Cry it Out vs. Here’s your Hug

faither hilding childAs I continue reading through Robert Karen’s book “Becoming Attached” I continue to find great topics to write about.  In this brief overview of the beliefs behind two basic parenting strategies, I draw from Karen’s writing about the academic debate in the last century about how to best raise a child.

Two historical approaches to parenting

One of the long-standing battles in American culture regarding raising kids is whether the way we parent is spoiling kids or making them stronger.  It’s a big issue in the U.S. in part because self-sufficiency achieving the American dream in spite of any obstacles are important themes for many of us.  Independent functioning and accomplishing more than our parents are wonderful ideals.  In this post I want to explore two different perspectives on parenting that emerged from the field of psychology in the 20th century that I believe influence many of our parenting choices today, even if we are unaware of names like John Bowlby or B.F. Skinner.  Understanding these perspective better will better equip any parent for the difficult and rewarding job of mom or dad.

behaviorist & Learning Theory

The first stance is what I call the “don’t reinforce the behavior you don’t want to see more of” stance.  It’s also called behaviorism or learning theory.  Psychologists and scientists like Ivan Pavlov, James B. Watson and B.F. Skinner popularized this view, especially in the United States.  Behaviorism is appealing for many reasons, one in particular is that it supports the belief that kids are be “born bad” and instead can be “made good”.  That feels better to many parents and gives them hope and a simple plan to follow – train your kid by rewarding good behavior and punishing or at least not rewarding bad behavior.  The underlying theory of belief behind this approach is that children, and people in general, are like a blank slate when it comes to personality, feelings, and behavior.  The classic example from the early days of behaviorism is teaching a parent not pick up a crying baby so the baby learns not to cry.  A more modern example is the behavior chart for toddlers on up (which, by the way, my wife and I are considering starting with our toddler).   The one aspect of this approach that I do like is the focus on learning over inheritance.  There’s something very American about the ideal that all people are born with the ability to learn how to succeed and can be trained to function better.  It’s very egalitarian because it’s available to any child with parents who commit to training that child.

Attachment Theorists

The second stance is the “comfort and support your kid so they don’t suffer unnecessarily” approach.  I trace this back to attachment theory as developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth.  In the U.S. Ainsworth was the main supporter of the idea that interpreted they crying baby example very differently.  Ainsworth would say that when a baby is crying, it’s an important assertive behavior that signals to parents and other caregivers that support is needed.  The idea here is that the very behaviors of infants and young children that are distressing to parents, are actually pre-wired and important communication.  Basically, attachment-oriented therapists recommend that a parent focus on responding well to any attempt by a child to seek out comfort, especially in the first year.

Integrating both approaches

Today it appears that most parenting books have found a middle ground supported by both parenting perspectives.  It is found in a common parenting goal that sounds something like this: raise a child to become a healthy adult able to function interdependently, one who can face the hard facts of life with an inner strength derived as much from a network of supportive relationships as one’s own self.

As I’ve read Robert Karen’s review of the academic battles in the late 20th century between learning/behavioral theorists and attachment theorists, I’ve come to appreciate the principles from both sides.  That’s also helped me be more open to the excellent research behaviorists and attachment theorists have done.  The results suggest that humans, like many other animals in our world, do learn a great deal through reinforcement of healthy individual or social behaviors.  Research has also shown how focusing a lot of energy on responding to babies cries in the first 12 months and then teaching toddlers and children to seek comfort and support from others pays huge dividends in equipping them with the resilience they need to bounce back from setbacks, even the most tragic kind.

So in a sense, the best behaviors to reinforce in anyone are the ones that help you seek comfort, support and connection from available others who are willing to provide that much-needed behavioral response.

Recent examples of behavior and attachment wisdom

I found a recent example of how adults, who didn’t learn to seek out support very well when they were younger, can develop health attachment behaviors from the NPR article “How Learning to be Vulnerable Can Make Life Safer” about how Shell Oil Company taught a group of tough, inexpressive oil workers to get extremely emotionally vulnerable so that they could develop the inner strength do their job better in more dangerous conditions and with fewer injuries.

Here’s a great article from Upworthy on research on what behaviors to focus on with kids in kindergarten – Researchers studied kindergartners’ behavior and followed up 19 years later.  Here are the findings.

Good luck out there as you attempt to navigate the confusing ocean of parenting and self-help resources.  I hope this helps.  For more resources on developing a health self, child or family I recommend the following:




©Ryan W. Gano – – 2016

photo credit: Love you Son via photopin (license)

Dealing With Distressing Emotions in Oneself and Others

Distressing Emotion

Dealing with distressing emotions like anger, fear, hurt, frustration, and others that are generally know as “negative emotions” is one of the most difficult aspects of any relationship.  Whether it is how to accept and understand our own feelings, or how to understand and respond to someone else’s feelings, therapists are often working with clients on the consequences of how they have learned to manage and share distress.

As I’ve been reading Robert Karen’s very informative book “Becoming Attached,” I am reminded of how important it is to view distress as an important survival skill in relationships, and not something to be ignored or criticized.  In Karen’s book, the author cites child psychiatrist John Bowlby for for advice on why parents in particular must learn to tolerate the expression of negative emotions in their children if they want to create a home life for the family that promotes good future adjustment in life.  Bowlby wrote in his 1979 book “The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds:”

Nothing helps a child more than being able to express hostile and jealous feelings candidly, directly, and spontaneously, and there is no parental task more valuable, I believe, than being able to accept with equanimity such expressions of filial piety as, ‘I hate you, mummy,’ or ‘Daddy you’re a beast.’  By putting p with these outbursts we show our children that we are not afraid of hatred and that we are confident it cal be controlled; moreover, we provide for the child the tolerant atmosphere in which self-control can grow.

Unfortunately, parents often do “just the opposite” writes Karen.  For a variety of reasons, many of us have learned that feelings like jealousy, hatred, and hurt are too dangerous to express.  Instead many of us learn to suppress feelings like that because we fear they will not be well received by those we know the best and with whom we want to be closest.  It is not an accident that one of the core skills that people learn in couples therapy is how to share difficult and distressing emotions in a safer way.  I believe that when we learn to ignore or avoid expressing distressing emotions, we are learning to function poorly in all relationships, especially the important ones.

In future posts I plan to dive more deeply into practical ways to increase one’s tolerance of his or her own negative emotions and also how to better respond to others when they share the same emotions.

Next Steps

For now I would suggest further reading that would help you answer the questions like:

  • What are my distressing emotions trying to tell me about what’s going on with me and this person?
  • What are the feelings I find most difficult to experience when conflicts happen?
  • What would I like to be able to say about my feelings to people, for whom I care most?

A few books that I find helpful when asking such self-reflective questions are: Alice Millers, “The Drama of the Gifted Child” and Dan Allender’s “The Healing Path“and “To be Told.

©Ryan W. Gano – – 2016

photo credit: Girl and Grief via photopin (license)

Relationship Patterns in Couples Therapy

attachment theory word collage
Attachment Theory

This is a post about relationship patterns in couples therapy.  I’ve noticed a pattern when I work with couples to improve their relationship.  It has to do with how people learn to communicate with those who matter most. We seem to take the good and bad experiences with family and then apply those expectations and habits with our spouse and children.  If you ask most people, I suspect the idea that we develop a communication style over time and repeat it automatically is not a surprising pattern.  It’s certainly not surprising to psychology researchers and psychotherapists.  But interestingly enough, telling your significant other that most of your relationship problems started with your family can sound a lot like an excuse.  Almost like “it’s not my fault that I’m a bad listener, a jerk….”

Attachment theory, the science of love

The psychological community calls the phenomena that past relationships heavily influence the quality of our present relationships the theory of attachment, or more recently – the science of love.  John Bowlby, a psychoanalyst clinician, and Mary Main, a researcher, developed and tested attachment theory in the 1950’s.  In the 1990’s the Canadian psychologist Susan Johnson used Bowlby’s work to develop a treatment for couples in marital distress called Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, EFT for short that has proved in clinical trials to be extremely effective (70% success rate; 90% improvement rate in clinical trials with couples).  I learned about attachment theory and EFT in graduate school and have come to rely on it as a foundation of my therapeutic work today.  In fact, I have found that EFT is an excellent treatment for relationship problems of all kinds with couples and individuals.

EFT’s effectiveness as an attachment informed approach to therapy is one of the reasons that I have developed a greater appreciation for the work of other psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud, John Bowlby, Heinz Kohut and Michael Franz Basch. Freud, being the first psychoanalysts and also the most criticized, sought to understand why some people in 19th century Austria were acting neurotically, in more modern terms, experiencing a mental illness. He then worked on ways to treat it effectively.  Of course Freud’s theories about how the biological brain might work have proven incorrect, but his belief that we humans were not fully aware of the motivation behind many of our behaviors was on target then and I believe is just as on target now.  I think the best way to appreciate Freud’s contribution to effective psychotherapy is that he was the first loud voice in the modern world to proclaim that the unconscious must be made conscious for humans to function well, especially in relationships.

John Bowlby in the 1950’s and many more since have taken the idea that we are not fully aware of why we do what we do and applied it to problems in relationships.  Bowlby and other attachment theorists make a convincing case that for us human beings, we need relationships in order to survive.  Without connection we die.  This explains why people often choose bad relationships over no relationships most of the time.  I saw this repeatedly when I worked in a homeless shelter for battered women.  Until we started talking about attachment, they couldn’t explain why they kept going back to bad men.  In the hospital psychiatric unit where I spend part of my work week, those who’ve chosen no relationships are also the anxious and depressed.  I don’t think it’s an accident that mental illnesses like schizophrenia and other disorders with psychotic symptoms seem most severe in patients who are most isolated.

An example from cinema
Cast Away screen shot
Chuck and Wilson

In the 2000 film Cast Away, the character Chuck Noland, played by Tom Hanks, is a great example of how badly humans need relationships.  Chuck is stuck on a deserted island with no one to talk to.  Eventually he turns to a Wilson brand volleyball for friendship.  Chuck basically develops symptoms of a delusional disorder in order to function and survive.  “Wilson” becomes a human.  I believe you and I need relationships just as much and we’ll do almost anything to get some version of it.  If we go without a sense of connection, of being known and cared for by someone, for too long, then life stops meaning much.  It’s only a matter of time before that state of mind leads people to the suicide hotline and a visit to the ER.

Dealing with the past when it’s still too alive
happy stick figures

This innate need for connection to others is why I think couples therapy can be so helpful for people to safely explore their own adaptations in relationships and start making positive changes. After just a little exploration in a therapy session, most of people I work with start seeing how many of their defensive and aggressive responses to others are rooted in bad experiences from the past.  Once couples start learning with a good therapist to identify the feelings underneath their angry, defensive, critical actions, it doesn’t take long to start talking about those feelings and perceptions in much healthier way.  After a little coaching from a therapist coupled with enough time feeling safe while you talk and listen, relationships start to change.  It’s very hard work, don’t get me wrong.  Learning to do this usually starts off very rocky, but just like learning to walk, it doesn’t take long for healthy communication to make sense and seem much easier than fighting all the time.

Suggestions for growth

If you’re thinking that you may have learned some pretty bad lessons in your life about how to be in relationships, or if you’re open to the possibility that the way you respond to others seems to follow a pattern that may have developed a long time ago, I encourage you to consult with a therapist trained in improving relationships. Another good way to start learning about yourself and your need for good relationships is to read about attachment.  Susan Johnson is my go to sources for simple explanations for why we respond to others in all sorts of ineffective ways.  Love Sense is her latest book for the general public.  Another book of hers that I like is Hold Me Tight.  That’s her step-by-step manual for improving marriages.  I’ve read both and recommend them to clients all the time.

If you’re interested in a more scholarly work about attachment theory, I found this article by Inge Bretherton from the journal of Developmental Psychology – The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth.

The best scholarly resource I’ve read is Mikulincer and Shaver’s book Attachment in Adulthood.  It’s become my “go to” for attachment theory research.  I learned about it while attending an EFT training.

Finally, I recommend reading John Bowlby’s work.  There’s nothing like going straight to the source.  My favorite so far is a collection of Bowlby’s essays and speeches from 1956 to 1977 – Bowlby the Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds.