Welcome to my blog, which speaks to parents, professionals who work with children, and policy makers. Through stories from my behavioral pediatrics practice (with details changed to protect privacy) I will show how contemporary developmental science can be applied to support parents in their efforts to facilitate their children’s healthy emotional development. I will address factors that converge to obstruct such support. These include limited access to quality mental health care, influences of a powerful health insurance industry and intensive marketing efforts by the pharmaceutical industry.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Teaching Your Teenager To Drive: How Contemporary Developmental Theory Can Help

Can I practice what I preach? I was asking myself just that question when last week, my 16-year-old daughter decided that a trip to the mall was the time for her to learn how to drive on the Turnpike. She's had her permit for about two months, and so far I've found the experience of driving with her to be much less stressful than I anticipated(she did take Drivers Ed through school, which was a big help in taking the learning out of the realm of the mother-daughter relationship!)

My forthcoming book "Keeping Your Child in Mind," is organized around one idea, an idea that comes out of contemporary developmental research at the interface of psychology and neuroscience. In a nutshell, by understanding your child's behavior, empathizing with her experience, managing difficult feelings by containing them and setting appropriate limits, all while managing your own distress, you will help facilitate her healthy emotional development. The question I asked myself that morning was, can I do this while hurling past trucks at 70 miles per hour on a busy turnpike?

Most of my book is based on stories from my pediatrics practice, but some of the stories in the book are drawn from my experience as a mother. Now that the book is done, this was a chance to see what it would be like to use the ideas in the book in a moment potentially fraught with multiple levels of difficulty.

Number one, understanding her behavior. She is capable of doing this and feels confident in her abilities. Intellectually I understand that, even though I still see her as my baby, for child of her age it is developmentally appropriate to drive on a major highway. Number two, empathize with her feelings. I think of one of my favorite phrases that I learned from a social worker many years ago; "Face your fears and watch them disappear." My daugher is probably terrified, but she knows that she needs to just do it. Third, set appropriate limits. In this context, I need to calmly yet firmly tell her that she cannot drive at 65 in the left lane. As soon as she can safely do so, she must shift back into the right lane. No discussion, no negotiating this point. And last, I must master my own distress, so that I can be fully present with my daughter and help her to manage this challenging experience. I must tuck away that fleeting thought when I said good-bye to my son in the morning that he might never see me again. I must set aside the fears that I can't even bring myself to write in this post. She successfully navigates not only passing these huge trucks and shifting back into the right lane, but exiting from the turnpike and entering the Interstate for a short distance. " You need to slow down," I say as calmly as I can a manage when, towards the end of the hour-long trip, she attempts to negotiate the exit at 40 miles per hour.

At last, she pulls into a spot in the mall parking lot. "Thank you for helping me." she says. "And for staying calm." I tell l her that
I'm glad we did it together. I would much rather she learn the nuances of turnpike driving from me than have to figure it out on her own when she gets her license.

During the trip I actually held the image of the cover of my book in my mind while taking deep breaths and working to stay calm. Certainly there have been many moments when I have lost my cool with my children. But for this critical developmental milestone, the idea of holding my child in mind really came through. I go into the mall and buy myself a new pair of shoes. I deserve it. This is hard work!

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