Special Editorial: The [Mis]Interpretation of Anti-Bullying Efforts

By Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D.

An article in the New York Times caught my eye last week.  Two first graders engaged in recess roughhousing and one classmate purportedly touched the upper thigh and/or groin of the other.  No witnesses.  The six year-old accused of the touching was promptly suspended from school for sexual assault.  “Sexual assault?!” you say?

The author of the article went on to discuss this incident within the framework of heightened bullying awareness and the pressure that administrators feel to react strongly when students are threatened in some way.  As our readers know, we take bullying very seriously.  In this day and age when research has shown us that bullying leads to outcomes such as increased depression,anxiety, poor academic performance, and suicide risk, we can not afford to ignore the seriousness of this issue that affects children of all ages, races, religions, cultures, sexual orientation, abilities, socio-economic status, and gender.  

In her book The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander, Barbara Colorosa includes a section titled “Beware: Zero Tolerance Can Equal Zero Thinking”.  She goes on to describe an array of incidents that underscore her point.  I think that my favorite was the ten year-old that got to school and realized that she had accidentally picked up her mom’s lunch instead of her own.  It contained a knife to cut the apple inside, which she promptly turned in to her teacher, received a thank you, and was then suspended by the principal because rules are rules.

When it comes to understanding behavior, context matters.  That bears repeating.  Context matters!  If we are truly going to address bullying, then part of that work needs to be proper training and ongoing support so teachers, administrators, and others who work with children are taught how to properly identify it, how to take it seriously without overreacting, and how to dole out appropriate consequences that not only keep people safe but also help the child learn and move forward in a more positive way.

Dealing with bullying from the individual all the way up to the system level is a complicated process.  Note that I mentioned both training and ongoing support above.  They are both vital.  We can’t expect school staff to receive all that they need through training alone.  Support that occurs in the trenches is equally important.   

I wonder what would have happened in the “sexual assault” scenario if the principal had someone well-versed in bullying that she could have turned to and thoughtfully discussed the incident.  Factors such as his intentions behind and understanding of his behavior could have been explored.  True, she may have come to the same conclusion and suspended the student.  On the other hand, she may have found that it really was playground roughhousing with no intent of harm or intimidation.  For now, the student has switched schools amidst some confusing uproar.  Thanks for reading.  -Anita

Sources:

Colorosa, B. (2002). The bully, the bullied, and the bystander: From preschool to high school  how parents and teachers can help break the cycle of violence. New York: Harper Collins.

James, S. (2012, January 26). Boy, 6, suspended in sexual assault case at elementary school. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com

APA Guidelines for Parenting Coordination for High Conflict Separated Divorced Parents

By Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D.

While splitting from a mate is rarely easy, it can be hugely difficult for couples that have children together. In this situation, it is most likely that you will still remain in one another’s life for a very long time in order to co-parent your children. For most couples, the stress and conflict of divorce gradually subsides to reasonable levels over the first few years. For others, however, the conflict rages on and oftentimes it is the children who suffer the most.

Research suggests that divorce in and of itself is not destructive to children, but rather it is ongoing parent conflict that takes the lead in negative child outcomes. For high conflict parents, those that cannot seem to work cooperatively and respectfully on behalf of their children, who drag out parenting decisions, spend inordinate amounts of time in litigation, and/or do not follow through with parenting agreements even when court ordered, there is a service worth considering. In fact, it will oftentimes be court ordered when the abovementioned get too severe. That service is parenting coordination.

Parenting coordination is intended to provide support, guidance, education, and sometimes decision-making for separated and divorced parents that are in long-term high conflict. In quick sum, it is put in place to help parents carry out their parenting agreement. The service is typically provided by an attorney or mental health professional who has completed intensive training in the area of parenting coordination. This person is called a parenting coordinator or PC.

While PCs have been practicing for years, there has been a lot of variation in the way that they practice due to a lack of universal guidelines. The Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC) is a major contributor to the formal development of parenting coordination services and released a set of guidelines developed in 2005. The American Psychological Association has now taken on the task of developing PC guidelines specific to psychologists that operate as PCs and they have published those in this month’s American Psychologist.

While the guidelines are designed for psychologists, they can be applied to PCs with other professional backgrounds as well. I write about these guidelines not just for the sake of PCs, but for those parents who work with PCs. My intention is to give parents a clearer picture of what goes into the process of parenting coordination as PCs attempt to move parents from entrenched conflict to cooperative, productive parenting.

The guidelines cover several key areas. They are not mandated. Rather, the guidelines are to be used as a framework for how a PC operates.

  1. PCs are expected to understand and appreciate how extremely complex this role is.
  2. They are to receive ongoing training to keep up with the psychological and legal knowledge needed for the role.
  3. They are to practice only if they have competencies in the many skills and areas of knowledge (such as cultural awareness and domestic violence) required for parenting coordination.
  4. PCs are to work to ensure family safety and recognize when that safety is at risk.
  5. PCs are to adhere to APA’s ethical guidelines and seek guidance when needed to address issues related to diversity.
  6. PCs must maintain clear, complete, and timely record keeping.
  7. PC work and billing are to be done in a responsible and timely manner.
  8. PCs are to work collaboratively with other professionals involved in a case.

To read the full guidelines online, go here.

I’ve been exposed to PC work enough to know that many parents in the situation of having to have a PC are resentful of the presence of this person, feel as if their hands are tied and their parenting powers stripped. It is my wish that these guidelines can shed light on the true complexities and intentions behind the process and, hopefully, parents can work with their PC in a collaborative manner to move forward both for the sake of their children and of themselves. In other words, I hope that you can make your PC obsolete. Thanks for reading. –Anita

Sources:
AFCC Task Force on Parenting Coordination (2006). Guidelines for Parenting Coordination. Family Court Review, 44 (1), 164-181 DOI: 10.1111/j.1744-1617.2006.00074.x

American Psychological Association (2012). Guidelines for the practice of parenting coordination. American Psychologist, 67 (1), 63-71 DOI: 10.1037/a0024646

Depression during pregnancy may lower your child’s IQ.

By Nestor Lopez-Duran PhD

Can depression during pregnancy impact your child’s intelligence? How about postpartum depression?

Maternal depression has some significant negative consequences on kids. Among them, some studies have shown that maternal depression may impact the cognitive development of the offspring. But it is still unknown how maternal depression impacts the child’s cognitive skills. For example, are there sensitive periods during the child’s early development that makes them more susceptible to maternal depression?

One could think that maybe the most important period is during pregnancy, since depression may expose the child to depression-related stress hormones that can affect the child’s early development. It is also possible that the most sensitive period is immediately after birth. For example, postpartum depression may impact the quality of mother-infant interaction during this time affecting the child’s development. It is also possible that depression during the pre-school years, a time when the child is rapidly learning complex cognitive skills, has the most negative impact on the child’s intellectual development.

The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry recently published an excellent study examining this question. The study included over 5,000 families with 8-year-old children. These children completed a series of tests including a basic intellectual abilities test (IQ). The mothers of these children had completed a series of evaluations for depression during pregnancy, immediately after pregnancy, and when the child was in preschool.

The authors wanted to see if maternal depression was associated with lower IQ scores in their kids, and if so, whether this effect was due to having depression at a specific time, such as during pregnancy, immediately after birth, or during early childhood.

The results were intriguing. While adjusting for depression in all time periods, post-partum depression and depression during preschool DID NOT impact the child’s IQ at all.

The big player was depression during pregnancy!

In fact, having depression during pregnancy was associated with a drop of 3.34 IQ points by the time the child was 8 years old.

This effect was found even after controlling for a number of factors that may be associated with depression during pregnancy, such maternal age, smoking, drinking, socio-economic status, maternal education, child’s gender, child’s birth weight, and whether or not the mother breast fed the baby.

So it seems that depression during pregnancy may have a direct negative impact on the child’s intellectual development.

But why? What is it about depression during pregnancy that has such a negative impact on the child’s cognitive development?

One possibility is that depression during pregnancy exposes the child to high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which may negatively impact the child’s brain development.

The authors also discussed another possibility: that depression during pregnancy may impact the way mothers respond to their kids after birth. That is, being depressed during pregnancy often impacts how the mother interacts with the infant once the child is born, such as by reducing the mother’s responsiveness to the infants, which in turn may negatively impact the development of the kids cognitive skills. However, if this is the case, why is it that post-partum depression did not impact the kid’s IQ, given that post-partum depression also has a significant impact on maternal behaviors, including responsiveness?

All in all, this study highlights the possibility that maternal depression during pregnancy may have a significant negative impact on the childs intellectual skills. Fortunately, we have very effective interventions for depression, so I highly recommend expecting mothers to discuss their symptoms with their physicians or health care providers and to seek a referral to a mental health provider if necessary.

For more information about depression during pregnancy I invite you to visit the University of Michigan Depression Center.

Nestor.

The Reference:
Evans, J., Melotti, R., Heron, J., Ramchandani, P., Wiles, N., Murray, L., & Stein, A. (2011). The timing of maternal depressive symptoms and child cognitive development: a longitudinal study Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2011.02513.x

Aggression in the Toddler Can Be Traced to Hostility in the Marriage

By Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D.

It makes sense if you think about it.  Mom and Dad are angry and at each other more often than they care to admit.  In comes junior.  It may not be so easy to put aside the hurt and anger caused by the marital conflict and turn toward the tot with a warm and patient approach.

Stover and colleagues describe the “spillover” theory to explain this process.  That is, high conflict marriages can breed emotional distress in the parents that leads to decreased parenting quality.  Another interpretation of the theory is that the emotional arousal that happens in one family relationship (in this instance, marriage) can bleed into other family relationships (such as that between parent and child). 

 “But what if it’s just genetics?” you may ask.  I mean, perhaps parents with hostile and angry dispositions simply have hostile and angry children.

To answer this question, Stover et al. looked at 308 adoptive families (adoptive child, mother, and father) as well as the biological mothers.  Information from birth moms was gathered at three and six months postpartum, while information from adoptive families was gathered when the children were 18 and 27 months. 

Stover et al. didn’t look exclusively at the martial conflict, however.  They backed up the chain of events one step further to discuss perceived financial strain, which can then lead to marital stress, which can then lead to hostile parenting, which can then lead to childhood aggression.  Note that this perceived strain was independent of income; rather, it was the parents’ thoughts and emotional experience of their finances that led to the feeling of stress.

Using a variety of questionnaires, data on child aggression, marital hostility, parenting hostility, perceived financial strain, adoptive parent antisocial traits, and birth mom antisocial behavior was gathered.  Here is what they found.

Marital hostility, adoptive father and adoptive mother hostile parenting, and toddler aggression were significantly related.  Marital hostility did not directly link to toddler aggression, but rather it linked to hostile parenting, which then linked to toddler aggression. 

Throw perceived financial strain into the mix and the results revealed a significant link to marital hostility and toddler aggression.   To be clear, perceived financial strain was directly linked to toddler aggression, regardless of parenting. 

And when they looked at adoptive parent antisocial traits, there was a significant association with hostility in both the marriage and in parenting.  Interestingly, birth mother antisocial behaviors were found to be unrelated to toddler aggression.  In other words, nurture matters a whole lot here.

One could guess that negative spillover could easily continue in the absence of intervention.  So what can we do to disrupt this process, thereby decreasing the likelihood of toddler aggression?

For starters, when aggression is noted in a child it could be helpful for married parents to take an honest look at the dynamics that they have with one another.  There is the option to get support and make changes within a marriage.  Your children will thank you for it. 

The authors suggest that parents that tend toward anger and hostility can be impacted by interventions that help them change the way that they think about and respond to their child’s aggression. 

Finally, there is perceived financial strain.  In today’s economic climate, what are we to do with this piece?  Although no one can expect to be stress-free when basic needs are at stake, it may be possible to work on our thinking about and management of the stress.  Addressing the stress becomes increasingly important as we take a look at how our children are doing in the face of it.  Areas to consider can include untapped financial resources, emotional support, and ongoing self-care. 

Thanks for reading.  -Anita

Source:  Stover, C., Connell, C., Leve, L., Neiderhiser, J., Shaw, D., Scaramella, L., Conger, R., & Reiss, D. (2011). Fathering and mothering in the family system: linking marital hostility and aggression in adopted toddlers Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2011.02510.x

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Boys With ADHD and Their Dads

By Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D.

A couple of months ago, I wrote about a study that looked at moms and children with ADHD.  Some readers responded with wanting more information on the role of dads in their child’s ADHD.  Well, I found an article in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology that studied dads and looked at the impact that their early relationships with their children have on later ADHD symptoms.  And, yes, the study suggests that the early father-child relationship does indeed seem to be related to middle-childhood ADHD symptoms.  (The study looked at the maternal role also, but I am going to focus on the paternal role here.  The citation is below if you’d like to read the whole study.)

The study took place in New Zealand and included 93 preschool boys that were placed in a “hyperactive” group, control group, or in another comparison group where symptoms were present but less severe and, thus, gave the researcher the ability to look at a wide range of ADHD symptoms.  According to the author, only boys were included both because of logistics and because they tend to have more observable behaviors linked to ADHD than girls.  Eighty-nine fathers participated.  Data was collected using parent observations, interviews, and questionnaires, as well as teacher questionnaires.  The study spanned three years, starting when the boys were an average of four years-old.   A second round of data was collected two and a half years later when the boys were an average age of seven.

The author, Louise Keown, looked at three areas of paternal responsiveness (sensitivity (e.g., being tuned into the son’s needs), intrusiveness (e.g., controlling son’s play), and positive regard (e.g., warmth and affection toward son)) and the presence of later ADHD symptoms.  The results took into account early ADHD and behavior problems.  In other words, the results looked at how fathers’ parenting impacted middle childhood ADHD above and beyond preschool problems in this area. 

Here’s what the study found.  Fathers that were characterized as more sensitive and less intrusive with their preschool sons had sons that were later found to be less hyperactive and impulsive at school, according to teachers, and more attentive at home, according to fathers.   Further, higher levels of paternal positive regard in early childhood were related to their sons showing lower levels of inattention at both home and school in middle childhood, according to teacher and maternal reports.

In her discussion of the findings, Keown discusses the importance of fathers learning how to sync up with their sons to give them what they need in any given moment.  For example, a son that gets frustrated and angry with trying to build a block tower that keeps tumbling down will likely have a different response to a father that reprimands him for the outburst as opposed to validating the son’s emotions (e.g., “Wow!  It’s so frustrating when you try to build a tower that keeps falling down.”).  Another example could be a preschooler that starts running around like a maniac at a birthday party because he is over-stimulated and rather than giving him some time and space away from the chaos to get settled again, his father tells him to slow down.  While the cues may be subtle, it is important to learn how to read them.

Keown also discusses the finding of paternal intrusiveness and hyperactivity-impulsivity at school.  She argues that fathers that disrupt their son’s activities and limit the amount of control that sons have over play may also be limiting their opportunity to learn how to self-regulate their behaviors.  In other words, sons that are controlled by an outside force may not learn to control themselves from within.

Last month, I posted on mindful parenting.  The results of the current study can also be applied to this concept.  When dads can step away from their agenda and allow a child’s activity to unfold, supporting them as necessary, it sends the message that the child’s desires are important and that there is a safety net in place when they need it.  Also, nothing can replace the important father-child interaction in a given activity.  The kind where you work together in a rhythm that feels good to both parties. Not only can this be a rewarding way to spend time with your child, but it can also be an opportunity for learning more about your child’s cues and how to meet him where he is.

This post is certainly not meant to criticize fathers.  On the contrary, I hope that fathers will recognize the importance of their relationship with their sons (and daughters!) and find the information to be useful.  Additionally, it is hoped that parenting partners and professionals can support fathers in their relationships with their kids in a way that reduces the chances of heightened ADHD symptoms in middle childhood and beyond. 

Thanks for reading!  -Anita

Source: Keown LJ (2011). Predictors of Boys ADHD Symptoms from Early to Middle Childhood: The Role of Father-Child and Mother-Child Interactions. Journal of abnormal child psychology PMID: 22038253

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Diagnosing ADHD: What every parent should know.

By Nestor Lopez-Duran PhD

A few weeks ago the American Academy of Pediatrics published the new practice guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These guidelines are supposed to help pediatricians and other primary care physicians in the care of kids with ADHD. Although I agree with most aspects of the guidelines, I am not surprised that the guidelines created significant controversy among psychologists because many aspects of these guidelines are limited, and arguably may not improve the care of kids with this condition.

So, here are some thoughts that may help parent navigate the complex process of ADHD diagnosis.

Currently, the general consensus among psychiatrists and psychologists is that ADHD is diagnosed based on the criteria included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4th Edition (DSM-IV Click here for the full diagnostic criteria for ADHD and a discussion of the proposed changes for the new DSM-5). Although I wont summarize the full criteria here, I want to talk about four important aspects of the diagnosis of ADHD, some of which are often disregarded by clinicians resulting in questionable diagnoses.

Aside for some additional details, ADHD is diagnosed when a child:

  1. Displays a minimum number of specific symptoms that are maladaptive and inconsistent with developmental level;
  2. The symptoms are observed in 2 or more settings;
  3. The symptoms dont occur exclusively (or arent due to) a number of other neurodevelopmental conditions; and
  4. There is clear evidence that the symptoms result in clinically significant impairment in the kids social, educational, or personal functioning.

On that note, the role of the recent guidelines by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is to provide clinicians with clear instructions about the procedures that they should follow to determine whether a child meets the criteria presented above.

In sum, the AAP states that:

A. The primary care clinician should initiate an evaluation for ADHD for any child 4 through 18 years of age who presents with academic or behavioral problems and symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity, or impulsivity.

This first guideline is not too controversial since there is evidence that the proper identification and treatment of young kids can improve the kids outcomes (e.g., better academic performance, social functioning, etc).

B. To make a diagnosis of ADHD, the primary care clinician should determine that Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV-TR) criteria have been met (including documentation of impairment in more than 1 major setting), and information should be obtained primarily from reports from parents or guardians, teachers, and other school and mental health clinicians involved in the child’s care.

Here the guidelines become limited. The problem is that this specific guideline does not tell the pediatrician HOW to make sure that the kid meets DSM-IV criteria other than by obtaining information from parents and teachers, etc. What does obtaining information mean in terms of actual practice?

There are two key issues regarding this guideline that pediatricians and parents should keep in mind.

First, the behaviors (symptoms) reported by the parent or teacher must be inconsistent with developmental level.  This means that the problem behavior must be in excess of what is expected for the childs age. But in excess according to whom? That is, who decides what is appropriate for each age? The pediatrician? The parent? How much hyperactivity or inattention is expected in a child age 5? How about a child age 8? Does the sex of the child matter in terms of what is expected for a specific age? The questions are endless.

This is a problem that does not have an easy answer, but clinicians should at the minimum use well validated parental and teacher questionnaires that have been properly normed, which the guidelines do not mandate. These questionnaires allow the clinician to compare the parent and teacher reports to those of thousands of other parents, which helps the clinician determine whether the childs behaviors are in excess to what is usually seen in children of his/her age.

Although there are some limitations with these questionnaires, I would be extremely skeptical of a clinician that makes a diagnosis of ADHD based simply on a brief interview with the parent without having the parent and multiple teachers complete these questionnaires.

The second, and much more complicated issue is that, according to the DSM-IV, the symptoms must result in clinically significant impairment in the kids social, educational, or personal functioning. What does this mean? Specifically, what does clinically significant impairment means and how is it determined? That is, who decides that the child is experiencing impairment due to his/her symptoms? Is a parents concern about the kids academic functioning enough evidence of impairment? How about a teachers frequent complains about the child? Is that enough evidence of impairment? The guidelines call for documentation of impairment in more than 1 setting, which is a good start, but it is not clear what this actually means in terms of actual practice by the clinician.


The problem is that there is no definition as to what clinically significant impairment is, and how it should be measured or documented, and relying only on the reports of a parent or a teacher has some limitations. For example, a child may be labeled a problem child by one teacher while other teachers may have no issues whatsoever with the childs behavior. Similarly, a parent may complain extensively about his/her sons behavior while the other parent may think that nothing is really wrong. Who is right and who is wrong?

This highlights the issue that determining whether the symptoms are causing impairment is not easy, and requires significant effort on the part of the clinician. Thus, I would be skeptical of any clinician that makes a diagnosis after talking only to one parent or one teacher (although in some unique cases this may be appropriate or necessary). Instead, clinicians should obtain information about level of impairment from as many people as possible, including both parents or guardians and multiple teachers. I would also be skeptical of clinicians that make a diagnosis after only asking whether specific symptoms are present or not, without using specific questionnaires to assess impairment or at least paying attention to how much the symptoms are affecting the childs functioning. For example, clinicians should ask to see the kids report cards, talk to multiple teachers, and document specifically how the behaviors affect the child at home.

Finally, the AAP states that:

C. Clinicians should include assessment for other conditions that might coexist with ADHD, including emotional or behavioral (eg, anxiety, depressive, oppositional defiant, and conduct disorders), developmental (eg, learning and language disorders or other neurodevelopmental disorders), and physical (eg, tics, sleep apnea) conditions (quality of evidence B/strong recommendation). 

The problem here is that the AAP guidelines did not indicate who or how such assessment should be made. Although Pediatricians can screen for these conditions, Pediatricians in general are not trained (nor have the time, sadly) to conduct the type of comprehensive evaluations needed to properly diagnose most of these conditions. Therefore, my interpretation of this guideline is that pediatricians should refer the child to other professionals in order to obtain the necessary evaluation that would rule out the possible presence of these conditions.

Therefore, I would be skeptical of a clinician that makes a diagnosis without at least asking questions that suggest that the clinician is screening for the possibility that the child may have another condition, such as conduct or learning problems, depression, anxiety, and other neurodevelopment disorders (e.g., autism).

I sum, when considering whether your pediatrician or other healthcare provider has properly diagnosed your child, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Did the evaluation include long questionnaires completed by me, other adults living at home, and multiple teachers, coaches, etc?
  2. Did the clinician pay attention to how and if these symptoms are affecting my child, such as by asking for my kids report cards and talking to teachers and family members?
  3. Did the clinician rule out other conditions. For example, did clinician recommend that my child should get an evaluation for learning disabilities, or did he/she suggest that I see a child psychologist/neuropsychologist to rule out the presence of a mood/behavior or other developmental problem?

If you answered no to any of these questions, I would recommend getting a second opinion about your childs diagnosis.

The reference:
Subcommittee on Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Steering Committee on Quality Improvement and Management (2011). ADHD: Clinical Practice Guideline for the Diagnosis, Evaluation, and Treatment of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Children and Adolescents PEDIATRICS, 128 (5), 1007-1022 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2011-2654

Put Aside the To-do List: How to Bring Mindfulness to Parenting

By Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D.

Mindfulness.  It’s practically a buzz word these days.  Even Oprah is talking about it.  So what is mindfulness, exactly, and why all the buzz? 

In brief, mindfulness is the bringing of one’s attention to what is right here, right now.  It is inviting oneself to let the ruminating about the past go and the obsessing about the future go as well.  And just as important, it is treating yourself with compassion while suspending judgment.  Studies have given much support for the usefulness of mindfulness in treating a variety of mental health and medical conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and chronic pain and stress (Baer, 2006).  By simply being where you are and gently and compassionately bringing yourself back to the moment when you find yourself wandering elsewhere, you can calm your nervous system and allow a peace that we could all use.

Hectic doesn’t begin to describe the busyness that we can experience in tending to child-rearing, work, errands, running a home, and the variety of other things that we do that fill our days.  I know that for me, I have spent many moments with my son where I was not truly with him.  My mind was wandering to a million places at once:  dinner planning, work, laundry, the errand that I forgot to run yesterday, and what I wish I had said during a prior conversation.  What I realize now is that in my quest to square away the past and the future, I missed a lot of what was right in front of me. 

The good news is that we have choices.  And we can choose to join with our kids and relish what is right before us.  Here are a couple of ways you can try.

1.  Be in the moment with your child.  In the beginning, this can seem pretty challenging when you really try to do it.  That’s okay.  Practice will make it easier in time.  If you tend to move quickly and busily through your day, I recommend finding a time when you can be unhurried.  Manufacture an opportunity to be mindful, so to speak.  Set aside your agenda and let things unfold between you, your child, and that which surrounds you. 

For example, let’s say that you usually take your child out in the jogging stroller, have your run, and promptly return home.  Instead, you can go out and have your run, but rather than return home right away you can stop somewhere while you’re still out and let your child out of the stroller.  Go explore together.  When you find your mind wandering back to what you really, really need to get done, recognize that you are worrying about what you really, really need to get done and kindly nudge yourself to come on back to the present moment.  Besides, let’s face it, the worrying does not bring us much benefit.  Oftentimes, it is just chatter that keeps our brains hyped up more than they need to be.  Your to-do list will be waiting for you when you’re done watching the birds, smelling the fresh air, and listening to your child giggle with delight after throwing a rock in the pond.  

2.  Do a sensory activity with your child to practice being in the moment.  Using as many senses as you can, experience the moment with your child.  A fun time to do this is snack time.  Rather than gobbling a snack only to get to the next thing on the agenda for the day, mindfully eat it. Study the look, texture, taste, smell, and sound the food makes as you bend, break, and chew it.  Or take a mindful walk together.  Again, using all of your senses, discover what surrounds you in that very moment.  It’s kind of hard to be elsewhere when you are that connected to the here and now. 

These are just a couple of ways that you can practice dropping into right now.  I would love to hear back from readers on any other ideas they have, as well as their experiences with practicing mindfulness in parenting.  In the meantime, enjoy giving your brain a break from all the noise and being truly present with your child.  This week is a perfect time to do this.  The kids are out of school for a couple of days and we have the choice to slow down and really connect.   I wish you and your families a safe and lovely Thanksgiving.   -Anita 

Source: Baer, R. (2006). Mindfulness Training as a Clinical Intervention: A Conceptual and Empirical Review Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10 (2), 125-143 DOI: 10.1093/clipsy/bpg015

Liar, liar, pants on fire: How punishment can affect children’s honesty

By Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D.

Raise your hand if you’ve been there.  Your young child has just gotten into something that she knew was off-limits.  When met with an angry, red-faced you and the threat of punishment, she denies having done anything.  Now replay this scenario where she commits the forbidden act, but you approach her matter-of-factly and she knows that there is no threat of harsh punishment.  Does she still lie?

Many, if not most, parents out there wish for their children to be honest.  We know that honesty lies at the heart of healthy relationships, for it helps people to build and maintain trust in one another. Are there discipline styles, things that we are doing as parents, that hinder or promote honesty?  Talwar and Lee (2011) lend evidence to the affirmative. 

The researchers recently published a study in the journal Child Development where they conducted an experiment with 3- and 4-year-old preschool children in two West African schools serving children from comparable backgrounds.  One school was deemed to be punitive (e.g., allowed beating with a stick, slapping of the head, and pinching) and one was labeled non-punitive (i.e., utilized time-out, scolding, and, for more serious offenses, trips to the principal’s office).

Each of the 42 children per school underwent what the authors call a “temptation resistance paradigm” study wherein the adult examiner played an object guessing game with the child and then excused herself from the room, having “forgotten” something.  The child was recorded during the one-minute departure after being told not to peek at the object left behind by the examiner. 

Upon the return of the examiner, the child was asked if he/she peeked at the object.  Regardless of the response, the child was then asked what the object was.  In other words, the lying child either confirmed the lie by stating exactly what the object was or covered up the lie by saying it was something different or responding with something like, “I don’t know.” 

As you may guess, most of the children peeked regardless of which school they attended.  Who could resist?  The difference came in how they responded to the examiner’s questions.  While just over half (56%) of the children from the non-punitive school lied about peeking, almost all of the children (94%) from the punitive school lied regardless of age. 

Further, 70% of the children from the non-punitive school told what the object was (revealing their lie) and 31% of the children from the non-punitive school told the truth about the object.  In other words, the children from the punitive school were over five times more likely than the children from the non-punitive school to cover up their lie by telling another lie.

The authors concluded that the threat of severe punishment may not only encourage lying, but the lying may be more advanced as children learn ways of continuing the cover-up to avoid punishment.  Conversely, it may be argued that environments that are “non-punitive” may also allow children the safety that they need to be honest about their transgressions. 

The argument makes good sense.  You would probably be hard-pressed to find a child that comes clean with the knowledge that harsh punishment is sure to be delivered just as you would be more hard-pressed to find a child that is unwilling to tell the truth when he feels that it is safe to do so.  In the end, would you rather have your child do the right thing because he fears punishment or because it is the right thing to do?

Thanks for reading.  -Anita

Source: Talwar V, & Lee K (2011). A Punitive Environment Fosters Childrens Dishonesty: A Natural Experiment. Child development PMID: 22023095

Spare the rod, save the child.

By Nestor Lopez-Duran PhD

Just some quick thoughts on some current events in case you missed it.

This week Ive been reading Steve Pinkers wonderful new book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which provides some compelling evidence about the drastic decline in violence throughout history. According to Pinker, we live in an extremely peaceful world and that this is likely the most peaceful time in human history. The evidence that Pinker provides is vast and compelling, and he also provides some colorful graphic examples to make his point. One example stuck with me: just a few hundred years ago parents would take their kids to the towns plaza to watch people be tortured to death. That is right! Just a few hundred years ago, in many European countries,watching an execution or a torture session was not just entertainment, it was a family affair! Pinker argues that we have also become significantly less violent in much more subtle ways, from the abandonment of settling personal honor conflicts through deadly duels, to the reduction of executions in all industrialized nations (except the USA), to the drastic reduction in marital violence as well as parental violence against their children (aka spanking) in the western world.

But this week we were sadly reminded that we are not as peaceful as we could be just yet. The New York Time published an article about two recent instances in which parents had killed their children by using violent discipline practices. In one case, an 11 year old adopted girl was found dead in her backyard due to hypothermia and malnutrition. It appears that her parents had punished her by making her sleep in the cold and withholding food. She also was often beaten with a plastic tube. In another case, a 7 year old girl was beaten to death by her parents, who apparently were following some extreme Christian teachings about how children should be punished. In fact, reportedly the parents often paused the beatings to pray.

These two cases have one thing in common: both parents had the book of a controversial Christian Pastor who preaches the virtue of beating your children.  In both cases, authorities believe that the Pastors teachings likely influenced these parents. Although you can blame these deaths on the acts of some violent parents, it is sad that some people in positions of authority within some religious communities openly endorse the use of violence against children.

I have already written extensively about spanking, so instead of repeating myself, I want to direct my readers to an editorial I wrote more than a year ago called Why spanking is never OK. My views as well as the research that led to that editorial have not changed. I invite anyone to comment or pose questions after reading the editorial.

Best wishes, Nestor.

Special Editorial: Should I vaccinate my child against HPV?

By Nestor Lopez-Duran PhD

Last week the Center for Disease Control (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunizations recommended that boys as young as 9 years of age be vaccinated against the HPV virus, the most common sexually transmitted infection. HPV is also a leading cause of cervical cancer in women and throat cancer in men. Thus, according to the CDC and other independent investigators, vaccination against HPV can significantly reduce cancer rate and save thousands of lives.

Although research suggests that parental acceptance of HPV is actually much higher than anticipated (around 50% in most studies), a substantial number of parents (as high as 25%) are opposed to vaccinating their kids. In addition, despite relatively high parental acceptance of HPV vaccination, only about 1/3 of teen girls have been properly vaccinated. That is, most teens have not been vaccinated and are therefore unnecessarily at high risk of getting HPV.

Why are some parents opposed to HPV vaccination and why are the majority of kids not being vaccinated? Fortunately, research suggests that misinformation may be the most likely culprit and that providing accurate information to parents may significantly increase parental acceptability of these vaccines. For example, in one study (Davis et al., 2004) parental acceptability of HPV vaccination increased from 50% to 75% after receiving basic about HPV and the vaccine. This is why it is so important for parents to talk to their pediatricians openly about HPV vaccinations.

In addition, I wanted to address some concerns that parents may have regarding HPV vaccination.


First, parents may be wondering why it is necessary to vaccinate children and young teen boys and girls, given the HPV is a sexually transmitted condition. After all, most agree that kids and young teens should not be sexually active. The reason is that the HPV vaccine is most effective when the person is vaccinated before he or she is exposed to the virus; that is, before sexual activity starts. Some parents may saybut my teen is not sexually active. that may be true, but unless your teen is planning on joining a celibate order, one day your teen WILL be sexually active, whether as a teen or as an adult. So vaccination before this happens is critical. But the reality is that many, many teens ARE sexually active. In fact, close to 20% of teens will have sexual intercourse by age 14 and 46-48% of high school students are already sexually active (CDC 2006). In addition, a significantly higher percentage of teens will engage in other sexual activities, such as oral sex, even when delaying sexual intercourse which puts them at risk for HPV. This means that even if your teen is not engaging in sexual intercourse now, he or she may be engaging in other types of sexual activity that increase the chances of contracting HPV.

Another potential area of concern is the belief that teens may interpret the parental acceptance of HPV vaccines as an approval of sexual activity and thus they would start sexual activity early or would otherwise engage in unsafe sex practices. First, there is no evidence that suggests that HPV vaccination leads to early or unsafe sexual activity. That belief is simply not supported by the science. Yet, parents can greatly influence their kids views and behaviors on early sexual activity and safe sex. For example, teens who delay sexual activity or otherwise engage in safer sexual practices have parents who have open, supportive, communication about sexually transmitted diseases, methods of birth control, and the benefits of delaying sexual activity (Aspy et al., 2007). Thus if parents are interested in keeping their kids from having sex too early and being safe once they become sexually active, they should have open discussions about this topic. That is a much better option than not vaccinating against HPV!

In sum, the HPV vaccine has the potential to save thousands of lives by preventing cervical and other types of cancer.  As discussed in this article, it is unlikely that the HPV vaccine would lead to early or unsafe sexual activity in teens. Instead, parents can have a greater influence in delaying their kids sexual initiation and ensuring they they engage in safer sexual practices by having supportive discussions about sexuality, abstinence, and safe sex. Finally, it is important for parents to talk to their pediatricians about the potential risks and benefits of HPV vaccines and make a decision base on accurate information about such benefits and risks.

References:

C. B. Aspy, S.K. Vesely, R.F. Oman, S. Rodine, L. Marshall, K. McLeroy. (2007). Parental communication and youth sexual behaviour, Journal of Adolescence, Volume 30, Issue 3, 449-466

Centers for Disease Control (CDC). (2006). Youth behavior surveillance-United States, 2005. Morbidity & Mortality Weekly
Report, 55, 1–108

K. Davis, E.D. Dickman, D. Ferris and J.K. Dias, Human papillomavirus vaccine acceptability among parents of 10- to 15-year-old adolescents. J Low Genit Tract Dis 8  (2004), pp. 188–194.