Tag Archives: parenting

Building Trust: Process Improvement Style

Whether you’re an educator or parent of adolescents (or both), you know that teaching kids this age is much different than teaching younger kids. As kids mature, they want more say in how things are decided, what the rules are, and how to determine where the boundaries lie. If we shut them out of the process, we risk them shutting us out of their decision-making, too.

Helping kids this age develop the skills to be productive, happy, fully functioning adults is part of our job, and including them in the conversations about rules and systems is messy but vital. So when you notice that something isn’t working (curfew or classroom norms or family routines), it can be helpful to embark on some process improvement work.

Process Improvement

Each of these steps requires that all parties engage in a certain way in order to come to a better outcome. Everyone is an equal partner in this process, so building consensus is vital.

Understand/Assess requires everyone to lead with curiosity and a willingness to listen. It’s important to define what isn’t currently working and remind folks that just because something isn’t working doesn’t mean they’re to blame – it’s the process or system under scrutiny right now – not the individuals.

Recommend requires permission. Is everyone in agreement or ready to move forward with new ideas? Are there some folks who need to talk or listen more?

Test/Revise requires curiosity and a willingness to collaborate. This doesn’t have to be the final iteration – just an honest attempt to make things better. If everyone agrees to disagree with ideas instead of people, this will go more smoothly.

Agree/Plan requires honesty and dialogue. Where are the areas of alignment (what worked ok for everyone)? Where are the areas of divergence? Everyone involved should feel as though their ideas are equally important and their voices equally valid. Capitalize on the agreements to build a plan.

Communicate/Implement requires effort and careful listening. Does everyone understand the ground rules? Does everyone know what to expect as the new system is put in place? Does everyone have a role to play in setting things in motion?

Listen/Examine requires curiosity and honesty. If something isn’t working or anyone is feeling resentful or unheard, it’s important to know that. Are there unintended consequences of the new system?

If kids know that we’re willing to look closely at our rules and norms and engage them in a process of making things work better for everyone, they’re more likely to open up and feel empowered. Adolescents need to be reminded of their importance and the impact they can have in the systems that serve them as well as their responsibilities. Giving them opportunities to practice being part of the solution can often help diminish the amount of complaining and defiance they engage in and it helps them develop the skills they’ll need to work with others as they move farther and farther out in to the world. Adolescents are also often much more creative in their thinking than adults who have been entrenched in systems for years and it’s beneficial to us as parents and educators to be exposed to their ideas.

I’d love to hear how folks implement these ideas to change the way they do things with teenagers and get some feedback on how it worked.

Is it Really Procrastination?

We have all been accused of it at least once, and some people seem to be more prone to it than others. There is at least one TED talk about it, and dozens of books have been written on the subject. And then, today, an article in the New York Times about why we procrastinate and how to stop doing it.

But what if it’s not always task avoidance?

What if, sometimes, what other people see as procrastination is actually our natural process?

Have you ever had a deadline staring you down that freaked you out? Have you ever forced yourself to get to work on something only to produce something mediocre and not up to par and have to scrap it and start over? Have you ever worked on something over and over again and gotten incredibly frustrated because you knew it wasn’t your best work, but you HAVE A DEADLINE SO YOU HAVE TO KEEP AT IT?

On the flip side, have you ever waited until you were inspired or feeling in a flow state and created something with much less effort that was far superior to anything you’ve created before?

Deadlines are external things. Necessary, to be certain (at least in most cases), but they often have no relationship to our own internal learning or creative processes. There is no universal timeline that says how long it “should” take each person to craft a comprehensive report or write a novel or make a piece of art. External deadlines have an effect on our emotions, which, in turn, affect our cognitive functions. Simply put, the more worried we are about meeting that deadline, the less we are able to access the portion of our brains that solve puzzles, that work out complex ideas and synthesize ideas.

Additionally, while our culture reveres “work” and willpower, they can be misunderstood. Our minds are working all the time whether other people can see it or not. So going for a walk or organizing that spice drawer alphabetically can actually be in service to the ultimate project we are working on, if only because it allows our subconscious to be kicking away beneath the surface, making connections and playing with ideas. It may look like procrastination to other people, but often when we can give ourselves the space to do other things, we produce more amazing outcomes than if we had tapped in to willpower to work hours and hours every day and exhausted ourselves creating things we ended up having to revise.

For me, the important thing is to remember that I don’t have to justify my seeming inaction to anyone else. I’ve experienced enough cycles of work and subconscious processing in my life to trust it. I like to think about it as a growth cycle. I planted a seed and gave it what it needed – even though it looks like nothing is happening up above, at some point, all the work that happened down below culminates in a shoot poking up from the ground. It seems miraculous because the actual effort wasn’t witnessed, but it was really just the way I work best. The more pressure I put on myself to “look” like I’m working, the more frustrated I get with less than optimal results. Forcing the process only makes me unhappy and tired.

To be sure, we are all guilty of task avoidance from time to time. But maybe the next time you’re being hard on a student or your child or yourself because you assume they’re procrastinating, you can ask whether your conscious self is actually just not quite ready to produce work. It doesn’t mean there isn’t work happening below the surface, and when inspiration strikes, you might be surprised at the pace and easy flow that happens.

Tips for Parents: Conflict Resolution

I’m part of a task force that includes a number of different stakeholders with diverse backgrounds and opinions and desires and fears. We are doing important work and sometimes, it is amazing to me that we are able to move forward at all, given the complexity of the issue we’re trying to untangle and the range of ideas we bring to the table. And frankly, it wouldn’t happen if we didn’t have some amazing facilitators keeping us on track, pushing us out of our comfort zones, and sometimes using some pretty cool tools to help us get clarity.

One such tool that I loved seemed to me to be immediately applicable to the parent/teen relationship, if only because it helps get us to the places where we really need to talk.

We were divided in to small groups of four to do this exercise, but I think it’s doable with one parent and one child, or as an entire family unit.

The first step is to identify what the issue is: for example, curfew or social media activity.

Next, talk about where your ideas Align and where they Diverge. Make a column for each and lists underneath. No explanation is necessary at this point, it’s just a way to identify where you all agree and where the ideas are different. It may seem simple, but it can be eye-opening to truly understand where everyone’s head is, and it might be surprising to realize that you align in quite a few areas (ie. kids’ safety, kids’ social connections, etc.)

It may be that the only thing anyone agrees on is that the current status is not workable for anyone, and that’s ok. It’s a starting point, and by defining what it is that everyone thinks is going awry with this current situation, you may discover some additional insights.

When you’ve made your lists, start exploring the divergence. Look for barriers and opportunities – is there a way to honor the alignment and build a solution? Even if you can’t come to consensus about the solution, this is a great way to learn something about each other and more fully flesh out where each individual’s values and priorities lie.

Mindfulness in Real Life

When I took the pups for a walk this morning before most of the rest of the neighborhood woke up, I set out with the intention of simply paying attention to my surroundings, appreciating the flowers in my neighbors’ yards, the smell of the air after a hard rain last night, the sound of the birds talking to each other and their babies. It wasn’t long before I was distracted, however, which is akin to what happens sometimes when I sit down to meditate. Some people call it ‘monkey mind,’ but in this case, it was puppy mind. The dogs were pulling me in two different directions, each of them intent on tasting whatever they could – small sticks, bits of gravel, discarded wrappers and chewing gum they discovered on the ground. Over and over again, I tugged one back toward me with a harsh Leave It! I nearly laughed out loud when I realized that this is what I do to myself when my thoughts stray during meditation and I resolved to be more gentle. These puppies are doing what comes naturally to them – exploring their world with their mouths. Anger won’t change that. I can be more gentle in redirecting them (and simultaneously look forward to the day when I can take them for a walk and they will lift their heads up and look forward and walk smoothly instead of letting their noses lead the way in some winding treat scavenger hunt).

(The actual events of the walk did not change with this realization, but my response did.)

THIS IS MINDFULNESS. The recognition that there is a stimulus-response occurring and that I have the power to stretch out that hyphen between them, reflect on it a bit, and change the response to one that is more purposeful, more gentle, more positive without ever trying to change the stimulus.

As we rounded the next corner, I saw a neighbor up ahead walking to work. I didn’t want to shatter the quiet, so I just observed him as he walked into and then out of my field of vision. Once he had passed out of my sight, a small sedan came zipping down the street – going well over the speed limit – a young woman behind the wheel bopping her head to her music and peering in the mirror of her visor. I felt my blood pressure rise and lamented the fact that I was too far away from her to catch her eye and send her some kind of signal that she needed to Slow Down, for God’s sake!! My jaw clenched and my hands tightened around the leashes despite the fact that we were fully half a block from the street she had just raced down. I was furious.

Oh. Yeah. I was furious. THIS IS MINDFULNESS

Noticing the word furious bouncing around in my brain, coupled with my physiological responses and the urge to dispel the tension in my hands and face and chest by yelling or flipping her off was enough to stretch out that hyphen space.

 

Stimulus                                       –                                        Response

 

Was I really angry? Yes.

Why? Fear.

The sudden appearance of this fast moving car on the heels of seeing my neighbor walk along that road sent my mind racing. As soon as I saw her driving quickly down the street, seemingly not paying close attention to her surroundings, I conjured up images of a horrible accident. My mind spun off into horrible scenarios: her not being able to stop in time for the crosswalk right in front of her; not even seeing a small child or pet racing across the street to catch a ball or chase a squirrel; crashing sounds, twisted metal, glass shattering on the roadway.

Even though none of that happened, even though two blocks ahead of her was a stoplight that would surely be red this time of the morning, my conditioned response to fear of potential disaster was anger.

Well, what about next time? She clearly didn’t learn anything this time. She’ll most certainly drive that quickly down this road again and maybe next time it won’t be fine. I wish I could catch up with her and tell her to pay more attention. 

I watched as my mind created stories about her – she was out after a long night of partying and had to race home before her parents noticed she was gone. She was an entitled rich kid (she was driving a fairly new Audi sedan) who only thought about herself. She was looking in her visor to put on her makeup instead of watching the road.

I nearly laughed out loud at the elaborate tales my mind created in order to sustain my anger response. THIS IS MINDFULNESS

All of this happened in the space of about 30 seconds but by remaining curious and separate from my thoughts and physiological responses, I was able to move through the fear and anger and gently redirect my mind back to the walk, the flowers and the quiet and the dogs who were now wrestling with each other on the wet grass at my feet. Instead of holding on to that tightness, elaborating on that story, striding home to tell my kids about the crazy person who sped down the street and nearly killed the neighbor this morning, I took a deep breath and let my shoulders drop.

THIS IS MINDFULNESS.

I may still sit today with my eyes closed and clear my mind for a while in formal meditation. But even if I don’t, I am reaping the benefits of mindfulness practice by doing my best to extend it to the other parts of my life where my stimulus-response mechanism can have enormous effects on my mood and the way I interact with others.

As someone who teaches mindfulness to parents and teens, more important than sitting in formal meditation is this ability to unpack our immediate reactions and really pay attention to the stories we tell ourselves nearly every minute of every day. That kind of mindfulness has such an enormous impact on our relationships with others, and when you’re a teenager, relationships are the most important thing in your world. With any luck, teaching teens to examine the stories they tell about their world can lead to looking at the stories they tell themselves about who they are, and it can have an effect on their self-worth. Challenging those stories that are often untrue (but convenient) is the first step to really opening up and recognizing that so much of what we think is true is simply fabricated. And it gives us the space to relax, to be, and to create what we want in that place the old story left behind.

 

Back-To-School: When Anxiety Rears its Head

The end of summer is a difficult time for many teens, especially older teens who are entering their final years of high school and anticipating the challenges that will come with that, and first year college students who may be moving away from home for the first time. So how can kids think about anxiety in a way that will help them continue to move forward in the face of fear and often overwhelming feelings? My own personal experience with anxiety might help shed some light on this all-too-common issue.

The problem with anxiety is that it is insistent. It is conniving and coy and always trying to convince me that I have to do something – or, NOT do something. Everything is fear-based with anxiety and, in my case, as soon as I started listening, it was incessantly in my ear, my brain, buzzing. But over a period of years I learned that the best thing I could do when she showed up was nothing. I promised myself that I wouldn’t ever make big decisions out of fear, and it took many repetitions of this mantra and even written reminders on my laptop, my bathroom mirror, my desk to help me hear it in my head over the sound of Anxiety’s yapping.

My first instinct was to fight Anxiety, and it worked for a while, but it was so much work. I was exhausted and Anxiety just kept coming back. Everything changed when I learned that instead of combating it, I could stop, breathe, acknowledge its presence. I could listen to the frantic admonitions, the nay-saying, the fear-mongering, and let them pass right through me. I started to pretend that they were the ramblings of some sad soul on the subway. I nodded with sympathy, heard Anxiety out, and released it all. I don’t have to believe any of it. I get to understand where Anxiety is coming from and honor it and also not follow its advice. Anxiety will tell you that it wants what is best for you, that it will keep you safe, but that path keeps you small and afraid. It keeps you in the dark – isolated and lonely. True, I might be safe, but that’s not how I want to live, and I’m pretty sure, if your kids are honest with themselves, that’s not the life they want either.

THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT ANXIETY

It’s important to remember that Anxiety isn’t  me. Anxiety is afraid and it always will be – it is literally the only reason Anxiety exists, but it is not why I’m here. I have other reasons for being, and while Anxiety is loud and compelling and jacks up my heart rate and makes my palms sweaty and my head spin, it is possible to gradually separate myself from Anxiety. I can hear its words as though I’m underwater – muffled and distorted – I can let them pass through me and not stick.

It is also important to remember that Anxiety hates being ignored. It will come back again and again. I know this. But I also know that everything I’ve ever done that I’m proud of, that was worth it, that gave me joy, was in spite of it. Going to college. Getting married. Having a baby. Those were all things that paralyzed me, that made Anxiety stand up and say, “What do you think you’re doing? You don’t know how to do this! This is terrifying!” And I believed that some of the time, but I did those things anyway, and I don’t regret it. It is possible to move forward, step by step, with Anxiety right next to you, yammering in your ear that you couldn’t do this, sweating and heart pounding.

Maybe most important, Anxiety is quiet when you’re busy – when you’re doing your thing. Because you’re calling it on its BS. You’re proving it wrong. You’re showing it that you CAN do this, that you WON’T mess it up, that you are capable of going out there and living your fullest life. That’s also why it’s loudest before bed and right when you wake up – because you’re chilling and not out doing, but if you can work on silencing it (or acknowledging, listening, and dismissing) at those times, it gets much easier.

KEY THINGS TO REMEMBER

*Know who you are. Know what you want. Know what you’re willing to do to get there. Anxiety doesn’t like clarity. The more clear you are, the less Anxiety will pipe up.

*All you have to do is the next right thing. When Anxiety is chatting away in your ear, it’s tempting to believe that you have to have it all figured out, that you have to have a plan. But, to be honest, there is never a point in your life where you have to have it all figured out. When you’re dealing with anxiety, the best thing to do is take the next step forward. And the next. And the next.

*Bonus points for noticing the things that feel right, that make you smile. Gratitude is a powerful antidote to Anxiety. If you get immersed in school and you start to enjoy yourself, do yourself a favor and take a moment to chalk one up for you and rub it in Anxiety’s face. You’ve got this.

*More bonus points for patting yourself on the back every time you go to class, talk to someone, join an exercise group, get out of bed. Those are monumental acts when Anxiety is riding shotgun.

Charged Conversations: How to Keep it from Getting Personal

Most of us don’t like conflict, so when we go in to a meeting or gathering where we know there will be disparate ideas and positions, we worry that things might get ugly. Maybe it’s the annual budget allocation summit, or a discussion about social justice or even a conversation with your teen about driving rules or curfew – any of those scenarios can go sideways pretty quickly if two people have different viewpoints or values. But if we want to have a constructive dialogue and actually make some progress toward a shared goal, we need to keep things on track. Here’s one way to approach it that keeps things from getting personal:

Disagree with the idea, not the person.

It is sometimes hard to separate the two, because of the way we’re conditioned, but it’s really important if you want to keep the conversation going. Challenge yourself to change the way you talk about something you disagree with and you might be pleasantly surprised.

Instead of saying something like, “How could you say that?” or “You’re wrong,” or “You’re a horrible person. Don’t you know _________________?”  try to disentangle the idea from the person who suggested it.

This might look like, “Hmm, that idea doesn’t really jive with my personal experience because __________,” or “Here’s a different idea that I think is valid and deserves some attention.”

Yes, the person who suggested X did so for a reason (maybe their values or their life experience led them to it), but if what you’re after is a solution that works for everyone, it’s important to remember that we all have slightly different values and life experiences, and if we can extract the ideas and vet them on their own merits without attacking the idea generators personally, the conversation stays more focused.

This is especially hard when we come in with preconceived notions about who might pose which solution and why, but if we can set those things aside with an eye toward moving the conversation forward, we can be more efficient. In most cases, whether or not you personally like the people you’re working with on challenging issues doesn’t really matter unless you make it personal by too closely associating them with their thoughts. Helping others see things from a different perspective is easier if we are simply trying to get them to look at new ideas, instead of trying to change who they are as a person.

I used this tactic the other day on a local social media forum where folks were talking about the issue of homelessness in our neighborhood. I was tempted at one point to lash out at someone who was characterizing all of the homeless folks as “junkies” and “losers who choose homelessness,” but I resisted. We obviously didn’t end up solving the issue, but we were able to have a productive dialogue without alienating each other or leaving with hard feelings and since I have to live here, I’m pretty  happy about that.

What is Non-Violent Communication and Why Does it Matter?

Bhuston at English Wikipedia [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0), CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
One of the foundations of The SELF Project’s parent and student curriculum is non-violent communication. For people who haven’t encountered this term before, it can seem a bit strange, but it is an important piece of understanding how to have strong, mutually respectful, healthy, compassionate relationships.

So what is it?

The term itself was coined by Marshall Rosenberg, a psychologist, whose life’s work revolved around the notion of compassionate connection and individual needs. He believed that if we could distill our communication with others down to which of our needs we were trying to get met, we could then begin to find strategies to meet those needs in concert with others rather than at odds with them.

Non-violent communication does not involve guilt or shame, power or control tactics, or manipulation. It is a way of communicating where each individual is sincerely interested in the needs of the other and validates their right to have those needs. It also involves taking personal responsibility for one’s feelings, actions, and sometimes, coming to terms with the fact that your needs cannot or won’t be met.

Why does it matter?

As teachers and parents, we generally assume a level of power and authority that can lead us to set up communication patterns with children that are rooted in violent communication (that is, shame/blame, power/control, manipulation). And while those tactics might work to keep things peaceful for a while, they aren’t long-term strategies for creating trusting relationships.

Threats of punishment, taking away privileges as a punishment, tit-for-tat rhetoric or behavior, and “because I said so” are all examples of this kind of violent communication. They might be effective at squashing behaviors short-term, but they won’t foster relationship or ultimately teach the child skills that will serve them as adults.

Non-violent communication is also about really understanding where someone else is coming from. Because it involves being really curious about what someone’s behaviors or rhetoric is trying to say about what needs they have that aren’t being met, it fosters compassion. I often use the phrases “hurt people hurt people” and “where there is bad behavior, there is pain.” Both of those are reflective of the notion that we express ourselves negatively when we need something we aren’t getting. Using non-violent communication techniques can help parents and teachers begin to understand what is at the root of certain behaviors or relationship dynamics.

We have all had at least one ‘a-ha’ moment when our assumptions about why a kid was acting out were proven to be horribly wrong. I once knew a mom whose (pre-verbal) toddler was throwing a massive tantrum and she got increasingly frustrated and angry as she tried nearly everything to calm him down – food, drink, cuddling, shushing, threatening. He was arching his back and pulling at his overalls and causing quite the scene. It was only when she finally laid him down to check his diaper that she realized he had somehow slipped a fork down inside his overalls and the tines were stabbing him in the genitals. No wonder he was screaming!

These techniques, when used by parents and teachers, are also a good way to teach kids how to get curious about their own feelings and motivations. So often, we react to pain or frustration in less than desirable ways without even really thinking about it, but the earlier we can learn to identify what is behind those strong feelings, the better. We will be able to express ourselves to people without them becoming defensive or angry and are more likely to get our needs met in the end. It’s an important life skill to have.

Think about how much easier your life might be if your co-worker or boss was able to come to you and say, “I am feeling really anxious right now because I need this report to be absolutely perfect. I know you’re on a deadline, but would you consider helping me by proofreading it?” That is non-violent communication. Unfortunately, there aren’t many adults who talk to others that way – especially when they’re stressed and anxious. What would it be like if more people did? The agitated person in line behind you, the police officer who is worried you pose a threat, your mother-in-law…. Don’t we want our kids to have this skill, too?

It also teaches us how to negotiate by helping find common ground. Because we all have needs, if both the adult and the adolescent can get really clear on what those needs are, they can also begin to work out whether the strategies each person has been using to meet those needs are at odds. If they are, there’s a chance to get creative and work together to find a solution that works for everyone.

The more we can find ways to work together to get all our needs met, the fewer stand-offs we’ll have. The fewer kids will get kicked out of class or their house. 

Questions? Please comment below and I’ll do my best to answer them. If you want to know about NVC more in depth, check out any of the books by Marshall Rosenberg.

Why Even Adults Need Social Emotional Education

So much of the rhetoric I see on social media and even in news commentary these days leads me to believe that we’ve done ourselves a great disservice by not including SEL in our formal school systems before now. One of the most important indicators of mental health and acuity is the ability to think beyond black and white and, if debates around gun violence and sexual harassment, homelessness and social programs are any indication, we are a nation of people who struggle with that skill on many levels.

Many of my friends and peers grew up in households where authority was King; where parents were in control of everything until the kids turned 18 and left. Others grew up in homes with one parent who struggled to manage things by themselves and often gave up, leaving kids to their own devices. Many in both of these scenarios grew up without a notion of unconditional love – there was a sense that if one didn’t toe the line (or got caught), the punishment went beyond being grounded to losing their parents’ love and affection.

If I don’t hold everything together, things will fall apart.

When I first became a parent (and for years afterward), this was my mantra. And on one level, it makes perfect sense. Except that it assumes that the world revolves around me and it puts an awful lot of pressure on me to make everything perfect all the time. The truth is that most things hold themselves together just fine much of the time, and even if they do fall to pieces, it’s not necessarily my fault. And yet, I know so many parents who feel this way – that they have to do everything “Right” in order for life to be ok. I watched my father embody this mantra every single day of his life, believing that if he just did things the way they were supposed to be done, life would go smoothly. The flip side of this is that when things went sideways, he was certain there was some answer out there that he just hadn’t discovered yet, so he had to keep trying. It kept him from learning from his mistakes and improving on his techniques over time because he was sure there was just something amazing right around the corner. It also kept him doubting himself and feeling like a failure because he hadn’t found it yet.

He also struggled with giving his children unconditional love. He taught us that he would love us and shower us with praise if we didn’t screw up. And when we did make mistakes (just like we are designed to), he withheld his affection to show us how disappointed he was in us. In that way, we learned that love was a commodity, not a certainty. We learned either/or instead of both/and.

What we learn from social-emotional education is how to step beyond questions of Right and Wrong, Success and Failure, Reward and Punishment. One of the hallmarks of adult brain development is integration, the ability to hold two seemingly opposed ideas or feelings simultaneously. That means that I can be tremendously hurt by something one of my kids did or said and express love and care for them at the same time. I can explain to them why their behavior was inappropriate and out of bounds and acknowledge that the reason they acted that way was because they were in pain. I can express empathy for their struggle and impose boundaries on them simultaneously.

Most of our public conversations center around ideas of Right and Wrong. Our political system is divided in to two opposing parties whose representatives stand for seemingly incongruent ideals. Our popular culture is peppered with sayings like “you’re either with us or against us.” These messages are reinforced in headlines that tell us what we “should” or “shouldn’t” do, in the way we talk about pro- and anti- (gun, vaccines, abortion, death penalty), and in our schools’ Zero Tolerance policies around bullying and hate speech. Instead of taking up the mantle of helping our young people learn how to integrate, we are showing them how to further entrench themselves in black and white thinking. I am encouraged that there are more schools whose culture is beginning to embrace social-emotional learning and restorative justice practices and I hope it continues at a record pace. And I think it’s well past time that the adults in this country spend more time and energy learning these things, too, if only so that we can lead by example for our kids.

When Anxiety Shows up as Anger

If you have a child or student who struggles with anxiety, it is vital to remember that, in adolescents, anxiety can show up very differently than it does in younger children. As I’ve noted before, one incredibly important mantra to repeat when a child acts out is

where there is bad behavior, there is pain.

Yes, even in teenagers. Even if we think they should “know better.” And for individuals who are experiencing anxiety, there is an even more compelling reason why we can’t expect them to act or speak in calm, rational ways when they are in the throes of a strong emotional response.

Often, for people who aren’t feeling anxious, anxiety reactions can seem out of proportion to the situation. But we have to remember that for the person who is triggered, the reaction is very real. Take the example of the war veteran walking down the street one day when a car backfires nearby. Anyone on the street will likely startle at the sound, but as soon as they look around and assess the situation, they are able to recognize what the source of the noise was and temper their response. But for the person who associates that sound with something terrifying and/or life-threatening, that sound triggers a series of chemical responses that overrides their ability to be rational in the moment. Their heart begins racing, they have a huge adrenaline spike, and their brain tells them to duck or run. It’s survival mode. The reaction is all in the context.

This is exactly what it’s like for people with anxiety, and for adolescents, because their amygdala (emotion center of the brain) is in charge, any fight or flight response is magnified, and that is what we as educators and parents need to remember when we’re in conflict with kids like this.

Over time, we may be able to predict what kinds of things activate this kind of anxiety reaction in our kids. Maybe it’s a certain tone of voice or a slamming door or yelling. It could be a threat of punishment or the silent treatment. Ask them in a moment of calm and you may be surprised at what you hear.

KEY REMINDERS:

  • their experience is theirs and it’s totally valid. Even if you don’t understand it or it feels disproportionate to you, downplaying it or telling them that the way they feel is silly will only make things worse;
  • the fight/flight response is very compelling. If they feel like they need to walk away from a conflict (flee), forcing them to stay will give them no alternative but to fight;
  • learning can’t take place in a brain flooded with emotion. When someone is in the middle of an anxiety reaction, you will not be able to reason with them, and it’s not their fault. They are physiologically incapable of processing what you’re saying or doing with their rational brain;
  • you’re the adult here. Even if this teenager in front of you looks and acts and demands to be treated like a little adult, they aren’t yet. Their brain won’t be fully mature until they’re around the age of 25. That means that they can’t be expected to hold other people accountable for their behaviors, have strong personal boundaries, and be able to articulate exactly what they’re feeling yet. It is up to us as the adults in their lives who care about them to create a safe enough space for them to talk to us, understand that when they’re acting out they are expressing some need to us, and help them figure out better ways to deal with their frustrations and anxieties.

Questions? Leave them in the comments section. I’m happy to explain further if necessary.

Next time – the rules my family came up with for having constructive disagreements with adolescents.

 

The Difference Between Conflict & Disagreement

Photo by George Eastman House

Most of us can think about how conflict is different from disagreement. We have folks we can peacefully disagree with on certain issues and it doesn’t affect our relationship. But what is it that turns a difference of opinion in to an outright argument or nasty fight?

Power.

When we’re in a philosophical discussion with someone else about a particular issue, if we don’t let our emotions take over, we are generally able to have a conversation that allows for different ideas. But as soon as we start to feel personally attacked or fear that the other party is going to try and force us to act in a way we don’t want to, things get ugly. There are two things at play here. The first is the way our brains work.

When the emotion centers of our brains begin to really activate, the part of our brain that reasons goes quiet. In addition, when we are strongly emotional, we are literally unable to process auditory input (listen) as well. We stop being able to listen when our emotions take over. That’s a problem when we are having a discussion with someone whose ideas are very different from our own because in order to have a productive exchange, everyone needs to feel heard. At this point, it’s pretty hard to learn from the other person and generally, we let things devolve to a point where the objective becomes winning instead of learning. when we let adrenaline take over, we are afraid to lose. That leads us to the second issue of power.

If the goal is winning, you’ve opened the door to a power struggle and whichever person is louder or more tenacious or had more power in the first place is likely to prevail. This is a particular problem when it comes to difficult discussions between parents and teens or teachers and teens because the adult in the situation almost always starts out in a position of power, whether they acknowledge it or not. And when you’re faced with a power differential, it’s a safe bet that there will be conflict instead of disagreement. The person who is at a disadvantage will always have that niggling fear in the back of their mind that what they say doesn’t ultimately matter because they don’t have enough influence. They may also be afraid to be completely honest because of the repercussions that might come. Will they be grounded? Have their phone or car privileges taken away? Be put on academic probation or suspension?

So, what now? Here are some tips for either de-escalating from conflict back to disagreement or for preventing conflict in the first place when you know there’s a difference of opinion with a teen:

  1. If you’re the person in power, call it out and do your best to set an intention for the conversation that is about learning, not about consequences or winning. I’m genuinely curious about your thoughts on this. I will do my best not to judge or tell you you’re wrong. I just need to understand.
  2. Try to keep emotion out of it. Remember, the angrier/more frustrated you get, the harder it will be for your brain to actually process what the other person is saying. If you get triggered, name it and let it go. Wow, that made me feel really sad/angry. I’m going to try not take that personally and ask you more questions about it instead. Remember that the goal is to learn, not to make the other person feel bad or stupid or change their behavior, necessarily.
  3. Agree to table the conversation if the other person is really emotional. Sometimes, we need to walk away for a bit in order to let the feelings subside and then circle back around. Emotions are contagious, so if one of you is really ramped up, the likelihood that the other person will match that emotional intensity is pretty high. Can we talk about this later? I really want to get where you’re coming from but it seems like it’s too raw right now. 

Adolescents need their relationships with adults to evolve over time to give them more power and to listen more. Not only does this help them become more independent, but it models for them how to have adult conversations about difficult topics, and it empowers them to honor their own perspectives and ideas. By the time they get to college and/or the workforce, they will need to have the skills to have disagreements without turning them into conflict.