Distracted Parenting l April/May 2016

Researchers secretly observed 55 families dining in fast food restaurants to see how often parents directed their attention to their smartphones rather than to their children. Forty parents (73%) engaged with their devices at some point during the meal, with 16 of those parents (40%) engrossed in those devices for the entire meal — “swiping, texting and ignoring their children altogether.”i

Increasingly it’s an era of distracted parenting. Our handheld devices make it possible to direct our attention toward our screens when we’re with our children — rather than toward the kids themselves. Years ago, we might have spent waiting time chatting with our sons and daughters — in line at the grocer or until the server brought our food — but nowadays, our brain can’t resist the dopamine surge when a ping announces a new text or email, or the phone chime goes off. Our kids are then waiting until we come up for air, and too often, what they receive are attentional leftovers.

“I’ve heard so many stories about how a parent will be in the middle of an important conversation with the child and then their phone goes off and they’ll take a call. It’s like they completely disconnect from the moment,” says Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of a book on the impact of parenting in the digital age.ii “It’s upsetting to us as grown-ups when we do it to each other, and it’s especially upsetting to children when parents do it to them.”iii

Text distractions can disconnect the parent-child moment every bit as much as taking a phone call. When that happens, consider the message it sends our kids about where they rank in our hierarchy of what’s important. And compare it to the very different — and powerful — message when they see us ignoring our smartphone so that we can keep our attention focused on them — and only them. What’s important now?

For those occasional (and rare) unavoidable interruptions, Steiner-Adair suggests keeping the parent-child connection alive by letting the kids know what you’re doing on your device while you’re doing it. I have an unhappy colleague asking for my help, or I’m letting Grandma know we’ll see her in twenty minutes. By doing this, you’re reducing your child’s sense of isolation from you at those moments when your device steals you away. But what ultimately benefits our kids most is declaring mealtime a device-free zone for everyone.

i Radesky, Jenny S., et al. “Patterns of mobile device use by caregivers and children during meals in fast food restaurants.” Pediatrics Apr 2014, 133 (4) e843-e849; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2013-3703/

ii Steiner-Adair, C. (2013). The big disconnect: Protecting childhood and family relationships in the digital age. New York, NY: Harper.

iii Steiner-Adair, C. quoted in Novotney, Amy. (February, 2016.) “Smartphone=not-so-smart parenting?” Monitor on Psychology. Washington, D.C. American Psychological Association.

Naming Emotions l October/November 2016

Your daughter comes home in tears. She can barely choke out words to describe the mean things some girls said to her on the school bus. You listen to her story and try to comfort her. If you’re really skilled, you’ll offer her attunement (Are You Okay? March 2014).

After a couple months practicing for his first driver’s license, your son fails the behind-the-wheel test at the motor vehicle department. On the way home, you sense his distress as he complains about the unfair examiner and how he deserved to pass. You try to comfort him.

Recent research suggests that there’s something else — something enormously helpful — that you can do that may reduce the intensity and duration of a child’s distress: coach your kids to identify and name the specific emotions they’re feeling during moments of emotional pain.

Studies have found that when people identify and specifically name their emotions, they are “less likely to be overwhelmed in stressful situations.”i That’s because when we use precise labels for our feelings, we understand more about what’s happening to us emotionally, which then can lead to identifying a smart (and healthy) course of action. Clearly labeled emotions become easier to regulate (“I’m sad” rather than “I feel bad,” or “I’m disappointed” rather than “I’m really bummed out”). Once we know the feeling we’re dealing with, we can tailor our response to it rather than just fall back on the customary habits we rely on in order to feel better (especially unhealthy habits like erupting into anger, turning to alcohol, bottling up the pain, bingeing on food, etc.)

People skilled at naming their feelings have been found to drink 40% less alcohol when stressed,ii and are 20% to 50% less likely to retaliate with verbal or physical aggression against someone who has hurt them.iii Impressive evidence exists that teaching school-aged children to expand their understanding and use of precise emotion words improves both their social behavior as well as their academic performance.iv

If we’re going to teach our kids to speak the language of emotions, we’re going to need to speak the language ourselves. It doesn’t require a huge lexicon; angry, sad, hurt, afraid, upset, disappointed, discouraged, guilty, and ashamed are the basics. Incorporate those words into your vocabulary, and when your kids are distressed, coach them to do the same.

i Kashdan, T.B., L.F. Barrett, P.E., McKnight. “Unpacking emotion differentiation: transforming unpleasant experience by perceiving emotion differentiation.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, February 2015 vol. 24 no. 1, pp.10-16. doi: 10.1177/0963721414550708.

ii Kashdan, T. B., P. Ferssizidis, R.L. Collins, & M. Muraven. “Emotion differentiation as resilience against excessive alcohol use: An ecological momentary assessment in underage social drinkers.” Psychological Science, 21, 2010. 1341–1347.

iii Pond, R. S., T.B. Kashdan, C.N. Dewall, A.A. Savostyanova, N.M. Lambert, & F.D. Fincham. “Emotion differentiation buffers aggressive behavior in angered people: A daily diary analysis.” Emotion, 12, 2012. 326–337.

iv Brackett, M. A., S.E. Rivers, M.R. Reyes, & P. Salovey. “Enhancing academic performance and social and emotional competence with the RULER feeling words curriculum.” Learning and Individual Differences, 22, 2012, 218–224.

Hiding Negative Feelings l September 2016

Imagine that for twenty minutes, your 4-year-old has been fussing at the playground, crying and complaining and kicking sand at other children. Feeling growing irritation, you inch toward delivering a serious scolding. But you sense the watchful eyes of parents nearby, and so you suppress your feelings and handle the moment with faked aplomb.

Checking in on your daughter, who has been playing quietly in her room, you discover that her dresser drawers have been overturned and clothes are heaped everywhere. Your temperature races to a boil but before you react, you remember reading about never disciplining children from a place of anger. So you suppress your feelings and handle the moment with forced calm and equanimity.

Are we and our children better off when we suppress our negative emotions, or when we’re honest and transparent with our feelings?

Researchers at the University of Toronto studied this very question with 162 parentsi. They found that when parents suppressed their negative emotions — squelching feelings like upset, anger, and sadness — they reported a reduced sense of their own emotional well-being, poorer quality of relationship with their children, and less effective responsiveness to their kids’ needs. In other words, both parents and children seemed to pay a price when parents suppressed negative feelings. Why might this be?

Hiding our negative emotions decreases our sense of authenticity, defined as operating according to our core sense of who we are.ii Authenticity seems to be a critical component of personal well being, whether in our role as parents or any of our important relationships. By regularly suppressing negative feelings when we interact with our kids, we seem to lay the foundation for a less satisfying parenting experience.

In addition, suppressing negative emotion requires effort, which researchers suspect may deplete our emotional and energy resources. Depleted in this way, we may be compromised in our ability to effectively meet our children’s needs.

Better to strive for a modulated middle ground — without excessive volume or drama, without allowing our anger to burst forth suddenly and without restraint — so that we can say “I’m frustrated” or “I’m angry” or “I’m upset with you right now.” Our children seem better off — and so are we — when we bring emotional honesty to the challenging task of guiding our kids along a smart and healthy path.

i Le, Bonnie M. & Impett, E. “The costs of suppressing negative emotions and amplifying positive emotions during parental caregiving.” Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin. March 2016 (42,3) 323336.
ii English, T., & John, O. P. “Understanding the social effects of emotion regulation: The mediating role of authenticity for individual differences in suppression. Emotion, 2013,13, 314-329. doi:10.1037/a0029847