When “Why?” is Not Important

In general, I think that “why” is the most important question. I think that, if we are hoping to become more mindful, staying curious is one of the first things we do after taking a breath and giving ourselves space. If we can begin to understand why we react with anger or fear or defensiveness to particular situations, we can start to break those old patterns that keep us from living our values.

But sometimes, that space requires more than a breath or two. Sometimes, when our emotions are either incredibly intense or seem to come out of nowhere – like deep sadness and grief or body-shaking anger – the most important thing we can do is just stop. If we jump right in to asking why, we can create a situation where we feel the need to justify or deny our own emotions.

Why am I so sad?  can lead to I shouldn’t be so sad. Nothing happened/it’s not that big a deal/my life is so great.

Why does this  make me so angry? can lead to I’m over-reacting.

If we don’t take the time to let those very strong emotions wash over us, and we immediately begin spinning stories in our heads, we risk giving the emotion more time to do damage and creating a narrative that plays on a loop in our heads. We can think we’re being mindful, but what we are really doing is perpetuating the pain we feel.

So what do we do during that extra-long pause?

Short, concrete observations are incredibly helpful at disarming the intensity of emotions.

I am feeling really sad/angry right now. This seems overwhelming. I don’t want to be feeling this feeling. My chest is really tight and I feel like I might cry/scream. 

Staying in the present and resisting the urge to explain or defend these emotions, while it seems silly, is a powerful tool. And recognizing that we feel like screaming or crying and letting ourselves do that is also a way to release some of the energy (although if you are around other people, I’d recommend screaming into a pillow or something else that muffles the sound – the last thing you want is for someone to come running to ask you what’s wrong because you end up going into explanation/defense mode).

If it feels like not all of the pressure or intensity is released by simply repeating descriptions of what you’re feeling, another helpful thing to add is this:

I won’t always feel like this. I feel like this now, but it won’t last.

If the feeling of sadness or anger persists or comes back over and over again for a period of hours or days, it is important to resist the urge to begin asking why. Instead, please seek help from a professional who can guide you slowly through what you’re feeling as you unravel the emotions. The more you try to dissect it yourself, the more likely you are to engage in self-talk that is harmful or negative.  And, if you are considering self-harm or harming another person, please find help immediately.

Why Labeling is Harmful

😐

We all do it – reduce ourselves or another person down to a label. We learn at an early age how to call someone we disagree with a name – “jerk,” “idiot,” “monster.” Eventually, we learn to aim it at ourselves when we make a mistake, and by the time we’re teenagers or adults, it is such a habit that we often don’t even think about it. But it is harmful in so many ways for so many reasons.

  1. It shuts down an opportunity for understanding or forgiveness. Defining someone by their most recent mistake sends the message that we’ve already made our mind up about them – that we aren’t interested in spending any time or energy hearing them out or trying to see things from their perspective.
  2. It effectively ends the conversation. I don’t know about you, but one of two things happens when someone calls me a name: I get defensive and angry or I dismiss them entirely and walk away. Either way, I’ve gotten derailed by the label and am no longer interested in dialogue or connection.
  3. It can create a self-fulfilling prophecy that has ripple effects. This is especially dangerous when we are directing the name-calling at ourselves. “I’m so stupid!” “I am a total klutz.” Here’s the thing – the human brain LOVES a story with a beginning, middle, and end that has all the loose ends tied up. It’s like a puzzle, and when that final piece is tapped into place, our brains release dopamine (the feel-good chemical) as a reward. The scary thing is that our brains release this hormone whether or not the puzzle actually makes sense. It is just happy that the puzzle is complete. So when we make declarative statements like “I am a ________” or “She is such a __________,” we are rewarded. We have made sense of the world. Our brains can now relax and no longer activate the portions that engage in creativity, curiosity, or interest. We have made a decision and we are done. So in the case where we’ve told ourselves that this other person is a waste of space for whatever reasons, we have effectively given ourselves permission to justify ignoring them or their point of view because the puzzle is complete. If I’ve told myself that I suck at math, I no longer have to try, and even if I did, it would be half-hearted and without the portion of my brain that utilizes innovative thinking, which means it’s harder to understand which means I struggle with math which …. You can see the circular reinforcement that happens.

So now what?

Label the feeling, not the person.

When we express ourselves to someone in a way that tells them how their behavior affected us (“I feel really awful that you didn’t tell me the truth”) versus calling them a name (“You are such a liar”), we invite dialogue and conversation. That person might still feel a little defensive, but they aren’t boxed in so tightly as they would be if they heard that we’ve already made up our minds about them.

We are also affirming the relationship when we express our feelings. We let the other person know that the connection is in tact, and we can ask questions to try and understand their choices better. We may even find ourselves pleasantly surprised by their explanation. Often, we learn that we were making assumptions or didn’t know the whole story.

To be sure, this requires a lot more courage than simply calling someone a name does, but the rewards are a lot bigger, too. Especially when we implement this strategy with ourselves. If we can screw up and say, “I am so frustrated that I am having trouble with this task,” instead of “Jeez, I’m dumb!” we can give ourselves more space and creative energy to focus on it in a different way, and it sounds a lot nicer. And if there’s anyone we ought to practice being nicer to, it’s generally ourselves.

When Our Compassion Fails

I’m working with a group of high school students on compassion. Last week, I asked them all to think about a time when they struggled to feel compassion for someone else. Three students shared their stories with the group and right away, I noticed a pattern.

Each of them was talking about someone they were in relationship with – a close friend or family member.

Each of them highlighted a situation where this person they thought they could trust seemingly betrayed that trust.

When I pointed this out, there were a lot of nodding heads in the circle. We have all experienced a time like that – an instance where someone who loves us and who we think we can rely on does or says something that makes it hard for us to do anything but react in anger or despair.

So do we have to have compassion for that person? There was a robust discussion about whether we are obligated in some way to see their side, to understand where they are coming from.

The short answer is, yes, if you want to remain in relationship with that person. It is absolutely necessary to try to move past our anger or disappointment and express ourselves with compassion in order to maintain a connection.

The rest of the hour was spent trying to figure out how we do that, and we quickly realized that one of the most powerful tools we have is mindfulness. Because practicing self-awareness and naming our emotions helps us to create a space between anger and action, it offers us a way to step back and begin to explore whether we can have compassion instead.

We ran out of time before we could begin to explore whether there are situations that come up where having compassion for others could put us in a more vulnerable position, where we can be betrayed over and over again. The only way these excited students would agree to stop debating that point was when I promised that this week, we will spend our time talking about compassion and personal boundaries, and whether the two are incompatible. (spoiler alert: I don’t think they are. In fact, I think that in order to have any self-compassion, we need to have strong personal boundaries.)

To be sure, there are endless more conversations we can have about compassion, and I intend to have them. For now, I’m thrilled that the students are leading the way with their concerns and ideas and that they are feeling engaged and excited about the work we’re doing.

Please feel free to continue the discussion in the comments if you have ideas to share!

Back to School (Already?)

For many kids, next week marks the beginning of another school year, and for parents, there is often at least a fleeting thought about how to help students succeed. There is a tension between nagging/constant reminders and letting kids feel their own way forward that can be excruciating for parents and caregivers because, while we want our kids to become independent, we are loathe to see them crash and burn if they don’t yet have the tools to really take off and fly.

Last year, I wrote this post about setting goals, but in the spirit of knowing that rarely does one size fit all, here is a different approach that might work better for students who prefer to approach the world in a more concrete way.  It may even be more impactful if one or more adult is willing to go through the process along with the kids so you can all hold each other accountable.

  1. Write down your goals for the next four weeks. Keep it to two or three at the most. Make them pretty specific and concrete (I want to stop eating sugary snacks. I want to get to bed before midnight every night. I want to spend at least 30 minutes every day exercising. I want to get all of my homework done before watching any TV or spending time on social media.)
  2. Rate each goal for its level of importance, difficulty, your commitment to it, and a history with it. You can use a scale of 1-5 and ask others who know you to make sure you’re being really honest with yourself.
  3. Write down action steps for each goal. Maybe you’ll purge the pantry of all cookies or exercise at the same time every single day. Find some small way to set yourself up for success before you even begin.
  4. Tell someone else about your goals. Tell lots of people. Post it on Facebook or Instagram or put it on your Snap story. Knowing that other people know what you’re trying to do will help hold you accountable on the days when your resolve wavers.
  5. Make a weekly progress report part of the plan. If there are multiple members of the household who are doing this, set up a chart in the kitchen so everyone can post their progress, or if you’ve told a friend what you’re doing, send him or her a progress report at the end of the week. Having other people who care about you praise your efforts and reward you with congratulations is a powerful motivator.
  6. Know that it takes a long time to establish a new habit. Go easy on yourself if you slip. Practice self-compassion. Remember why you wanted to do this in the first place and remind yourself that one little slip (or one big slip) doesn’t mean you should abandon it altogether. Ask for help or look for ways to adjust your goals to make them more doable right now. Baby steps forward still represent progress. You don’t have to be making huge strides to be doing better.

Feel free to comment with your ideas or goals here and I will do my best to cheer you on and help you be accountable if you want.

Got Well-Being?

We all want to be happy. But we can’t be happy all the time – no matter how much we wish we could. So what is the next best thing? Well-being. A state where, even if things are going wrong, we feel safe and secure and optimistic that life will improve and we’ll return to a better place.

Well-being means that we can accept our current circumstances with calm and grace, that we don’t freak out and convince ourselves that this will end in the worst possible way, that life will never be good again, that we are doomed.

So how do we achieve that? It varies from person to person, but there is some evidence that well-being is a neurological state, and since our brains are continually growing and changing, that means that we can influence our own well-being. So even if you haven’t been a particularly optimistic person in the past, you can affect your future ability to be well. The four neural circuits that have been shown to promote well-being are:

  1. Attention – People who have honed their skills at being present and paying attention to what they are doing in any given moment are primed for well-being. The skill associated with focus and intent (as opposed to multitasking or mindless, habit-driven acts) is key to developing a sense of contentment. [basic mindfulness meditation strengthens this neural circuit, as does simply paying close attention when you are doing every day things like eating or driving or walking]
  2. Outlook – Do you have the ability to see the things in your life that are positive right now? Do you spend time savoring the things that put a smile on your face or the times when things went right? [a gratitude practice can really build this ‘muscle’ in the brain because it helps you focus on the things we often take for granted]
  3. Generosity – Individuals who routinely think of and help others have a strong sense of well-being. Not only because doing good makes us feel good, but because it strengthens our sense of connection and community which is vitally important for a sense of happiness and contentment. [lovingkindness and compassion meditation have a significant impact on the brain centers associated with well-being]
  4. Resilience – There’s a real chicken-and-egg feel to this last one because the faster we recover from adversity, the more calm and relaxed we are, and the more content we are with our lives, the faster we recover from unexpected events. But we can only really develop resilience if we are truly paying attention to how we feel and we work through (as opposed to denying) our struggles. [mindfulness meditation can teach us how to handle challenging times by allowing us to sit with unpleasantness and discomfort without trying to change it or fight it]

If you need help with any of these areas, check out the links to specific meditations on our website.

Tips for Parents: How Gratitude Combats Entitlement

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5144062

One of those days where nothing seems to be going your way – we’ve all been there. You get up late, spill your coffee, remember that assignment that’s due at the last minute, trip over the dog on your way out the door. I used to wonder why some days were that way, continually spiraling out of control with one thing after the next falling to pieces.

These days, I’m convinced it’s a matter of attitude. What we pay attention to in any given moment seems to grow in importance. That’s not to say that there aren’t some things that are more vital and deserve more attention than others, but for the most part, we can choose how to see our lives – as a rolling disaster or as a pretty charmed life with some mishaps thrown in.

If we expect our lives to go smoothly, we will almost always be disappointed. Often that expectation translates to entitlement – we deserve to have a particular level of calm and, because we are “good” people and work hard, we are owed this courtesy. Because of the way teens’ brains are wired (to think of themselves as the center of the universe), that can mean that they get angry with their parents when things go wrong or turn out to be more difficult than they imagined. This can lead to excuses (I didn’t do it because it shouldn’t have been that hard. I shouldn’t have to do ‘X’.) and shortcuts. When this attitude persists over time, it can mean that your teen sees things through smoke-colored glasses – every thing that doesn’t come easily to them or work out perfectly is call for anger or frustration. So how do we, as parents, help mitigate that and bring our teens back to a place where they are happier and more appreciative of the life they have? In a word, gratitude.

While it’s true that often we have no control over the things that go wrong in our lives, we also have no control over some of the most beautiful and gracious gifts that come to us. The more we can help our teens learn to pay attention to those things, the more they can understand that there is so much good out there in life that surrounds them all the time. While it may feel trite to notice a gorgeous sunrise when you’re failing your history class, it is also an important part of adolescent brain development to exercise that part of the brain that allows for the simultaneous existence of beauty and struggle. This is one of the executive functions that teens really need to develop in order to move beyond concrete, black-and-white thinking. And as they are doing it, they can begin to alter their perceptions of the world. They can shift their thinking from believing that the world is a place that owes them a certain level of calm and entertainment to seeing their relationships and the complexities of the world around them that support them in all that they do as something that is amazing and wonderful.

More on gratitude and gratitude practices can be found here.

Compassion Starts With You

You’re going to mess up.

You’ve done it before and you’ll do it again.

I promise.

And when you do, it’s entirely possible that you will have some choice phrases for yourself, you’ll maybe be angry that you didn’t see this coming, that you didn’t plan enough or anticipate the potholes in the road or think that there is some fundamental part of you that is simply wrong.

Look, making mistakes feels pretty awful sometimes. Especially if you do it in front of people or it happens after you’ve convinced everyone that this is the thing you’re good at. But beating yourself up mentally feels worse, and it shuts down the part of your brain that is responsible for learning from mistakes.

It’s true. In times of high emotion (especially shame and anger and frustration), the reptilian part of your brain takes over, the part whose job it is to protect you from harm. When that happens, the part of your brain that is more evolved takes a break. It literally just stops working and hangs out for a while, believing that your reptile brain has got this.

And that means the lesson you learn is that you’re not good enough.

Wouldn’t you rather move through that disappointment and get to the part where you switch the learning brain back on and get smarter?

I would. And here’s how I do it. When I screw up, I pull out this handy list of reminders to help me tread that painful path with self-compassion.

  1. Hey, some things are more complicated than they look! (Even, some days, walking. Yup)
  2. Seriously, was anyone born just knowing how to do this stuff? I mean, we all have to learn, right?
  3. The truth is, everyone fails more often than they succeed when they’re doing something important and worthwhile. We just don’t share those things on Facebook or talk about them at the holiday table with our extended family or put them on our resumes.
  4. My worth does not depend on my achievements. If it did, nobody would love puppies because literally all they’ve ever done is be born. But everyone loves puppies.
  5. I get to feel disappointed. I really wanted to do well at this and it sucks that I messed up.
  6. Just because I messed up this time, doesn’t mean I can’t do better next time. I mean, those baseball players who strike out often come back up to the plate to get on base or hit a home run.
  7. I’m gonna screw up again. If I can be nice to myself when I do, life is going to be a lot more pleasant.

Here’s the thing: even if you aren’t really feeling it when you start saying these things to yourself, chances are, with enough repetition, you’ll get to the point where you believe them. And, as an added bonus, when we are kind to ourselves, we generally end up being kinder to other people. Honestly, there’s research that shows it. So give yourself a break. Be nice. Spread the nice around and make sure to start with you.

Mindful Parenting and Conflict Resolution with Non-Violent Communication

By Nallive Andrea Pestaña – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

If you are parenting an adolescent, you have conflict. Maybe not all the time, but it is inevitable that there will be times when the two of you don’t see eye-to-eye. It may even feel as though you don’t live on the same planet from time to time. The good news is that mindfulness can play an important role in handling disagreements with your t(w)een, especially when you use it in tandem with a communication style known as non-violent communication.

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg wrote extensively about the benefits of non-violent communication (NVC), especially as it affects our most personal, intimate relationships. One of the foundations of NVC is learning to communicate our needs to the other person, and while this may sound simple, it takes a little bit of practice and, I think, mindfulness.

The first thing we as parents need to do when we think about approaching our kids with a topic that will almost certainly lead to conflict (missed curfew, grades not what we expected them to be, that speeding ticket, etc.) is ask ourselves the following questions before we ever talk to them:

  1. How do I want to connect with my child? (Am I going in to this with no desire to connect at all – ie. do I just want to lay down the law? Or am I really hoping for a situation to show them that I am supportive of them, that this is not about power or control, but about trust and love?)
  2. What do I need* from this situation?

*Often, “need” is a pretty huge category of things for us as parents. We tend to lump our desires and strategies for getting what we want or need in with “needs.” For example, we might say to our child, I need you to ask me for permission to go anywhere after school that isn’t straight home. That is a strategy. Perhaps the real need here is for us to feel as though we are in a trusting relationship with our loved ones. Our true needs are either physical (food, shelter, air), or emotional/spiritual (support, honesty, to feel important). One way to decide whether we are incorrectly characterizing needs is to ask whether what we say we need is tied to a particular person or action. If it is, it’s not a need, it’s a strategy.

It is also important to recognize that our kids are really not capable of making these determinations quite yet, so very often, in our conversations with them, their “needs” won’t be actual needs. That’s ok, albeit frustrating, and it’s up to us as parents to model for them just how to have an NVC discussion.

According to Rosenberg, the four elements (in this order) of positive conflict resolution are:

OBSERVATION Tell your child what the triggering incident was. What did you see happening? What are the facts as you know them? {It is critically important here to avoid analysis, criticism or judgment. If your child feels attacked, blamed, judged, or if they think you’re making assumptions, your chance to connect is lost.}

FEELING Own your reaction. Tell them how you felt upon learning this information or witnessing this situation. Were you scared? Angry? Sad? {Avoid using language like “you scared me” or “do you know how that made me feel?” This part may feel a little clinical at first, but stick to stimulus-response language.}

NEED This is where you state what you need. Do you need to feel like your child is safe? Do you need to feel as though you are important? Again, be careful not to prescribe certain actions or conditions. This is about what you need. {This is also where you make it clear to your child that they are under no obligation to meet that need. I know. You’re saying, WHAT??!! We can’t present our needs as demands or emotional blackmail if we are hoping to connect in a meaningful way. The good news is that this goes both ways. You don’t have to see your child’s statement of need as a demand for action, either.}

REQUEST This is where you get to ask for a certain set of responses or behaviors. {Try to phrase it as a request: Would you be willing to …? Now, because your child has the context of how you feel and why you feel that way, along with an understanding of what you need, they can fully consider what it means to you to have that request fulfilled.}

There are some difficult pieces to this. First of all, it’s really tempting to talk consequences. If you don’t fulfill my request, you’ll be grounded/lose car privileges, have to cancel that sleepover… For younger kids, those boundaries are perfectly acceptable, but if what you are trying to do is build a strong, mutually-respectful, adult-like relationship with your adolescent, this is the best way to invest in that right now. They will disappoint you, and it takes a lot of practice, but they will eventually learn how to communicate in this way. As Dr. Rosenberg said, “This is not about compromise, it is about creating an environment where everyone’s needs get met.”

Another challenge is learning to not take your child’s rejection of your request or inability to hear your needs as important personally. When someone says they can’t or won’t meet your needs right now and you feel rejected, it makes future interactions incredibly hard. Remember that that response has everything to do with them and nothing to do with whether your needs or feelings are valid. 

It is really tempting to tell our kids what we don’t want when we are feeling angry or upset. I don’t want to see you get hurt, I don’t want you to ruin the rest of your life by not getting into a good college… Unfortunately, when we tell someone what we don’t want, this does one of two things – stops them from focusing on the conversation at hand because they are performing mental gymnastics trying to figure out how you leapt to that conclusion, or it makes them defensive and defiant and determined to prove you wrong by doing that exact thing and showing you that it won’t end up with them hurt/dead/suspended. 

It is also hard to extend the same courtesy to your child by really listening to their observations, feelings, needs, and requests. It takes a great deal of self-control and self-awareness to set aside your emotional reactions and really hear what they’re saying (or parse it out as they yell or cry or accuse you of horrible things). But the more we can employ these tactics when we have difficult conversations with our kids, the more we can create an environment where everyone feels heard and believes that their needs are important. Questions? Ask them in the comments and I’ll do my best to help. 

Why Mindfulness is Good For Every Classroom

 

By Bing – Flickr: Austrian Bakery, CC BY 2.0

“Mindfulness” is a word that may inspire eye-rolls, thanks to its near-constant use in many different aspects of pop culture. But, regardless of its “buzzword” status, it can have far-reaching effects for adolescents who are encouraged to use it throughout the day.

Mindfulness is simply the ability to interrupt the cycle of reflexive thought responses that we all have in order to focus our attention. In my ten or so years of practicing mindfulness, one of the most impactful effects it has had on me is that it leads me to curiosity – it literally forces me to open my mind to possibilities I wouldn’t otherwise consider. And that is one reason why it can be incredibly useful as a skill to cultivate for committed, focused students.

When the tasks in a classroom are prescriptive and it is accepted that the purpose of a lecture or activity is to get from Point A to Point B, a student’s ability to get curious is limited. Think about it like this: if you are baking a cake and you have the recipe in front of you, and you only have a certain period of time to get the cake done, you will follow the recipe step by step. While this will probably get you to the end point you desired, chances are, because of the way the human brain works, you will have let your mind wander off task as you measured the ingredients and mixed them together and followed the rules. There are only certain portions of your brain that become active when you are following a set of instructions to get to a known outcome, and that allows you to not completely focus on what you’re doing, which means that the next time you bake this cake, you will likely have to consult that recipe again because you didn’t really learn much from the process.

If students are encouraged, however, to play with the order of things or design their own ‘recipes,’ or told that the outcome is not predestined, they are more likely to get curious about the process. This is a much more expansive opportunity that engages them and, perhaps counterintuitively, sharpens their focus. Think about it – if you are walking through a room in a building you are in frequently and there is plenty of ambient light, you won’t pay much attention to the details because you believe that you already “know” what’s there. But if you are blindfolded and sent in to a room you’ve never been in and asked to find your way out the other end, your attention becomes sharp. You listen for clues, use your hands and feet to feel your way, and begin to create a mental picture of where you are. Chances are, by the time you find your way out, you will feel like you know that room very well. This is mindfulness. This is paying attention. This kind of activity lights up the portions of the brain that are involved in memory encoding and learning.

Mindfulness leads to curiosity. Once students learn to find that pause in their regular mind-chatter, they can begin to question their own assumptions and motivations. The more they practice mindfulness, the more likely they are to lead with curiosity in situations where there seems to be little room for it. There are so many time and content constraints placed on educators that it can seem impossible to create a lesson plan that encourages flexibility instead of recipe-style activity or lectures, and this is why students need mindfulness skills. Because when they find themselves in those kinds of classes, they can still create room for curiosity on their own and impact their own ability to learn and find meaning, as well as enabling themselves to focus on the task or subject at hand.

Tips for Parents: Helping Your Child Master Something New

We’ve all heard the phrase, “I’m not good at ______________,” or “I don’t get it!” from our teens and sometimes, this is the beginning of an excuse to stop trying. While this frustration can come up when our kids are younger, they are generally more willing to keep trying until they learn that new skill (riding a bike without training wheels or making a full pass on the monkey bars), so what is it about adolescence that makes our kids prone to giving up?

One major reason why kids stop trying at this age is because they don’t want to look stupid in front of their peers. There is an almost existential need to appear competent at all times when you’re a teen, so admitting that you’re struggling with something is a really difficult thing to do.

Another reason is that, by the time most kids get in to middle and high school, the prevailing cultural wisdom is that they ought to be specializing their skills. Many athletic kids have narrowed their focus to one sport that they play year-round. Adults are starting to ask them if they are more artistic or academic and even (gulp!) what they think they might want to major in when they go to college. There is this push to have kids define themselves as “good at” certain particular skills so that they can begin to hone those skills and use them as a way to get in to a “good college.”

All of this despite the scientific evidence that shows that adolescents’ brains are continuing to develop in ALL areas very rapidly and more deeply until they are around the age of 25. What this means is that the more we can get adolescents to stretch themselves and keep taking risks in a wide range of areas, the more fully developed their brains will be.

Many of us parents have fallen in to the trap of thinking that we possess natural abilities in certain areas and limited abilities in other areas. How many of us have defined ourselves as Right-Brained or Left-Brained in order to explain our less-than-stellar performance in math and science or creative pursuits? The fact is, we trained ourselves to be that way over time by developing certain portions of our brains more than others. Sometimes because we preferred particular activities (say, art class instead of calculus), and sometimes because we were told we shouldn’t like certain things (boys shouldn’t take Home Ec or be good at cooking, for example). But giving our teens the opportunity to continue striving to learn about a lot of different things means that they will have more choices open to them in the future because they will have a certain basic level of proficiency in math and science and language and art and athletics.

So, how do you do that? Here are a few ways to encourage your adolescent to keep trying.

  1. Add the word “yet” to the end of those sentences at the beginning of this post. “I’m not good at _______ yet.” “I just don’t get it yet.” This is a reminder that nobody ever learned to speak French the first day or mastered their tennis serve at the first lesson.
  2. Frame it in terms of their values. Even if your student doesn’t see themselves as a math professor, it’s likely that they want to do well in school and value hard work. The fact is, we all have to do and learn things we don’t really enjoy all that much, but if we can remember that this is part of a larger goal, we can usually find the mojo to invest some time and effort in it.
  3. Remind them how good it feels to figure something out. Ask them to remember what it felt like the first time they successfully rode a bike without training wheels or had that angels-singing-in-my-ear moment when it suddenly became clear how to divide fractions. Those moments come about after hard work and, even if we later take those skills for granted because we have mastered them, it is worth taking a moment to recall that at some point, we struggled with them.
  4. Point out that it feels a lot easier to learn something that we are interested in. Ask your teen what their favorite things to do are and you won’t be surprised to learn that they don’t feel like those things are work. How can they infuse some joy in to learning those things they don’t really love to do? Can they change the venue or circumstances? Can they listen to their favorite music while they do it? Can they set up a system of small rewards – say a five-minute break after every milestone to indulge in something they enjoy doing?

I’d love to hear whether this is helpful and if you have other ideas to help teens persist when they’d rather give up.