Tag Archives: parenting

What if My Teen Hates Their Teacher?

Without realizing it, we all put artificial limits on our view of the world and other people, and often this happens as a result of our emotional reactions to things others say or do. There is nothing wrong with having an emotional reaction, but it is what happens next – almost automatically – that can cause us problems.

When someone does or says something we don’t like, our brains quickly move from “I don’t like what she said or how she said it” to “I don’t like her,” which becomes, “I shouldn’t have to listen to her.” And then, because our brains like a complete puzzle instead of one with missing pieces, we set about justifying it by making a case that this person is ignorant or mean, thereby condemning all other interactions with them.

In terms of our kids, this can happen with respect to teachers in an instant. But in order to continually grow and learn, we have to expose ourselves to new ideas and new people. Just because we don’t connect with someone else on a personal level doesn’t mean they don’t have something to teach us. We don’t have to like them to listen to their ideas and see how they do things differently than we do, especially if we are going to have to sit in a classroom listening to them for months on end.

Often, students quickly come to conclusions about which teachers they like and don’t like, and those decisions have a great deal of bearing on whether or not they are willing to listen to what that teacher has to say. Helping students understand that whether or not we like someone personally is not necessarily correlated to how much they have to teach us is a valuable lesson that will serve them well as adults.

Thinking critically about the subjects or ideas that someone else puts forth regardless of how you feel about them on an emotional level is important because it can help us to consider different perspectives more objectively. It also keeps us from putting forth our own ideas in a way that feels like a personal attack. We all know that when we feel attacked or judged, we are less likely to share our own thoughts, and discussions can become more about winning or losing than an exchange of ideas.

Rather than letting distaste for one particular teacher become an excuse to disengage in a class, can you encourage your student to set aside their emotions in an effort to determine what they can learn from them?

 

Adolescents: The Discipline Dilemma

Whether you’re a parent or an educator, the question of how to effectively discipline an adolescent can be tricky. Because these students are becoming more independent and our ultimate goal for them is to be able to make good decisions for themselves, it is important to set up a system of discipline that enables them to learn from their mistakes.

That is much easier said than done. Many of our traditional methods of discipline  weigh more on the side of punishment than on they do on learning. As a parent, I have felt that sting of fear and anger that leads me to lay down a consequence that has a lot less to do with compassionate connection and gaining insight and than with retribution. While that is natural, it is also incredibly counterproductive.

The reason this kind of discipline is doomed to disaster  has to do with the way the adolescent brain works under the influence of all those hormones.  Once kids hit the t(w)een years, they experience:

  • increased emotional responses (both number and intensity)
  • less dopamine (feel-good hormone) secretion
  • more feelings of isolation and separation from others

The more isolated and less happy we feel, the less we are willing to engage with others, which leads us to feel  more isolated and more unhappy. It is a vicious cycle. And research shows that a brain saturated in emotion is less able to engage in the thought processes that lead to meaningful learning.

What this means is that if we catch our kids making a poor choice and immediately respond with strong emotion, we are only adding to the storm of fear or anger that they are feeling, and we are almost ensuring that they won’t be able to listen to us or learn from this mistake. Lashing out with shame, fear tactics, controlling behavior or even emotional withdrawal feels natural but can often turn a situation from a learning opportunity into what feels like a personal attack.

Now what? 

You can’t talk your t(w)een out of feeling whatever they’re feeling (angry, scared, frustrated, sad), but you can acknowledge your emotions and let them subside in order to access your rational thought processes. (This is hard, no doubt about it – especially if there is yelling and door-slamming or words designed to hurt you. It’s important not to take your adolescent’s words or actions personally, even if they are aimed squarely at you.) Often, talking about how you feel is a way to help your student access their emotional vocabulary, too, and it creates connection between you.

You can ask lots of questions. Curiosity is the basis for learning, after all, and it may be that you both have something to learn from this situation. (Don’t be surprised if you ask why they made the choice they did and the answer you get is, ‘I don’t know.’ Often they don’t know. Move on. Ask about what they’re feeling. What they thought or hoped would happen when they made that choice.)  If it’s not possible to have a thoughtful conversation in the moment, agree to separate for a bit and try later when emotions aren’t so high.

Do your best to separate the act from the person. This kid lied. This kid is not a liar. Labelling people by their behavior doesn’t offer room for learning or redemption. It puts them in a box that is really hard to emerge from.

Be clear about your needs and values. Do you need to know that this kid is safe? Do you need to know that other kids in your classroom/household are safe? Do you need to feel safe? Do you need to be able to trust this child? Is one of your highest values honesty? Compassion? Health?

Listen. When your student is ready to talk, let them. Talking can often help them diffuse strong emotions, understand irrational thinking, and create a feeling of bonding. Problem-solving together means they are availing themselves of your adult wisdom and it gives you insight into how you can best help your child begin to make better choices.

The more we can engage our adolescents in discipline, the better chance they have of learning from their mistakes, and the more connected they feel to us. Punishment creates separation and many t(w)tens already feel misunderstood and vilified. Talking to them about how they feel when they’ve messed up shows them that we are willing to be part of the solution, and that we expect them to be part of it, too.

Setting the Stage for a New School Year

For many kids and parents, it can be an enormous challenge to head back to school in the fall. (If you missed it, check out this post about the emotional transition back to the school routine). If you’re the parent of a middle or high school student, this transition can be more overwhelming given the increased independence your student is expected to develop (or have). The move from parental involvement to letting kids manage their own time and homework load can be hard for students and parents alike. Knowing when to back off and let kids learn from their own mistakes and when to step in and set strict guidelines for phone and tablet use is tricky, to say the least.

One way to help your student develop some self-awareness around how distractions may or may not be affecting their academic performance is to have them track their time.  I think that starting this exercise with a definition of their own personal goals and values is important, so you could encourage them to either jot down some answers to this on their own or, if they are willing, sit with them and talk about their answers.

  1. What are my goals for this school year? They can be anything from getting a certain GPA to becoming more proficient in a foreign language to really mastering algebra. These can also include athletic or other extracurricular goals, but it is important to ensure that there are some academic goals on this list.
  2. What are my longer-term goals? These can vary from getting into a good high school to finishing high school with a few college acceptance letters. They may also include graduate school plans or ideas about what kind of career your student wants, although it is vital to remember that 5 or 10 year goals need to be flexible because there is no way to anticipate what might happen.
  3. What are my most closely held values? Often, once we get started listing our values, it can be hard to stop. If that is the case here, let your student write as many down as they want to and then choose the top three for purposes of this exercise. Examples might be persistence, courage, excellence, family, hard work, community.
  4. How am I spending my time? Does it reflect my values and goals? This is where the rubber meets the road. Over the first two to three weeks of school, have your student simply track how they spend their time. Certainly, as they do this, it will be extremely difficult for them (and maybe you, too) to not judge or criticize, but do your best to resist the temptation to do so. Simply looking at how much time they spend playing video games, texting friends, watching TV, practicing piano, doing homework, speaking French, etc. offers them a window into whether or not they are actively choosing to engage in pursuits that further their goals. If they are spending far more time in recreational activities than they are working on their goals, have them spend some time reflecting on what that means. Does it mean the goals aren’t all that important, after all? Or are they simply doing these things out of habit? Where can they shore up their efforts to really live their values and move toward their goals? Or do they need to change the goals? 

This exercise is good for all of us to do once or twice a year. We can so easily get sidetracked by unexpected events or transitions or simply fall back into old habits that it benefits us all to check in with ourselves every once in a while and make sure that we are living our values. And maybe if our adolescents see us doing this, they will come to understand its importance.

When the Transition to School is Anything But Smooth

Some kids seem to make the transition from summer break to the routine of school days without much of a hitch (well, beyond the longing to sleep in every day and have a more relaxed schedule). Others have a hard time settling back in every year, sometimes no matter what their summer has been like. If you have a student who struggles with routine changes, here are some ideas to help them start off the school year without as much angst and frustration.

  1. Acknowledge the situation without blaming or shaming. Kids who are built this way already know they’re different. Maybe they see friends or siblings who don’t have anxiety or struggle with the first few weeks of school. It’s important for them to know that, while it causes them some challenges, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them. It’s also important for them to know that it’s ok to feel the way they feel and ask for help if they need it. Sometimes when you’re agitated, the more you try to hide it, the worse you feel. Let your student know you’ll support them through this time.
  2. Remind them that it won’t last forever. Generally, once we get used to a new routine, we become comfortable with it fairly quickly. While it can feel like it takes forever to get into that rhythm, they know from past school years that they will eventually get there.
  3. Encourage your child to identify their most important values. This can be a tricky one because sometimes it feels a little disconnected to their anxiety, but often our anxieties are related to what we think other people want from us or expect us to be. If we can hone in on what we want from ourselves, we often feel better about how we make our way through our day. For example, if your child values courage and hard work, they might decide to do one thing every day to exhibit those values. They could introduce themselves to one new person every day, and challenge themselves to spend 15 minutes more re-checking their homework or doing an extra credit problem. Having those guiding principles to help ground them can go a long way toward relieving some of the angst about a new school year.
  4. Find a physical outlet or soothing practice. Some kids burn off that extra frustration by shooting baskets or skateboarding or going for a run. Other kids prefer to wind down by listening to music alone, playing an instrument, drawing or relaxing in the bath. If they can set aside some portion of every day for the first week of school to indulge in something that helps them release the physical tension they feel, it can make a big difference.
  5. Try guided meditation. I created this quick meditation for my daughter when she was struggling with a transition a few years ago. She says that whenever she comes up against a big milestone or growth period, she closes her eyes and uses it to help remind her that growth and change are necessary and difficult. If you think your child would like it, have them sit in a quiet, comfortable position with their eyes closed while you read the following to them:

Picture yourself as a snail. Your shell can be any color you want and when you look next to you, you see a different, bigger shell. Take a minute to create that bigger shell in your mind’s eye. What colors does it have? What is its shape? Is it smooth or spiky? Long and lean or tall and round? Don’t tell me. Just picture it in your mind. Now take a moment to feel what it feels like to be in your current, small shell. It’s a little too tight and restrictive, isn’t it? I want you to take a deep breath in and when you let that breath all the way out, your old shell is just going to pop right off your back and roll to the side. When it does, I want you to look at it and silently thank it for protecting you all this time. Be grateful for all it was for you and let it know that it was important, but that you don’t need it anymore. Now, before you turn your attention to the new shell, I want you to focus on how great it feels to be out of the old one. It’s a little scary because you’re pretty vulnerable, but you’re safe for now. Just take some deep, deep breaths and stretch your self out into this new, open space with each exhale. When you’re ready, slip into your new beautiful shell and feel the cool, smooth inside that was made just for you. Take a moment to wiggle around in it and orient yourself. Feel how it’s not too heavy for your back and it feels expansive and comfortable. When you are ready, thank the new shell for being there and open your eyes.

I’d love to hear if any of these tools made a difference for your child as they begin the new school year.

Building Family Connections: Who is Teaching Whom?

Many parents of teens that I meet have one common complaint – their child doesn’t seem interested in talking to them anymore. While it is a perfectly normal developmental behavior, it can seem quite shocking when your t(w)een becomes more and more isolated; spending time in their room listening to music, SnapChatting friends, or watching YouTube videos. I remember very well the abrupt shift from hanging out in the kitchen chatting with my kids while I made dinner (or even having them help) to them disappearing only to come out to eat, help clean the kitchen, and vanish again.

It’s also normal for kids to become less talkative, especially about important things, or to actively discourage conversation, and while it is common, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t worry parents from time to time. Even if you aren’t the kind of parent who wishes to know every last detail of your child’s inner life, you might still long for some sort of connection that doesn’t involve bribing them to hang out with the family. One thing that I have seen work wonders is asking your child to show you something that is important to them.

  • Maybe you have an athletic child and you are confused about the rules of lacrosse or ultimate frisbee.
  • Perhaps you’d like to know what it is about the music they listen to that is so compelling (especially if it just hurts your ears).
  • If your child really loves their art class or a book series or a particular TV show or YouTuber (yes, that’s a word), there’s a perfect entree into conversation.

Adolescents are used to feeling incompetent. They spend their days in classrooms and on practice fields being told what to do and how to do it. Often, when they get home, parents and older siblings give them more instruction and/or point out how they’re doing something wrong or they could improve. All of those messages can get really tiring, so it’s no wonder they retreat to activities and places where they feel accomplished or at least where they can relax.

As a parent, one of the most powerful things you can do is send the message that you’d like them to teach you something. Let your adolescent be the expert on whatever it is they love most and ask them to spend some time explaining it to you or showing you how they do it or waxing poetic about why it’s so freaking awesome. It won’t kill you to take an hour to learn how to play Pokemon Go or toss the lacrosse ball around in the backyard. You may not come to love the latest single by Drake or Beyonce, but you might come away understanding what it is about it that your child loves. And the more important piece of this exercise is that you will have let your t(w)een feel smart or strong or interesting. Especially if it turns out that they are waaaaay better than you at playing guitar or ice skating. And the next time you need to know what SnapChat is or how to use the new version of iMovie, you know you have an eager instructor in the house. If you let your child know that you value their interests and skills, they are more likely to come hang out with you from time to time. Try it and let me know what happens in the comments.

 

Why the “Social” Part of Social Media is So Important for Adolescents

Smartphones_back

As parents and educators, we often hear (and engage in) complaints about teens and social media. What we don’t often talk about is what drives their behavior, but if we are to have meaningful conversations with students about social media use, it helps to understand it.

One key point to remember is that, as human beings, we are neurobiologically wired for connection. Our brains are designed to reward us for being part of a social network and alert us that something is wrong if we are feeling isolated. Without connection to others, we suffer. This phenomenon is especially pronounced during our adolescent years which accounts for the extraordinary drive to find others with whom we belong.

I remember my parents’ frustration at the endless hours I spent on the phone every evening, the 10-foot cord stretched down the hallway so I could tuck myself away in my room with the door shut and talk to friends. Like most teens, I craved connection. The 8 hours a day I spent with friends at school wasn’t enough. Today’s teens are the same, but they have different technologies available to them than we did.

There are so many examples in the media of the ways adolescents use social media to harass each other, but we don’t often look at the ways they use it to make each others’ lives better. FaceTime has become a great way for students to help each other with homework or work on group projects. Individual Instagram accounts have allowed teens to see a different side of their peers – learning about other interests they have outside of school. Social media as a whole enables students who live in geographically distant areas to connect around common passions or struggles and can lead to some pretty amazing activism.

Overall, it seems that adolescents haven’t changed that much over the years, but the tools they use to engage socially have. The key as parents and educators is for us to acknowledge that teens will always find ways to create and maintain strong social networks and use our wisdom and influence to help them understand how to use those tools in a way that builds them up and flexes their social-emotional muscles. Asking lots of open-ended questions about how and why they use certain social media platforms can help adults learn what kind of connection is most important to an individual student, and it can give them some insight and self-awareness. It isn’t uncommon for teens to start doing something because their peers are doing it, but if we can encourage them to reflect on whether it is filling a need, they are more likely to make good choices about how and when to repeat that behavior.

Removing an adolescent’s ability to engage with their peers by taking their phone away or blocking Internet access doesn’t eliminate the drive to connect, and it can harm your relationship. Helping teens find ways to maintain productive, healthy social connections, both in person and virtually, by acknowledging their need to bond with others and enabling it whenever possible will go a long way toward building trust.

Important Gender Differences in Values and How We Can Help Teens Break Them Down

 

“If you change the way you look at things, you will change the things you see.” Dr. Wayne Dyer

Dr. Wayne Dyer was an educator and author of dozens of books on individual development and spirituality. He was well-known for his research regarding what motivates us and how we can live our most closely held values. Whether or not you ascribe to his spiritual beliefs, one portion of his research strikes me as something that educators and parents can use to understand their adolescents better and perhaps spur conversations with them.

He looked at what drives young men and women in our culture and discovered what I think are some incredible differences that might explain some common communication issues and give us a window in to just how much we are influenced by the underlying values our society tells us we should have.

The table below illustrates the top five motivating factors broken down by gender*.

Boys/Men                                              Girls/Women

Wealth                                                     Family

Adventure                                               Independence

Achievement                                          Career

Pleasure                                                   Fitting In

Respect                                                     Physical Attractiveness

What I find most interesting about these responses is that, for boys and men, all but one of the things on their list is determined by external factors. With the exception of pleasure, everything on that list depends on how other people see them. Looking at it this way, it’s no wonder that adolescent boys feel pressured to perform and appear capable and competent and wear that mask nearly all the time.

For girls and women, the first three items are naturally in conflict with each other. In our world, having a family and a career and finding independence are nearly incompatible, and while those factors are associated with internal motivation, the last two definitely show that women and girls have a keen eye on cultural expectations as well.

Armed with this information (and knowing that every person is different, so not all of these will apply to the teenager you might have in mind), we can begin to think about the kind of pressure our kids are under to live up to their ideas of what is or should be most important to them. Seeing kids through the lens of the cultural messages they are sent every day can offer us ways to talk to them about why certain things are important and whether there is a way to reframe their values to express their individual desires and interests.

One way to begin is to have them think about the times when they are so caught up in an activity that they forget about the outside world. What are the things that they bend over backward to make time for? What can they not imagine doing without – their guitar or sketchpad or the local library? What is it about those things that are so compelling – is it the time alone, the opportunity to be creative, the feeling of accomplishment, the challenge? After a while, we can encourage our kids to begin looking at the ways they spend their time and energy and slowly shift them to become more in alignment with their own personal values rather than being in service to some external idea of who they should be.

 

*I don’t generally deal in stereotypes, but I do think it’s important to look at trends and use them as a springboard for further exploration in to the things that influence us without us really recognizing it. I believe that these responses reflect some pretty powerful cultural mores and by acknowledging them, we can begin to change them.

Conflict Resolution Cartoons

Sometimes when we are in conflict with others, especially if they are people whom we love and/or spend a lot of time with, we forget that our thoughts only exist inside our heads. If we don’t let them out, they can become “Truth.” But our thoughts are generally made up of sets of facts that are connected by the thinnest threads of assumption and driven by raw emotion. Letting them out can expose the misunderstandings to the light and lead to a deeper appreciation of other perspectives or things we didn’t know.

If you’re like me, you forget this from time to time, which is why I created these two cartoons as a reminder. (Disclaimer: I do not claim to be an artist. These are rudimentary at best, but they do serve to help me when I get sucked in to believing my own thoughts.)

Talk about it.
Talk about it.
Start with curiosity.
Start with curiosity.

In a Perfect World

You might assume that I think it is impossible to divorce a student’s social-emotional health from their education. You would be right. Just like our left brain and our right brain are not isolated from each other, we cannot expect our kids to operate in a vacuum at school – absorbing information and making calculations like a computer. Their environment and mindset and overall emotional maturity play a huge role in how they learn and process information and whether they integrate it effectively or not.

Here are a few key social-emotional skills adolescents need to develop in order to become active participants in their education, but they can’t do that without a lot of support from parents and teachers.

  • identify and demonstrate their personal values – It isn’t enough to “know” what your values are. Teens and tweens need to find the courage to live their values. For example, if Marcus values his health, then over time it will become important for him to make choices based on that belief despite what others around him are doing.
  • self-manage attention and focus – There is a difference between using technology as a tool to further your goals and letting technology do the work for you or distract you from doing your work. The more parents and educators can teach adolescents about how to use technology mindfully and purposefully, the more they can understand how it affects their time management.
  • positive outlook/growth mindset – All too often, we treat individual assignments and activities as though they are important in and of themselves, as opposed to recognizing that they are steps along the way. As students begin to see each task they are asked to do as relating to the bigger picture, they can be more open to learning from their mistakes. Understanding that we have something to learn from every situation and using that information in our pursuit of a larger goal is key to giving us the courage to keep trying.
  • personalized priorities – Every student has a different threshold for frustration and prolonged studying. Every student learns in a slightly different way. The earlier they are encouraged to prioritize based on what they know about themselves, the more likely teens are to create effective time-management strategies. Some kids do best when they get the “hard” tasks out of the way first, and others do great if they take short breaks every 30 minutes or so to stare out the window.
  • stare out the window – This sounds somewhat counterintuitive, but it has been shown that when we take time to ruminate or daydream, our brains are making connections that they don’t make when we are reading or being lectured to. Letting our brains play with information and reorganize it in different ways helps us find deeper meaning and integrate abstract concepts – something the adolescent brain is learning how to do if we can just give it the opportunity.
  • engage in creative activities – This is related to the previous skill and can take on many different forms, depending on the individual. When teens and tweens are encouraged to create, they are engaging different parts of their brain and often lighting up the pleasure centers, which floods the brain with chemicals that actually help us imprint memories better. A range of experiences and emotions when we are adolescents means that we are more capable of making better decisions as adults.
  • connect to others in a variety of ways – The stronger a teen’s relationships are, the more likely he or she is to feel as though they can risk living their values and attack challenges. Adolescents who are encouraged to both draw on their social connections for support and provide empathic support to others are more resilient and creative and grounded.

How do you think schools and parents can support adolescents in developing these skills?

Compassion and Selfishness

It is a common misperception that selfishness is the opposite of compassion; that if I am not actively helping someone in need, I ought to feel bad about it. And while it is certainly true that sometimes we fail to act compassionately because we are being selfish, that isn’t always the case.

Especially for people who tend to be very empathetic and rush to help others, and for those who are expected to offer assistance to most everyone all the time (in American culture, that is something often assigned to girls and women), we need to have a conversation about personal boundaries.

Many of us have found ourselves agreeing to something because we think we ought to, even when we know we don’t have the time, energy, or interest. Some of us repeat that pattern over and over again, pleasing others at the expense of ourselves, and one big problem with that is that if and when we decide to stop, people around us have gotten so used to our compliance that they get upset.

When we talk to our children about what it means to be compassionate, we have to include the idea of self-compassion and remind them that they have the right to make choices based on their own level of comfort (or discomfort) and their values, no matter what anyone else thinks. Often, we judge others for not being as kind as we think they should be, but without knowing why someone else is choosing to act in a certain way, we need to be careful to not brand them as selfish.

Encouraging students to define their own personal boundaries, especially when it comes to relationships with family and close friends, is a great way to empower them to be mindful about the way they treat themselves and others and a strong reminder that they are worthy of consideration, too.

Signs of Unhealthy Boundaries

  • acting against your values to please someone else
  • letting yourself be defined by others
  • sacrificing something for someone else and later resenting it
  • helping someone because you think you “should”
  • over-identifying with someone else’s struggle
  • feeling responsible for someone else’s feelings

Next Time: Three Questions to Ask Yourself if You’re Unsure Whether to Help Someone