Tag Archives: teens

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.

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.

Rules of Engagement for Families (and Teachers)

As my kids got older, I began to realize that it was going to be necessary to change the way we addressed certain issues in our home. While I still encouraged lots of discussion and offered to be present and support my teens as they worked out their own differences, it became clear to me that their unique personalities meant that they approached this in very different ways. This tended to make conversations turn in to conflict, if only because one of my daughters is someone who wants to hash things out instantly, in the moment, and stay until it’s done, while the other one prefers to walk away when emotions get high, re-center herself, and decide if it’s a fight worth having. After a few ugly scenes (complete with doors slamming and tears), we sat down to create a set of ground rules that would work for everyone, and I think they’re pretty universal, so I’ve adopted them as rules for any classroom or student gathering I’m in that has a conflict of some sort. Here they are:

  1. Everyone at the table is here because they want to be (not because they are forced to be or guilted into it). Force and guilt/shame set up a power dynamic that means the discussion is doomed to fail before it even starts.
  2. Everyone has the same rights – we are all equals and we all deserve to be heard and our perspectives respected. It doesn’t matter how old someone is or what their status in the family/classroom is. There are no trump cards if we are truly interested in working through this to everyone’s satisfaction. If someone thinks that they’re bound to be over-ruled at some point, there’s no point in engaging. And if anyone else believes that they ultimately get to decide what happens, there’s no point in them listening to the others.
  3. Even if we can’t understand someone else’s point of view or feelings, we respect their right to have it and we all agree not to belittle anyone because of it. No gaslighting. Your reaction might seem disproportionate or even absurd to me, but since I’m not living in your skin, I don’t get to tell you how you should feel and I certainly don’t get to shame you for feeling the way you feel.
  4. No name-calling, ultimatums, demands, hate speech. This one might seem patently obvious, but often when we get in to a situation that seems to be going nowhere, we resort to these tactics to ratchet up the urgency. They’re not helpful at all if what we really want is to solve the problem at hand.
  5. We all agree to work our hardest to define a common goal for this situation and work toward it. Bringing up past resentments is not okay because it derails the conversation. There may well be patterns of behavior you have noticed over time, but if you want to have a conversation about this incident or issue right now, you need to stay in this moment. No fair blaming or shaming someone for something they did in the past. Period.
  6. No eye-rolling or turning away or other negative body language. This sends the clear message that you’re not listening or you’re not interested in really understanding where the other person is coming from. If you’re not, there’s no reason for you to be here.
  7. If someone decides they can’t be part of the conversation right now for any reason, they are allowed to leave, but they agree to be part of the conversation in the near future so that bad feelings won’t fester and things won’t remain unsolved. ‘Nuff said.
  8. Everyone agrees to own their part of the issue and take responsibility for their words or actions that might have caused others pain or frustration. There are multiple sides to every conflict. Nobody is ever all right or all wrong.
  9. Blaming and shaming, labeling someone, and using words like “always” and “never” will not move us forward and should be avoided. These are all shortcuts to ending a conversation and an indication that you’re making assumptions about the other person’s character or intent. You won’t get anywhere if you use these tactics.

 

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.