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

Mindful Parenting: Counterfeit Connection

We all want to be connected to others, to have a tribe, to feel community. This push is particularly strong during adolescence, and it is important during this time to help kids understand what true connection is and what it isn’t.

Unfortunately, we don’t generally form strong bonds with others quickly. Trust and connection require sustained interaction that is consistent over time. We all know how quickly a relationship can be called in to question with one act of betrayal, and how long it takes to restore.

Sometimes, though, we think we can create intimacy and connection quickly, and I have discovered that there are two ways teens and tweens try to do this that  create a false sense of trust and connection and end up backfiring.

  • Oversharing – It’s true that one characteristic of close relationships is personal knowledge. We tend to trust those individuals with whom we are closest with our most intimate secrets. But often, adolescents think that if they share their most personal information with someone else, that will jump start a close relationship. Unfortunately, that isn’t generally how it works. Unless that person has demonstrated that they will honor that disclosure by keeping it safe, this is almost always a bad idea. You simply can’t be sure that a person is reliable or trustworthy without being in relationship with them over a period of time. It is important for parents to talk to teens about how they know someone else can be trusted and why they are choosing to be vulnerable.
  • Gossip – There is nothing that binds people like a common adversary, and while they may not realize what they’re doing, many adolescents share other people’s secrets as a way to create intimacy with their own friends. Not only does it make us look better when we compare ourselves to someone else’s shameful mistake, but letting our friends know that we trust them enough to share a secret seems important, even if it wasn’t our secret to tell. In the long run, this tactic will not work by its very nature because in the act of gossiping, we are demonstrating that we ourselves are not trustworthy. This can feel like a powerful bond in the short term, but it does nothing to build authentic connections with others.

There are many elements of a healthy, strong relationship, and they all take time. That is not very comforting news to a lonely teenager, but the more we talk to them about what kinds of friendships they want to have and why, the more they can begin to make choices about how they interact with others. One way to do this is to talk about the people in their life that they trust the most and why. Ask them how these people have shown them, over time, that they truly care for them, and share information about your closest, most trusted relationships with them. Contrast that with people who may have betrayed their trust and yours. Ask if they have ever worked hard to regain someone else’s trust after they broke it and what that was like.

As parents, we want our kids to have good relationships, but it isn’t as easy as deciding who to hang out with. They need to understand what goes in to a good relationship, too.

Things You May Not Know About Your Brain

Our brains are magnificent, complex machines and we won’t likely ever know as much about what they do and how they do it as there is to know. But thanks to researchers who are continually uncovering new data, we can come up with new ways to impact our brain’s functioning and our mood without resorting to medication or medical interventions. Here are several things you might find interesting*:

  • Exercise (classified as 30 minutes of brisk walking three times a week) has been shown to be just as effective in reversing depressive symptoms as the popular prescription medication Zoloft.  (This links to one study, but there have been several that show the same). In addition, the effects of regular exercise are shown to last longer than the effects of prescription antidepressants.
  • Exercise also increases your brain’s ability to function by triggering new brain cell growth. Basically, regular exercise can make you smarter.
  • When we are physically active, our brains produce dopamine and serotonin, two feel-good chemicals.
  • Sunlight affects our mood by triggering special receptors in the back of our eye that stimulate the brain to produce both Vitamin D and serotonin. So, finding time to get physical exercise outside when it’s sunny is giving yourself a double dose of natural antidepressants.
  • Sugar increases inflammation in the brain which has the effect of disrupting normal brain circuits and making it hard for your brain to produce the nerve cells necessary to create new memories. So if you’re working hard on a project for work or cramming for a test at school and you’re fueling your energy with pastries or ice cream, you are making things harder for yourself without even knowing it.

Remember, information is power, and the more you understand about how your brain and body work, the better choices you can make about keeping yourself healthy, happy, and smart.

*None of this is meant to substitute for medical advice from a physical or mental health professional. If you are struggling with severe depressive symptoms or learning challenges, please consult a healthcare professional.

“Why” is Your T(w)een’s Best Friend

If you’ve ever been around a toddler, you have heard the question, “why?” a lot. If you’re like most people, it drove you a little nuts.

Why is the sky blue? Why is my nose on my face? Why do I have to wash my hands?

As most of our kids go through school, they learn to whittle down their reasons for asking why, and learn that they can take some things at face value. But it is important for adolescents to turn that question around and point it at themselves. With more independence comes more responsibility, and they don’t always know how to make choices that are safe and healthy and mindful, but this one simple word can be a powerful way to focus their attention and help them make better decisions.

Asking why not only helps t(w)eens develop a sense of self-awareness, but it also reminds them that they have the power to control their actions and decisions. They have choices, and they are making them every day, all the time, whether they know it or not. They might as well understand why.

Without asking them to share their answers, I often encourage my daughters to get curious about the things they do. (Asking them to say it out loud is often a strong deterrent – they don’t want to be judged for their choices any more than anyone else does, and certainly not by their mother).

Why am I posting this picture online? What am I hoping to get out of it?

Why do I feel this powerful need to binge on sugary foods right now? What is going on in my life that is making me think this will help?

Why am I so upset at that comment Peter made? What is it about his words that affected me so strongly?

Developing a habit of inquiring about their motivations and choices can often shine a light on the inner voice that shames and blames and judges. And remembering that they have the freedom to choose how they react to any given situation can give them a sense of control over their lives that most adolescents are desperately seeking. As an added bonus, taking the split-second to ask “why” can offer enough space from an emotionally-charged incident that some of the emotion can dissipate and they can think more clearly.

After asking why, they may not make a different decision, but at least they will have gone through the motions to begin to be more self-aware. And the more we know about why we make the choices we make, the easier it gets to identify patterns of behavior.

Why An Adolescent-Specific SEL Program?

Adolescence is a unique time in human development, not only physically but mentally. The adolescent brain is growing and changing rapidly, both “pruning” old connections and pathways to make things more efficient, and building new neural “superhighways” that will become used almost exclusively for the rest of an individual’s life. Many of us form thinking patterns and habits in our adolescent years that will either serve us well or prove hard to break as we get older. Because of this, it is very important to make sure that the way we see the world and interact with it during adolescence takes advantage of this growth and development.

Using social-emotional education techniques that encourage broad connections and integration of information can help students during adolescence. Think about the most important moments in your middle or high school education. They weren’t likely related to a particular set of data you memorized for a test (in fact, most of that information is long gone, having only been stored in your short-term memory until the quiz or test was over). The things we recall the most, that had the most impact on us, were the “a-ha” moments. They represent the times we truly understood why something worked, when we were able to make connections between two or more ideas or facts and see the patterns. Understanding patterns and formulas is not only academically rewarding because it allows us to extrapolate further and predict things, but it actually causes a release of dopamine (the “feel-good” chemical), which further imprints that concept in our minds.

Adolescence is a time of neural integration, a time when we are driven to seek connections like that and begin to have a deeper and wider knowledge of the world around us. When we can draw parallels between different subjects and use our own creative thought processes to imagine still more connections, we are rewarded by feeling good. It is this phenomenon that spurs still more independent learning and creates a passion for understanding in the adolescent student.

Adolescents are also particularly socially driven – preferring to spend time with peers more than anyone else. They seek connection almost constantly and work to identify groups of individuals with whom they feel they can “belong.” These people become the single most influential force in most teens’ lives.

A good adolescent SEL program takes advantage of both the brain development and the social drive of teens through student-led exploration of diverse ideas within a community of their peers in order to reinforce the building of neural superhighways that will make rapid integration of new material and creative problem-solving easier as they reach adulthood.

Learning Doesn’t Only Happen in Class

It is really easy to get sucked in to the notion that our children’s best learning opportunities come within the four walls of a classroom or school building. We talk about strategies for educators and examine the curriculum on back-to-school night and ask questions about class size and grading, and all of those things are important, but it is important to remember that their brains don’t turn off when they leave school for the day.

Whether your child is involved in sports or music lessons, the drama club or working a few hours after school, they are learning valuable lessons and we can help them absorb those things by asking questions and expressing interest in what they are doing. Trying out for a position on the team or in the school play is a lesson in courage, not getting it is a lesson in adjusting our expectations and dealing with disappointment. Working on a particularly challenging song is a lesson in perseverance, and getting along with customers and co-workers can help develop patience and empathy. All of these things might seem obvious, but pointing them out to our kids is a way of reminding them that they can always be learning and growing, even if it isn’t in a formal setting.

One of the goals of social-emotional education is to teach kids that they can be the leader when it comes to what they learn. Finding things that interest them and pursuing mastery (and even sometimes simple survival of a situation) is just as important for their development as algebra and history. If we as parents and teachers place just as much value on the things kids are learning outside of school, we reinforce the idea of lifelong learning and let them know that grades aren’t the only goals to set your sights on.

How can you talk to your kids about the non-school things they learn every day?

Why Mindful Parenting is Important

Whether they would ever admit it or not, the way we relate to our children sets up patterns and expectations for their future relationships. As parents, we are our kids’ first testing ground for how they ought to be treated. Interacting with our kids in purposeful ways as much as we can (while allowing ourselves to make mistakes and acknowledge them in front of kids) is important for many different reasons.

We know that children watch us and learn. While we often wish they would do what we say, the fact is, they are more likely to weigh what we do against what we say our values are in order to see what they ought to do. The next time you are in a position to teach your child something, ask yourself what you’re modeling. What do we want for our kids, do we want them to find people in their lives who wield power over them or do we want them to be with people who respect them as equals? Would we rather they experience relationships as power struggles or as fertile ground for collaboration and an exchange of ideas? Do we want them to be with people who are always telling them how to do things or with those who encourage them to think for themselves, examine their own values and beliefs, and act on them?

Mindful parenting asks questions, teaches introspection, helps our kids figure out why they do what they do and how to do better without us prescribing it for them. It lets our kids know that we value them for who they are, not for how well they follow someone else’s rules. It encourages creativity, independent thinking, and sets healthy boundaries for relationships.

For more information on mindful parenting techniques, check out or information here or email kari@theselfproject.com to ask about forming a group in your area. Stay tuned for The SELF Project for Parents coming out in book format soon.

Tackling Tough Situations

We all bump up against situations that we find challenging to handle in our lives, but if we’re busy going in many different directions with competing priorities, it can sometimes be hard to slow down and process them without simply reacting in anger or frustration. Other times, we are tempted to shove those feelings aside and try not to think about it, but if it is something that is really bugging us, generally those issues will come back until we deal with them.  I’ve created a quick worksheet for kids to complete when they have a few minutes that can help them put their frustrations into context and alleviate some of the struggle. Click on the link below to access it.

Tackling Tough Situations

The first two boxes are a place to state what’s going on and are designed to bring some self-awareness to the issue by identifying the emotion behind the challenge. Then, as you move through the flow chart, you can make some choices about how to deal with the situation which gives you a sense of control and reminds you that you are in charge of how you respond to things that aren’t going the way you wanted them to. In the end, the user makes a conscious effort to either accept what has happened and move on or get help changing the situation for the better. I’d love to know when people use this tool and get feedback on how it works for them. Please comment if you want to!

I'm happy to share this flowchart widely. Please remember that was created by and for The SELF Project and, as such, it is copyrighted and should be given credit for its creation.

Mindful Parenting Tip: Strip the Labels

By the time our kids become adolescents, we as parents have often formed some pretty rigid ideas about who they are. Even if we think we are letting them explore some of the different ways to interact with the world, we often don’t give them as much freedom to interact with us at home. We make assumptions based on who we “know” they are (the oldest is the ‘clever, crafty’ one and the youngest kid is the ‘kamikaze who doesn’t look before he leaps’) and often react without thinking from that place.

But what if we take a step back and challenge those ideas a little bit? We might be  sending a message of tolerance and curiosity about our children instead of boxing them in to a place where they might not be happy existing. Here are four questions to ask yourself the next time you jump to conclusions about your tween’s motives:

  1. What assumption am I making right now about my child and is it true? At this point, it’s easy for our brains to start listing off all of the supporting evidence for our assumptions. “Of course he’s the kamikaze! Look how many broken bones he’s had. Remember the time he moved all his furniture around and broke the bookcase?”
  2. Are there other instances I can think of that counteract or mitigate this label I’ve given my kid? Could it be that he is really athletic and determined to give 110% in sports and that accounts for the broken bones? Are there times when he has done things that seem risky and pulled them off brilliantly? Can I think of times when he has been appropriately cautious? 
  3. What is my gut reaction to the assumption I make about this child? Am I disgusted because he is nothing like me? Am I frightened because that’s exactly how I was as a kid and it eventually got me into trouble? What is my emotional response down deep and could it have something to do with how I treat this child when he makes a mistake?
  4. What would happen if I let go of that label and tried to see my kid as a person with many different attributes and abilities? How would he respond if I let go of this particular label and didn’t see him only through that lens? How might my reaction to him be different the next time he comes to me with a problem? Would our interaction be more satisfying if I simply remained curious about why he makes the choices he makes instead of condemning him for things I don’t really know? 

Happier Kids, Stronger Connections