Tips for Parents: How Gratitude Combats Entitlement

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5144062

One of those days where nothing seems to be going your way – we’ve all been there. You get up late, spill your coffee, remember that assignment that’s due at the last minute, trip over the dog on your way out the door. I used to wonder why some days were that way, continually spiraling out of control with one thing after the next falling to pieces.

These days, I’m convinced it’s a matter of attitude. What we pay attention to in any given moment seems to grow in importance. That’s not to say that there aren’t some things that are more vital and deserve more attention than others, but for the most part, we can choose how to see our lives – as a rolling disaster or as a pretty charmed life with some mishaps thrown in.

If we expect our lives to go smoothly, we will almost always be disappointed. Often that expectation translates to entitlement – we deserve to have a particular level of calm and, because we are “good” people and work hard, we are owed this courtesy. Because of the way teens’ brains are wired (to think of themselves as the center of the universe), that can mean that they get angry with their parents when things go wrong or turn out to be more difficult than they imagined. This can lead to excuses (I didn’t do it because it shouldn’t have been that hard. I shouldn’t have to do ‘X’.) and shortcuts. When this attitude persists over time, it can mean that your teen sees things through smoke-colored glasses – every thing that doesn’t come easily to them or work out perfectly is call for anger or frustration. So how do we, as parents, help mitigate that and bring our teens back to a place where they are happier and more appreciative of the life they have? In a word, gratitude.

While it’s true that often we have no control over the things that go wrong in our lives, we also have no control over some of the most beautiful and gracious gifts that come to us. The more we can help our teens learn to pay attention to those things, the more they can understand that there is so much good out there in life that surrounds them all the time. While it may feel trite to notice a gorgeous sunrise when you’re failing your history class, it is also an important part of adolescent brain development to exercise that part of the brain that allows for the simultaneous existence of beauty and struggle. This is one of the executive functions that teens really need to develop in order to move beyond concrete, black-and-white thinking. And as they are doing it, they can begin to alter their perceptions of the world. They can shift their thinking from believing that the world is a place that owes them a certain level of calm and entertainment to seeing their relationships and the complexities of the world around them that support them in all that they do as something that is amazing and wonderful.

More on gratitude and gratitude practices can be found here.

Mindful Parenting and Conflict Resolution with Non-Violent Communication

By Nallive Andrea Pestaña – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

If you are parenting an adolescent, you have conflict. Maybe not all the time, but it is inevitable that there will be times when the two of you don’t see eye-to-eye. It may even feel as though you don’t live on the same planet from time to time. The good news is that mindfulness can play an important role in handling disagreements with your t(w)een, especially when you use it in tandem with a communication style known as non-violent communication.

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg wrote extensively about the benefits of non-violent communication (NVC), especially as it affects our most personal, intimate relationships. One of the foundations of NVC is learning to communicate our needs to the other person, and while this may sound simple, it takes a little bit of practice and, I think, mindfulness.

The first thing we as parents need to do when we think about approaching our kids with a topic that will almost certainly lead to conflict (missed curfew, grades not what we expected them to be, that speeding ticket, etc.) is ask ourselves the following questions before we ever talk to them:

  1. How do I want to connect with my child? (Am I going in to this with no desire to connect at all – ie. do I just want to lay down the law? Or am I really hoping for a situation to show them that I am supportive of them, that this is not about power or control, but about trust and love?)
  2. What do I need* from this situation?

*Often, “need” is a pretty huge category of things for us as parents. We tend to lump our desires and strategies for getting what we want or need in with “needs.” For example, we might say to our child, I need you to ask me for permission to go anywhere after school that isn’t straight home. That is a strategy. Perhaps the real need here is for us to feel as though we are in a trusting relationship with our loved ones. Our true needs are either physical (food, shelter, air), or emotional/spiritual (support, honesty, to feel important). One way to decide whether we are incorrectly characterizing needs is to ask whether what we say we need is tied to a particular person or action. If it is, it’s not a need, it’s a strategy.

It is also important to recognize that our kids are really not capable of making these determinations quite yet, so very often, in our conversations with them, their “needs” won’t be actual needs. That’s ok, albeit frustrating, and it’s up to us as parents to model for them just how to have an NVC discussion.

According to Rosenberg, the four elements (in this order) of positive conflict resolution are:

OBSERVATION Tell your child what the triggering incident was. What did you see happening? What are the facts as you know them? {It is critically important here to avoid analysis, criticism or judgment. If your child feels attacked, blamed, judged, or if they think you’re making assumptions, your chance to connect is lost.}

FEELING Own your reaction. Tell them how you felt upon learning this information or witnessing this situation. Were you scared? Angry? Sad? {Avoid using language like “you scared me” or “do you know how that made me feel?” This part may feel a little clinical at first, but stick to stimulus-response language.}

NEED This is where you state what you need. Do you need to feel like your child is safe? Do you need to feel as though you are important? Again, be careful not to prescribe certain actions or conditions. This is about what you need. {This is also where you make it clear to your child that they are under no obligation to meet that need. I know. You’re saying, WHAT??!! We can’t present our needs as demands or emotional blackmail if we are hoping to connect in a meaningful way. The good news is that this goes both ways. You don’t have to see your child’s statement of need as a demand for action, either.}

REQUEST This is where you get to ask for a certain set of responses or behaviors. {Try to phrase it as a request: Would you be willing to …? Now, because your child has the context of how you feel and why you feel that way, along with an understanding of what you need, they can fully consider what it means to you to have that request fulfilled.}

There are some difficult pieces to this. First of all, it’s really tempting to talk consequences. If you don’t fulfill my request, you’ll be grounded/lose car privileges, have to cancel that sleepover… For younger kids, those boundaries are perfectly acceptable, but if what you are trying to do is build a strong, mutually-respectful, adult-like relationship with your adolescent, this is the best way to invest in that right now. They will disappoint you, and it takes a lot of practice, but they will eventually learn how to communicate in this way. As Dr. Rosenberg said, “This is not about compromise, it is about creating an environment where everyone’s needs get met.”

Another challenge is learning to not take your child’s rejection of your request or inability to hear your needs as important personally. When someone says they can’t or won’t meet your needs right now and you feel rejected, it makes future interactions incredibly hard. Remember that that response has everything to do with them and nothing to do with whether your needs or feelings are valid. 

It is really tempting to tell our kids what we don’t want when we are feeling angry or upset. I don’t want to see you get hurt, I don’t want you to ruin the rest of your life by not getting into a good college… Unfortunately, when we tell someone what we don’t want, this does one of two things – stops them from focusing on the conversation at hand because they are performing mental gymnastics trying to figure out how you leapt to that conclusion, or it makes them defensive and defiant and determined to prove you wrong by doing that exact thing and showing you that it won’t end up with them hurt/dead/suspended. 

It is also hard to extend the same courtesy to your child by really listening to their observations, feelings, needs, and requests. It takes a great deal of self-control and self-awareness to set aside your emotional reactions and really hear what they’re saying (or parse it out as they yell or cry or accuse you of horrible things). But the more we can employ these tactics when we have difficult conversations with our kids, the more we can create an environment where everyone feels heard and believes that their needs are important. Questions? Ask them in the comments and I’ll do my best to help. 

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

Teaching Teens to Breathe

calm

This is so true. In fact, in my house, telling someone to calm down almost always has the opposite effect.

So what works?

Breathing. To be certain, I would never substitute a suggestion to breathe for a suggestion to ‘calm down.’ The message is the same – that the other person’s stress is making me uncomfortable and I need them to stop. What I’m saying is that if, in calm times, we can teach our kids to use their breath to calm themselves, they may remember that technique in the heat of emotion and choose to use it themselves.

There are numerous studies that show that breathing in specific ways calms both our physiological response to stress and the racing of our minds. Just type “breathing relaxation” into your computer’s search engine and you will find citations galore.

It sounds silly to ‘teach’ our kids how to breathe, but there are particular methods that work best for stress reduction. Here are a few:

  1. Abdominal Breathing – Many of us don’t realize that we tend to breathe with our lungs. Poor posture can keep us from breathing as deeply as we can and you can easily demonstrate this by slouching in a chair and paying attention to your breath. Your stomach might move a little bit, but when you straighten your spine, you can see how much more your abdomen and lungs expand. You can literally take a deeper breath when standing, lying down on your back, or sitting up straight.
  2. Slow, Deep Breaths – We all know that when we’re stressed, our heart rate increases and we take quicker breaths. But many people don’t know that if we consciously take slower, deeper breaths, we can actually decrease our heart rate and help calm ourselves. You can teach your teen to count to three or five slowly (one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two…) as they inhale and expand their abdomen and then hold that breath for a beat or two with their lungs full. Then count to three or five slowly as they exhale and wait a beat or two before inhaling again. During the pauses between breaths, they can hear and feel their heartbeat and after a few cycles, it should slow down significantly.
  3. Visualizing a clear mind with the breath cycles – As I exhale slowly, I like to imagine my mind’s thoughts draining out slowly. Generally, when I’m anxious or stressed, my thoughts race and spiral out of control. When I start breathing to relax myself, I pretend that my mind is a bathtub full of water (thoughts). Exhaling slowly has the effect of pulling the plug and letting all of the thoughts drain out and empty my mind for a moment or two. Often, I find that when I do this, the muscles in my face and neck relax and I almost instantly feel better.

These techniques can be taught to younger children as well. In fact, the earlier our kids learn how to calm themselves when they are feeling angry or upset, the more practiced they will be at it when they hit the turbulent adolescent years.

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.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Boys/Men                                              Girls/Women

Wealth                                                     Family

Adventure                                               Independence

Achievement                                          Career

Pleasure                                                   Fitting In

Respect                                                     Physical Attractiveness

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

“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.