Tag Archives: Laura Kastner

Focus Shifts from Children’s Self-Esteem To Self-Control

The child-rearing meme of self-esteem is being replaced by self-control. Well-intentioned efforts to promote children’s self-esteem in recent decades too often produced empty praise and, some argue, an epidemic of over-indulgence.

(Courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Dave Hogg/Creative Commons License)

Among physicians and therapists who counsel parents on effective child-rearing, “These days, self-esteem is out, self-control is in. In terms of concepts, we don’t talk about self-esteem any more,” says Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

Self-control is “a very powerful concept right now and, of course, is an important part of executive functioning,” she said at the annual meeting of the North Pacific Pediatric Society. “It’s not that self-esteem is not important, it’s just very imprecise as a measure.”

Measuring children’s self-control (ability to delay gratification, control impulses, and modulate expression of emotion) not only is easier and more precise, but it is producing important findings in longitudinal studies, added Dr. Kastner of the University of Washington, Seattle. She’s also co-author of the book “Getting To Calm: Cool-Headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens and Teens” (Parent Map 2009).

Children with “undercontrolled temperament” at age 3 were more than twice as likely to show evidence of a gambling disorder as adults at ages 21 and 32 compared with those who were well-adjusted at age 3, according to an analysis of data from a large, 30-year prospective cohort study in New Zealand (Psychological Science 2012;23:510-516).

The degree of childhood self-control predicted the likelihood of physical health, substance dependence, sound personal finances, and criminal records, another analysis of the cohort found (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 2011;108:2693-2698).

Dr. Laura Kastner (Sherry Boschert/IMNG Medical Media)

Dr. Kastner said studies of this longitudinal data have shown that among the 20% of people with the lowest self-control as children, more than 40% had criminal records as adults, compared with criminal records for less than 15% of the 20% of people with the highest childhood self-control. Approximately 10% of the lowest self-control group was dependent on several drugs as adults, compared with less than 5% of the highest self-control group. Multiple health problems were reported by nearly 30% in the lowest self-control group compared with just over 10% of the highest self-control group. An annual income under $20,000 NZ (the equivalent of roughly $15,400 in U.S. dollars) was reported by more than 30% in the lowest self-control group and 10% of the highest self-control group.

The self-control meme is spreading rapidly, with books and articles exploring what it means and cultural differences in child-rearing. For one good example, see The New York Times article “Building Self-Control, the American Way.”

It remains to be seen whether interventions to help parents help their children to develop self-control will improve their lives later on.

–Sherry Boschert (on Twitter @sherryboschert)

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Filed under Family Medicine, IMNG, Internal Medicine, Pediatrics, Psychiatry

Teen Cruelty Not Always Bullying

Concern about bullying has increased exponentially in recent years, but it’s possible that we may be overreacting, Laura S. Kastner, Ph.D. suggested at the annual meeting of the North Pacific Pediatric Society.

(Courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Eddie~S/Creative Commons License)

Media coverage of suicides by teenagers (especially lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender teens) who were bullied at school sparked the It Gets Better Project in late 2010. It Gets Better videos, with positive messages from adults who made it through their own tough teen years, went viral and have been seen by many millions of people. 

The New York Times review of the 2012 movie “Bully” says it’s not just about the families profiled in the film but also about the “emergence of a movement.” Controversy around the film’s rating garnered lots of press coverage and publicity.

So, awareness of bullying is definitely up. That’s good, Dr. Kastner said, but it also means that people have started applying the label of bullying to behavior that doesn’t fit the bill. “I get called about bullying a lot,” said Dr. Kastner, clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle.

“Bullying is a little like sexual abuse was 25 years ago,” she said. “It’s great to have heightened awareness, but then people start throwing around words for a whole continuum, and then it gets muddy.” When increased awareness of the prevalence of sexual abuse led to teaching about inappropriate touching and related topics, some parents were asked by their children during bath time if this was sexual abuse, she recalled.

She defined bullying as a pattern of tormenting with a power differential between the bully and the bullied. It’s not a one-off occurrence of cruelty, though there are plenty of those in the adolescent years.

Evolutionary psychologists describe how peer status seems to be one of the most universal dynamics seen across cultures and time, she said. “There was something adaptive about jockeying for peer position in your tribe.” One implication of that is that adolescents have a biologically-based hypersensitivity to peer relations and rejection.

Laura S. Kastner, Ph.D. (Sherry Boschert/IMNG Medical Media)

“Social cruelty is normal and it exists on a continuum,” Dr. Kastner said. “It’s helpful that we talk about the concept of a continuum, so it’s not an either/or and oversimplifying this.”

When an adolescent encounters an act of social exclusion, or rumoring, or physical cruelty, depending on the situation and the teen’s sensitivity this could go down as one of the worst things that happened to them in their childhood. But was it bullying?

“Details, details, details” – that’s what the parent or physician needs to make a good assessment, she said.

Bullying seems to be common. Approximately 20%-30% of teens report that they have been bullied, she said. Fifty-three percent of students report seeing bullying at lease once a week, the National Crime Prevention Council reports on its Bullying Prevention page.

Attention has increased not only on the bullied but on bullies. One study found that suicidal adolescents who also were bullies had a heightened prevalence of substance use and functional impairment.

Dr. Kastner recommended resources from the National Crime Prevention Council for physicians who want to help families understand and address bullying. The Council also offers resources specifically for cyberbullying.

The key is for parents to talk about all these things with their teenager not once, but many times. “It’s like sex education – good, but don’t make it a one-time thing,” she said. “Make it a continuing conversation with context, a dialogue. Don’t overreact. Make it interesting. Be responsive. Be a good listener. Keep weaving in new information, new hypotheticals,” because a one-off conversation “is probably not going to do much.”

–Sherry Boschert (@sherryboschert on Twitter)

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