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?"