The Project: Children of Divorce – #BreakUpWeek

The Project

The Laughter Task

The stereotypical image of the father throwing a young infant in the air while mum anxiously looks on, is one that all parents are familiar with. Recent research has suggested that this type of vigorous play that typically fathers engage in is not only good for children but may in fact be necessary for their development. Mark Sainsbury and I talked about this research on his Sunday morning show on Radio Live this week.  (Click here to listen to the interview)

Parenting research is generally focused on the importance of the attachment bond between mother and infant. But when using these models to try and understand the bond between a father and child they often don’t adequately describe the quality of the relationship…

“When Kathryn Kerns asked 30 teens and preteens to come to her laboratory and talk about their parents, many of their dads scored low on a standard yardstick her research team was using to evaluate the parent-child bond.

The children described rich, warm relationships with their fathers, however, says Dr. Kerns, a professor of psychological sciences at Kent State University in Ohio. They said things like, “My dad gives me encouragement to do things,” or, “My dad tells me he thinks I can do well.’ ” (Click here for the whole article)

Paternal relationships tend to be more about encouragement, building confidence and engaging the outside world. These are ideas that are familiar to psychodynamic therapists where fathers are seen as the bridge from the  “symbiotic” maternal relationship, to the outward looking engagement with father and thus the outside world.

It’s also true that psychotherapists understand that ‘maternal’ and ‘paternal’ doesn’t necessarily mean a female mother and a male father.  One of the interesting aspects of this recent research is that in male same sex parent relationships the man who takes on the more ‘maternal’ role shows biological changes in parts of the brain (mainly the amygdala) that are identical to the changes that mothers undergo when parenting.  Although the study doesn’t explore it, I have no doubt the same is true, albeit in reverse, for females parenting in same sex relationships.

However all of this exciting rough and tumble play is not just about engaging with the outside world, researchers in the above study came up with a way to measure the quality of the relationship between fathers and young infants in a test they called “The Laughing Task”…

“In this procedure, researchers leave parent and child alone in a lab without toys for two or more minutes and ask the parent to make the child laugh.  “A landmark of optimal fatherhood” may be the ability to maintain sensitivity and emotional rapport during rambunctious play… …Other fathers scared or unnerved their children by using monster voices. Fathers who aren’t sensitive during play can disrupt a child’s ability to form attachments, fostering insecurity and fear.” (Click here for the whole article)

So while this information about the importance and value of young children’s relationship with their fathers may for some be politically and economically uncomfortable, we know from countries where more paternity leave has been offered to fathers that more engaged and attuned fathers leads to a range of positive health outcomes for the infant, the father and the mother…

“There is growing evidence that employment-based family support measures such as maternity and paternity leave after childbirth and parental leave to care for children in the early years has the potential for improving children’s health.  More research is emerging on the benefits of fathers taking parental leave, particularly in the Nordic countries – including boosts in fathers’ involvement in care of infants, cognitive outcomes for children, improvements in the quality of couple relationships and even fertility gains.”  (Click here for the whole article)

Of course this are of research can be used by some to further all sorts of arguments for traditional families, and even by some against same sex parenting.  However this particular study shows clearly, children need a range of different relationships with adults: regardless of gender.

And in light of the recent landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage in the USA, it’s important to underline that there are no differences between children raised by heterosexual and same sex parents…

“The new research, which looked at 19,000 studies and articles related to same-sex parenting from 1977 to 2013, was released last week, and comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule by the end of this month on whether same-sex marriage is legal.
“Consensus is overwhelming in terms of there being no difference in children who are raised by same-sex or different- sex parents,” University of Oregon sociology professor Ryan Light said on Tuesday.” (Click here for the whole article)

Love wins indeed.


Poor little rich kids

Poor little rich kids

We all know money can’t buy you love, but it seems that it also can’t guarantee your children’s happiness.  Mark and I talked about some recent studies on Radio Live today, specifically about the impact of growing up in upper middle class families.  The results aren’t what you’d expect.  (Click here for to listen to the interview)

One of the things I love about science, and the social sciences in particular, is how they can throw up completely unexpected results that challenge our stereotypes and force us to re-think things.  Dr. Suniya Luthar’s research into vulnerability and resilience in young people is an example of this, and her most surprising results were initially discovered by accident.

She was studying the effects of growing up in lower socio-economic familes on young people, and as part of this research needed a control group, or a “normal” sample with which to compare her low socio-economic kids.  However once she had gathered data on a group of upper middle class, suburban teens from the North East of the US, she was shocked by what she found.  Not only was this group not a suitable “control” but on many measures they were faring worse than their poorer, inner city peers.

After further investigations, and more studies, the differences started to fall into a predictable pattern.  In prosperous cohorts, teens tended to have worse substance use problems and with all drugs.  They also showed comparable levels of delinquency, albeit of different kinds, with stealing and cheating more prevalent with the more prosperous, and violence and self defence more common in areas of poverty.  The studies also show alarmingly high rates of depression and anxiety, again at comparable rates, and in some cases higher than for poor inner city youth.

“The high rate of maladjustment among affluent adolescents is strikingly counter-intuitive. There is a tacit assumption—even among those most affected—that education and money procure well-being, and that if children falter, they will swiftly get the appropriate services. Education and money may once have served as buffers against distress, but that is no longer the case.”  (Click here for the whole article)

So what’s going on here?  Well subsequent studies have started to isolate some of the factors that seem to cause these high levels of distress in prosperous teens, and these results seem less surprising.  The first is not much of a leap, the pressure of expectation that many young people of wealthy families experience…

“The first of these potential causes of distress was excessive achievement pressures. In upwardly mobile suburban communities, there is often a ubiquitous emphasis on ensuring that children secure admission to stellar colleges. As a result, many youngsters feel highly driven to excel not only at academics but also at multiple extracurricular activities, with these pressures beginning as early as the middle school years.”  (Click here to read the whole article)

The second, at least in my experience, is also not surprising…

“Aside from achievement pressures, a second broad factor potentially salient in suburban students’ adjustment disturbances is disconnection from adults—both literal and emotional… …Most often, this phenomenon reflects not a lack of child care, but rather, parents’ beliefs that it promotes children’s self-sufficiency.”  (Click here to read the whole article)

We might prefer to think that money and opportunity will pave the way for our children’s success, but actually what makes the real difference?  The space to play and grow to know yourself, free of intrusive expectations, and the consistent and loving presence of a attuned parent.  And it’s hard to put a price on that.

“Smacking” legal opinion hides real problem


Press Release: New Zealand Association of Psychotherapists

18th October, 2014


In seeking to challenge and clarify the legal interpretation of section 59, the conservative political lobby group, Family First, are once more attempting to deny the very real psychological impact of physical discipline on our children.

“It’s a shame Family First have to put such a spin on this issue as it leaves little room for reasoned debate and a consideration of the fairly overwhelming empirical science in the area” says New Zealand Association of Psychotherapists Public Issues spokesperson, Kyle MacDonald. “It’s not a question of whether parents who use physical discipline are good parents, but whether smacking kids is good parenting: in other words does it work and does it have any harmful consequences?”

On this, the research is clear, and getting clearer. Studies have looked at the effect of physical discipline on short term compliance, long term compliance and its affects on aggression.  There is evidence that smacking has a small effect on short term compliance, however non-smacking alternatives like “time outs” work at least as well, if not better.  However this comes at quite a cost, in short, smacking makes kids worse behaved over time and more likely to see physical violence and aggression as a way to solve their own interpersonal problems.

The research is also clear that even ‘light’ smacking has been associated with increases in child aggression, delinquent and antisocial behavior, and increased aggression as an adult. It is also linked with a decreased quality of relationship between parent and child, decreased child mental health and worse mental health outcomes as an adult. It can even negatively impact school performance.

“The research shows that even so called light smacking can, and does, have lasting consequences” says Kyle MacDonald. “To “decriminalise” the use of physical discipline creates a legal and cultural sanction for a parenting strategy that we know creates harm. That’s not only bad parenting, but bad policy.”

How young is too young?

Youth drinking

I love it when a piece of research  makes you realise that common wisdom might be common, but not that wise.  This ongoing research from Australia has shown quite clearly that the earlier children are given “sips” of alcohol, the higher the chances they will go on to develop problem drinking habits at a young age.  Mark and I talked about this research, and the problem of youth drinking, on the Sunday Morning show on Radio Live this week.  (Click here for audio of the interview)

So what did the study show?

“The researchers found that 15 and 16-year-olds who were given alcohol by their parents at age 12 and 13 were three times more likely to be drinking full serves than those whose parents had not given them alcohol… … Professor Mattick said the study found that “early parental supply of alcohol through school years 7 to 9 was the single biggest predictor of drinking in year 10.
“It was more influential than family circumstances, individual psychological risk factors and peers.”  (Click here for the whole article)

Give kids alcohol: they’re more likely to drink.  So why is this a problem?  Well the age of commencement of drinking is also one of the strongest predictive factors for adult alcohol dependence.  It’s also true that alcohol use by teenagers is associated with higher levels of motor vehicle accidents; injury; accidental death; increased risks of crime; increased risk of sexual risk taking; and increased mental health problems and suicide.  (Click here for the whole article)

But what about the French approach, I hear you say.  Well more bad news I’m afraid, the French Drinking culture is a myth.  The myth goes, the French all drink wine moderately and introduce their children to drinking wine at a young age, and it works for them.  The real story…

“A quick look at the statistics shows if you drink like the French, you die like the French. Per capita, France has the sixth highest alcohol consumption rate in the world, with 13.5 litres of pure alcohol consumed per adult per year. New Zealand is 27th, with 9.2 litres. Alcohol is involved in half of the deaths from road accidents in France (31 percent in New Zealand), half of all homicides and one-quarter of all suicides. Rates of cirrhosis of the liver are more than double our own.” (Click here for the whole article)

There is little doubt that New Zealand has a youth drinking problem.  There is also little doubt that as a nation we drink too much.  The best available research is from 2011 -12 and found that one in five, about 19{1b812f7ed7a77644fff58caf46676f6948311bf403a3d395b7a7f87010507f87}, of those who had drunk in the last 12 months reported a hazardous drinking pattern.  In terms of youth drinking research from 2007 shows  around one third or 34{1b812f7ed7a77644fff58caf46676f6948311bf403a3d395b7a7f87010507f87} of teens aged 12 – 17 have engaged in binge drinking in the last twelve months.

We also know quite a bit about what helps to reduce youth drinking, but translating facts into good policy is another matter.  The approaches that have been shown to be effective when it comes to reducing harms from alcohol for young people, are also obvious, when you think about it.  They include:

  • Increased alcohol taxation
  • Regulating the availability of alcohol
  • Regulation and policing of drink driving
  • Alcohol marketing restrictions
  • Developing effective treatment services


And I would add to the list, and this can be challenging for some, that if you’re concerned about your teenager’s drinking the first thing you should do is be honest with yourself about your own drinking.  “Do what I say, not what I do” is never an effective parenting approach, nor does it inform good policy.

When love is difficult

Insecure attachment

Over the last couple of chats on Radio Live Sunday Morning, Mark Sainsbury  and I have talked about love and attachment and in the last of our talks on the topic we discussed insecure attachment, how that can effect us throughout our life and make intimate loving relationships hard. (Click here for audio of the interview)

To take an online test to find out what your “Attachment style” is click here, then read on to understand the results…

Broadly speaking, attachment difficulties between mother and baby fall into two main categories.  The effect on the infant are described as either leading to a “anxious/ ambivalent attachment” or an “avoidant attachment”.  And, when it comes to more obvious and horrific abuse, the research talks about “disorganized attachment” which leads to highly chaotic adult behaviour and extreme difficulty functioning in the world.

But back to anxious and avoidant attachment, what do these terms mean and what sorts of parenting cause it?  Firstly Avoidant attachment:

“There are adults who are emotionally unavailable and, as a result, they are insensitive to and unaware of the needs of their children. They have little or no response when a child is hurting or distressed. These parents discourage crying and encourage independence. Often their children quickly develop into “little adults” who take care of themselves. These children pull away from needing anything from anyone else and are self-contained. They have formed an avoidant attachment with a misattuned parent.”

And anxious or ambivalent attachment…

“Some adults are inconsistently attuned to their children. At times their responses are appropriate and nurturing but at other times they are intrusive and insensitive. Children with this kind of parenting are confused and insecure, not knowing what type of treatment to expect. They often feel suspicious and distrustful of their parent but at the same time they act clingy and desperate. These children have an ambivalent/anxious attachment with their unpredictable parent.”  (Click here for the whole article)

As the field of attachment research grew, lead at first by the psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, people natrually started to explore how these attachment patterns persevered into adulthood.  It seems that out of all of our experiences of attachment we form what are called “working models” of how relationships are supposed to look and feel, and these do largely reflect our earliest experiences.

As individuals we may have a number of different working models, for example some people can have very stable and satisfying friendships, but find themselves unable to manage their emotions and responses in intimate relationships.  They may be securely attached in friendships, but insecurely attached in intimate relationships.

In my experience, and the literature backs this up, when we fall in love we are most likely to fall into the patterns of our primary attachment relationship.

So what do adult attachment styles look like?

  • Secure Attachment – Securely attached adults tend to be more satisfied in their relationships. Secure adults offer support when their partner feels distressed. They also go to their partner for comfort when they themselves feel troubled. Their relationship tends to be honest, open and equal, with both people feeling independent, yet loving toward each other
  • Anxious Preoccupied Attachment – Unlike securely attached couples, people with an anxious attachment tend to be desperate to form a fantasy bond. Instead of feeling real love or trust toward their partner, they often feel emotional hunger.  Although they’re seeking a sense of safety and security by clinging to their partner, they take actions that push their partner away.  When they feel unsure of their partner’s feelings and unsafe in their relationship, they often become clingy, demanding or possessive toward their partner.
  • Dismissive Avoidant Attachment – People with a dismissive avoidant attachment have the tendency to emotionally distance themselves from their partner.  They often come off as focused on themselves and may overly attend to their own creature comforts. People with a dismissive avoidant attachment tend to lead more inward lives, both denying the importance of loved ones and detaching easily from them. They are often psychologically defended and have the ability to shut down emotionally.
  • Fearful Avoidant Attachment – A person with a fearful avoidant attachment lives in an ambivalent state of being afraid of being both too close to or too distant from others.  They attempt to keep their feelings at bay but are unable to; they can’t just avoid their anxiety or run away from their feelings. Instead, they are overwhelmed by their reactions and often experience emotional storms.  The person they want to go to for safety is the same person they are frightened to be close to. They often have fears of being abandoned but also struggle with being intimate. They may cling to their partner when they feel rejected, then feel trapped when they are close.

(Click here to see the whole article this was adapted from…)

So what helps us change these patterns?  Insight helps, and that’s why I really encourage you to take five minutes to complete this questionnaire and learn more about your attachment style.  Ultimately however, if your experience is one of insecure attachment as a child, therapy can help by offering an ongoing secure relationship experience.  It can also help to allow yourself to have an ongoing, safe and secure attachment with an intimate partner, and ideally one who has a secure attachment style.

So as I’ve been saying over the last few weeks, love really is the cure.


The cost of love


Human infants are difficult.  It’s a a wonder anyone puts up with them.  But they do, and apart from all the genetic evolutionary arguments, why do we do so?  What is the mechanism of evolution that enables people to put up with it all?  Simply put of course it’s love, or what developmental science has come to call “attachment.”  Mark Sainsbury and I talked about attachment this week on his Radio Live show on Sunday morning. (Click here for audio of the interview)

Simply put attachment is the bond that develops between initially mother and infant, and ideally not long after father and infant, that makes all parents of young children seem like love struck idiots to the uninitiated.  Biologically that bond ensures the survival of our species, as infant humans are absolutely useless and require someone to be absolutely besotted with them, just for basic survival.

But love also helps shape our emotional and relational futures.

“Love literally creates the neural pathways responsible for happiness, calmness, closeness, co-operation, self-regulation. In particular, the second six months of life, known as the “bonding window” to psychologists, are critical to the child’s future ability to sustain relation­ships.” (Click here for the whole article)

All seems common sense enough right?  But so many of our parenting and social practices in recent modern history have gone against this simple wisdom that science, more specifically psychology, has had to prove it and confirm that very small children need to simply be loved and adored by their parents to secure their future psychological health.

The first to empirically prove it is a name anyone who has ever studied basic psychology will recognise, John Bowlby.  Bowlby was a psychologist who studied the effects of maternal deprivation in post war Europe, as a Mental Health Consultant to the World Health Organization.  And in studying maternal deprivation and separation, he developed the theory that the relationship between mother and infant was critical to future emotional health and well being of the infant.  And many of the core tenants of this theory are still very much accepted, including that…

“The formation of emotional attachments contributes to the foundation of later emotional and personality development, and the type of behaviour toward familiar adults shown by toddlers has some continuity with the social behaviours they will show later in life…. …Events that interfere with attachment, such as abrupt separation of the toddler from familiar people or the significant inability of carers to be sensitive, responsive or consistent in their interactions, have short-term and possible long-term negative impacts on the child’s emotional and cognitive life.”  (Click here for the whole article)

So back to the question of my last blog, can love cure us of our anxieties?  Well it depends on what love has meant to you.  Because while we have in our culture a very fixed, romantic view of what love should be, love is simply what we have known it to be, in our experience.

For about two thirds of people, who can be classified as “securely attached” that is going to go largely well.

For the other third, the “insecurely attached” that territory can be a little harder to navigate.  I’m going to go into more depth in my next blog and interview about “insecure attachment patterns”, but one of the research results that really fascinates me is that some studies are starting to show links between early insecure attachment and adult long term physical health outcomes.

So it’s hard not to support the recent government initiative to increase paid parental leave by four weeks by 2016.  But it’s also true that it is still far to little.  When you look at the international comparisons (click here) we’re still down the low end, with the most being awarded by the Scandinavian countries and the UK, all around a year, albeit with varying levels of payout.

The science tells us that  any money spent to ensure that the early years of a child’s life are as secure and predictable as possible, increases their chances of an emotionally and physically healthy life.  And from an economic perspective it saves us all money in health and welfare costs, in the long term.

Who knew love was so political?

For more on this topic, resources and training see the website of the excellent New Zealand non-profit “The Brainwave Trust”: