You've Got Style

By: Dr. Gregory Popcak

learning styles

Chances are you have spent a great deal of energy trying to discover your children’s “learning styles.” These styles represent the easiest ways your children can learn new things and communicate with others. They are all based on the particular sense (sight, sound, touch) that is most acute in your child. So, if your child has a visual learning style (i.e. his sense of sight is the one he relies on the most to learn and communicate), he probably learns best through reading and other visual presentations like videos, or show and tell type activities. Alternatively, if your child has a more auditory learning style (i.e., his sense of hearing is the one he relies on the most to learn and communicate), your child may learn best by being talked through certain tasks, or by singing educational songs and listening to read-aloud stories (and for older children, classroom lectures). Finally, if your child has a kinesthetic (kin-es-TET-ic) learning style (i.e., his sense of touch is most acute) he probably learns best by doing hands on projects. He may also be a “slower” learner who has a hard time sitting still in class and doesn’t enjoy reading very much–unless the stories are action packed and short, like comic books.

Learning Styles and Family Relating.

“So,” you might ask, “what’s this got to do with parenting?”  Learning styles, because they are neurologically based, aren’t just relevant to education. They translate into the ways people need to give and receive love as well, and in this context, they are called, Relating Styles. In order for people with more Visual Relating Style to feel loved, they need to be able to see the things you’ve done to show your love (like give cards, notes, or other special, tangible tokens of affection). People with a more Auditory Relating Style need to be talking with you to feel connected–if you aren’t listening or conversing, you aren’t being loving. Finally, individuals with a more Kinesthetic Relating Style appreciate more physical displays of affection. They are also grateful when a parent takes the time to quietly work on projects together. Understanding and becoming fluent in your child’s learning/relating style has a major impact on both your child’s behavior and the amount of peace you can experience at home. The following example might help illustrate this concept.  Danny was a six year old boy who was referred to the in-home family therapy program I was working in while I was a graduate intern. The most immediate issue was that Danny was throwing horribly violent tantrums which frightened the mother. On separate occasions during his many tantrums, Danny pulled a knife on his mother and even kicked the family’s television set, breaking it. One time, Danny threw a tantrum in front of me and my pregnant supervisor, threatening to “Kick her tummy and kill the baby!”  Our first reaction was that Danny wasn’t getting enough attention from his single mom. The only problem with this hypothesis was that his mother was very affectionate. Each day when Danny would come home from school, she would spend a good deal of time telling him how much she loved him, looking at his work for the day and talking about all the things he did.  All-in-all, it seemed as if she was pretty clued in to her son.

We decided to back up and attempt to assess the intention behind the violent tantrums by asking, “What does this mom do differently when Danny throws a tantrum than she normally does?” What we discovered was that when Danny had a tantrum, his mother would have to get off the couch and physically restrain him. This was no small feat for the woman, who was permanently disabled with chronic back problems. Not having much else to go on, we suggested that perhaps Danny was not getting enough kinesthetic (touch) attention from his mother (who had a more auditory relating style, that is, she loved him by talking to him) and his tantrums were actually a very clever adaptive response he had developed to meet his need for increased touch.  We explained our theory to the mother and offered the following suggestion. When Danny came home from school, she was to continue their usual ritual of looking at his schoolwork and telling him she loved him (visual and auditory attention). But from now on, she was to do this while he sat on her lap and she cuddled him, giving him physical affection for as long as he would stay.  The mother took our advice and ran with it. Even though it made her physically uncomfortable, she held Danny, rubbed his back, stroked his head, and cuddled with him–sometimes up to an hour–while she talked to him and reviewed his day. Amazingly, within a week, the tantrums decreased significantly. Within a month, they were gone completely.  While there remained other issues for treatment, understanding and attending to Danny’s relating style enabled this mother to prevent his imminent placement in foster care and establish the control and safety needed to build a new relationship with her son.

If you found this information helpful, and would like to learn about how relating styles affect marital relationships, please see the chapter on Love Languages in For Better… FOREVER!

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