Building Family Connections: Altruism Exercise

Often, as our kids grow up, we as parents become concerned about everyone pulling their weight. We think about chores and allowance, we might teach our kids to fold or wash their own laundry or take out the trash. Most parents agree that teaching our kids that they have some responsibility to the family is important. There are a variety of ways to think about chores and how to reward kids for doing them, but what about teaching them to perform small acts of altruism, too?

One way to do this is to encourage this kind of behavior within the family. Write down each family member’s name on a scrap of paper and put it in a bowl or hat. Once a week, maybe at dinner on Sunday for example, everyone pulls out one piece of paper, making sure that they don’t draw their own name. They will have one week to do something kind for that person. You can choose whether or not to keep these acts secret, but some examples include:

  • clearing someone else’s dishes from the dinner table
  • folding a load of laundry that isn’t yours
  • making a cup of tea for someone just they way they like it
  • offering to walk the dog when it isn’t your turn because you can see that the person whose turn it is is really busy
  • letting someone else have the shower first without arguing

You can be as creative as you like. Along with the obvious benefit of knowing that someone will do something nice for you at least once this week, this activity has the added benefit of focusing everyone’s attention on those around them. You find yourself asking, “What could I do to help _____________ the most today?” You begin to really notice how the other members of your family are doing and what they might need. And it can be really fun to get caught doing something nice for someone. You never know, they might draw your name next week.

Helping Kids Combat Their Inner Critic

We all have an inner monologue, and sometimes it can be quite nasty – especially if we have just said or done something we wish we could take back. Teens and tweens are particularly susceptible to this kind of self-talk, especially since they are also hearing criticism (both constructive and harsh) from many different corners of their lives. When the adults around you are concerned with helping you grow up safe and strong and smart, they can feel as though it’s their job to point out how you can improve yourself. Often, this translates into self-criticism when they’re alone and it can be destructive if they don’t know how to handle it.

Here are three ways adolescents can learn to mitigate some of the constant chatter going on in their heads.

1. Practice radical acts of self-kindness – Ask your child/student how they would talk to a trusted friend who makes a mistake. Often, we are much more forgiving of others than we are of ourselves, but it is important to extend ourselves the same kindnesses we offer to others. Would you berate or belittle a friend who messed up or would you remind them that it’s okay to make mistakes and that things will be okay? Sometimes it feels strange to talk to ourselves in a comforting way, but I am a strong believer in the “fake it ’til you feel it” school of habit-forming.

2. Remember, you’re only human – Avril Lavigne sings a song called “Everybody Hurts,” and while it is about a sad breakup, there are a few lines that resonate with me every time I hear them.

Everybody hurts somedays
It’s okay to be afraid
Everybody hurts, everybody screams
Everybody feels this way, it’s ok

Even if you feel like the only person who has ever screwed up like this, you’re not. And it pays to remind ourselves that we will never be perfect and that we aren’t alone. Your child is special and unique, but not inhuman. Nobody’s perfect.

3. Call that inner voice out when it’s bullying you – It may seem trivial, but when you notice that your inner critic is shaming and blaming you, it’s important to notice. Stop for a beat and say to yourself, Dang! I’m really beating myself up right now! Often, that is enough to interrupt the lecture you’re giving yourself and pull you out of that place where you’re cowering in your own mind so that you can begin to stand up for yourself.

Self-kindness is important to learn at any age, but especially during the adolescent years when the brain is incredibly receptive to emotional onslaughts and when it can build resilient neural pathways. The earlier we can all recognize our tendency to be hard on ourselves and shift those thinking patterns, the better.

Question: What’s More Important…

standing up for my principles, or being nice?

I had a teen ask me this question and I thought it was particularly astute. In the age of social media, we are all free to offer our opinions on any subject any time. Whether it’s responding to a friend’s Facebook or Instagram post or a news item that we come across, in many cases, letting people know what we think is as simple as a few keystrokes.

Unfortunately, things tend to be pretty polarized on social media. We have become accustomed to a certain number of characters that we will pay attention to before we get bored, and most important issues are framed in terms of Right and Wrong, Agree or Disagree. There is very little room for nuance and gray area and, often, it is the most supportive and the least supportive comments that get all the glory.

So if you feel strongly about a particular issue – whether it be dress codes or same-sex marriage, leaving your pet in a hot car during the day or premarital sex, it can be really tempting to add your two cents. My answer to this teen was to stop a minute and assess the motivation behind the response. Often, we get caught up in the swell of emotion that comes from reading about something we either strongly agree or disagree with and we don’t take the time to think about why we think it’s important to share our thoughts.

*If you are responding because you want to tell someone else their opinion is wrong (and set it up against your beliefs which are “right,”) commenting might not be the best thing to do.

*If you are making a point to exclude an entire group of people based on some belief they hold or lifestyle they lead that you disagree with, you aren’t really standing up for your principles, you’re bashing someone else’s. I know there’s a fine line between those two things, but it’s a line nonetheless. [One way to think about it is to say that you’re throwing a party, but you extend the invitation in a public place and say that anyone who identifies as transgendered is NOT invited because you don’t support that lifestyle. That’s not standing up for your beliefs because you started it. You’re free to have that opinion, but since it wasn’t challenged, you’re carefully couching your disrespect for others by claiming it is standing up for yourself.]

*If you are standing up for someone or a group of people that don’t have a voice or whose beliefs haven’t been represented in the conversation, it may well be a worthwhile response. I say this with caution because often people who post things online are only interested in hearing the comments that support their own side of things. Before hitting ‘enter,’ you might want to assess what it is you hope to achieve with your comment. If you simply want to go on record saying you support another opinion, that’s fine. If you’re hoping to change minds or make other people feel bad or rile others up, you’re not standing up for your beliefs, you’re picking a fight.

Mindful Parenting Tip: Check Your Assumptions

This is one of the most impactful changes I have ever made and while it is simple, it takes practice. It also works for educators and school administrators, or anyone who is in a position of power over students or children.

Step 1: When your t(w)een is doing something you don’t like, stop and name what you’re feeling.  For example, if you’ve asked them to come do a chore and they aren’t responding, recognize what your immediate reaction is. Is it frustration? Annoyance? Anger? Maybe there is some story in your head about how often they do this particular thing, “he always ignores me when I ask him to empty the dishwasher!”

Step 2: Acknowledge that what you’re feeling is about you and your priorities, which are absolutely valid, but your child can’t be expected to know what they are right now.  Once you’ve acknowledged it, let it go.

Step 3: Ask in a neutral or inquisitive tone whether there is a good reason why your child isn’t responding to you right now. It may be that he is in the middle of a challenging assignment and he wants to focus and finish it before being interrupted. Or maybe there is some other circumstance that you can’t possibly imagine which is causing the delay. Or,  maybe, you’re just being ignored or teased. Whatever the reason, if you assume bad intent without getting all of the information, you’re painting your child into a pretty tight corner. If you remain curious about the situation and are clear about your priorities, you are more likely to get a positive response and move toward getting your needs met.

I have heard many stories from students about situations where a teacher yelled at them for not making eye contact or for doodling on their paper when the teacher wanted them to “pay attention.” Those scenarios might enforce compliance, but they don’t build trust, and in many cases, the student had what they felt was a perfectly good reason for doing what they were doing at that point. Had the teacher given the student the benefit of the doubt and stopped to ask why they weren’t “paying attention,” they might have gotten good information about that student without the risk of alienating them. This is especially helpful in cases where a student has a non-traditional learning style. Some kids need to doodle or bounce in their chair in order to comprehend what the teacher is saying. Others have a difficult time making eye contact at all, or might need a little extra time to focus before moving on.

As a parent, when I’m in a hurry, it is easy for me to forget that my children are often immersed in things that are important to them, and I sometimes revert to asserting my power to make them do things on my schedule. I can get angry if I feel as though they aren’t paying attention to me, but if I stop and remember to not take it personally, in general they are more open to helping because I took their priorities into consideration.

“Desirable Difficulty”

A_rocky_pathThat sounds like an oxymoron, to be sure, but it turns out that things that count as obstacles in our way are those things which are directly responsible for our learning and growth. Any sort of stone or roadblock that causes us to flex, to snap out of a reverie, to think creatively to overcome something is offering us the chance to pay attention.

Our human brains are designed to find the path of least resistance, and often, when they do, we go into a sort-of autopilot mode. This is adaptive, because it allows us to conserve energy and multitask, but it also means that we stop being fully aware of what we’re doing. Think about how many times during the day your mind wanders off while your body is still performing – driving to and from familiar places, washing the dishes, taking notes in a lecture. Sometimes, this is useful. I know that I often do my best ‘writing’ when I am walking the dog and my mind strays to explore other ideas or work out some thorny issue I can’t seem to solve when I’m sitting at my laptop.

Sometimes, though, it is important for us to really pay attention, and that is where “desirable difficulty” comes in. If you find yourself in a class where it is important for you to really assimilate and understand the information, do yourself a favor and introduce some level of difficulty – take notes by hand instead of typing them or force yourself to add drawings to your notes. There is increasing evidence that these kinds of tricks are incredibly valuable when it comes to retention and comprehension of difficult material, and often, when you take notes by hand with lots of space for doodling in the margins, you find yourself drawing conclusions about what you’re learning and expanding your interest in the subject.

Because of our tendency to find the ruts and settle in to the simplest way of doing things, we often miss opportunities to deepen our knowledge. But sometimes, tripping over a rock in the path can cause us to look up and notice something we wouldn’t have otherwise seen.

Curriculum Snapshot:Mindfulness and Body Image for T(w)eens

Many adolescents struggle with body image issues, and while there is a spectrum that has eating disorders and self-loathing at one end and mild frustration at the other, this is a great opportunity to introduce some self-awareness.

I encourage students to engage in three things that can help them come to terms with how they feel about their own changing bodies and take back control. While these steps are by no means a substitute for counseling, if an individual is struggling with eating disorders or other self-harm behaviors, they can help students understand the foundations of the complicated emotions they have with regard to their own self-image in tandem with professional help.

The first step is to ask “why.” Anytime we hear the voice in our own head that says, “I’m too fat/short/hippy/undeveloped,” it’s important to ask where that idea comes from. Many kids can stand in front of a mirror and point out specific areas they don’t like – hips, boobs, underdeveloped muscles, big feet, ears that protrude a little more than someone else’s, hair color, etc. But going one step beyond that to inquire as to why these bits of ourselves are considered undesirable is important. Do any of these things prevent us from doing the things we truly want to do? Are they keeping us from accomplishing our most important goals? Are any of these things truly a problem for us?

If the answer is no (and I ask the kids to answer only to themselves; there is no need to utter a word out loud during any of these exercises), then it will take practice to remind ourselves that we can spend less time and energy worrying about them. Often, at this point, it becomes clear that media and social messages are giving them the impression that they are not good enough and it is important for them to decide how much they want to be beholden to these external ideals.

If the answer is yes, the next step is to gather information.  In this case, I find it helpful to put something to paper. If a student has self-identified that they are overweight and it is keeping them from doing the things that they really want to do, I encourage them to keep a food diary. Again, this is something they need not share with anyone else. This is about information-gathering. Often, when they monitor what they are eating for a few days, patterns begin to show up. It is incredibly important during this stage to reinforce self-compassion and lack of judgment. If they descend into beating themselves up for noting that they have eaten a cupcake every day for the last three days, shame creeps in and can derail any forward progress. That is one reason it is important for them to know that they don’t have to show their food diary to anyone else. This is a scientific endeavor that requires that they be honest with themselves and not harsh judges. This is incredibly difficult for many kids, and often, it takes several stops and starts before they will do it. The voices in our heads are so strong and so often present that most of us don’t stop to recognize them for what they are.

The third step is to ask, “what am I willing to do with this information?” If the student is clear on what they want to change and why, they now have a choice to make about their behavior. If they need help, they can seek out a trusted adult who can support them with resources and encouragement. Utilizing their connections to people who care about them is an important part of this step, and it is incredibly empowering. This step, too, often involves many stops and starts and can take years to develop. It is important to note, though, that the ultimate goal of this exercise is to improve self-awareness, not to improve one’s body. Once we can teach kids to recognize their own biases against themselves and understand why they have these particular negative views, they can begin to decide whether or not they want to hold those views any more.

Adolescent Anxiety

Teens and tweens are an anxious bunch. It is well-known and well-documented that many kids struggle with anxiety disorders and many are medicated for them and treated individually. Unfortunately, their brains are primed to be ruled by their emotions during this time, but it is possible to help them understand anxiety and begin to tame it. Because it is so prevalent (more than 20% of teens experience significant anxiety), we can harness the power of groups to help kids this age find solutions.

Anxiety thrives inside our heads. The nagging thoughts we have often grow bigger as they rattle around in our brains, reminding us how scary the world is and how unprepared we are to deal with it. But often, when we verbalize those thoughts we can see them for what they really are and realize that they aren’t rooted in reality. That is the power of groups. Adolescents are particularly social creatures, drawn to connect with their peers in an intense, all-consuming way. In my generation, that manifested itself in hours on the telephone every night, and today we see it with kids texting and FaceTiming each other. They rely on each other for social cues and support and we can capitalize on that to help them help each other.

By talking about anxiety as part of our curriculum, we are not only normalizing the experience for teens and reminding them that they are not the only ones who feel like that, but we are creating a network of peers that have some important tools to combat it. The exercises we teach them are rooted in the most recent brain science and mindfulness practices.

Often, when we are in the throes of an anxiety attack, we can’t rationalize or remember how to counteract it. It is important to have friends that we can draw on to remind us how to re-set our brain’s response, to give us a reality check, to reassure us that we aren’t dying. The more we practice defusing anxiety, the easier it gets, and if we can learn this as adolescents, we will be much more able to handle difficult situations as adults.

Want more information? Contact us to set up a workshop at kari@theSELFProject.com.

Teens & Social Media: What’s a Parent to Do?

FullSizeRenderLast week, the Pew Research Center released their most recent findings on teens and social media use. Much of it may not be a surprise to parents and educators, but it does give some important information about what kids are doing.

Some key notes in the report include:

  • 92% of teens ages 13-17 report going online daily
  • 24% of teens report that they are online “almost constantly”
  • Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat remain the most popular sites for kids
  • 71% of teens are using multiple social media sites
  • texting is a big part of most teens’ lives, with the average teen sending and receiving more than 30 texts per day

All of this is to say that online communications are a huge part of American teenagers’ lives. Most of us probably knew that already. And many of us have heard horror stories about the destructive ways kids can use social media, so what can we do about it?

First of all, we need to recognize that this phenomenon isn’t going away. Perhaps you can remember sitting on the floor of your bedroom as a teenager, the phone cord stretched down the hall so you can close your door, talking to your friends for hours until your parents yelled at you to do your homework or hang up so someone else could use the phone. Humans are social creatures and teenagers have an even greater need than most for social connection outside their family. It is not surprising that they are taking full advantage of social media to explore relationships.

But, we can help our kids learn how to communicate positively and with intention by discovering a little bit more about how and why they use the social media platforms they use.  We can have conversations with them about purpose and values and being mindful about their online interactions and The SELF Project is here to help with that.

We have designed a survey that digs a little deeper in to the “whys” and “hows” of social media use. Once armed with that information, school staff and parents can meet with Kari to decipher it and talk about ways to help teens use these powerful tools to enhance their lives.  Contact us today at kari@theselfproject.com to get this conversation started at your teen’s school.

It’s Playtime!

play

Check out this TED Radio Hour podcast if you are interested in the importance of play in our lives. There are so many great nuggets of wisdom in the show that I immediately clicked over to TED.com to listen to Stuart Brown’s talk and learned even more.

Some of my favorite new insights:

  • play is not simply practice for adulthood. When animals are kept from playing as babies, they still grow up to be capable hunters, but they don’t display the qualities of resilience that animals who were allowed free play do.
  • play opens up the frontal lobe of our brains and allows information from all over the brain to synthesize. This likely leads to much more creative problem-solving
  • play is very helpful in creating empathy. Although we don’t often feel empathy for strangers, if we are put in a situation of having to collaborate with them on a game, scientists have discovered that we display as much empathy for them as we would for a friend.
  • play has a biological function for humans, much like sleep and dreams do, and it is important throughout our lives, not just when we’re kids.

Happier Kids, Stronger Connections