Three parenting styles. Which to use when your child throws a tantrum in public?

According to the authors of an article published in The Conversation (Julia Caldwell, Loa Whittingham and Pamela Meredith), there are three parenting systems that have evolved to help us survive parenthood: the threat system, the drive system and the soothing system.  One of these seems to emerge as the ultimate ‘winner’ for effective parenting.

What are the three systems?

British clinical psychologist Paul Gilbert’s theory of evolution helps us understand these three systems. You can think of each one as a brain state with specific brain regions and chemistry. Once you are in a particular state, it will colour your world—what you see and how you act. 

We switch between these systems, or states, depending on what is going on around, or inside, us. Each system evolved for a reason and each has its purpose and place. 

The threat system motivates us to survive under conditions of threat. Think about stumbling across a lion after getting your morning coffee. Your threat system would automatically kick in. You’d feel more alert as your body would be flooded with fear. You’d have a surge of adrenaline and cortisol, feel anxiety, anger or disgust. You may fight the lion (if the odds are good), or flee in fear. 

Your threat system also helps you protect your child. It gives you the burst of alertness and energy to chase after a wandering toddler or stick up for your child at school or in the family. 

The drive system is about seeking out good things—from food to falling in love. This system activates positive emotions such as excitement, pleasure or desire. It helps ensure parents have food on table and a roof over their family’s head, and prompts them to seek out fun family activities like a trip to the zoo.

And then there’s the soothing system. This one’s about feeling calm and grounded and is vital to maintaining equilibrium. Guess what gets it going? Other people being kind and compassionate. It’s that warm, fuzzy, heart-warming feeling you get when you feel loved and give love to others. 

The soothing system is activated by moments like lazy cuddles with your child in bed or snuggling up together to watch a favourite movie. In these moments, you feel a rush of feel-good chemicals: opiates and oxytocin (the chemical released after baby has been born). This makes it feel good being close to, and getting along with, others. 

So, why does all this matter? Because parenting often feels like you’re living in a pressure cooker, and that leads to over-activation of the threat system.

No one should be blamed for this—after all, it’s evolution. The problem is, when your threat system is on, you probably feel anxious, down and like you are not good enough as a parent. You probably feel shame. 

Research shows when parents feel shame they are more likely to resort to controlling types of parenting and the use of punishment. Research also shows children of parents with anxiety disorders are more likely to suffer anxiety themselves.

So, what do you do?

The best way to dampen down the threat system is to activate the soothing system. And remember what does that—other people. We can deliberately practice love and compassion for ourselves, and others, to train our soothing system to respond more often.

Self-compassion is being aware of what sets off our pressure cooker and doing things to reduce the pressure. It’s also about treating ourselves the way we’d treat our closest friends. 

Self-compassion might mean planning an easy dinner on a busy day, taking 20 minutes to relax with a good book, or simply giving yourself permission to make mistakes. 

And we can give that compassion to our children, too. Science shows greater compassion in parenting is associated with better relationships, connection and resilience in children.

The situations that activate your parenting threat system are countless: your child screaming in a store or running around in a restaurant and refusing to calm down. 

Your immediate reaction is most likely a threat response. You may feel angry at your child’s behaviour, or with yourself. While in truly threatening life-or-death situations such emotions help us take action, a threat response in a less dire situation might prime you to fight.

The first thing to do when you feel this anxiety is breathe. Slowly and deeply. And to become aware that your threat system is well and truly active. 

The second thing is to remember children have the same threat system too. Part of our job is to lay down the soothing system for our children, until they can do it for themselves. So, tell your child you understand their pain. As Dr. Justin Coulson, expert on Parental Guidance, says: “When someone is having a difficult time, behaving in a challenging way, they don’t need us to tell them that they are being silly, to calm down, to be quiet, to grow up. What they actually need is to have compassion […] to join them in their suffering […] to say, “It’s tough, isn’t it? How can I help?'”

All parents have been down this path, and this is really hard. Ultimately, you will be okay. 

None of us can be perfectly compassionate at every moment. And when we fail at being this, what should we do? Be compassionate, of course. Give yourself permission to be human and make mistakes, just as you do with your children.


All screens toxic for teen health after just two hours of use

Whether it is watching television or playing electronic games, teenagers are experiencing serious physical and mental health consequences after just two hours of screen use, according to University of Queensland-led research. 

The study is published in American Journal of Preventive Medicine. This article is taken from the University of Queensland.

UQ School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences researcher Associate Professor Asad Khan said the global study of more than 400,000 adolescents is the first to provide evidence that both passive and mentally active screen time adversely affects teens’ mental wellbeing.

“Teens need to be limited to less than two hours per day, whether it’s passive screen time which includes watching a TV series and scrolling on social media or mentally active screen time, like playing computer games or using a computer for entertainment purposes,” Dr. Khan said.

“We found teens are more likely to report psychosomatic symptoms, , a combination of physical and psychological complaints, if they exceed two hours of screen time and these effects were similar regardless of physical activity levels.

“Psyche stands for mind and soma stands for body, and it is no longer possible to separate mind and body, which is why we looked at psychosomatic complaints together.

“Psychological complaints from teens included feeling low, irritable, nervousness and sleeping difficulty, and somatic complaints included headaches, abdominal pain, , backache and dizziness.”

Key study findings showed teen boys who watched more than four hours of television per day, compared with those who watched less than two hours per day were 67% more likely to report high psychosomatic complaints while girls were at slightly higher risk at 71%.

Adolescents who exceeded four hours of playing electronic games had a 78% higher risk in boys and 88% in girls of reporting high psychosomatic complaints.

High computer use for entertainment purposes was also reported to result in high psychosomatic complaints, with 84% higher risk in boys and 108% high in girls.

“The findings of this study are concerning as screen use in teens has increased significantly in recent decades, but we know little about the effects of different types of screen use on mental and physical health,” Dr. Khan said.

“Our findings support existing public health recommendations of limiting screen use to a maximum of two hours per day for improved health and wellbeing outcomes of teens.

“We hope this work contributes towards the global debate on ‘how much is too much’ screen use for teenagers and builds pressure around reducing discretional screen time to optimize health and wellbeing of adolescents.”

The research was conducted in collaboration with Queen’s University and University of Ottawa, Canada.




When do children learn to share?

Children as young as three know the rules of equal sharing but if sharing involves a cost to the self, they only follow the rules when they are older, according to research published March 20 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Craig Smith from the University of Michigan and colleagues from other institutions.

The authors note, “People who spend time with young children will know that they often favour themselves when sharing, but surprisingly they endorse equal sharing not just by other people but also in their own case. In our research, we were able to rule out a number of explanations for this early gap between word and deed.”

When the researchers gave 3-8-year-olds stickers they valued and asked them about sharing, children of all ages readily asserted that they themselves should share equally, and others should as well. However, when given the chance to actually share, children failed to follow the norms they endorsed until the ages of 7-8. In a second test, older children aged 7-8 correctly predicted that they would share equally, while 3-6-year-olds clearly stated that they would favour themselves while sharing; thus, children of all ages were accurate in predicting what they would do.

The study concludes that though younger children know the norm of equal sharing, the importance they attach to it increases with age.  Adults therefore can’t expect too much from younger children when they are asked to share their precious possessions!






Will reducing screen time increase level of physical activity in children?

Source:  University of Southern Denmark Faculty of Health Sciences 

Many of us feel that young people these days are spending too much of their free time on screens and missing out on physical activities.   This might be a misconception because children have always been sedentary during most of their awake time.

This has been shown every time researchers have measured physical activity among different groups of children regardless of their cultural background and geography (also before the introduction of smartphones and gaming consoles). Thus, researchers continue to debate whether children’s use of screen media devices truly affects their engagement in physical activity or if screen time is just replacing other sedentary behaviours.  A group of researchers from the University of Southern Denmark has attempted to answer this question in a carefully designed randomized controlled trial.

A total of 89 families (181 children, 164 adults) were randomly allocated in two groups. Families allocated to the intervention had to handover their smartphones and tablets for two weeks and reduce their recreational screen media use to less than three hours per week. Families allocated to the control group were instructed to continue with their usual screen media habits. Participants daily physical activity was objectively assessed over seven days using accelerometers mounted on the thigh and trunk at baseline and at 2-week follow-up.

“We found that children in the screen reduction intervention group had an average of 45 min more daily physical activity compared to children in the control group. The difference between the groups were largest on weekend days where children in the screen reduction group had an average of 73 min more physical activity compared to children in the control group,” says Jesper Pedersen, Ph.D. student at the University of Southern Denmark.

“The results of our trial clearly suggest that spending many hours using digital screens after school, kindergarten, and on weekends displaces some activities where children move more around. Thus, it is important that families with children create healthy and balanced use of screen devices in the home environment,” says Anders Grøntved, Professor at the University of Southern Denmark.

Parents were also a part of the study. Middle-aged or young adults are typically less physically active during their leisure time compared to children and their recreational use of screen media devices is at least as high as that of children. However, to the researchers surprise, there was no significant difference in daily movement during leisure between adults in the screen reduction group and the control group.

“We were quite surprised when we saw the numbers for the adult participants. A potential explanation may be that adults are less spontaneous in their physical activity behaviour compared to children. Although the results suggest that reducing screen media use is an ineffective way of increasing adults daily movement, it may still be a good idea for adults to balance their screen use in the home because we know from previous research that parental screen use in the home is strongly associated with children’s use of screen media. A reduction of recreational screen use among parents could be a key to balancing children’s own use,” explains Grøntved.


Parental criticism hurts: A glimpse inside the adolescent brain

Many families agree that adolescents try their best to separate from their families and do as they please, but they are more sensitive to their parents’ opinions than they may seem. The adolescent brain reacts strongly to parental criticism or praise. These are the results of a study by a research group of psychologists and neuroscientists from Leiden University.

The study involved 63 adolescents from 12 to 18 years. During an MRI scan of their brains, they were shown compliments, neutral feedback or criticism of their personality that seemed to come from their parents. They would read comments on a screen such as: “Your father thinks you’re mean,” or “Your mother thinks you’re intelligent”

After each point of praise or criticism, the adolescents indicated their mood. Unsurprisingly, their mood improved after receiving a compliment and deteriorated after receiving a negative comment, particularly when this criticism did not match their self-image. Not only did the parental comments do something to the adolescents’ self-confidence, but the adolescent brain reacted very differently to compliments than to criticism, as the scans showed. Criticism activated regions of the brain that are involved in processing emotions and pain, regions that are also activated when people experience physical pain. Both criticism and compliments cause activity in areas of the brain that are related to social cognition, such as understanding other people’s emotions and intentions.


The researchers explained that what the results of the scans show is that criticism really does seem to hurt. This pain does not seem to be less in adolescents with a relatively more-positive self-image and who feel their parents are warmer.

Studies like these help to understand what parental compliments and criticism do to adolescents and to make parents aware of the impact of their words.  In addition, this adds to the understanding of mental health problems in adolescents, such as depression, low self-esteem and sensitivity to rejection, which all play a leading role.






Are our children sitting for too long during schooldays?

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, concern has been expressed in various countries regarding the increased sedentary behaviours of children.  Too little time is spent being physically active and high levels of sedentary behaviour, especially screen time, are associated with poor health and academic performances for school-aged children.

An international report with recommendations designed to counteract this has been released by the Sedentary Behavior Research Network (SBRN), in partnership with the University of Prince Edward Island and the CHEO Research Institute.

The recommendations

A ‘healthy’ school day includes:

  • Breaking up periods of extended sedentary behaviour with both scheduled and unscheduled movement breaks
    • at least once every 30 minutes for ages 5 to 11 years
    • at least once every hour for ages 12 to 18 years
    • consider a variety of intensities and durations (e.g., standing, stretching breaks, moving to another classroom, active lessons, active breaks).
  • Incorporating different types of movement (e.g., light activities that require movement of any body parts, and moderate to vigorous activities that require greater physical effort) into homework whenever possible, and limiting sedentary homework to no more than 10 minutes per day, per grade level. For example, in Canada this means typically no more than 10 minutes per day in grade 1, or 60 minutes per day in grade 6.
  • Regardless of the location, school-related screen time should be meaningful, mentally or physically active, and serve a specific pedagogical purpose that enhances learning compared to alternative methods. When school-related screen time is warranted,
    • limit time on devices, especially for students 5 to 11 years of age;
    • take a device break at least once every 30 minutes;
    • discourage media-multitasking in the classroom and while doing homework;
    • avoid screen-based homework within an hour of bedtime.
  • Replacing sedentary learning activities with movement-based learning activities (including standing) and replacing screen-based learning activities with non-screen-based learning activities (e.g., outdoor lessons) can further support students’ health and wellbeing.

Common sense tells us that these are valid suggestions. It will be interesting to see how educators, families and other caregivers respond.




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