Coach Your Child to Happiness

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The headlines across the country on January 13 read, “Powerball Jackpot Reaches $1.5 Billion.” Such a staggering amount of money caused ‘Powerball Fever’, with people buying 50 tickets, or more. A man who won seven lottery grand prizes offered this advice, “Buy as many tickets as you can afford.” The line for tickets at King Soopers in Lafayette stretched to the parking lot on the day before the drawing, and people could be overheard talking about ways to spend the money. “I’d buy a big house in Florida,” said one woman. “I’d quit my job selling insurance, buy a motor home and travel,” said someone else. “I’d pay off all of my loans and pay for my kids to go to college,” said another. Imagine how happy you’d be if you won the lottery!

Now imagine this: who is happier, the person who won the Powerball or someone who had a debilitating accident and is paralyzed? Most of us would answer the newly minted millionaire, right? The reality is that neither is happier. Sonya Lyubomirsky, psychologist and author of The How of Happiness, has shown that we have a personal set point for happiness, and no matter the life circumstance, we return to our happy set point after several months. This set point is about 50% genetic, 10% circumstances and 40% behavior.   In other words, some of our happiness is determined by our hardwiring and circumstances, but not all. A large part of our happy set point comes from being emotionally intelligent.

So, what exactly is emotional intelligence? Emotional intelligence just means being smart with feelings. It’s about connecting the rational and emotional so you can get along with others and solve problems. Research into emotional intelligence shows that it is at least as important as grades and test scores in predicting satisfaction and success.

In my work as both a child and family therapist and psychology professor, I have learned some things about how to help children raise their emotional intelligence, and ultimately their success and happiness. Emotionally intelligent kids have parents who are their Emotion Coaches, according to John Gottman, PhD. This doesn’t mean that as parents we stand behind our kids, prompting them to say, do or feel a certain way. This doesn’t mean that there is a prescribed set of parenting steps that makes kids turn out happy. And this doesn’t mean that we, as parents, have to be perfect, either. Parenting is hard work. We will mess up, guaranteed. Research shows that if we are good Emotion Coaches 40% of the time, we’re doing really well, and our kids are likely to do well too.

Emotion Coaching is more like a philosophy than a recipe. According to Gottman, there are five key characteristics of an Emotion Coaching parent:

 

  • Emotion Coaching parents know their child on a deep level because they pay attention to their child’s emotions, and the small emotions are just as important as the big ones.
  • Emotion Coaching parents place the child’s emotions front and center because they recognize that these emotions are an opportunity for connection and learning.
  • Emotion Coaching parents teach emotional vocabulary by helping their children label their emotions.
  • Emotion Coaching parents communicate empathy, without giving advice.
  • Emotion Coaching parents set limits and problem solve, while recognizing that 95% of problem solving is understanding and empathy.

 

Parenting is a job of the heart. Staying emotionally engaged with our children helps them to become emotionally intelligent adults who are happy and successful in all walks of life.

Be well,

Holly

 

Holly Chandler, MA, LPC is a psychology professor at Front Range Community College and a psychotherapist in private practice working with children and families. http://www.hollychandlerlpc.com

 

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Eat Healthy, Be Balanced This Holiday Season

holidaytreatsIt’s the holiday season and many of us try to eat healthy by avoiding a lot of high-fat foods. We often start the season by turning away egg nog, homemade pies, cookies and candy. But by mid-December, we can’t seem to resist the constant bombardment of flavors of the season.   One delicious cookie often leads to another and another and another…

So why do we keep eating those high-fat foods even though we aren’t hungry anymore?

Researchers at Vanderbilt University have discovered one of the reasons why eating high fat foods causes many of us to just keep eating those high fat foods. Ideally, our bodies keep a perfect balance between energy consumption and energy expenditure. But when we consume high fat foods, our body’s ability to signal the feeling of being satisfied is hijacked by that high fat food. Eating a high fat or high carbohydrate diet actually causes changes in brain areas that control eating, decreasing a brain chemical associated with feelings of reward, making tasty foods feel less and less satisfying – so we just keep eating. When this part of the brain isn’t firing properly, it leads to a cycle of over eating that further cements these disruptive brain changes, making it that much harder to get off the vicious high-fat cycle.

While understanding what’s going on in the brain when we overeat is helpful, here are some concrete things that we can do to make it less likely that we hop on that high-fat cycle while still enjoying the flavors of the season:

 

  • Start the day with protein. According to researchers at the University of Missouri, eating a protein rich breakfast improves appetite control during the day and even reduces unhealthy snacking on high fat and high sugar foods in the evening. Eating a protein rich breakfast also increases levels of a brain chemical associated with feelings of reward, which reduces overeating during the day.

 

  • Be proactive in handling holiday stress. A great way to do this is to integrate a mindfulness-based practice into each day. Mindfulness is the practice of focusing attention on the present moment with an attitude of curiosity, openness and acceptance, and research has shown it is an effective way to handle stress. In fact, according to a recent study from Florida State University, even washing dishes can reduce stress when it is done mindfully. By simply focusing on the feel of the water and the smell of the soap, this can promote a mindful state and overall sense of well-being.

 

  • Remember when holiday crunch time kicks in, keep your exercise routine. When schedules get crazy, we often give up exercise, but it’s one of the things we need most. Exercise helps burn off adrenaline, calms us down, and gives us a dopamine rush, which is a mood enhancing brain chemical.

 

So this holiday, remember these tips as you enjoy the flavors of the season. Wishing you and your family a happy, healthy and mindful holiday season!

Holly

The Emotional Brain: Emotional Intelligence Part 4

The Development of the Emotional Brain

We are born with this very fundamental human need for attachment and are also equipped from the start with the challenges and strengths of our specific nature. And we come with no manual.  As we look at how the emotional brain grows, we need to understand some basic workings of the brain.  The right and left hemispheres are part of the cortex, which is the upper most part of the brain.  Humans have a much larger cortex than other creatures, which accounts for your ability to read this blog, and why dogs can’t.  During the first year of life, the right hemisphere, while linked with strong emotions and the dominant hemisphere for processing imagery, is more fully online than the left hemisphere which processes language. This explains why infants don’t understand what we say, but are transfixed by certain images, movement, and a mother’s loving gaze. The left hemisphere, which plays a starring role in language, undergoes exuberant growth by age 1, and  this is observed when a child utters her first words.  The limbic system, which is located deep inside the brain and is online at birth continues to experience a growth spurt during infancy, and is the driving force behind emotions, memories, and motivation throughout life.  The right and left hemispheres are in constant communication with the limbic system.  Brain development begins at conception, and the limbic system is especially sensitive to the mother’s stress hormones during the pregnancy.  In fact, research has suggested that increased stress in the pregnant mother causes elevated levels of cortisol in the baby’s blood, and this stress hormone is seen to impact the growing limbic system.   Once the baby is born, how the limbic system has been primed to respond to stress has some links to the environment in utero. Further research by Gabor Mate has found, for example, that elevated levels of cortisol in utero are correlated with behavior problems at age 8.

Once born, nature and nurture continue to dance together in the beautifully complicated ways that the brain develops.  A large body of research supports the concept that attachment experiences derived from immediately after birth directly impacts the brain growth spurt of infancy, but especially the “emotional brain” or right hemisphere.  The limbic system also continues to be significantly influenced by our social-emotional experience in the first year of life.  The threads of how we deal with strong feelings, what we remember either consciously or unconsciously, and our ability to cope with stress can be traced back to our early social and emotional experiences.  Why is this?   When we experience emotional events, the processing of this information flows to the right hemisphere which has a direct link to the limbic system, where we automatically assess the emotional content of the situation, such as whether or not we are going to be OK, whether this experience is bad or is familiar, and how we dealt with this in the past.  Depending on how the limbic system has been programmed as a result of early life experiences, it will send a signal back up to the right hemisphere, which then sends the information to the left hemisphere for concrete expression. The left hemisphere does not have a direct link to the limbic system, but has to first feed through the right hemisphere for interpretation.

The dance between the baby’s growing brain and the mother’s psycho-biological attunement to the baby’s emotional and physical state is primarily a right brain to right brain communication between mom and baby (remember the left hemisphere, which governs language, is not fully online yet, but the right brain is).  In the most responsive communication, the mother is essentially providing a surrogate brain by being attuned to the baby, and intuitively reducing the baby’s discomfort through her synchrony – her soothing voice, eye contact, gentle touch, smile and communication of love which is coordinated with the baby’s needs  This repeated pairing of the baby’s discomfort and disorganization with the mother’s sharing in and then guiding the baby out of the discomfort lays the foundations for the internal working model of how we deal with strong feelings and stress.  The right hemisphere and limbic system either become hyper attuned to stress or handle stress well and implicitly know that things will soon return to normal.  In this way, a baby’s emotions are initially regulated externally by the caregiver, and by the end of the first year of life, the baby has internalized this template from the caregivers and right brain neurophysiology has been laid down for how to regulate emotions.

As adults, how we cope with stress can be seen in how our neurobiology fires.  Under low levels of stress, our limbic system remains quiet, our right hemisphere remains quiet, and our left hemisphere uses executive coping mechanisms, such as logic and reasoning, to handle the situation.  Under medium stress, the right hemisphere begins to perk up, and begins to dominate our emotional response.  Under high stress, we immediately shift down into the strong emotions of the limbic system and react quickly in a fight, flight or freeze response. Whether or not we perceive a given situation as low, medium or high stress is determined in part by this early internalized template of emotional regulation.  We learned very early on, as Henny Penny cried, if the “sky is falling!” with any given small, medium or large crisis.   And, if the “sky is falling” with every little crisis, our right emotional brain is hijacking our left logical brain.  When we experience an emotion arousing experience with the potential of stress, this begins a right brain-to left brain-to right brain response pattern.

Let’s sum this up. In all emotional experiences, our right brain initially process the experience, and depending on our history either sends the experience to the left brain to rationally reflect or directly down to the limbic system to react in an automatic knee-jerk reaction.  Our emotional expression is modulated  if the left brain has an opportunity to process, or mentalize the experience.  Our emotional expression can be explosive if we are hijacked by the limbic system and the left logical brain is not handling the situation.  Remember, however, that the dance between nature and nurture is a complicated tapestry of interactions.  We are not imprisoned by either our past experiences or by our genetic predisposition.  In future posts, we will continue to examine not only how early attachment and nurturing can hardwire the brain but ways to rewire and build resiliency for emotional well being.

 

 

 

Marshmallows With Feelings

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  Marshmallows With Feelings   In the history of child psychology, most would agree that the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment from 1970 is the cutest experiment they’ve ever seen. Preschool age children were given a marshmallow and told that they could eat it now, or have two marshmallows if they waited 15 minutes, during which time the experimenter left the room. A hidden camera captured the child sitting alone with the deliciously tempting marshmallow, recording every sigh, wiggle, grunt, shuffle, sniff and lick in an often futile attempt to while away the eternal 15 minutes to earn that extra marshmallow.   In the end, two thirds of the kids couldn’t wait. In further studies, psychologists have found that the children who could wait for the second marshmallow tended to be less impulsive, were more competent as adolescents and even scored higher on SATs. One study even suggested that their brains were different – that the prefrontal cortex, which governs planning, attention and prosocial behavior, was bigger. In other words, waiting for that marshmallow seems to equate to higher intelligence and emotional intelligence. So, what exactly is emotional intelligence? Emotional intelligence just means being smart with feelings. It’s about connecting the rational and emotional so you can get along with others and solve problems. The fact of the matter is that problems are a part of life, and at the end of the day it’s not about avoiding problems and conflict, it’s about how we navigate through them. Our emotions are a source of wisdom, and not something to push away. They help us pay attention, focus our attention and can guide us in ways that linear and analytic thinking cannot. Emotions are also part of our biology – they are chemicals that regulate our brain and body. Emotions ultimately propel us towards a more successful, productive and happy life. Research on emotional intelligence has shown that:

  • The ability to recognize emotions affects life satisfaction
  • Emotional intelligence predicts job success
  • Emotional intelligence improves personal relationships
  • Effective leaders have higher emotional intelligence

What does this mean for the adorable little boy in the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment who poked, prodded and sniffed, only to gobble up the marshmallow after 10 painfully long minutes? Can emotional intelligence be learned? According to Peter Salovey, a leading researcher on emotional intelligence and president of Yale University, a better way to ask this question is, “Can we increase our emotional competency?” The answer, in short, is yes. Emotional competency is like a muscle, and just as we work out to increase how far we run or how much we lift, we can engage in behaviors that increase our emotional muscle. How can we help our kids to build their emotional muscle? John Gottman, PhD, author of “The Heart of Parenting” shares this, “It is said that in Chinese the ideogram representing “opportunity” is encompassed in the ideogram for crisis. Nowhere is the linking of these two concepts more apt than in our roles as parents.  Whether the crisis is a broken balloon, a falling math grade, or the betrayal of a friend, such negative experiences can serve as superb opportunities to empathize, to build intimacy with our children, and to teach them ways to handle their feelings.” In other words, showing our children empathy and intimacy around every day experiences are two of the most important things that we can do as parents to foster emotional intelligence. Research into emotional intelligence is showing us that it is at least as important as grades and test scores in predicting satisfaction and success. Look for more ways to build your, and your children’s, emotional muscle in future blog posts.   Holly Chandler, MA, LPC is a psychology professor at Front Range Community College and a psychotherapist in private practice working with children and families.   Illustration by Annabelle Tracy. Annabelle is an illustration & graphic design major at Pratt Institute and is Holly’s oldest daughter.

Traits and States: Emotional Intelligence Part 3

Let’s continue looking at emotional intelligence, but this time lets look through the lens of inborn temperament.

This rich tapestry of who we are contains the vibrant threads of our traits, temperament and personality.  Research by Dr. Terry Brazelton suggests that some ways of being are part of our inborn nature.  In other words, infant behavior styles, which include the innate ability to self-console, are present from the first breath. Dr. Brazelton has developed a tool, called Brazelton’s Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale (NBAS), to objectively measure some of these inborn traits. http://www.brazelton-institute.com/intro.html.

Research by Jerome Kagan, Harvard University,  (http://necsi.edu/faculty/kagan.html) suggests that individual differences in the tendency to become distressed is a very stable quality from the beginning of life.  What is perhaps more interesting, however, is that these inborn behavioral styles, or temperament, can impact how a child attaches with her primary caregiver and conversely how the caregiver attaches with the child.  How is this possible? Consider a first time mother, who is eagerly anticipating the birth of her baby girl.  She eats well, exercises, has regular medical check-ups, designs a warm, welcoming nursery and with her spouse she celebrates the day her baby is born.  After one night in the hospital, she brings her new baby home, and from that first night, the baby cries most of the night. As weeks pass, the baby continues to be difficult to soothe.  Mom tries everything she can think of to sooth her baby, but nothing seems to work. She cradles him in her arms, rocks him, nurses him, coos to him, sings to him, but the baby is simply not easily soothed. The baby would score low on consolability. In other words, the Brazelton Neonatal Behavioral Assessment would likely show that the infant is challenged in ‘state regulation’ or in comforting herself. She may also be easily overstimulated by sensory input. In this situation, the mother’s vision of how she would care for her infant doesn’t match the reality of her situation, and she begins to think that she is a bad mother, or not cut out to be the mother she thought she would be.   As a result, feeling ineffective, she might feel herself disengage a little bit and become slightly less responsive to her baby’s cries.  This in turn can begin a feedback loop for the baby who learns that the availability of her care giver is inconsistent and unpredictable.

Now, let’s push this scenario further along and consider another potential aspect of one’s base state of being. Richard Davidson, from the University of Wisconsin, has conducted research on infants at 10 months old showing different baselines for stronger left or right brain hemisphere activation.  The current understanding of brain physiology demonstrates that the left hemisphere is linked to more resilient/optimistic response patterns to stress and the right hemisphere is linked with strong negative emotions such as disgust and elevated distress in stressful situations.  Davidson found that at 10 months of age, when the primary caregiver leaves, the baby will react with a predominant left or right hemisphere pattern. So the question becomes, are we born wired with a dominant hemisphere or can our inborn temperament be significantly impacted in the first months of life so as to suggest right or left hemisphere dominance as a result of environment?  While we don’t yet know the answer to this, we can conclude that this propensity for more resilient or more negative response pattern to stress – or a base state of being- is visible at a very early age. (http://www.investigatinghealthyminds.org/ScientificPublications/1989/DavidsonFrontalAbnormalPsychology.pdf)

In the next blog entry, we will look at additional considerations in the development of our emotional brain.  But before we do, consider this quote by John Gottman, PhD, author of The Heart of Parenting: “It is said that in Chinese the ideogram representing “opportunity” is encompassed in the ideogram for crisis”.  Nowhere is the linking of these two concepts more apt than in our roles as parents.  Whether the crisis is a broken balloon, a falling math grade, or the betrayal of a friend, such negative experiences can serve as superb opportunities to empathize, to build intimacy with our children, and to teach them ways to handle their feelings.”