What’s being referred to as “learning loss” – the effects of distance learning and interruptions to education. The Guardian recently reported some worldwide data on children’s setbacks in literacy and math skills. This doesn’t cover the psychological effects; here’s some U.S. data shared by Pew.
Multiple agencies have declared a mental health crisis among kids in the U.S., tied to the effects of the pandemic.
The causes may include grief from losing loved ones, the stress of parents losing their jobs, the social isolation, the disruptions to routine, the sense of helplessness, the significant increase in screen time, and the struggle to catch up at school after months of attempting to learn via Zoom. Also, maybe the feeling that they’ve been left behind and that there isn’t a bright future waiting (and they still hear quite a bit of pandemic doom-mongering).
Throughout the pandemic, many people have lost trust in various institutions, including the ones currently announcing the mental health crisis. I don’t yet know what they’re proposing as solutions.
I was doing some research for a client when I came across this article about being a “good enough” parent, with insights from moms who have kids with Down Syndrome.
“The Mediocre Mom’s Guide to Raising a Child with Down Syndrome (or Any Kid for That Matter)” has some good examples of how you can be a decent parent without being a superhero who gets everything right all the time.
Is permissiveness the main problem with parenting nowadays? Permissive in the sense that kids get away with too much, run wild, fail to stay off people’s lawn, that kind of thing.
Based on what I’ve observed, permissiveness isn’t the sole problem, or even one of the most important ones. A lot of dysfunctional parenting involves excessive control or unrealistic expectations (like, “You will never fail, you will always be happy, you will always be my friend, you will be the answer to all my problems” etc.).
The three dysfunctional parenting styles I’m bringing up in this post are:
The Helicopter Parent
Helicopter parents hover over their kid in a stifling, unrelenting way that’s inappropriate for the kid’s age and abilities. They micromanage many or all aspects of their kid’s life and keep the kid from confronting reasonable challenges.
After thwarting their kid’s independence, helicopter parents say, “Because my kid can’t do things on their own, I need to swoop in and save them.” Excessive dependence is the result.
Kids of helicopter parents have a difficult time learning how to do things on their own, deal with setbacks, and work out interpersonal problems. They’re more likely to feel helpless and think of themselves as ineffective across different situations. Anxiety and depression can easily take root in them.
The Buddy Parent
There’s nothing wrong with parents and kids being friendly with each other or having fun together. But there are parents who act as if they’re friends with their kids the way a classmate or sibling would be.
They don’t tend to set rules, define boundaries, or act as a reasonable authority figure. (Far from consistently, anyway.) They want to be liked at all times. Some of them talk to their kids as they would to an adult friend and share their personal problems inappropriately. (They may in some ways wish to be kids themselves.)
In reference to the issue mentioned at the start of the post, this kind of parent is generally too permissive. (However, wanting to be their kid’s best buddy isn’t the only reason parents become overly lenient. Sometimes, parents aren’t particularly interested in their kids, and their permissiveness comes from being detached and neglectful.)
The Sculptor Parent
To these parents, the kid isn’t a person but a project. The kid can be shaped into a trophy, something the parent will be proud to display in-person and on social media. The kid can be crammed into the mold of an athlete, straight-A student, artist, scientist, beauty pageant contestant, or whatever else the parent needs them to be.
Parents who get competitive with each other, who strongly need approval from other people, or who want to live out personal dreams and hopes through their child are all susceptible to becoming sculptors. Another scenario is when parents can’t stand certain qualities in the child – usually qualities that the parents hate in themselves. They lack the self-awareness to deal with their emotions in a mature way, so instead they apply the chisel to the marble or squeeze and squeeze the clay, as if their kid can be made into anything.
This parenting style hampers the child’s ability to develop their own personality and explore their own interests. It teaches kids that they aren’t loved for themselves but for how they perform to expectations. Kids raised like this can wind up suffering burnout, depression, and an intense fear of failure, a sense that if they aren’t successful or given approval, they won’t be worth anything.
What Does Dysfunctional Parenting Typically Boil Down To?
There are other dysfunctional (and abusive) patterns of behavior that I haven’t covered here. But a key characteristic of dysfunctional parenting, regardless of the form it takes, is the parent’s inability to genuinely see their own child. They fail to treat the child as a distinct individual.
Parents wind up using the child to serve some psychological need. They may need the child to be a scapegoat, a vessel for the parent’s dreams, the parent v2.0 with certain bugs fixed, a clingy dependent who’ll never walk away, a best friend who’ll always like them, an uncomplaining servant, or whatever else.
Parents will often be controlled by this psychological need. They won’t be aware of it, at least not fully, and they’ll resist thinking deeply about their own actions, because the need is painful and powerful. Parents usually find ways of rationalizing their behavior (“I’m keeping them safe; I want them to succeed”). But these parenting styles aren’t about safety, success, or happiness. They serve the parent psychologically while undermining the kid.
A few months ago I came across an article about a young Instagram star, only 9 years old, whose posts were suddenly deleted after evidence came out that her older brother might be feeding her lines in a video.
At the article, you can find a quote from a family spokesperson about how the child is currently undergoing “rebranding.”
Her old brand had her swearing and getting into feuds with other social media celebrities for the amusement of millions of people who don’t know her or care about her.
What does the new brand of 9-year-old look like? I didn’t check, because kids shouldn’t be undergoing “rebranding.”
Recently, an Instagram “mommy blogger” posted a picture of one of her children and lamented how he doesn’t get as many likes or comments as her other children. It was his birthday, so she urged her followers to send him “alllllll the likes,” and she sadly wondered if, when he’s older, his self-worth will suffer once he lays eyes on his Instagram stats. (Why would he be looking at these stats, though? Why should a child have to worry about this…? Why?)
On the Internet, every part of a child’s life can become part of their public persona. The camera follows these kids into all corners of their lives – as much as their parents permit, and some parents don’t seem to care at all how much gets revealed.
It’s not that child exploitation is a new thing, only that the Internet allows it to become even more pervasive and invasive. Imagine you’re a kid sitting down to eat a bowl of cereal in the morning. Without your understanding and consent, your cereal eating becomes public fodder. Strangers stare at the images and judge you, liking or withholding likes, and commenting of course (Cute hair! Aww, looks sleepy! Don’t mean to be rude, but that haircut is not flattering! Why isn’t he eating something more nutritious? Why does this kid look so grumpy?! Smile a little, come on! Awww, cute smile!)
And it doesn’t stop with cereal eating. It can be anything at any time – brushing teeth, playing on a swing set, picking clothes to wear to school, having a meltdown at a supermarket (with the right branding, the meltdown can be spun as funny).
Parents who subject their kids to this onslaught of attention may argue that they don’t actually value their kids based on likes and other social media stats. However, they’re still focused on making their family brand look as good as possible, at all times, to as many strangers as possible. The kid picks up on this, even before they understand Instagram algorithms. The mom whose son needs more birthday love (from strangers?) is troubled by her kid’s Instagram performance, even if she publicly blames herself rather than him. “My insufficiency caused this statistical deficit,” she wrote.
What she meant by ‘insufficiency’ is unclear. Did she use the wrong filters for her son’s photos? Did she fail to capture him at the best angles? Is her son going to wind up feeling guilty and inadequate as his mother sighs about social media insufficiencies?
(Oh, that dear boy. It can’t be him. It’s me! And yet… my other children perform well, so… but no, he’s a dear boy, even if he can’t keep up with the others. But what makes him less likeable?)
Moving right along… how about this dad and stepmom who received five years of probation for child neglect after posting YouTube videos of their “pranks” on their kids. Anything for likes, clicks, and subscribes, right?
A while ago I read reports of a “social credit system” China is developing to rank citizens publicly by the value they have, as measured across dimensions that include wealth and social connections. Much as we shake our heads about how dystopian it all is, hopefully something we’ll never see in the US, we’re already priming ourselves and our kids psychologically to more easily accept a society where: a) you’re monitored a lot, maybe round-the-clock b) any behavior is up for scrutiny and judgment c) records of your images, words, thoughts, and deeds, are archived and can be dug up at any time, even decades later, and d) your value is indeed measured by ‘likes.’ Here we might think of it as personal branding rather than good citizenship, but it’s a mindset where you can find no worth outside of being seen and judged favorably by other people. And it’s a mindset inculcated in people from a young age. Even when parents don’t actively push it, the culture is still steeped in these values.
In her book Red Flags or Red Herrings? Predicting Who Your Child Will Become, Susan Engel raises three main points:
1) Parents can’t redesign their children’s basic personality and intelligence.
2) A number of behaviors that parents are quick to label as ‘red flags’ in young kids are usually normal; instead of ‘red flags’ they’re ‘red herrings,’ leading parents to make incorrect predictions about their child’s future or worry about minor or nonexistent problems.
3) The means to distinguish between red flags and red herrings can be derived from research. We’ve accumulated a body of research to-date that can help us distinguish between normal or less damaging circumstances and patterns of behavior, and those that are actually worrisome.
Regarding points 1 and 2, Engel presents some convincing arguments throughout the book. For instance, intelligence is a fairly stable trait; a child of average intelligence isn’t going to become a genius. However, this doesn’t mean that environmental influence doesn’t have an impact. A child’s intelligence can be enhanced or dampened. For instance, parents who give their children opportunities to learn, give them books, talk to them, help them discover things they love doing, and show their kids the importance of perseverance increase the chances of the kid succeeding later in life, more than if they fuss over IQ numbers and whether their kid is the most gifted one in the class. They give their kids the opportunity to behave intelligently, expand their knowledge and skills, and live to their fullest potential. This is in contrast to kids who, regardless of what their intellectual potential is, don’t get very many opportunities to grow and may start to behave unintelligently, suppressing their natural potential.
In regards to the third point, the books is less convincing. Engel covers a lot of research, much of it interesting, showing how what we consider ‘red flags’ may not necessarily hobble a child for life; for instance, children who grow up in unstable homes but have certain protective factors in their life may still become well-functioning adults. The tricky part comes in when Engel tries to show how you can make predictions about an individual child’s life based on the research. What are the problems with how she lays out her approach?
a. There are individual differences, and noise in the data, when it comes to any study, especially when you’re looking at complex traits such as shyness and intelligence, or studying various factors that influence development. Granted, I don’t think Engel ever says that you can predict 100% how your child will turn out, but I think the case is overstated in the book.
b. She doesn’t devote enough time to discuss the research methodology or study limitations, including possible flaws in study design. In a couple of places she does point out the issue of individual differences, but I think that for a book that is so heavily based on research, she should have spent more time discussing and explaining the research. Readers who don’t have familiarity with research methodology in this area are particularly in need of understanding the limitations of the work to help them make sense of the data and understand what it can and can’t tell us.
c. In each chapter, Engel mixes research results with individual ‘case studies’ of kids who seemed to have red flags but turned out ok (or children whose red flags went undetected). Though she talks a lot about how you can use the existing research to help you decipher the clues in your child’s life, her case studies rely on hindsight; she knows how the kid turns out, so it’s simpler for her to trace the course of his or her life to see what might have gone right or wrong, and what were possible influences. Even then, with the benefit of hindsight, she doesn’t always make the developmental trajectory clear; I didn’t always understand why it was a given that a particular child would turn out ok, while another child wouldn’t. For people who don’t have the benefit of hindsight, it’s not easy to “decipher the clues,” given that a kid’s developmental trajectory is influenced by a complex combination of factors; I don’t know how you can always tell, in the present moment, whether something is a red flag or a red herring.
The bottom line is, I wish she’d gone more into explaining the research, which is interesting, and developing her discussions of it; her chapters were sometimes a hodgepodge of research examples and personal examples that didn’t mesh well or develop into a clear argument (the chapter on adult romantic relationships comes to mind).
But ultimately, the message that parents can’t completely remake their kids’ personalities, but instead can help enhance strengths and give their kids tools to cope with potential weaknesses, is a reasonable one, as it encourages parents to see their kids as they are, and not constantly measure them against other kids or against some parental ideal that may be narcissistic at heart.
1) See them as their own people
Much as you might want them to live out your own unfulfilled dreams or become a smaller, more agreeable version of yourself, kids are going to have their own personalities, interests, and abilities. You could try to bend them to your will in every little way, but they’ll either distance themselves from you entirely or break inside.
If you’re in the habit of comparing them to other kids, please stop. There will always be some other kid who has better grades, goes to better schools, can hit a ball farther, plays the piano better, looks more conventionally attractive, and seems well-behaved at all times. That shouldn’t matter (and besides, those other seemingly perfect children are human and have their own faults and problems, which you aren’t privy to). Help your kids develop into their strongest, most decent selves, rather than wish for them to be someone else. Accept that they’re human and will never meet some ridiculous standard of perfection. Love them as they are. If you keep comparing them to others, they’ll pick up on that, on how they seem to always fall short in your eyes, never good enough in their own right.
And please, please, don’t use them as a surrogate for someone else. They aren’t your therapist. They aren’t the best friend you never had. They aren’t meant to step into the shoes of a spouse. They’re your kids.
2) Talk to them as if they’re people
We get into the habit of cooing at children when they’re very young and brushing off their observations, triumphs, tears and fits of anger as so much lovable nonsense or irritating noise. The thing is, even very young children have serious concerns about the world. It’s easy to dismiss them or talk over them – especially when we don’t have good answers to their questions – but if you keep doing this, you’re basically telling them that their thoughts aren’t worth listening to and that they’re better off keeping quiet about what’s most important to them.
Hear them out, with sincere interest. Try to understand how they’re communicating. A two-year-old, for instance, doesn’t have the same verbal and cognitive ability as an older kid, but in many cases may still be trying to tell you something important – something they discovered or are delighted in, or something that annoys or frightens them.
Even if what they say sounds silly, remember that they’re new to the world and can’t possibly know everything that you know. Not that you know everything. Make a habit of exploring things together and not being afraid of questions that can’t easily be answered. Don’t be afraid of silliness either. And just as you wouldn’t want to be regularly shouted down, interrupted, or belittled, please extend them the same decent treatment.
3) Help them develop competency
You’re there to give your kid support. What that means changes as they develop and grow older. Basically, if you do everything for them, they’ll doubt whether they can ever stand on their own two feet. If you need to be heavily involved in every decision, great or small, you don’t give them a chance to breathe and try things out. You’re basically telling them that you don’t think they can manage on their own. This could result in a lack of confidence across different areas of life, or maybe one particular area (e.g. schoolwork).
4) Be dependably loving
One day you’re warm and loving. The next day you’re cold and distant. On a given day, your kid’s laughter might make you smile. An hour later, you tell them their laughter is grating on your nerves. On some occasions, you give them thoughtful advice and comfort them if they’ve failed at something; on other occasions, you react with impatience and derision. You make earnest promises to them, which you break half the time. They don’t quite know what to make of you. Maybe there’s something wrong with them, they think. They start regularly second-guessing themselves.
5) Hold them accountable for the right things
Kids need to learn to be responsible for their actions – not to bully other kids, not to steal, not to destroy their siblings’ toys, not to smear the contents of their noses on library books.
However, they’re not to be held responsible for your bad day at work, your rocky marriage, the argument you had with your own parents, the delivery guy showing up an hour late with dinner, or your personal insecurities.
6) Give them room and time to play
Play is pleasure and growth. It’s a time for flights of imagination, for exploration and development. Kids ideally try out different things when they play, build their skills, and have fun. When they play with others, they learn to socialize and work out conflicts. They learn to take risks, in a relatively safe environment. Please don’t hover over them all the time as they play, dictating what they should or shouldn’t do and making a fuss if they don’t spend all their free time exactly the way you want them to. Give them the confidence to chart their own path. Make free play (and free time more generally) an important part of their childhood, instead of something wedged into the twenty minutes between piano lessons/chess club/swim team/computer class/household chores. Participating in scheduled activities can be fun and beneficial, and helping out with housework at an age-appropriate level can be fulfilling for them, but if their schedule is so overbooked that they don’t have time to just play or relax, ask yourself why they need to be so busy. Talk to them about it, too – about what they want and need.
7) Model self-worth and confidence for them
I’m not talking about false bravado here, or the attitude of “suck it up/don’t cry/never show weakness, imperfections or vulnerability because no one will like or respect you.” I’m talking about genuine self-worth and confidence. Basically, you like yourself; at the very least, you’re regularly kind to yourself. You’re pleased when you do well, and you don’t beat yourself up endlessly when you make a mistake and constantly tell yourself that you’ll never get things right. You practice self-compassion and forgiveness, and have a basic faith in yourself as a human being who is capable of leading a worthwhile life and accomplishing things. You enjoy feeling good but also understand that sometimes you’ll feel down in the dumps. You’re human and imperfect, and you’re ok with that. You can still work towards your dreams, cope with mistakes along the way, take risks, love other people, receive love in return, behave decently, and enjoy life.
Kids pick up on your attitudes. They see what your attitude is towards failure and imperfection, towards embarrassment and shame. If you regularly act as if messing up makes a person unlovable or unworthy, your kids absorb that idea too, and it could batter away at them. So work on yourself. Examine your beliefs. Do you compare yourself to other people all the time? Do you tear yourself down and tear other people down? Are you basically comfortable in your own skin? Do you consider yourself a perpetual failure in life, or – even if you want some things to improve or change – are you basically ok with you who are?
Work on becoming a healthier person, mentally and emotionally. Do it for your own sake, but also know that your kids will be much more likely to develop healthy self-worth and confidence too.
And is the child really counting or just reciting the number sequence?
Preschool-aged children can know the order of numbers from one to ten or twenty, much as they know how to recite the letters of the alphabet in their proper order. But counting is not only about knowing the numbers in order; it involves assigning each number to an object being counted in a given set (e.g. the ducks on a page in a book) and understanding that the last number in the sequence is the total number of objects in the set.
One reason the distinction between recitation and counting is important on a practical level is that preschoolers who are able to both recite numbers and count with them perform better at math when they enter elementary school, according to this study.
Teaching counting can be a simple matter of integrating it into day-to-day activities, as the researchers recommend:
“When adults read books with children, they can count the ducks on the page. They might count the leaves that fall to the ground outside or the number of carrots at lunchtime.”
I think regularly using math in everyday life also teaches kids that math isn’t a weird and difficult subject. Many kids fear math and see numbers as abstract nonsense. Incorporating math into simple daily activities (counting money, telling time, sharing toys or candies equally among friends) may show them otherwise.
A new study is underway to investigate the effects of 5 years of musical training on the brain, starting from when children are 6 or 7 years old. The children are participating in a program that gives kids a free education in music and free instruments; they’ll be compared to kids who are matched on age, socioeconomic background, and different cognitive measures but who don’t have a musical education.
This is an interesting study, but how will researchers interpret some of the findings? Let’s say the study shows improvements in various aspects of cognitive ability and social and emotional development throughout the five years of musical education. To what would we attribute this outcome? Is it something specific to music education, or would you see it in any long-term intensive extracurricular program that teaches kids something? Maybe you’d need to add a third group of kids to the study who are enrolled in a free non-musical education program that has a similar social/communal aspect to it.
Compared to younger and older individuals of their species, both adolescent humans and mice on average have a stronger tendency to keep exhibiting a fear response to a threat even when the danger is gone.
In the human experiment, the fear response was initially elicited by pairing a visual stimulus (one of a sequence of yellow or blue images on a computer screen) with a harsh startling sound; in subsequent trials the same images appeared without any startling noise – leading to an extinction of the fear response in children and adults, but not in the adolescents, who kept showing a fear response to whatever image had once been paired with the noise.
As for the animal experiment, the article reports that the experimenters “used standard fear conditioning common in these types of animal studies.” (This is vaguely worded… did they use loud noises? Or pain?) The experimenters also measured neuronal activity in the mice:
… the research team found that the prelimbic region in the prefrontal cortex, the brain region that processes emotion, is activated during acquisition of fear, and the infralimbic prefrontal cortex is used to extinguish this fear association.
When compared to younger and older mice, adolescent mice didn’t exhibit the kinds of neuronal activity associated with fear extinction (this corresponded to their behavior – they continued to show a fear response over time, regardless of the fact that the danger/unpleasantness was no longer present). Even as they got older, the adolescent mice didn’t lose their fear response.
Related data from other studies with humans:
It is estimated that over 75 percent of adults with fear-related disorders can trace the roots of their anxiety to earlier ages.
It’s not clear how the persistent fear response in this experiment fits into the complex puzzle of excessive anxiety and its sources, people’s predispositions towards it, the reasons it persists (or doesn’t) into adulthood, and the ways in which it disrupts mental and physical functioning (also, adolescents with anxiety disorders have often reported that their symptoms started in childhood). And how do these results tie into other findings with teens that show a greater tendency for them to do something dangerous even if they understand the risks?
An overview of different types of anxiety that can become excessive and interfere with daily life (e.g. social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.)
Most of the study participants were girls (though the experimenters reported that the results for the boys weren’t significantly different).
Maintaining a blog had a stronger positive effect on troubled students’ well-being than merely expressing their social anxieties and concerns in a private diary, according to the article published online in the APA journal Psychological Services. Opening the blog up to comments from the online community intensified those effects.
Maybe the effects were stronger for a public blog because the teens felt less isolated with their problems and felt relief that they could be heard; it turns out that when they opened the blogs up to comments, the response from other Internet users was almost always positive and encouraging (few to no trolls). I’m assuming the blogs were anonymous, making the teens less vulnerable to disruption in their lives offline and maybe helping them write more freely about their worries.
Incidentally, the photo that was at the top of the post linked to a relevant write-up on “stressed out lab rats” – how rats living in chronic stress tend to make decisions out of habit, as if their constant stress doesn’t allow them to be more mentally flexible. There are definitely parallels to stressed out humans.