Tag Archives: brain

Father’s, daughters, self-esteem & intelligence: A peek at advice to fathers from Dr. JoAnn Deak

Fathers and daughtersAs the dad of three daughters, my husband occasionally finds himself confused by the goings-on in our estrogen-heavy household. He’s a man of few words, but I can tell by the expression on his face that he often has no idea what precipitates the occasional tears, shouts, stony silence or defiance from one of our girls. And yet at other times, he is able to get through to them with a prescience and insight that defies my understanding.

Neuropsychologist Dr. JoAnn Deak gave a presentation at the Trafalgar School for Girls this past week to fathers only of teenage daughters, on the subject of self-esteem and intelligence. I wanted to attend as a journalist and writer, but I was politely told Dr. Deak was quite firm on this gender-based attendance. I’m a huge fan of Dr. Deak’s work, having written about one of her previous presentations on brain elasticity in this very popular post from 2011. Nevertheless, my male sources at the event have filled me in on some of the key takeaways for those of us who weren’t there.

First of all, why the hardline on dads only? This was partly because a fathers-only event encouraged a kind of bonding, a safe space to talk amongst themselves. The other reason has to do with one of the lessons from decades of brain imaging — females have a more developed linguistic part of the brain. Our superior language and verbal skills tend to be evident when moms and dads attend events together and mothers dominate the conversation.

All of the fathers who attended were extremely pleased with the workshop, even though it drew them away from any Halloween activities and got them downtown on a cold, rainy October night. The consensus was that they really appreciated Dr. Deak’s messages about how dads can positively influence their daughter’s self-esteem and intelligence.

Among her key takeaways:

Be sure to spend time with your daughter on a regular basis. Studies show that girls whose dads choose to do activities with them have higher levels of self-esteem than those who do not.

Engage your daughter in physical activity. Moms aren’t always as good as dads at getting their daughters to enjoy sports and physical activity. Since men tend to interact well by doing things, it’s an easy way to make sure there is shared time.

Listen, then talk. You want to hear what she has to say, and she needs to know you are interested in hearing from her not just holding forth about your own opinions.

Don’t shout. Not only can deep male voices be particularly intimidating to young girls, but the overall impact can be to make your daughter(s) accustomed to being shouted at by the men in her life. Obviously not something she should ever accept as OK.

Get involved in her school. Mothers tend to be the ones most likely to volunteer at their children’s schools, but dads send a powerful message of support when they lend their time.

Teach her about finances. She should get this message from her mother too, of course, but dads can be particularly effective teaching their girls about balancing checkbooks, budgeting their finances and saving their money. Too many young women fail to achieve financial independence, which can lead to a whole host of life-altering bad choices involving the men who may pay their bills.

 Talk to her about boys. Don’t leave this to her mother. Fathers have insight into the mysterious male mind in important ways, and girls want — and need — to know. Teach her about respecting her body, resisting pressure, maintaining her dignity. Remind her that boys also have doubts, concerns and a need to connect emotionally with the right person. Even the most awkward, stilted conversation powerfully conveys how much she counts in your mind. (Click here to tweet this.)

Treat the women in your life as you would want her treated. Your daughters are watching to see how you treat their mother and women in general, and in doing so they are learning what to expect from the men in their futures. Set the bar high. (Click here to tweet this.)

Encourage her to push past her comfort zone and take some risks. Girls’ brains tend to be physiologically differently than boys when it comes to risk-taking and fearing they have made mistakes. This can be traced to the relative size of specific brain structures and the impact of hormones (read more in this blog post). But pushing your daughter slightly out of her comfort zone during her childhood and teen years (when the brain is most elastic) can actually rewire those brain structures so that she takes more risks when acceptable to do so (take on a new job, put together an ambitious business plan, aim high with her education, etc.).

Hug her often but respect her space. Your daughter will thrive on these physical reminders of your love, but as she grows from a girl into a young woman, you might want to move from tight bear hugs to looser “tent” hugs.

Want to know more about Dr. JoAnn Deak and her messages about understanding brain elasticity in how we raise and teach our kids, help girls thrive and more? Check out her website and line-up of books. I personally recommend How Girls Thrive to parents of daughters everywhere.



5 responses when your teen says “Why don’t you trust me?!” [Insert rolled eyes]

Rolling eyesWhen my then 12-year-old twin daughters got their first cellphones last August, I was crystal clear about the conditions of responsible use, especially the ones about passwords shared with mom and dad, texts and messages to be subject to our occasional supervision.

It was the same deal with Facebook and other social networks. I don’t read their diaries or private written correspondence, but anything one of my tweens or young teens puts into digital format is a whole different story. They don’t yet have the judgement or experience to know how the words they write can potentially end up hurting them — or someone else.

We hear about these stories all the time: otherwise good kids who get into trouble because they don’t fully appreciate how texting or Internet use can be taken out of context, be modified without permission, get forwarded or copied to the wrong people or used against them. Or they share their passwords with someone they thought was a friend (but wasn’t). Or someone tags them in an unflattering picture. Or they post a video without their friend’s permission.

At any rate, having explained and established these rules, I naïvely thought we were all on the same page. As time went on and they showed consistent, responsible use of these communication tools, we’d give them additional small increments of the freedom they had earned. I thought I had it all figured out.

Turns out I was wrong. Each exercise of my supervision brought on more urgent protests, all variations on the same theme: “Why don’t you trust me?”

Why on earth? Why shouldn’t I trust them? More objective sources than their mother will certainly attest to the fact that they are genuinely good kids, mature for their age, top-notch students. They (mostly) help around the house and (mostly) do their chores.

So what kind of horrible mother am I, to put them through such invasions of their privacy? Am I excessively controlling? Totally neurotic? A social media-obsessed helicopter parent?

While all those things are possibly true, I’m more inclined to say I’m primarily a realist. Also, I’m a mother who also happens to have done a lot of research into kids’ use of technology. And high-risk behaviours. One who knows that effective parenting is more about establishing firm limits than about indulging their passionate whims.

I’ve always been a big believer in letting them learn from their own mistakes, of the value of natural consequences. Skinned knees and B minuses and all that jazz. But the stakes are much higher when it comes to mistakes made online – the consequences are potentially much more serious. I wouldn’t leave my 12-year-olds alone for a weekend, so I’m certainly not going to turn them loose on the Internet.

And you know what? Almost every time I review their texts or posts, I see something we need to discuss, or something I file away as a parental “need to know.” As much as they fight it, we’ve had some good talks, and learned from their own and others’ actions the finer points of texting and social media etiquette.

Just to be clear, this kind of supervision is not an overly frequent occurrence. In the year since they got their own iPads for school and cellphones for their personal use, I have done it less and less. I’ve mostly seen responsible behaviour from them, so I now allow them to use them in their rooms (doors open) and sometimes to even charge them there overnight (as long as they go to sleep).

It’s also not something I do in secret. I don’t sneak their phones away from them or read their Facebook news feeds when they aren’t looking. I do it with them, with their knowledge.

But if I ever had an inkling that something was truly wrong, that bullying or drugs or a health issue were involved, I would have no problem doing it without telling them. That’s why I need their passwords. And they know this. Failure to inform me or their father of their passwords means they forfeit the phones, the iPads, the Internet access.

So when they roll their eyes and say “Why don’t you trust me?” I have these five responses ready. Sometimes I only need to get to two or three and we can move on. Some days I need to repeat all 5 and they are still angry and annoyed.

But you know what? That’s OK. If we don’t occasionally anger and annoy our teenagers with our calm logic, we have failed to properly do our jobs as parents. (Click to Tweet).

I’m doing this because I love you. If I didn’t care, I would let them make terrible mistakes and get into trouble without any supervision at all. This response won’t get you any superficial recognition or appreciation, sort of like imposing curfews. But they will be secretly, unconsciously relieved that we impose limits out of love.

I’m doing this because you don’t yet have the developmental capacity to exercise consistent good judgement over your actions. You can explain teenage brain development until you are blue in the face (check out this excellent article for a quick primer on how your teen’s brain works), but they are unlikely to accept it. After all, they feel really mature, so what are we going on about?

I’m doing this because the way you use Facebook (and other social media) can be tied to other high-risk behaviours. Heather Shoenberger, a doctoral student in the University of Missouri School of Journalism, found that those individuals who liked high-risk activity tended to update their status, upload photos and interact with friends frequently.  Those who were more reserved tended to read others’ news feeds but didn’t post much about themselves. It’s hard to know exactly what this might mean for our teens, but it is arguably helpful to know about their personalities and penchant for riskier behaviours.

I’m doing this because giving you unrestricted access to these powerful communication technologies would be like handing a 15-year-old boy the keys to a Ferrari. Most full-grown adults don’t fully understand the power of the Internet, so why assume kids will? I’ve made some of my own cringe-inducing errors on the Internet over the years, out of ignorance, carelessness or lack of tech savvy. There’s a learning curve here that educators and experts are only starting to appreciate.  Facebook is the largest de facto sociological experiment in the history of humanity, and yet we don’t think much about recording all our intimate personal data for others to see.  What will this mean to us in 20 years? What will it mean to our kids?

I’m doing this because if you know I am watching, you may be more careful and less likely to post the wrong things. Eventually, the self-censoring parental presence (the one that is currently whispering “I can’t post that – Mom and Dad will kill me!”) will hopefully be assimilated and internalized into their own voice of moderation (“I shouldn’t post that, it might prove embarrassing/ hurtful”). Actually, it’s interesting to note that kids eventually seem to forget their parents are watching, unless they go through the occasional exercise of reviewing their posts together.

So how long do you have to do this? At what age can you just relax the reins and let them have more privacy? The answer is that there is no magic age. You know your own kid better than anyone. The acid test is whether they have consistently demonstrated responsibility and good judgement in this area. Gradually step back as a reward. If they make a mistake or overstep their bounds, step in a little closer. Over time  most kids quickly learn. But until they are old enough to show the kind of care these tools deserve, don’t fool yourself into thinking everything is OK just because you aren’t paying attention.

Because love and trust aren’t necessarily the same thing when it comes to raising our kids.


Why posting to Facebook feels so good

Baby faceEver wonder why it feels so good to share information on Facebook or Twitter? A new study by two Harvard-based psychologists found that these status updates the same pleasure centres in the brain activated by eating a delicious meal, shopping or having sex.

Ooooh. This explains a lot.

And while posting your party pictures or tweeting your lunch choices may not hit quite the same pleasurable high notes as sexual activity (for most people), it does explain a recent survey of Internet use that show 80% of social media posts are simply announcements about one’s own immediate experience.

Part of the study involved MRI imaging of test subjects to observe brain activity as they answered questions about their’s and other’s opinions. Researchers found that the brain regions associated with reward — the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area  — were very active when people were talking about themselves, and less engaged when they were talking about someone else.

In one interesting twist, the researchers also found that participants would turn down money to talk about someone else, in order to enjoy the more pleasurable sensation of talking about themselves. In the second part of the study, they set out to determine how important it was to people to have someone listening to their self-disclosure:

“We didn’t know if self-disclosure was rewarding because you get to think about yourself and thinking about yourself is rewarding, or if it is important to have an audience,” Tamir said.

As anyone with 700 Facebook friends might have guessed, the researchers found greater reward activity in the brains of people when they got to share their thoughts with a friend or family member, and less of a reward sensation when they were told their thoughts would be kept private.

What does this mean for our kids? Since we already know that the reward centre in the developing teenage brain is more active than in adults’ brains, we can see how it would be even harder for kids to control their impulses to share everything with everyone. All the time. Similar work by Laurence Steinberg at Temple University found that teenagers doing a simulated driving test took more risks — and had greatly increased activity in the reward centre of their brain — when they thought other teens were watching them.

It also makes it clearer how much harder it would be for them to exercise their still-emerging good judgement, since research on the teenage brain shows good judgement and impulse control are among the last parts of the brain to develop. As this Wall Street Journal article put it: “If you think of the teenage brain as a car, today’s adolescents acquire an accelerator a long time before they can steer and brake.”

All of this means we need to work a little bit harder with our kids (and ourselves) to figure out appropriate limits on self-disclosure. Do they really need their 800 Facebook friends to know about a fight with their boyfriend, or how wasted they were over the weekend? Are they sharing details that may prove embarrassing to them next year? In 20 years? Let’s try to help them find other, safer ways to achieve the pleasure of self-disclosure, such as through actual face-to-face conversations with trusted friends or family members (I KNOW. That’s just crazy!). But knowing what’s behind it all gives us a good head start on finding workable solutions.