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Some thoughts on self-advocacy for adolescents

Image description: colony of tiny white fungi growing together on a decomposing log

I’ve written about the idea of Independence versus Interdependence here before and I just wanted to expand on that a little bit. I was having a conversation the other day with a school administrator who lamented the fact that many parents intervene with school officials on behalf of their students. This administrator was dismayed that these students aren’t learning how to “solve their own problems” and worries that they will leave their homes for college or their own household without having learned some of the skills they need to navigate systems effectively.

I understand this worry, and I also inquired whether it’s possible that what this person is seeing is only those issues that are escalated to a certain point within the school system. Meaning that, maybe there are multiple instances of students solving their own conflicts and disagreements with teachers and coaches and other school staff that aren’t visible simply because they’ve been solved.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we don’t typically set up our schools to feel like places that foster partnerships between educators and students. There is a basic power differential, and for some students who are marginalized and don’t fit the paradigm of the students our systems are designed for, that power differential is a chasm. That can mean that it takes a great deal more effort and courage for these students to navigate difficulties with educators than it does for their white, neurotypical, traditional-student peers. If students start out feeling as though they are not on equal footing with their teacher/coach/counselor, self-advocacy is more difficult. And if that adult is accustomed to using their power as a way to get their way, self-advocacy can feel like an exercise in futility. And yet, many students still manage to find ways to articulate their needs.

But what if they try and get nowhere? I have personally had experiences with my own children where I have seen them make multiple attempts to get their needs met or make their concerns heard and nothing happens. In that case, it is imperative that I, someone with power and leverage that is equal to that of the other adult they’re negotiating with, get involved to help my child. I like to think of it as something we adults do all the time when we need help. We don’t expect employees who are experiencing discrimination at work to work out issues with their employer without an advocate. It is pretty rare that couples get divorced without some sort of mediator or attorney involved to help them resolve the biggest issues. So why do we expect our kids to be able to successfully resolve issues with educators entirely on their own?

I am pleased to say that when I explained this to that school official, they were able to see things a little differently. It is my hope that, going forward, they will encourage students to find an adult who can help them advocate for themselves after an attempt to solve the problem on their own goes awry. Rather than teaching our kids that they’re on their own (especially in the face of a power differential), we can teach them that they deserve to be heard and that there are people out there who will make themselves available to advocate on their behalf so that they don’t have to settle for being powerless when they’re struggling.

What I hope students develop and strengthen after working with the self project curriculum

It may feel like it’s a bit late for me to be telling you about my goals for this work now, but better late than never, right? It turns out that there are a lot of ideas about the outcomes of SEL and what they ought to look like, but I suspect my thoughts deviate slightly from the norm. I am really not interested in behavior management or assimilation or “grading” students on their “performance” or demonstration of the identified goals of SEL. Because this work is really rooted in relationship, and because human beings learn best in community and thrive in social contexts, my hopes for individual students are much less “measurable” but no less important.

  1. I hope that this curriculum/this work helps students develop resilience, meaning that they are able to experience adversity in many different realms (work, school, personal relationships, life circumstances) and know that they have support, where to find it, and how to ask for it and receive it.
  2. I want students to develop the ability to form trusting relationships with others, know when it is safe to be vulnerable (and with whom), and know how and when to ask for help and support. Cultivating a network of people with the ability and willingness to offer help that is meaningful and substantial without any expectations is a key part of building resilience.
  3. This curriculum was designed to help students identify, strengthen, and claim their individual strengths in a way that feels natural and purposeful.
  4. Students who work through this curriculum will be able to meet challenges of all kinds with courage. That doesn’t mean they don’t have fear or the occasional doubts about themselves, but it does mean that they know they can ask for help if they need it, and that the outcome of being challenged is learning.
  5. I hope that students who engage in this work will learn to create and maintain healthy boundaries that allow them to be challenged, but not disrespected or harmed, and signal to themselves and the wider community that they have enough self-love to demand that they are treated with respect and reverence.
  6. I want this work to expand the capacity of young people to experience joy.
  7. Because this work is done in community, it should give students both opportunities to feel supported in community and know that they are vital to their community because of their unique voice.
  8. This work should also help ground students in a solid notion of who they are as an individual at their core, even as they grow and change.

Adults who take on the task of doing this work with students should keep these goals in mind and identify for themselves what it means to support students without co-opting their ideas and feelings for a different agenda, and understand that this work’s importance lies in creating a culture of interdependence, of community, of fostering a space where we can have conversations about difficult subjects without needing to come to a tidy conclusion.

Please reach out to me with questions about any of this. It is more vital now than ever that we begin to dig in to this work with adolescents.

New! Youtube channel for the self project

Since I can’t run workshops right now for educators or parents/caregivers, I decided to make some of my work available on YouTube. This is my first video and there’s a downloadable worksheet to go with it under the Resources tab. Check it out and let me know what you think. It’s important for us to unpack our biases and bedrock beliefs if we are going to foster strong relationships with the adolescents in our lives.

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.