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Want your child to have positive memories of childhood?

January 9, 2011 Leave a comment
Do you find my brain? - Auf der Suche nach mei...

Image by alles-schlumpf via Flickr

Apparently the human brain is naturally hard-wired to remember negative experiences. Even when positive experiences outnumber negative ones, the implicit negative memory bank grows faster. We retain negative memories and tend to forget the good ones.

So given that we know that, how can we use that to the benefit of parenting? You can rig your child’s brain for happy memories! Sounds a little creepy, but it actually makes a lot of sense. The remedy is not to suppress negative experiences. Instead, the key is to fostering as many positive experiences as possible and then really let them soak in.  Christine Carter, a psychologist who writes a blog on at the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley, suggests the following:

1. Teach kids to see all the good around them. Share with them an appreciation for a beautiful day, time spent together, good food, the kindness of others. The idea is turn positive facts that are present all around us into an experience for the child.

2. Draw out and really savor the experience. The idea here is to not only encourage your child to hold the positive idea in mind, but also to remember the emotions. That practice will strengthen the positive associations made with the memory.

3. Let it all sink in. Let your child imagine this feeling sinking into their mind, using methaphors such as the way water sinks into a sponge.

Focusing on good memories in this way can actually overwrite negative ones. Dr. Carter’s uses her personal example of not remembering the pain of being bullied because all the positive attention she received from friends and family created so many positive memories for her that they outweighed the negative.

Do you have an example to support this theory from your childhood?

Three questions to help guide you when disciplining your child

December 4, 2010 Leave a comment

After disciplining one of the kids, I often catch myself evaluating whether I did it “right”.  Part of that feeling is generated by whether I am following my values or whether I just reacted to the situation without thinking.  Of course, as parents we are human and we will never do things perfectly. We are going to lose our cool from time to time and not respond in ways that we wish we had in retrospect. But it often helps to be prepared for situations.

Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker, authors of Attached at the Heart, discuss the following three questions to ask yourself as you interact with your child.  At times when it is easy to lose your cool, these three questions can help you be effective in your communication with your child:

  1. Am I treating my child the way I would want to be treated (=take your child’s perspective)
  2. Will my words or actions strengthen my connection with my child?
  3. Will my actions give my child an opportunity to learn from this experience?

I think number 3 is especially key.  I remember reading a story once about a boy who broke a glass vase after having been asked repeatedly to be careful not to run around the house. The boy’s father calmly asked his son to help him clean up the broken vase and save money to contribute to a new vase. The father never yelled or punished the boy. It always struck me how, in that story, the child probably learned many lessons but the connection between the boy and his father was never affected. It is not easy to be that reflective and not let emotions of anger or frustration get in the way, but it is something to strive for.

Perspective-taking

November 13, 2010 Leave a comment

Ellen Galinksy points out in Mind in the Making (2010) that perspective-taking is an essential skill for children to learn in order to become competent adults. I had considered that issue before fin the context of empathizing with others, but I think perspective-taking is a much more appropriate, broadly encompassing term. After all, everyone can benefit from looking at any interaction from the perspective of others. After I discussed Ellen Galinsky’s book with my husband, we now half-jokingly tell each other, just in time to pull us back from an episode of road rage, to remember that the person who just cut us off might just be rushing to a hospital to see a loved one who is hurt. When you look at it from that perspective, it is much easier to calm down and elicit some compassion for another person. And so it is with kids. If we teach them how to see someone else’s perspective, it will be very helpful in relating to others in a positive way.

Perhaps the most interesting research related to perspective-taking is that from Larry Aber. He learned that many years of teaching kids problem solving skills to reduce aggression only had mild effects. He started probing why, asking children what caused them to react aggressively instead of using the problem solving skills that they had been taught. He learned that the children who assume that others are out to get them tend to jump to that conclusion, even when the information is not there to support that conclusion, and this often results in aggression.

So how can you can help your child improve in perspective-taking? Galinksy mentions a long list of indirect approaches, including modeling the behavior. The two direct ways, more commonly mentioned in the literature on this subject, to improve perspective-taking are:

1) Encourage your children to think about people’s responses in many different social situations and help them think through what might be going on in someone else’s mind.

2) Ask children to think about character’s intent in books and tv shows.

I am curious how focusing on perspective-taking might improve sibling relationships, as I often hear my kids drawing conclusions that their sibling is “out to get them”…..

Listening with Empathy

November 11, 2010 Leave a comment

One of my very favorite parenting books, which I received as a gift from my father-in-law, is Haim Ginott’s Between Parent and Child. It is a classic that was published over 35 years ago (although I just saw on Amazon that his wife released a revised edition some years back).

I have been trying to remind myself lately to really, really listen to each of the kids so that they feel heard. Sometimes that is all that they seem to need. Not for me to solve their problems, but to just listen. I try to practice active listening, reflecting back what the kids tell me, and really trying to understand where they are coming from.

One step further than active listening, Ginott emphasizes the need to empathize with a child when listening. This requires some interpretation andIt is hard to do under stress (I almost find it impossible to do when running late), but when done, it really does connect you with your child in amazing ways. Examples he gives are:

1) Respond to feelings rather than a reported event. For example, if a sister is asking why her brother received more presents, she is likely asking about the love the parent has for her rather than more presents. So a good response would be to ask whether she is wondering if he is loved more than her because he received more presents. Then let the conversation flow and reassure. Or when a child comes home to complain about a friend or teacher or his life in some other dimension, respond to his feeling tone rather than obtain details. It is more comforting for them to be understood and that their feelings are normal than for the parent to devise a solution. So if your child comes home saying he hates his teacher, you could respond by saying emphatically, “you had a really rough day!” and then let him spew.

2) Accept ambivalent feelings. Children can feel two ways about people – e.g., they can love them and be angry at the same time. When we acknowledge these feelings (e.g., you seem to feel two ways about your teacher, you like him and dislike him). Our calm acceptance of these feelings makes them realize that they are understood and that is something others feel from time to time as well.

3) Mirror emotions. Rather than judge an emotion that your child is having (e.g., there is nothing to be afraid of, don’t be sad, etc.), however well-intended, try to just help your child label their feelings. To the child, this will be experienced as very comforting. Once calmed down, the child might be ready to explore solutions. Not only does this convey to the child that you are willing to take the time to understand him, it also teaches him how to problem solve, rather than having the parent do so.