From devotion to divorce, family scientists explore what makes parents tick

Oct. 13, 2008

One of the most fascinating aspects of studying parenting, say professors Deborah Jacobvitz and Nancy Hazen-Swann, is observing how parents confront (or fail to confront) the legacies of their own childhoods.

"There was one man we interviewed who said that his childhood was great," says Hazen-Swann, an associate professor of human development and family sciences. "He said it was like 'Leave it to Beaver.' His parents were perfect. His mom was very loving. But when we asked him to give some examples of his perfect childhood, he struggled to come up with any. Finally he said something like, 'When she sent me to summer camp, when I was seven, she packed my things really nicely and neatly.'"

Nancy Hazen-Swann
Human Ecology Professor Nancy Hazen-Swann studies how patterns in parenting are passed from one generation to the next.

As the interview progressed, it became apparent not only that his summer camp memory was more ambivalent than he acknowledged (he later admitted that he'd hated summer camp), but that none of his specific memories of his childhood added up to the general vision of happiness upon which he kept insisting. If his descriptions were accurate, in fact, his parents were quite distant, and quite controlling. And when Hazen-Swann and Jacobvitz observed the man's relationship with his own children, the pattern seemed to persist.

"He was controlling," says Hazen-Swann. "He wanted to be affectionate, but didn't seem to know what affection was. He thought that being in control of what your children are doing is how you show them that you care."

Jacobvitz and Hazen-Swann are two of a number of faculty in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences in the School of Human Ecology who are using a constellation of methods to delve beneath the surface of parenting to uncover the patterns beneath.

What they're finding—in examining topics as varied as the effect of depressive parents on defiance in children, the way that trauma migrates from one generation to the next and the impact on children of their parents' dating after divorce—is helping to move the science of parenting into the 21st century. It's also demonstrating that being a good parent, or a bad parent, is often much less in our control than we'd like to believe.

Down the Ages

Jacobvitz and Hazen-Swann look at the intergenerational transmission of parenting patterns. Much of their challenge has been finding ways to deal with the fact that they only have direct access to the present. In conducting their multi-year studies of parents and their children from late pregnancy through the first few years of life, they've been able to interview the new parents, observe their interactions with their children and do painstaking "behavioral coding" of videotaped interactions. What they haven't been able to do, however, is go back into the past and look at how the parents were parented.

"We don't know what actually happened," says Jacobvitz. "What we've found, however, is that when you are telling your life story to somebody, the clarity and coherence of your communication predicts your ability to be attuned to your own child, to be calm and clear and focused. In some ways, how you think and talk about your childhood is just as important as what happened."

Parents who were abused, for instance, says Jacobvitz, have a much better chance of breaking the cycle of abuse if they're able to have a realistic perspective on the difficulties of growing up in that situation. Even for people who had relatively normal, non-abusive childhoods, the degree to which they've been able to integrate the complexity of their parents' marriage—remembering its ups and downs, rather than idealizing it—is predictive of how well they'll tend to their marriage under the stresses of new parenthood.

Deborah Jacobvitz
Deborah Jacobvitz, professor in the School of Human Ecology, has worked with her colleagues to develop a research-based intervention program for parents in the Austin area.

"Adults who can insightfully describe their parents' marriage," says Jacobvitz, "are much more likely to be able to handle the complexities that parenthood introduces to their own marriage. It's a good sign when they can say things like, 'Well, my mom and dad fought sometimes, and there were some things they just never agreed about, but for the most part they seemed to love and support each other.' People with that degree of insight just seem better prepared for parenthood."

Jacobvitz and Hazen-Swann recently have been analyzing and publishing the results of a study into the relationship between unresolved trauma in mothers, the incidence of what psychologists call "frightened/frightening" (FR) behavior in those mothers, and the incidence of a particular form of attachment disorder—"disorganized attachment"—in children.

All parents exhibit a range of behaviors around their children, but with most parents there's enough regularity and logic to their actions that a child is able to establish a set of expectations. A mother of the kind they're studying, however, has been affected by her childhood in such a way that she's impaired in offering that kind of consistency to her own child. She might be sensitive and caring most of the time, but every so often, while watching her child, she'll exhibit FR behavior. She may go into a trancelike, nonresponsive state for 20 or 30 seconds (or even, in some extreme instances, for minutes). Or she might hug her child a little too hard, or abruptly transition from a normal tone of voice into a deep scary tone.

"The point," says Hazen-Swann, "is that it comes out of nowhere. We were observing one mother, for instance, interacting with her eight-month-old. For most of the interaction, she was very loving and attentive. At one point, though, she picked up a teddy bear and started saying, 'nice teddy, nice teddy' in a pleasant tone. Then her voice suddenly dropped, and she growled, 'Love the bear,' and she practically smothered the baby with the bear. Then she went back to normal."

Being a good parent, or a bad parent, is often much less in our control than we'd like to believe.Such an extreme example isn't common, says Jacobvitz, but it's a strikingly visible example of what she and Hazen-Swann believe is perhaps the most destructive aspect of even the less overt forms of frightening behavior—the unpredictability of it. It's also evidence, she says, of the way that trauma can be passed from one generation to the next in ways that aren't obvious. The mother who half-smothered her baby with the teddy bear, for example, was sexually abused by her stepfather. Her frightening behavior with her own child wasn't a repeat of what happened to her, but a kind of transmutation of it, a consequence of her understandable inability to psychologically integrate what had been done to her.

For her own child, the trauma may be less, but still significant. Kids who have to deal with such erratic, frightening parents may never form the secure attachment that allows healthier children to cope with the stresses of life. They're more likely than average to suffer emotional and behavioral problems throughout their youth, and they're apt, if Jacobvitz and Hazen-Swann are right, to pass some form of their troubles on to their own kids.

"Parenting is important," says Hazen-Swann, "even over the long term. People will say that they're not going to be like their own parents, but when you observe them, it turns out that in important ways they often are, especially when they don't have that much insight into how their childhood affected them. They'll repeat the same patterns, or the patterns will reappear in different forms."

Caught on Tape

For Associate Professor Ted Dix, it's the second-to-second details of parent-child interactions, rather than the generation-to-generation passage, that's most fascinating. In order to learn more about the ongoing emotional dance of action and response that makes up every interaction—and to reveal the consequences of different patterns—Dix relies heavily on a research method known as micro behavioral coding.

Ted Dix
Human Ecology Professor Ted Dix uses video-taped interactions, and micro-behavioral coding, to deconstruct the second-by-second interactions between parents and children.

He parcels up videos of mothers, fathers and children interacting into half-second or five- second intervals he classifies according to an "emotion or behavioral coding" system. He can then characterize interactions consistently from one group of subjects to another, and from one interaction to the next. A typical coding of a 20-second interaction, for example, might be scored for how often a child smiles at his mother, how long it takes the mother to respond (if at all), and how many "positive" interactions the child initiates with the mother.

"If you think about how to understand human functioning," says Dix, "there are a few choices. You can ask people what they think happened in a given interaction, and this can give you useful information about how they perceive the world. But if you want to know, for example, not whether they think they're a strict disciplinarian, but if they actually are, then you have to look to more objective methods, and I just love what micro-coded data can tell us."

Often, says Dix, what his studies tell him about parenting is consistent with common sense. Children of mothers who are more depressive, for instance, don't smile as much as their peers as they grow older, and they show less inclination to initiate positive interactions. More surprisingly, however, they also show less sadness than their peers.

"We argue," says Dix, "that because they've learned over time that their displays of emotion, positive or negative, aren't effective in eliciting their mothers' reactions, the children stop trying."

A flip side of this finding, says Dix, is that not just displays of sadness, but of active defiance, can be a sign of positive development in children. The same markers of defiance, in fact, that would be symptomatic of unhealthy development in three- or four-year-old children can often be evidence of healthy development in younger kids.

Displays of sadness, and of active defiance, can be a sign of positive development in children."In our data," Dix says, "sensitive mothers had the most defiant children, while the most depressed mothers had the least defiant children. When they're 20 months old, which is the average age of our sample, defiance is not an indication that the mother-child relationship is flawed, or that the child's development is proceeding badly. It appears to be, in our data, a sign that these kids are actually doing pretty well, and that their parents are pretty good. You can see it, too, because although they're defiant in some ways, these kids actually want to include their mothers in their play more than the kids who are less defiant do."

The relationship between defiance and healthy development, Dix believes, has to do with the experience of autonomy. Defiance in 20-month-olds, he says, is often evidence of a healthy sense of empowerment. Not only are these kids beginning to know what they want, but they're not afraid of their parents when they demand it.

"They're used to their parents enabling them to control their world, which is a good thing," says Dix. "It gives them a sense, 'I can control my life. I'm an effective person.' The task then, over the next two years, is to take that sense of autonomy and active empowerment and channel it so that it's not destructive, so that the children learn how to regulate the disagreements they have with other people in non-defiant ways."

Second Time Around

When Associate Professor Edward Anderson and research associate Shannon Greene set out to investigate what happens to children when their parents re-partner, they were immediately struck by how little work had been done in the area.

Edward Anderson
Human Ecology Professor Ed Anderson studies how parents and children negotiate the transition from divorce to re-partnering to re-marriage.

"Divorce has been studied so thoroughly for decades," says Anderson, "and there's a fair amount of research on blended families, but we know very little about the transitional period, about how kids move from single-parent families to when their parents begin dating and then to getting remarried. If you were to Google 'dating after divorce,' you'd get a lot of advice, but none of it is based on any kind of systematic research."

Because there was so little prior research literature on the subject, Anderson and Greene conducted a focus group with divorced moms before they even embarked on their study of mothers and children. They asked them questions about the complexities of managing dating after divorce, and listened in particular to what words and themes seemed to bubble up again and again. From there, Anderson and Greene were able to create concepts and terms to describe the dynamics they were planning to analyze.

"One of the concepts we've formalized," says Greene, "is 'reinventing.' We think parents give clues to their kids that their lives are changing in the way that they restructure their identity. Suddenly your mom gets a tattoo, or she develops new taste in music, or she has a new group of friends. Kids notice these things, but they don't always know what to make of them."

They also looked at "barriers to dating," which could include the ex-spouse, work, religion and the children themselves, who might be holding on to a hope their parents will reunite. They looked at how custody arrangements are likely to influence how parents introduce new partners to their kids. They noticed, for instance, that when the ex-spouse doesn't share custody in any fashion, it's hard to keep a new relationship secret. A shared custody arrangement, on the other hand, makes it possible to confine dating to when, for example, the kids are at their dad's house.

Greene and Anderson also identified a few critical junctures in the transition into dating.

"How to handle sleepovers is a big one," says Greene. "Some kids, depending on their age, may see it as a fun, camp-out kind of thing. Other kids, particularly those who are close to dating age, may have a sense of the sexual aspect of it."

Other big moments, say Anderson and Greene, include those that involve introducing partners. How do you plan the first few family activities? Are the kids part of the early courtship, or is it separate? Later on, there are discipline issues, and questions of how much influence this new person will have.

Kids have a lot of ways of figuring out that their parents are dating.These can get particularly thorny, says Anderson, because the new partner is entering a family in which the child, who's had to deal with all the stresses of the divorce, is more likely to have behavior problems.

Although Anderson and Greene are still analyzing the data from their study, they've already begun to see evidence of a few patterns.

One is that kids have a lot of ways of figuring out that their parents are dating, and therefore the conventional wisdom—that parents shouldn't tell their kids they're dating until they're certain that the relationship is serious or is going to be permanent—may miss the point.

"One of the striking things in our data—and maybe it's not so striking for those who've gone through this situation—is that kids are pretty perceptive," says Anderson. "Trying to keep things disguised from them for too long is fairly difficult to do, and maybe not such a good idea."

Perhaps the most significant conclusion that Anderson and Greene's data seem to be pointing toward—though it's too early in their analysis to be certain—is that parents who are going through the process of re-partnering should worry less about the external changes to their kids' lives and more about how the changes are altering their own parenting practices.

"It's not so much the fact that mom has a new boyfriend," says Anderson, "as it is that re-partnering can be associated with changes in parenting practices. Moms may not be as aware as they once were of where their kids are when they're not at home. They may not be as consistent in reinforcing good behavior. They may become more harsh and punitive, and more likely to escalate negative interchanges with the child. It's like any big transition. When any individual is dealing with all sorts of new tasks, there's less energy to go around. There's energy taken away from parenting."

Toward a Science of Parenting

Although the research can sometimes seem to imply, says Hazen-Swann, that it's nearly impossible to parent well in this age of divorce, depression and disorientation, the truth isn't nearly so grim.

"You get more effects, when doing research, for negative behavior than positive behavior," she says. "So that's what we tend to look at. But most parents are pretty good, or 'good enough.' Of all the families we see, the percentage of them whom we look at and think, 'Boy this family really needs therapy,' is probably around 10 percent."

Parents are resilient. So many of them are able to overcome negative early experiences and provide good care for their children. Dr. Deborah Jacobvitz, Professor and Chair, Department of Human Development and Family SciencesEven for those parents who've already fallen into destructive patterns, or who are facing unavoidably stressful situations like divorce, there are more and more resources being devoted to helping.

Hazen-Swann and Jacobvitz, for instance, have helped to set up a parent training program in Austin that builds on some of the insights they've gleaned from their research.

Dix shares his data with the Oregon Social Learning Center, one of the leaders in the field in developing intervention programs.

Anderson and Greene expect, once they've completed their study, to be able to provide research-based information and advice for parents on how to negotiate post-divorce transitions successfully.

It's also the case, say every one of the researchers, that simply the effort on the part of parents to be reflective about their parenting can lead to better outcomes for their children. Unresolved trauma can, through intervention and introspection, become more resolved.

"Parents are resilient," says Jacobvitz. "So many of them are able to overcome negative early experiences and provide good care for their children."

For each of the researchers, that resilience—that drive to become better and more whole people, and parents—constitutes not just a research subject in its own right, but one of the fundamental reasons that studying parenting is worthwhile in the first place. Parents are looking for information to help them understand themselves and their situation better, and the more good information they can get, the better off they—and their kids—are likely to be.

"We have a science of parenting," says Dix. "It has a lot of very talented people publishing wonderful, rigorously collected data. Unfortunately, right now, there's a chasm between what we know scientifically and what the public knows about the science, but we're getting there."

For more information, contact: By Daniel Oppenheimer
Hogg Foundation