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)

Opening Up, How and Why

Face of an Old Man with Shadow

James Pennebaker is a social psychologist and researcher who for the last 40 or so years has studied how and why sharing deep thoughts and feelings about one’s life experiences is good for one’s health.  He wrote an excellent book in 1990 about the nature of self-disclosure and how to do it entitled Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions.    In this post, I explore the importance of finding your way to share deep thoughts and feelings with oneself through writing, with trusted others through conversations and with God through prayer.  Opening up is not a new strategy for mental health and wellness, but it is a difficult skill to practice and maintain, in part, because the risk of opening up in the wrong way and with the wrong people can be devastating.  On the other hand, according to Pennebaker and many others, safe and prudent self-disclosure is quite natural for social beings like humans and more importantly self-disclosure heals.

Anxiety, Stress and Self-Disclosure

Pennebaker begins his book sharing various examples of the natural instinct among humans to confess.  He calls it a natural urge among our species.  Why does he say confession is natural?  It it is natural because our bodies do not store stress or secrets very well.  Our bodies and minds want to get rid of stress and keeping secrets about painful relationship betrayals is stressful and often leads to the development of an anxiety disorder.

The stress I’m referring to is not the normal anxiety of life.  Normal anxiety, as Rollo May would say, is inescapable, stimulating, life giving and a source of creativity.  Normal anxiety keeps us alert and helps us feel alive.  It’s a good thing.  In contrast, neurotic anxiety, as May described it, is what I believe effective self-disclosure reduces or eliminates.  Pennebaker points out many times in his book how his research showed that self-disclosure of traumatic experience led to few doctor visits for his research subjects.

This makes a lot of sense to me as a therapist because I see patients and clients do all sorts of destructive thing to themselves and in their relationships in order to avoid neurotic anxiety.  I see it on a daily basis.  For example, some of us repress memories.  We constrict our faces and body language to hide our discomfort and emotional pain.  We turn to substances of all kinds to relax and distract our bodies and minds from intense work of hiding our thoughts and feelings.  We do all sorts of exhausting things to avoid Neurotic anxiety and inhibit ourselves.  The sad consequence of such commitment to neurotic anxiety is that our closest friends and family cannot tell how we’re doing, so they assume everything is fine.  Self-disclosure acts as an antidote for isolation of this kind.

Necessary for Survival

Learning to open up is difficult.  If one will remain open to the idea that self-disclosure is necessary for survival, then there is hope for recovery.  Humans have developed an amazing system to expel neurotic anxiety and stress, a system John Bowlby in the 1950’s called the “attachment system.”  It is a system of self-disclosure and comfort seeking through building relationships that allow you to share deep fears and vulnerable thoughts with a few available people throughout life (It is unclear to me if Pennebaker was familiar with Bowlby’s work when he wrote Opening Up, but I suspect he is very aware of attachment theory by now).  Self-disclosure taps into the resources of our attachment system.  Here’s how to try it.

How to Open Up through writing

Pennebaker recommends addressing past or recent trauma in a solitary fashion by either writing or through prayer as an easy place to start. (If you appreciate the Judeo-Christian traditions of prayer I recommend reading Psalm 13 and 31 as good examples of King David self-disclosing through prayer).  Another great example of literary self-disclosure can be found in Shakespear’s plays.  Read any of his characters soliloquys or watch any modern cinematic adaption of them to get a sense of this way to open up.

The key to opening up through writing is expressing deep thoughts and feelings.  It’s not enough to write down the facts of a traumatic experience.  It’s not enough to just write down feelings either.  Pennebaker makes it clear in his book that receiving the benefit of fewer health problems only seems to happen when we write about everything.  Consider it a “free writing” exercise like the ones your English teacher assigned you in junior high or high school.  No self-censuring allowed.

How to Open Up through talking with someone

Self-disclosing with people is the a good place to complete the stress and neurotic anxiety expulsion process.  I believe the human to human part of experience of self-disclosure is so important because it most directly engages our internal attachment system.  It’s just very difficult to get all the naturally occurring comfort chemicals and neurotransmitters in our brains to release unless we are in the presence of another person.  As a therapist I know full well that not everyone has a good support system.  Sometimes we don’t have the right support available to open up with, like a good listening friend or family member.  When that is the case, a support group or a therapeutic group is a very good alternative.  Individual therapy is another great option.  Here in San Antonio, Texas, there are some great groups led by non-profits like NAMI, Depression Bipolar Support Alliance, and local mental health friendly churches like City Church.  All of these groups can offer the stressed and inhibited person relief.  One doesn’t have to share everything right away to start receiving the health benefits.  In my experience, it is perfectly fine to start by sharing that it’s hard to share.  Baby steps are quite meaningful steps.

What psychologists, social psychologists, artists, and other wise sages have confirmed (probably since the beginning of written history) is that humans function best, even in adversity, when they can self-disclose, confess and open up to themselves through writing, to God through prayer, and to available others through taking the risk of self-disclosure.

If you would like to learn more about how to open up with others and through writing I encourage you to check out Pennebaker’s book.  If you’re interested in the Rollo May’s ideas about anxiety that I referenced, here is a fascinating 1978 interview with Psychology Today on Understanding and Coping With Anxiety.

©Ryan W. Gano – – 2016

photo credit: Experiments in Black and White via photopin (license)