Why Labeling is Harmful

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We all do it – reduce ourselves or another person down to a label. We learn at an early age how to call someone we disagree with a name – “jerk,” “idiot,” “monster.” Eventually, we learn to aim it at ourselves when we make a mistake, and by the time we’re teenagers or adults, it is such a habit that we often don’t even think about it. But it is harmful in so many ways for so many reasons.

  1. It shuts down an opportunity for understanding or forgiveness. Defining someone by their most recent mistake sends the message that we’ve already made our mind up about them – that we aren’t interested in spending any time or energy hearing them out or trying to see things from their perspective.
  2. It effectively ends the conversation. I don’t know about you, but one of two things happens when someone calls me a name: I get defensive and angry or I dismiss them entirely and walk away. Either way, I’ve gotten derailed by the label and am no longer interested in dialogue or connection.
  3. It can create a self-fulfilling prophecy that has ripple effects. This is especially dangerous when we are directing the name-calling at ourselves. “I’m so stupid!” “I am a total klutz.” Here’s the thing – the human brain LOVES a story with a beginning, middle, and end that has all the loose ends tied up. It’s like a puzzle, and when that final piece is tapped into place, our brains release dopamine (the feel-good chemical) as a reward. The scary thing is that our brains release this hormone whether or not the puzzle actually makes sense. It is just happy that the puzzle is complete. So when we make declarative statements like “I am a ________” or “She is such a __________,” we are rewarded. We have made sense of the world. Our brains can now relax and no longer activate the portions that engage in creativity, curiosity, or interest. We have made a decision and we are done. So in the case where we’ve told ourselves that this other person is a waste of space for whatever reasons, we have effectively given ourselves permission to justify ignoring them or their point of view because the puzzle is complete. If I’ve told myself that I suck at math, I no longer have to try, and even if I did, it would be half-hearted and without the portion of my brain that utilizes innovative thinking, which means it’s harder to understand which means I struggle with math which …. You can see the circular reinforcement that happens.

So now what?

Label the feeling, not the person.

When we express ourselves to someone in a way that tells them how their behavior affected us (“I feel really awful that you didn’t tell me the truth”) versus calling them a name (“You are such a liar”), we invite dialogue and conversation. That person might still feel a little defensive, but they aren’t boxed in so tightly as they would be if they heard that we’ve already made up our minds about them.

We are also affirming the relationship when we express our feelings. We let the other person know that the connection is in tact, and we can ask questions to try and understand their choices better. We may even find ourselves pleasantly surprised by their explanation. Often, we learn that we were making assumptions or didn’t know the whole story.

To be sure, this requires a lot more courage than simply calling someone a name does, but the rewards are a lot bigger, too. Especially when we implement this strategy with ourselves. If we can screw up and say, “I am so frustrated that I am having trouble with this task,” instead of “Jeez, I’m dumb!” we can give ourselves more space and creative energy to focus on it in a different way, and it sounds a lot nicer. And if there’s anyone we ought to practice being nicer to, it’s generally ourselves.

When Our Compassion Fails

I’m working with a group of high school students on compassion. Last week, I asked them all to think about a time when they struggled to feel compassion for someone else. Three students shared their stories with the group and right away, I noticed a pattern.

Each of them was talking about someone they were in relationship with – a close friend or family member.

Each of them highlighted a situation where this person they thought they could trust seemingly betrayed that trust.

When I pointed this out, there were a lot of nodding heads in the circle. We have all experienced a time like that – an instance where someone who loves us and who we think we can rely on does or says something that makes it hard for us to do anything but react in anger or despair.

So do we have to have compassion for that person? There was a robust discussion about whether we are obligated in some way to see their side, to understand where they are coming from.

The short answer is, yes, if you want to remain in relationship with that person. It is absolutely necessary to try to move past our anger or disappointment and express ourselves with compassion in order to maintain a connection.

The rest of the hour was spent trying to figure out how we do that, and we quickly realized that one of the most powerful tools we have is mindfulness. Because practicing self-awareness and naming our emotions helps us to create a space between anger and action, it offers us a way to step back and begin to explore whether we can have compassion instead.

We ran out of time before we could begin to explore whether there are situations that come up where having compassion for others could put us in a more vulnerable position, where we can be betrayed over and over again. The only way these excited students would agree to stop debating that point was when I promised that this week, we will spend our time talking about compassion and personal boundaries, and whether the two are incompatible. (spoiler alert: I don’t think they are. In fact, I think that in order to have any self-compassion, we need to have strong personal boundaries.)

To be sure, there are endless more conversations we can have about compassion, and I intend to have them. For now, I’m thrilled that the students are leading the way with their concerns and ideas and that they are feeling engaged and excited about the work we’re doing.

Please feel free to continue the discussion in the comments if you have ideas to share!

Tips for Teachers: Why Shame and Blame Are Counterproductive

Sometimes, calling a student out in front of their peers seems unavoidable, but here are a few reasons why it’s important to resist doing it whenever possible.

  1. There are few things worse to an adolescent than being seen as inferior to their classmates. During this time of increased social awareness, teens desperately want to be regarded positively by peers. Being part of a tribe is on par with basic survival to most adolescents, and when they are shamed publicly, many find it incredibly difficult to recover from. If a trusted adult is the one doing the shaming, the likelihood of a positive relationship surviving that is very low. Most teens won’t rise to a challenge posed by an adult they don’t respect or trust, so if the goal is to help a student improve, shaming is far more damaging than productive.
  2. Strong emotions interfere with our ability to hear and listen.  The higher our emotional intensity, the less able our brains are to process language completely. When we are embarrassed, ashamed, or angry, the portion of our brains that are responsible for listening and learning are circumvented or muted. Strong emotions activate the more primitive parts of our brain and we need our prefrontal cortex in order to learn.
  3. The more self-critical we are, the more self-absorbed we are. While it’s true that most teachers are motivated by helping students become better, if we fail to acknowledge a student’s positive attributes, we are actually contributing to their isolation. Starting with a student’s strengths and encouraging them to build on those things can help them become more internally motivated to improve. When someone points out what we’ve done wrong, we tend to focus on all of the other ways in which we don’t measure up and we close down instead of forging alliances and finding support.
  4. Teens need adult-teen relationships they can trust. In order to get the most out of their classes, teens and teachers need to cooperate and collaborate, but if a teen doesn’t trust their teacher or has formed a negative opinion of them, they will be more likely to give themselves permission to check out. Often, teachers will sense this and continue to push or call out these students which ultimately ends up making things worse. If, instead, the student is enlisted as an active partner in their own learning, we can begin to make some headway.

Meeting teens where they are is incredibly important. Recognizing that they are highly susceptible to emotions – even if they don’t show it – and planning our interactions with that in mind can make working with a struggling student much more positive for everyone. Start with the positives, ask them where they struggled and could have used more support, and work together to make a plan. We need to approach students with respect and set aside our assumptions if we are to really help them get the most out of their educational experience, and they  need to be part of the process. The more they understand our wish for them to succeed, the more they will engage.

Important Elements of Developmental Relationships with Teens

I’ve combined information from three different sources for this post – The Search Institute , a study on developmental relationships, and a presentation by Education Northwest I was lucky enough to attend.

Last time, I wrote about the importance of parent/teen or teacher/teen relationships being evolutionary. Now that you know the why, here are some things to consider about what that kind of a relationship looks like.

According to The Search Institute, there are five types of relationships teens need in order to thrive. Many of these can be provided by the same people, and often these people are not the teen’s parents. These crucial elements are:

  1. Caring – who, in this teen’s life, is dependable, warm, offers encouragement, listens to the teen and helps build their confidence?
  2. Growth – who sees this teen’s potential, holds them accountable for their choices, and helps them reflect on their mistakes and define areas for improvement?
  3. Support – who guides them through systems they encounter, empowers them to find their own path, advocates for them and helps them stay on track?
  4. Shares Power – who respects this teen, includes them in important decisions, collaborates with them and gives them opportunities to lead?
  5. Expands Possibilities – who inspires this teen to dream, exposes them to new ideas, and connects them to other people who can inform and assist them?

For any of these to feel authentic, the teen must feel as though the adult truly cares for them and they must care for that adult as well. Over time, there must also be a gradual increase in the amount of responsibility, challenge, and power the teen is allowed as their confidence builds.

So, where do you begin? Ask teens if they feel as though they have relationships with people in each of these five categories. Are there areas where they simply can’t identify anyone? Can you, as their parent or teacher, help them find someone who might fill that niche?

*It is important as a parent to make sure you aren’t offended if your child doesn’t choose you as their go-to person for some of these areas. It is a vital part of their development to be able to form attachments to people other than you as they grow up and become more interdependent.

Here is a pdf of a questionnaire you can give your teen that will help them think about where they might want to shore up some of their adult relationships. developmental-relationship-questionnaire

 

Parent/Teacher Teen Relationships: Widening the Web

photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

They look like little adults.

They act like little adults (sometimes).

They demand to be treated like adults.

They aren’t little adults. They are teens, and it can be really confusing to decide how to interact with them from an adult perspective. We don’t want to coddle them because it’s important for them to begin solving their own problems and taking responsibility for themselves. But the truth is, they don’t have the benefit of life experience or the neurodevelopmental maturity to handle complicated situations yet, so what’s a parent or teacher to do?

There is a lot of talk about independence when it comes to teens, but I’d like to challenge that concept, if I may. None of us is truly independent. Can you replace your home’s water heater on your own if it fails? Can you purchase a car without a loan from the bank or credit union? If someone close to you is struggling with a difficult life event, do you reach out in support or let them deal with it alone? I’d like to think that what we really want for ourselves and our teens is to become interdependent instead – to know that over time we have built a web of trusted people and systems that we can rely on when we need help and to whom we can offer our unique talents as well.

So what does that have to do with adult-teen relationships? It requires us, as adults, to become very strategic with regard to how we interact with teens. It means that we take the view that our relationship is a dynamic and evolving one that allows for gradual changes in the balance of power. Over time, as our students and children show us that they are more competent and confident, we can allow them to have more say in how we interact with them and how they interact with others. We can ratchet down the tangible supports and help them determine when they need to ask for help.

It also requires us to acknowledge that a healthy web of relationships includes a variety of people who support, challenge, network and care for our kids. If teens don’t have a group of adults – be they teachers, parents, mentors, extended family, a boss at work – who provide these important pieces of the web, they will look to their peers to fill the gaps.  While peers play a vital role in our teens’ lives, they don’t have the life experience or emotional stability that most adults do, so it is incumbent upon us to check in from time to time and see where our students may need shoring up.

It can be incredibly difficult to engage in this kind of relationship with teens, since they are driven to push away from adults who have historically acted as parents or were in a position of power, but it is important that we stay connected and help them determine which of the other people around them can be trusted to help them become the people they strive to be. There is a great deal of research that demonstrates the significance of teen-adult relationships with regard to healthy social-emotional development and if parents and educators can find ways to have evolutionary, progressive relationships with teens, we can have an incredible impact on their ability to navigate the world with confidence and support.

Next Time: Tips on how to build a developmental relationship with a teen

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 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.

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?