This Is Your Child’s Brain on Video Games

The following is a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how gaming impacts a child’s nervous system.

On the eve of his big sister Liz’s high school graduation, nine-year-old Aiden sits with his parents and relatives at a celebration dinner, bored by their “adult” conversation and irritated at all the attention showered upon Liz. He can’t wait to get back to his video game!

Before dinner, Mom had (annoyingly) called him away to join the family, and then she got mad when he spent a few minutes getting to the next level and saving his game. So many people in the house make him restless; he squirms uncomfortably and drums his fingers on the table, waiting to be excused.

Finally, he is allowed to escape the dinner table, and he settles into a corner of the living room couch to play his Nintendo DS. For the next hour or so, he is completely oblivious to the company in the house. Although he’s already played much longer than his mother likes, she lets him continue, knowing these family situations are a little overwhelming for him. And besides, the game keeps him occupied. What’s the harm? she thinks. It’s just for today.

However, in the meantime, a perfect storm is brewing. As the play continues, Aiden’s brain and psyche become overstimulated and excited — on fire! His nervous system shifts into high gear and settles there while he attempts to master different situations, strategizing, surviving, accumulating weapons, and defending his turf. His heart rate increases from 80 to over 100 beats per minute, and his blood pressure rises from a normal 90/60 to 140/90 — he’s ready to do battle, except that he’s just sitting on the couch, not moving much more than his eyes and thumbs.

The DS screen virtually locks his eyes into position and sends signal after signal: “It’s bright daylight out, nowhere near time for bed!” Levels of the feel-good chemical dopamine rise in his brain, sustaining his interest, keeping him focused on the task at hand, and elevating his mood. The intense visual stimulation and activity flood his brain, which adapts to the heightened level of stimulation by shutting off other parts it considers nonessential.

The visual-motor areas of his brain light up. Blood flows away from his gut, kidneys, liver, and bladder and toward his limbs and heart — he’s ready to fight or escape! The reward pathways in his brain also light up and are reinforced by the flood of dopamine. He is so absorbed in the game, he doesn’t notice when his little sister, Arianna, comes over until she puts her chubby hand on the screen, trying to get his attention.

“DooOOON’T!!” he shouts and roughly shoves her out of the way. Arianna falls backward, bursts into tears, and runs to their mother, who silently curses herself for letting Aiden play this long.

“All right, that’s it. Time to start getting ready for bed. Get your pajamas on and you can have a snack before you go to bed,” she says, pulling the DS out of Aiden’s hands and turning it off in one fell swoop. Aiden looks at his mother with rage. How dare she ruin his game because of his stupid sister!

“Fine!” he shouts, runs up the stairs, and slams his bedroom door. His primitive brain is fully engaged now, turning him into an enraged animal ready to fight off all challengers. He rips all the sheets off his bed and then throws his lamp on the floor, providing a satisfactory crash and shatter. Thinking about how wronged he’s been and filled with visions of revenge, he kicks the wall a few times and then pounds on his bedroom door, putting a big hole in it.

Downstairs, his relatives sit in quiet shock and murmur to each other how they’ve never seen him act like this. Dad runs up the stairs to contain his son. Calmly, his dad holds him in a bear hug from behind, waiting for the rage to subside.

As the dopamine in his brain and the adrenaline in his body begin to ebb, his rage loses its focus. Now, the pent-up energy takes on a disorganized, amorphous form. Aiden feels like he can’t think straight or get himself together. While he spaces out, his dad helps him put his pajamas on and they go back downstairs.

Stress hormones remain high, however, making it difficult for him to relax or think clearly. He seems a little confused, actually. His relatives look at him with a mixture of concern and love, but they also wonder why his parents let him “get away with” this kind of behavior. His mother intuitively knows that direct eye contact will overstimulate him again, so she approaches him slowly from the side, and rubs his back gently.

When his favorite aunt looks him in the face sympathetically, he immediately distrusts her intentions. Eye-to-eye interaction is interpreted by his primitive-mode brain as a challenge, and he starts getting revved up again. His mother intervenes and takes him up to his room. She lowers the light, settles him into bed, and starts to read him a soothing story. His nervous system attempts to regulate itself back to normal, but it seems to still be held hostage by his hyped-up emotions.

That night, after he does finally fall to sleep, Aiden awakens repeatedly with panic attacks — his heart races and blood pounds in his ears. He’s scared of the dark and worried that his angry outburst has upset and alienated his parents. His mother, meanwhile, confiscates the DS and decides to take it with her to work on Monday. (She really wants to throw it in the trash, but it was expensive!)

The following morning, the fight in Aiden has subsided, but the aftermath leaves him in a fog, listless, weepy, and exhausted. He experiences an increased craving for sweets while cortisol, the stress hormone, drives his blood sugar up and down erratically. It will take weeks before his body, brain, and mind return to some sense of balance. Meanwhile, his mother reaffirms her commitment “to get rid of those damn video games.”

Perceived Threat and the Fight-or-Flight Response

Does Aiden’s story sound familiar? Why would a seemingly normal, loving child become so enraged and difficult after playing video games? Though his response may seem extreme, there’s actually a completely natural explanation for Aiden’s behavior.

Playing video games mimics the kinds of sensory assaults humans are programmed to associate with danger. When the brain senses danger, primitive survival mechanisms swiftly kick in to provide protection from harm. This response is instantaneous; it is hardwired in our genes and necessary for survival. Keep in mind that the threat does not have to be real — it only needs to be a perceived danger for the brain and body to react.

When this instinct gets triggered, our nervous system and hormones influence our state of arousal, jumping instantly to a state of hyperarousal — the fight-or-flight response. These feelings can be hard to shake off even after the provoking incident is over and the threat — real or perceived — is gone.

In medical school, our instructors referred to this state as “running from the tiger,” since during ancient times humans protected themselves from predators by literally fighting or fleeing. Today, we still need this rapid stress response for emergency situations, and on a day-to-day basis mild stress reactions help us get things done. But for the most part, repeatedly enduring fight-or-flight responses when survival is not an issue does more harm than good.

When the fight-or-flight state occurs too often, or too intensely, the brain and body have trouble regulating themselves back to a calm state, leading to a state of chronic stress. Chronic stress is also produced when there is a “mismatch” between fight-or-flight reactions and energy expenditure, as occurs with screen time. Indeed, the build-up of energy is meant to be physically discharged to allow the nervous system to re-regulate. However, research suggests screen time induces stress reactions even in children who exercise regularly.

Once chronic stress sets in, blood flow is directed away from the higher thinking part of the brain (the frontal lobe) and toward the more primitive, deeper areas necessary for survival, causing impairment in functioning. With children, whose nervous systems are still developing, this sequence of events occurs much faster than it does for adults, and the chronically stressed child soon starts to struggle.

It’s easy to imagine how an exciting video game can cause hyperarousal. But in fact, numerous mechanisms act synergistically to raise arousal levels with all types of interactive screen time. And contrary to popular belief, many of them occur irrespective of content.

Because chronic stress effectively “short circuits” the frontal lobe, a hyperaroused and mentally depleted child will have trouble paying attention, managing emotions, suppressing impulses, following directions, tolerating frustration, accessing creativity and compassion, and executing tasks.

All of these effects are compounded by screen time disrupting the body clock and hindering deep sleep. In fact, the effects on sleep alone can explain many of the mood, cognitive, and behavior issues associated with screens, and also explain how screen effects can build over time, making them easy to miss.

When people say my strict screen time recommendations—which are based not just on clinical experience and research but also on how the brain works—are “not realistic,” and that children “must learn to manage technology,” my response is this: It’s not realistic to expect the brain to adapt to intense and artificial stimulation it was never meant to handle.

It’s also not realistic to expect a child with a still-developing frontal lobe to control their screen time, whether that means managing how long they play a game, how they use or misuse social media, or how they behave afterward.

Parents need to learn the science behind how screen time overstimulates the nervous system, how this manifests as an array of symptoms and dysfunction, and what that looks like in their own child.

Learning this information can literally change the course of a child’s life; it helps parents to make informed and mindful screen management decisions and steadies them from being swayed by cultural trends and misleading headlines. It puts parents in the driver’s seat. While the world may have changed, how the brain responds to stress and what it needs to thrive has not.

By: Victoria L. Dunckley M.D.

Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D. is an integrative child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist, the author of Reset Your Child’s Brain, and an expert on the effects of screen-time on the developing nervous system.  

Source: This Is Your Child’s Brain on Video Games | Psychology Today

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One In Three Children With Disabilities Experience Violence

Children with disabilities twice as likely to experience any form of violence (physical, emotional, sexual, neglect) than children without disabilities.

Children with disabilities experience a high burden of all forms of violence, according to a systematic review and meta-analysis published online March 17 in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health.

Zuyi Fang, Ph.D., from the School of Social Development and Public Policy at Beijing Normal University, and colleagues conducted a systematic literature review to estimate violence against children with disabilities. Ninety-eight studies (involving 16.8 million children) were included in the analysis.

The researchers found that the overall prevalence of violence against children with disabilities was 31.7 percent, and the overall odds of children with disabilities experiencing violence was higher than for children without disabilities (odds ratio, 2.08). The estimates varied by the type of violence, disability, and perpetrator.

While there was a high degree of heterogeneity across most estimates, sensitivity analysis suggested a high degree of certainty for these estimates. The included studies were, on average, of medium quality. There was particular vulnerability to experiencing violence among children in economically disadvantaged contexts.

“Our findings reveal unacceptable and alarming rates of violence against children with disabilities that cannot be ignored,” a coauthor said in a statement. “We must urgently invest in services and support that address the factors that place children with disabilities at heightened risk of violence and abuse, including caregiver stress, social isolation, and poverty.”

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By: Physician’s Briefing Staff

Source: https://consumer.healthday.com

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How To Scaffold Empathy For Kids: Practice Makes Proficient

I perched on the edge of an undersized plastic chair across from my daughter’s teacher at our first elementary parent/teacher conference of the year. “

Your daughter listens well and is so well behaved, but her reading level is not exactly where it needs to be, and she’s having trouble with some math skills. But she is very sweet and kind, and that’s so important too—you can’t teach those things, but don’t worry, we can teach her the math and reading.

It’s the Oreo cookie approach to giving parents bad news—They sneak the negative in as white filling surrounded by thin wafers of good. But as a neuroscientist, I was stunned by the complete inaccuracy of the last statement.

Of course, you can teach those things. You can teach empathy, teach kindness, and respect. These are not innate talents or solely genetic gifts. They are teachable skills.

We understand how learning works for things like 2+2=4 pretty well. Teachers typically use active participation and frequent practice spaced out over a period of time to teach classroom content. But there aren’t special neuroscience rules to help learn empathy, creativity, or countless other life skills–they follow the exact brain mechanisms as learning math facts.

There are spines on the edges of neurons that mediate synaptic connections between neurons and govern how we learn. In kids, the spines are super dynamic. They appear or retract based on experience and how frequently they are used. If you keep using a pathway, the spines are more likely to stick around. This results in the reshaping of synapses and long-term learning.

That school conference was a moment of profound insight into the bare-bones social skills my daughter was (not) learning at school, and it explained a lot about why her perfect classroom presence was completely train-wrecked when she got home from school.

I knew the social landscape of this classroom was terrible. A girl in my daughter’s class plays a game called “bus,” where the other girls line up to take rides on her back at recess. The girl is the bus, and she carries passengers around. It looks benign to the teachers who stand and monitor play at recess. But in this game, the girl charges for rides. Usually, the fare is an imaginary five cents, but my daughter gets charged $100 to take her ride every time. Why? Because the girl said, my 20th percentile weight daughter is just too heavy.

I knew complaints were flowing in about the class social situation—It wasn’t just the “bus” game. Another parent, fed up with her daughter being picked on, made T-shirts that said the girl was a bully and tried to pass them out at school. This is the real reason I was at the parent/teacher conference.

Yet, when I brought it up, I quickly detected a relatively new teacher overwhelmed with classroom dynamics who was grateful for an “easy,” compliant kid. I saw a classroom in which my daughter was figuring out how to react to bad social situations on her own and failing.

It’s here that parents need to think carefully about the qualities we want our children to possess and then consistently and purposefully create opportunities for our kids to practice those skills. Deliberate parenting will make children who live deliberate lives. In my daughter’s classroom, I could see that math was being practiced—there were even memorized arithmetic songs.

But they were not teaching kindness, conflict resolution, or even problem solving, which are the things I prioritize as a parent—the building blocks of empathy. The school is not just relying on parents to teach empathy at home. They are actually assuming that kids either come in with these skills, or they don’t get them. If, in turn, parents think kids are getting social skills at school, then all our kids drop through a crevice.

My daughter saw two choices with the bully in her class: Confront her or tell on her. Unable to do either, she felt completely stuck when the girl price gouged her on the playground. With repeated practice, she is learning to stand there and internalize it.

Those are not the synapses I want firing in her, so I taught my daughter how to practice empathy. It’s not just the queen bee who needs to be taught empathy. Cognitive empathy is a powerful skill, and it’s the underdog that needs powerful skills.

First, I asked my daughter to explain the girl’s actions as if she were her best friend. “I guess she feels like she doesn’t want to be alone on the playground, so she’s in charge, and if she’s in charge, she can decide which friends to have.”

Next, my daughter became a detective, looking for body language to find motivation and predict patterns in the girl’s behavior. Even at age seven, becoming a social sleuth enabled her to understand the situation better. This gave her back a measure of personal control, and eventually, the power to speak up for herself, instead of standing there, glued to the asphalt, feeling terrible.

Then, we learned conflict resolution skills the same way as math, using active participation and frequent practice spaced out over time. I became the girl, and in our living room, I rudely charged my daughter $100 a ride until her reactions to it were second nature.

We came up with a system so she could be heard in these situations: STAFF:

  • Say how you feel.
  • Tell them it’s not okay.
  • Ask for what you want to have happened.
  • Find a friend.

She wasn’t frozen—she knew what to say, and it rolled off her tongue. There was a scaffolding to cling to. We used these social skill pathways repeatedly—on our terms—until spines had formed between newly used neurons, the pathways were solidified, and learning had happened.

Since neuronal connections that have been used are more likely to fire the next time, it’s second nature for her now. If we expect our children to be socially independent and to do it well, they need tools to do it with.

Neuroscience tells us that practice defines us as people, that the pathways we choose define our nature. Activity influences the brain’s architecture, and this neural plasticity is constantly occurring, even when they are still watching TV, eating dinner, or choosing which birthday present to open first. These spines are actively growing and shrinking, and the experiences are actually turning on and off genes that support this process.

Eventually, the neuronal pathways we use most become more likely to fire as our “default” setting. In essence, we practice being ourselves until we become who we are. Viewed through this lens, every moment is a critical period to teach critical skills important to us—skills like creativity, self-control, social awareness, and compassion.

Several proven social learning curricula target empathy, social learning, and conflict resolution skills in the classroom that have gotten great results that last for years, including roots of empathy (K-8), positive action (K-12), and responsive classroom (K-5). Still, you don’t have to wait for the teachers to do it. The window for explosive synaptic formation doesn’t close when children hit elementary school or even high school.

Social connections are being formed even more so in tween and high school kids, continuing into adulthood. Your child’s critical period for development is now. There’s no bad age to start working on these skills, and there’s no one correct way to do it, as long as you’re consistently practicing and folding it into your everyday life.

Find a way that works for your family, and if you’re consciously empathetic in spirit, then it will seep into your child.

By: Erin Clabough Ph.D.

Erin Clabough, Ph.D., is a neurobiologist, author, mother, and professor interested in understanding neurodevelopment in children.

Source: How to Scaffold Empathy for Kids: Practice Makes Proficient | Psychology Today

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The Psychological Toll of Wanting Your Kid To Be Perfect

It’s called “other-oriented perfectionism,” and it can have a negative effect on children. Here’s why it happens.

Joliene Trujillo-Fuenning, who lives in Denver, Colorado with her two kids, ages 3 and 22 months, has some pretty clear perfectionist tendencies. If she sends an email with a typo in it, she says, “It will drive me nuts for a solid week or two.” After her husband cleans the bathroom, she has to fight the urge to criticize. (Sometimes she’ll just clean it again.)

And when it comes to her 3-year-old’s education, Trujillo-Fuenning says, “I have been very much struggling with the fact that she doesn’t want to write letters,” and finds herself thinking, “You are supposed to be at this point by three and a half or four, and if you don’t do it, you’re never going to.”

What Trujillo-Fuenning struggles with is something called other-oriented perfectionism. (You may have seen a shorter piece I wrote about the phenomenon for the Atlantic back in July.) Other-oriented perfectionism bears similarity to self-oriented perfectionism, when a person puts tremendous pressure on themselves to be perfect and then self-flagellates when they can’t be.

It’s also a little bit like socially prescribed perfectionism, where one internalizes the need to be perfect thanks to perceived pressure from others. The big difference is that with other-oriented perfectionism, unrealistic expectations are directed at, well, others.

When a parent sets exacting standards for their child and assumes a critical attitude, it can change how they parent (to their child’s detriment) and leave the parent bitter, resentful, and sometimes even wishing they’d never had children. That’s particularly problematic in light of new research suggesting that both parental expectations and parental criticism have been on the rise.

The impulse behind child-oriented perfectionism comes mostly from early life experiences and societal forces outside individuals’ control, but understanding — and interventions — can help thwart it, improving the wellbeing of both parent and child.

Natalie Dattilo, Ph.D., a psychologist at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has a patient roster made up mostly of young doctors, some of whom are the targets of other-oriented perfectionists who are “looking around and wondering why everybody [they] work with is incompetent.” For a supervisor like that, she said, “There is going to be an over-reliance on control, especially wanting to control how people do things.”

The other-oriented perfectionist seems self-assured. They always know the best way to do things and everything would be splendid if only others weren’t so flawed.

“On the surface it looks like grandiosity,” said Thomas Curran, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at London School of Economics and Political Science, “but at root, it’s really a profound insecurity about place in the world and whether you’re worth something.” The other-oriented perfectionist’s judgment, he said, is actually just “my way of projecting the things that I dislike in myself onto other people.”

People become other-oriented perfectionists in a variety of ways discussed in the book “Perfectionism: A Relational Approach to Conceptualization, Assessment, and Treatment.” Oftentimes a cocktail of other types of perfectionism is to blame. Trujillo-Fuenning worries about her daughter’s progress because she wants the best for her, but there’s something more than that.

“I had a friend who pointed out that her language, her enunciation, her knowledge is pretty advanced for her age,” she explained, “And immediately, I had this sense of like, ‘Ha!’ It had nothing to do with me! Yet you still have a part of your brain that’s like, ‘She speaks well. That means I did my job right.

If she reads early, I did my job right.'” The pressure Trujillo-Fuenning feels to be perfect requires being — and being perceived as — a perfect parent. “How you’re doing as a parent is a reflection of who you are,” she said, “There’s no separation there in my head.”

In a paper published in 2020, Konrad Piotrowski, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at SWPS University in Poland, reported that both mothers and fathers there “tend to accept to a greater extent the mistakes and ‘imperfection’ of their children than those of their partner.” But sometimes they don’t.

John Lockner’s experience supports that idea. He was a stay-at-home dad for years and told me, “I kind of still am,” since he works part-time and spends the rest of it with his two teenage sons. “It’s definitely a struggle not to be on them all the time,” he said, but he knows that’s more about him than them. “I never wanted to be a manager, because I know I would expect my employees to do their best, and it would be very hard for me when they don’t,” he told me.

As one of just a handful of dads involved at their old school, Lockner said, “I felt this pressure to be better, and because of that my kids needed to be better.” With up-to-the-minute access to their assignments and grades through an online portal, he’d issue reminders on the drive to school: “You have to be sure to check on that and make sure it was turned in” or “You’re going to ask for that extra credit, right?” And he’d grill them on test results as soon as they got into the car at pickup.

But now, he said, “I’m kind of working on myself, to let some of that go.” What seems to be the key determinant is which relationship—the romantic one or the parental one—is more strongly associated with the parent’s self-esteem. Those who hang their identity on their parental role, like Trujillo-Fuenning, are more likely to experience child-oriented perfectionism than those who do not, Piotrowski theorized.

The impact of other-oriented perfectionism on children

That’s likely a good thing for his kids. Curran, the British perfectionism researcher, looked at a questionnaire that’s been given to cohorts of young people for decades. He and his team found that current college students perceive that their parents were more expectant than past generations — which is problematic, because studies (old and new) tie a caregiver having performance-oriented goals to controlling, critical parenting.

Though the research is murky, because different forms of perfectionism both overlap and function in distinct ways, children of parents who are perfectionists likely have higher odds of developing psychological distress, including anxiety and depression. Even when the impact falls short of clinical classification, children whose parents expect them to be perfect often grow up in homes characterized by conflict and tension. “It’s going to be a pressure cooker,” Curran told me.

The end result is often another generation of perfectionists. A 2017 study of 159 father-daughter dyads found a tie between “controlling fathers who demand perfection” and perfectionist daughters. And Curran’s own research has found that as parents’ expectations and criticism have increased, so too have rates of adolescent perfectionism.

We make jokes about perfectionism. (Did you hear the one about the perfectionist who walked into a bar? Apparently, it wasn’t set high enough.) But it’s a truly stressful way to live, Dr. Dattilo said, “Always striving to prove that you are capable, to prove that you are worthy, prove that you are successful based on other people’s evaluations.”

It should come as no surprise then, that there are, in Curran’s words, “huge, uncharacteristically strong correlations” between perfectionism and psychological distress, including anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and anorexia.

“The data’s never that clean,” he told me. Gayani DeSilva knows what it feels like to be one of those data points. “My parents really did put a lot of pressure on me as a kid to be perfect,” recalled the child and adolescent psychiatrist who practices in Southern California. “I had to have straight As, couldn’t have an A-minus.”

When she carried a D in Calculus at one point, “I was so afraid that I actually thought that my parents were going to kill me.” Now looking back with a therapist’s eye, she said, “I couldn’t imagine them actually physically harming me, I just knew that I was gonna die.”

She internalized their exacting standards, “There was just no room for anything other than what they expected.” And when she couldn’t meet them, she said, “I faced all this guilt, like, ‘Why couldn’t I do it?'”

Josh McKivigan, a behavioral health therapist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, sees an impact at both ends of the economic spectrum. For kids of highly educated, well-off parents, he said, “You’d see them well put together, amazing grades, but behind the scenes, they’re barely holding it together. The only type of school they feel is acceptable is an Ivy League. They say things like, ‘I couldn’t imagine going to UCLA.'”

McKivigan also works with a refugee population. With these kids, he sees pressure to make something of a parent’s dangerous immigration journey. They end up saying, “I gotta make this right. I can’t let them down,” McKivigan told me.

But some kids don’t develop perfectionism of their own, instead responding to a parent’s pressure by rejecting their goals. After all, if someone is impossible to please, why bother trying?Nicole Coomber, Ph.D., an assistant dean at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, said research on motivation explains why.

“Autonomy is an important piece of this where you have to actually buy into whatever the goal is,” she notes. Requiring that a child practice piano for hours each day when they’d rather be playing soccer “can really backfire,” she added. Kids can end up feeling like their parent’s project or product — and push back by quitting. No matter how much bravado accompanies that move, there’s often also a sense of having let themselves and their parents down.

DeSilva failed her first year of medical school, she said, “because I just didn’t know how to ask for help.” After a car accident, she quit residency and then spent two years in therapy: “Once I was able to admit, ‘I’m not perfect,’ I was successful at pretty much everything I wanted to do, and I didn’t have to be anxious about it. I knew I could do it, whereas before, when I had to be perfect, I was really insecure.”

After she worked through her perfectionism, she said, “I was trying for my own standard, my own goals, my own desires, instead of somebody else’s standard for me.”

Other-oriented perfectionism is bad for parents too, but they can change

Child-oriented perfectionist tendencies aren’t just bad for kids. Trujillo-Fuenning started to feel burned out by her high standards in the parenting realm. The cumulative effect of a thousand little maximizations, like “trying to make sure they were eating the right things every meal,” became overwhelming and depleting. “To be honest, that’s part of why I went back to work,” she told me.

In his 2020 study, Piotrowski found that parents who target their children with other-oriented perfectionism tend to display higher levels of stress, dissatisfaction with parenthood, and feeling so burdened by the parental role that they regret parenthood entirely. He explained, “For mothers characterized by increased other-oriented perfectionism, family life is probably associated with many frustrations and stress, hence the focus on alternative visions of themselves that seem to be better than [being] a parent.”

When she starts trying to work on literacy again, Trujillo-Fuenning said, “I have to pull back and remind myself, if she’s fighting you, just let it go.” The same thing goes for micromanaging her kids’ appearance. “I’m catching my own insecurities of like, ‘You don’t look well put together. People are going to look at you and think I’m not taking care of you.'” But to avoid acting on those impulses requires “a constant mental check,” she told me.

Every now and then Lockner’s wife would say, “You’re being too hard on them. You are expecting too much.” But that doesn’t seem to be what made him change. His sons are at an all-boys school now, and, Lockner said, “Being around other groups of dads made a difference. Listening to how they act, and how their kids are, made me think, ‘Maybe I can ease up a little. My kids really are pretty good.'”

This sort of shift is what Curran sees happening in society as a whole—only in reverse.Other-oriented perfectionist parents aren’t the only ones ratcheting up expectations and pressure. Some parents don’t want to push, Curran said, “but they feel like they have to in this world where elite college is harder to access, where you basically have an economy where the middle class is downwardly mobile with increasing costs of living and stagnated income, and you’ve got chronic and increasing inequality.”

And the pressure can be even more intense for parents like Eric L. Heard, author of “Reflections of an Anxious African American Dad.” He described feeling “the need for immediate feedback” from his son’s teachers: “I always held a fear that I would not address some problem and he would head down a well-worn road of destruction” for Black men, he wrote. “My mind was haunted by the crippling thought of how I would be judged …. I would wear a permanent brand … a large white D for being a deadbeat dad who couldn’t save his son.”

If you’re a parent ruminating on the odds stacked against your child, it is rational to drive them to work harder, achieve more, and be better. Other parents react the same way, the result of which is a frenzied, fearful “rug rat race.” Once that starts to kick in, Curran said, “it’s really hard to stop, at a societal level. It creates an echo chamber where everybody’s engaging in unhealthy behaviors and no one wins.”

He doesn’t just mean that we all lose when we succumb to perfectionism. It also just plain doesn’t work. “Everybody’s engaging in this frantic upward comparison, and no one gains an advantage,” he said. “We just move the average of what’s expected further and further. It’s looking bad.”

But individuals can push back against a trend of overwhelmed young people and parents who, like the old Lockner, feel no choice but to be “the bad guy.” Now that he’s backed off, he said, “It’s easier on me. It’s easier on them.” They do more for themselves, and “they seem more willing to do stuff if I’m not on them all the time.” Truth be told, he likes himself more now.

Therapists can help their clients get there. Dr. Dattilo would tell an other-oriented perfectionist they need to believe it when someone says, “I’m doing the best I can.” Parents can interrogate their perfectionism in psychotherapy: Why is having a perfect child so important to me? Where did this need come from? And cognitive-behavioral therapists push people to fact-check their anxiety: What level of pressure is really necessary to prepare your child to live a good life? Is parental pressure truly the most effective way to forestall your fears? What will happen if you just back off?

When it came to parenting her son, DeSilva, the perfectionist-turned-psychiatrist, said she made a conscious decision. “I was going to raise him to have his own ideas and his own set of standards and really, for me to learn about and help him develop his strengths. And also, to really be comfortable with his weaknesses and vulnerabilities.” That puts her at odds with her own parents. When it comes to her son’s homework, they think, “It’s your job.

You have to make sure his homework is done,” she said. His grandparents even tell her to fix it for him “so it’s correct.” Instead, she explained to her son the consequences of not doing homework, or not doing it well, and let him decide. “He didn’t like it that his teacher was upset with him. So the next time he did his homework, he did it as best he could.”

Tying it all together

Yet individual parents can’t reverse course alone. Putting aside economic inequality for a minute, Curran said, “I think if the pressures of things like standardized testing — for young people to perform perfectly in school at such a young age — could be recalibrated downwards” it would take pressure off parents too. He called online grade portals “even scarier.”

If kids were just allowed to learn, to be, without all the tracking, assessing, and ranking, maybe more parents would feel like they can afford to break — and encourage their kids to break — the link between one’s accomplishments and one’s worth.

As Curran talked, I realized that much of the ground we’ve covered in my Are We There Yet? column is more related than I’d thought. Pressure on parents, including around the “one right way” to parent, produces intensive parenting and lack of autonomy for kids, and it also contributes to parents’ perfectionism and even abusive behavior, all of which lead to faltering mental health in adolescents, often with their own perfectionism as the mechanism. It’s a perfect storm for stressed out, sexless parents who worry they don’t measure up raising stressed out, helpless kids who worry they don’t measure up. To borrow Curran’s words, “It’s all interconnected.”

By Gail Cornwall

Gail Cornwall works as a mother and writer in San Francisco. Connect with Gail on Twitter, or read more at gailcornwall.comMORE FROM Gail Cornwall

Source: The psychological toll of wanting your kid to be “perfect” | Salon.com

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Related Contents:

Child Development: Middle Childhood

Securing attachment: The shifting medicalisation of attachment and attachment disorders

Evolutionary Developmental Psychology: A New Tool for Better Understanding Human Ontogeny

Activity Systems Analysis Methods: Understanding Complex Learning Environments

Developmental psychology: History of the field

Developmental Psychology Studies Human Development Across the Lifespan

Child Development: Preschoolers

Attachment Theory: Social, Developmental, and Clinical Perspectives

Principles of Developmental Psychology

Maternal Employment and Child Development: A Fresh Look Using Newer Methods

Separation Anxiety in Children

Systems in development: Motor skill acquisition facilitates three-dimensional object completion

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Physical Growth of Infants and Children – Children’s Health Issues

Dynamic Systems Theory and the Complexity of Change

Freud and the Psychodynamic Perspective | Introduction to Psychology

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Disturbances of Attachment and Parental Psychopathology in Early Childhood

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Why Kids Don’t Want to Talk About Their Day

The ride home from school can feel like a battle of wills with my oldest son. When I start the car, he’s a bundle of ecstatic energy. But when I begin asking him about his day, his smile vanishes, and he locks his mouth up like a safe. The remainder of the trip is more nerve-wracking than an episode of Law and Order as I listen for any clue that will get him to open up to me.

My wife and I shared in our son’s excitement to start kindergarten this year. But now that he’s several weeks in, it has been difficult for us to gauge his enthusiasm. And as someone who found socializing at school challenging, I’m always concerned that other kids are bullying him or he is finding the curriculum hard to handle.

But getting kids to talk about their day has been a struggle of parents for generations. And judging from the plethora of articles that deal with this topic, the fight to find out what happens at school will continue to be waged within minivans and around dining room tables far into the future.

To aid in the struggle, we researched why children don’t talk about what happens after we drop them off—and share some strategies and questions that might encourage kids to open up.

Kids need to decompress after school

Even when adults arrive home from work, we often need (or would love to have) a few moments to decompress and allow our brains to shift from “work mode” to “caregiver mode.” And instead, when we are met with a barrage of questions and demands—What’s for dinner? Ugh, meatloaf AGAIN?—it can make us feel a tiny bit exasperated.

According to this article by the Washington Post’s Meghan Leahy, young children also need a moment to transition from school to “home.” But because they are younger, it’s harder for kids to make that shift:

[B]ecause children are young and immature, their brains are not adept at navigating the transition from “work” to home. When they are overwhelmed, their brains are fried. Children cannot hold on to their maturity when they are that tired. To add to this dynamic, children who are extra sensitive may show even more signs that they are overwhelmed.

Leahy recommends giving kids a few moments to decompress and waiting for them to open up. And when they finally do talk about their day, listen carefully to what they have to say: “See what happens when you do not allow your need to learn about [their] day to eat up the space and energy. Focus 100 percent on being a listener.”

Young kids don’t recall the day’s events the same way you do

One of the reasons why your child is stonewalling you when you ask about their day is actually more biological than psychological. The first significant stage of brain development occurs between the ages of two and seven. At this age, child neuropsychologist Alison Gopnik writes in her book, The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life, that when asked about their day in general terms, kids are unable to engage because their brains can’t recall memories in the same way adults or even older kids can.

As frustrating as it is to get a standard reply from your child, they aren’t resisting your questions. One method to get them to open up is to use the itinerary of what goes on during a typical school day that most preschools and teachers give parents at the beginning of the school year. Gopnik suggests that can guide you in asking questions that help kids recall specific memories about what happened during their day and could spark a lengthier conversation.

Tell them about your day first

Unless you’re a movie star or, I don’t know, Jeff Bezos, chances are your typical workday is dull and monotonous—and there’s a good chance your child feels the same way about their day, too. Maybe the details about learning long division or who sat by whom at lunch just feel too mundane to recap. But Sara Ackerman writes for The Washington Post that when she started sharing her day with her daughter, her daughter returned the favor:

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a software developer, a cashier, a blogger, a doctor, a bus driver, or a stay-at-home parent because it’s not about the minutiae of the work. It’s about sharing what makes us laugh and what bores us, the mistakes we make and what is hard for us, the interesting people we meet. When I model this for my daughter, she is more willing to share the same with me.

What if you think they are being bullied?

One out of five kids experiences bullying, and between 25 to 60% of those kids don’t report it to a parent or authority figure. As startling as these statistics are, parents probably won’t stop the trend by directly asking kids if they’re getting harassed in school.

If you suspect your child is the victim of bullying, there are ways to get them to open up. According to HuffPost, parents should start asking simple, pointed questions about who they’re playing with and how it’s going. For example: Who did you play with today? What was that like? What are some things you like doing with other kids? What are some things you don’t like so much?

If that doesn’t work, you can use books, movies, and television shows that address bullying as a tool to help children open up or start the conversation about how children socialize with their peers. Even if your kid isn’t experiencing bullying, initiating these conversations will show them they can talk to you about these issues.

Source: Why Kids Don’t Want to Talk About Their Day (and How to Get Them to Open Up Anyway)

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Related Contents:

Early childhood mental health

Maternal Depression and child psychopathology: a two way street

The importance of caregiver-child interactions for the survival and healthy development of young children

Effects of Child Psychopathology on Maternal Depression

The additive effects of maternal depression and sibling psychopathology in negative child outcome

How Is Child Psychopathology Developed

Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology

Evidence Base Update of Psychosocial Treatments for Child and Adolescent Depression

Effects of psychotherapy for anxiety in children and adolescents

Social and behavioral problems of children with agenesis of the corpus callosum

Pharmacological Treatment of Bipolar Disorder among Children and Adolescents

Evidence-Based Psychosocial Treatments for Adolescents With Disruptive Behavior

Recommendations for the Training of Pediatric Psychologists

Adverse childhood experiences and prescribed psychotropic medications in adult

Journal of pediatric psychology: A brief history

Recommendations for the training of pediatric psychologists

Randomized trial of enhanced anticipatory guidance for injury prevention

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