Nine Days to Launch

Pre-orders are available now here and here

I am really thrilled to have this work out in the world, especially now when adolescents are living through their second year of disrupted school and social relationships. Just as they’re beginning to pull away from family of origin a little bit and develop their own, unique identity, many of them are cut off from peers and social situations that would normally do the important work of mirroring and providing opportunities to test out different ways of being. The good news is, with intention and care, parents and educators can shift how they interact with pre-teens and teens to create supportive, caring connections and help with this development.

Please share with your networks and hit me up on email or social media with your questions about parenting and/or teaching adolescents.

Parenting Soapbox of the Day: Please Stop Using the Word “Independent”

Photo: Imgflip user NickMartin1 https://imgflip.com/user/NickMartin1

I’ve said this before, but I believe it bears repeating. The goal for any of us as adults (or teenagers) is not independence. The opposite of dependence might be independence, but human beings were not designed to be fully separate beings, and, frankly, if we expand our understanding of what it means to be alive, we quickly realize that independence means death. We rely on the natural world to provide us with food and water and air to breathe. We rely on microorganisms within our bodies to help us digest our food, etc. etc.

The goal of raising healthy young adults is interdependence. Humans have a long childhood (much longer than most of the rest of the animal kingdom) for a reason, and that is to allow for optimal physical and brain development. Even if we haven’t set up our school and economic and social systems to support it (spoiler alert: we haven’t), our job as the elders is to nurture our young until their brains and bodies are fully developed. This is typically around age 22-25. Sorry. It just is. And even after that age, these individuals will not be fully independent. I just really wish folks would stop using that term because the more we say it, the stronger the belief that it is possible, and the worse we all feel (parents and kids alike) when it doesn’t happen.

I live alone and mostly handle all my own stuff. Getting food, paying bills, feeding my pets, managing my work schedule. But I am hardly independent. I get food from the grocery store, I go to the doctor when I’m feeling sick, I take my car to the mechanic when it breaks down. Other less “practical” examples include me texting or calling a friend when I’m emotionally overwhelmed and need support or a reality check, heading outside to walk on the beach and stick my toes in the sand when I need a break from being inside, reading a really good book to expand my ideas of what is possible. It is a key life skill to be able to discern when I need some support or help and whom to reach out to in order to get those needs met. When we talk to our kids about them being “on their own” or “independent” someday, we often skip past these kinds of lessons.

How do you know what to do when something goes sideways? How did you learn that?

What are the qualities of the people you trust the most to show up for you in ways that are most helpful? How did you learn that?

Where do you get stuck when you think about asking for help? Is it paralyzing to imagine asking someone for emotional support when you’re (still) grieving the loss of a loved one a year or three later? Who taught you what it looks like to know when you need help and how to ask for it without shame?

These are key questions we as parents need to ask ourselves so that we can begin helping our kids come to terms with the fact that they will never be independent, but they will need to be interdependent. Being interdependent means learning what healthy relationships look like and how to be part of them, but because of all the subtle  – and not so subtle – cultural messages we get about independence being the ultimate goal, it takes practice. The more we give our kids the impression that it is somehow shameful or signals that they are not truly grown up if they aren’t fully independent, the harder it may be for them to seek help and support when they need it, or to even admit that they need it. The mixed messages of “teamwork makes the dream work” co-existing with “you will be graded individually” are mind-bending. Normalizing the concept of relying on other people and discovering what it is that makes us and them trustworthy and accountable to each other can go a long way toward helping teens feel secure. Knowing that we aren’t expected to do everything on our own, solve every problem by ourselves, and be strong and stoic, but rather being able to rest in the larger web of friends and family, understanding and trusting that it is ok for us to ask for help builds a much stronger foundation. I think as parents, on some level we all understand this, but it is incumbent upon us to begin using the right words to convey those messages. If we say to our kids, “you can always come to me for help” in one breath and in the next, tell them, “you’re going to be out on your own someday and I need you to know how to handle this,” that’s confusing. If we pretend that independence is actually an attainable goal and voice that often enough, our kids will believe it and feel as though they’re falling short when they can’t get there. We would do a lot better to help our kids practice knowing when they need to find help and how to do it.

 

How Are We Making Learning Harder for Ourselves (and what can we do about it…)?

 

picture of a van overloaded with bags and a mattress

I was talking with a friend today who is a therapist and she was telling me how surprised she is by the number of adult clients she has who fit the criteria for ADD. Individuals who haven’t been previously diagnosed with it, who struggle with anxiety as well. As is my wont, I wondered aloud how much of that has to do with the way we have set up society and the expectations we have of people – many of which have been exacerbated in the last two years. She stopped walking, poked me in the shoulder, snort-laughed and said, “All of it. 100%.”

We both laughed and continued walking and talking, but this is something I’ve been thinking about a great deal lately – not ADD specifically, but the way we have work and school set up in direct opposition to the way the human brain is designed to learn.

Our brains aren’t supposed to be like empty vessels, primed and ready to dump vast amounts of information in, and immediately turn them in to meaningful connections. We aren’t trash-compacters, but that’s how we have set things up for ourselves in the name of “efficiency” and “productivity.”

In a workshop this week, I was speaking with parents about screen time and how we can manage it for our children so that it isn’t overwhelming or harmful. One parent lamented that her child has a hard time transitioning from screen time to other things – bedtime or naps or outside time – and that it often becomes a power struggle or fertile ground for a tantrum. Many other parents nodded their heads vigorously. This is a prime example of how we aren’t honoring our brain’s need for processing. Even when it looks like we aren’t doing anything (watching YouTube videos or TikToks or bingeing episodes of our favorite show), our brains are taking in information, and for kids, that’s a lot of stimulation. Especially for young children (under the age of ten or so), their brains are designed to be soaking up input on a vast scale, but in order to learn, they need time to integrate that information. Watching four episodes of Dora the Explorer back to back before having to dash off to school or soccer practice or bed doesn’t give them the opportunity to find context, make meaning, process the information they just stuffed in their head.

While I don’t have the same brain as a five year old, my brain needs that, too. I told the parents at the workshop that I don’t ever schedule back-to-back meetings anymore for that very reason. [I realize what an enormous privilege that is, and also, I really want more companies to normalize that as a practice] If my calendar is full of one meeting after the next all day long, the group of folks who I see at 2:30pm are going to get a shell of my former self. They will get someone who has massive decision-fatigue, whose head is buzzing with ideas and information from all of the other interactions I’ve had that day, and the things that happened in earlier meetings are likely to get shoved out of my head before I have a chance to really fully process and integrate them. If, instead, I have time in between meetings to talk to folks casually about what I learned (learning happens in relationship, after all), doodle, make notes and dig a little deeper on my own, I am much more likely to have creative ideas about how to implement things or understand how they apply to other contexts.

This is why I think middle and high schools are getting it wrong with kids on a massive scale. Asking kids to spend an eight-hour day switching from one subject to the next with only a five or ten minute break to physically move from one place to the other is not conducive to deep contextualizing. It doesn’t allow them to really sit with the history lesson they were just presented with (even if your school is one that has a “block schedule” with longer periods that happen fewer times per week) or talk to a peer about what it means that the Fibonacci sequence shows up everywhere in nature. The way we have set up schools, we have virtually guaranteed that kids won’t retain or be able to frame much of what they’re taught, at least not until they are in college where classes are spaced out in time somewhat.

My oldest daughter noticed when she went to college that if she studied until ten or eleven pm and then went to work out or take a bath and get rest the night before a test, she did much better on the test than her peers who stayed in the library until four in the morning, cramming as much as they could into their brains, and then took the test at eight am. That’s because rest allows us to daydream, it allows our minds to wander and make connections we wouldn’t otherwise make while we’re busy stuffing more data into them. Many of us know this already. The studies have been done. And yet, we continue to prioritize meeting after meeting as though that is some evidence of productivity.

Creativity is where innovation comes from, but if we don’t give ourselves time to daydream and contextualize, we can’t be creative. Letting your child watch one episode of Dora and then asking them to draw a picture of what they watched or build a Lego representation or simply tell us about it – all of it; the colors, what struck them the most, what made them laugh or worry, how it compares to other episodes – provides their brains space to make meaning of it, to learn from it in a much more holistic way. And, because learning happens in the context of relationship, it means the impact of that one show will be much bigger. The bonus is that they won’t need to “relieve” their nervous system of the sensory overload of bingeing four episodes in a row by throwing a tantrum. This works with older kids, too. Encouraging them to talk to us about the video game they love or the YouTube account they follow can help build a deeper understanding of what’s exciting about it, where their own passions lie, and place it firmly within the realm of the human.

Perhaps the most beneficial part of all of this is that it builds relationship. Taking time to talk with others about the things we’re experiencing – especially our kids – normalizes these kinds of conversations and allows us to see life through different perspectives that add dimension to our lives. And honoring the way our brains were designed to absorb new information means that we are more likely to be able to pay attention to the next thing that comes along and be in the habit of thinking about it more deeply.

I am beginning to believe that people who struggle with ADD are often fighting against the systems that expect us to be able to rapidly switch between tasks without contextualizing them, and for good reason. There is a way in which we’ve socialized ourselves from a very young age to believe that multi-tasking is a good thing (and that it is even possible) and that we should be able to absorb vast quantities of information in any given day. We don’t teach children to focus and we don’t set up systems to enable focus, but we growl in frustration when they can’t. What if a person’s tendency to switch their locus of attention mid-stream is the brain’s attempt to protect itself from sensory overload? There is no doubt that the world in which I grew up was much less overwhelming than the world in which kids are growing up now. I am lucky enough to be able to put systems into place that help me avoid being bombarded with too much input that I can’t process, but most people aren’t.  As parents, how can we create some of this for our kids? As employers, how can we do this for the people we work with?

Shame Rebel Podcast Interview

 

I had such a wonderful time talking with Katie for her new podcast, Shame Rebel, where she explores different ways we carry and inflict shame on each other people. We talked about relationship, parenting, teaching, and how to stop shaming yourself. Check out all of the episodes and stay tuned for more news about the book that’s forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield for parents and educators of teens.

Taking Some of the Heat Off

Listening to the July 6 episode of The Takeaway, I had a moment of clarity and recognition and also an inward groan. The entire episode was focused on mental health, but the first 12 minutes was spent looking at adolescent mental health – specifically how these young folks fared during the lockdown months of 2020. As you can imagine, young people struggled during these months, but the inward groan (and also the recognition) came as a result of one major finding they talked about. Namely, that it was parents who were responsible for much of the angst adolescents felt.

I groaned because I think parents already blame themselves for so many things when it comes to their teens. We feel so ill-equipped to manage many of the things that come up during these years already, and a study that showed we really made things harder for our kids during the pandemic lockdown wasn’t going to make any of us feel better. But, on the flip side, I think it’s important to understand where we can shift the way we do things to reduce some of the stress on our kids, so here goes:

Imagine that during lockdown, you were stuck living with your boss. That, while you experienced some measure of independence and self-determination at work before, now they are sitting in your office or cubicle with you, supervising. They are able to see exactly what you do in any given moment of any day like never before. That’s how many of our kids felt. While they were used to being at school and making many of their own decisions before, suddenly they found themselves at home, maybe attending online school from the kitchen table, with us hovering, eavesdropping on the lecture perhaps, side-eyeing them as they picked up their cell phone to glance at something while the teacher was talking, noticing if they typed something into the chat box when they were “supposed” to be paying attention. Maybe they do all those things routinely in class anyway, but now they’re in a space where a parent is able to monitor that and it feels really awful to be constantly scrutinized.

Now imagine that your boss knows that you can’t go play on your evening soccer league team because of the lockdown. They know that you can’t travel to take care of an aging parent, so you don’t need time off of work. Consider that your boss believes that without these other things in your life, you have way more time to dedicate to work, and their expectations increase. That’s what kids told the folks who did these studies – that without extra curricular activities and social obligations, their parents (and teachers) ratcheted up the expectations for their academic work during the pandemic lockdown. And while it may seem like that makes a lot of sense, what we aren’t thinking about is the emotional labor kids were managing during that time and what a toll it takes on our ability to complete cognitive functions.

Adolescents already struggle with executive function – it’s part of their job during these years to practice and develop time-management, emotional regulation, cause-and-effect thinking, among other things. But when we are stressed or overwhelmed emotionally, the portion of our brain that is responsible for these things is unable to do its job effectively. And it’s safe to say that adolescents were feeling incredibly overwhelmed during the lockdown – I wrote about that here. So increasing our expectations for them was pretty much the opposite of what they needed, and yet most of us did it anyway.

I don’t say this to make you feel bad about yourself as a parent. I say this so that we can become aware of what our kids are struggling with and do better in the future. While lockdowns are mostly over in many parts of the world, our tweens and teens are still processing the effects of that time – trying to reconnect with friends and maybe catch up with academics, figuring out how to grieve the loss of milestones and also people lost to Covid, and managing their concern for what the future holds. We can support them in this by acknowledging the invisible work they’re doing to navigate all of that and ask what feels helpful during this time. Make sure they have plenty of opportunities to just play and have fun, get rest when they need it, and talk to us when they’re feeling like we are asking too much of them. Sometimes we can get too caught up in timelines and external expectations to remember that our teens still need a lot of nurturing and care.

Going Deeper with Non-Violent Communication

Many parents and educators will have some familiarity with the idea of Non-Violent Communication (NVC), and many will not. It is something that I have drawn on to create both parent and youth curricula through The SELF Project, and I believe it’s an important concept to explore in regards to relationship and community-building. If you’re interested, I recommend checking out The Center for Nonviolent Communication‘s website where they offer basic training, information, and opportunities to connect with others exploring this work. For now, though, I’ll simply include their definition of NVC here:

Nonviolent Communication, (NVC), is based on the principles of nonviolence– the natural state of compassion when no violence is present in the heart. NVC begins by assuming that we are all compassionate by nature and that violent strategies—whether verbal or physical—are learned behaviors taught and supported by the prevailing culture.

NVC also assumes that we all share the same, basic human needs, and that all actions are a strategy to meet one or more of these needs. People who practice NVC have found greater authenticity in their communication, Increased understanding, deepening connection and conflict resolution.

The NVC community is active in over 65 countries around the globe.

The most basic rule of NVC asks that we try to focus our interactions around conflict and disagreement on our needs, rather than the tactics we’re using to get those needs met. Meaning, that you and I might be arguing about a political idea but what lies beneath our opposite positions is that we both want to feel safe and taken care of by our society. If we can peel back the layers of conversation so that we are able to acknowledge that we actually both want the same thing, the idea is that we can begin to connect on a more human level and expand our ability to have compassion for each other. But sometimes, that concept is trickier than others and here is why I think that happens:

Even if you and I both have the same basic need (ie. feeling safe and heard), it is important to recognize that what that looks like for each of us may be very different. You might feel safest if I don’t challenge you or disagree with you, while I might only feel safe if I am allowed to challenge your ideas or disagree with you. This generally happens in situations where one person has more power or agency than the other – say, in a classroom or a home where the disagreement is between a teen and their parental figure. If there is a power imbalance, it is important to address that before we can expect an honest conversation to happen.

In relationships that have been challenging or have established a dynamic where one person routinely sublimates their own needs or desires in order to keep peace (ie. feel safe), NVC may not be an option until there is significant repair of the relationship. If I have been told more than once that my needs are frivolous or imagined, it might be unrealistic to expect me to be honest with you about what I think I need in this situation, and if I can’t be honest, NVC won’t work.

Often, attempting to focus on what the other person needs can bring up some difficult emotions and thoughts, and this can happen for a variety of reasons. If it does, it’s a great opportunity to explore the relationship dynamic and look for a power imbalance, whether or not you generally feel safe with that person, and if there is mutual positive regard (ie. you trust each other and think the best of the other person’s intentions). It can take many conversations over a long period of time to establish a relationship dynamic that allows for non-violent communication techniques. It isn’t something you can simply flip on and have it work. Often, the work starts with us and our willingness to get really clear on our own needs and what they look like. For example, we may say we need to feel respected, but we also should be able to describe what that would look and feel like to us – does that mean you don’t interrupt me when I’m speaking? That you don’t try to explain away my needs or ideas as frivolous or over-reacting? That you are able to mirror back to me what I just said so that I know you were actively listening? It turns out that often, our idea of being heard or respected or safe is very very different from what other people think it is.

I do think it is important that educators and parents practice NVC with adolescents, both as a way to strengthen relationship and also to model it for them. I also know that it takes practice and intent and a willingness to spend some time looking at how we’ve managed those relationships in the past and what our needs are before we dive headlong in to challenging conversations.

How Parents Can Support Teens During Shelter-in-Place

Artist rendering of a heart with maroon and red script writing forming the shape

 

Even if your family isn’t under a shelter-in-place order, if you live in most parts of the world, your teens and tweens are home and trying to navigate online school and a really different schedule. While it’s a difficult scenario for everyone in the family, it can be especially challenging for adolescents to manage right now because of the social and neurological attributes of this period in life. So how can you help?

  1. Understand that their brains are reacting to this ambiguity by retreating to the most primitive tools human beings have: fight/flight/fear. (heck, we all are on some level). Adolescents process most of the information they get through their emotion centers, and it can trigger a response that turns their logic center off. When there is a specific threat, and they have learned to let emotions rise and fall, it’s manageable, but now, when the threat is largely invisible and there is no real understanding of how long this will last, how bad it will get, and whom it will affect, the trigger just keeps getting pulled over and over again. This makes it hard to settle down and focus on school work. It also makes it hard to access the parts of the brain that store memory, so forgetting to do their chores is to be expected right now.
  2. Help them find ways to turn off the fight/flight/fear response. One really effective way to do this is for them to do something physical – yoga, shooting baskets, going for a walk. Another great tool is guided meditation. Listening to someone else direct their mind in a specific way can help calm the physiological reaction to stress. Creativity is another way to tap into a different part of the brain – doing a puzzle, playing an instrument, coloring or drawing or painting or baking require a different kind of attention that can calm the nervous system.
  3. Encourage play. Laughter stimulates the vagus nerve and calms the nervous system. It also boosts the immune system to help keep them healthy. Card or board games, MadLibs, scavenger hunts, laundry basket basketball – do something absurd and silly at least once a day.
  4. Give them a measure of control. We all feel helpless, to some degree, and it is important for us to find ways to have agency over some aspects of our lives. If they can set their own schedule, let them. If it’s possible for them to add specific things they like to the grocery list (even if it’s junk you don’t normally let them eat), let them. Even small amounts of control can feel like an anchor during a time of uncertainty.
  5. Cut them lots of slack. Lots. Many kids will struggle to adjust to being home all the time, to learning online, to being away from friends. Adolescents are incredibly social, so if they need more time on their phones to stay connected with friends, it’s understandable. If it takes them a couple weeks to get in to a rhythm with classes, allow them the time to adjust. If they seem cranky with siblings or resistant to your plea to take the garbage out, remember, we are all in low-key panic mode right now and that doesn’t make for a very open and friendly demeanor.
  6. Model and be honest. Let them know how you’re feeling. If you feel unsure and frustrated, you can be certain they do, too. If you snap at someone, apologize. If your mental health requires a period of time during the day where nobody asks you for anything at all, communicate that clearly so they know what to expect. Teens don’t often see their parents as human beings or think that we have an inner life, so the more we can let them know that we are struggling with this new arrangement, the more likely they are to feel like it’s ok for them to struggle, too. And while you’re at it, do steps 2-5 for yourself.

Mindful Parenting Class

If you’re in the Seattle area, please join me on January 18th at EastWest Bookshop for a three-hour workshop. Parents, mentors, caregivers of teens and tweens and young adults will walk away with ideas for creating and maintaining strong, trusting relationships that are intentional and rooted in mindfulness.

Follow this link to register. Books will be for sale that day as well. Hope to see you there!

Tips for Parents: Words Matter

Most of us would have a ready answer if asked about the stories that are told about us in our families. Many of us wouldn’t even question those stories, given that we grew up with them and heard them over and over again. Maybe we were anointed the “driven” one, or the jock or the one who makes Mom craziest. Often, these stories are told in jest, to other parents or teachers as a short-hand way to describe a child, and they often conjure up certain attributes that may be accurate in many ways. But it is also important to understand how limiting and potentially harmful they can be over time. I recently had two experiences that reminded me of this that I’d like to share.

Last weekend I was at a gathering where I knew almost nobody. The room was full of people my age with a similar interest, and while many of them knew each other, there were also many pockets of conversations going on where strangers were getting to know each other. It was a lively group and I was enjoying hearing about people’s lives and finding some common ground. In one instance, I was speaking with someone who has grown children and, as my oldest daughter moved far away from home for college, I inquired whether the children lived in our area or farther away. In describing each child, I learned about where they’d gone to college and what they were interested in, and then it happened:

“My oldest child – he’s the f*#k up of the family.” It was said with a laugh and a certain tone of affection, but it felt stunning to me nonetheless. The way the phrase so casually rolled off to a stranger led me to believe that this child is often described this way.

The second instance was a couple months ago when I had occasion to reconnect with a young person I deeply admire. I had a stack of my recently-published book One Teenager at a Time sitting on the kitchen table and I opened it to the acknowledgments page and showed this amazing young person that their name appeared as someone who I credit as being an integral part of my work and the birth of the book. They were stunned and excited and asked if they could take the book with them when they left…”so I can show my parents and prove to them that I’m not a loser!

Again, this phrase was uttered with a laugh and a nonchalance that belied the sting of it. I have known this young person for a long time and I have heard them use that word in reference to themselves many times before. Each time I have gently let them know that I don’t believe it’s accurate in any way. Despite that, their overall belief is that their parents believe they are a loser.

It is so important to understand how quickly our words become our child’s inner critic. We can tell them we love them daily, and when they hear themselves characterized as a “loser” or an “idiot” or a “pain in the ass,” they can believe both that we love them and also that they are not living up to our hopes and dreams. They can develop a sense that they will never be good enough or that if they just worked hard enough to be something else (not do something else – because name-calling is about saying someone IS something, not that their behavior needs to change, but that THEY need to change), we might love them more. The damage that does to the self-image of our children is enormous, especially if those comments are made with derision, especially if they are made as a joke, as a given, as something that describes the entirety of this person’s being.

In my family, I was known as the “good child,” the compliant one, the one who my parents could count on to do the Right Thing. In many cases, that was a point of pride. Sometimes, it was something I weaponized and used against my siblings. But ultimately, it kept me small, kept me from trying new things, thinking outside the box, questioning rules that seemed unfair. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy because it was used from the time I was very young, and when I reached adolescence and was tasked with defining my own identity and exploring who I really wanted to be, it boxed me in to a certain set of characteristics that weren’t necessarily comfortable, but I had blindly accepted that my parents knew me best, so any time I questioned them, I felt somehow wrong.

It is natural for us as parents to find some sort of short-hand to describe our children. It becomes harmful when we use those terms with disdain or to shame our kids, or if we talk about them as if that is all they are when we describe them to other people. Giving our adolescents room to explore their own ideas of who they are is a key part of helping them develop a healthy self-image. Letting them know that we support them as they seek to grow rather than pretending we already know who they are and what their fate is can create room for a stronger, healthier relationship.

My hope for these two young people is that they hear other voices in their heads telling them that they are not “losers” or “f*#k ups.” That they know that they are beloved, allowed to think in different ways and try new things and make mistakes without fear of being known as the one person in their family who is less than. My hope for their parents is that they come to acknowledge the power of their words and seek to use new ones that let their children know that they are so much more than a derogatory term used in jest.

Re-Post on Gratitude

Follow this link to check out some thoughts on what gratitude is (and isn’t)