Back-To-School: When Anxiety Rears its Head

The end of summer is a difficult time for many teens, especially older teens who are entering their final years of high school and anticipating the challenges that will come with that, and first year college students who may be moving away from home for the first time. So how can kids think about anxiety in a way that will help them continue to move forward in the face of fear and often overwhelming feelings? My own personal experience with anxiety might help shed some light on this all-too-common issue.

The problem with anxiety is that it is insistent. It is conniving and coy and always trying to convince me that I have to do something – or, NOT do something. Everything is fear-based with anxiety and, in my case, as soon as I started listening, it was incessantly in my ear, my brain, buzzing. But over a period of years I learned that the best thing I could do when she showed up was nothing. I promised myself that I wouldn’t ever make big decisions out of fear, and it took many repetitions of this mantra and even written reminders on my laptop, my bathroom mirror, my desk to help me hear it in my head over the sound of Anxiety’s yapping.

My first instinct was to fight Anxiety, and it worked for a while, but it was so much work. I was exhausted and Anxiety just kept coming back. Everything changed when I learned that instead of combating it, I could stop, breathe, acknowledge its presence. I could listen to the frantic admonitions, the nay-saying, the fear-mongering, and let them pass right through me. I started to pretend that they were the ramblings of some sad soul on the subway. I nodded with sympathy, heard Anxiety out, and released it all. I don’t have to believe any of it. I get to understand where Anxiety is coming from and honor it and also not follow its advice. Anxiety will tell you that it wants what is best for you, that it will keep you safe, but that path keeps you small and afraid. It keeps you in the dark – isolated and lonely. True, I might be safe, but that’s not how I want to live, and I’m pretty sure, if your kids are honest with themselves, that’s not the life they want either.

THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT ANXIETY

It’s important to remember that Anxiety isn’t  me. Anxiety is afraid and it always will be – it is literally the only reason Anxiety exists, but it is not why I’m here. I have other reasons for being, and while Anxiety is loud and compelling and jacks up my heart rate and makes my palms sweaty and my head spin, it is possible to gradually separate myself from Anxiety. I can hear its words as though I’m underwater – muffled and distorted – I can let them pass through me and not stick.

It is also important to remember that Anxiety hates being ignored. It will come back again and again. I know this. But I also know that everything I’ve ever done that I’m proud of, that was worth it, that gave me joy, was in spite of it. Going to college. Getting married. Having a baby. Those were all things that paralyzed me, that made Anxiety stand up and say, “What do you think you’re doing? You don’t know how to do this! This is terrifying!” And I believed that some of the time, but I did those things anyway, and I don’t regret it. It is possible to move forward, step by step, with Anxiety right next to you, yammering in your ear that you couldn’t do this, sweating and heart pounding.

Maybe most important, Anxiety is quiet when you’re busy – when you’re doing your thing. Because you’re calling it on its BS. You’re proving it wrong. You’re showing it that you CAN do this, that you WON’T mess it up, that you are capable of going out there and living your fullest life. That’s also why it’s loudest before bed and right when you wake up – because you’re chilling and not out doing, but if you can work on silencing it (or acknowledging, listening, and dismissing) at those times, it gets much easier.

KEY THINGS TO REMEMBER

*Know who you are. Know what you want. Know what you’re willing to do to get there. Anxiety doesn’t like clarity. The more clear you are, the less Anxiety will pipe up.

*All you have to do is the next right thing. When Anxiety is chatting away in your ear, it’s tempting to believe that you have to have it all figured out, that you have to have a plan. But, to be honest, there is never a point in your life where you have to have it all figured out. When you’re dealing with anxiety, the best thing to do is take the next step forward. And the next. And the next.

*Bonus points for noticing the things that feel right, that make you smile. Gratitude is a powerful antidote to Anxiety. If you get immersed in school and you start to enjoy yourself, do yourself a favor and take a moment to chalk one up for you and rub it in Anxiety’s face. You’ve got this.

*More bonus points for patting yourself on the back every time you go to class, talk to someone, join an exercise group, get out of bed. Those are monumental acts when Anxiety is riding shotgun.

Charged Conversations: How to Keep it from Getting Personal

Most of us don’t like conflict, so when we go in to a meeting or gathering where we know there will be disparate ideas and positions, we worry that things might get ugly. Maybe it’s the annual budget allocation summit, or a discussion about social justice or even a conversation with your teen about driving rules or curfew – any of those scenarios can go sideways pretty quickly if two people have different viewpoints or values. But if we want to have a constructive dialogue and actually make some progress toward a shared goal, we need to keep things on track. Here’s one way to approach it that keeps things from getting personal:

Disagree with the idea, not the person.

It is sometimes hard to separate the two, because of the way we’re conditioned, but it’s really important if you want to keep the conversation going. Challenge yourself to change the way you talk about something you disagree with and you might be pleasantly surprised.

Instead of saying something like, “How could you say that?” or “You’re wrong,” or “You’re a horrible person. Don’t you know _________________?”  try to disentangle the idea from the person who suggested it.

This might look like, “Hmm, that idea doesn’t really jive with my personal experience because __________,” or “Here’s a different idea that I think is valid and deserves some attention.”

Yes, the person who suggested X did so for a reason (maybe their values or their life experience led them to it), but if what you’re after is a solution that works for everyone, it’s important to remember that we all have slightly different values and life experiences, and if we can extract the ideas and vet them on their own merits without attacking the idea generators personally, the conversation stays more focused.

This is especially hard when we come in with preconceived notions about who might pose which solution and why, but if we can set those things aside with an eye toward moving the conversation forward, we can be more efficient. In most cases, whether or not you personally like the people you’re working with on challenging issues doesn’t really matter unless you make it personal by too closely associating them with their thoughts. Helping others see things from a different perspective is easier if we are simply trying to get them to look at new ideas, instead of trying to change who they are as a person.

I used this tactic the other day on a local social media forum where folks were talking about the issue of homelessness in our neighborhood. I was tempted at one point to lash out at someone who was characterizing all of the homeless folks as “junkies” and “losers who choose homelessness,” but I resisted. We obviously didn’t end up solving the issue, but we were able to have a productive dialogue without alienating each other or leaving with hard feelings and since I have to live here, I’m pretty  happy about that.

How Our Brains Reinforce Our Biases

By Department of Radiology, Uppsala University Hospital. Uploaded by Mikael Häggström. [CC0 or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Brain researchers talk about two systems of thought in our brains – one that reacts quickly and intuitively and the other that is more complicated and methodical. The busier we are, the more we rely on the first one to make our decisions for us. Unfortunately, even though that system makes fairly good choices sometimes, the more we rely on it, the stronger it gets. Also unfortunately, because that system takes a lot less energy and time, we default to it more readily.  And over time, this decision-making system is self-reinforcing; meaning that it learns and uses past experiences to inform split-second decisions in the moment.

Not engaging the second system to reflect and use our inquisitive powers to make decisions can significantly affect our world view and the way we absorb information and ultimately reinforce the biases we have.  Because our brains and our culture haven’t evolved to take the time to challenge assumptions and really dive in to complex questions, it takes practice to overcome our knee-jerk reactions. But even more than that, the reason we can make those instant judgments is because of associations we’ve learned to make.

Our brains largely remember things based on how they relate to other things. That’s why we have to work so hard to memorize random dates and names, but if we put them to music or create some system around them that makes more sense, we can more easily lodge them in our memory banks. But sometimes those associations are simply manufactured, and this can be terribly harmful from time to time.

If you grew up in a family that taught you to associate people with a certain skin color with danger, when you’re in a hurry or otherwise engaged, you’ll fall back on those biases and  make choices based on them. Even if you “know better” or have friends of color, you’re more likely to make snap judgments based on associations you have. It takes real effort to examine the narratives that drive our behavior and interrupt those associations that are not valid.

If your knee-jerk reactions are rooted in fear or discomfort, the way our brains work, those thoughts have more weight than other thoughts, which means it takes more effort over time to dismantle them. It’s human nature to take the path of least resistance and, in fact, we are often considered “efficient” when we don’t take a long time to make decisions. As I said, often, those choices are perfectly fine and even beneficial, but when they involve relationships with other people about whom we may have biases, it is important to slow down and really pull apart where we might be making thought errors. The more we can do this with adolescents, the more comfortable they get with it and the more likely they are to be able to challenge their thinking errors over time – with respect to themselves and others.

One important exercise teachers can do with students to illustrate this phenomenon is to set up some common, everyday decision points and have students share what their first reaction would be and what it’s based on. Write those down and see if there are patterns. Are some of the choices based in fear or risk-avoidance? Where can students challenge those assumptions? Given an ample bit of time to access their reflective brain, would they make a different choice? It’s true that often our instincts guide us in beneficial ways, but there are times when it’s more in our best interest to stop and question whether those choices are rooted in things that aren’t accurate.

Next time: how our unconscious biases affect the way we see ourselves.

When Mindfulness is Better Taken Out of the Mind

Sometimes, it seems ironic to me that my mindfulness practice is so much about not getting caught up in my thoughts and stories. Especially when I am feeling intense emotions, I know that the best thing I can do is NOT engage with my rational mind.

From the time we can form words, we use them to make sense of our world by creating stories about what we see and hear and feel. We make assumptions and connect dots and come to conclusions that may or may not be accurate but as long as they fit our view of the world, we rarely challenge them. And over time, those stories become habitual and we launch in to them without even taking a moment to realize that’s what we’re doing.

Mindfulness is about taking a moment. It’s about recognizing that the stories are just that. And it’s hard to do, which is why I use my body to interrupt my mind when I’m feeling scared or sad or angry or frustrated. I like to imagine that these intense emotions trigger a severing of my body from my brain so that I can really direct my attention to my physical being and ignore what my mind is telling me is happening.

When I am “in my body,” I use this opportunity to ask questions:

Where am I feeling this emotion? Is there a burning in my gut? A tightness in my face or jaw? What are my hands doing? How am I breathing? How am I moving?

What happens if I breathe in to the place where I’m feeling the most intensity? Can I close my eyes and imagine the intake of breath sending warmth to a specific area? Can I relax it or slow it down? What does that feel like?

Once I’ve really tuned in to my body and maybe calmed down the physical reaction, then I can turn my attention to my thoughts. Because I’m not in the throes of the emotional reaction anymore, I can be more objective about what’s happening in my head. I can stand aside a bit and witness the story without being caught up in it, and at this point, I can assess whether it’s real or if I’m filling in blanks without having all the information.

It seems a little odd to call this “mindfulness” when I start out by completely divorcing myself from my mind’s reaction, but this is the best way I’ve found to make sure I can keep from getting immersed in the story when I’m in the midst of a fiery emotion.

What is Non-Violent Communication and Why Does it Matter?

Bhuston at English Wikipedia [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0), CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
One of the foundations of The SELF Project’s parent and student curriculum is non-violent communication. For people who haven’t encountered this term before, it can seem a bit strange, but it is an important piece of understanding how to have strong, mutually respectful, healthy, compassionate relationships.

So what is it?

The term itself was coined by Marshall Rosenberg, a psychologist, whose life’s work revolved around the notion of compassionate connection and individual needs. He believed that if we could distill our communication with others down to which of our needs we were trying to get met, we could then begin to find strategies to meet those needs in concert with others rather than at odds with them.

Non-violent communication does not involve guilt or shame, power or control tactics, or manipulation. It is a way of communicating where each individual is sincerely interested in the needs of the other and validates their right to have those needs. It also involves taking personal responsibility for one’s feelings, actions, and sometimes, coming to terms with the fact that your needs cannot or won’t be met.

Why does it matter?

As teachers and parents, we generally assume a level of power and authority that can lead us to set up communication patterns with children that are rooted in violent communication (that is, shame/blame, power/control, manipulation). And while those tactics might work to keep things peaceful for a while, they aren’t long-term strategies for creating trusting relationships.

Threats of punishment, taking away privileges as a punishment, tit-for-tat rhetoric or behavior, and “because I said so” are all examples of this kind of violent communication. They might be effective at squashing behaviors short-term, but they won’t foster relationship or ultimately teach the child skills that will serve them as adults.

Non-violent communication is also about really understanding where someone else is coming from. Because it involves being really curious about what someone’s behaviors or rhetoric is trying to say about what needs they have that aren’t being met, it fosters compassion. I often use the phrases “hurt people hurt people” and “where there is bad behavior, there is pain.” Both of those are reflective of the notion that we express ourselves negatively when we need something we aren’t getting. Using non-violent communication techniques can help parents and teachers begin to understand what is at the root of certain behaviors or relationship dynamics.

We have all had at least one ‘a-ha’ moment when our assumptions about why a kid was acting out were proven to be horribly wrong. I once knew a mom whose (pre-verbal) toddler was throwing a massive tantrum and she got increasingly frustrated and angry as she tried nearly everything to calm him down – food, drink, cuddling, shushing, threatening. He was arching his back and pulling at his overalls and causing quite the scene. It was only when she finally laid him down to check his diaper that she realized he had somehow slipped a fork down inside his overalls and the tines were stabbing him in the genitals. No wonder he was screaming!

These techniques, when used by parents and teachers, are also a good way to teach kids how to get curious about their own feelings and motivations. So often, we react to pain or frustration in less than desirable ways without even really thinking about it, but the earlier we can learn to identify what is behind those strong feelings, the better. We will be able to express ourselves to people without them becoming defensive or angry and are more likely to get our needs met in the end. It’s an important life skill to have.

Think about how much easier your life might be if your co-worker or boss was able to come to you and say, “I am feeling really anxious right now because I need this report to be absolutely perfect. I know you’re on a deadline, but would you consider helping me by proofreading it?” That is non-violent communication. Unfortunately, there aren’t many adults who talk to others that way – especially when they’re stressed and anxious. What would it be like if more people did? The agitated person in line behind you, the police officer who is worried you pose a threat, your mother-in-law…. Don’t we want our kids to have this skill, too?

It also teaches us how to negotiate by helping find common ground. Because we all have needs, if both the adult and the adolescent can get really clear on what those needs are, they can also begin to work out whether the strategies each person has been using to meet those needs are at odds. If they are, there’s a chance to get creative and work together to find a solution that works for everyone.

The more we can find ways to work together to get all our needs met, the fewer stand-offs we’ll have. The fewer kids will get kicked out of class or their house. 

Questions? Please comment below and I’ll do my best to answer them. If you want to know about NVC more in depth, check out any of the books by Marshall Rosenberg.

Why Even Adults Need Social Emotional Education

So much of the rhetoric I see on social media and even in news commentary these days leads me to believe that we’ve done ourselves a great disservice by not including SEL in our formal school systems before now. One of the most important indicators of mental health and acuity is the ability to think beyond black and white and, if debates around gun violence and sexual harassment, homelessness and social programs are any indication, we are a nation of people who struggle with that skill on many levels.

Many of my friends and peers grew up in households where authority was King; where parents were in control of everything until the kids turned 18 and left. Others grew up in homes with one parent who struggled to manage things by themselves and often gave up, leaving kids to their own devices. Many in both of these scenarios grew up without a notion of unconditional love – there was a sense that if one didn’t toe the line (or got caught), the punishment went beyond being grounded to losing their parents’ love and affection.

If I don’t hold everything together, things will fall apart.

When I first became a parent (and for years afterward), this was my mantra. And on one level, it makes perfect sense. Except that it assumes that the world revolves around me and it puts an awful lot of pressure on me to make everything perfect all the time. The truth is that most things hold themselves together just fine much of the time, and even if they do fall to pieces, it’s not necessarily my fault. And yet, I know so many parents who feel this way – that they have to do everything “Right” in order for life to be ok. I watched my father embody this mantra every single day of his life, believing that if he just did things the way they were supposed to be done, life would go smoothly. The flip side of this is that when things went sideways, he was certain there was some answer out there that he just hadn’t discovered yet, so he had to keep trying. It kept him from learning from his mistakes and improving on his techniques over time because he was sure there was just something amazing right around the corner. It also kept him doubting himself and feeling like a failure because he hadn’t found it yet.

He also struggled with giving his children unconditional love. He taught us that he would love us and shower us with praise if we didn’t screw up. And when we did make mistakes (just like we are designed to), he withheld his affection to show us how disappointed he was in us. In that way, we learned that love was a commodity, not a certainty. We learned either/or instead of both/and.

What we learn from social-emotional education is how to step beyond questions of Right and Wrong, Success and Failure, Reward and Punishment. One of the hallmarks of adult brain development is integration, the ability to hold two seemingly opposed ideas or feelings simultaneously. That means that I can be tremendously hurt by something one of my kids did or said and express love and care for them at the same time. I can explain to them why their behavior was inappropriate and out of bounds and acknowledge that the reason they acted that way was because they were in pain. I can express empathy for their struggle and impose boundaries on them simultaneously.

Most of our public conversations center around ideas of Right and Wrong. Our political system is divided in to two opposing parties whose representatives stand for seemingly incongruent ideals. Our popular culture is peppered with sayings like “you’re either with us or against us.” These messages are reinforced in headlines that tell us what we “should” or “shouldn’t” do, in the way we talk about pro- and anti- (gun, vaccines, abortion, death penalty), and in our schools’ Zero Tolerance policies around bullying and hate speech. Instead of taking up the mantle of helping our young people learn how to integrate, we are showing them how to further entrench themselves in black and white thinking. I am encouraged that there are more schools whose culture is beginning to embrace social-emotional learning and restorative justice practices and I hope it continues at a record pace. And I think it’s well past time that the adults in this country spend more time and energy learning these things, too, if only so that we can lead by example for our kids.

Rules of Engagement for Families (and Teachers)

As my kids got older, I began to realize that it was going to be necessary to change the way we addressed certain issues in our home. While I still encouraged lots of discussion and offered to be present and support my teens as they worked out their own differences, it became clear to me that their unique personalities meant that they approached this in very different ways. This tended to make conversations turn in to conflict, if only because one of my daughters is someone who wants to hash things out instantly, in the moment, and stay until it’s done, while the other one prefers to walk away when emotions get high, re-center herself, and decide if it’s a fight worth having. After a few ugly scenes (complete with doors slamming and tears), we sat down to create a set of ground rules that would work for everyone, and I think they’re pretty universal, so I’ve adopted them as rules for any classroom or student gathering I’m in that has a conflict of some sort. Here they are:

  1. Everyone at the table is here because they want to be (not because they are forced to be or guilted into it). Force and guilt/shame set up a power dynamic that means the discussion is doomed to fail before it even starts.
  2. Everyone has the same rights – we are all equals and we all deserve to be heard and our perspectives respected. It doesn’t matter how old someone is or what their status in the family/classroom is. There are no trump cards if we are truly interested in working through this to everyone’s satisfaction. If someone thinks that they’re bound to be over-ruled at some point, there’s no point in engaging. And if anyone else believes that they ultimately get to decide what happens, there’s no point in them listening to the others.
  3. Even if we can’t understand someone else’s point of view or feelings, we respect their right to have it and we all agree not to belittle anyone because of it. No gaslighting. Your reaction might seem disproportionate or even absurd to me, but since I’m not living in your skin, I don’t get to tell you how you should feel and I certainly don’t get to shame you for feeling the way you feel.
  4. No name-calling, ultimatums, demands, hate speech. This one might seem patently obvious, but often when we get in to a situation that seems to be going nowhere, we resort to these tactics to ratchet up the urgency. They’re not helpful at all if what we really want is to solve the problem at hand.
  5. We all agree to work our hardest to define a common goal for this situation and work toward it. Bringing up past resentments is not okay because it derails the conversation. There may well be patterns of behavior you have noticed over time, but if you want to have a conversation about this incident or issue right now, you need to stay in this moment. No fair blaming or shaming someone for something they did in the past. Period.
  6. No eye-rolling or turning away or other negative body language. This sends the clear message that you’re not listening or you’re not interested in really understanding where the other person is coming from. If you’re not, there’s no reason for you to be here.
  7. If someone decides they can’t be part of the conversation right now for any reason, they are allowed to leave, but they agree to be part of the conversation in the near future so that bad feelings won’t fester and things won’t remain unsolved. ‘Nuff said.
  8. Everyone agrees to own their part of the issue and take responsibility for their words or actions that might have caused others pain or frustration. There are multiple sides to every conflict. Nobody is ever all right or all wrong.
  9. Blaming and shaming, labeling someone, and using words like “always” and “never” will not move us forward and should be avoided. These are all shortcuts to ending a conversation and an indication that you’re making assumptions about the other person’s character or intent. You won’t get anywhere if you use these tactics.

 

Possibly the Most Challenging Mindfulness Exercise You’ll Ever Do

Ready for it?

Don’t disagree with anyone for an entire day. (pick a day when you don’t have to be at school or work because many of these interactions rely on you speaking up and offering new perspectives)

You might ask why this is considered a mindfulness exercise and here’s what I would say: anything that causes us to stop and really question our habitual reactions to things we encounter a lot is mindfulness in my estimation.

So can you do it? Can you spend an entire day noticing when your instinct is to rebut someone’s statement or explain why your idea/belief is better and tamp that down? Can you hear the voice in your head saying “that’s not true” and keep it from coming out of your mouth? Can you pay attention to how often it happens in any given day and dig a little deeper to discern what your body’s response is? Does your jaw tighten or your belly clench?

As the day wears on, does it get easier or harder? Are you storing up arguments to use tomorrow or are you learning something. Notice what happens to the quality of your interactions with people around you when you don’t automatically respond with a clarification or a rebuttal.

I’m not saying that you should never disagree with anyone. In fact, I think that the hallmark of good relationships is the ability to hold different viewpoints and still maintain connection, but many of our interactions with other people are more like competitions or power plays than they are about learning and exploring new ideas. Maybe at the end of a day spent agreeing with everyone around you, it will be easier to discern when it is important to speak up and disagree. Many of us have become conditioned to try and prove our point whether it really matters or not, and it is my hope that this exercise will give you some insight in to whether that is true of you.

I’d love to hear how it goes in the comments.

When Anxiety Shows up as Anger

If you have a child or student who struggles with anxiety, it is vital to remember that, in adolescents, anxiety can show up very differently than it does in younger children. As I’ve noted before, one incredibly important mantra to repeat when a child acts out is

where there is bad behavior, there is pain.

Yes, even in teenagers. Even if we think they should “know better.” And for individuals who are experiencing anxiety, there is an even more compelling reason why we can’t expect them to act or speak in calm, rational ways when they are in the throes of a strong emotional response.

Often, for people who aren’t feeling anxious, anxiety reactions can seem out of proportion to the situation. But we have to remember that for the person who is triggered, the reaction is very real. Take the example of the war veteran walking down the street one day when a car backfires nearby. Anyone on the street will likely startle at the sound, but as soon as they look around and assess the situation, they are able to recognize what the source of the noise was and temper their response. But for the person who associates that sound with something terrifying and/or life-threatening, that sound triggers a series of chemical responses that overrides their ability to be rational in the moment. Their heart begins racing, they have a huge adrenaline spike, and their brain tells them to duck or run. It’s survival mode. The reaction is all in the context.

This is exactly what it’s like for people with anxiety, and for adolescents, because their amygdala (emotion center of the brain) is in charge, any fight or flight response is magnified, and that is what we as educators and parents need to remember when we’re in conflict with kids like this.

Over time, we may be able to predict what kinds of things activate this kind of anxiety reaction in our kids. Maybe it’s a certain tone of voice or a slamming door or yelling. It could be a threat of punishment or the silent treatment. Ask them in a moment of calm and you may be surprised at what you hear.

KEY REMINDERS:

  • their experience is theirs and it’s totally valid. Even if you don’t understand it or it feels disproportionate to you, downplaying it or telling them that the way they feel is silly will only make things worse;
  • the fight/flight response is very compelling. If they feel like they need to walk away from a conflict (flee), forcing them to stay will give them no alternative but to fight;
  • learning can’t take place in a brain flooded with emotion. When someone is in the middle of an anxiety reaction, you will not be able to reason with them, and it’s not their fault. They are physiologically incapable of processing what you’re saying or doing with their rational brain;
  • you’re the adult here. Even if this teenager in front of you looks and acts and demands to be treated like a little adult, they aren’t yet. Their brain won’t be fully mature until they’re around the age of 25. That means that they can’t be expected to hold other people accountable for their behaviors, have strong personal boundaries, and be able to articulate exactly what they’re feeling yet. It is up to us as the adults in their lives who care about them to create a safe enough space for them to talk to us, understand that when they’re acting out they are expressing some need to us, and help them figure out better ways to deal with their frustrations and anxieties.

Questions? Leave them in the comments section. I’m happy to explain further if necessary.

Next time – the rules my family came up with for having constructive disagreements with adolescents.

 

The Difference Between Conflict & Disagreement

Photo by George Eastman House

Most of us can think about how conflict is different from disagreement. We have folks we can peacefully disagree with on certain issues and it doesn’t affect our relationship. But what is it that turns a difference of opinion in to an outright argument or nasty fight?

Power.

When we’re in a philosophical discussion with someone else about a particular issue, if we don’t let our emotions take over, we are generally able to have a conversation that allows for different ideas. But as soon as we start to feel personally attacked or fear that the other party is going to try and force us to act in a way we don’t want to, things get ugly. There are two things at play here. The first is the way our brains work.

When the emotion centers of our brains begin to really activate, the part of our brain that reasons goes quiet. In addition, when we are strongly emotional, we are literally unable to process auditory input (listen) as well. We stop being able to listen when our emotions take over. That’s a problem when we are having a discussion with someone whose ideas are very different from our own because in order to have a productive exchange, everyone needs to feel heard. At this point, it’s pretty hard to learn from the other person and generally, we let things devolve to a point where the objective becomes winning instead of learning. when we let adrenaline take over, we are afraid to lose. That leads us to the second issue of power.

If the goal is winning, you’ve opened the door to a power struggle and whichever person is louder or more tenacious or had more power in the first place is likely to prevail. This is a particular problem when it comes to difficult discussions between parents and teens or teachers and teens because the adult in the situation almost always starts out in a position of power, whether they acknowledge it or not. And when you’re faced with a power differential, it’s a safe bet that there will be conflict instead of disagreement. The person who is at a disadvantage will always have that niggling fear in the back of their mind that what they say doesn’t ultimately matter because they don’t have enough influence. They may also be afraid to be completely honest because of the repercussions that might come. Will they be grounded? Have their phone or car privileges taken away? Be put on academic probation or suspension?

So, what now? Here are some tips for either de-escalating from conflict back to disagreement or for preventing conflict in the first place when you know there’s a difference of opinion with a teen:

  1. If you’re the person in power, call it out and do your best to set an intention for the conversation that is about learning, not about consequences or winning. I’m genuinely curious about your thoughts on this. I will do my best not to judge or tell you you’re wrong. I just need to understand.
  2. Try to keep emotion out of it. Remember, the angrier/more frustrated you get, the harder it will be for your brain to actually process what the other person is saying. If you get triggered, name it and let it go. Wow, that made me feel really sad/angry. I’m going to try not take that personally and ask you more questions about it instead. Remember that the goal is to learn, not to make the other person feel bad or stupid or change their behavior, necessarily.
  3. Agree to table the conversation if the other person is really emotional. Sometimes, we need to walk away for a bit in order to let the feelings subside and then circle back around. Emotions are contagious, so if one of you is really ramped up, the likelihood that the other person will match that emotional intensity is pretty high. Can we talk about this later? I really want to get where you’re coming from but it seems like it’s too raw right now. 

Adolescents need their relationships with adults to evolve over time to give them more power and to listen more. Not only does this help them become more independent, but it models for them how to have adult conversations about difficult topics, and it empowers them to honor their own perspectives and ideas. By the time they get to college and/or the workforce, they will need to have the skills to have disagreements without turning them into conflict.

Happier Kids, Stronger Connections