Wednesday, December 17th, 2014
Children’s drawings of their family are often cute or funny, but they are also reflective of how things are going at home according to new research. The way children sketch themselves and their families can give psychologists important clues to their home life. Children growing up in a home filled with chaos, instability, and/or disorganization tend to draw themselves at a greater distance from their other family members and draw themselves smaller in size relative to the other people in the picture. They also might have a neutral or sad face in the drawing. The children’s diminished sense of self is influenced by their parents’ lack of attention and brief interactions with them — a result of a chaotic, unstructured home.
The researchers sat over 900 children down with markers and paper and asked them to draw a photo of their family with no additional coaching. They found the optimal age for the children in their study was six. At six, children have developed enough fine motor skills to draw detailed drawings, but haven’t yet internalized ideas about an ideal family that could color the way they draw their own family. Researchers studied the drawings and discovered patterns that appeared in the artwork which had been drawn by children from disorganized homes.
Psychologists sometimes shy away from using children’s drawings to draw conclusions about their home life because these interpretations can be so subjective. Two therapists could look at the same drawing and interpret it in totally different ways. This research is a first step towards developing a system to objectively study children’s family drawings and providing therapists with a new tool to help understand their young patients and provide them with appropriate support.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock
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Friday, October 18th, 2013
Even though parents teach children to consider others’ feelings and be kind starting in toddlerhood, the most important cognitive skills associated with empathy are still developing well into adolescence–later for boys than girls, according to a new six-year study published in the journal Developmental Psychology. More from The Wall Street Journal:
In adolescence, critical social skills that are needed to feel concern for other people and understand how they think are undergoing major changes. Adolescence has long been known as prime time for developing cognitive skills for self-control, or executive function.
“Cognitive empathy,” or the mental ability to take others’ perspective, begins rising steadily in girls at age 13, according to a six-year study published recently in Developmental Psychology. But boys don’t begin until age 15 to show gains in perspective-taking, which helps in problem-solving and avoiding conflict.
Adolescent males actually show a temporary decline, between ages 13 and 16, in a related skill—affective empathy, or the ability to recognize and respond to others’ feelings, according to the study, co-authored by Jolien van der Graaff, a doctoral candidate in the Research Centre Adolescent Development at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Fortunately, the boys’ sensitivity recovers in the late teens. Girls’ affective empathy remains relatively high and stable through adolescence.
The riptides are often noticeable to parents. Susan Burkinshaw has tried to cultivate empathy in her two teenage sons, 16 and 18, since they were toddlers, encouraging them to think about others’ feelings. Yet one “went through a period in eighth grade where he was just a bear to deal with. He always had an attitude,” says Ms. Burkinshaw, of Germantown, Md. “Then as quickly as it came on, it turned back off again.”
The findings reflect a major expansion in researchers’ understanding of cognitive growth during adolescence, according to a 2012 research review co-authored by Ronald Dahl, a professor of public health at the University of California at Berkeley. Researchers used to believe that both forms of empathy were fully formed during childhood.
Now, it’s clear that “the brain regions that support social cognition, which helps us understand and interact with others successfully, continue to change dramatically” in the teens, says Jennifer Pfeifer, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Preliminary research in her lab also suggests cognitive empathy rises in teens. The discoveries serve as a new lens for exploring such teen behaviors as bullying and drug abuse.
Image: Teen friends, via Shutterstock
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Tuesday, June 25th, 2013
The reasons that so-called “stage moms” push their kids are the subject of a new study, the first to examine the phenomenon experimentally. Though the findings are less than surprising, researchers are intrigued by the empirical proof of what many have long believed–that stage moms are trying to have their children realize their own unfulfilled dreams–and were able to identify an emotional silver lining to the enmeshment that can happen between a parent and child in such a situation. More from Time.com:
Tigers moms and sports dads, according to the investigation published in the journal PLOS One, are trying to mitigate their own failures by living through their children. That’s not entirely surprising, but, as study co-author Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University says, “Our research provides the first empirical evidence that parents sometimes want their child to fulfill their unfulfilled ambitions—for example, that they want their child to become a physician when they themselves were rejected for medical school.”
The study, which was conducted in Holland, included 73 Dutch parents, mainly women, who were around 43 years old and had children between ages 8 and 15. Bushman and his colleagues asked the parents to complete a psychological test that measured how much they saw their children as part of themselves, rather than as entirely separate people.
Some of the participants were then asked to write about two life ambitions that they hadn’t realized and discuss why those goals were important to them. The rest listed two ambitions that their acquaintances weren’t able to achieve and wrote about the importance of these ambitions to those people. All of the parents then indicated how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements like “I hope my child will achieve what I wasn’t able to achieve,” or “I hope my child will fulfill dreams I wasn’t able to fulfill.” This measured their desire to live through their children.
Those who saw their children most strongly as being part of themselves were more likely to want their kids to fulfill their dreams after thinking about their own failure — while those who saw their children as mainly their own people were not. And the more they saw their kids as part of themselves, the more they wanted their children to achieve their thwarted ambitions.
“When parents see their child as part of themselves, they may experience the child’s achievements as if they were their own,” says Bushman, “They may bask in the reflected glory of the child’s achievements. As such, the child’s achievements may become a surrogate for parents’ own unfulfilled ambitions. In this way, parents could lose some of the feelings of regret and disappointment that they could not achieve these ambitions themselves.”
Traditionally, psychologists have notviewed such “enmeshment,” in which people meld others into their self-perception, as being healthy, since it can lead to too much dependence. But studies found that people who reported seeing their partners as actually being part of themselves actually had closer and more satisfying relationships. Interdependence — not independence — may therefore be healthy.
Image: Beauty pageant winner, via Shutterstock
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Tuesday, June 18th, 2013
Babies who have not yet had their first birthdays may be able to express sympathy, or the feeling of concern for the well-being of others. This is the finding of a study published in the journal PLOS ONE, which found that babies preferred the victim to the aggressor in a bullying-type encounter they watched on a video screen. More from LiveScience:
Because 10-month-olds can’t yet express sympathy verbally, Kyoto University researcher Shoji Itakura and colleagues turned to a common tactic in baby-brain research: using simple animations to determine what infants prefer. They showed 40 babies an animation of a blue ball and a yellow cube.
Half of the infants watched a short clip in which the blue ball chased the yellow cube around the screen, hitting it seven times before finally squishing it against a wall. The other half of the group saw the same movements, including the squishing, but the two shapes moved independently without interacting.
In some cases, the “bully” and “victim” roles were swapped, so that the yellow cube was the bad guy. After watching the show, the babies were shown a real yellow cube and a real blue ball, and given the chance to reach for one of the objects.
In cases where the babies had seen one shape beating up on the other, they overwhelmingly reached for the victim, 16 out of 20 times. In comparison, when the shapes hadn’t interacted, the babies’ choices were basically random — nine went for the shape that had gotten squished, and the other 11 went for the nonsquished shape.
The results could have simply indicated that babies preferred to steer clear of a nasty character, not that they felt sympathy for the bullied one. To rule out that possibility, the researchers conducted a second experiment with 24 babies, also 10 months old. These babies saw a show nearly identical to the first, except there was a third character: a red cylinder. The red cylinder was a neutral presence on-screen, neither bullying nor being bullied.
After watching the animation, the babies were again given a choice of two toys. Half could pick between the “victim” shape and the neutral shape, while the other half got to choose between the bullying shape and the neutral shape.
This time, 10 out of 12 babies given the neutral-or-bully option went with the neutral cylinder. Meanwhile, of the 12 given the neutral-or-victim option, 10 picked the victim.
In other words, even when there was no mean character present that a baby might want to avoid, the babies still picked the victim.
Though researchers caution this study should not be taken as solid proof of sympathy in babies, it does follow other recent research, including a study published in January that found that babies could demonstrate signs of empathy, or being able to guess what another person is feeling.
Image: Baby, via Shutterstock
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Tuesday, November 20th, 2012
Dr. Daniel Stern, the psychiatrist who coined the term “motherese” to describe the unique way mothers communicate with babies, has died. The New York Times has more on his life and work:
“Dr. Stern was noted for his often poetic language in describing how children respond to their world — how they feel, think and see. He wrote one of his half-dozen books in the form of a diary by a baby. In another book, he told how mothers differ psychologically from women who do not have children. He coined the term “motherese” to describe a form of communication in which mothers are able to read even the slightest of babies’ emotional signals.
Dr. Stern, who did much of his research at what is now Weill Cornell Medical College and at the University of Geneva, drew inspiration from Jay S. Rosenblatt’s work with kittens at the American Museum of Natural History in the 1950s. Dr. Rosenblatt discovered that when he removed kittens from their cage, they made their way to a specific nipple of their mother’s even when they were as young as one day old. That finding demonstrated that learning occurs naturally at an exceptionally early age in a way staged experiments had not.
Dr. Stern videotaped babies from birth through their early years, and then studied the tapes second by second to analyze interactions between mother and child. He challenged the Freudian idea that babies go through defined critical phases, like oral and anal. Rather, he said, their development is continuous, with each phase layered on top of the previous one. The interactions are punctuated by intervals, sometimes only a few seconds long, of rest, solitude and reflection. As this process goes on, they develop a sense that other people can and will share in their feelings, and in that way develop a sense of self.
These interactions can underpin emotional episodes that occur years in the future. Citing one example in a 1990 interview with The Boston Globe, Dr. Stern told of a 13-month-old who grabbed for an electric plug. His alarmed mother, who moments before had been silent and loving, suddenly turned angry and sour. Two years later, the child heard a fairy tale about a wicked witch.
“He’s been prepared for that witch for years,” Dr. Stern said. “He’s already seen someone he loves turn into something evil. It’s perfectly believable for him. He maps right into it.”
Dr. Stern described such phenomena in 1985 in “The Interpersonal World of the Infant,” which the noted psychologist Stanley Spiegel, in an interview in The New York Times, called ‘the book of the decade in its influence on psychoanalytic theory.’”
Image: Mother and baby, via Shutterstock
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