Since I can’t run workshops right now for educators or parents/caregivers, I decided to make some of my work available on YouTube. This is my first video and there’s a downloadable worksheet to go with it under the Resources tab. Check it out and let me know what you think. It’s important for us to unpack our biases and bedrock beliefs if we are going to foster strong relationships with the adolescents in our lives.
Even if your family isn’t under a shelter-in-place order, if you live in most parts of the world, your teens and tweens are home and trying to navigate online school and a really different schedule. While it’s a difficult scenario for everyone in the family, it can be especially challenging for adolescents to manage right now because of the social and neurological attributes of this period in life. So how can you help?
- Understand that their brains are reacting to this ambiguity by retreating to the most primitive tools human beings have: fight/flight/fear. (heck, we all are on some level). Adolescents process most of the information they get through their emotion centers, and it can trigger a response that turns their logic center off. When there is a specific threat, and they have learned to let emotions rise and fall, it’s manageable, but now, when the threat is largely invisible and there is no real understanding of how long this will last, how bad it will get, and whom it will affect, the trigger just keeps getting pulled over and over again. This makes it hard to settle down and focus on school work. It also makes it hard to access the parts of the brain that store memory, so forgetting to do their chores is to be expected right now.
- Help them find ways to turn off the fight/flight/fear response. One really effective way to do this is for them to do something physical – yoga, shooting baskets, going for a walk. Another great tool is guided meditation. Listening to someone else direct their mind in a specific way can help calm the physiological reaction to stress. Creativity is another way to tap into a different part of the brain – doing a puzzle, playing an instrument, coloring or drawing or painting or baking require a different kind of attention that can calm the nervous system.
- Encourage play. Laughter stimulates the vagus nerve and calms the nervous system. It also boosts the immune system to help keep them healthy. Card or board games, MadLibs, scavenger hunts, laundry basket basketball – do something absurd and silly at least once a day.
- Give them a measure of control. We all feel helpless, to some degree, and it is important for us to find ways to have agency over some aspects of our lives. If they can set their own schedule, let them. If it’s possible for them to add specific things they like to the grocery list (even if it’s junk you don’t normally let them eat), let them. Even small amounts of control can feel like an anchor during a time of uncertainty.
- Cut them lots of slack. Lots. Many kids will struggle to adjust to being home all the time, to learning online, to being away from friends. Adolescents are incredibly social, so if they need more time on their phones to stay connected with friends, it’s understandable. If it takes them a couple weeks to get in to a rhythm with classes, allow them the time to adjust. If they seem cranky with siblings or resistant to your plea to take the garbage out, remember, we are all in low-key panic mode right now and that doesn’t make for a very open and friendly demeanor.
- Model and be honest. Let them know how you’re feeling. If you feel unsure and frustrated, you can be certain they do, too. If you snap at someone, apologize. If your mental health requires a period of time during the day where nobody asks you for anything at all, communicate that clearly so they know what to expect. Teens don’t often see their parents as human beings or think that we have an inner life, so the more we can let them know that we are struggling with this new arrangement, the more likely they are to feel like it’s ok for them to struggle, too. And while you’re at it, do steps 2-5 for yourself.
If you’re in the Seattle area, please join me on January 18th at EastWest Bookshop for a three-hour workshop. Parents, mentors, caregivers of teens and tweens and young adults will walk away with ideas for creating and maintaining strong, trusting relationships that are intentional and rooted in mindfulness.
Follow this link to register. Books will be for sale that day as well. Hope to see you there!
Until the holidays are over, you can get One Teenager at a Time for 35% off. Check it out!
Most of us would have a ready answer if asked about the stories that are told about us in our families. Many of us wouldn’t even question those stories, given that we grew up with them and heard them over and over again. Maybe we were anointed the “driven” one, or the jock or the one who makes Mom craziest. Often, these stories are told in jest, to other parents or teachers as a short-hand way to describe a child, and they often conjure up certain attributes that may be accurate in many ways. But it is also important to understand how limiting and potentially harmful they can be over time. I recently had two experiences that reminded me of this that I’d like to share.
Last weekend I was at a gathering where I knew almost nobody. The room was full of people my age with a similar interest, and while many of them knew each other, there were also many pockets of conversations going on where strangers were getting to know each other. It was a lively group and I was enjoying hearing about people’s lives and finding some common ground. In one instance, I was speaking with someone who has grown children and, as my oldest daughter moved far away from home for college, I inquired whether the children lived in our area or farther away. In describing each child, I learned about where they’d gone to college and what they were interested in, and then it happened:
“My oldest child – he’s the f*#k up of the family.” It was said with a laugh and a certain tone of affection, but it felt stunning to me nonetheless. The way the phrase so casually rolled off to a stranger led me to believe that this child is often described this way.
The second instance was a couple months ago when I had occasion to reconnect with a young person I deeply admire. I had a stack of my recently-published book One Teenager at a Time sitting on the kitchen table and I opened it to the acknowledgments page and showed this amazing young person that their name appeared as someone who I credit as being an integral part of my work and the birth of the book. They were stunned and excited and asked if they could take the book with them when they left…”so I can show my parents and prove to them that I’m not a loser!“
Again, this phrase was uttered with a laugh and a nonchalance that belied the sting of it. I have known this young person for a long time and I have heard them use that word in reference to themselves many times before. Each time I have gently let them know that I don’t believe it’s accurate in any way. Despite that, their overall belief is that their parents believe they are a loser.
It is so important to understand how quickly our words become our child’s inner critic. We can tell them we love them daily, and when they hear themselves characterized as a “loser” or an “idiot” or a “pain in the ass,” they can believe both that we love them and also that they are not living up to our hopes and dreams. They can develop a sense that they will never be good enough or that if they just worked hard enough to be something else (not do something else – because name-calling is about saying someone IS something, not that their behavior needs to change, but that THEY need to change), we might love them more. The damage that does to the self-image of our children is enormous, especially if those comments are made with derision, especially if they are made as a joke, as a given, as something that describes the entirety of this person’s being.
In my family, I was known as the “good child,” the compliant one, the one who my parents could count on to do the Right Thing. In many cases, that was a point of pride. Sometimes, it was something I weaponized and used against my siblings. But ultimately, it kept me small, kept me from trying new things, thinking outside the box, questioning rules that seemed unfair. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy because it was used from the time I was very young, and when I reached adolescence and was tasked with defining my own identity and exploring who I really wanted to be, it boxed me in to a certain set of characteristics that weren’t necessarily comfortable, but I had blindly accepted that my parents knew me best, so any time I questioned them, I felt somehow wrong.
It is natural for us as parents to find some sort of short-hand to describe our children. It becomes harmful when we use those terms with disdain or to shame our kids, or if we talk about them as if that is all they are when we describe them to other people. Giving our adolescents room to explore their own ideas of who they are is a key part of helping them develop a healthy self-image. Letting them know that we support them as they seek to grow rather than pretending we already know who they are and what their fate is can create room for a stronger, healthier relationship.
My hope for these two young people is that they hear other voices in their heads telling them that they are not “losers” or “f*#k ups.” That they know that they are beloved, allowed to think in different ways and try new things and make mistakes without fear of being known as the one person in their family who is less than. My hope for their parents is that they come to acknowledge the power of their words and seek to use new ones that let their children know that they are so much more than a derogatory term used in jest.
Follow this link to check out some thoughts on what gratitude is (and isn’t)
I spent three amazing, brain-busting days in Chicago at the CASEL SELXChange conference two weeks ago and I know that the lessons and conversations will continue to reverberate in my brain for a long time to come. It was an extraordinary gathering of folks who are interested in the well-being of children and how we can fix the broken education system to serve children better.
There are so many places to focus attention and shine a light, but the one I’ve chosen to dig further in to this week is the idea of cultural differences and what they mean and how they affect the experiences of students every day. The first thing I did was pick up Zaretta Hammond’s book “Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain.”
As commonly happens in my world, things started to converge. When I read her explanation of “cultural archetypes,” in particular, the distinction between collectivism and individualism, I was reminded of a quote I’ve heard over and over again from Peter Drucker:
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
Of course, he was referring to the culture of a company, but it’s true in the case of schools, too. We can have the best educational strategies around, but if they don’t take in to account the cultural background of the kids we’re teaching, they will fall flat. Hammond talks about the fact that many kids will come to school from families whose beliefs and values center around collectivism, and if we have our classroom norms set up around individualism, those kids will struggle to find resonance.
Even if we put kids in to groups to do projects or explore concepts, our bedrock in most cases is individualism – we talk about leaders (singling out one student in each group) and emphasize grades and don’t take the time to explore what each student is bringing to the table as far as cultural viewpoints.
As my amazing, insightful friend Jen Lemen says, “the way we hold individuality and the idea of contribution to a group puts a lot of weight on our personal preferences and experiences and a lot of weight on the group being a certain way. If the groups aren’t a certain way and I don’t feel good myself, I have to hyper-individualize or hyper-conform or squash some part of myself. After doing that for a while, either you crack or the system cracks.”
Encouraging kids to do group work without really talking about what that means and exploring the responsibility of each member to themselves and the others is asking a lot. As I talked about in my last post, we can’t assume that everyone is coming to the work in the same way, and if our classrooms and systems are set up to reward individualism, then the kids who have been steeped in that culture will naturally thrive while the ones for whom individualism is alien and challenging will not. Simply calling something “group work” or “collective” is not enough. We have to really understand what that means to each student and acknowledge the barriers it throws up for some.
The kids who are coming to us with completely different world views are already working harder. If our systems trigger big questions of values and identity for them, the work they do to conform derails the work they’re doing to learn the material we present. And for some of those kids, behavior issues are a result of hyper-individualizing or cracking. When the system is bigger than you and supported by the dominant culture, it’s more likely that you’ll crack than the system. But as more and more children from diverse backgrounds enter our school system, what we are seeing is the system beginning to fall apart. Rather than panicking and trying to shore it up, I believe we need to see it as an opportunity to radically re-think how we serve kids.
We’ve centered the system for far too long. It’s time to start centering the students and their well-being. There are many ways to do that, and one incredibly powerful one is for folks to find Hammond’s book and hold it up against the practices and priorities we have in our educational systems right now to see where we can do better.
As parents and educators (or mentors or coaches), it’s imperative that we get in the habit of taking a step back from our habits and normal practices to ask whether they’re serving the kids we work and live with.
Unfortunately, I think that, too often, we forget that learning is a process and not like flipping a switch. In order for learning to take place, a lot of different things need to be happening – attention, emotional readiness, context, and previous understanding, among other things. And the question we need to ask ourselves about the way we teach kids and what we expect of them is this:
Do we want them to LEARN or do we want them to KNOW?
Often, I think we end up shaming or punishing kids for not KNOWING something we think is obvious, rather than taking the time and effort to teach them about it, what it is, why it’s important, how it can look and feel.
I once heard someone give an example that struck me as the perfect illustration of this*. She said she asks a class full of students to raise their hands if they’ve ever been told to “pay attention.” Predictably, nearly every single hand goes up (if not all of them). Then she asks them to keep their hands raised if anyone has ever taught them to pay attention. Most of the hands go down.
Think about the kinds of things we get annoyed with kids about, roll our eyes about, expect them to KNOW how to do. Now think about whether we’ve ever had foundational conversations with them about what we mean by that, what we think it looks like, how they could learn to do it. Even if we think we’re leading by example, how do we know that kids are watching us with the same thoughts and intentions we want them to have?
I might get frustrated with my kids for not loading the dishwasher the way I want them to, but if I haven’t spent time teaching them why and how I like it that way, is it fair to expect them to know all of that? The fact is, if we aren’t taking the time and care to TEACH, we have no business expecting kids to know how to do things. And if we set out to teach them something because they don’t already know how to do it, mocking them for not knowing won’t engender trust and facilitate the learning process.
As educators, we can’t know what a kid’s previous experiences were like, so while it may be time and labor-intensive, it’s important to check in with them and make sure that they’re comfortable with the procedures and expectations we have. If we want papers to be turned in electronically, we have to ensure that they’ve been taught to do that. If we want them to speak up in class or work with their peers in a productive way, we need to ask whether they’ve been asked to do that before and if they understand what it means to be on a team. Some of our classroom norms might be completely new and it’s our job to spend a little time laying the groundwork for every student in the class. If you’ve got a student who has been home-schooled, make sure they know how to work with others, get their needs met in a full classroom, find their rhythm and pace in this setting.
Helping kids feel successful means being on the lookout for times when we are expecting things of them that they may not know how to deliver, and supporting their learning process. If we truly want kids to LEARN, then we have to not make assumptions about what they KNOW.
*I’d totally cite the source here if I could. I’m pretty sure it was a mindfulness teacher talking to Oren Jay Sofer for a Mindful Schools webinar, but I have lost the link. It was definitely a woman and she’s written books on the subject, so if anyone knows, please let me know and I’ll give her the credit she deserves.
Part 1 is here. This post will explore qualities of effective leaders, expectations of leaders, barriers to functional groups, and what a “good” group looks like.
Qualities of Effective Leaders: First and foremost, it’s important to recognize that there is always always a power differential. As hard as we may work to make kids feel safe, we have to remember that it will take time to earn trust and build relationships, and the more we exert our authority or use it as a tool to manage the conversation and get our way, the harder it will be to build rapport. Trust is an outcome of honest conversation, not a prerequisite for it.
Second, we have to be willing and able to examine our own biases/habits/behaviors. Without judging or shaming or blaming, simply acknowledging our tendency to wield power or assume ill intent or use body language to express our disapproval or disagreement will help us as leaders and parents to think about how those things affect the atmosphere we are trying to create. The more we can do this, the more we are able to choose mindful responses and actions when we’re in tricky situations with adolescents, especially if we are uncomfortable.
Next, it’s vital that we remain accountable to the larger group or relationship. Getting defensive is not a path to relationship-building. Staying humble and curious and treating everyone as though their perspective is important and deserves air-time (even if we vehemently disagree) is key. When someone lets us know that they feel shut-down or disrespected or triggered, it is our responsibility as leaders to set aside our knee-jerk responses and dig in to really understand. Dismissing another person’s emotional response is a quick way to stifle connection.
Expectations for Leaders: Stay present. Letting past challenges or future worries invade the conversation, or dissociating because the topic isn’t compelling to you or it’s a difficult one to sit with derails the conversation.
Lead with curiosity. We have to be willing to give kids this age air-time, if only to give them practice speaking up about challenging issues. The more they feel listened to, the more they’re willing to engage.
Lead by example. Be honest about your own difficulties, show compassion for everyone in the room, listen carefully. (The one caveat I have here is that it is possible to share too much. Remember that this is about the kids, so while it is helpful for them to see us being human and vulnerable, oversharing can make it feel like a lecture or as if we are comparing our experiences to theirs. The goal is to help them understand that it’s ok to talk about hard things and that there are a range of perspectives that are all valid and important.)
Support and encourage everyone. Acknowledge how hard this work is and praise individuals for sitting with discomfort, for learning to be with it and not run away.
Barriers to Good Groups: Huge power differentials – there can’t be one or two people always driving the conversation or making the decisions.
Norms are habitual and largely unexamined. It’s important to really spend time looking at the expectations for any group through the lens of each participant.
Focusing on consensus or agreement. The goal of SEL is to learn to appreciate difference, see diverse opinions and perspectives as strengths, and encourage everyone to speak up. The tendency of adolescents is to ‘fit in’ and in many cases that means people-pleasing. It may be difficult, but it is vital to remind kids that the goal is not for everyone to conform.
Attributes of Good Groups: Effective groups have a balance of engagement of all voices. They are also self-aware and able to change when necessary – if there are behaviors that are preventing honest conversation such as bias or stereotypes, good groups are willing to stop and address those underlying issues. Groups that are doing the hard work are able to look at systems/policies/norms that are unproductive and center folks whose needs aren’t being served.
Good groups also lead with curiosity and prioritize learning and understanding. They know that their purpose is to get messy and really open up, not necessarily to come to some larger “conclusion.”
All of these things are a work in progress. There is no group/classroom/family that will start out with all of these qualities and hit the ground running. As I wrote in Part One, the important thing is that you begin, and that you are willing to stay curious and make adjustments as you go, thanks to feedback from anyone in the group.
I’d love to hear your comments or questions!
You can have a curriculum or a set of ideas in front of you and still not know where to begin when it comes to working with teens on social-emotional health and well-being. Because there isn’t an answer key, it is often intimidating to sit down with an adolescent or a room full of them and talk about hard things – things that most of us haven’t been encouraged to share. I’ve been studying Dr. Craig Elliott‘s work on social justice and racial caucusing and many of his ideas adapt well to this kind of work.
PRE-WORK – Before we start, it’s important to think about some key things that could impact how we interact with kids, especially around difficult topics.
- We have to examine our parenting/leadership experiences to find patterns, norms or habits we have, history or traditions we carry forward without thinking about them, and stereotypes and myths we have about teens, kids of color, gender roles, etc.
- It is also important to examine our relationship with leading/parenting – did we come to it with enthusiasm or not, have we internalized ideas of what it “should” or “shouldn’t” look like, are we resentful of the role itself?
- Next, we need to spend time thinking about our own experiences as teens – were they largely positive or negative, are there things we suffered through that we feel are “rites of passage” and we will perpetuate?
- And finally, be very clear on your intentions as you move forward – are you looking to help the adolescent(s) in your life come to their own conclusions or is it more important for you to impose your values and will on them, are you looking to establish your own place as an expert or do you want them to find their own expertise on themselves?
IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER – We learn best in relationship, but only if we feel safe. For teenagers, this not only means that they feel free to share their ideas and thoughts without fear of punishment, but that they feel as though they are part of the group, that they won’t be mocked or shamed for thinking out loud or expressing ideas that may not be fully formed. Belonging = survival in the adolescent brain. This means that it is incredibly important to spend more time and energy investing in community-building, especially in the beginning. Respect, safety, and accountability are all key parts of a strong relationship.
It can be incredibly intimidating to dive in, but there is no Right or Wrong answer. It is most important that we begin. We can always change course, apologize for mis-steps, and learn to do better, but we have to do the work.
Part 2 will look at qualities of effective leaders, strong groups, barriers to productive work, and expectations for leaders. Feel free to ask questions in the comments.