Category Archives: 5. The Adolescent

From age 10 to age 18.

Latest Research on Long-term Effects of Child Abuse

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

Child abuse effectsIn the United States alone, there are 3.2 million referrals to social services on allegations of child maltreatment each year — one-quarter of which are found to have a substantiated case of physical or sexual abuse or severe neglect. Seventy-five percent of these founded cases of abuse or neglect had no prior history. It’s an astounding number of children who aren’t living in safe, loving homes — especially knowing that these numbers don’t count the abused and neglected children living around the world. It’s a number that child maltreatment prevention researcher David Zielinski, PhD, wants to stick in your mind.

“I can highlight this, I can underline this — we’re talking about a huge number of children,” said Zielinski, who works with the National Institute of Mental Health. Earlier this year, he addressed a wide audience of researchers, social workers, and other professionals in the field of child abuse prevention and treatment through a webinar hosted by the Quality Improvement Center on Early Childhood.

That “huge number of children” Zielinski was describing translates into another sizable group – 25 million to 30 million adults, just in the U.S., who were abused or neglected as children. Research has shown us that individuals who experienced abuse and neglect have a higher risk of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders, antisocial personality disorder, substance abuse, and other addictions. And it’s well known that adults who were abused or neglected as children are more likely to become abusers themselves.

“You learn what’s appropriate based on imitation,” Zielinski said.

But the effects of this abuse tend to focus on treatment, rather than prevention — on the individual, rather than society. Continue reading

Parenting without Punishment or Reward…Really?

By Larissa Dann, Australia’s parenting editor for The Attached Family

Really?I was 31 years old. In my arms, I held another life. He was warm, pliable and soft, caked in afterbirth, and seemed breakable. He had huge blue eyes and now he relied on me. Such a huge realization: I had to grow up now as I was largely responsible for meeting all his needs – his nutrition, his physical and emotional needs, his safe passage through life.

I was also, overwhelmingly, in love.

There was, I realized, a dilemma for me. In my entire life, I think I had only ever held one baby. I did not know how to change nappies or what to do when he cried. All I had to guide me through this parenting jungle was the dimly remembered and experienced way I was brought up.

That way meant lots of affection. It also meant lots of smacking — at least once every six months because, as I recall my mother saying, we just needed that spank to get us back in line.

When my son was eight months old, he bit me during an exuberant breastfeeding session. I did not know what to do: I thought the only tool at my disposal was to punish him, so I tapped him lightly on the foot. I still remember how he pulled off the breast straight away, and looked at me, his round eyes totally puzzled. I was lost: This did not feel good. What else could I do?

Putting the Relationship Back into Parenting

Serendipitously, around that time, a friend asked if I’d like to take her place at a parenting course called Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) that teaches a relationship — and, I now believe, an attachment — approach to parenting. I had no idea what it would entail — I just knew I needed all the tips I could find on this new journey.

The course was life changing for me. I learned that children were people! I learned they deserved respect, but the most mind-blowing and challenging tenet of this approach to parenting was that I could eschew the use of rewards and punishment.

Wow!  This was big! All my assumptions about being a “good” parent, which was based a lot on my experience of being parented — that was all being questioned and, ultimately, thrown out the window. Now, my guide to being a parent was about building a relationship with my child, not trying to control him. This was a fundamental shift in the foundations I had been preparing for parenting.

Meeting Skepticism with Resolve

Could I do it? Could I really bring up a considerate, caring child in today’s world, without bringing him into line using the old carrot and stick? Wouldn’t he end up spoiled and self-centred? I proudly told my mother of my plans, and excitedly described all the new skills and philosophy I had just learned.  She listened, skeptically.

A week or so later, my mother relayed a story and advice from her golfing friends. She had told them I was planning to bring up my son without smacking him. They all laughed, saying I would soon find out that was impossible. I bowed my head, more determined than ever. I was going to do this, and my son would benefit!

I was influenced to take change my attitude toward parenting by authors such as Thomas Gordon who wrote Parent Effectiveness Training and Teaching Children Self Discipline, and Louise Porter who wrote Children are People, Too. These authors demonstrated a strong case against using rewards or punishment. Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence further cemented my resolve to rely on relationship skills.

Change Begins with a New View of Children

And so, this journey through positive parenting began. How was I going to avoid using praise, or star charts, or stickers? What would I do when I couldn’t put my child in timeout, count to three, plan a consequence for his actions, or be able to smack him?

I was helped by an underlying ethos from my parent training — that children do not “misbehave.” Instead, they behave simply to meet a need. If I could understand that need, rather than blame my child or see him as deliberately wanting to “get at” me, then I might find it easier to respond to him, rather than punish him.

The Trial of the Toddler Years

Soon, we came to the toddler years. How could I entice him to use the toilet without reward? How could I stop him drawing on the fridge without some consequence? And surely he was too young to understand my verbal communication, and I would need to smack him or put him in timeout?

Somehow, I managed. I did not use timeout or rewards. Instead, I used the relationship skills I’d been taught, with the core belief that he was not being “naughty” or “bad” but simply being a child with unmet needs. I was also guided by the incentive to develop emotional and social intelligence in my son, for him to become empathic and considerate.

Making a Long-term Commitment

Having emerged relatively unscathed through the toddler years, I decided I wanted to teach this style of parenting. One motivation was that teaching the skills would help keep me on track with using the skills personally. I have now been teaching P.E.T. for more than 13 years and love it!

Attention Parents: Attachment Parenting International Leadership is a great way to continue educating yourself on Attachment Parenting — and “keep yourself in line” — while also getting the added benefit of educating and supporting other parents. Learn more here.

Parenting in this way has resulted in some interesting judgements by family and friends. I have been seen as “giving in” to my children, because I don’t insist they do everything my way. “You let him win that time!” is a never-forgotten comment by my grandmother. My take on those same  situations, however, has been to see the outcome as a win-win for both my child and myself.

Being a teacher of parenting has it’s own social issues. I was once meeting my cousin and her friend who had been a student in the course. The ex-student was reticent with me and later told me that she had warned her children to behave as they were going to be seeing the parenting teacher! In my eyes, I’m just a mum, who happens to have taken a certain path.

Still Learning

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. I am no perfect mother — just ask my children! They will happily fill you in on where I could do better. I make heaps of mistakes, but I forgive myself because I am human and then apologize — a lot! And I continue to delight in my children.

My son is now a teenager, and I am thoroughly enjoying walking beside him as he negotiates this difficult stage in life. I am excited by who he is becoming and I value our relationship every day. I have not grounded him and he is aware that this is not an option for me.

My younger child is another delight, and I marvel at her sparkle every minute I am with her. We have our moments, as does any relationship, but our attachment bond is strong. I hope that her entry and movement through adolescence is as exciting and wondrous for us both, as the journey her brother is taking.

Validation

Recently, my mother complimented me.  She acknowledged that she thought it would be impossible to bring up children without physical punishment. Now, when she looks at my children, she sees that it is possible.

For me, taking this approach to parenting seems to be fulfilling my goals as a parent. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea. I just wanted to share that choosing to parent in this fashion — relying on relationship rather than behavior management — is possible…if you trust yourself, your children, and your motivation.

AP with the Double-Digit Child (10+ years old)

By Gila Brown, MA, parent educator, www.gilabrown.com

AP with the double-digit childWe know the Eight Principles of Parenting are fundamental in establishing the critical attachment bond with our little ones.

As children get older, their needs evolve. Once we’ve parented through infancy and toddlerhood, whether or not we’ve followed the Principles, how can we ensure that we raise compassionate, independent, secure, and cooperative older children? As the need for discipline increases, how can we respond positively and in alignment with the Eight Principles of Parenting?

Attachment Parenting (AP) defines ways through which we can connect with our young children. From the time an infant is born, we use the Eight Principles to establish a secure bond. We prepare ourselves for becoming a parent, we breastfeed, cosleep, and keep baby in our arms. We learn to read her cues and show consistent, loving care. As she becomes a toddler, we meet her tantrums with respect and positive discipline.

For older kids, however, the window for applying some of the commonly thought-of AP practices has closed. It is too late for breastfeeding or babywearing. Tantrums are much less frequent at this age. However, it’s important to remember that AP lays the foundation for positive parent-child relationships from birth through the teen years, and beyond.

Therefore, we might consider reframing some of the Principles in order to offer parents more direction for raising attached, older children. While traditional parenting approaches dictate that we control our children through discipline tactics, AP teaches us to pre-empt the challenges by strengthening the attachment bond and thereby preventing the need for mainstream discipline tactics, empowering children to resolve conflicts independently, and eliciting more cooperation from them.

Respond with Sensitivity by…Listening without Judgment

Learning to listen to children without judging them is not an easy goal. Being able to do this consistently is even more difficult. Be that as it may, it is the single most effective tool a parent can use in order to encourage an older child to open up. When a child feels secure enough to share his thoughts and emotions regularly, the need for discipline decreases.

When a double-digit (age 10+) child sees that his parents are willing to listen to him, respectfully and without criticism, he comes to see them as people who love him unconditionally, regardless of what he has to say, how he feels, or even the actions he takes. In turn, he is increasingly willing to express his love and respect for them. As he begins to see that his family values him just as he is, he is more likely to cooperate with others and be empathetic to parents who need some extra help. He is more likely to enjoy the time he spends with parents and family, and ultimately he trusts that he is safe and loved unconditionally. Children are constantly communicating with us, either through their words or their actions. By taking the time to listen, and controlling our impulse to correct, instruct, criticize, or control, our children begin to learn that they can safely open up and express their authentic selves. Consequently, their inclination to act-out subsides.

Provide Consistent, Loving Care by…Focusing on Feelings, Not Behaviors

Rather than schedule Baby’s feedings and activities according to our schedules, we respect our baby’s needs and provide for them accordingly. For the older child, it is equally important that we do not attempt to control their needs and subsequent behaviors. It is important that we recognize when we begin to replace their needs with our own. When we respond to our children’s feelings, rather than their actions, two things occur:

  1. They feel heard and validated.
  2. Once they feel understood, the hurt feelings and resulting behaviors subside.

When a child is upset, we reflect back to them what we believe they are feeling, rather than addressing their actions, such as “You are frustrated that your little brother keeps using your toys” and “You’re feeling embarrassed that your teacher yelled at you in class.”

There is no need to advise, philosophize, judge, or expand upon their feelings. We need to look beyond any problematic behaviors and acknowledge the feelings that cause them. Acting out is simply the result, or symptom, of the underlying cause. By responding to their feelings, we can address the root of the problem rather than just the symptom. Just as we’ve learned to respond to our baby’s cues, challenging behaviors in our older children are our opportunities to identify their unmet needs.

Practice Positive Discipline by…Empowering Children to Problem-Solve

Children can handle most burdens that come their way. We tend to forget how creative and competent they can be. Once we trust that a child has the compassion and ability to make appropriate decisions on their own, we no longer need to control their behavior with rewards and punishments or force our decisions on them. By listening without judgment and focusing on feelings, we can guide our children to discover their own solutions or make restitution when appropriate. We can also engage them in brainstorming discussions to identify win-win solutions to almost any challenge.

Strive for Balance in Your Personal and Family Life by…Reconnecting

Reconnecting refers to setting time aside for one-on-one time with our kids. By reconnecting, we create opportunities to strengthen the bond with our older children outside of the daily routine. Try something new together or do something special. By leaving egos, judgments, and cell phones at the door, this opportunity to let down our guards and focus on what is special about our children allows us to get to know them at a deeper level. A child who has this type of connection with at least one adult will exhibit fewer behavioral problems.

Do Consequences Work with Older Children?

By Camille North, editor of API Links

consequencesSome years ago, my oldest son forgot his shoes on a routine trip to the grocery store. We’d struggled with the “shoe issue” for a while, and I hadn’t come up with a workable solution to help him remember to bring his shoes when we had errands to run. Frequently, we’d have to double back to the house to retrieve a pair, and I’d be impatient and irritable. This day, I decided to let him take charge. We arrived at the store and, sure enough, his shoes were nowhere to be found. He ended up wearing his little sister’s flip-flops for the (mercifully short) shopping trip. He never again forgot his shoes.

Do consequences work with older children? The whole concept made perfect sense with young children. However, the idea becomes more nebulous as your children get older and become more logical, inquisitive, intuitive, and analytical.

Why Use Consequences?

What are your goals for discipline? Do you simply want your child to obey you? Or do you wish to guide rather than punish, to help your child develop the skills and tools to deal with obstacles and succeed in life? Continue reading

Stay Connected with Your Grown Children: An interview with grandmother Ruth Nemzoff

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

Don't Bite Your Tongue by Ruth NemzoffAccording to cultural standards, I am not an adult, even though I am many years out of school, own my home, have been married for nearly a decade, and have two children. The reason is, I still seek out my mother’s advice on a regular basis. I ask for tips in marriage, suggestions in managing money, and guidance in navigating life’s hardest moments. If being an adult means that you are able to live emotionally independent of the parents that raised you, I am far from grown up.

This is why it was so refreshing to read Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children by Ruth Nemzoff, a grandmother who believes that parenting doesn’t end just because your child turns 18 or 21 years old, gets married, or gives birth to her own children.

Last fall, I talked with Ruth about her views of Attachment Parenting when the kids leave home:

RITA: Ruth, your book definitely fills a need in parenting information — what to do when our children reach the age of adulthood. Your book helps fill the gap for both generations. You mention that your professional studies have mostly been with mothers of children with disabilities. How did this book come about?

RUTH: When my first child got married, everyone came up to me and said to keep my mouth shut and my pocketbook open. I thought that was terrible advice, because what was happening was a change in the relationship with my child and this new person was entering the family with whom I had an entirely new relationship. Plus, I thought that comment was terribly insulting. I didn’t want my relationships with my children to be about giving them money. That’s what first got me thinking about relationships with adult children being a mix of obligation and choice.

When I wrote the book, I wrote it definitely for the grandparent generation. What I found is that when adult children who are parents read the book, they get so much out of it.

RITA: How so?

RUTH: The three-generation relationship — grandparent-parent-child — is incredibly important, because it can either facilitate parenting or debilitate parenting.

For example, when a new baby comes, it’s very important to clarify roles ahead of time. The grandparent may come in and expect to care for the newborn, but the mother wants them to be the cook and dish washer. Or, the mother may say she wants to spend all of her time bonding with her baby but finds she needs a little time to herself here and there, and the grandparent was expecting to clean the house. The grandparent needs to be open to suggestion from the parent. What the mother can do is to voice her expectations but stay flexible, perhaps saying something like, “I want to take care of my baby, and would rather that you help around the house instead. But I may want you to hold the baby sometimes, when I take a shower or lay down for a nap.” If there are multiple children, the parent may want the grandparent to care for the older child, but the older child may only want to be around the mother. So, the parent may want to say to the grandparent, “It’d be most helpful if you could spend time playing with Suzy but know that she may feel the need to spend time with me, too, and that’s OK.”

Another example is when the grandparent is providing childcare for the parent. The key here is to be sure the grandparent is given as much respect as an employee is given, that the grandparent isn’t expected to provide free babysitting just whenever the parent asks. This is easier when the parent is paying the grandparent for babysitting, but even with free babysitting, it shouldn’t be a problem if the grandparent wants to go on a vacation. If you called your mom wanting her to come over to watch the kids and she couldn’t do it, it’d be inconvenient, yes, but just as you would with any other babysitter, you would have to find a way around the problem without putting your mother in the middle. Grandparents and parents need to communicate on each of their expectations when it comes to babysitting, especially when it comes to discipline. If grandparents are babysitting regularly or frequently, the parents need to give them the right to discipline in their own way, just as they would with a daycare provider. And if the parent has a real problem, she or he needs to talk about it. For example, say you don’t like your mother giving your child candy when she’s potty-training, you need to first identify whether it’s the concept of a reward or the candy that you don’t like and then talk to your mother, but do that just as you would with a daycare provider. Accord the grandparents the same respect as you would an employee.

Parents and grandparents need a process to clarify roles but then a way to re-negotiate them, too.

We all parent either exactly the way our parents parented us or in opposition to our parents, unless we consciously acknowledge the parenting practices we do and don’t want to use. When we become aware of how our parents raised us, we have to remember that no parent is the perfect parent. We all make mistakes. We all have the right to our own feelings, but you have to be forgiving in families.

RITA: Does your book address situations in which the grandparent is raising their grandchildren?

RUTH: Custody is not the same as grandparenting. I’m not talking about when grandparents raise their grandchildren; that is a whole topic to itself. What the book focuses on is the normal storms in life between parents and their adult children.

RITA: I understand. What potential do you see in your book?

RUTH: The grandparent-parent relationship is an international problem. I spoke in China to a group of expats from around the world, and in India. In every society, grandparents and their adult children are struggling in their relationships. Grandparents, no matter what country, have the same issues as American grandparents: Kids doing something different than what they want.

Everywhere I go, parents are saying, “Thank God! Someone is talking about this!” It’s been a topic ignored for too long. Parenting books used to end at age three, years ago. Now, we’re up to the teen years. But, there aren’t any books besides this one that goes beyond into the adult years.

RITA: Why do you think there is so much interest in this topic now?

RUTH: All the baby boomers are coming into this grandparent age group. They want to keep the relationships with their kids. They have spent so much time and energy and money on their children that they don’t want to lose that relationship as their children grow into their adult years. They don’t want to let go.

I don’t like to say that grandparents are supposed to let go of their adult children. They are just changing the parental role. They’re realizing that their child has developed new skills and are adjusting in the way they relate to their children.

Attachment goes on forever. We need each other at the beginning of life and at the end of life and in every crisis in the middle. We never outgrow our need for cheerleaders.

That — cheerleading and helping each other out in the crisis, and being able to depend on each other for mutual solace and support — that, to me, is what Attachment Parenting is in the adult years. The grandparent-parent relationship is complicated because of the ambiguity of trying to figure out where adulthood begins and childhood ends and because many of us think that being grown-up means being disconnected from our families rather than being engaged with them as friends, as supports, and caring beings. The aim is not to let go but, rather, to constantly recalibrate the relationships so that both the grandparent and parent have more joy than aggravation from being connected.

RITA: What are the areas of conflict that most often come up in this three-generation dynamic — grandparent-parent-child?

RUTH: When you’re talking about grandparent-parent-child relationships, particularly with young children, the top two issues are:

  • Gift giving — a parent may object to a grandparent’s gift of toy guns or Barbie dolls. The problem is not so much the toys but the philosophy behind it. The parent objects to the guns, because she doesn’t want her child to be exposed to violence, or to the Barbie dolls because of the image of women they perpetuate. One way around this is for the grandparent to give to his or her grandchild the gift of time. They can still spend money on their grandchild but do it in the context of spending time with the child, such as a visit to the zoo.
  • Discipline — it’s very different when grandparents come once a year than when they babysit frequently. It is easier for parents to allow grandparents to break the parents’ rules when the grandparents come only sporadically than when they babysit regularly. In either case, all three generations need to understand what the rules are and why each generation might want them to be different. For example, a parent who does not usually allow TV might suggest to the visiting grandparent that if they are totally exhausted, to sit and watch an educational TV program with the child. In this way, the grandparents get the rest they need and the parents get the relief they need, and the child gets a terrific snuggle!Grandparents also often have concerns with the parent’s approach to discipline. Some people prefer that their children learn through experience; others want more of a part in teaching them. Discipline is on a continuum, and involves varying amounts of justice and mercy. It’s important that grandparents allow parents to choose their own way to discipline. Most kids grow up reasonably well either way.

Reframing is a useful life skill. Reframing is looking at a situation in a new way, so instead of seeing a certain action as a breaking of the rules, one might view it as an opportunity for children to learn that different people have different expectations. We need to realize that the grandparents’ generation entered a world very different than the parents’ generation did, and that each generation required different skills.

Both sides would do well to be a lot less judgmental when it comes to discipline. Kids learn and kids can cope with many different rules. That’s one of the skills you need to learn in life. Your child will get to the point where, when she hears that Grandma is coming, she says, “Yeah, I can go to bed an hour later,” or “Oh no, Grandma makes me go to bed an hour earlier.”

So, first, I’d say grandparents and parents both need to be less judgmental. Second, they need to know themselves and their own parenting styles. And third, they need to be forgiving.

RITA: You emphasize the need for open communication between grandparents and their adult children. How do you suggest grandparents and their adult children go about resolving strong feelings?

RUTH: To give an example, a common problem is that people tend to be taken for granted in families. So when you feel hurt, it’s time to talk about it. Use “I feel…” statements rather than “You…” For example, “I feel taken for granted” rather than “You’re taking me for granted.” Then, problem-solve for a resolution agreeable to both of you.

You can take a lot of lessons from other relationships, such as work relationships and friendships, and apply them to the grandparent-parent relationship. One of the big things in families is learning timing — when to bring up a concern. For example, try to avoid situations where either one of you is hungry or tired.

RITA: Thank you for your time, Ruth. Do you have any closing thoughts?

RUTH: So much of the grandparent-parent relationship is putting yourself in the other’s shoes, seeing the situation from the other’s point of view. This really helps resolve tensions.

Nature Therapy

By Carrie Kerr

Carrie Kerr and her childrenI have always been of the opinion that days which are 70 degrees and sunny should be declared “National Hooky Days.” After all, what could be more important than getting outside on such a perfect day?

The kids are in full academic mode, complete with homework, projects, concerts, and tests. For many children, their days and weeks are heavily scheduled, irrespective of 70 and sunny.

As 3 p.m. approached on one of these flawless days, I put aside my projects and began preparing for the children to come home. Usually their arrival is a flurry of motion, commentary, questions, and requests. It is my job to gather them in, listen to them, support them, and direct them toward what needs to be done in the final stage of the day. On this particular day, however, I had an additional task. My job was to wipe tears.

Two of my children came home with what resulted in, simply…a tough day. I had to think fast of what we would do to take an emotionally trying day and make it better.

Adults and children alike, this is a common scenario. We have responsibilities and schedules that often push us over the edge. As a culture, we are having trouble dealing with stress. We see trends of overeating, overspending, and overindulging in drugs or alcohol as a response to a difficult day or phase in life. Do I want to teach my children that when they’ve had a hard day they should go ahead and indulge in an unhealthy pick-me-up? Am I concerned about reinforcing habits that will lead to a sedentary lifestyle? Will these habits, in turn, set them up for a higher risk of poor health and depression and, thereby, actually set them up for failure? How is it that we are stuck with this as our mindset, and how do we change it? One solution could be surprisingly simple.

My firstborn was a fairly high-strung baby, but the solution to helping her deal with her tension was easy: She loved anything outdoors, and the simple act of stepping outside calmed her down. I remember one rainy evening in particular; she was maybe six weeks old and was in the colicky phase of crying for several hours every evening. My husband was walking her around, waiting it out. When he stepped outside, her crying ceased and she cooed; inside, she screamed. So, he paced, under the eaves of the house as it poured down rain. We laughed, having pegged the needs of this child so early on.

It quickly became our habit to spend as much time outside as possible. That winter, our pediatrician was concerned about my eight-month-old baby’s chapped cheeks. “Do you really need to go outside so much?” He asked me. “Yes, we do,” I responded.

This coping technique evolved into a lifestyle for our growing family. All of our children spent endless hours gazing around the woods as we hiked them through local trails in the Kelty backpack. As they aged, they wiggled and begged to be set down and run the trails. It was, and continues to be, a free place for them — a place where they can forget their worries and use their imagination; a place where they can explore, discover, and learn with few rules or boundaries; a place where they can truly play in the name of wholesome childhood fun; a place of pure and real escapism.

It has quite the same effect on me.

Setting positive examples and guidance about how to handle life in general is the basic job of any parent. The solution to a stressful day must be something that has an overall positive impact on our physical, emotional, or spiritual health. I want my children to be able to understand and apply that concept. On this particular day, when my children were struggling and forlorn, I knew what they needed: Bookbags, homework, and practice time aside… We grabbed our hiking shoes and nets and headed for the woods. Within an hour, my children were thinking nothing of their stressful day and only of the number of minnows they had caught.

This, I call “nature therapy.” It is an often-overlooked, yet readily available and free program. Feel it, breathe it, and pass it onto the people in your life.

Where to Draw the Line? Exploring Boundaries, Limits, and Consequences

By Tamara Parnay

where do you draw the line?“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

~ Serenity Prayer, attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr theologian

A mother was in the kitchen, preparing dinner. Her child came up from behind her and hit her. “Ow!” she called out angrily. “That hurt! I’ll teach you!” She immediately turned and hit her child back. The child cried out in pain and shock. “I’m not going to raise a wild, disrespectful child!”

That child grew up and became a mother. She is now in the kitchen, preparing dinner. Her child comes up from behind her and hits her. “Ow!” she calls out angrily. “That hurt! I’ll teach you!” She immediately turns to hit her child back — but somehow stops herself… Continue reading

The Family Table

By Judy Sanders, member of API’s Board of Directors and API’s Editorial Review Board

the family tableIt’s dinnertime somewhere. Families sit around a dining table, or gather around a short-legged table, or settle on a rug in a circle. A baby may be in a high chair or on his mother’s back, having food handed to him. He may be in a hammock, gently pushed every so often, dozing, not eating, and absorbing the sounds of his family enjoying their evening meal.

Why regularly share the evening meal as a family? How does this routine activity serve us beyond nourishment? Continue reading

Using Media Literacy in the Battle for Our Children’s Minds – and Health

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

advertising and our children's healthWho’s teaching your children about food and nutrition? As much as parents hope the answer is them, even attached children are barraged by food messages from sources you might not have even considered: the media and advertising.

“A lot of people say, ‘Media doesn’t influence me,’” said Melinda Hemmelgarn, a dietician and food journalist from Columbia, Missouri, when in fact, advertising is often the only form of “education” they may be receiving about food and nutrition. Even of those people who have heard about their nation’s nutritional programs, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food pyramid, few rely on them to make their food choices, she said.

Hemmelgarn is spending her fellowship with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s Food and Society Policy Fellows Program educating parents about the dangers of letting the media make children’s nutritional decisions. Media’s influence on our children is so pervasive, she said, that most of us don’t even realize how much our children – or we – are being exposed.

Advertisers are Relentless – and Want Our Children

The amount of advertising we receive on a daily basis is staggering: television, Internet, radio, billboards, newspapers, magazines, cell phones, video games, at sports venues, in supermarkets, food packaging, even in schools, and the list goes on and on. Children and adults are constantly hearing where they should go to eat or what they should buy. With so much marketing coming at us constantly, it’s impossible for media not to have an influence unless we live somewhere with absolutely no contact with the outside world. Cell phones now have the capability to allow businesses to track where users go, so if your teen walked past a pizza parlor, an ad could pop up for that pizza parlor on the screen of the cell phone. It’s both awesome and frightening what technology can do.

Advertisers are also keying in on trends, which are most influential on children and teens. “Now, with regard to children especially, you got to get them when they’re young, because if you can get them when they’re young, you got them for life,” Hemmelgarn said of how advertisers think regarding children.

Study: Food Marketing Aimed at Children Influences Poor Nutritional Choices
A recent report by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies shows that food and beverage marketing targeted to children 12 years old and younger leads them to request and consume high-calorie, low-nutrient products. Advertisers aim for this age group because dietary preferences and eating patterns form early in life, the study says. The report calls for manufacturers and restaurants to direct more of their resources to reshape children’s awareness of food by developing healthy foods, drinks, and meals for children. The report also calls for the government to enhance nutritional standards in school meals and offer tax incentives to companies that develop healthy foods, and for schools, parents, and the media to support the government and food industry to pursue these initiatives.

It’s the Parents’ Responsibility

Parents need to teach their children how to be smart about buying their food – to realize that the purpose of food is to provide nutrition to the body, Hemmelgarn said. Children need to learn that there’s more to buying food than convenience, price, or emotional comfort. They need to learn how food choices affect their health, not just their checking accounts or their schedules.

Parents also need to teach their children that just because an advertiser makes a claim, it’s not necessarily accurate, Hemmelgarn said. For example, 78% of people in the United States say they like to buy green brands because they want to be eco-conscious, but not all advertisers who claim to be green or sustainable or organic actually are. One fast-food restaurant claims that its chicken nuggets are green because they don’t have trans fats, but there’s no information on how the chicken was raised or any other nutritional facts about the food. Even the term “organic” can get confusing, as many companies are now diluting this label to include naturally raised, yet not organically certified, foods.

Media Literacy is a Learned Skill

The key to guiding our children’s ability to make smart consumer choices regarding food is to teach them to be media literate – using critical thinking to sort through the messages they are receiving in order to find the truth about the food being advertised and if it aligns with their own values and beliefs.

“Media literacy is not media bashing,” Hemmelgarn said. “It’s a counter-balance. It’s an antidote to the excess media of this age. But, it’s an alternative to censoring.”

Through media literacy, consumers learn that all media is constructed to deliver a specific message to consumers and to persuade them of something — in the case of food purchases: where to go and what to buy. They learn how to think beyond the plate to find “food truth,” answering questions such as: Where did this food come from? Who produced it? How was it raised? What’s in it? How might eating this affect the environment, society, my community, my family, or me?

There are seven key questions for consumers to ask themselves before basing a food purchase on a media message they received:

  1. Who paid for the message?
  2. What is the purpose of the message?
  3. Who is the intended audience?
  4. What techniques are being used to grab and hold my attention?
  5. What is being sold?
  6. What is not included in the message?
  7. What are the unintended consequences of purchasing this food?

Using the case of a fast-food restaurant’s ad promoting parties to schoolteachers for their classrooms during field trips, Hemmelgarn demonstrated how to use these questions:

  1. Who paid for the message? McDonald’s
  2. What is the purpose of the message? To sell food
  3. Who is the intended audience? Teachers
  4. What techniques are being used to grab and hold my attention? Happy, fun character interacting with happy children
  5. What is being sold? A free event for classrooms
  6. What is not included in the message? That the food is unhealthy
  7. What are the unintended consequences of purchasing this food? Children learn unhealthy food choices from the teacher’s decision, and children learn to overlook healthy food options such as homemade meals or healthier restaurants

Here’s another example using a soft drink company’s pop machines in schools:

  1. Who paid for the message? Coca-Cola
  2. What is the purpose of the message? To sell bottles of a soft drink
  3. Who is the intended audience? Children
  4. What techniques are being used to grab and hold my attention? Bright colors, catchy slogans
  5. What is being sold? Easy, inexpensive drink option
  6. What’s not included in the message? That the drink is unhealthy
  7. What are the unintended consequences of purchasing this food? Children learn unhealthy food choices from the school’s decision, and children learn to overlook healthy drink options such as milk or juice

Sorting through media messages can be difficult to learn and to teach to others, but says Hemmelgarn: “If we love our kids and if we’re interested in protecting them from these media messages, then we need to know how to do this.”

Cheap Food is Often Unhealthy Food
Anyone who has ever walked into a grocery store knows this is true: Healthy food is not cheap. Earlier this year, at the groundbreaking of U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama’s home garden, CBS News reported that people going through the economic recession were more likely to opt for inexpensive, unhealthy foods over whole foods, even when they know the long-term consequences of an unhealthy diet. When it came to saving money, people are more likely to trade their $3 organic apple for a $1 fast-food sandwich rather than look for other money-saving options. As attached parents, we must keep in mind that we are raising our children to grow into healthy adults and to value health over greed. And we must model the decisions we want our children to make. Be careful when you begin cutting the family food budget.

Is Organic Really Healthier?

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

Is organic scientifically healthier?Georgia Jones isn’t accustomed to addressing a crowd as knowledgeable about food as are many attached parents. An University of Nebraska-Lincoln nutrition professor, Jones spends much of her classroom time educating people about the very basics of what they put in their bodies.

“My students don’t come with an understanding of food,” she said. “Food for my students comes out of a box, a pan. If I told my students to go make a chocolate cake, they wouldn’t have a clue.”

But many families involved in Attachment Parenting are smart about their food. They understand the importance of knowing where their food comes from and how it was produced. These consumers choose to eat food without chemicals, because they realize that organic is superior to conventionally raised food. Or, is it?

Background on the Organic Food Industry

Organic food, a $14 billion industry, is the fastest-growing segment of the food industry, Jones said. National surveys show that two-thirds of Americans have purchased organic food at some point during the last 12 months.

“Organic food started as mostly a niche market, years ago,” Jones said. During especially the last decade, organic foods, farmers markets, and local food networks have spread rapidly into the mainstream consumer market. “Organic food is no longer a niche market,” she said.

Consumer demand for organic food is on the rise for a number of reasons, including food safety issues, such as an avoidance of pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs); a concern for the environment; and because organic food is often fresher and tastier than conventionally grown food, Jones said. But the number-one reason is an increased awareness of the link between food and health.

“There was a time in this country when we forgot that food actually has a purpose in our health, that it is for nourishment,” Jones said. “Now, we’ve moved into an area that I call ‘beyond nutritional eating,’ where we are using food to try to prevent and heal disease.”

That organic food is free of pesticides and GMOs and comes from environmentally friendly farms and gardens are safe assumptions – each documented through federally regulated certification programs. Shocking as it may be, however, there is no certainty that organic food, while its safety is certainly more accountable, is actually more nutritious than conventionally grown food, Jones said.

A New Era in Food Science

Consumers often confuse food safety and nutrition. Food-borne illnesses, pesticides, and GMO allergens are food safety concerns. Nutrition refers specifically to the content of macro- and micronutrients within food. Traditional nutrition centers on macronutrients, which include protein, carbohydrates, and fats; vitamins; and minerals. Micronutrients include substances such as phytochemicals and phytonutrients that were long thought to have no effect on human health. Research now shows that these micronutrients, also known as secondary metabolites, are extremely beneficial in boosting the immune system, protecting the body from cancer-causing free radicals, killing disease-causing pathogens, and more. “This is a new area [for science],” Jones said.

One phytonutrient receiving a lot of attention from nutritionists are flavonoids, which are found in very high amounts in blueberries but also in a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. Flavonoids are known to protect against heart disease, cancer, and age-related diseases such as dementia. “You want to eat plenty of fruits and plenty of vegetables,” Jones said. “Something else is, you want to eat plenty of color. This is a key part of nutrition and is not getting enough attention.”

Activated by environmental stress, flavonoids are produced by the plant as a defense mechanism against UV-B radiation and disease stress. “These secondary metabolites aren’t there for us. We just reap the benefits,” Jones said. “They’re actually there to protect the plant.”

Organic Plants Contain More Secondary Metabolites

To determine whether organically raised plants are more nutritious than conventionally raised plants, science is going back to how plants are raised and focusing on the formation of secondary metabolites — the phytonutrients — which are chemicals produced by a plant grown in less-than-ideal conditions. Organically raised plants are subject to more pest and weather stress than conventionally raised plants, which are protected by chemical pesticides, GMO varieties, and commercial fertilizer application. As a result of this added stress, an organically raised plant produces secondary metabolites to provide added protection, as well as to quicken maturation and seed development.

But Theories Are Not Proof

Although organic foods do tend to contain more secondary metabolites, “there are a number of reasons why scientists aren’t coming out and saying this is the better way,” Jones said. There are still too many unknowns in the formation of secondary metabolites, including specific environmental factors, soil properties, and crop management practices that affect the formation of these micronutrients. Plus, there are two crucial questions that must be answered first:

  1. Do organic plant products contain more or less of certain nutrients, minerals, vitamins, and secondary metabolites than conventional plant products?
  2. To what extent are nutrients, minerals, vitamins, and secondary metabolites beneficial or harmful to human health?

Much of the problem with being unable to give a definite answer to the question of whether organic food is more nutrition relates to the type of research that has been conducted on the relationship between secondary metabolites and organically raised food. Most of the studies seek out theories, such as epidemiological studies that link food to health through statistics, retail food analysis, and other studies that are purely observational. Observational studies look for patterns, but they can’t prove a theory. For example, an observational study may find that people who eat oranges tend not to develop cancer but there aren’t any scientific data to prove that oranges prevent cancer. “Just because something organic is statistically different doesn’t mean it’s biologically different,” Jones said.

Below are a number of observational studies related to organic nutrition, each with promising theories:

  • Organic ketchup contains more lycopene than conventional and store brands, and fast food ketchup (Ishida and Chapman, 2009).
  • Flavanoids are significantly higher in tomatoes raised with organic practices such as crop rotation for pest control and organic matter for fertilizer, than in tomatoes raised with herbicides and pesticides and commercial fertilizer (Mitchell et al, 2007).
  • Animals fed with organic feeds have fewer stillbirths than those fed with conventional feeds (Williams, 2002; Bourn and Prescott, 2003).
  • Antioxidant compounds are higher in peaches and pears raised organically than conventionally, and vitamin E is higher in organic pears than conventional pears (Carbonaro, et al, 2002).
  • Organic food products have higher levels of vitamin C and lower levels of nitrates than conventional food products (Bourn and Prescott, 2002).

A follow-up human or animal study must be used to prove any theories found. Human studies are the most influential but are particularly difficult to do. “You can control what a rat does, but you can’t control what a human does,” Jones said. “You have to consider not only diet but lifestyle. You can’t eat organic and drink or smoke all day. … You also have to consider, with human studies, that diseases progress over a lifespan, not just one or two years.”

The Most Promising Study

By and large, the observational study most supportive of the theory that organic food is nutritionally superior to conventional foods was conducted in 2001 among Okinawans, the people living on the southern-most Japanese island of Okinawa.

“They have the longest lifespan of any group alive,” Jones said. Okinawans live to be an average of 81.2 years old, followed by the Japanese at 79.9 years, Hong Kong at 79.1 years, and Sweden at 79.0 years. The United States has the 18th longest lifespan of the world’s societies, at 76.8 years.

Okinawans also experience a delayed aging process and minimized debilitating diseases in the elder years. “These people are healthier longer than (Americans) are,” Jones said, despite U.S. medical advancements superior to that of the Okinawans. The average cholesterol level in the Okinawa centenarian is 102.4 mg/dL, and high blood pressure exists in only 1.5% of the centenarian population, she said.

There are several aspects of the Okinawan diet that differ dramatically from the Western diet. Okinawans have never developed a taste for salt, so “they don’t eat a lot of processed foods,” Jones said. Their flavonoid consumption is six times higher than the Japanese or Canadians, who are next on the list. And the Okinawan diet contains the highest lycopene content of all of the world’s diets. The Okinawan diet has since been called the Longevity Diet, because it improves physical strength, prevents illness, and maintains overall health.

“They look at medicine as food,” Jones said. “They’re really looking at food in a different manner than we do.”

Using the Okinawan study, consumers of organic foods can safely assume that, yes, organic is nutritionally superior to conventional foods, Jones said. But, she warned, this is only a guess until the research proves it so — although it’s a guess that many consumers are confident to say is truth.

Current Trends in the Organic Sector

Consumer interest in organic foods continued to grow last year. Highlights from 2008 consumer use surveys include:

  • Research from The Natural Marketing Institute reveals that consumers are increasingly incorporating organic products into their lifestyles. Total household penetration across six product categories has risen from 57% in 2006 to 59% in 2007. The research also showed that the number of core users has increased from 16% in 2006 to 18% in 2007.
  • Consumer interest in buying environmentally friendly products and organic food remains high among Northwest natural and organic product consumers despite tough economic times and rising food and energy prices. Research by Mambo Sprouts Marketing showed that consumers in Washington and Oregon see buying “green” as a priority: 92% of consumers reported buying the same (54%) or more (38%) environmentally friendly products compared to the prior six months. Rather than cutting out such products, consumers report they are using money-saving strategies, such as coupons, stocking up on sales, and cooking meals at home to stretch their grocery dollars.
  • 69% of U.S. adult consumers buy organic products at least occasionally, according to The Hartman Group report, The Many Faces of Organic 2008. Furthermore, about 28% of organic consumers (about 19% adults) are weekly organic users. Organic categories of high interest to consumers are dairy, fruit and vegetables, prepared foods, meats, breads, and juices.
  • A Harris Interactive online survey conducted for Whole Foods Market showed that, despite rising food prices, 79% of consumers do not want to compromise on food quality and 70% continue to buy the same amount of natural and organic foods. Findings also showed two out of three adults prefer to buy natural or organic products if prices are comparable to those of non-organic products. Overall, the survey found that 74% of adults purchase natural or organic foods, with 20% saying that more than one-fourth of all the groceries they buy are natural or organic. In addition, 66% of adults would like to find ways to buy natural or organic foods within their budget.

API’s Role in Shaping Parenting: Highlights from the 2009 API Think Tank Event in Nashville, TN

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

API's 15th AnniversaryIn an unprecedented move, Attachment Parenting International gathered eight brilliant minds in Attachment Parenting for the organization’s 15th Anniversary Celebration gathering the last weekend of August in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. Never before had all these parenting experts appeared together at an event open to the public. For the hundreds of parents, students, and professionals sitting in the seats of Belmont University’s Troutt Theatre the afternoon of Saturday, August 29, 2009, the “Making an Impact Now: Creating a Sustainable Legacy for Children” Think Tank Event proved truly to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Moderator Lu Hanessian, author of Let the Baby Drive, founder of WYSH, host of API Live! teleseminars, and member of API’s Board of Directors, introduced the panel of speakers, each walking from behind the stage curtain to sit on chairs arranged in a semi circle under a six-foot banner proclaiming API’s anniversary theme: “Growing More Attached.” Making up the panel were:

  • Martha Sears, RN – nurse and lactation consultant, La Leche League leader, mother to eight children, co-author of 25 parenting books, and member of API’s Advisory Board and Editorial Review Board.
  • William Sears, MD – pediatrician and pediatrics professor at the University of California’s Irvine School of Medicine, father to eight children, and author or co-author to more than 40 parenting books, and member of API’s Advisory Board.
  • Ina May Gaskin, MA, CPM – midwife, founder and director of the Farm Midwifery Center in Tennessee, and author of two childbirth books.
  • Mary Ann Cahill – co-founder and former director of La Leche League International, mother of nine children, and author of a parenting book.
  • Isabelle Fox, PhD – psychotherapist, author of two parenting books, mother, and member of API’s Advisory Board.
  • James McKenna, PhD – anthropologist, professor, and director at Notre Dame University’s the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Lab, author of three infant sleep books, and member of API’s Advisory Board.
  • Barbara Nicholson, MEd – founder of API, mother to four children, co-author of Attached at the Heart, and member of API’s Board of Directors, Editorial Review Board, and Research Group.
  • Lysa Parker, MS, CFLE – founder and former director of API, certified family life educator, mother to two children, co-author of Attached at the Heart, co-leader of API of Huntsville/Madison, and member of API’s Board of Directors, Editorial Review Board, and Research Group.

“This is quite an illustrious panel!” Hanessian said. Special tribute was paid to Nicholson and Parker, for “without you two ladies sitting at the table 15 years ago and commiserating about the future, we would not be here,” Hanessian said before launching into a discussion that could have easily lasted longer than the two hours allotted.

Congratulations, Barbara and Lysa!
Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker, API’s co-founders, were surprised during the Think Tank Event with recognition for API’s first Award  for Contribution to Parenting going to an AP-minded individual(s) who truly made a difference on parenting. The award was presented by Martha Sears and Dr. William Sears.

Said Dr. Sears of the award recipients: “There are few people – and we really know a lot of people – who I look back on and say, they really made a difference.”

Hanessian opened the Think Tank Event through a series of questions exploring the theme, “Making an Impact Now: Creating a Sustainable Legacy for Children.” To sum it up, she wondered on behalf of parents worldwide what parenting for the future means for the choices parents are making everyday in their homes?

But first, how did API come to be?

API in the Beginning

API, like any effective organization, was borne out a need: “I realized when I had my first child, how few supports there were,” Parker said.

She found new mother support in her local La Leche League, which described a different way of parenting than much of mainstream promoted – one that resonated with her sense of self and where she gravitated toward in her parenting approach. “I think that was a miracle moment for me,” Parker said.

Through the years, Parker and Nicholson saw a need for this parenting approach to get into the reach of more parents. As special education teachers, they encountered children labeled with emotional and behavioral issues and learning disabilities who were, rather, in need of connection with an adult attachment figure. “A lot of problems weren’t really a learning problem but an attachment problem,” Nicholson said.

Read the entire history of API’s founding in the special Attached at the Heart issue of The Attached Family magazine, available at www.attachmentparenting.org/attachedattheheart/journal_aath.pdf.

Ultimately, API came to be as a way to better educate and support attached families, but Attachment Parenting was around long before 15 years ago. Martha Sears and Dr. William Sears, called the Father of Attachment Parenting (AP), coined the term years before API was founded. But the parenting principles that make up AP didn’t start with the Sears.

“In my first year of practice, a wise professor said to me: Surround yourself with very wise mothers,” said Dr. Sears, who is celebrating his 40th year of pediatrics practice this year. “That was my first introduction to Attachment Parenting.”

Empowering Parents

“I worry most about the disempowerment of parents,”  said Dr. McKenna.

“We live in a culture of fear,” Hanessian agreed.

API strives to give the power of parenting back to the mother and father, so that they know how to make the best decisions for their children and family despite the sometimes ill-informed and biased advice offered not only by friends and family members but also by medical and other childcare professionals.

“Take back the power,” Parker said. “For far too long, people in the culture have dictated how we should raise our baby, how we should have our baby.”

Gaskin explained how this empowering of parents best happens when advocated for early – at birth. By choosing a midwife, new parents can ensure that the mother and baby can likely be together from labor and delivery forward. By starting as early as possible in keeping parents with their child, their parenting journey pushes forward with connection being considered “normal.”

Parents’ naturally gravitate toward connection, when not influenced by outside forces. What API advocates is for parents to follow that intuition.

“Our fourth child is the one who taught me about intuition,” three decades ago, Martha Sears said, adding that the first three babies were so-called easy babies – or, in other words as McKenna explained, this fourth child would be one of the babies who aren’t as convenient for parents as they wish they would be. This fourth baby required Martha Sears to cosleep in order for her to get some sleep. Although she was following her intuition, it was a scary time for her because the mainstream culture did not support this sleeping arrangement at all. Sears had to learn how to listen to her baby and trust her intuition despite what was popular in parenting advice at the time.

“Thirty years ago! Isn’t that unbelievable that we’re still plagued by that doubt?” Hanessian exclaimed.

What API does is to help parents realize that they are the experts in their child’s care and that, as humans, we are driven toward connection with one another, especially between parent and child. In Western culture, especially, this often means that how they feel toward childrearing doesn’t quite jive with the mainstream advice. API first empowers parents by allowing them the freedom to look beyond mainstream parenting advice to that connection-building that just feels good and right within themselves.

But the key to helping parents pursue this intuitive parenting style is showing the overwhelming research that support AP and API’s Eight Principles of Parenting. Martha Sears agreed, giving an example of the need to show parents the research discrediting cry-it-out sleep training.

Armed with research, API has helped to turn the tide. Parents are now able to find AP resources to support them in their parenting journey. Even in the mainstream culture, more and more experts are saying for parents to listen to their babies.

There are still challenges, though. Western culture is driven by a working population and both parents in most families work outside the home. Dr. Fox recalled a point in her practice when the family dynamic had noticeably changed – when parents were unable to describe the history of their child’s behavioral problems for which Fox had been called to assess and repair, even unable to provide basic childcare facts such as the child’s fears or the potty training technique used. What she found was that the children she most often saw with behavioral issues were those who did not have a consistent caregiver in the early years of life.

That’s why API is so important, Nicholson said – to get these observations, and complementary research, out to parents to show them the long-term effects of nurturing parenting.

This change in parenting practice among the mainstream culture takes time. As Dr. Sears pointed out, parents have been practicing AP for more than 40 years, and while Western culture is incorporating more AP principles into mainstream parenting advice than ever before, AP is still a long ways from widespread acceptance.

Cahill, one of seven women who co-founded La Leche League International 53 years ago, agreed that cultural change does take time. The reason is, parents want to be “good” parents and it can be difficult for a mother or father to sort through the advice they receive from literally every person they encounter, whether the pediatrician, a teacher, a clergyman, a family member or friend, or even by observing what other parents model at the park or grocery store.

“When I had my first baby, I wanted to be the best mother. I wanted to breastfeed,” Cahill said. “And I utterly failed.”

But what she came to realize is that she didn’t fail; instead, society failed her. She didn’t receive any support for breastfeeding. That’s the value of API – a source of support .

Dr. Fox agreed, saying that it’s common for parents to attend childbirth education classes but that they don’t often attend parenting classes until they have a problem they need help with. “Mothers need help with childbirth, but they also need help with [at least] the first year,” she said.

‘Good’ Parenting vs. Good Parenting

That “good” parent myth is also fueled by the voices parents hear in their heads from how their own parents had raised them, Fox said. “We hear our own parents’ voices, and we hear that parent’s voice be critical to us.” Without being aware of the power of those voices, parents will judge how “good” they are by how well they following their own parents’ paths.

“In the beginning, I had to overcome some deficits myself,” Martha Sears explained. Her mother had spanked and practiced other non-AP approaches. She struggled, like many parents must, against that voice in her head that conflicted with her intuition in terms of discipline and communication. In the end – at the point of decision making – all parents either make the choice to do what their parents did with them, or they change through education, support, and often intense emotional work.

Martha Sears said it’s important for parents to keep the future goal in mind: “Remember that you are raising someone else’s future mother or future father. It’s important to get yourself emotionally healthy, so that you can give that gift to your children that keeps on giving.”

Among API’s Eight Principles of Parenting is Preparing for Pregnancy, Birth, and Parenting. Through this principle, API is able to empower people early in their parenting journey – which ultimately makes the challenges of raising children, discipline and communication, easier in the long-term, said Martha Sears. “When you can find a solid way to connect with your children early, you have fewer problems [later],” she said.

“This organization [API] is the only one in existence, except La Leche League, where parents can learn that and that teaches this foundation of attachment,” Martha Sears said.

It can be difficult for parents to sort out their own voice from all the other voices they hear. So, how can parents sort out which voices – whether from their own parents or another outside influence, including API – aligns best with their need for connection with their child?

Today’s Western society is the only culture in history that needs to read a book to know how to parent, said Dr. McKenna. Books are wonderful, but the best teachers are other parents – those experienced in AP. Let’s look at what the expert parents said at the Think Tank Event in response to some of the most confusing areas of parenting.

Discipline

Dr. Bill Sears offered a quick reflective question he learned from his wife, Martha, that parents can ask themselves whenever encountered with a tense situation: “If I were my child, how would I want my mother or father to react?”

“Get behind the eyes of your child. Do you yell, do you spank, do you use sarcasm, do you hug? If you ask yourself that question, and answer truthfully, you’ll always get it right.”

Sleep

Someone, at some point, decided that parenting should shut off at night, said Dr. McKenna. Instead of regarding their baby’s cries as a way of communication, they regarded it a non-communicating noise that the baby makes. What makes crying irritating is when parents fail to see the value in it. A crying baby indicates a need and opportunity for attachment-building.

“Does your baby sleep through the night yet?” is among the most frequently asked questions of the newborn period and can make parents feel guilty if their baby isn’t sleeping through the night – as if they are not “good” parents, Dr. McKenna said.

“Sleep is very relational,” Dr. McKenna said. Crying is natural; it’s a sign that attachment exists, that the baby is seeking the parent out and wants the parent close. Dr. McKenna gave this sample reply for the next time someone asks whether Baby is sleeping through the night yet: “Not only does my baby not sleep through the night, he protests and cries loudly when I’m not there – and isn’t that wonderful? He knows when he’s in danger and isn’t afraid to say so!”

If mainstream society regards a baby who wakes and cries during the night as having a sleep problem, the question is why only half the babies have “sleep problems” and not the full 100 percent, Dr. McKenna said. Why  are some of the babies not crying, when crying means there is an attachment bond?

What makes nighttime parenting so difficult is because parents want their sleep and losing sleep is hard. But, “it [parenting] isn’t always going to be easy anyway, because life is like that,” Dr. McKenna said. Even the most informative, well-practiced AP parent can have difficulties in parenting – and infant sleep – if they are caring for a high-needs baby.

Dr. Sears chimed in with a story of a couple who he first saw with their newborn baby and later saw when their baby was three months old. Shorty after birth, the baby was a healthy, happy child and the parents seemed inclined to AP. But, at the three months, the baby wasn’t gaining well and had floppy muscle tone and the parents seemed disconnected.

What had changed? The parents, overwhelmed with their baby’s erratic sleep pattern, had taken a cry-it-out sleep training class. At three months, while the baby was considered “good” in that he slept through the night, the baby’s health was failing in what Dr. Sears refers to as “shut down syndrome” – the baby’s lack of emotional connection with his parents caused him to shut down mentally and physically. It’s a rather common example of the effect that non-AP sleep practices can have on children.

“Beware of baby trainers, because I can tell you, from my practice, it’s a short-term gain by a long-term loss,” Dr. Sears said.

Balance

“This [parenting] is a tough job, and there are a lot of tired moms,” Nicholson said. “What a baby needs is a happy, rested mother.”

Fathers, she said, need to give their wives and partners support – not advice – to ensure that she doesn’t get overwhelmed and is able to find balance between taking care of the child and herself.

But balance is more than self-care; it’s also about healing the emotional wounds left from their own childhoods. “You can’t value someone unless you value yourself,” Dr. McKenna said.

In Utero Bonding

Connection begins even before the baby is born. Nicholson spoke about the importance of parents learning about conscious birth, starting their parenting journey of education and smart choices early. Mothers and babies are not supposed to be separated after birth, Gaskin agreed.

Gaskin recommended that mothers take the time to revel in the baby growing inside them. She suggested mothers focus more on the baby moving and kicking than getting caught up in the technology surrounding pregnancy, such as ultrasounds which unnecessarily distracts some parents.

Consistent and Loving Care

“Babies are ingenious in figuring out who really does what for them,” said Dr. McKenna. Whether this is the mother, father, grandparent, or childcare provider, the baby’s main attachment bond will develop with the primary caregiver. “Our species would not have been successful without significant caregivers,” he added.

That’s why, “what is so important is that mothers have to be there,” said Dr. Fox, who explained that, in all families, one parent should stay at home full-time for the first few years of the child’s life. Often, this is the mother, but more and more, the father is taking on this role in many families. “Fathers can just as well stay home, too,” Dr. McKenna said.

Lately, “fathers are taking more of a role,” Gaskin agreed. “When dads aren’t afraid of babies, I think that’s something very good because that connection is likely to continue.”

Dr. McKenna mentioned the term, “tandem parenting,” in which both the mother and the father share in the care of their child to the point where both are primary attachment figures. This is a new concept, as it has long been thought that a child can only have one primary attachment figure and that the next closest relation would be a secondary attachment figure. The primary attachment preference is based on the father’s behavior toward the baby, not a biological connection.

There is great value in tandem parenting, not only in the benefit to the child who can rely on both parents and to the mother who can take a break here and there, but also to the father himself. When fathers help with their children, their hormone levels fluctuate, Dr. McKenna said. Their oxytocin levels increase and testerone decreases. It’s an actual change in biochemistry.

But, especially with the economic pressures of today’s society, many families are unable to afford one parent to stay at home, so does this mean that they can’t AP? It’s harder for dual-income parents, but certainly possible, Parker said. What they need to do is to focus on reconnecting every day once the parent comes home from work. Hanessian recommended reconnection through cosleeping. Dr. Sears mentioned nursing mothers using breast pumps to be able to continue breastfeeding after they return to work.

“My mother was a single mother juggling two jobs, and what I remember about my mother is that she did the best she could in a less-than-ideal situation,” said Dr. Sears, explaining that while it’s best that a parent is able to stay at home with the children, if it can’t happen, the focus of the parent should be on cultivating that connection as much as possible when together with the child. Children can grow up in situations that are hard but be OK because the memories they have are of happiness and togetherness and connection.

Another way for dual-income parents and single parents is by striving for one, consistent caregiver and being careful about caregiver “roulette,” in which the child’s caregiver is frequently changing. It’s extremely important that a child is able to form a strong, long-lasting primary attachment bond with a caregiver, even if not the parent, and this can only happen with one, consistent caregiver relationship in a childcare situation. Without the formation of a primary attachment bond, as in the case of a child who has many different caregivers, that child will be unable to form healthy attachments and maintain relationships.

Although there are some families who truly cannot afford to have one parent stay at home, Dr. Fox said most families, if they made it a priority, could pull the resources together to do this. More and more jobs are allowing parents to work at home, and the Internet allows parents to more easily start an at-home business, or a family financial budget can help parents adjust to the lifestyle that goes with a lower cost of living.

“You are really needed for the first two years of a baby’s life,” Dr. Fox said. “We go out to borrow money for a house or a car; think about saving that money to stay at home with your baby. It’s not that long.”

What is Good Parenting?

The goal of what mainstream culture considers “good” parenting is how to raise children that won’t embarrass the parents. What API strives to do is to support parents in raising children who grow up connected – that is who are emotionally healthy and able to form strong relationships with others, who want to make good decisions based on their own sense of self and values, and who are empathic and compassionate.

So, how do parents go about doing this?

Dr. Fox explained that AP is based on what is known as the Three Ps:

  1. Protection – that the child feels protected and cared for.
  2. Proximity – that the child is physically and emotionally close with the parent.
  3. Predictability – that the parent is consistent in childcare.

“With protection, proximity, and predictability comes a growing sense of trust and a growing sense of the world’s a pretty good place,” said Dr. Fox.

Dr. McKenna said AP is about parents being conscious of the way they are raising their children. “We tend to think of birth as Independence Day,” he said. “Not that it’s not important, but we’ve overdone it.” Parenting cannot stop at childbirth.

The emphasis placed on childbirth in society needs to spread beyond into childhood; the reason being, babies and children are always developing, always learning. For example, the tastebuds don’t form until the last few weeks of pregnancy, which is why a child tends to like the foods his mother ate during the last part of her pregnancy. And apnea-prone babies can lose up to 70% of their apnea spells by being placed next to teddy bears with a breathing motion. “Every sensory modality that baby has is being regulated by the mother [or father],” said Dr. McKenna.

Dr. Sears said AP is about getting to the basics of relationships in a culture that where the basics can easily be lost in technology. “We’re talking about a low-tech style of parenting in a high-tech world,” Dr. Sears said. He told of a woman in saw in his practice who commented that while she couldn’t afford to buy her son everything that other children had, she could afford to give her son herself.

Dr. Sears also said AP is about parents enjoying parenthood. “Revel in it,” he said.

Highlights from Responses  to Audience Questions

Q: Does AP help autistic children?

Nicholson said that in her research, AP was definitely helpful in building connection between an autistic child and his family members .

Dr. Sears said: “If you were to ask me to write a prescription, I’d write ‘Attachment Parenting,’” because autism is a disorder of the brain and Attachment Parenting directly affects the way the brain develops.

Q: How exactly do you form an attachment bond with your child?

Cahill explained that an attachment is established and maintained by the parent meeting the emotional needs of the child. “All the things you’re doing, it creates this parental antennae,” she said and that antennae – or that sense of knowing what your child needs – develops over time.

Q: How can we change the mainstream perspective on cosleeping?

“Never be afraid to say, this is what you do and that you sleep with your baby,” said Dr. McKenna. “We really need to talk, as individuals, about our choices in positive ways.”

Q: How can we deal with the criticism of babies and toddlers not sleeping through the night?

“Here’s the deal: You’re the best sleep expert in your family,” said Dr. McKenna, adding that there are a number of reasons why young children may not be sleeping through the night but the standard that they should be sleeping through the night is unfounded. Every child is different, and comparing one child to another one isn’t effective in evaluating sleep issues.

Q: What does AP look like in an older child?

“If I had to sum up the long-term effect of Attachment Parenting in one word, it would be: empathy – kids who care,” said Dr. Sears. “If I had to sum up the long-term effect of not doing Attachment Parenting: lack of empathy – kids who don’t care.”

Q: Is there an education approach that is more AP than others?

Nicholson, whose children have homeschooled and attended public school and others, said that API does not endorse any particular education option. However, there is an AP way in selection an education option: “Look at each child and see where are their interests and where are they developmentally?” And, if there is only one option and it doesn’t seem to be a good fit for your child, communicate that you share in her frustration and work to problem-solve to make the situation more ideal.

Dr. Isabelle Fox on Divorce and Older Children

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

Isabelle Fox, PhD
Isabelle Fox, PhD

Ideally, marriage lasts forever, but for a variety of reasons, many families today will experience divorce – an event that is as difficult on older children and teens as infants and young children for whom psychotherapist Isabelle Fox, PhD, advocates no overnight visitations with a non-primary caregiver until the child is at least three years old. Just because an older child is able to articulate her feelings and comprehend the concept of divorce doesn’t mean the event is any less traumatic.

“Older children and divorce is also complicated,” because the child has developed a strong attachment to each parent and being forced to deny attachment with one parent is devastating, said Dr. Fox, author of Being There, renowned expert on API’s Principle of Providing Consistent and Loving Care, and member of Attachment Parenting International’s Advisory Board.

Dr. Fox spoke during the second day of API’s 15th Anniversary Celebration gathering in Nashville, Tennessee, last weekend, in a special Hot Topic session, “Custody and Separation.” The session was attended by parents, therapists, and others who work frequently with attached parents dealing with marital separation.

How Divorce Affects Older Children

Parents don’t think about how difficult their divorce will be on their children. Older children and teens are more likely to blame themselves for the divorce or to wonder why their parents don’t love them enough to stay together. Continue reading

Is ‘I Love Lucy’ Educational?

By Jan Hunt, member of API’s Advisory Board and API’s Editorial Review Board. Reprinted with permission from www.naturalchild.org.  Can TV sitcoms be educational?

During a debate on legislation that would require a minimum of three hours of “educational and informative” television each day, a USA Today article quoted readers’ viewpoints on the definition of “educational and informative.” One show that brought about disagreement among readers was “I Love Lucy,” a favorite of mine.

The view of many adult panelists was expressed by a Detroit reader: “While some of life’s valuable lessons may be included in shows designed primarily for entertainment, that does not qualify them as educational. Education can be fun, but it is a disciplined activity. ‘I Love Lucy’ just doesn’t fit the bill.”

The children who wrote to USA Today took a different view, pointing out that “I Love Lucy” teaches valuable lessons about the consequences of one’s actions. They saw Lucy Ricardo, whose escapades often backfire, as a sort of reverse role model and the show as something of a morality play. Continue reading

Parenting through Business Trips, Military Deployment, and Other Extended Separations

By Amber Lewis, staff writer for The Attached Family

AP during extended separationsEvery child and each parent is different, and family situations differ just as much as the people in them, making each situation unique with successes and challenges all their own. In my family, I’m the parent who works full-time outside the home while my husband stays at home with our daughter. In addition, I am in the military — and that means my work sometimes can take me on extended travel or deployment.

When a parent must be away from her family for a long time, as in the case of business travel or military deployment, it’s important to realize that this can be very hard on children and that these extended separations must be prepared for. One resource I recommend to military families is SurvivingDeployment.com.

A key concept to keep in mind is that children often act-out more during these extended separations as a way of coping. The parent at home can help prepare the environment for this by talking with teachers, friends’ parents, and family members about what to expect and to prepare them for providing support.

Here are some ideas about how to help your child deal with your or your spouse’s extended separation:

  • Keep everyone connected and communicate often – Before deployment, don’t keep it a secret, but you don’t have to make a big deal about it either. During the extended separation, make recordings for each other, send lots of letters and packages back and forth, and put in lots of pictures. Also, the parent at home needs to be sure to talk to the child often about his feelings toward the separation. After the parent returns home, she owes everyone some one-on-one attention and reassurance.
  • Make friends – For both parents and the kids, making friends who have been through or are going through a similar experience will help everyone.
  • Establish the home boss – Remember the parent at home is the one in charge; the other parent should never try to undermine the spouse’s authority while away.

Most of these tips are more about raising the child through an extended separation from a parent rather than what to do when your child acts out because that is a big part of what discipline is. If you’re looking for specific discipline techniques for specific situations, what works best for separations is also what works during times when the family is together: positive discipline done in a loving, compassionate, nurturing, and empathic way.

For more information on practicing positive discipline, look forward to the upcoming Fall 2009 annual Growing Child “Positive Discipline” issue of The Attached Family magazine.

Say Sorry

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

Force an apology?One of the hardest situations I face in my household is when one of my children hurts the other one, whether by accident or in play or out of anger. My knee-jerk reaction is to tell the offender to say sorry to her sister, just as my parents had me do when I was younger. My mom would tell me to say sorry and if I did it quickly to get it over with but didn’t really want to say it, she’d say, “Say it like you mean it.”

Now, I have to admit that I grew up knowing what it meant to say sorry. But I do realize that some people who were forced to apologize to their siblings grew up to use sorry as a quick fix for hurt feelings or as an afterthought. One man I know grew up being forced to say sorry when he and his siblings fought, but as an adult, he used apologies not because he was truly sorry but as a way to avoid dealing with uncomfortable feelings. In this way, he didn’t learn not to do the offending action again and would repeat it over and over, and getting frustrated because eventually people didn’t believe his so-called apologies.

There is a great debate among attached parents of whether or not to ask children to apologize when they hurt someone physically or emotionally. We want to teach our children empathy, and apologies are certainly a part of making restitution for a hurt but does forcing an apology hurt or help the development of empathy?

In my home, I choose not to force an apology but instead to encourage my children to comfort the hurt person on her own volition. I noticed that when I did ask for my three-year-old to apologize, she would do so but would quickly return to playing, without much regard for her sister’s crying. I re-evaluated what I wanted to teach her and readjusted my response during these situations.

Parents on both sides of the debate of saying sorry have great stories like mine to tell – of how their strategy works best for their family. Ultimately, that is what Attachment Parenting (AP) is supposed to be about – listening to your child, deciding what it is exactly you want to teach your child about the situation, and finding something that works best for your family. But, just what strategies regarding apologies are considered AP? Let’s take a look at what the experts have to say.

Attachment Parenting International Co-founders Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker in Attached at the Heart: “Apologies should come from the heart.”

Forcing a child to apologize may make the adult feel better but it doesn’t make the hurt child feel better and it doesn’t teach the offending child about an appropriate apology. Allow the child to apologize in his own way, even if it’s nonverbally. If your child is witnessing appropriate apologizing in her role models, she will begin to do so, too, when developmentally ready.

It’s important that children only apologize when they feel genuine remorse. The good news is, children raised in an attached way, which actively models and promotes the development of empathy, are more likely to begin feeling compassion early on and to spontaneously apologize on their own.

Canadian parent educator Judy Arnall in Discipline without Distress: “When the child needs to apologize to someone else: nudge, don’t force!”

Apologies need to come by the child’s own willpower and in the child’s own time. They almost never come when forced or in the emotional heat of the moment. Apologies are taught by modeling.

Parents want quick, forced apologies because of their own social embarrassment. If you’re dealing with a parent who expects a quick apology, explain your child’s feelings (“She’s so upset right now. We’ll deal with this later.”) or take the time to model what an appropriate apology looks like and apologize for your child on your own.

Massachusetts parent educator Alfie Kohn in Unconditional Parenting: “Compulsory apologies mostly train children to say things they don’t mean – that is, to lie.”

Parents must examine why they insist on their children apologizing – because they assume that by saying sorry, the child will magically feel remorse, or because they only care that their child has the manners to say sorry even if insincere? Parents who force apologies from their children are caring only about the behavior but not about the reason behind the behavior, and that reason is what will continue to fuel that child’s behavior as she grows.

University of Washington psychology professor John Gottman in Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: “From about age four, your child can understand the concept of ‘I’m sorry.’”

And the best way of teaching your child to apologize appropriately is by first modeling how to healthily handling feelings of regret and sorrow in your relationships, including in parent-child interactions.

To Force an Apology, or Not?

So what is API’s stance on asking your child to apologize?

  1. Be sure you’re modeling appropriate apologies in all your relationships.
  2. While you can encourage your child to apologize, it’s ultimately up to him. It’s more important to teach your child empathy and compassion – the reasons behind a healthy apology – than to hear the actual words, “I’m sorry.” It depends on your child’s development in being able to feel remorse and to handle this uncomfortable feeling.
  3. Realize that your child can apologize in ways besides saying sorry. A hug or kiss is just as much an apology as saying sorry.
  4. If your child isn’t going to apologize, and you really want him to, first think about your motivation, then take the moment to teach your child by modeling and appropriate apology on your own.

It can be difficult to practice AP and then see your child unwilling or unable to apologize to another person. We want our children to be empathic and compassionate, and we want to model to other people what AP looks like in our families. But, being an attached parent doesn’t mean that we never encounter hard situations like a child refusing to apologize – it means we are thinking about the deeper meaning of what we want to teach our children and finding ways to do that. Remember, the goal is to influence our children over time by getting to the emotional and cognitive roots of their actions, not to control their behavior now without regard for their willpower.

Letter to the Editor: The Truth about TV

By Joanna Glass, leader of API of Garner, North Carolina

Editor’s Note: This Letter to the Editor was written inTV time response to an article published on The Attached Family on July 28, 2009, “TV as a Teaching Tool?” The topics on The Attached Family are open for discussion, and readers are welcome to write articles in response to any of the articles published in this ezine. Attachment Parenting International will clarify any points related specifically to the Eight Principles of Parenting; but with topics that do not fall directly under the Eight Principles, we aim to foster a healthy discussion of ways that parents can strengthen their attachment with their child. To submit a response for publication, e-mail editor@attachmentparenting.org.

We all hear the negative about television. Television is associated with obesity, sleep problems, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), violent behavior, and poor school performance. Is there truth to it? Should we blame our problems on electronic media?

Author’s Note: I wrote to my fellow leaders and to API Headquarters asking about this issue and approached them with some of my feelings about what I have learned over the years. They were very open and receptive to hearing some of the alternatives to some of the negative information that is being brought up about this subject, so I wrote this article. It is a bit longer than I planned. The wonderful view of API is that families of varying beliefs can participate. It is open to everyone. It is an online community that has not created a homophily atmosphere, which has begun to plagues so many other sites and groups.

API groups and forums leave so much room for diversity, and with diversity, we have room to grow as people and as parents. If we homogenize everything and only associate with parents who believe the same thing, we are only hurting ourselves and our children, for our children are not us, they are their own person who craves exposure to new information.

ADD and ADHD

The information that the American Academy of Pedatrics based their statement on was shown not to be factual. This information can be obtained directly from the ADHD sites and the author of the “study” himself.

Dimitri Christakis, MD, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and co-director of the school’s Institute for Child Health, admits that his study was limited. He based his research on a previous survey of about 1,300 mothers who recalled the television habits of their children in early childhood. Such after-the-fact reporting is considered highly fallible, because parents often over- or under-report the amount of TV watched.

What’s more, the study linked TV-viewing to general attention problems rather than to diagnosed ADD. Study participants were never asked whether their children had Attention Deficit Disorder. Instead, the study looked at five kinds of attention difficulties, including “obsessive concerns” and “confusion,” neither of which are core ADD symptoms.

Nor did the study consider the kinds of programs children watched. Educational programs, such as Blue’s Clues or Mr. Rogers, which have a slower pace, rely on storytelling, and avoid rapid zooms, abrupt cuts, and jarring noises, weren’t differentiated from more aggressive programming. Neither did the researchers consider whether TV-viewing and attention difficulties presented a chicken-or-egg situation. According to an article in ADDitude Magazine, “Living Well with ADD and Learning Disabilities,” some critics suggest that younger children with pre-existing attention deficits may be drawn to watching TV, while solving simple puzzles or concentrating on games would be an uphill battle. They add that parents of these children might turn to the TV for relief more frequently than parents of kids who have less trouble staying focused.

Another interesting article about ADD and technology by Joel Spolsky stated: “ADD is often marked by an inability to focus on a given task or, in the case of ADHD, a tendency to hyperfocus and then lose complete focus. Just as with multiple personality, mainstream media has made autism and ADD appear to be commonplace and everywhere.

Technologists have also adopted and promoted these concepts, marking them as valuable to the way of geek life. Many of you are staring at your laptops, multitasking. At computer conferences these days, like the one where this talk was given, it’s not unusual for 80% or 90% of the audience to be using laptops for something during the presentations.”

Our society requires that we be able to not have complete focus at all times. Many parents assume that their child sitting very focused on the television program is a lack of focus, when in fact it is not. We disrupt them and pull them away, which actually creates the problem with paying attention. Just because it may not be something that we are interested in doesn’t mean it is any less important.

Parents will excuse situations by commenting that if it is educational, then it is OK, but as a child who was brought up with this concept, I lacked one most important lesson: The lesson of doing something for the joy of it and because it was what I wanted, something I am learning to do now. For a child, play and joy are the first and most important lessons in life. As a parent, you may not learn something out of watching a children’s program or playing a computer game, but your child may: personal happiness – self happiness that was not created only because you told them it was something they could be happy about. Once I found out how important this was to my child, I found absolute joy in watching and participating with their digital life. I don’t always get it, but what I get is a connection and a bond with my child. They know I trust them enough to find their path and their own joy and that it doesn’t impact my personal beliefs or make either of us wrong.

Violence

Television does not promote violence. Children watching violent programs without their parents taking the time to explain things to them can create situations where violence can occur.

Dozens of books have been written, hundreds of studies published, and hundreds of thousands of invectives thrown by each side towards the other. Despite the extensive research, video games have not been proven to be harmful or to cause violence. The persistence of opponents in trying to pin society’s issues on television and video games is an unfair attempt to demonize a new media for issues that it has not caused.

What makes kids smack others and maybe grow into homicidal adults? Not the tube, says new research, but a lack of social skills – something that television can also provide as an increasing number of families have lost this ability, even down to the basic act of knowing how to invite someone to their home or even how to ready a home for company.

All babies are born with violent tendencies, which most kids learn to control as they grow older, a University of Montreal professor who has spent more than 20 years studying 35,000 Canadian children told ScientificAmerican.com. Those who don’t or can’t learn are the ones who become violent. Author
Richard Tremblay states: “It’s a natural behavior, and it’s surprising that the idea that children and adolescents learn aggression from the media is still relevant. Clearly, youth were violent before television appeared. We’re looking at to what extent the chronically aggressive individuals show differences in terms of gene expressions compared to those on the normal trajectory. The individuals that are chronically aggressive have more genes that are not expressed.” This is an indication “that the problem is at a very basic level,” he added.

A pregnant woman’s smoking, drinking, poor nutrition, or exposure to excessive stress can cause or contribute to a fetus’s abnormal genetic development, Tremblay said. Damaged genes can prevent a child from learning skills for self-expression, reducing his ability to interact socially, and thus make him prone to violence. Tremblay cited genes involved with language acquisition and development as an example; children who can’t speak well get frustrated easily and can erupt violently as a result.

Violence is also passed on. Parents who have violent tendencies pass these along to their children. The prisons are filled with people who were abused as children and grew up to be abusive adults. This is not caused by television but by the lack of intervention and education for families to not use violence as a means to raise their children or solve their problems. We are a country based on fear and violence. We tell our children that we solve our problems by hitting them or hitting each other, and then get upset when they do it and blame television or other media. Violence has been around longer than television.

The Bible has more violence in it than most television programs, and I don’t often hear people saying “close that, turn it off, don’t read that, or you may become violent.” They actually take the time to talk about it with their children.

And I have even seen parents and churches use violence to force belief. It isn’t just the Bible, but all literature. Humans are naturally drawn to violence because we are raised with so much of it. For more information about the history of it and how violence perpetuated in American homes, you may want to read Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family.

Poor School Performance

Poor school performance has been blamed on so many things instead of what it really happening — that the American School systems are failing our children.

Children do not do well in school, because school has become a place where everything is controlled. Instead of children learning naturally and at their own pace, they are forced to learn information that they are not yet interested in or information is being put into them at a pace that they are not able to handle. The hours are too long and the methods being used are cookie-cutter ,not taking into account the individual. Children are being told what they can do from the moment they wake up until the moment they go to sleep. Even the simple act of using the bathroom has become an issue.

Having to ask for permission to use a bathroom is a humiliating and very strange thing to do, something we have gotten use do as adults.

School is a place where all of your rights are stripped when you walk through that door. This isn’t conducive to learning. I have heard parents say that if children had complete control over when they could use the bathroom, there would be chaos. Maybe now there would be, as children have lost the ability to control themselves because we as adults have told them they can’t.

Then there are teachers. Many are not qualified, because it is such a low-paying job. It used to be thought that people would teach because they loved the job, not for the money, but when a family can’t afford to pay their rent, why would they want to teach? So we lose many of the better qualified teachers to jobs that can pay them for that knowledge.

One of the reasons behind our choice to homeschool: My husband worked for the Board of Education on a very high level seeing how those people were paid in excess of over $100 an hour and teachers paid next to nothing and zero money being spent on books. Classrooms were forced to share one book per class of students.

The food in most of our schools is some of the lowest grade food available. We know that healthy foods create a healthier brain and learning environment, but yet we feed our children the lowest quality foods. They have created environments where they have taken disruptive students and children who were not learning well in regular schools and put them into a school where they served healthy organic foods and it was proven a success. The food in our school systems is also another reason why our children are obese, not television.

Parents can do more to make changes in the system. One or two parents may be, but as a community, it is not happening. There are parents who feel they can’t do anything to help, but they can. No matter how small it may seem, everything you do to help your school or community can add to the bigger mixture of everyone else doing something small. Parents can look into charter schools and other educational opportunities for their children. My older children did public school until we moved to where we now live, and then after a year of absolute horror of the public school system here, we opted for charter schools. For our youngest we are homeschooling, actually unschooling.

Some Other Personal Thoughts

Are boundaries an issue or an answer? Are limits? It is more that the parents are not interacting and not discussing with their children what they are viewing and what their feelings are about it. I am not saying a three year old should watch a horror movie, but a teen might want to and wouldn’t it be better for a parent to say learn how to explain these situations to their child instead of him getting that explanation from someone or somewhere else?

I prefer not to dictate what my child watches in bits and pieces. I used to feel that way, and I realized I was not allowing my child to find themselves. I was trying to force them to be clones of myself, something they did not want to be and it caused more problems. For me, this was controlled parenting.

I have seen children crushed by parents because they have told them, this show isn’t good or this part is not good and the child really liked them. They felt crushed, because the parents were disapproving of something they loved.

I have also watched children who have limited TV and the way some parents disrespect their child. They walk up to the television in a middle of a show and turn it off, saying that is enough, choosing what the child’s limits are, telling the child that she is incapable of knowing who she is and what she enjoys. I then have not only witnessed, but have been an unwilling participant in, the child’s outburst.

At more than one play date, the child starting hitting the other children who were allowed to continue watching programs that were playing on a public TV. The parents had set up a hostile angry environment. The parent’s reasoning was she was unable to control herself, so she knew her child would not, either. She had set up a self-fulfilling prophecy that she is passing onto her child. Perhaps the parent had not learned any self control because she never took the time to learn self control. I have also seen parents who fear that their child will become something they do not want them to be or learn that there is a lifestyle different than their own, creating a non-diverse household. Not all of us are supposed to like the same thing. That is why there is so much variety in life.

I had limited my older two children, and it backfired completely, just as every other family I knew who did the same thing had happen. Our children never learned to limit themselves or control themselves. I was always doing the controlling for them – the same way that I and so many others were raised.

With my son Ronnie, I have done the exact opposite. Some days he will watch a couple of hours and some days nothing at all, but I don’t say “no” or comment in any way. He doesn’t have access to violence, but he isn’t interested. He chooses what programs he wants to watch on Noggin and the Public Broadcasting Service, and some of them I may not “get” but he does and that is what is important.

He is not obese, but still, I don’t think the problem with obesity is television. It is lack of activity and lack of affordable activity for most families and so many families not being able to afford better quality foods. I don’t see the community centers like I used to back in New York when my girls were younger. Everything is a paid for activity that most families cannot afford or cannot get to, so children are stuck at home with little to do and with lower grade foods that tend to not build energy and promote activity. The schools have taken away most of the activities, and sports are such an expense for so many families. Not all children are great at soccer, hockey, basketball, and football where the last of the physical activity money is being spent, and most of that is coming from parents who raise funds for them. I would love to see that same passion of fundraising come into play for books. But, back on topic, maybe the schools should have nature hikes each day for an hour, something all students could participate in without feeling inadequate or being forced to compete.

Children who binge-eat are generally from households where control is in every part of their lives, including their choices in food. They never learn to control themselves, and I would like to say from day one, their parents are controlling what they eat when, but it usually starts the moment Mommy stops breastfeeding. That is the point where mothers no longer trust their children and tell them when they are hungry, what they are hungry for, and when they are full. They stop trusting them to know when they are tired and when and where they will sleep. This is very confusing to small children who, up until that point, have been given absolute trust. Just as with adults, for small children, this leads to depression, shame, and guilt, which then can lead to inactivity and overeating and other eating and sleeping disorders and anger.

Blaming television or digital media is easy to do. It is so easy to be anti-something, but being for something and finding real solutions instead of saying “no, don’t do this and don’t do that” would be much more effective.

Commercials and advertisement are important. If we truly do not believe in their use, we have no business using them ourselves. We project our fear of not being able to control ourselves around commercials onto our children.

We, as a society, have no right to dictate what advertisement is okay and which one isn’t. I don’t like fast food, but I have no business telling Sesame Street that they can’t take that grant from McDonald’s because parents are not giving enough to support them.

Or what about TV shows that create toys? They do so for a reason. Children like to identify with their surroundings, and those toys offer this possibility outside the moment they are watching the show. Also, these toys offer employment to the people who make them — in many cases keeping a roof over a family’ head. Not everyone has the luxury of living in a beautiful home being able to sit back and say, “Well, making a toy based on the movie is just consumerism and wrong. Can’t there just be a TV show and a movie without it?”

It may be fine for one family or in reality that one person, but what about what the child wants or another family wants, or the family who is dependent on the income from making that toy. Again, I was anti-toys based on movies, but thankfully my daughter Jackie, now 22 years old, helped me to see the light in the situation: the good that the toy brought to the economy, the jobs it provided throughout the process, and then most importantly, the joy it brought her and her little brother.

Turning off the TV while the commercials while they are on does not teach our children about the commercials and does nothing to change the way they are broadcast. Changing the channel does not either. It just teaches children to turn it off or turn away and do nothing to fix it. Even small children understand more than we give them credit for. If they can understand enough to want something they see on a commercial, why do we deny them an explanation of why commercials exist? At what point do we decide that we are just so much better or smarter than they are and should this be a message we project to our children?

For small children, yes, PBS and commercial-free channels are great, but if you are watching them, then hopefully you are supporting them, even if just a few dollars a year. Living in a commercial-free world has a price, and as parents, we need to be willing to pay for it. I asked more than 70 parents during one of our events last year and not one of them gave to PBS, but all of them watched it. I can’t say I was surprised when I said that our local group was in financial crisis, that no one wanted to help raise funds. There seems to be a disconnect where when people think free, it means it costs nothing. Someone always has to pay.

The problem with keeping the flow with this attraction and not opening our minds to other views and possibilities is that we are cutting ourselves off from reality and diversity.

What Parents Need to Know about Cell Phones

By Lisa Anthony, reprinted with permission from CellPhones.org

Cell phone safetyEditor’s Note: Attachment Parenting International doesn’t take a stance on cell phone use for children and adolescents. This article is to inform parents who do allow cell phone use, or who are considering it.

Each new generation of parents faces obstacles and menaces with which the previous generation never had to contend. The changing times have brought with them a new, more complicated world in which our children must learn to live, to thrive, and most importantly of all, to survive.

Contemporary problems arrive without guidelines on the best way to teach our children to stay safe and protect themselves or precedents to guide us in teaching them. It is our job as parents to define the method and provide clear guidelines our children can follow and live with. But when you are in uncharted waters whose depths and dangers frighten you, how are you supposed to steer your children towards safety when you aren’t certain that your directions won’t lead them into more treacherous areas or point them in the wrong direction?

With so much uncertainty, there is one point of which you can be sure: No directions or guidance is definitely more dangerous than any of the practical advice you can provide. Establish specific and clear rules for your child to follow. It is important that you do not leave room for interpretation or risk ambiguity. Your child needs to know what is expected of them and how to protect themselves. Continue reading

The 4 Parenting Styles: What Works and What Doesn’t

By Dr. Maryann Rosenthal, co-author of Be A Parent, Not A Pushover, reprinted with permission from DrMA.com

Parenting stylesI believe it’s that overall style or pattern of action — rather than a specific decision — that will most affect a child’s behavior. Generally, psychologists have found that there are two main components of parenting styles.

One is responsiveness, or how much independence you’re willing to grant. The other, for lack of a better word, is demandingness — how much strict obedience you require. How much obedience parents demand, how much freedom they grant, and how these two behaviors mesh go a long way toward defining the parents’ style.

These parenting styles fall into a generally accepted four broad categories. Though different researchers give different names to them, the styles usually are said to be: Authoritarian, Authoritative, Permissive, and Uninvolved.

Authoritarian

Authoritarian parents are very strict and controlling. They have a strong sense of justice and of the need for obedience. They’re big believers in clearly stated rules. If their kids don’t “see the light” (behave as ordered), then those teens will “feel the heat” (be punished). Such parents take a dim view of being challenged. Give-and-take with their children is discouraged.

Thus, these parents are highly demanding but not very responsive. Researchers believe children of authoritarian parents tend to be timid, have lower self-esteem, lack spontaneity, and rely to an unusual degree on the voice of authority.

Authoritative

While retaining authority and control, these parents are warmer and more communicative than Authoritarian parents. Authoritative parents seek a balance between the teens’ desire for independence and the parents’ desire to be listened to. These parents are demanding and responsive. They’re assertive but not intrusive or restrictive. They want their children to be assertive as well as socially responsible and self-regulated as well as cooperative.

The best-adjusted children, researchers have found, often have parents with an Authoritative style. Both the Authoritarian and the Authoritative parents have high expectations for their children, but the Authoritative parent encourages more freedom of expression. So the child more likely develops a sense of independence. Such kids tend to develop into more competent adults than children brought up in the other styles.

Permissive

Permissive parents, while often warm and accepting, make few demands on their children. They’re lenient, avoid confrontation, and allow considerable self-regulation. They may worry about thwarting the child’s creativity and sense of self. They’re much more responsive than they are demanding.

Sometimes the Permissive style is based on confusion. The parents are so out of touch with the pre-adolescent and adolescent world that the best they can do is to try to be a pal to their child. So they tend to give their kids what they ask for and hope that they are loved for their accommodating style.

Other Permissive parents want to compensate for what they themselves lacked as children. Perhaps they grew up in poverty and/or had parents who were overly strict. So as a result, seeing themselves as an ally to their child, these parents bend over backwards to give the child both the freedom and the material goods they lacked. Yet other Permissive parents act conditionally. They view the maturing child as a mini-adult and give him or her what he or she wants, provided the child satisfies certain parental demands. Making good grades, for example, may be linked to freedom and material benefits.

Or, at its most lax extreme, permissiveness may take the form of indifference. The parents are just too busy, poor, troubled, or self-involved to exert much control. They may give material goods and freedom in return for the child’s implicit promise not to demand much from the parent.

Uninvolved

The uninvolved parent demands almost nothing and gives almost nothing in return, except near-absolute freedom. This style is low in both demandingness and responsiveness. At its worst, it can verge into neglect.

How would these parenting styles work in practice? For example, a teen wants to go with a bunch of friends on a weekend outing to Mexico where, the parent suspects, wild partying is on the agenda because of younger drinking-age requirements there:

  • An Authoritarian parent might say: “No way! And if I ever catch you going down there without my OK, you’ll be in big trouble.”
  • An Authoritative parent may respond: “No, I don’t want you to go down there right now with your friends. But let’s you and I go down soon, though, and check it out. If it looks OK, maybe you can go later with your buddies.”
  • A Permissive parent would say: “Sure, go and have fun, but be careful.”
  • An Uninvolved parent may reply: “Whatever.”

Parenting style has been found to predict child well-being in a number of areas, including social skills, academic performance, and the degree of problem behavior. The Authoritarian, Permissive, and Uninvolved styles can carry a high cost:

  • Children of Authoritarian parents, for example, may do well in school and not engage in problem behavior, but they tend to have poorer social skills, lower self-esteem, and higher levels of depression. They may grow up to be highly anxious people who don’t realize their full potential because, figuratively speaking, they’re always looking over their shoulder for that overly-demanding parent.
  • The children of Permissive parents may come to feel entitled to privileges and material goods. If the parents try to regain control, the older child probably will perceive that effort to be a power struggle. He or she may fight back in dangerous ways, including sexual rebellion, unsavory associates, or substance abuse. Thus, they’re more likely to be involved in problem behavior and perform less well in school, though they have higher self-esteem, better social skills, and lower levels of depression than Authoritarian children.
  • And Uninvolved parents, of course, can sow a lifetime of havoc by their indifference or inability to deal with their children.

Authoritative parenting, which balances clear, high parental demands with emotional responsiveness and recognition of the child’s need for autonomy, is one of the most consistent predictors of social competence. Thus, the child of Authoritative parents typically does well in school, develops good social skills, and avoids problem behaviors.

Studies show that the benefits of Authoritative parenting and the disadvantages of Uninvolved parenting are evident as early as the preschool years and continue throughout adolescence and into early adulthood. A recent study of 1,000 teens, for instance, by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse evaluated a “hands-on” (roughly equivalent to the Authoritarian or Authoritative styles) approach versus a “hands-off ” (akin to the Permissive or Uninvolved styles) approach to parenting and found that teens living with “hands-on” parents are at only 25% of the risk for drug abuse than those living in “hands-off ” households. Similarly, 47% of teens in “hands-on” households reported having an excellent relationship with their fathers and 57% an excellent relationship with their mothers. By contrast, 13% of teens with “hands-off” parents reported an excellent relationship with their fathers and 24% with their mothers.

“Moms and dads should be parents to their children, not pals,” said Joseph Califano Jr., former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, in summing up the study. “Mothers and fathers who are parents rather than pals can greatly reduce the risk of children smoking, drinking, and using drugs.”

Editor’s Note: Attachment Parenting International advocates a certain approach to parenting in order to develop close, healthy emotional bonds between the parent and child, and this looks different in different families, but it is ideal for attached families to strive toward the science-backed Authoritative parenting style.

TV as a Parenting Tool?

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

TV timeMost parenting experts advise that parents use extreme caution in allowing their child to watch television, especially younger children, and even with educational programming. And many attached parents either don’t allow television at all or only sparingly. But there are some of us who do allow our children to watch TV and are OK with it.

What Makes TV Bad

A study by the University of Washington and the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, published in Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine in June 2009, determines that television-watching significantly delays language development in young children. The reason is, children learn to talk from listening to their parents and when the television is turned on and is audible, parents are less likely to talk to their children.

TV-watching is also associated with obesity, sleep problems, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, violent behavior, and poor school performance.

But what exactly about TV puts children at risk for these problems? The reason is because TV is meant to be a source of entertainment, not a teacher or babysitter. Yes, television captivates children’s attention and can keep them from busy for long periods of time – long enough for a parent to get some chores, work, or a hobby done. But, it’s because TV makes it so easy for parents why it makes it so wrong. It’s not the TV in and of itself putting children at risk of these problems; it’s the parents who aren’t interacting with their children and who aren’t setting boundaries on what their children view, as in the case of violence, sexual behavior, and bad language.

According to the National Institute on Media and the Family, media exposure on children affects their brain development as any other influence, such as parents and teachers. Allowing children to watch sexual or violent material isn’t entertainment – it’s education. As parents, we need to be careful what we’re allowing our children to learn.

So, why not just turn off the TV? Well, many parents do choose this option. But, TV is a part of our culture, just as are cell phones and Internet, and all of these electronics are being incorporated into more of our lives. We can just turn the TV off, or we can teach our children how to use the TV appropriately.

When TV is Good

Regarded for what it is, mostly entertainment, families can use television much as they would a book – helping to provide children exposure to new ideas. As long as the show is developmentally appropriate, small doses of television aren’t harmful. For example, my children enjoy watching Nature on the Public Broadcasting Service which takes viewers all over the world to see wildlife and natural habitat.

Some educational programming is OK, too. According to the Center for Media Literacy, some educational programming each week improves preschoolers’ standardized test scores. Many a foreign-speaking family credits television to learning their home country’s language. And, obviously, the older the child, the more she can learn from watching television, such as keeping up on current events or watching shows that explore science or history. Although many experts don’t give too much credit to TV, educational shows are created using child development specialists and on the back of research studies.

Still, parents should screen all shows before allowing their children to view it, including so-called kid-friendly cartoons, and also watch their child’s reaction to the show. For example, I only let me children watch the “Elmo’s World” on Sesame Street because some of the rest of show didn’t sit well with me. There is sometimes a play on a popular song whose original lyrics I know are not kid-friendly. Plus, while my children were entertained, I would rather have a television program that engages my children enough that they are excited to tell me what they learned later. I am a big fan of Word World on the Public Broadcasting Service, which literally taught my three-year-old her alphabet, and Barney because it inspires my children to get up and dance to the music, and not just sit passively watching the TV.

Used appropriately, television can help some families bond. My family has a movie night each week. We make homemade popcorn together, snuggle up on the couch, and turn on a movie, sometimes a DVD and sometimes on a television network. If the movie is on the television network, we mute commercials and take that time to talk to each other. My children look forward to movie night as a time to do something together just like when we go on a bicycle ride or do another family activity.

The big take-home message is, watch what your kids are watching and know the influence of the content they’re viewing. Also, it’s very important to put some limits on your child’s viewing time. The American Academy of Pediatrics and other experts recommend no TV time the first two years of life and a limit of two hours for children ages two years old and older, no TV in children’s bedrooms, and no TV during family mealtimes.

A Word about Commercials

There is a component to television that all parents must beware, and that is the advertisements. We can screen television shows and choose age-appropriate programming, and we can limit our children’s time watching television, but commercials are insidious. You may think your children are safe watching Dora the Explorer, and up pops a commercial touting the deliciousness of some unhealthy snack.

Advertisements are designed to persuade. Many commercials aimed at children are to sell a product, such as a toy or food, and besides when your children bother you about wanting to buy such and such, you may not think much more about it. But it’s important, if you allow your children to watch TV, to realize just what the television is exposing your child to. Start to study the commercials that interrupt the shows your child and your family watch. From sexual innuendos to sell clothing to a promo for a violent movie, you’ll start to notice what advertisers are using to try to influence you – and your children – to do what they want you to do.

According to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, marketing is directly linked to childhood obesity and is a factor in the development of eating disorders, precocious sexuality, youth violence, family stress, and children’s reduced ability to play imaginatively. And advertisers want our children’s minds: Companies spend about $17 billion each year marketing to children. TV alone bombards children ages two to 11 years old with more than 25,000 advertisements, which doesn’t include placement of products within television shows and movies. Children under 12 years old influence about $500 billion in purchases every year. Children under 14 years old spend $40 billion each year, and teens spend $159 billion.

There are a number of ways you can reduce influence from commercials while watching the television:

  • Turn off the TV while commercials are on.
  • Change the channel.
  • Mute the TV during commercial time.
  • Watch a TV network without commercials, such as the Public Broadcasting Service.
  • Educate yourself on the influence of marketing. For example, children younger than eight years old are developmentally unable to understand advertising’s intent and therefore rely on their caregivers to regulate marketing exposure for them. With older children, advertisers tend to denigrate adults and exploit children’s desires to fit in with their peers and rebel against authority figures.
  • Teach your older child how to use critical thinking tools to decipher what an advertiser is trying to persuade him to do, how to find the truth in the advertising message, and to take charge of his own buying habits using family values as a basis. To learn more, read the article in the upcoming Summer 2009 “Feeding Our Children” issue of The Attached Family magazine.
  • Use videos/DVDs.

Yelling Works…and Other Parenting Myths Busted

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

Family MythsSusie Walton used to yell at her kids – a lot.

“The older they got, the more I yelled,” recalled Walton, an International Network for Children and Families (INCAF) parent educator and author of Key to Personal Freedom who busted a few of the powerful myths outlined in her book during an INCAF teleseminar last week.

When her four boys – all within five years – were younger, yelling was a somewhat effective discipline, she admits. But that changed when they hit their teen years. Yelling no longer worked at all, and Walton was forced to find another way to interact with her children. She turned to positive discipline. As she acquired new skills and a new philosophy of parenting her children, one truth stood out among the others: that 95% of what children learn comes from what their parents model.

What was Walton teaching her sons by yelling? To solve problems, especially interpersonal conflicts, through exerting control over others.

Myth Busted: Validation Works Better Than Yelling

What Walton learned is that the strongest tool parents can use during a moment of conflict with their children is validation. Children, like adults, want to be heard and understood, even if the answer is still “no.”

For example, say a girl asks her father if she can turn on the television and he believes she has watched enough TV for the day. So, she begins to have a tantrum. What does Dad do?  What is not helpful is saying, “No, you can’t.” While the girl certainly wants the TV on, the way to resolve the situation is not to engage her in a power struggle over the on/off button. An example of an appropriate validation here is, “I know you want to watch the TV, but you’ve already watched two hours worth today and that is enough.”

Just as with yelling, the certainty of mainstream culture that spanking and other fear-based forms of punishment are effective at disciplining children is a myth. Parents don’t need to use punishments to get the behavior they seek in their children. The first challenge is for parents to realize this truth; the second, and harder, challenge is for the parents to adopt new ways of disciplining their children. Walton suggested parents first place limits on their behavior, making it a rule that they will not use threats, bribes, or other fear-based discipline tools on their children. With this rule in place, parents can then begin using the positive, teaching- and guidance-based discipline tools they can learn through books such as Attached at the Heart by Attachment Parenting International Co-founders Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker, local API Support Group meetings, and other API resources.

It’s important, though, for parents to realize that it does take longer for children to learn a concept through positive discipline than through punishments, Walton said. However, once that child learns the concept, he is truly competent in it. Whereas, with punishments, a child behaves out of fear and does not learn the concept for the long term.

For example, a listener at the teleseminar described how her three-year-old son pushes and hits his 15-month-old sister. The mother is having a difficult time dealing with this sibling rivalry without resorting to spankings. Walton suggested she instead try validating her son’s feelings, acknowledging that his acting-out behavior is actually a cry for attention. To do so, Walton suggested the mother to give additional one-on-one attention to her son when he is not acting out, and when he does, to explain to him that it’s not OK to hit his sister and, if she wants more attention, all he needs to do is ask Mommy.

Myth Busted: Mistakes are Opportunities to Strengthen Connection with Our Children

No parent is perfect. We all make mistakes in relating to and interacting with our children. The key is learning to forgive ourselves but also learn from our mistakes – important not only for ourselves but for our children to learn. Walton explained how helpful it is for parents to look upon their children’s undesirable behavior not as something to be feared or ashamed of, but instead as opportunities for learning.

For example, a listener at the teleseminar described how her three-year-old daughter makes grocery shopping difficult because she grabs items off the shelf. She tells her daughter over and over not to touch things on the shelf. Walton suggested that the mother set up a mock grocery store at home and role play the behaviors she wishes to see first at home before going out to the store. Then, before going into the store, the mother would explain to her daughter that she isn’t to touch anything without Mom saying OK, just like when they play at home. Finally, when her daughter starts knocking items off the shelf, the mother should continue to focus on teaching her daughter to clean up and put the items back.

“Teach, teach, teach,” Walton said. “And when she does make a mistake, say ‘I love you, and we’re going to be OK,’ and help her clean up.”

Myth Busted: No One Knows Your Child Better Than You

One of Walton’s favorite parenting tools is to allow children to be children. She recalls a neighbor telling her, when her boys were young, that she needed to exert more control over them. She opted not to take this advice, because she enjoyed her time with her sons. She thought it was fun to let them be who they were, instead of trying to force them into certain behaviors to please those outside her family.

Walton said new parents are barraged constantly with advice from their family, friends, pediatrician, neighbors, and even strangers. But, no matter what others may claim, the real parenting expert for your child and in your family is you. And parents do best to only embrace the parenting tools and philosophies that they find are best for their individual family. For example, parents who cosleep with their children shouldn’t do it because a book said to and shouldn’t stop doing it because they saw a television ad that said so. Each family should be cosleeping or not because that is what they have found works best for their family.

In another example, it is Walton’s belief that parents cannot love their child too much. Others criticize this parenting approach, saying that they will spoil their children. Walton said they can spoil their children by teaching them that love equals material possessions, rather than being derived from emotionally healthy relationships. This parenting approach works for Walton, and no one’s criticism, or approval, weighs as much as on the decision to continue a nurturing parenting approach as what Walton sees working for her children.

Myth Busted: You Can Be Friends with Your Children

Many parents don’t like the thought of being friends with their children, because they connect that idea with an image of overly permissiveness. We know that children need discipline. They need boundaries.

Children also need parents who care and who are willing to listen when they talk about the joys and challenges of their day. The myth that parents can’t be friends with their kids stems from the image of a parent buying alcoholic beverages for their underage teens and perhaps even partying with them. What Walton is meaning is that parents need to give of their time to be with their children and, as was the theme of the 2008 Attachment Parenting Month, to give presence instead of presents.

Being friends with your children doesn’t mean that parents give up striving for personal and family life or not setting and maintaining boundaries and limits for their children’s behaviors, as outlined by the Attachment Parenting International’s Eight Principles of Parenting. Parents still need to maintain their self-respect by keeping their parenting approach family-centered rather than child-centered, and parents must remember that discipline is a vital parenting tool.

For example, Walton said her sons used to tell dirty jokes around her, so she talked to them about her concerns. Walton didn’t let her children do  all that they wanted, as it was affecting her sense of balance. Motherhood martyrdom eventually breeds resentment.

The Price Families Pay for Myths

Too many families are stuck living according to these and other myths about parenting and child behavior. They’re trapped by their expectations that children should “act their age” and fears of spoiling their children, Walton said. They cannot truly enjoy parenthood and family life.

“What it can cost is that freedom to create the family we aspire to,” Walton said. And it can cost the child’s development of creativity, emotional regulation and ability to healthily attach to others, and other life skills. Walton calls on parents to bust the myths that constrict their family life – to break free of the bonds of fear and expectations, so that they can experience fulfillment in their parenting roles and reap the rewards of a close, connected family: “When we let go of these myths, it creates so much freedom.”

What myths have you busted in your family life?

A Win-Win Situation: How to Teach Sportsmanship

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

How to Teach SportsmanshipBoard games, sports, and other competitive activities can bring families closer together as well as teach children important lessons about character. A friend of mine has a nephew who is so unpleasant when he loses, that she refuses to play board games with him anymore. He pounds on the table, calling the other players cheaters or making excuses that it wasn’t his fault he lost the game.

It’s naturally for children and teens to feel disappointment when they lose a game — especially in a society where winning gets attention and attention boosts self-esteem.

The Dangers of Poor Sportsmanship Go Beyond the Game

Without a parent to teach the child how to handle wins and losses gracefully, as well as healthy ways to boost self-esteem, competitive children can turn to winning to feel good about themselves. And it’s not just winning by skills alone on the volleyball team, but winning at all costs in other areas of life where they may be tempted to turn to stealing clothes to win peer acceptance, cheating on a test to get parental approval, or badmouthing a teammate to win attention from the coach.

Teaching Sportsmanship Begins at Home

Teaching good sportsmanship is like teaching anything else. Children learn primarily from what their parents model in their behavior. In her Life.FamilyEducation.com article, “When Good Kids are Bad Sports,” Susan Linn lists these questions for parents to ask themselves when they notice poor sportsmanship in their child’s behavior:

  • How do I behave when I’m playing games with my child? How do I react when my child makes a mistake, when he wins, when she loses?
  • How do I behave at my child’s sports games? Do I ever get visibly angry at the coach or the referee?

What to Do When It Happens

In the moment when your child is displaying poor sportsmanship, it’s important to react with calm empathy and to focus on teaching the behaviors you wish to see, just as you would when your child is having a tantrum or upset with something else. Here is an example of how to do this:

  1. Observe without judgment – “You look upset.”
  2. Open the lines of communication – “I’m here if you want to talk about it.”
  3. When your child does describe the situation, empathize – “Gosh, that would be frustrating.”
  4. Problem-solve with your child, letting him take the lead but clarifying any family values – “Let’s come up with some ideas about what to do if this would happen again.”
  5. Take the pressure off your child – “I know you really wanted to win, but it’s more important that you have fun.”
  6. Share examples from your life of feelings after you won or lost, and the choices you made in displaying those feelings – “I remember playing soccer when I was younger, and we lost our last game of the season. I was so disappointed, I even cried! So I decided to practice more, and when the next year came, our team played a lot better.”

How do you resolve feelings of disappointment in your child when he loses a competition or game?

Regain “Control” of Your Teen

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

Get control of your teenHas your teenager stopped listening to you? Do you routinely catch him telling lies, or does she continually break curfew? You may be finding yourself tempted to make tighter rules and to pass out punishments when these rules are broken. But Christina Botto, author of Help Me with My Teenager!, says this strategy is likely to backfire.

“It is possible to regain control by restricting your teenager and forcing him to do as you say. You can monitor their every move and bombard them with questions,” writes Botto in her ParentingATeenager.net article, “Trust vs. Control.” “Your teen, however, will most likely respond by avoiding you and family time, lying, dropping grades, or even running away from home. He also will be very frustrated, feel confined, and count the days until he is 18 and out of the house.”

What most parents are looking for is not to control their teen’s every move but to discourage their teen’s inappropriate behaviors while encouraging more mature behavior, like coming to them for advice and input. Because of our culture’s tendency to punish, it’s easy for parents to get caught up in this approach, when the most effective way of “regaining control” is not to punish or to control but rather to find ways to reconnect while guiding good decision-making.

As parents begin to let go of their control on their teen, however, Botto said many parents are left wondering how much independence is too much. Parents know they need to continue to teach, they know their teen is not yet at a point of being completely independent, but they don’t know where to set boundaries without seeming too controlling. That feeling of unease can lead parents of teens, just as with parents of younger children, to becoming overly permissive or controlling.

To help parents find the right boundaries for their teen, here are a couple tips to try when faced with an area of conflict:

  • Allow your teen to make some decisions, such as what type of clothes to buy or when to do homework. This boosts confidence in himself and his decisions, as well as allows parents to gain confidence in his choices. This give-and-take in trust strengthens your attachment bond.
  • You may discover your teen is more mature in her decision-making than you thought, or you may realize this is not so. When she does make unwise decisions, this gives you the opportunity to support and guide her, which when done appropriately and compassionately also strengthens the attachment bond. Don’t scold or punish. Instead, work together to talk about and problem-solve the situation. By discussing the problem and analyzing the facts, your teen will gain confidence in your ability to empathize with her and offer helpful advice. And by allowing your teen to join you in problem-solving, you’re boosting her confidence by giving her the opportunity to come up with her own solutions.

America’s Family Crisis: Parental Depression Putting 15 Million U.S. Children at Risk

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

America's Family CrisisDepression is beyond epidemic proportions, not only in the United States but in many societies around the world. People like to blame more recent economic downturns, but these high rates of depression have been an ongoing concern for many years from before the stock markets took a dive.

If depression was the H1N1 Influenza virus (a.k.a. swine flu), no one would venture to the streets or grocery store without a face mask for fear of transmission, schools and businesses would be closed indefinitely, and medical clinics and hospital emergency rooms would be packed with people clamoring for screening and treatment.

But depression isn’t contagious like the flu – although it certainly is more debilitating and has just as much potential to kill. It doesn’t spread by sneezing and coughing, but it is still “contagious” in that people living with a depressed significant attachment figure, whether adult-adult or parent-child, are more likely to develop depression themselves and all that comes with this illness – the hopelessness, the sorrow or anger depending on the person’s response, the suicidal thoughts and possible attempts.

Depression is pervasive in the United States, and it is devastating to families – to marital relationships and to children’s development. We know through attachment research and neuroscience that the way we are parented not only affects the behavior we use in reaction to stressful events but also changes the way our brains work and our genes express brain chemistry reactions to stress. This means that if we are parented in such a way that consistently teaches us to react poorly to stress and conditions our brain to release stress chemicals at high rates, we are literally creating a child who will grow up into an adult who is prone to depression and all that comes with it.

Our families are in crisis.

New Report Brings to Light the Impact of Parental Depression

A new report, Depression in Parents, Parenting, and Children: Opportunities to Improve Identification, Treatment, and Prevention, was released by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine of the National Academies last week at a public briefing in Washington, D.C. Attachment Parenting International attended via webcast.

The National Academies consist of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council. They are private, nonprofit institutes that provide science, technology, and health policy advice to the United States under a congressional charter.

Depression in Parents, Parenting, and Children explores the interaction of depressed parents and their parenting practices, and the impact on children. It also proposes strategies to promote more effective interventions, as well as recommendations for improving the quality of care for depressed parents and their children. The study was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, The California Endowment, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, and the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Report committee members who attended the briefing included: Chair Mary Jane England, MD, president of Regis College in Weston, Massachusetts; William Beardslee, MD, professor of child psychiatry at Children’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts; Mareasa Isaacs, PhD, executive director of the National Alliance of Multi-Ethnic Behavioral Health Associations in Bethesda, Maryland; and Frank Putnam, MD, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The Prevalence of Depression

The briefing opened with an overview of depression in the United States, presented by Isaacs. The exact number of people affected with depression is difficult to pinpoint, but it’s estimated that only one-third of adults with the illness actually receive treatment. In some sample communities, as many as 70% of people with depression go without treatment. Although depression treatment is very effective, there are a number of factors preventing people from seeking help: the stigma of mental illness, lack of transportation, inability to afford services and medication, language and cultural barriers, and lack of providers or at least those with training in identifying and treating depression.

Despite not knowing the full extent of depression, there are several tendencies that Isaacs pointed out:

  • Women have double the rate of depression as men.
  • Caregivers are more likely to have depression.
  • Depression typically first shows in adolescence or young adulthood.
  • Those living in poverty are more likely to have depression.
  • Depression is more common among adults who are separated or divorced than those who are married.
  • Depression rarely appears alone – 75% of people who suffer from depression also suffer from traumatic histories such as sexual abuse or exposure to early childhood violence, substance abuse, a medical condition, or another mental health disorder especially anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • The development of depression rests in a combination of genetic susceptibility, environmental factors, and individual vulnerability. Depression is as much the result of other issues in a person’s life, as it is the indicator that there are additional problems.
  • The majority of adults suffering from depression are parents.

The Impact of Parental Depression

It is this last point – that the majority of adults suffering from depression are parents – that is the take-home message. It is estimated that in the United States alone, one in five parents are affected by depression each year, or approximately 7.5 million. Here’s the kicker: 15.6 million children under age 18 live in these households where at least one parent is depressed, Isaacs said. Depending on the age of the child, they can be as much as 40% more likely to develop depression themselves with just one depressed parent in the home, said Putnam said – let alone both parents. “Mothers and fathers are often depressed together,” Beardslee added.

Remember what we know about attachment and how this affects the development of our children. For more than 15 million children in the United States, either their primary attachment figure or a strong secondary attachment figure is depressed and modeling all that comes with it.

“Depression is primarily a family issue,” Isaacs said. “It affects not only the individual but also children and other members of the family. It affects parenting.”

While the majority of research in parental depression has included mothers only, the few studies that have been conducted on fathers shows that the impact of children living with a depressed secondary attachment figure is just as devastating as living in a home with only the primary attachment figure suffering from depression, she said.

“Many people don’t get treatment, and those who do, don’t for years,” said Beardslee. “This makes a great impact on the family.”

Depressed parents tend to raise their children in an emotionally detached, withdrawn parenting style that affects the development of attachment, Putnam said. People with depression use fewer positive parenting approaches and more intrusive handling of children, and the end result is a child who is himself withdrawn.

“Depression causes terrible suffering,” in both parents and children, Beardslee said. Depression effectively destroys the attachment between a parent and child. The inconsistencies in parenting by depressed parents leads to a break in trust between the child and his parent. Long-standing depression causes neglect and often abuse. While depression symptoms manifest themselves differently in each person, women tend to be sad and withdrawn while men tend to be irritable and acting out.

Beardslee told of one mother who described what depression does to her parenting: When she isn’t depressed, she has very positive, emotionally close, and healthy interactions with her 12-year-old son, and when he comes home from school, they go through a routine of talking with, playing, and otherwise spending time with one another. But, when she is depressed, all that positive parenting disappears – she puts her son in front of the television and ignores the routine and his emotional and physical needs.

This break in routine, which is so important especially for older children, greatly affects the mental health of the child, Beardslee said. He feels inadequate, as though he is to be blamed for his mother’s withdrawal. Her depression affects his self esteem and models her poor responses to stress – significantly increasing the risk that he will eventually develop depression himself and unhealthy coping mechanisms expressed through social, behavioral, and other mental problems. He will feel the effects of chronic parental depression long after his mother’s depression is treated.

Not every parent with depression will inadvertently or deliberately cause harm to their children, but parental depression increases the risks for spillover consequences during critical periods of child and adolescent development.

“We’re very concerned about the impact on children,” Putnam said. While there is only a 2-4% risk of a small child developing depression when there is a depressed parent in the home, this risk jumps up to 20-40% in adolescents. “What also comes with this is the risk of substance abuse,” which is predominant among depressed individuals, Putnam added.

“To break the vicious circle of depression, we need to refocus our view of this illness through a broader lens that sees the whole family, not just the individual with depression,” England said. Beardslee added: “We need to think about people who are depressed as parents first, and individuals with depression second.”

This goes beyond postpartum maternal and infant depression – the screening and treatment of which is becoming increasingly more commonplace in the medical care community: “The first few years of life are crucial, but we need to look more into the long term,” Beardslee said.

The Report Committee’s Recommended Solution

Currently, most screening and treatment of depression happens in primary medical care settings, Beardslee said. However, because depression is more typical in families living in poverty and perhaps without the means to see a doctor, there must be more avenues for depressed parents to find help. Because depressed parents are often withdrawn and difficult to engage, more types of service providers outside the mental health system need to be trained to spot the symptoms of depression and to direct those who need help to accessible entries into the health care system.

Once parents seek treatment, the mental health care system must change the way it treats this illness. Because of the impact on children, interventions should adopt a two-generational approach – parent and child – to effectively treat depression in families, Beardslee said.

Putnam listed these critical components to an effective model of family-centered treatment for depression:

  • Integrative – meaning that all factors contributing toward the depression must be identified, whether this includes poverty, marital issues, health problems, etc.
  • Comprehensive – meaning that all co-occurring conditions must be identified and addressed, such as substance abuse and anxiety disorders.
  • Multi-generational – which encompasses screening and treatment for both parents and children by one mental health care provider rather than by separate providers who often don’t know the full extent of depression on the family members.
  • Preventive – which includes teaching parents positive parenting skills and skills to cope better with stress.
  • Developmentally appropriate – any treatment should appropriate to the particular age group of the children involved.
  • Accessible – screening should be available through programs frequently used by at-risk families such as home visitation, Headstart and other school-based programs, federal nutrition programs, etc., and those parents who are identified as depressed should then be assisted in navigating the mental health system to receive treatment. In addition, the financial barriers of at-risk families must be addressed – many may not have insurance or income, and those who are able to afford services may have difficulty paying for services for more than one person in the family. Also, the mental health system must look into ways of delivering services in nontraditional settings to be able to reach at-risk families, including schools, prisons, community programs, and even homes.
  • Culturally sensitive – which includes techniques to overcome language barriers, stigmas, etc.

“There are a number of exciting initiatives with parts of these features, but no program yet has all of these features,” Putnam said. As it is now, “parents with depression are like orphans” in the mental health system, he added.

To jump-start this model, Putnam suggested the mental health system focus first on implementing a two-generational, more comprehensive focus. More health care providers need to receive training specifically in multi-generational depression. Practices should look into ways that would reduce the financial impact on at-risk families such as charging on a sliding scale, combining children and parent charges into one office visit instead of two, and negotiating with insurance companies to provide same-day reimbursements on medical care services. Once programs are in place that effectively treat family depression, they should be included in training models for other providers.

In addition, more research dollars need to be allocated toward studies that look at the impact of parental depression on children as well as the differences between the impact of depression in fathers and mothers, Putnam said.

The report committee said this report represents a call for urgency from the U.S. Surgeon General and the various mental health organizations and agencies – a major mental health concern that needs to have a working plan in place in the next six to eight months.

What is API Doing?

API actively helps parents who are prone to depression or are depressed by teaching parenting skills and providing resources to help parents develop better ways of coping with stress and strong emotions. According to researchers at the University of Michigan, who reviewed the numerous studies on the subject, there is a link between social support and wellness. Support networks are vital not only in preventing depression but also in its treatment. Local API Support Groups provide parents with a way to develop a solid support system that can follow them through their child’s many developmental stages and the challenges that come with them.

And if parents do fall into depression, API Leaders can help direct parents to the treatment they need as well as continue providing support through the local group or personal consultations, free of charge.

Discuss this topic with other API members and parents. Get advice for your parenting challenges, and share your tips with others on the API Forum.

What Attachment Parenting Does for Your Child’s Future

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

Attachment as adults

Especially if you’re new to Attachment Parenting, you may be wondering what does parenting have to do with your adult relationships. Quite a lot, if you understand the impact of healthy and unhealthy parent-child attachments on the child. In fact, you could say it has to do with everything about our adult relationships.

The attachment bond you had with your primary caregiver – most likely your mother – is your model for how a relationship should work for the rest of your life. For some of us, that attachment bond was loving and nurturing and we find our adult relationships relatively easy. For many of us, we may have some difficulties in our adult relationships, mainly in trust issues, indicating that there were inconsistencies in the response by our primary caregiver when we were younger. And for some of us, our childhood homes were downright neglectful and abusive and our natural tendency in our adult relationships is not to have a relationship at all.

Because humans are social beings, having close relationships is an essence of life. Without working relationships, we are at risk for depression and anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, and other unhealthy and risky behaviors that we use to fill a void in our lives left by the needs left unmet in our first loving relationship – that with our parents. The success of this first attachment bond in our lives is what shapes the way our brain works, influencing the way we cope to stress, how we see ourselves, our expectations of others, and our ability to maintain healthy relationships all through our lives. Continue reading

Helping Your Adopted Teen Develop an Identity

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

The teenage years can be hard on your adopted childParenting during the teenage years is as trying on the young adult as it is on his parents. But if your child was adopted or if you’re fostering, the teenage years can be an especially tough time as your child tries to sort out his identity without knowing his birth parents or understanding the reasons why his birth parents are not a bigger part of his life.

Who Am I? Where Do I Belong?

As the teen years loom, many parents anticipate that their child will have some difficulties, perhaps more so than teens who are living with their birth parents, in answering these questions. Gloria Hochman and Anna Huston list a few questions parents ask themselves in this period of time, which will ultimately prove just as hard on the parents as their child, in their article “Parenting Your Adopted Teen” at Focus Adolescent Services, FocusAS.com:

  1. Will a sense of abandonment and rejection replace feelings of security and comfort?
  2. Is my child behaving in a way that reflects inner turmoil about the past?
  3. Will being adopted make adolescence harder for my child?

How Can Parents Help?

Nothing about these questions is simple, but Hochman and Huston do have a couple tips that make the teen years easier on your child:

  • Don’t ignore the fact that your child was adopted — Being adopted is an undeniable part of her history, and how she learns to deal with it will continue to impact her in the future.
  • Don’t underestimate your child’s abilities to sort out their own challenges – Trust that your child can successfully confront and resolve his identity issues, as you offer extra support in areas that take on special meaning for him.

These special areas include:

  • Identity formation – Not knowing about her birth parents can make your child question who she really is, and it’s a real challenge as they try to sort out which character traits come from which set of parents. It becomes even more difficult as your teen tries to sort out the traits that are genetic or wants answers to questions you may not have, such as: Where did I get my musical talent? Did everyone in my family have glasses or curly hair? What is my ethnic background? Do I have brothers and sisters?
  • Fear of rejection and abandonment – Your teen may suddenly become afraid of leaving home. Other teens may want to reconnect with their birth families to have their questions answered: Where did I get my writing ability or my height? Did everyone in my family have to deal with acne? Some teenagers may worry, just as their adoptive parents do, that they have a tendency toward an unhealthy behavior or mental illness and would feel more comfortable knowing more about their birth parents’ tendencies.
  • Issues of control and autonomy – This is a normal struggle for all parents and teens, but it may be more intense for your adopted teen who feels, especially, that his life’s direction has always been based on someone else’s decision: His birth mother made the decision to place him for adoption; you made the decision to adopt him.
  • Feelings of not belonging – These feelings arise when your teen cannot identify the source of her traits such as her red hair in an adoptive family of brunettes or a Hispanic ethnicity in a family of Native Americans or an artistic talent in a family of math whizzes. These feelings often first arise as her friends begin to question her differences (or similarities, mistakenly) to her adopted family. If her friends do know that she is adopted, she may struggle with answering questions such as: Who are your real parents, and why didn’t they keep you? These feelings of uncertainty then fall back to their secure feelings toward her adoptive family – she may not feel like a “real” member of the family or that you love her as much as you love (or would have loved) your biological children.
  • Heightened curiosity about the past – Your teen will think more about how his life would have been different had he grown up with their birth parents or had been adopted by another family. This is a healthy exploration of his past and necessary to helping him learn ways of coping with the realizations that some possibilities have been lost.

Parents Need to Be Aware of Their Own Emotions

Parents have their own strong emotions and need to recognize and understand them first before they can support their teen:

  • Anger or frustration at your teen’s anger – Your child may become very angry toward you. He may withdraw, run away, or act-out toward you. Understand that most teens have difficulty in handling anger, and that expressing anger is often the only way any teen knows how to deal with other strong, even more painful, emotions such as disappointment or guilt. For more information on helping your teen deal with anger, see The Attached Family article, “Dealing with an Angry Teen.”
  • Fear about your teen’s past – You may struggle with concerns centering on issues from your child’s past, such as exposure or family history of alcoholism, drug abuse, or mental illness. You may have a heightened fear toward your teen’s sexuality and view of parenthood. You may wonder what would happen if your daughter became pregnant or your son got someone else pregnant – how would their birth mother’s choices influence their choices?
  • Hurt about your teen wanting to seek out her birth family – You may second-guess how you raised her  – did you do a good enough job? Is there a problem in your attachment with her?

Listen, Support, Affirm

Adopted children, even those who have been in their adoptive families since birth and who have secure attachments, can feel a sudden emptiness when they hit the teen years, explain Hochman and Huston. Encourage your child to talk about her feelings and try to support her emotionally, even if you don’t fully understand what she’s going through.

Parents of adopted teens who are struggling with feelings of not belonging in their family, especially those of transracial adoptions, may benefit from learning about their birth family’s ethnicity and culture. Parents can help them celebrate by supporting this quest for information, talking about their feelings as they explore this part of their past, and spending time with other families of the same ethnic background as their teen.

At home, parents of transracially adopted teens – or any adopted teens who are struggling with wanting to belong – can benefit when you point out any similarities between family members, such as “Everyone in our family loves to sleep late on the weekends” or “Mom and you are both cat lovers.”

But, Kenneth Kirby, PhD, of Northwestern University’s School of Medicine’s Department of Clinical Psychiatry in Chicago, says that the most effective technique parents of adopted teens can use is their listening skills. The families where adopted teens will have problems are those where the parents insist that an adopted parent-child relationship is no different than a biological relationship. Teens do better when their parents acknowledge their fears and uncertainties and allow them to express their grief, anger, fear, and other strong emotions.

Families that encourage open communication will have an easier time than others who may have to rely on professional counseling to support their teen. Many states also offer adoptive parent support groups or post-adoption workshops to help parents better connect with teens. It’s the parent’s responsibility to encourage a supportive atmosphere for the teen to discuss his emotions, and especially if open communication is not a norm in your family, you will need to initiate these discussions.

For More Information

“Parents who recognize that their teens have two sets of parents and who don’t feel threatened by that fact are more likely to establish a more positive environment for their teens, one that will make them feel more comfortable to express their feelings,” explain say Hochman and Huston. “Secrets take a lot of energy. When there is freedom to discuss adoption issues, there is much less of a burden on the family.”

Seek Cooperation, Not Control

Because of their own fears and strong emotions, parents have a tendency to want to control their teen’s choices, but Anne McCabe, a post-adoption specialist at Tabor Children’s Services in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, explains that teens need the freedom to develop their personalities and identities: “Kids see it as, ‘You don’t trust me.’”

McCabe advises parents of adopted teens to use positive discipline techniques in working toward solutions to disagreements between the parent and the child. The goal is to build trust between the parent and child. She suggests parents and children work together to identify options in dealing with areas of conflict such as schoolwork, chores, choice of friends, choice of leisure time activities, and curfew. Just as Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish explain in their book, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, McCabe explains that the best solutions are those in which both the parent and the teen come to an agreement on what constitutes trustworthy behavior and what the consequences will be of untrustworthy behavior.

Always Consider the Possibility of Professional Help

Parents of adopted teens – especially if they were adopted at an older age – may be confronted with serious challenges such as extremely low self esteem and severe emotional and behavioral difficulties, according to Hochman and Huston. These are often the results of a past of abuse or neglect and broken attachments throughout their young lives as they were moved from foster home to foster home. It can be extremely difficult for them to learn to trust adults who, in their past, were unable to meet their emotional needs and had broken any attachments they once had.

In addition, teens adopted at an older age bring with them the memories of these broken attachments. Hudson and Hochman advise allowing your teen to talk about these memories with you as well as with a professional counselor. Working through the emotions surrounding these memories is essential to getting your child to a point where he will be able to create and maintain emotionally healthy relationships.

Seek out professional help if you observe any of the following behaviors in your son or daughter:

  • Substance or alcohol abuse
  • Troubles in school, such as a drastic drop in grade or skipping classes
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Risk-taking
  • Suicidal threats or attempts.