academic competence, the visual or performing arts, leadership and creativity." So parents, it's okay that giftedness is rare and your child may not be gifted. It does not take anything away from your highly intelligent 6 year old, or your 7 year old superior violin player. On the other hand, if you feel your child is gifted, it is essential to notify the school to ensure that the necessary supports for learning and social development are in place.

5.       Parenting does not have to be perfect: Parents will mess up and that is okay. It's not about perfection in parenting but rather about fixing the areas where there has been an error. Recent research has shown that maternal warmth and nurturing is one of the most important areas in a child's development, specifically brain and hippocampus development. A recent study published in Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, observed how parents responded to their children during and following a stressful situation. These same children returned for MRIs of the brain years later, and the results revealed that children with mothers that were rated as more nurturing had larger hippocampi.   As Dr. Charles Raison, Associate Professor of Psychiatry describes:"Why is this finding important? Because more than any place else in the brain, when it comes to the hippocampus, size matters. Other things being equal, having small hippocampi increases your risk for all sorts of troubles, from depression and post traumatic stress disorder to Alzheimer’s disease.  If you’ve got depression, having small hippocampi predicts that you won’t respond as well to antidepressants as well as depressed people with larger hippocampi."  It is not necessarily about perfection in parenting, but about nurture and warmth.

The takeaway, we as parents should do our best to do right by our children, but should not be consumed with anxiety that we have to do everything and always be perfect. When children watch the adults in their lives correct the mistakes that they make, it begins the modeling process for how children will respond to their mistakes. Engagement, encouragement, warmth and nurture go a long way (and we can put down the flash cards)! It's time for parents to receive encouragement for all of the things that they are doing correctly, rather than another self help book on the things they could be doing better. Parenting well is essential, and parents should take strides to improve. However, if parents are consumed with the anxiety of trying to do it all, it may in fact block parents from learning and implementing the things that are essential.