Thanksgiving in Trumpland

As anyone who has experienced them knows, negotiating holiday meals that involve combinations of families, generations and single adults can be exceedingly challenging. This may be even more true this year as so many of us are divided around our politics. Let me offer suggestions.

Try to avoid:

√ Idealistic expectations. Like Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, many of us can develop idealized expectations regarding how these days should go off. We so look forward to them, especially given how hard we work. We so invest in preparing. We so much love some of the people we’ll see. And, we so much miss spending time together. All of this can cause us to create expectations that mere mortals would have a difficult time realizing. When people then let us down (i.e., act like humans), it can cause us to feel hurt, angry or sad. Best to just expect the speed bumps and enjoy whatever blessings come along.

√ Conflict resolution. Once the day kicks into gear (and especially if the wine starts flowing), it’s easy to be tempted to try to let so-and-so know about his or her significant opportunities for growth. However, rarely do people welcome such unsolicited counsel, no matter how sagely conceived and expressed; in fact, they may then be tempted to return the favor, and then others may join in, creating the psychological equivalent of a food fight. Best to keep such thoughts between yourself and your guardian angel, at least during these get togethers.

√ Intoxication (i.e. transient brain dysfunction). Ok, this one is already pretty clear so I won’t go on and play the role of Dr. Obvious.

√ Pressing other people’s hot buttons, especially this year. Trump supporters may be tempted to do an end zone dance in the face of Trump detractors. Trump detractors may be tempted to question the decency and humanity of trump supporters. As both sides offer evidence and rhetorical constructions supporting their point of view, tension rises. Plus, even if a winner could be declared, what’s the prize? An empty bag, resentment and a compromised day. Best to let it go for now. If you’re concerned this could happen, here’s a draft email to work off of: I have a favor to ask regarding Thanksgiving Day. Would it be okay with you if we did not discuss politics? Some of us have some very strongly held views that are not in agreement with each other. I’d like to make the day not about discussing those differences, or trying to win debates, especially during this time of national division. Instead, I’d just like to focus on things that are uplifting. Please respond back to the group and let us all know if that’s okay with you and your family.

√ Displaying irritation or anger. How often does expressing such emotions turn out well oncheerful-family-copy turkey day? Sure, even a broken clock is right twice a day. But, we’re talking odds here. Best to belly breathe, change the topic, or use whatever you may to calm yourself down.

Try to embrace:

√ Opportunities to express gratitude. Gratitude focuses our mind on the good parts of our lives and has been found to offer many psychological benefits. Write a gratitude letter (click here for my blog entry on gratitude letters), pull someone aside and let him or her know what he or she means to you, express thanks for what you see before you or what is true about your shared lives, and so forth. (Two cautions: don’t offer such expressions with the expectation of a response, and don’t pressure anyone to offer such thoughts and feelings, especially teenagers.) Finally, you can also express gratitude to the hosts by offering to share in the day’s labor (those sporting a y chromosome may need to overcome a biological imperative to collapse in front of a TV once tryptophan crosses the blood-brain barrier).

√ Opportunities to let others strut their stuff. Many people derive validation from having loved ones recognize and value their accomplishments. Ask others for their favorite memories from the year or what they are most proud of. Then, let yourself come aglow with happiness for them. (To an ambivalent listener, this can seem like bragging. But, even when it’s bragging, what’s the harm? Just imagine someone crawling towards you, begging for a drink, and you have a bucket of water in your arms. Would you not do the kind thing?)
√ Adaptive thinking. I have two suggestions here. First, try to remember that crisis = pain + opportunity. Opportunity is pain’s Siamese twin. So, if things don’t go off as planned, or some unfortunate event happens, look for the opportunity imbued within. (The classic movie A Christmas Story manifests a great example of this in how the family responds to the fact that invading hounds have gulped down their holiday meal.) Second, try to remember that we’ll all blink three times and be looking back at our lives from the perspective of our death beds. Just think, when you’re at the end of your life, how much you’d give to come back and relive the day at hand. As death’s gift to the living is perspective, such thinking can help you to find your wisdom.

shutterstock_223597855√ Empathy. Those you are with may express sadness or share other failings or frustrations. Empathy and agreement are different things. Being empathic says that you care, even if you privately disagree.

√ Loving kindness. It’s amazing how operating in accord with these two simple words keeps one on a high road, promotes joy and expands meaning. If in doubt about what to do, it rarely fails to respond in accord with whatever insights this question offers, “what’s the loving and kind thing to do?”

May God, or your Higher Power, or the universe, bless you and yours during these challenging days for our nation.


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Preventing and Responding to Anxiety

anxious childResearch indicates that kids are sometimes born with a temperament that predisposes them to develop an anxiety disorder. This temperament, called “behavioral inhibition,” can be identified in toddlers. Such toddlers tend to have nervous responses to novelty or unexpected changes; they also tend to be more clingy and fussy than their peers when faced with separation from a primary caregiver. Toddlers with this temperament are then at higher risk for developing an anxiety disorder. What follows are six tips for trying to help such a child to not develop an anxiety disorder.

1. Avoid avoidance. This is one of the most important guidelines. This means not avoiding those developmentally appropriate situations that make your child feel nervous. When our kids hurt we parents hurt worse. So, it’s a natural reaction to just let our child avoid any developmentally appropriate situations that make her feel nervous (e.g., being left with a babysitter, getting on a school bus, joining a rec soccer team). Avoiding such situations reinforces the notion that they are dangerous and also tends to promote them becoming even more threatening over time. Moreover, this sort of a coping strategy tends to spread: your child may end up wanting to use it for more and more situations. Barring other complicating factors (e.g., the presence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), avoiding avoidance usually comes with initial distress but is followed by calm and a sense of accomplishment. (“Eventual” often ends up being just a few minutes.)

2. Promote your child’s comfort as you avoid avoidance. This can be coaching soccerdone in any number of ways. One of my favorites is to gradually expose your child to aspects of the feared situation in doses before the due date. For example, you might play soccer with him on the field where the first practice will be held or arrange for her to sit on the empty school bus before the first day of school. You would usually stay within these situations until your child seems calm, using some of the other tips in this article. This can also be done in smaller chunks prior to the due date.

3. Teach belly breathing and pasta muscles. Have your child pretend that his lungs are in his lower belly, instead of his chest cavity, while breathing deeply but comfortably, both in and out. Relatedly, ask your child to make her muscles as soft as a piece of cooked pasta. Click here for a free 15-minute audio training module I created that can promote this sort of muscle memory. These behaviors short-circuit the fight-flight response, which is the brain system that becomes activated whenever someone feels anxious. (When in the anxious situation your child should not tense then relax his muscles, as is done in the training module. That is only done for practice. When in the anxiety provoking situation, only relaxation and belly breathing should be used.)

tape over mouth4. Avoid reassurances, especially those that are excessive. Few things will trigger your child’s anxiety more quickly than your reassurance that a safe situation is safe, especially when those reassurances that are issued with emotion or conviction. I tell the parents in my practice, “imagine I told you not to worry about the ceiling over us collapsing on top of our heads. You’d probably instantly start wondering what sort of a dangerous situation you might be in.” Kids often hear many parental reassurances as, “time to start freaking out!” Moreover, when you are separating from your kid (e.g., leaving the practice, leaving the school), leave as quickly as you can. Your presence, and especially if you are issuing reassurances, will often tend to promote the very anxiety you’re trying to mitigate.

5. Get control over your own anxiety if that’s a problem. This temperamental vulnerability, by definition, usually runs in families. If anxiety is interfering with the quality of your life, you would do your kid an awesome solid by seeking out cognitive behavioral therapy for yourself.

6. Get help if these efforts don’t work! Anxiety disorders in anyone, including kids, is usually very treatable and in a short period of time. The aforementioned cognitive-behavioral therapy can be delivered to kids and teens and has a ton of research supporting its efficacy. For a referral, click here.

 

 

 

Promoting Teen Friendships

2 happy teens, african-americanAs we start a new year, my attention is drawn to The New Yorker article by Maria Konnikova titled, “The Six Most Interesting Psychology Papers of 2015.” I’d like to blog on one of these six articles, from the British Journal of Psychology, titled “Best Friends and Better Coping: Facilitating Psychological Resilience Through Boys’ and Girls’ Closest Friendships.”

In this study the participants were 409 “socio-economically vulnerable” British adolescents. The researchers found that having a close friend served an important resilience-promoting function. They concluded: “Findings revealed a significant positive association between perceived friendship quality and resilience…We suggest that individual close friendships are an important potential protective mechanism accessible to most adolescents.”

This is not a surprising result for those who are familiar with the resilience literature (e.g., social competence is a well established protective factor). Here are a few tips parents can use to promote friendships among their teens:

  • Create a space in your home that is teen friendly. Key ingredients aretwo women fun things to do in a space that feels separate from parents and siblings.
  • Encourage and support extra-curricular involvements that tap into your teen’s strengths. This can be a wonderful way to develop and support friendships.
  • In instances when your teen may be struggling with peers, partner with teachers in identifying potential friend-candidates to invite over.
  • Also if your teen is struggling, see if there are any groups being organized by school counselors that your teen might be eligible to join (e.g., social skills training, divorce coping, grief); these groups can be useful for forming bonds.
  • Whenever practical and consistent with your morals, support your teen’s efforts to acquire conforming clothes, music and so forth. These are common methodologies teen use to try to feel comfortable around, and to fit in with, peers.
  • Whenever practical and consistent with your morals, allow your teen to have access to pro-social networking sites and technology (e.g., texting). Not having access to such can serve to isolate a teen.
  • happy latino coupleGiven how critically important this domain is, please consider obtaining an evaluation from a good child mental health professional if your teen is struggling with peer relationships. For a referral click here.

This complex topic goes hand-in-hand with another complex topic: parental monitoring. Please use the search bar above, or my parenting book, to find content along those lines.

 

Making the Most out of New Years Resolutions

excited man pointing, long hair, tieMany of us will soon make New Year’s Resolutions. This entry is designed to increase your odds of success. I’ll review four planning steps and ten strategies for promoting effective outcomes.

The first step in the planning phase is to visualize what you like about yourself. I’m skeptical that your self-improvement project can survive and thrive if you do not know and enjoy your strengths, not only at the start, but consistently throughout. I like a prayer that British psychologist Robert Holden recommends in one of his books: “Oh God, help me to believe the truth about myself, no matter how beautiful it is.  Amen.”

The second step is to picture yourself as the most fulfilled version of you. What is different about that person? What changes, that are under your control today, would help to get you there? (If any of us drove a car as reliable as willpower, we’d soon scrap it. Yet, many of us continue to rely upon will power as if it could be consistently counted upon.)

Third, list the obstacles you’ll experience in taking this voyage. This is a step worthy of your most honest and thorough consideration (many of these obstacles are authored by the person in the mirror).

challengeFourth, what steps can you take to reduce the obstacles and lessen your reliance on will power?

A problem that many of us run into is called “present bias.” The person who we are when we make a resolution–present me–is steely eyed and filled with gritty resolve. However, present me may also be inclined to be harsh (“okay, you really need to stop being so weak!”), excessively ambitious (“I’m going to never yell again!”) or inclined to invest in ways that aren’t always helpful (e.g., purchasing expensive equipment the like of which has never been used before). The problem is that present me is not the same person who will be doing the heavy lifting; that person is future me. If present me doesn’t adequately understand future me’s strengths and vulnerabilities, then present me is destined for disappointment.

Each of us are like snowflakes, completely unique. Thus, a strategy that helps another person make substantive changes could be a horrible idea for you. Use your world’s leading expert knowledge of yourself to develop a plan that is supportive of future you. Use her strengths. Establish support for his vulnerabilities. Some of the following ten tips may help:

1. Set daily goals. Avoid goals like “I’m going to lose 30 pounds.” Instead, try “today I’m going to eat a balanced diet and get 45 minutes of physical activity.” (Goals like this are very nice if you mess up as tomorrow is a new day!)

2. Keep a daily log of those behaviors that are most important to your goal(s). persistenceMany self-destructive behaviors occur when we disassociate from ourselves (i.e., only partially notice what we’re doing). Writing stuff down combats disassociation and increases the odds that you will remain self-aware and in the moment.

3. Join with others. Two things characterize those who are successful in setting aside entrenched and self-limiting patterns: they work on themselves and they surround themselves with people who are striving towards the same goal(s). Relying on others could involve partnering with friends, starting counseling, or attending support group meetings. (To find a therapist near you click here.)

3a. Ask your partners for help. Many people are willing to help your future self reach your present self’s goals. All you need do is share your vulnerabilities and ask for ideas and/or assistance. For example, I know one pair of friends who committed to playing a rotating aerobic game before work each day (e.g., basketball, racquetball, etc.). They rotated the role of cheerleader for those days when one or both of them was tempted to cancel.

ideas4. Establish rewards for yourself. For instance, so many days of doing as you vow earns you a treat. Also, give yourself hefty mental pats on the back for success along the way.

5. Take lapses as opportunities to learn more about your vulnerabilities and how present you can do a better job of supporting future you. Avoid being cruel and harsh with yourself as this risks putting your goals further out of reach (i.e., don’t tolerate bullying!). I’ll sometimes ask clients, who are parents, to react to themselves as they would react to their child if their child showed a similar lapse (sometimes this involves projecting forward in time and imagining their child at their age, having fallen prey to the same vulnerability).

6. Use music if that motivates you.

7. Focus your mind on the positive behaviors you want to do rather than the negative behaviors you want to avoid. It’s better to focus on what healthy breakfast you want to eat rather than trying to use white-knuckle willpower to resist the unhealthy version. A great book I recently discovered that does this well is The Happiness Diet, by Graham and Ramsey

8. Have present you write encouraging and positive messages for future you that you put in your electronic calendar.

9. Make a plan to remove as much temptation as possible from the eye line of spiritual manfuture you (remember: will power is unreliable).

10. If you are a spiritual person, lean on that part of your life as much as you can.

Good luck! And, remember, high road life is less about outcomes and more about being in the right fights😉

What Do You Want to Focus on This Holiday Season?

black family, white background The holidays are so frenetic, and we look forward to them for so long, that it’s easy to end up feeling pushed around by the day-to-day stresses and to be left with a sense of disappointment at the end. One of the ways to combat this is to decide on three things you’d like to focus on during the holidays. Then, in the midst of the (usually) joyful craziness you can anchor yourself in what matters most to you. Here’s a dozen sample ideas of things you might decide to focus on:

  • Spending one-on-one time with each of your kids.
  • Praying each day.
  • Expressing gratitude to a certain person (e.g., search the for term “gratitude letter” above).
  • Being sober.
  • Lightening the load of your spouse/partner.
  • Forgiving someone for an old injury (this needn’t be done collaboratively, though it can be).
  • Practicing the Serenity Prayer when surprising events happen.
  • Responding with kindness when another adult acts in an uncomplimentary fashion (e.g., bragging, acting stingy).
  • Being of service to vulnerable people (e.g., someone who tends to be marginalized in groups, the poor, someone with a disability)
  • Promoting magical experiences (e.g., you can find multiple ideas for Santa rituals to do with kids on this blog site).
  • Organizing family experiences that promote bonding (e.g., baking, caroling, playing board games).
  • Focusing on your health (e.g., getting 8 hours of sleep, completing one hour of physically exerting activity and eating whole foods).

To keep your focus, it’s a good idea to put your three priorities in places yochristmas snowman sign for blogu’ll see them (e.g., on your computer’s or cell phone’s desk top, on a sticky note you place on your bathroom mirror) or by setting alarms in your cellphone.

There are three traps to avoid:

  • There is usually no good purpose to beating yourself up if you have a day when you fall down on one or more of your priorities. You do well when you judge yourself for your intention and effort and avoid conscious or unconscious expectations for perfection, something that we parent-lunatics fall prey to all the time.
  • When doing something nice for someone else it’s a good idea to not expect a certain response. Sure, it’s nice when someone is grateful, reciprocates or otherwise shows a positive reaction to your outreach. But, when that response becomes an expectation–be it conscious or unconscious–the outcome of your act of kindness can too often be increased tension and bitterness.christmas squirrel with note

• Expecting that others will join you on the high road. Holiday stresses can regress just about anyone, especially when large groups of family come together. It’s lovely when others follow your lead but expecting that can too often end up leaving you feeling empty and frustrated.

I want to close by thanking my wife, Lia, for suggesting this week’s topic and by expressing my hope that your holidays will be packed with meaning, joy and rejuvenation!

Parenting a Depressed Teen During the Holidays

depressedThe holiday season can be harder than other times of the year for people who are depressed. When someone is struggling with depression he feels estranged from himself and the world. Then, when that world temporarily gets even more unlike him (i.e., emphasizing cheer), his sense of estrangement can worsen. For this and other reasons, parenting a teen who is depressed during the holiday season can especially challenging.

Before I offer some tips, let me offer a very important proviso. Imagine you had a kid with significant dental pain and you wondered, “what meals should I prepare that best accommodate her condition?” That seems like a useful question, but only if your daughter is receiving, or is about to receive, professional dental care. Without the dental care, cooking interventions would probably be like re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. It is the same thing with depression in a teenager. The tips below are best considered and rendered within a context of a kid already getting good mental health care (e.g., an evidence based talking therapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or interpersonal therapy).

That said, here are seven tips to consider:

• Collaborate with your teen, and ideally your teen’s treatment provider, regarding a holiday plan (e.g., which activities to do and which to set aside). Your teen’s depression would have him bail out on most, if not all, activities and that is usually a mistake. Likewise, you may be tempted to insist on 100% participation, and that can be a mistake as well. A skilled therapist’s expert assistance can increase the odds that you’ll find the adaptive middle ground.

• Do what you do for your teen without the expectation that such will cheer her african woman's half faceup. We parent-lunatics hurt when our kid hurts, and often worse. So, it’s very natural to try to cheer up a depressed teen. However, if the primary intention is to bring about a better mood it’s easy to become frustrated and worsen the stress on our teen. Better to make the effort without the expectation of an outcome.

• Accept your teen’s moods as they come. These moods can be like the weather. Sure, you’ve laid out a nice picnic and here comes a rainstorm, and that stinks. You can rage at the weather (and that can take many, many forms) or pitch a tent, realizing that the weather is outside your control, and enjoy what is possible to enjoy.

• Resist trying to reassure your teen out of a negative thought. While such encouragement can often help someone who is not depressed, to a depressed person reassurances can sound like, “you don’t have anything to feel sad about, so stop it,” which can then cause the depressed person to become even more adamant about his negative thinking. This is another instance where your teen’s therapist can be very helpful in coaching you how to respond (e.g., “I think that’s your depression convincing you of a painful lie. I believe the reality isn’t nearly as painful as your depression’s lie); the technique of thought testing can also be very helpful here (e.g., see my parenting book or search using that term above).

• Don’t allow extended family to hassle your teen regarding his depression. Loved ones can say some pretty hurtful things in their desire to be helpful. Your teen’s therapist can help you to figure out your methods for doing this in a way that respects your teen’s privacy and independence.

teen diinterested face• Regularly let your teen know, without overdoing it, that you love her, that she is not alone and you understand that it’s terrible to be feeling what she is feeling, especially during the holidays.

• If your teen is or could be suicidal, get him in front of an expert ASAP and don’t leave him alone until you do. Consider this to be a life-or-death emergency as you certainly don’t want your baby to be one of the two million U.S. teens who attempt suicide each year.

Geez. Tough stuff huh? But, hopefully there’s a helpful tip or two here for you. Regardless, I hope you and yours have a wonderful holiday season!

 

When Santa Lives Paycheck-to-Paycheck

Many parents are concerned about how to provide a wonderful holiday experience for their family when money is very tight.  This entry is designed to provide strategies to provide magic on a budget. (Much of this material is discussed from a Christmas perspective, but is easily adapted for other traditions.)

• Kids need and value time with you much, much more than presents. Give decorated coupons for fun activities and trips together (e.g., good for one trip for an ice cream cone, good for one bike ride/walk around a local lake, good for two hours of board game playing, good for one fishing trip, etc.).

• Remember: crisis = pain + opportunity. Yes, it hurts to not have the money to spend on presents to a degree that you are used to. Give that pain its due. But, when you’re done, wonder what opportunities await you and your family because of this pain.

• The magic of the holiday season can be created, expanded and enhanced with very little expenditure of money. For instance:

√ Get a cheap stuffed elf, reindeer or snowman and declare that it is a magical creature that travels to the North Pole each night with a report on how your child behaved that day, only to then return in the morning for a new day of scouting (there is a commercial product that does this titled Elf on the Shelf). Kids love looking for the new location each morning.

√ Encourage your child to write letters to Santa as often as he or she likes, asking questions throughout (e.g., what is Mrs. Claus’ favorite desert? What do you do when the reindeer get into arguments?) Tell them Santa wants to get to know her or him as a person so the letters should not just be about requests for presents. Then, put the letter(s) in your outgoing mail receptacle, or tape them on your door (make sure to use Santa’s address and a “magic stamp,” which can be a sticker of your choosing that you make magical by dipping it three times in reindeer food, which can be oatmeal in a pouch); later swap out the letter with a return letter from Santa.

√ Buy another cheap stuffed creature and leave it for your child, with a letter from Santa, declaring that it is a magical being that gets warmer whenever Santa is in the vicinity. Practices such as this can cause bigger pupil dilation than many presents.

√ Arrange for your family to give service to others. Many churches, soup kitchens, and charitable agencies could find something helpful for your family to do. These kinds of experiences can create a degree of warmth and magic that no present can touch.

√ Check out the website www.noradsanta.org, especially on Christmas Eve (they offer regular video updates of Santa’s travel around the globe).

√ Establish as many joyful rituals as you can: sing holiday songs at home, bake cookies from scratch, create photo montages, join a group that travels from house-to-house singing carols, make holiday decorations, offer to help your local town or church decorate, and so forth.

When it comes to actually buying presents, consider the following:

• You can get more bang for your buck at discount and dollar stores. The visual image of lots of wrapped presents, each of which can be very modest in cost, can help to create that response I know many of we parents want from our kids when they first look under the tree.

• Use websites that compare the pricing of a wide assortment of retailers (e.g., www.pronto.com, www.pricegrabber.com). Also, be sure to do an internet search for coupons for the retailer you have chosen.

• Lots of families chase the hottest, current generation of electronics. This means that the reseller market (e.g., as found in this newspaper, on ebay, and on craigslist) is often jammed with opportunities to purchase the previous generation(s) at slashed prices.

• Look for sellers who offer refurbished items, or ask retailers if they have floor models or open box items they are willing to sell at discounted prices.

When all is said and done try to avoid sacrificing your wellness on the altar of commercialism. Your child benefits much more from you being well than from some gizmo that will lose it’s charm after a short period of time. Moreover, no research exists, as far as I know, that correlates child happiness and wellness with the amount of money spent on a kid’s presents. But, plenty of research associates child wellness and happiness with the quality of the parent-child relationship, the presence of enjoyable rituals in the family’s life and the wellness of the parent(s). As the poet e.e. cummings noted, the world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful. Money is not required to enjoy this wonder and magic, even during the holidays.

Is being spiritual healthy?

girl smelling a flowerIn last week blog’s entry I reviewed a recent study suggesting that religiosity and altruistic behavior are negatively associated in children. In that study, the findings were weak and there were important questions left unaddressed. In this week’s blog entry I would like to quote from two comprehensive reviews of the literature regarding associations with spirituality and religiosity that have appeared in two flagship journals: The American Psychologist and Pediatrics.

The review article in The American Psychologist, by researchers Peter Hill and Kenneth Pargament, can be found here. These are some key quotes:

“…religion and spirituality have been surprisingly robust variables in predicting health-related outcomes.” These include “…heart disease, cholesterol, hypertension, cancer, (and) mortality…”

“…even simplistic religion and spirituality measures…are glorioussignificant predictors of health outcome variables.”

Citing a meta-analytic review (i.e., a study of studies) of nearly 126,000 participants: “…people who scored higher on measures of religious involvement…had 29% higher odds of survival…than people lower in religious involvement.”

“…people who report a closer connection to God experience…less depression and higher self-esteem…less loneliness…greater relational maturity…and greater psychosocial competence…better self-rated health…and better psychological adjustment among people facing a variety of major life stressors, including transplant surgery…medical illness…and natural disasters…”

The review in Pediatrics by researchers Linda L. Barnes, Gregory A. Plotnikoff, Kenneth Fox, and Sara Pendleton can be found here. Here are some key quotes from that article:

diverse happy woman on floor2Regarding youth: “A number of studies suggest that spiritual/religious beliefs and practices may contribute to decreased stress and increased sense of well-being, decreased depressive symptoms, decreased substance abuse…improved recovery from myocardial infarction and enhanced immune system functioning.”

“Instances in which spirituality and coping may intersect for children include nighttime fear, psychiatric problems, suffering, hospitalization, disability, cancer and terminal illness.”

“Spirituality and religious involvement can also help children withstand the emotional assaults of sexual abuse, racism, cultural destruction, and the trauma generated by refugee experience and life in the disenfranchised urban neighborhoods.”

“Low religiosity also tends to be related to higher rates of smoking, drinking, drug use, and adolescent pregnancy.”

Other correlates or religiosity cited in the latter study included baby in shades, good for dev jeopardyless male aggressive sexual behavior, lower delinquency, higher life satisfaction, lower suicidality & increased academic & social competence.

Keep in mind that a correlation tells one nothing about cause and effect (e.g., click here for a demonstration of that truth). However, when study after study, across decades, finds similar positive associations, we can start drawing conclusions. What causes the positive associations is an open discussion (e.g, see Chapter Four of my parenting book), but we are on firm ground to assert that scientific findings indicate that engagement with a spirituality promotes resilience across the lifespan.

 

 

 

Religiousness and Altruism in Kids

microphoneLast week media outlets around the country reported on a study out of the University of Chicago on the relationship between religiosity and altruism in kids. The study can be found here. These are some of the headlines from last week: “Nonreligious children are more generous.” “Religion doesn’t make kids more generous or altruistic, study finds.” “Religion Makes Children More Selfish, Say Scientists.” How this research was portrayed constitutes a case example of what can go wrong when social science research is presented to the public.

The participants of this study were “…1,170 children aged between 5 and 12 years in six countries (Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, USA, and South Africa).” The key determiner of altruism was how many stickers kids were willing to share with peers. Kids in the non-religious group were willing to share, on average, 4.1 stickers (out of 10) while kids in the Christian group were willing to share 3.3 stickers and kids in the Muslim group were willing to share 3.2 stickers. The researchers also determined that the correlation between the kids’ religiousity and altruism was -.173 (negative correlations mean that when one variable goes up, the other one goes down).

question mark over brainTo better understand the confusion in the reporting I need to explain the term “statistically significant.” Research is always done with samples that hopefully represent the population under study. So, let’s say I’m a researcher that believes that 10 year old boys who eat apples for a year will end up taller than 10 year old boys who eat onions for a year. I then put together a sample of 800 10 year-old boys, half of whom eat the apples and half of whom eat the onions for one year. A test for statistical significance tells me, at the end of my study, whether my sample of 10 year-old boys represents all ten year old boys (the population). Lets say at the end of the year my test of statistical significance says that my results are statistically significant. All that means is that my sample likely represents the entire population (the standard cutoff is 95% likely or higher). However, statistical significance tells me nothing about the meaningfulness of the difference. So, lets say in my study the boys who ate the apples were .84 inches taller than the boys who ate the onions. I can tell the media that there is a significant difference between my two groups, and that would be true. But the media, and the public equate “significant difference” with “meaningful difference” and that would be troubling, especially to onion farmers.

An example of a statistic that speaks to meaning is effect size; .20 is a small effect size, .50 is a moderate effect size and .80 is a large effect size. Moreover, to consider the meaningfulness of correlations, .10 is considered small, .30 moderate and .50 is large.

So, let’s return to the study in question. The effect size on the main analysis (which they didn’t report but which I calculated) is .348, closer to the small category than the moderate category (e.g., there was a .8 sticker difference between the non-religious kids and the Christian kids). Moreover, the negative correlation of -.173 correlation is small.

But, we need to return to my apple-onion study to consider another methodological issue. Researchers commonly collect data on other related variables that might moderate the results. Do the apples and onion diets have differing effects on boys who start out shorter than boys who start out taller? Do boys who are obese have a different outcome than those who are not? Are the results different for boys who exercise than those who don’t? Including measures like these helps researchers to further interpret the meaning and relevance of the results. In well-constructed studies such analyses are common.

In the study in question there were numerous potential moderators that were not investigated. These included the presence of mental health problems among the kids, the level of intelligence of the kids, and the number of siblings in each participant’s household, psychology disciplineto name a few. Moreover, a key potential moderator variable, socio-economic status, was assessed merely by determining the mother’s level of education. So, even though the results are statistically significant, the effect sizes are small and there are many unanswered questions regarding potential moderators of the findings.

Is this study interesting? Yes. Does it make a useful contribution to the literature? Yes. Does it suggest that parents should alter their religious practices based on its findings? Absolutely not. Moreover, there is a great deal of scientific evidence indicating that numerous physical and psychological advantages are associated with religiosity in children. In next week’s blog I will review some of that science.

Value of an Allowance

money held by handMany parents wonder about the value of giving their kid(s) an allowance. I’m in favor of allowances for these reasons:

Allowances…

…can be tied to weekly chores or homework performance, incentivizing otherwise resistant kids.

…cut down on the revolving (and seemingly near constant) requests for spending money. For elective purchases, kids can now learn to budget their own resources.

…open the door to teaching about money management. For instance, a percentage might be put aside for college, teens might open up a checking account and so forth.

…get kids thinking about the importance of giving to charity.

…sometimes actually lead kids to ask for other opportunities to earn money around the home.

Parents often ask me how much they should allow their child to earn. There isn’t really a guideline that I can say is more or less psychologically indicated. It really comes down to your standard of living and the values you wish to promote. That said, you could think of $1 per year your child has lived outside of the womb as a rough starting point; you can adjust up or down from there based on your standard of living and values.

Let me offer two caveats:

First, it’s important to not make a kid spend his or her allowance on necessities such as clothes and food. Providing necessities is our job. Of course, if your budget parameters call for your child to bag her lunch, but she prefers to purchase it at school with her allowance, that’s fine. Or, you have it in mind to purchase a durable sneaker but your kid wants the designer brand, that’s fine also.

Second, it’s important to not try to over control how your child spends his or her allowance. If the proposed expenditure isn’t inappropriate for him or her (e.g., a 10 year old wanmentorts to purchase a mature rated video game), or immediately harmful (e.g., yes, too much ice cream is harmful in the long run but a dosing of it isn’t immediately harmful once allergies are ruled out) it’s important to let your kid make his or her own decision, even if it drives you crazy. It’s hard to learn how to manage money, and how to make decisions, if mom or dad are always calling the shots.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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