Peter H Brown Clinical Psychologist

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Under Pressure: Why We “Choke” At The Critical Moment

A star golfer misses a critical putt; a brilliant student fails to ace a test; a savvy salesperson blows a key presentation. Each of these people has suffered the same bump in mental processing: They have just choked under pressure.

Credit: and Source: ScienceDaily

It’s tempting to dismiss such failures as “just nerves.” But to University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, they are preventable results of information logjams in the brain. By studying how the brain works when we are doing our best — and when we choke — Beilock has formulated practical ideas about how to overcome performance lapses at critical moments.

“Choking is suboptimal performance, not just poor performance. It’s a performance that is inferior to what you can do and have done in the past and occurs when you feel pressure to get everything right,” said Beilock, an associate professor in psychology.

Preventing choking in sports Some of the most spectacular and memorable moments of choking occur in sports when the whole world is watching. Many remember golfer Greg Norman’s choke at the 1996 U.S. Masters. Norman had played brilliantly for the first three days of the tournament, taking a huge lead. But on the final day, his performance took a dive, and he ended the Masters five shots out of first place.

Choking in such cases happens when the polished programs executed by the brains of extremely accomplished athletes go awry. In “Choke,” Beilock recounts famous examples of these malfunctions in the context of brain science to tell the story of why people choke and what can be done to alleviate it.

Thinking too much about what you are doing, because you are worried about losing the lead (as in Norman’s case) or worrying about failing in general, can lead to “paralysis by analysis.” In a nutshell, paralysis by analysis occurs when people try to control every aspect of what they are doing in an attempt to ensure success.

Unfortunately, this increased control can backfire, disrupting what was once a fluid, flawless performance.

“My research team and I have found that highly skilled golfers are more likely to hole a simple 3-foot putt when we give them the tools to stop analyzing their shot, to stop thinking,” Beilock said. “Highly practiced putts run better when you don’t try to control every aspect of performance.” Even a simple trick of singing helps prevent portions of the brain that might interfere with performance from taking over, Beilock’s research shows.

Preventing choking on tests and in business The brain also can work to sabotage performance in ways other than paralysis by analysis. For instance, pressure-filled situations can deplete a part of the brain’s processing power known as working memory, which is critical to many everyday activities.

Beilock’s work has shown the importance of working memory in helping people perform their best, in academics and in business. Working memory is lodged in the prefrontal cortex and is a sort of mental scratch pad that is temporary storage for information relevant to the task at hand, whether that task is doing a math problem at the board or responding to tough, on-the-spot questions from a client. Talented people often have the most working memory, but when worries creep up, the working memory they normally use to succeed becomes overburdened. People lose the brain power necessary to excel.

One example is the phenomenon of “stereotype threat.” This is when otherwise talented people don’t perform up to their abilities because they are worried about confirming popular cultural myths that contend, for instance, that boys and girls naturally perform differently in math or that a person’s race determines his or her test performance.

Beilock’s research is the basis of her new book, “Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To,” published Sept. 21 by Simon and Schuster, Free Press.

In Choke, Beilock describes research demonstrating that high-achieving people underperform when they are worried about confirming a stereotype about the racial group or gender to which they belong. These worries deplete the working memory necessary for success. The perceptions take hold early in schooling and can be either reinforced or abolished by powerful role models.

In one study, researchers gave standardized tests to black and white students, both before and after President Obama was elected. Black test takers performed worse than white test takers before the election. Immediately after Obama’s election, however, blacks’ performance improved so much that their scores were nearly equal with whites. When black students can overcome the worries brought on by stereotypes, because they see someone like President Obama who directly counters myths about racial variation in intelligence, their performance improves.

Beilock and her colleagues also have shown that when first-grade girls believe that boys are better than girls at math, they perform more poorly on math tests. One big source of this belief? The girls’ female teachers. It turns out that elementary school teachers are often highly anxious about their own math abilities, and this anxiety is modeled from teacher to student. When the teachers serve as positive role models in math, their male and female students perform equally well.

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Meditation and practice can help Even when a student is not a member of a stereotyped group, tests can be challenging for the brightest people, who can clutch if anxiety taps out their mental resources. In that instance, relaxation techniques can help.

In tests in her lab, Beilock and her research team gave people with no meditation experience 10 minutes of meditation training before they took a high-stakes test. Students with meditation preparation scored 87, or B+, versus the 82 or B- score of those without meditation training. This difference in performance occurred despite the fact that all students were of equal ability.

Stress can undermine performance in the world of business, where competition for sales, giving high-stakes presentations or even meeting your boss in the elevator are occasions when choking can squander opportunities.

Practice helps people navigate through these tosses on life’s ocean. But, more importantly, practicing under stress — even a moderate amount — helps a person feel comfortable when they find themselves standing in the line of fire, Beilock said. The experience of having dealt with stress makes those situations seem like old hat. The goal is to close the gap between practice and performance.

A person also can overcome anxiety by thinking about what to say, not what not to say, said Beilock, who added that staying positive is always a good idea.

“Think about the journey, not the outcome,” Beilock advised. “Remind yourself that you have the background to succeed and that you are in control of the situation. This can be the confidence boost you need to ace your pitch or to succeed in other ways when facing life’s challenges.”

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September 27, 2010 Posted by | anxiety, Books, brain, Cognition, Positive Psychology, research, Resilience | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Type A B C’s Of How Your Personality Effects Your Health

Could your personality kill you—or might it make you live longer? Could it give you heart disease, or protect you from illness? Could it push you toward or away from doctor appointments?

Credit: Angela Haupt , health.usnews.com

Personality traits play a distinct role in determining how healthy we are, psychologists say. “Everything is related to everything else. How stressed or angry you are, and how you interact with the world, is contingent in large part on your personality style,” says Michael Miller, editor in chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter. “And that is going to have an enormous impact on your health.”

Here’s a look at common personality types and traits and how each can help or hurt your health (sometimes both):

Hostile
One of the aspects of the impatient, hard-charging Type A personality that is known to increase heart disease risk is hostility. Hostile people eat and smoke more and exercise less than other personality types, says Redford Williams, head of behavioral medicine at Duke University Medical Center and author of Anger Kills. They’re likelier to be overweight in middle age and have higher cholesterol and blood pressure. Williams’s past research suggests hostile people are also more likely to develop irregular heart rhythms, and to die before reaching their 50s. Most of these problems can be traced back to elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as increased inflammation in the walls of the coronary arteries, which leads to a greater risk of heart attack.

No personality is set in stone, however, and Type A’s can be taught how to take the edge off their hostility. Hostile heart patients who attend workshops that teach coping skills, for instance, have a lower incidence of depression and healthier blood pressure than Type A’s who don’t go. The key, Williams says, is learning how to communicate more clearly and how to control anger and other negative emotions. He suggests asking yourself four questions when you get angry: Is this issue truly important? Is what I’m feeling appropriate to the facts? Can I modify the situation in a positive way? Is taking such action worth it? Meditation, deep breathing, and yoga can damp hostility with a layer of calm.

Impulsive
Because Type A personalities are defined by competitiveness, a drive to succeed, and a sense of urgency, they are prone to take risks and act without thinking, neither of which is likely to improve health. Non-Type A’s can be impulsive, too. Such people are often not as well-grounded as others, says Robin Belamaric, a clinical psychologist in Bethesda, Md.: “They’ll look at an opportunity that comes along and say, ‘Hmm, that sounds like fun,’ whereas another, more thoughtful person, will say, ‘I’m going to pass, because I’m not sure it’s the best idea.’ ”

Relaxed
If you’re a Type B, you roll with the punches. You’re relaxed, take life a day a time, and handle stress without cracking. That translates to a higher quality of life and lower likelihood of heart disease—less anxiety strengthens the immune system. The more we chill, the better off we are, says Miller: “You don’t want to get locked into a stressful, tense state of mind.” Over the long term, he adds, relaxing and managing stress effectively will lengthen your life, help your heart and gastrointestinal system, and just make you feel better overall.

Extrovert
People who are outgoing, involved in their communities, and have strong social connections reap health benefits. An analysis of 148 studies published in the online journal PLoS medicine in July found that on average, adults enrolled in a study with many close friendships were 50 percent likelier to survive until their study ended than were those with few friendships. And a 2009 study published in Perspectives in Psychological Science suggests that social support leads to improved coping skills, healthy behavior, and adherence to medical regimens. Bonding with others also reduces stress and improves the immune system—so making friends and getting involved becomes, in effect, a well-being tonic.

What drives at least some of the health benefits goes beyond biology, Miller says. “It may have to do with the fact that when you’re around people, you think, ‘Oh, Martha has gone for her mammogram—that reminds me, I should, too.’ ”

Eager to please
People-pleasers—Type C’s—are conforming, passive, and want to accommodate. That can be a good thing when it comes to patient compliance: They’re more likely to take the right medicines in the right doses at the right times, for instance—once they see a doctor, that is. Making and following through on appointments can be challenging for Type C’s, who tend to accept their fate as inevitable and fall readily into hopelessness and helplessness. That means others must push them to take care of themselves. “They may be less likely to maintain their health on their own,” Belamaric says. “If they develop a problem, they may just complain about it, hoping somebody says, ‘I have a good doctor, I’ll make you an appointment.’ ”

Some Type C’s may be so mired that they don’t seek medical attention—even when it’s clearly necessary—and slough off preventive behaviors, like watching what they eat. “If they get a serious diagnosis, they may be passive, throw their hands up, and say, ‘Well, there’s nothing I can do about it, anyway. If it’s my time, it’s my time,’ ” Belamaric says.

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Stressed and distressed
Type D’s—D is for distressed—dwell on negative emotions and are afraid to express themselves in social situations. Compared to more optimistic sorts, a Type D may face three times the risk for future heart problems, according to a recent study in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes. Type D’s also face a higher likelihood of compulsive overeating and substance abuse. “If you’re a person who is prone to depression or anxiety, or if you’re overly self-critical, there’s more of a chance of turning to gratifying behavior to feel better,” Miller says.

Optimistic versus pessimistic
Optimism “heavily influences physical and mental health,” concluded a study published in May in the journal Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health after researchers followed more than 500 males for 15 years. The rate of heart-related deaths was 50 percent lower among optimists than among pessimists. “Optimists have a higher quality of life, and they may be more resilient in the way they deal with stress,” Miller says. “So if a problem comes along, they’re able to handle it better, and they become less symptomatic.” Glass-half-empty types harbor little hope for the future and tend more toward depression and anxiety disorders.

But there’s a catch for those at the extreme end of the optimism spectrum: They think of themselves as impervious to risks. Extreme optimists who smoke are the best examples. They believe they won’t develop lung cancer. Why give up smoking to prevent a nonexistent risk?

The “self-healing personality”
That is the name Howard Friedman, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Riverside, attaches to people who are curious, secure, constructive, responsive, and conscientious. These traits translate to enthusiasm for life, emotional balance, and strong social relationships. “Positive emotions buffer hormonal responses to stress,” says Friedman, who studies the relationship between personality and longevity. Self-healers, he says, “have healthier behavior patterns: more physical activity, a better diet, and less smoking and substance abuse.”

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September 24, 2010 Posted by | Acceptance and Commitment Thaerapy, brain, Cognition, Health Psychology, Identity, Personality Disorder, stress | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Have The Time Of Your Life” Or “Beat It”: The Dance Moves That Make Men Attractive

The key dance moves that make men attractive to women have been discovered by psychologists at Northumbria University.

Credit: Medical News Today:

Using 3D motion-capture technology to create uniform avatar figures, researchers have identified the key movement areas of the male dancer’s body that influence female perceptions of whether their dance skills are “good” or “bad”.

The study, led by psychologist Dr Nick Neave and researcher Kristofor McCarty, has for the first time identified potential biomechanical differences between “good” and “bad” male dancers. Its findings are published in the Royal Society Journal Biology Letters on Wednesday 8th September.

Dr Neave believes that such dance movements may form honest signals of a man’s reproductive quality, in terms of health, vigour or strength, and will carry out further research to fully grasp the implications.

Researchers, at Northumbria’s School of Life Sciences, filmed 19 male volunteers, aged 1835, with a 3-D camera system as they danced to a basic rhythm. Their real-life movements were mapped onto feature-less, white, gender-neutral humanoid characters, or avatars, so that 35 heterosexual women could rate their dance moves without being prejudiced by each male’s individual level of physical attractiveness.

The results showed that eight movement variables made the difference between a “good” and a “bad” dancer. These were the size of movement of the neck, trunk, left shoulder and wrist, the variability of movement size of the neck, trunk and left wrist, and the speed of movement of the right knee.

Female perceptions of good dance quality were influenced most greatly by large and varied movements involving the neck and trunk.

Dr Neave said: “This is the first study to show objectively what differentiates a good dancer from a bad one. Men all over the world will be interested to know what moves they can throw to attract women.

“We now know which area of the body females are looking at when they are making a judgement about male dance attractiveness. If a man knows what the key moves are, he can get some training and improve his chances of attracting a female through his dance style.”

Kristofor McCarty said: “The methods we have used here have allowed us to make some preliminary predictions as to why dance has evolved. Our results clearly show that there seems to be a strong general consensus as to what is seen as a good and bad dance, and that women appear to like and look for the same sort of moves.

“From this, we predict that those observations have underlying traits associated with them but further research must be conducted to support such claims.”

Dr Neave and Kristofor McCarty also worked with fellow Northumbria researchers Dr Nick Caplan and Dr Johannes Hönekopp, and Jeanette Freynik and Dr Bernhard Fink, from the University of Goettingen, on the landmark study.

Sources: Northumbria University, AlphaGalileo Foundation.

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September 20, 2010 Posted by | brain, Health Psychology, Intimate Relationshps, Marriage, Sex & Sexuality, Technology | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Be Active, Sleep Better! Aerobic Exercise Helps Beat Insomnia

Source: ScienceDaily (Sep. 15, 2010) — The millions of middle-aged and older adults who suffer from insomnia have a new drug-free prescription for a more restful night’s sleep. Regular aerobic exercise improves the quality of sleep, mood and vitality, according to a small but significant new study from Northwestern Medicine.

The study is the first to examine the effect of aerobic exercise on middle-aged and older adults with a diagnosis of insomnia. About 50 percent of people in these age groups complain of chronic insomnia symptoms.

The aerobic exercise trial resulted in the most dramatic improvement in patients’ reported quality of sleep, including sleep duration, compared to any other non-pharmacological intervention.

“This is relevant to a huge portion of the population,” said Phyllis Zee, M.D., director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Northwestern Medicine and senior author of a paper to be published in the October issue of Sleep Medicine. The lead author is Kathryn Reid, research assistant professor at Feinberg.

“Insomnia increases with age,” Zee said. “Around middle age, sleep begins to change dramatically. It is essential that we identify behavioral ways to improve sleep. Now we have promising results showing aerobic exercise is a simple strategy to help people sleep better and feel more vigorous.”

The drug-free strategy also is desirable, because it eliminates the potential of a sleeping medication interacting with other drugs a person may be taking, Reid said.

Sleep is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, like nutrition and exercise, noted Zee, a professor of neurology, neurobiology, and physiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

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“By improving a person’s sleep, you can improve their physical and mental health,” Zee said. “Sleep is a barometer of health, like someone’s temperature. It should be the fifth vital sign. If a person says he or she isn’t sleeping well, we know they are more likely to be in poor health with problems managing their hypertension or diabetes.” The study included 23 sedentary adults, primarily women, 55 and older who had difficulty falling sleep and/or staying asleep and impaired daytime functioning. Women have the highest prevalence of insomnia. After a conditioning period, the aerobic physical activity group exercised for two 20-minute sessions four times per week or one 30-to-40-minute session four times per week, both for 16 weeks. Participants worked at 75 percent of their maximum heart rate on at least two activities including walking or using a stationary bicycle or treadmill. Participants in the non-physical activity group participated in recreational or educational activities, such as a cooking class or a museum lecture, which met for about 45 minutes three to five times per week for 16 weeks. Both groups received education about good sleep hygiene, which includes sleeping in a cool, dark and quiet room, going to bed the same time every night and not staying in bed too long, if you can’t fall asleep. Exercise improved the participants’ self-reported sleep quality, elevating them from a diagnosis of poor sleeper to good sleeper. They also reported fewer depressive symptoms, more vitality and less daytime sleepiness. “Better sleep gave them pep, that magical ingredient that makes you want to get up and get out into the world to do things,” Reid said. The participants’ scores on the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index dropped an average of 4.8 points. (A higher score indicates worse sleep.) In a prior study using t’ai chi as a sleep intervention, for example, participants’ average scores dropped 1.8 points. “Exercise is good for metabolism, weight management and cardiovascular health and now it’s good for sleep,” Zee said. The research was funded by the National Institute on Aging

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September 16, 2010 Posted by | Age & Ageing, Health Psychology, Resources | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Don’t Say “Don’t Panic”: How To Help Someone With A Panic Disorder

Credit: From , former About.com Guide

The Experience of Recurring Panic Attacks

To understand panic disorder with agoraphobia, we must first talk about panic attacks. Sudden and recurring panic attacks are the hallmark symptoms of panic disorder. If you have never had recurring panic attacks, it may be hard to understand the difficulties your friend or loved one is going through. During a panic attack, the body’s alarm system is triggered without the presence of actual danger. The exact cause of why this happens is not known, but it is believed that there is a genetic and/or biological component.

Sufferers often use the terms fear, terror and horror to describe the frightening symptoms of a full-blown panic attack. But even these frightening words can’t convey the magnitude of the consuming nature of panic disorder. The fear becomes so intense that the thought of having another panic attack is never far from conscious thought. Incessant worry and feelings of overwhelming anxiety may become part of your loved one’s daily existence.

These Intense Symptoms Must Mean Something…Something Terrible

At the onset of panic disorder, your loved one may be quite certain they are suffering from a heart condition or other life-threatening illness. This may mean trips to the nearest emergency room and intensive testing to rule out physical disease. But, even when he or she is assured that these symptoms are not life-threatening, it does little to put his or her mind at ease. The feelings experienced during panic attacks are so overwhelming and uncontrollable, sufferers are convinced they are going to die or are going crazy.

A New Way of Life Emerges: Fear and Avoidance

So frightening are the symptoms of panic disorder, that your loved one may go to any and all lengths to avoid another attack from occurring. This may include many avoidant types of behavior and the development of agoraphobia. But, despite the efforts to avoid another panic episode, the attacks continue without rhyme or reason. There is no place to escape, and the sufferer becomes a prisoner of an insidious and illogical fear. Without appropriate treatment, your loved one may become so disabled that he or she is unable to leave his or her home at all.

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Self Image Is Redefined

At times, we’ve all experienced nervousness, anxiousness, fear and, perhaps, even terror or horror. But in the midst of a catastrophic event, we understand these symptoms. Once the event is over, so, too, are the symptoms. But, imagine reliving these symptoms over and over again, without any warning or explanation.

This type of fear is life-changing. As abilities become inabilities, things once taken for granted, like going to into a store, become anxiety-filled events. Some enjoyable activities, like going to concerts or movies, may be avoided altogether. It is not uncommon for sufferers to experience a sense of shame, weakness and embarrassment as their self-image is redefined by fear.

Panic disorder is not just being nervous or anxious. Panic disorder is not just about the fear, terror and horror experienced during a full-blown panic attack because it does not end when the panic subsides. It is a disorder that is quick to invade and can alter one’s very essence, redefine one’s abilities and take over every aspect of one’s life.

Your Role As A Support Person

As a support person, you can play an important role in your loved one’s recovery process. Understanding what panic disorder is, and what it is not, will help you on this journey. Author Ken Strong provides a lot of information for supporting a person with panic disorder in his book, Anxiety:The Caregivers, Third Edition.

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September 10, 2010 Posted by | anxiety, brain, Cognition, depression, research, stress | , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Sleep Well: Why You Need To Fight For Good Sleep

A collection of studies published last Wednesday in the journal Sleep tackled some important questions: What are the health effects of not getting enough sleep? How does sleep deprivation affect teens? Does insomnia have long-term consequences?

Credit: Time Magazine

Given that past research has shown that short sleepers (and unusually long sleepers) die younger than people who get 6.5 to 7.5 hours per night, a new Penn State study looked at the impact of insomnia on mortality. The consequences could be dire: the study of 1,741 men and women in Pennsylvania found that insomniac men who slept less than 6 hours per day were four times more likely to die than those who got a full night’s rest. The study even adjusted for other medical conditions that affect sleep (and death rates), such as obesity, alcohol and depression. Of note, sleep deprivation did not affect women’s mortality.

In another study in Sleep, University of Sydney researchers focused on adolescents and young adults who weren’t getting enough sleep — an increasingly common problem among the digital generation, who stays up late plugged into their computers and smart phones. Turns out, burning the midnight oil can have long-term consequences. Researchers found that for each hour of lost sleep, levels of psychological distress rose by 5% in nearly 3,000 17-to-24-year-olds who were followed for 12 to 18 months. Overall, short sleepers were 14% more likely to report symptoms of psychological distress on a standard test, compared with people who got adequate sleep. The effect was especially pronounced among young people who already suffered from anxiety; in this group, lack of sleep triggered more serious mental health problems like full-blown depression and even bipolar disorder, according to the study’s lead author, Professor Nick Glozier. But even among those who began the study in good health, less than five hours of sleep meant tripling their odds of psychological distress.

A third Sleep study this week found that teens who didn’t get enough z’s consumed more calories than their well-rested peers. The study of 240 adolescents, average age 18, revealed that teenagers who slept less than 8 hours a night on weeknights ate 2% more calories from fat per day and 3% more calories from carbs than teens who slept longer. They also tended to get their calories from snacks instead of healthful meals. Cumulatively, this behavior increases the risk of obesity and, in turn, the chances of developing cardiovascular disease later in life.

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The American Academy of Sleep Medicine suggests that adults get an average of seven to eight hours of sleep per night, while the National Sleep Foundation recommends that adolescents need at least 8.5 hours, though only 15% of them get enough.

“Sleep disorders are common in the general population and even more so in clinical practice, yet are relatively poorly understood by doctors and other health care practitioners,” wrote Sue Wilson, the lead author of new guidelines published today by the British Association of Psychopharmacology to help doctors treat insomnia and other sleep disorders. Her advice: get a diagnosis from a sleep specialist for patients, then try behavioral therapy to improve their sleep before jumping to prescription medication. Most of all, pay attention to who you are treating: postmenopausal women might need hormone therapy, small children with ADHD might require melatonin treatment.

And if you suffer from disordered sleep patterns, consider these tips from the National Sleep Foundation:

Avoid caffeine. Tea, coffee, soda and energy drinks can keep you awake for up to 12 hours. Instead, when your mid-afternoon slump hits, try an energizing snack like nuts or yogurt.

Nest. Make your bed as comfortable as possible. Keep your sleep environment dark, cool and work-free.

Establish a routine. About an hour before bedtime, start a nightly relaxation routine that can include reading, taking a bath or anything else that soothes you. Complete all exercise at least three hours before bedtime. Don’t look at screens before you go to sleep, which can stimulate your brain.

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September 7, 2010 Posted by | Adolescence, Age & Ageing, anxiety, Cognition, Exercise, Health Psychology, research | , , | 3 Comments

Fathers: What Does Recent Research Show?

Once again, in the lead up Fathers Day in Australia this Sunday, here is some information about some of the recent research on the role of fathers in parenting.

Credit: The Fatherhood Institute

Fathers and child development

Before we specifically look at fathers’ involvement in and influence on children’s education and learning, it’s important to understand fathers’ influence on the ‘whole child’, since characteristics such as self-esteem, self-regulation, self-efficacy and locus of control1 are emerging as key predictors of children’s educational and other attainment.

Since 1975, an increasingly sophisticated body of research has been charting the pathways through which fathers2 influence their children’s development.

For example, a systematic review of studies which took account of mothers’ involvement and gathered data from different independent sources3, found ‘positive’ father involvement associated with a range of desirable outcomes for children and young people. These included: better peer relationships; fewer behaviour problems; lower criminality and substance abuse; higher educational / occupational mobility relative to parents’; capacity for empathy; non-traditional attitudes to earning and childcare; more satisfying adult sexual partnerships; and higher self-esteem, life-satisfaction and ‘locus of control’ – that is, (Pleck & Masciadrelli, 2004). Other substantial studies and reviews (Sarkadi et al, 2008; Flouri, 2005) have delivered similar findings. All this is relevant to children’s educational outcomes, since ‘better functioning’ in life in general tends to correlate with attainment.

Of course, fathers, like mothers, can also influence their children’s development in negative ways – and this is now recognised to be a very important reason for engaging with them. Low levels of father involvement are associated with a range of negative outcomes in children (for review, see Flouri, 2005). Poor outcomes in children are also found where fathers parent in negative ways or are seriously troubled themselves (for review, see Lloyd et al, 2003). Poor outcomes in children are also associated with their fathers’ substance misuse (Velleman, 2004, p.188) and with fathers’ abuse of their children’s mothers (Jaffee et al, 1990)4

It has often been argued that no father is better than a bad father. That can of course be true – just as no mother can be better than a bad mother. However, seeking to improve fathers’ behaviour should be the first port of call, since ‘ending’ the father-child relationship generally brings its own problems, and many fathers, once they are engaged with, can change their behaviour in a positive direction. And when children do not see their fathers, or do not see them very much, they tend to demonise or idealise them (Kraemer, 2005; Gorrell Barnes et al, 1998) or blame themselves for their absence (Pryor & Rodgers, 2001). Being ‘without my dad’ causes most children and young people a lot of distress, anger and self-doubt (Fortin et al, 2006; Laumann-Billings & Emery, 1998); and can contribute to difficulties with peer relationships, including bullying (Parke et al, 2004; Berdondini & Smith, 1996). And when fathers’ absence leaves mothers more stressed because they are struggling to parent alone or because they have less money, then children suffer again (McLanahan, 1997; McLanahan & Teitler, 1999).

Levels/trends in fathers’ involvement in their children’s learning

US research (National Center for Fathering, 2009) reports that while 32% of fathers never visit their child’s classroom and 54% never volunteer at school, the trend for their involvement is upward. Over the past 10 years the percentage of fathers taking their child to school has risen from 38% to 54%; attending class events from 28% to 35%; visiting their child’s classroom from 30% to 41% and volunteering at their child’s school from 20% to 28%. Attending parent-teacher conferences is up from 69% to 77%; attending school meetings from 28% to 35%; and attending school-based parents’ meetings from 47% to 59%.

While similar ‘trend’ data are not yet gathered in the UK, in Scotland the South Lanarkshire ‘Father Figures’ online survey of 177 men (Henderson, 2007) has delivered some baseline data: 86% of the respondent fathers said they read books/newspapers with their children at home; 60% claimed to help with their child’s homework or schoolwork ‘often’, with only 3% ‘never’ helping with this; 77% ‘often’ went to parents’ night, with only 3% ‘never’ attending; only 3% of respondents ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ read their child’s school report card; and only 12% ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ attended their child’s school show.

Another 2007 UK survey (Peters et al, 2008) found that 70% of co-resident fathers and 81% of non-resident parents (mainly men) wanted to be more involved in their children’s education. Mothers were only marginally more likely than fathers (53% compared to 45%) to say they felt ‘very involved’ in their child’s education.

While fathers in all developed countries are less involved than mothers both in their children’s educational settings and in educational activities at home (for review, see Clark, 2009), in many instances his may be related less to gender than to work commitments: Peters et al (2008) found that while fathers overall were helping with homework less often than mothers there were no differences between mothers and fathers who worked full time. Similarly, Williams et al 2002) found 24% of full-time working fathers (compared with 26% of full-time working mothers) reporting feeling very involved in their child’s school life; and 14% of full-time working fathers (compared with 16% of full-time working mothers) helping out in classrooms.

It seems that fathers are involved more often than mothers in specific types of activities in their children’s out of school learning: such as building and repairing, hobbies, IT, maths and physical play (Goldman, 2005).

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Fathers’ involvement and children’s educational attainment

Helping fathers be the ‘best fathers they can be’ is clearly of enormous importance to children; and positive outcomes in terms of children’s learning and achievement at school can be traced quite clearly to the quality of their fathers’ engagement with them. Just as poor parenting by fathers (and mothers) is associated with lower educational attainment by their children, so fathers’ affection, support, warm-but-firm parenting style and high levels of ‘parental sensitivity’5 are strongly related to their children’s better educational outcomes. For example:

  • “School readiness” in young children is associated with high levels of paternal sensitivity, over and above mothers’ sensitivity (Campbell & von Stauffenberg, 2008)
  • Fathers’ support for their children’s autonomy has been found (controlling for a range of variables) to be significantly and uniquely associated with higher levels of reading and mathematics achievement among Grade 3 boys (NICHD, 2008).

Several reliable studies have shown high levels of interest by a father in his child’s schooling and education, his high expectations for their achievement and his greater direct involvement in their learning, education and schools to be associated with their better educational outcomes. These include: better exam / test / class results; higher levels of educational qualification; greater progress at school; better attitudes towards school (e.g. enjoyment); higher educational expectations; and better behaviour at school (e.g. reduced risk of suspension or expulsion). And these outcomes do not derive from the school-involved fathers already being richer or better educated. Whatever the father’s socio-economic level, his high involvement paid off.6

One high quality study demonstrated that a father’s interest in his child’s education is one of the most important factors governing the qualifications he or she will grow up to have in adult life – more important than family background, the child’s individual personality, or poverty. It may well be that the time fathers actually spend with their children on homework and schooling could be more important for their eventual success than the money they bring into the household (for review see Goldman, 2005).

Here are some specific findings:

  • A UK survey (Clark et al, 2009) reports children and young people claiming their fathers are the second most important people in their lives to inspire reading (second only to mothers).
  • Frequency of fathers’ reading to 12 year olds is linked with their greater interest in books later (Lyytinen et al, 1998).
  • A significant relationship is found between positive father engagement at age 6, and IQ and educational achievement at age 7 (Gottfried et al, 1988).
  • A father’s own education level is an important predictor of his child’s educational achievement7.
  • English fathers’ involvement with their children (at ages 7 and 11) correlates with better national examination performance at age 16 (Lewis et al, 1982).
  • US fathers’ involvement in routine childcare has been associated with children’s higher school grades (Hoffman & Youngblade, 1999).8
  • Low paternal interest in children’s education has a stronger negative impact on children’s lack of qualifications than contact with the police, poverty, family type, social class, housing tenure and child’s personality (Blanden, 2006).

Findings vary as to the relative importance of mothers’ v. fathers’ influence on educational attainment, with no consistent pattern emerging from the research evidence.9

The following studies have charted more powerful influence from fathers than mothersin specific circumstances, although it must be remembered that the quality of these studies varies, and results may be specific to time and place:

In low income communities, fathers’ influence has been found to be more significant than mothers’ for boys’ (but not girls’) escape from disadvantage.10

However, in a wider sample of children born in 1970, fathers’ interest in their children’s educational outcomes when those children were aged 10 predicted educational attainment in their 26 year old daughters, but not their sons (Flouri, 2006).

Fathers exert greater influence than mothers on boys’ educational choices.11

Fathers’ risk-avoidance behaviour12 has a positive impact on sons’ (but not daughters’) educational attainment (Yeung, 2004).

Fathers’ income predicts sons’ (but not daughters’) years of schooling (Yeung, 2004).

In hierarchical communities, fathers’ influence may be more powerful on children of both sexes.13

While within-gender variation is enormous, and parents’ vocabulary use is far more powerfully affected by their education level than their sex, some studies suggest that fathers’ verbal interactions with their children may differ from mothers’; and that this may sometimes be to their children’s advantage. Fathers have been found to use different words with their children (Pancsofar & Vernon-Feagans, 2006); and also more abstract words (Lamb & Tamis-LeMonda, 2004). Topics may also vary by gender, with mothers referring more frequently to emotions (this was found to predict children’s emotional understanding) and fathers more often using causal explanatory language, which predicated their children’s theory of mind (LaBounty et al, 2008).

Footnotes

1 The belief that one can control much of what happens to oneself in life

2 Although biological fathers are of unique important to children – being one of the ‘two people who made me’ – ‘fathers’ in this report are defined widely to include father-figures and other males who are of significance to children in their care.

3 This is really important, as it helps isolate fathers’ influence from other influences.

4 None of this research shows that fathers are a more negative influence on children than mothers are (see Leinonen et al, 2003).

5 Fathers who exhibit ‘parental sensitivity’ generally function as a supportive presence, respect their children’s autonomy and exhibit low levels hostility towards them. This is more often found in men who were older when they first became fathers, hold less traditional child rearing beliefs and report more intimacy with their children’s mothers (NICHD, 2000).

6 McBride et al (2004) found father involvement in school settings mediates the relationship between school, family and neighbourhood factors and academic outcomes. This study is particularly interesting in that it not only looked at fathers’ involvement in terms of activities (‘volunteering’, ‘going on school trips’) but also measured frequency of fathers’ ‘talks with school officials’ as well as their ‘talks with the child’ about events and activities at school. All were associated with better child achievement (see also McBride et al, 2005).

7 While there may be a small genetic effect, the main reason is likely to be that a father’s education affects his behaviour in ways that are vital to his child’s cognitive development, as well as impacting on the material and educational resources he can provide (Yeung, 2004).

8 Fathers’ co-parenting behavior (defined as sharing similar attitudes with mothers toward childrearing practices and resolving family conflicts in a calm way that makes good use of compromise) may in part explain these findings: Yeung (2004) found a one point of increase in fathers’ co-parenting behaviour associated with an almost four-point increase in children’s test scores. Fathers’ co-parenting behaviour was second only to their education level in predicting good educational outcomes for children – and both proved more important than fathers’ income (Yeung, 2004).

9 In some studies fathers are found to be more influential; in others, mothers; and in yet others, parental influence seems to be equivalent.

10 For boys born into poverty, this high quality longitudinal UK study (which controlled for a range of factors, including mother’s interest in education) found having a father with little or no interest in his education reduced boys’ chances of escaping poverty by 25% (Blanden, 2006).

11 Dryler (1998). Mothers’ influence is more powerful for daughters.

12 Such as wearing seatbelts, having savings, and having car insurance.

13 Ang (2006) found Asian fathers’ (but not mothers’) approval, closeness and sympathy with their children associated with positive teacher-child relationships for both boys and girls.

REFERENCES

Ang, R.P. (2006). Fathers do matter: evidence from an Asian school-based aggressive sample. American Journal of Family Therapy, 34, 7993.

Berdondini, L., & Smith, P.K. (1996). Cohesion and power in the families of children involved in bully-victim problems at school: an Italian replication, Journal of Family Therapy, 18, 99102.

Blanden, J. (2006). ‘Bucking the trend’: What enables those who are disadvantaged in childhood to succeed later in life? Working Paper No 31 Corporate Document Services. London: Department for Work and Pensions.

Clark, C. (2009). Why fathers matter to their children’s literacy. London: National Literacy Trust.

Clark, C., Osborne, S. & Dugdale, G. (2009). Reaching out with role models. London: National Literacy Trust.

Dryler, H. (1998). Parental role models, gender and educational choice. British Journal of Sociology, 49(3), 375398.

Flouri, E. (2005). Fathering & Child Outcomes. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons.

Flouri, E. (2006). Parental interest in children’s education, children’s self-esteem and locus of control, and later educational attainment: Twenty-six year follow-up of the 1970 British birth cohort. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 4155.

Fortin, J., Ritchie, C., & Buchanan, A. (2006). Young adults’ perceptions of court-ordered contact. Child and Family Law Quarterly, 18(2), 211229.

Goldman, R. (2005). Fathers’ Involvement in their Children’s Education. London: National Family and Parenting Institute.

Gorrell Barnes, G., Thompson, P., Daniel, G., & Burchardt, N. (1998). Growing up in Stepfamilies. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Guterman, N.B., & Lee, Y. (2005). The role of fathers in risk for physical child abuse and neglect: possible pathways and unanswered questions. Child Maltreatment, 10(2), 136149.

Henderson, R. (2007). Father Figures Survey. Hamilton: South Lanarkshire Home School Partnership, Council Offices

Hoffman, L.W., & Youngblade, L.M. (1999). Mothers at work: Effects on children’s well-being. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Jaffee, S.R., Wolfe, D. & Wilson, S. (1990). Children of Battered Women. London: Sage Publications.

Kraemer, S. (2005): Narratives of fathers and sons: there is no such thing as a father. In A. Vetere & E. Dowling (eds.), Narrative Therapies with Children and their Families: A Practitioners Guide to Concepts and Approaches. London: Brunner/Routledge.

LaBounty, J., Wellman, H. M., Olson, S., Lagattuta, K. & Liu, D. (2008). Mothers’ “and” fathers’ use of internal state talk with their young children. Social Development, 17, 757775.

Lamb, M.E. & Tamis-LeMonda, C.S. (2004). The role of the father. In M.E. Lamb (ed.), The role of the father in child development (pp. 131). New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Laumann-Billings, L.L., & Emery, R.E. (1998). Young adults’ painful feelings about parental divorce. Unpublished paper, University of Virginia.

Leinonen, J.A., Solantaus, T.S., & Punamaki, R.-L. (2003). Parental mental health and children’s mental health adjustment: the quality of marital interaction and parenting as mediating factors. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44, 227241.

Lewis, C., Newson, L J., & Newson, E. (1982). Father participation through childhood. In N. Beail & J. McGuire (eds.)., Fathers: Psychological Perspectives. London: Junction.

Lloyd, N., O’Brien, M., & Lewis, C. (2003). Fathers in Sure Start Local Programmes. Report 04 National Evaluation of Sure Start. London: Birkbeck, University of London.

Lyytinen, P., Laasko, M., & Poikkeus, S. (1998). Parental contribution to child’s early language and interest in books. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 13, 297308.

McBride, B.A., Schoppe-Sullivan S.J., & Ho, M.H. (2005). The mediating role of fathers’ school involvement on students’ achievement. Applied Developmental Psychology, 26, 201216.

McBride, C.M., Baucom, D.H., Peterson, B.L. Pollack, K.I., Palmer, C., Westman, E. et al (2004). Prenatal and postpartum smoking abstinence: a partner-assisted approach. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 27(3), 232238.

McLanahan, S.S. (1997). Paternal absence or poverty: which matters more? In G. Duncan & J. Brooks-Gunn (eds.), Consequences of Growing Up Poor. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

McLanahan, S., & Teitler, J. (1999). The consequences of father absence. In M.E. Lamb (ed.), Parenting and Child Development in ‘Nontraditional Families’. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

National Center for Fathering (2009). Survey of fathers’ involvement in their children’s learning. View the summary

NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (2000). Factors associated with fathers’ caregiving activities and sensitivity with young children. Journal of Family Psychology, 14.

NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (2008). Mothers’ and fathers’ support for child autonomy and early school achievement. Developmental Psychology, 44 (4).

Pancsofar, N. and Vernon-Feagans, L. (2006), Mother and father language input to young children: contributions to later language development. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 27, 571587.

Parke, R.D., Dennis, J., Flyr, J.L., Morris, K.L., Killian, C., McDowell, D.J., et al (2004). Fathering and children’s peer relationships. In M.E. Lamb (ed.), The Role of the Father in Child Development (4th ed.). Hoboken NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Peters, M., Seeds, K., Goldstein, A. & Coleman, N. (2008). Parental Involvement in Children’s Education 2007. Research Report. DCSF RR034.

Pleck, J.H., & Masciadrelli, B.P. (2004). Paternal Involvement by U.S. residential fathers: levels, sources and consequences. In M.E. Lamb (ed.), The Role of the Father in Child Development (4th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Pryor, J., & Rodgers, B. (2001). Children in Changing Families: life after parental separation. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Sarkadi, A., Kristiansson, R., Oberklaid, F., & Bremberg, S. (2008).Fathers’ involvement and children’s developmental outcomes: a systematic review of longitudinal studies. Acta Paediatrica 97(2), 153158.

Velleman, R. (2004). Alcohol and drug problems in parents: an overview of the impact on children and implications for practice. In M. Gopfert, J. Webster & M.V. Seeman (eds.), Parental Psychiatric Disorder: distressed parents and their families (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Washbrook, L. (2007). Fathers, Childcare and Children’s Readiness to Learn. Working Paper No. 07/175. Bristol: University of Bristol.

Williams, B., Williams, J. & Ullman, A. (2002). Parental involvement in education. RR 332. London: DfES.

Yeung, W.J. (2004). Fathers: an overlooked resource for children’s school success. In D. Conley & K. Albright (eds.), After the Bell: Solutions Outside the School. London: Routledge.

© The Fatherhood Institute, January 2009

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September 3, 2010 Posted by | Adolescence, Books, Child Behavior, Education, Girls, Parenting, research | 1 Comment

Dads And Kids: How Do Fathers Relate Best With Younger Children

With Father’s Day coming up on Sunday in Australia, I thought I’d post some topical articles. Here’s the first.

Source: Brigham Young University:
Dad’s task: Draw a sailboat with an Etch A Sketch in five minutes or less.

The twist (pun intended): Sketch the sailboat with your 6-year-old child controlling one of the toy’s two dials.

While it sounds like playtime, it’s really an extensive experiment on the relationship quality between fathers and children. Social scientists observed almost 600 dads in 10 cities attempt the joint sketch with their first graders.

But instead of awarding points for artistic quality, the researchers judged how well the pair worked with each other in a battery of team-play exercises including the Etch A Sketch challenge.

“By design, these tasks are too hard for first-graders to do on their own,” said Erin Holmes, a professor in Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life. “When a little conflict or stress occurred, we looked at dads’ ability to respond to their children’s feelings – negative or positive.”

The main conclusion of Holmes’ study? Children who had the best experience can thank their father’s child-centered parenting beliefs, which a statistical analysis showed to be among the most predictive factors of quality relationships. Child-centered parenting includes beliefs such as “Children learn best by doing things themselves” and “A child’s ideas should be seriously considered when making family decisions.”

More telling were factors that didn’t seem to matter: fathers’ income level, education, even the number of diapers they changed.* While these attributes have merit in other contexts, they didn’t influence fathers’ ability to engage their children in productive and positive ways.

Holmes is the lead author of the new study to be published by the academic journal Fathering. Aletha Huston of the University of Texas at Austin is a co-author.

The fathers who did not fare so well in the experiments hold more adult-centered parenting beliefs. These attitudes were measured by a questionnaire asking how strongly they agree with statements like “Preparing for the future is more important for a child than enjoying today” and “Children should be doing something useful at all times.”

Click image to read reviews

If adult-centered fathers perceived their child to possess strong social skills, however, the pair scored well on relationship quality in the playtime experiment.

Being a child-centered father doesn’t mean giving up notions of obedience and accountability, Holmes notes.

“Even though teaching your child to be obedient is an important part of parenting, you need to be willing to listen to your child, too,” Holmes said. “When parents pay attention to their children’s cues about how children feel and what they like to do, it produces better quality relationships.”

The data for this study come from a 15-year longitudinal study funded by The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

* Though not addressed by this particular study, avoiding nappy duty is suspected to impact dad’s relationship with mum.

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September 1, 2010 Posted by | Child Behavior, Parenting, research | , , , , | 1 Comment