In the last article, we reviewed the concept of psychological resilience; a term which denotes our susceptibility to developing psychological issues as a result of the interaction of risk and protective factors within ourselves, as well as our environment; this approach to mental health originates from developmental psychology. One of developmental psychology’s greatest benefits is that it does not compete with any existing psychological theory – or theological philosophy - but rather it supports them all by contextualizing the individual.
There’s an interesting juxtaposition concerning the complex dynamics of the parent-child relationship as discussed in scholarly articles, and the proliferation of “the complete guide to raising your child correctly” books that are widely available in bookstores. Again, the tendency to seek a magic recipe to raising children reflects an innate, human desire to pursue simple solutions to complex problems. As it is with everything else, sometimes even parents want a quick-fix, one-stop solution to their child-rearing problems these days. Unfortunately, simplifying complex processes quickly produces misconceptions, three of which were quite popular in early parent-child research. First of all, we now know that raising a child involves a reciprocal relationship in which the child affects the parents – and by extension, the parenting styles – just as much as the parent affects the child. Second of all, changes in the child’s development occur at a very fundamental level, and any type of external influence (i.e. parenting style) does not affect the child in the same way over time. Finally, a child’s development is so complex, that it’s ludicrous to assume that any one characteristic (father’s parenting style, etc.) is the cause of a child’s distress, among the plethora of ecological factors that are present – refer to the previous article to get an idea how many millions of factors interact in our development.
But just how much do parents play a role in the psychological development of their children? Intuitively, we would imagine a lot - in reality though, that's an understatement. Although research in this field is quite rich, we continue to undervalue the full magnitude of our parents’ role in our psychological development, which reflects the complex dynamics that are involved in a child-parent relationship. For the sake of this article however, the topic I’d like to focus on is emotional availability as a risk/protective factor, and let’s take fathers as an example. Although this is quite a generalization, fathers are often perceived as being more emotionally distant to their children than mothers. Unfortunately, this also happens to be the case for the many Muslim families that I know of; if the child is distressed, the father gladly redirects their concerns to the mother more often than the mother would to the father. In light of this, fathers may be less implicated in their child’s development than the mothers, and instead may focus their attention on the family’s financial stability - i.e. if the child has a place to sleep, food to eat and gets good grades, everything's A-OK. As a result, such fathers exhibit an emotional distance towards their children, despite how much the child desperately needs him to their emotional needs, validate their concerns, and simply “be there” for them.
Naturally, research has extensively explored the emotional relationship parents and children share. Notwithstanding the complexity of psychological development, studies indicate that parental sensitivity (i.e. acceptance and responsiveness) - as a protective factor - may predict greater sociability, self-regulation, prosocial behavior and self-esteem among children. Conversely, low parental emotional sensitivity - a risk factor - may predict social withdrawal and attention issues. Now, as you can imagine, parental sensitivity is quite an expansive subject; it’s multidimensional and cannot be simplified to “either you have it or you don’t.” However, one thing is for sure: children need to feel validated – recognized as individuals – by their primary caregivers. Indeed, this point is the quintessential psychological basis of our development. It explains why, for example, you’ll always see a child yell “Mommy, Daddy, look what I can do!” every time they learn a new trick or acquire a new skill. Again, it’s an unfortunate reality how many brothers and sisters revealed to me the emotional distance they have with their fathers, highlighting that it’s their mothers they always relied on for support. The child then grows up feeling like a stranger to his/her father, despite the recurring need to seek his approval; a tragic conflict which may eventually lay the foundation for the negative developmental consequences I listed earlier.
Thus, it goes without saying that the emotional availability of both of our parents is necessary for proper development. Many of us will soon be parents or already are, and in light of what we just discussed, we need to constantly remind ourselves that if our children can’t come to us when they’re emotionally distressed, then who will they go to?
Just like parents, peer research (peer is synonymous with friend in this article) hints at the significance of how our social environment has an immense influence on who we become growing up. As the old proverb goes, “show me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are.” Naturally, research on peer influence focuses primarily on problem behaviours. Nonetheless, to truly highlight the dynamism that is risk and protective factors, I’d like to present a factor that is much more subtle: co-rumination.
Co-rumination is the excessive discussion of problems among friends which may, in fact, aggravate the stress attributed to these problems. I wouldn’t be surprised if you find this concept oddly familiar; it’s an act many of us commit on a daily basis. Just think about the last time someone approached you, divulging all their problems to the letter, without even a moment’s rest to find a solution to any of them. In fact, I can even remember some instances in which the solutions provided were hastily dismissed, or worse, frowned upon under the proverbial “I just need a shoulder to cry on” line of reasoning. We’ll find brothers complain about sisters, teens complain about their parents, Muslims complain about mosques, etc. with no solution in sight – we’re professional co-ruminators, no less. Funny enough, people often leave these discussions angrier than before they arrived; co-rumination, obviously, fuels our distaste towards the object we’re already displeased with, as the very definition implies deliberating a problem no one intends to resolve.
But is there more to co-rumination than just discharging emotions with no end in sight? Research has shown that co-rumination, which is more common among girls (based on the research we have so far on co-rumination), can be linked to depression and anxiety despite simultaneously strengthening the relationship bonds. Thus, to relate this topic to the broader theme of this article, co-rumination appears to a risk factor often neglected in the Muslim community; indeed, extensive, repetitive and speculative discussions about an issue without the sincere intention of seeking a solution may very well facilitate the transmission one person’s stress unto another. Thus, I’ll take this opportunity to remind myself and others to renew our intentions prior to conversing with others, in line with the Prophet’s (salAllah alaihi wa salam) clear warnings regarding the dangers of the tongue. Indeed, it’s so important, that Imam al-Nawawi chose to include one hadith in his renowned collection that truly underlines the significance of its effects. In short, Muadh ibn Jabal asked the Prophet (salAllah alaihi wa salam) which deeds ensure entry into paradise, upon which the Prophet (salAllah alaihi wa salam) recommended the five pillars of Islam, among other things. But the Prophet’s (salAllah alaihi wa salam) advice did not end there. He asked:
"Shall I not tell you of the controlling of all that (the good deeds)?"
Muadh responded:" Yes, O Messenger of Allah".
The Prophet then took hold of his tongue and said: "Restrain this."
Muadh said: "O Prophet of Allah, will what we say be held against us?"
The Prophet replied: "May your mother be bereaved of you, Muadh! Is there anything that topples people on their faces - or he said on their noses into Hell-fire other than the jests of their tongues?” (Related by Al-Tirmithi).
So, are psychological problems really as simple as we often assume they are? Isn’t it just the result of the person’s genes/parents/bad friends/insert common scapegoat here? Of course, the irony is outstanding; people readily blame a specific source for their psychological concerns, yet we can barely even begin to comprehend the full dynamics of parental sensitivity or co-rumination alone. Regardless, I find these are good examples that illustrate how – already at a very early age – we’re surrounded by risk factors that affect us all, and indeed, no one is immune to their influence. Thus, by briefly highlighting how risk and protective factors are implicated in every corner of our surroundings, we seek to remind ourselves that psychological issues are almost always more complicated than we believe.
To end on a positive note, I’d like to mention that – by Allah’s divine Mercy - humans are much more resilient than we often make them out to be, and thus I’ll end this two-part article with an inspirational quote I found in my research on war-affected Bosnian children:
“Although the tragedy portrayed in this survey [on Bosnian children] is considerable, the findings also call attention to the remarkable resilience of children, perhaps best expressed by the finding that two-thirds of the children in this study felt that life was worth living despite having experienced some of the harshest events that can befall a child.” (Goldstein, Wampler and Wise, 1997)
Note 1: I promised in part 1 I would discuss religiosity as a risk and protective factor. I'll devote an entire article to that in the future .
Note 2: The research detailed in the 'Parents' section was extracted from Cummings and colleagues, and the 'Friends' section was derived from Shwartz-Mette & Rose.
Cummings, E. M., Davies, P.T., & Campbell, S.B. (2000). Developmental psychopathology and family process (157-199).
Schwartz-Mette, R.A., & Rose, A.J. (2012). Co-rumination mediates contagion of internalizing symptoms within youths’ friendships. Developmental Psychology, 48, 1255-1265.