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Fox4WARD: Knowing how our partner is feeling

Fox 4 journalist Dan Godwin interviewed family psychologist Chrystyna D. Kouros, an associate professor in the SMU Department of Psychology, about her latest research on couples.

Lead author on the new study, Kouros and her co-author, relationship psychologist Lauren M. Papp at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that couples do poorly when it comes to knowing their partner is sad, lonely or feeling down.

Kouros and Papp reported their findings in the peer-reviewed journal Family Process, in the article “Couples’ Perceptions of Each Other’s Daily Affect: Empathic Accuracy, Assumed Similarity, and Indirect Accuracy.”

Godwin’s segment, “Knowing how our partner is feeling,” aired March 11 on Fox 4’s 10 p.m. Sunday news segment Fox4WARD.

Watch the full segment on Fox 4.

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New study finds couples do poorly at knowing when their partner is sad or feeling down

Spouses are the primary source of social support to one another, so it’s important to their relationship they stay attuned to each other’s emotions.

How well do couples pick up on one another’s feelings? Pretty well, when the emotion is happiness, says a psychologist at Southern Methodist University, Dallas.

But a new study finds that couples do poorly when it comes to knowing their partner is sad, lonely or feeling down.

“We found that when it comes to the normal ebb and flow of daily emotions, couples aren’t picking up on those occasional changes in ‘soft negative’ emotions like sadness or feeling down,” said family psychologist Chrystyna D. Kouros, lead author on the study. “They might be missing important emotional clues.”

Even when a negative mood isn’t related to the relationship, it ultimately can be harmful to a couple, said Kouros, an associate professor in the SMU Department of Psychology. A spouse is usually the primary social supporter for a person.

“Failing to pick up on negative feelings one or two days is not a big deal,” she said. “But if this accumulates, then down the road it could become a problem for the relationship. It’s these missed opportunities to be offering support or talking it out that can compound over time to negatively affect a relationship.”

The finding is consistent with other research that has shown that couples tend to assume their partner feels the same way they are feeling, or thinks the same way they do, Kouros said.

But when it comes to sadness and loneliness, couples need to be on the look-out for tell-tale signs. Some people are better at this process of “empathic accuracy” — picking up on a partner’s emotions — than others.

“With empathic accuracy you’re relying on clues from your partner to figure out their mood,” Kouros said. “Assumed similarity, on the other hand, is when you just assume your partner feels the same way you do. Sometimes you might be right, because the two of you actually do feel the same, but not because you were really in tune with your partner.”

Co-author on the study is relationship psychologist Lauren M. Papp at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Kouros and Papp reported their findings in the peer-reviewed journal Family Process, in the article “Couples’ Perceptions of Each Other’s Daily Affect: Empathic Accuracy, Assumed Similarity, and Indirect Accuracy.”

Couples should assume less about one another, observe more
The problem isn’t one for which couples need to seek therapy, Kouros said. Instead, she advises couples to stop assuming they know what their partner is feeling. Also, pay more attention to your partner, and communicate more.

“I suggest couples put a little more effort into paying attention to their partner — be more mindful and in the moment when you are with your partner,” she said.

She cautions, however, against becoming annoying by constantly asking how the other is feeling, or if something is wrong.

“Obviously you could take it too far,” Kouros said. “If you sense that your partner’s mood is a little different than usual, you can just simply ask how their day was, or maybe you don’t even bring it up, you just say instead ‘Let me pick up dinner tonight’ or ‘I’ll put the kids to bed tonight.’”

Even so, partners shouldn’t assume their spouse is a mind-reader, expecting them to pick up on their emotions. “If there’s something you want to talk about, then communicate that. It’s a two-way street,” she said. “It’s not just your partner’s responsibility.”

Participants were 51 couples who completed daily diaries about their mood and the mood of their partner for seven consecutive nights. The study veers from conventional approaches to the topic, which have relied on interviewing couples in a lab setting about feelings related to conflicts in their relationship.

Kouros and Papp will also present the research findings March 23 at the 2018 biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Human Development. — Margaret Allen, SMU

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NPR: A Tiny Spot In Mouse Brains May Explain How Breathing Calms The Mind

SMU psychology professor Alicia Merit was interviewed by NPR as an expert outside source on a new study about calming the mind.

Public radio network NPR interviewed SMU clinical psychologist Alicia Meuret for her expertise on breathing as it relates to fear and anxiety.

The NPR article, “A Tiny Spot In Mouse Brains May Explain How Breathing Calms The Mind,” published March 30, 2017.

Meuret is director of the Anxiety and Depression Research Center at SMU, with expertise in discussing the differences between fear and anxiety and when each is helpful and adaptive and when they are harmful and interfere with our lives.

An associate professor in the Clinical Psychology Division of the SMU Department of Psychology, Meuret received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Hamburg based on her doctoral work conducted at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. She completed postdoctoral fellowships at the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University and the Affective Neuroscience Laboratory in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University.

Her research program focuses on novel treatment approaches for anxiety and mood disorders, biomarkers in anxiety disorders and chronic disease, fear extinction mechanisms of exposure therapy, and mediators and moderators in individuals with affective dysregulations, including non-suicidal self-injury.

The article “A Tiny Spot In Mouse Brains May Explain How Breathing Calms The Mind,” cites new findings from Meuret’s research, which found patients undergoing exposure therapy for anxiety fared better when sessions were held in the morning when levels of the helpful natural hormone cortisone are higher in the brain.

Read the full story.


By Jessica Boddy

Take a deep breath in through your nose, and slowly let it out through your mouth. Do you feel calmer?

Controlled breathing like this can combat anxiety, panic attacks and depression. It’s one reason so many people experience tranquility after meditation or a pranayama yoga class. How exactly the brain associates slow breathing with calmness and quick breathing with nervousness, though, has been a mystery. Now, researchers say they’ve found the link, at least in mice.

The key is a smattering of about 175 neurons in a part of the brain the researchers call the breathing pacemaker, which is a cluster of nearly 3,000 neurons that sit in the brainstem and control autonomic breathing. Through their research is in mice, the researchers found that those 175 neurons are the communication highway between the breathing pacemaker and the part of the brain responsible for attention, arousal and panic. So breathing rate could directly affect feeling calm or anxious, and vice versa.

If that mouse pathway works the same way in humans, it would explain why we get so chilled out after slowing down our breathing. […]

[…] Alicia Meuret, an associate professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University who also wasn’t involved in the study, wasn’t sure if what the authors described as calm mouse behavior could be described as such. “It’s hard to determine what calm behavior is [in mice],” Meuret says. “We can see their behavior, but we don’t know what effect the loss of neurons has on their emotions.”

Banzett echoed that concern, noting the authors inferred emotion because “they equate the increase in grooming behavior with the emotional state of calmness.”

Read the full story.

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KERA News: Teens In Low-Income Families Get HPV Vaccine If Parents Persuade Themselves Of Benefits

In the first study of its kind, self-persuasion software on an iPad motivated low-income parents to want to protect their teens against the cancer-causing Human Papillomavirus.

Journalist Justin Martin with KERA public radio news covered the research of SMU psychology professor Austin S. Baldwin, a principal investigator on the research.

KERA’s article, “Teens In Low-Income Families Get HPV Vaccine If Parents Persuade Themselves Of Benefits,” aired April 12, 2017.

The SMU study found that low-income parents will decide to have their teens vaccinated against the sexually transmitted cancer-causing virus if the parents persuade themselves of the protective benefits.

The study’s subjects — almost all moms — were taking their teens and pre-teens to a safety-net pediatric clinic for medical care. It’s the first to look at changing parents’ behavior through self-persuasion using English- and Spanish-language materials.

A very common virus, HPV infects nearly one in four people in the United States, including teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control. HPV infection can cause cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers in females; penile cancer in males; and anal cancer, back of the throat cancer and genital warts in both genders, the CDC says.

The CDC recommends a series of two shots of the vaccine for 11- to 14-year-olds to build effectiveness in advance of sexual activity. For 15- to 26-year-olds, they are advised to get three doses over the course of eight months, says the CDC.

Currently, about 60% of adolescent girls and 40% of adolescent boys get the first dose of the HPV vaccine. After that, about 20% of each group fail to follow through with the second dose, Baldwin said.

Listen to the KERA radio interview with Justin Martin.


Guilt, social pressure and even a doctor’s recommendation aren’t enough to motivate low-income families to vaccinate their teenagers for Human Papillomavirus (HPV), according to research from Southern Methodist University.

But a follow-up study from SMU finds that if parents persuade themselves of the benefits of the vaccinations, more teenagers in low-income families receive protection from the sexually transmitted, cancer-causing virus.

Austin Baldwin, a professor of psychology at SMU, led the research.

What the study tells us about poverty: HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that is the primary cause of a variety of cancers. There’s been a vaccine developed in the last 10 years, 12 years that’s now approved. At times, those who are underinsured or uninsured don’t have this same level of access to it. Both here locally as well as nationally [among] folks who are poor, who are uninsured, we see clear disparities across a variety of health outcomes including cancer, including cervical cancer. The HPV vaccine is potentially a very effective means to address some of those health disparities.

How the study was conducted: We recruited parents of adolescents who get their pediatric care at Parkland clinic, and they participated in an iPad app that we developed. It provides them with some basic information about HPV and about the vaccine. It then prompts them with a number of questions to think about why getting the vaccine may be important, and then it prompts them to generate their own reasons for why they would get the vaccine. Most of the parents who had not previously given thought to or were undecided about the vaccine reported that they had decided to get their adolescent vaccinated.

Listen to the KERA radio interview with Justin Martin.

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Male versus female college students react differently to helicopter parenting, study finds

Helicopter parenting reduces the well-being of young women, while the failure to foster independence harms the well-being of young men but not young women.

Male and female college students react differently to misguided parenting, according to a new study that looked at the impact of helicopter parenting and fostering independence.

Measuring both helicopter parenting as well as autonomy support — fostering independence — was important for the researchers to study, said family dynamics expert Chrystyna Kouros, an assistant professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, and an author on the study.

“Just because mom and dad aren’t helicopter parents, doesn’t necessarily mean they are supporting their young adult in making his or her own choices,” Kouros said. “The parent may be uninvolved, so we also wanted to know if parents are actually encouraging their student to be independent and make their own choices.”

The researchers found that young women are negatively affected by helicopter parenting, while young men suffer when parents don’t encourage independence.

“The sex difference was surprising,” said Kouros, an expert in adolescent depression. “In Western culture in particular, boys are socialized more to be independent, assertive and take charge, while girls are more socialized toward relationships, caring for others, and being expressive and compliant. Our findings showed that a lack of autonomy support — failure to encourage independence — was more problematic for males, but didn’t affect the well-being of females. Conversely, helicopter parenting — parents who are overinvolved — proved problematic for girls, but not boys.”

The study is unique in measuring the well-being of college students, said Kouros, director of the Family Health and Development Lab at SMU. The tendency in research on parenting has been to focus on the mental health of younger children.

“When researchers do focus on college students they tend to ask about academic performance, and whether students are engaged in school. But there haven’t been as many studies that look at mental health or well-being in relation to helicopter parenting,” she said.

Unlike children subjected to psychological control, in which parents try to instill guilt in their child, children of helicopter parents report a very close bond with their parents. Helicopter parents “hover” out of concern for their child, not from malicious intent, she said.

What helicopter parents don’t realize is that despite their good intentions to help their child, it actually does harm, said Naomi Ekas, a co-author on the study and assistant professor of psychology at Texas Christian University, Fort Worth.

“They’re not allowing their child to become independent or learn problem-solving on their own, nor to test out and develop effective coping strategies,” Ekas said.

Young men that reported more autonomy support, measured stronger well-being in the form of less social anxiety and fewer depressive symptoms.

For young women, helicopter parenting predicted lower psychological well-being. They were less optimistic, felt less satisfaction with accomplishments, and were not looking forward to things with enjoyment, nor feeling hopeful. In contrast, lacking autonomy support wasn’t related to negative outcomes in females.

“The take-away is we have to adjust our parenting as our kids get older,” said Kouros. “Being involved with our child is really important. But we have to adapt how we are involved as they are growing up, particularly going off to college.”

The findings were reported in the article “Helicopter Parenting, Autonomy Support, and College Students’ Mental Health and Well-being: The Moderating Role of Sex and Ethnicity,” in the Journal of Child and Family Studies.

Other co-authors were: Romilyn Kiriaki and Megan Sunderland, SMU Department of Psychology, and Megan M. Pruitt, Texas Christian University. The study was funded by the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health at the University of Texas at Austin.

Parental involvement can go too far
Research on child development has consistently found that children are more successful when they have parental involvement and support.

Now, however, research is finding that parental involvement can go too far. Call it over-parenting, over-controlling parenting or helicopter parenting, but the characteristics are the same: parents offer their child a lot of warmth and support, but in combination with high levels of control and low levels of autonomy and independence.

For example a parent may dispute their college student’s low grade with a professor or negotiate their young adult’s job offer and salary.

Previous research in the field has linked helicopter parenting to a student’s poor academic achievement, lower self-esteem and life satisfaction, poor peer relationships, and greater interpersonal dependency.

“With helicopter parenting you’re impeding children from meeting the developmental goals of being independent and autonomous,” Kouros said. “That lowers their confidence in being able to solve problems on their own. They lose the opportunity to learn how to deal with stressors. Someone who’s used to figuring out daily hassles, however, learns strategies, gets practice and knows problems aren’t the end of the world.”

In contrast, research in the field links positive outcomes when parents support autonomy and independence by encouraging their young adults to make decisions and solve problems. Autonomy support is related to higher self-esteem and less depression.

Minimal research into sex differences of young adults
For the current study, the researchers wanted to see if helicopter parenting and low autonomy support equally affected male and female students.

Researching potential differences was especially important, the researchers concluded, since studies have found that females are twice as prone as males to develop depression and anxiety.

Very little research of sex differences has been conducted in emerging adulthood in relation to parenting. What limited research there is suggests that over-controlling or lax parenting increases the risk for maladjustment, particularly for young women.

The researchers surveyed 118 undergraduate students recruited from two mid-sized private universities in the southwest United States. The majority of students were female, between 18 and 25 years old, primarily white and Hispanic and living on campus.

Students completed widely accepted measures of helicopter parenting and autonomy support. The questionnaires asked students to rank their agreements or disagreement on a scale for items such as “If I were to receive a low grade that I felt was unfair, my parents would call the professor,” or “My parents encourage me to make my own decisions and take responsibility for the choices I make.”

To assess mental health and well-being, the students completed an accepted inventory for depression and anxiety symptoms that asked questions about their feelings the past two weeks. Examples include, “I felt depressed,” “I felt self-conscious knowing that others were watching me,” and “I felt hopeful about the future.”

The study complements a growing body of research about the harmful effects of helicopter parenting for adult children. It also adds to research indicating females are more vulnerable to the negative effects than males.

“You should love and care for your child, but the way you show it and manifest it has to be developmentally appropriate. Your parenting has to follow where your child is developmentally,” Kouros said. “Being over-involved while your child is in college, that may not be appropriate anymore. That doesn’t mean you disengage. So if a college student wants to call their parent and talk through an issue and problem solve, I think that’s appropriate. But it’s their problem and they should be able to confidently handle it on their own.” — Margaret Allen