Boomerang Effect l May/June 2016

Whether parents are living together or not, in a two-parent family it’s likely that one (or both) has spoken critically of the other — in the presence of the children. You can be so stubborn! a frustrated mother says to father as the children sit nearby. You don’t listen when I talk to you, father blurts into the cellphone while the kids listen from the back seat. Often the co-parent isn’t even around when the children hear Dad sigh, Your mother can be so insensitive. It takes superhuman self-control to avoid moments like these entirely over the course of the child-rearing years.

High conflict couples may try to keep denigrating comments out of the kids’ earshot, but angry words can travel through walls and doors before the children have fallen off to sleep at night. Newly divorced couples, raw with hurt and anger, may have the hardest time of all containing their emotion in the presence of the kids.

Research published in 2014i found that parental denigration occurs infrequently, more often in divorced than intact families, is almost always practiced by both parents, and — here’s the surprising finding — is associated with a less close parent–child relationship between the child and the denigrator parent. Yes, contrary to the common assumption that unkind words will turn children against the target parent, there seems to be a boomerang effect at play. The denigrating parent more often damages his or her own relationship with the kids; unkind words seem to backfire.

The boomerang effect suggests that children don’t want to hear negative attributions about either of their parents. Whomever bad-mouths mom or dad (and that includes mom or dad) loses points with the youngsters.

These results challenge the long-held view that negative talk by one parent promotes “parental alienation” toward the other. Instead, the researchers hypothesized that when alienation occurs, it’s likely the result of some troubling behavior that the children have repeatedly witnessed — excessive substance use, uncontrolled mental illness, unreasonable child management — rather than denigrating comments from the other parent.

Let it be a warning to all moms and dads: speaking unkindly about your co-parent when the kids are around might come back to bite you.

i Rowen, Jenna and Robert Emery. “Examining parental denigration behaviors of co-parents as reported by young adults and their association with parent–child closeness.” Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, Vol 3(3), Sep 2014, 165-177.

Speaking of Sex l February/March 2016

“You’re going to remember your first sexual experience for the rest of your life,” a wise mother said to her teenage daughter, “so think carefully before you make a decision that can end up haunting you forever.”

Talking about sex with our children can be challenging for any parent. What to say? When to say it? Should we share personal experience? Should we assume a posture of neutrality, imparting information only, or should we include personal values, feelings and moral perspectives?

Studies have found that nearly half of all high school students have had sex, and nearly one-third are sexually active. Every year, over half a million pregnancies occur among adolescents, and nearly half of all sexually transmitted diseases occur among 15 to 24 year-olds. While we might wish it were otherwise, some form of sex (including sexting) has been or will soon be a part of many teen and pre-teen lives.

Research has found that when adolescents talk with their parents about sexual behavior and contraceptive use — especially when they talk to mothers — they tend to engage in safer sex, leading to lower rates of teen pregnancy and a lower incidence of sexually transmitted disease.i These benefits were particularly pronounced among girls.

So talk to your teen about sex. Although the topic may be part of health education at school, there’s typically more your youngster needs to know, to understand, and to discuss. You can fill the gap. Here’s what to keep in mind:

  • Sex isn’t a one-time talk to be held at the “perfect moment.” Take advantage of unexpected moments when sexual content on TV, film or media offer a convenient conversation starter.
  • Briefer chats help keep the kids’ interest, focused on one important idea at a time — easier for them to remember.
  • If you’re uncomfortable with certain topics, say so — and keep talking. When you’re emotionally honest, your kids will more likely be honest with you — asking their thorniest questions, sharing their biggest concerns.
  • Don’t preach or use scare tactics. You want them to come back for more, without fear of scoldings, sermons, or intimidation.
  • Do a lot of listening. Rely on “tell me more” to draw them out.
  • Go beyond information. Incorporate values and feelings, the role of respect between sexual partners, and the importance of mutual consent.

Don’t squander the opportunity to be your kids’ most influential sex educators.

For more on how to talk to your kids about sex, visit:


Questioner-in-Chief l January 2016

”How was school today?”
“Did you do anything interesting?”
“How did that test go that you were studying for last night?”

Sound familiar? You’re interested in your child’s experience, but you’re shut out. All you get are one-word responses and then there’s silence, or the conversation moves on to other things.

It’s a culture of engagement many parents try to foster, hoping to hear about a youngster’s school day or their time spent with friends or just their latest daydreams. It’s contact we seek, a sense of connection — and we rely on questions as a way of drawing them out. But for them, we’ve morphed at those moments into an annoying Questioner-in-Chief, putting them on some witness stand where they feel vulnerable and over-exposed. That’s when they shut down or turn away.

We forget that the behaviors intrinsic to a culture of connection can be modeled by us. We can take the initiative and share with our children — no matter what their age — tales from our own life. Tales of conflict are particularly likely to engage them — our own disagreements with friends or family or co-workers. Conflict gets attention. It’s what the Greek dramatists knew 2,000 years ago, and it remains true today. Our children live their lives regularly experiencing conflict, whether with siblings or friends or often with us. And your stories will carry a particular punch when you include your emotions: I felt upset, I felt angry, I felt frightened. Emotions are universal; the kids will relate. You might even embellish your narrative a bit if you think it will make your story that much more engaging. Tailor your stories to their level of understanding and edit out what you think might be for grown-up ears only, including the names of people they may know.

By sharing interesting moments from our day, we set a tone that makes it easier for our kids to do the same. If we’re willing to be vulnerable by emotionally self-disclosing with them, they’re more likely to reciprocate with us. But when they do open up, we must listen neutrally and accept what we hear without judgment or criticism. That’s not always easy, especially when they reveal their uncomfortable emotions. Our knee-jerk inclination to protect and solve and admonish and correct will remind them that we’re not easy to talk to — why even bother? Then we’re back to square one, floundering ineffectively as Questioner-in-Chief. (See The 5:1 Ratio, October 2011).