Category Archives: My general approach

Flexibility in parent-child relationships

OK, first off, we're on with the parenting challenge thingy! If you don't know what I'm talking about, read my last post
and join us! I think it would probably work best if I post a
description of a parenting approach/discipline method every Monday (and
you can forgive me if I mess up and sometimes post on Tuesday,
especially on long weekends and such). Then we'll all have that week to
try something new with our kids. Throughout the week, you all can come
back to that Monday post and leave comments about how things are going,
questions about the approach, or rants about how sucky it all went and
who the hell do I think I am ruining your family life. I'm going to do
my best to take a more gist-like approach: I'll describe a method and
then give you my take on how it might be adapted to different ages
and/or different scenarios. I'll also try to supplement the description
of the method with some empirical studies or reviews of research that
provide some support for these various methods, either in the same post
or subsequent ones during the week. And I just want to be very clear:
many of these "approaches" are going to be RIDICULOUSLY simple things
that may seem TOO simplistic. The idea isn't going to be that any ONE
of these approaches are going to help you with EVERY one of your
discipline or parenting challenges. They'll just be one more little
tool you can add to your parenting toolbox (ugh… can that metaphor
be any more overused? Sorry, but I'm too brain dead to come up with
something more witty).

Now, on to today's topic: Flexibility. A few of you asked to talk
more about this idea. Given it's one of my main areas of research,
goodness knows I can ramble on and on about this topic. It CONSUMES me.

I've studied a bunch of parent-child relationships, both "healthy" ones and those that were in some serious trouble. For the latter group, I've worked with agencies that provide interventions for families with children who have "clinically-elevated" levels of aggression and depression (with a large does of anxiety as well). As part of my work (a review is in this paper), I've tried to identify the differences between these more healthy parent-child relationships and the ones that are more distressed. One of the most ubiquitous findings that keeps coming up, over and over, is the importance of flexibility in parent-child relationships. My thinking started way back, on the more theoretical level, thinking about evolutionary advantage. In much of evolutionary theory and, in particular, evolutionary psychology, organisms are considered optimally healthy when they can readily adapt to changes in their environmental context. Similarly (and with a whole lot more academic arm-waving), we can think of interpersonal interactions as being optimally functioning when they are flexible or able to adjust to any new challenge that might arise. In contrast, when relationships or interaction patterns are "rigid" or repeated no matter what the context might throw at them, problems seem to come up.

So how on earth would you test such an assumption? I've run a few studies that have looked at flexibility (both in parent-child and peer relationships). There's a few ways we've looked at this, but one is to look at troubled parent-child relationships and look at the parent-child interaction patterns that have developed over time. We've observed (literally, videotaped) hundreds of parents and their healthy or more troubled children interacting with each other while they engaged in different types of activities (for example, they are asked to play some board games, try to problem-solve a conflict they identified, clean up a mess, share a snack and so on). In one study, we videotaped these interactions and found that children with elevated levels of aggression, depression and anxiety are indeed more rigid in their interaction patterns with their parents. I'll spare you the analytic models we ran and skip to the gist of the findings: Instead of expressing many kinds of emotions, and controlling those emotions when the situational demands changed, aggressive and depressed/anxious children and their parents remained stuck in one or very few emotional states.  For example, it was common for families to become angry in the problem-solving interaction and then remain angry when asked to change activities (for instance, play a game).  BUT! it was just as common for these families to show neutral or closed emotional states across all activities. Healthy family often got angry, it's not that they never showed negative stuff at all, it's just that they shifted in and out of these emotional states as their context changed. The inability to experience a range of emotional states as the context shifted was the strongest predictor of future problematic behaviour, more so than just how much negativity parents or children shared with each other (the predictions, in one study, went from 4.5 years old to about 6 years old).

Why would it be important for a child’s healthy development that family members display a variety of emotional states with one another?  We might expect that a task such as conflict-resolution would produce anger and frustration in most families. Playing a game or sharing a snack are more likely to elicit positive emotions.  Sometimes it's appropriate to be anxious and hesitant, other times to be excited and spontaneous. My growing thoughts about these data are that, without the opportunity to experience a range of emotional states in family interactions, children don't get to develop an adequate ability to regulate (i.e., adjust, control) their emotions. They become entrenched in particular emotional habits that feel inevitable, and they lack the skills for shifting from one state to another when it might be advantageous to do so.

I can go on and on (oh! I will, in another post, because I have some cool intervention data that shows that when families are benefiting from treatment, they're becoming MORE FLEXIBLE. Yes, yes, I am indeed a little tickled by those findings. But I'll shut up now). And I can include a trillion caveats to this research including that these findings may not hold for all cultures, all age groups, different socio-economic backgrounds, and so on. But to tell you the truth, I actually think flexibility in parent-child interactions / relationships IS crucial across all these domains… I just don't have the data.

So I'll leave it at that for now, since I've rattled on enough, and I'll ask you what you think… Do you think that flexibility, rather than the altogether lack of negativity (anger, sadness), is as important as I do? Are there cases in which you think it isn't so important? Does this ring true for you? How about the way you were parented… would you characterize your childhood relationship with your parents as "flexible?"

Why do I have to sleep train at all? Or: It’s all good… until it’s not

Rocking OK. I'm back. Sorry for that unexpected LONG break. Please feel free again to email me if you have questions. I'll be responding relatively quickly now that I'm back to work full time and "normal" life has resumed. For those of you who have emailed in the last month, expect a response (either publicly posted or direct) in the next week or two at most.

Reading over a batch of emails over the last couple of months or so, I realized that there might be a misconception out there about where I'm coming from in terms of the NEED to sleep train. Or the responsibility… or something like that. In particular, I've received several emails, some a tad more "harsh" than others, with this basic gist: "I love my baby. I love our bedtime ritual. Babies are helpless. I want to be totally responsive to my baby's needs. All this sleep training is ridiculous. What's wrong with wanting to [rock/swing/sing/etc.] my child to sleep?"

There is NOTHING wrong with rocking or nursing or soothing your baby to sleep. As many parents will attest (and I put myself firmly in this camp) the bedtime rituals of putting young babies to sleep can be the most treasured, most magical times in the early months of child-rearing. Personal confession here: It took me a hell of a long time to get pregnant. After deep heart-ache and years of trying to have a baby, when I finally got two, (TWO!) you better believe I was going to live out the long-rehearsed daydreams of rocking, singing, nursing and shushing my babies to sleep. There really is nothing like looking down at your peacefully sleeping infant (the one that you and only you know how to bounce just the right way, at just the right pace, with just enough swing and jitter and sway), feeling his breath against your arm, his warmth seep into your own body. Marc and I have both had the pleasure of falling asleep ourselves with one of our boys tucked into our necks. It’s heaven. I am in no way suggesting that these rituals aren’t precious or worth keeping in those early months or even years. However, many parents eventually can’t take the sleep-deprivation that usually goes along with extended periods of this sort of sleeping arrangement. As a result, they resort to some sleep-training procedure. So, my basic take is this: enjoy the rocking, singing, and nursing that helps get your baby to sleep. Enjoy it for as long as it feels right for you and your family. And then, if or when it’s not working for you anymore, either because you’re cross-eyed with fatigue, or your baby-awe has tipped into resentment, or because your child has decided he’d rather play trampoline on mommy than be rocked back to sleep, it’s time for a change. Do what feels right for you and your baby for as long as it DOES feel right and don't worry about creating "bad habits" that can NEVER. OMG. EVER. BE. CHANGED. Babies and toddlers are malleable little beings and they can learn and un-learn habits with reasonable ease, especially during the right developmental window.

This is a NO GUILT zone

After reading one of the reviews at, I feel compelled to explain something that might not be clear from reading this blog (at least not right away). NONE of the information I'm providing or putting out there to discuss is meant to make any parent feel less competent. My intention is exactly the opposite — it's to empower parents with some basic research and theory from developmental psychology so that they can make the best sleep choices for their family. 

The issue of course is that some of those choices have already been made. So if you're reading this site and thinking "Oh shit, I sleep-trained my child at 9-months!  Have I done something terrible?" Um, no. It just may have been a hard process — harder than it might have been at 6 or 12 months.

But NO WHERE in our book or on this blog will you find ANY research that suggests any long-term harm because children were sleep-trained, night-weaned, etc. during these sensitive developmental stages. 

So, to be clear: The premise of our approach is that sleep-training can be EASIER on the child and parent if it's done at particular ages and stages and not others. But if you want or need to sleep train during the more sensitive stages, it's good to know WHY it might be difficult and prepare yourself for what might arise during these periods. For example, in Canada, many women go back to work when their baby is exactly 9 months. Many NEED to do so. So, if you have to sleep train during this period, then knowing how difficult separation anxiety can be and that it might take longer for new sleep patterns to stabilize might help you to plan the type of sleep-training method you use and to anticipate how long the process might take. 

I'm particularly sensitive to triggering other mothers' guilt because I am THE. MOST. GUILT-PRONE. PERSON. EVER. Really. Most things I do in my everyday life are motivated by guilt to some degree or another (to name just a few examples: returning emails, feeding my kids veggies, exercising, cooking from scratch, turning OFF the t.v., reading research in my field: all of it, motivated by guilt rather than the pure joy or goodness of doing it). 

So, yeah, guilting other mothers out is just not my thing.

I can take it

I don't want this blog to be a completely top-down process where I have the ultimate "truth" about sleep issues. Of course, I think I have something to offer that hasn't been available to most parents (except generations back when we had grandmothers and aunties and neighbors who were all in our new-parent faces about what child-rearing was all about). I wouldn't have written the book with Marc if I didn't think that we really did have a message that wasn't being heard by most parents. But I want to hear what you think. I want to be challenged. I want you to feel comfortable disagreeing with me; fighting me on the fine points as well as the large premises. I think that we'll all understand children's development better, and particularly how it relates to sleep, if we can openly challenge each other.

It takes a whole lot to offend me, so please feel free to tell me when you think I'm full of sh#@.

Yes, all children are different

This is probably going to be one of several caveats I'll include on this blog, and probably the earlier the better. First off, you'll notice that generally the way that I'll be discussing theory, research findings, recommendations and cautionary notes seems to treat children as if they were all the same. Yes, the premise of our book is that children go through normative stages at predictable ages. Obviously, we could not make these predictions if we were thinking about the individual child’s personality. But both as a developmentalist and as a parent (and especially as a parent of twins!) I am fully aware of how different children can be. Individual differences take many forms and result from many causes. They can result from the influence of parents and siblings, from environmental features of the home and the neighborhood, from health and dietary issues, traumatic events, and so on. But some individual differences are at least partially built into the child’s nervous system, generally through the action of genes that are responsible for constructing brains, glands, sense organs, and all the wiring that connects them. These variations, usually referred to as temperament by psychologists, are not always evident at birth. Sometimes a remarkably distinct temperamental feature won’t show itself until the middle or end of the first year, or even later. However, temperamental differences, by definition, are built in to the child’s biological make-up and so, as a rule, they do show up early in development.

I'll get into the way that developmental psychologists parse temperament in a later post. But right now I just wanted to put a placeholder on the point that, yes, kids are different and not all kids are going to conform to the general pattern of changes I'll outline, at the exact ages I'll specify. But GENERALLY, there's a large body of research (and when I figure out how to link to half of it, I will) that's documented that the majority of kids DO conform to the cognitive and emotional schedule I'll be discussing. That doesn't mean that this schedule will relate to SLEEP issues in the same way for all kids, but it does mean that most of you should recognize the cognitive and emotional changes that I'm talking about at around the same ages.  If you don't, TELL ME. These stages are meant as guidelines, not absolute deadlines. The more "data points" we have in terms of different children on different schedules, the better we will all be at understanding how development works.

Here from Moxie? Welcome!

I am so thankful to Moxie for her thoughtful review and for sending you all over here. I'm really hoping to live up to her generous words of support.

Since I've just started up this blog, I'd love to get your input on what you think might be most helpful to you. What would you like to see featured here?  I've got tons of ideas in terms of posts and some other thoughts on different types of links or "support spaces" that we could create… what do you think?

  • I'd like to create a "space" where parents could come and vent and get support throughout the day, but especially during the horrendous wee hours of the night/morning. I remember logging into Moxie's site when I was pumping at 3 am and feeling just a little less alone when someone else was posting at the same time. You know that feeling of being THE ONLY ONE AWAKE in the world, at 3 am, 4 am, 5 am? Would it be helpful for you to have a place on this site to go and commiserate with other parents during that time?
  • Of course, I'm planning on featuring studies, reviews of research, and highlighting developmental principles that are most relevant to sleep issues.
  • Given that the topic is near and dear to my heart, I'd also like to feature topics that are relevant to parents of twins (or other multiples) and young siblings
  • I'm in Toronto and of course whenever I read Moxie, I wondered if there were Moxie readers in the city that I could hook up with and just be my sleep-deprived self with in my offline life. Would it be helpful for people in the trenches of sleep training or sleep deprivation (if you're waiting out one of those hellish transitional or regression stages) to find others to just stare out into space with? Could we figure out how to facilitate that through this site?

Any other suggestions that you think might help you out with either surviving the "bad" stages or fortifying you for your sleep-training efforts?