MomsOnMonday: Prep for Parenting Your Modern Family

Posted on October 14th, 2013, 0 Comments

Modern Family: Season 5, Episode 4, Farm Strong

Everybody Has a Sensitive Side

The Framework
Members from every family “got in-touch with their sensitive side” tonight. Alex begrudges losing to Jay in “Words with Friends.” Gloria has qualms about getting older. Even Claire seems reflective as she thinks back on how her mother never attended any of her things as a kid. But nobody’s sensitivity matched that of Phil or Cam.

Claire and Phil, tired of watching Luke sit on the bench, skip out of his soccer tournament and then become guilt-ridden by their decision. At least Phil did:
I killed a bunch of baby birds. … and now the mom is just staring at me. … None of this would have happened if we’d gone to Luke’s game. … We’re terrible parents for not going.
And later: The universe punished me. I did something awful to a bunch of baby crows.
Manny (listening-in): Actually it’s not a “bunch” of crows. It’s called a “murder.”
Phil: I know what I did!

Meanwhile, Cam’s sister Pameron whirls into town, bringing news of her engagement to Cam’s first boy-crush and the farm family’s drama with her:
The whole family said you wouldn’t take it well. … Everyone knows, Cam. You’re not farm strong. … You’re weak and weepy. That’s why we can never say anything to you because we know you’ll crumble into a big heaping mess.

Pam sets Cam up to become – well … weak and weepy. Cam is right: She can be meaner than a barn owl at sunset.

Flipping the Frame: My Notes
We all have a sensitive side – a side that causes us to pay alert attention, that nudges us to think and feel deeply about what we’ve noticed, and makes us vulnerable to feelings of remorse. But some of us are more sensitive than others.

The very name Farm Strong implies that variations in sensitivity come from differences in our growing-up environments. Not long ago most scientists would have agreed. Sensitivity (and temperament in general) was believed to be mostly due to nurture rather than nature. However, years of research data since indicate that a substantial part of who we are is determined by our genes, our brains, and our nervous system. One large study (begun over two decades ago and still going on today) followed kids from infancy through adolescence and into adulthood. Based on a forty-five minute evaluation of four-month-olds, researchers were able to predict whether babies were more likely to turn into sensitive introverts or extroverts. When exposed to things like popping balloons, colorful mobiles, and the scent of alcohol on a cotton swab, about 20% of the babies were highly reactive. They cried loudly and wildly waved their arms and legs. About 40% of the babies stayed quiet and calm. And the remaining 40% landed somewhere in-between. Interestingly, it was the high-reactive babies who were likely to develop into quiet teens with a tendency to be shy, good at schoolwork, watchful, and prone to worry. These tendencies didn’t disappear in adulthood.


Claire (to Luke): You might want to go to the game without us tonight. …
Phil: But it’s totally up to you. Whatever you want. Because we love you very much.
Claire: Right. You can either ride with your teammates like the LA Kings or you can ride with us like Gloria and Grandpa take Joe to play dates. Professional athlete; little poopy baby; your call.
Luke: I’ll get a ride with Max.
Claire: I love that kid!
Phil: Can you imagine how easy our lives would be if it was just him? I mean…
Alex (walking by): I know what you mean.

Some teens, like Alex, are more sensitive to their environment – they seem to see and feel things more. These teens have especially excitable amygdala or emotional brains. But teens in general – regardless of their fundamental temperament – have more excitable emotional brains than the rest of us.

Recently researchers ran a study to compare how adults and teens process social signals. They found that in adults the frontal lobes (their rational brain) and emotional brain work together to make sophisticated judgments when interpreting social signals. Teens on the other hand – especially younger teens – relied heavily on their emotional brains when identifying emotions. They responded with gut reactions to emotional stimuli. And one of the most common mistakes made by teens was to mistake fear or worry for anger.

The bottom line is our teens don’t see what we see when they interpret our interactions with them. They often see anger and aggression when none exists.

So what’s a mom to do?

In the book Anger by Carol Travis there’s a story about a Bengali cobra that provides some clues. The cobra has a nasty habit of biting villagers who cross his path. Finally, a swami – a man who had achieved a high level of enlightenment – convinces the cobra that biting is wrong. The cobra promises to stop biting at once, and does. But, alas, it’s not long before the village boys grow unafraid of the snake and start to abuse it. When the battered snake complains to the swami that this is what keeping his promise has brought him, the swami replies: I told you not to bite. But I did not tell you not to hiss.

Sometimes we moms need to a hiss – to warn or to show our disapproval. We all have areas in our lives that need improving. Really loving someone means you care enough to address these areas. This is especially true with teens. They’re counting on us for guidance. But even when our intentions are good, our guidance isn’t always helpful – instead it creates anger, resentment, and a desire for revenge in our teens. Because our teens mistake our hiss for a bite.

Our teens’ emotional brains are a lot like an exposed tooth root. Even the slightest sensation is exaggerated. So we’re wise to be especially careful to relay our criticism as a hiss meant to help rather than a biting personal attack:
– Helpful criticism is done face-to-face and in private.
– It deals with the specific problem at hand instead of piling on all the things we’re unhappy about.
– And it doesn’t judge or categorize the teen by labeling them. Labeling our teens puts them on the defensive, making them no longer receptive to what we have to say to them.

And when our teens flair-up in anger, we’re at our best if we can minimize the attack on our senses by taking it as a hiss rather than a bite. We may be shaken by their cutting remarks as they challenge a statement or decision we made. And if their words are not acceptable, we need to let them know that. But we also must try to listen to their meaning. And what they’re trying to say is often quite simple: Respect me. My views are important too.

Everybody has a sensitive side – especially teens. But take heart. Those researchers studying how teens process social signals followed the kids for years and found some good news: The teens’ prefrontal regions became more active and their judgments more accurate as they matured.

Your Parenting Experiences
As a baby my daughter was like those high-reactive babies in that study. As a teen she shared some of the traits we see in Alex. My son, on the other hand, was a much calmer baby and easy-going as a teen – more like Luke. What about your teens? Are they more sensitive or more easy-going? Could you have predicted it from their demeanor as a baby?

Sources: Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain

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