If you’re the parent or caregiver of an adolescent right now, you may be wondering how to support them emotionally during this time of confusion and unpredictability. Check out my latest video for some ideas and information about how the adolescent brain experiences prolonged anxiety.
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
As parents and educators (or mentors or coaches), it’s imperative that we get in the habit of taking a step back from our habits and normal practices to ask whether they’re serving the kids we work and live with.
Unfortunately, I think that, too often, we forget that learning is a process and not like flipping a switch. In order for learning to take place, a lot of different things need to be happening – attention, emotional readiness, context, and previous understanding, among other things. And the question we need to ask ourselves about the way we teach kids and what we expect of them is this:
Do we want them to LEARN or do we want them to KNOW?
Often, I think we end up shaming or punishing kids for not KNOWING something we think is obvious, rather than taking the time and effort to teach them about it, what it is, why it’s important, how it can look and feel.
I once heard someone give an example that struck me as the perfect illustration of this*. She said she asks a class full of students to raise their hands if they’ve ever been told to “pay attention.” Predictably, nearly every single hand goes up (if not all of them). Then she asks them to keep their hands raised if anyone has ever taught them to pay attention. Most of the hands go down.
Think about the kinds of things we get annoyed with kids about, roll our eyes about, expect them to KNOW how to do. Now think about whether we’ve ever had foundational conversations with them about what we mean by that, what we think it looks like, how they could learn to do it. Even if we think we’re leading by example, how do we know that kids are watching us with the same thoughts and intentions we want them to have?
I might get frustrated with my kids for not loading the dishwasher the way I want them to, but if I haven’t spent time teaching them why and how I like it that way, is it fair to expect them to know all of that? The fact is, if we aren’t taking the time and care to TEACH, we have no business expecting kids to know how to do things. And if we set out to teach them something because they don’t already know how to do it, mocking them for not knowing won’t engender trust and facilitate the learning process.
As educators, we can’t know what a kid’s previous experiences were like, so while it may be time and labor-intensive, it’s important to check in with them and make sure that they’re comfortable with the procedures and expectations we have. If we want papers to be turned in electronically, we have to ensure that they’ve been taught to do that. If we want them to speak up in class or work with their peers in a productive way, we need to ask whether they’ve been asked to do that before and if they understand what it means to be on a team. Some of our classroom norms might be completely new and it’s our job to spend a little time laying the groundwork for every student in the class. If you’ve got a student who has been home-schooled, make sure they know how to work with others, get their needs met in a full classroom, find their rhythm and pace in this setting.
Helping kids feel successful means being on the lookout for times when we are expecting things of them that they may not know how to deliver, and supporting their learning process. If we truly want kids to LEARN, then we have to not make assumptions about what they KNOW.
*I’d totally cite the source here if I could. I’m pretty sure it was a mindfulness teacher talking to Oren Jay Sofer for a Mindful Schools webinar, but I have lost the link. It was definitely a woman and she’s written books on the subject, so if anyone knows, please let me know and I’ll give her the credit she deserves.
You can have a curriculum or a set of ideas in front of you and still not know where to begin when it comes to working with teens on social-emotional health and well-being. Because there isn’t an answer key, it is often intimidating to sit down with an adolescent or a room full of them and talk about hard things – things that most of us haven’t been encouraged to share. I’ve been studying Dr. Craig Elliott‘s work on social justice and racial caucusing and many of his ideas adapt well to this kind of work.
PRE-WORK – Before we start, it’s important to think about some key things that could impact how we interact with kids, especially around difficult topics.
- We have to examine our parenting/leadership experiences to find patterns, norms or habits we have, history or traditions we carry forward without thinking about them, and stereotypes and myths we have about teens, kids of color, gender roles, etc.
- It is also important to examine our relationship with leading/parenting – did we come to it with enthusiasm or not, have we internalized ideas of what it “should” or “shouldn’t” look like, are we resentful of the role itself?
- Next, we need to spend time thinking about our own experiences as teens – were they largely positive or negative, are there things we suffered through that we feel are “rites of passage” and we will perpetuate?
- And finally, be very clear on your intentions as you move forward – are you looking to help the adolescent(s) in your life come to their own conclusions or is it more important for you to impose your values and will on them, are you looking to establish your own place as an expert or do you want them to find their own expertise on themselves?
IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER – We learn best in relationship, but only if we feel safe. For teenagers, this not only means that they feel free to share their ideas and thoughts without fear of punishment, but that they feel as though they are part of the group, that they won’t be mocked or shamed for thinking out loud or expressing ideas that may not be fully formed. Belonging = survival in the adolescent brain. This means that it is incredibly important to spend more time and energy investing in community-building, especially in the beginning. Respect, safety, and accountability are all key parts of a strong relationship.
It can be incredibly intimidating to dive in, but there is no Right or Wrong answer. It is most important that we begin. We can always change course, apologize for mis-steps, and learn to do better, but we have to do the work.
Part 2 will look at qualities of effective leaders, strong groups, barriers to productive work, and expectations for leaders. Feel free to ask questions in the comments.
Following a(nother) spate of mass shootings across the United States, I am feeling frustrated, impotent, and incredibly sad. I don’t want us to collectively stay trapped in this loop of grief, anger, and paralysis, and I believe we are beginning to have the kinds of conversations we need to have, but I also feel an urgency about spurring those conversations on in a way that feels proactive and hopeful. I admit to weaving back and forth between signing petitions and donating to organizations fighting gun violence and amplifying tweets from people in power whose words I think are important to sitting quietly in despair and sadness.
I have long understood that anger is rooted in fear, and when I look around, I see so many people who are swimming in those waters. We are perpetuating generational fear in so many ways and it will take a deliberate, determined effort to break that cycle. We need to start having some difficult conversations with our kids and really listening to them. We need to change the way we relate to them and focus on making sure they feel loved and safe in relationship so that when they go out in to the world they aren’t hurting people.
I was a kid who swam in the waters of fear. My parents were both fearful people and they made a lot of their biggest decisions out of fear. I learned that the world was a scary place, that unconditional love was a fairy tale, and that nothing would get done unless I did it for myself. It’s a toxic way to live and it took a lot of therapy and a few really special, loving people to show me that it’s possible to make your way through the world with a belief that people are good and loving, that I am part of something bigger.
The rhetoric that dominates our public sphere is one of fear and scarcity. It tells us that there isn’t enough for all of us, there are threats out there so we must always be on guard, the world is a dangerous place. When people begin to believe that, they buy guns to carry on their bodies at all times “just in case.” They have a physical reaction to those who look different or speak a different language than they do. And often, they attack pre-emptively. Much of this attacking takes place online, since that is a safe place to begin – writing hateful things about other people, sending threats that they won’t likely follow through on, building a coalition of like-minded individuals to help defend them.
But more and more often, it spills out in to the public sphere and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The violent anger of white supremacy is rooted in fear – fear that people of color are ‘taking over,’ fear that they will strike at some point, fear that there isn’t enough. And in some cases, like Eliot Rogers and others who kill women and transgendered people, it is the fear that they themselves aren’t enough – that they aren’t loved, that they won’t be cherished and cared for.
This culture of fear is toxic, and combating it starts at home and has to happen in our schools, as well. More than reading and writing and number-crunching, we need to teach our kids that they are loved, that they are safe, that there is enough. We do that by listening to them, by paying attention to the things that they are most afraid of and addressing those things. It is a significant shift to make, and one that requires effort and, often, a “fake it til you feel it” approach – especially if we were raised with fear, ourselves. But it is absolutely necessary if we are to interrupt the cycle of hatred and violence.
We must shift from punishment to discipline.
We must curb our strongest emotional responses so as not to lash out in anger.
We must let our kids see our full range of emotional responses, talk to them about when we feel fear, and help them understand that the things we are most afraid of will almost never come to pass. We have to give them context and let them talk to us about their fears without judging or teasing them.
The three young white men who are responsible for killing scores of innocent people in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton in the last week were, I am certain, driven by fear. Fear that they learned a long time ago, that was perpetuated and encouraged by our political rhetoric. We teach young white men that it is acceptable to express their fear as anger in a variety of ways, and unless we want to keep stoking our own fears of dating, going out in public, and speaking our truth, we have to change the way we raise our kids.
And until we do significantly change the way we raise our kids, and interrupt this culture of fear, we have no business selling guns. They are the single deadliest weapon in our country, able to take the lives of innocent people more quickly and efficiently than any other weapon available to the public, and we can’t afford to have them in the hands of people whose fear has metastasized to anger, especially those who have been taught that their anger is righteous and justified and socially acceptable.
Language is important. Most of us realize that, but from time to time we still need to examine the kinds of things we say to determine whether we’re sending a message we don’t really mean. The more we do this, the better we get at aligning our values with our actions, and often, it is the catchphrases or soundbites that get popular in a given discipline that need examining. Two examples within the SEL community are “manage emotions” and “calm.”
Both of these have the potential to send the message to students that their emotions are undesirable or misaligned to a given situation. While it is part of our job as parents and educators to help kids identify their emotions, I believe the goal of that is to help them manage their responses and, over time, work to diminish the most distressing and overwhelming thoughts and physical feelings that come with those emotions. But when we tell kids we’re going to help them “manage their emotions,” that says that we’ve decided which emotions are acceptable and desirable and which ones need corralling. Especially for students who have a history of trauma, this means that we’ve identified a certain set of feelings they experience automatically and uncontrollably and determined they ought not to be having them, or at least not with the intensity they are feeling them. That can lead to a great deal of shame and an increased sense that they don’t quite ‘fit.’
Likewise, when we sell SEL as a way to keep one’s classroom “calm” or to “calm” students, we are not acknowledging that many of the most intense feelings kids have lead to passion for learning. My favorite classrooms are the ones where students are having dynamic discussions, physically working through ideas, and expressing joy and wonder. None of those things falls in to the category of “calm.” And for kids who have a strong tendency to learn kinesthetically, “calm” can be devastating. Forcing these students to sit quietly and absorb information almost never works. It takes so much of their bandwidth to simply control their physical bodies that their minds are not available for learning.
To be sure, parents and educators alike are interested in functional classrooms with engaged students whose behaviors adapt to social norms – they aren’t yelling inappropriately or physically acting out against others or otherwise disrupting the educational process. But we need to express to students that what we want is for them to learn to identify their emotions without judging them, examine the knee-jerk responses they often have to those strong emotions that cause distress for themselves or others, and work to find ways to manage the response. Telling them that we want them to learn to manage their emotions indicates that there are a subset of emotions that are generally undesirable that should be tamped down, and that can often feel like gaslighting or lead to a dangerous tendency to hide certain feelings from the adults they are supposed to trust the most.
It may seem overly picky, but for the students who already feel overwhelmed by and shamed for their emotional responses, these two phrases can make things worse. Anything we as adults who care for children can do to fine-tune our language to align with our ultimate goals will be better for all of us.
Whether you’re an educator or parent of adolescents (or both), you know that teaching kids this age is much different than teaching younger kids. As kids mature, they want more say in how things are decided, what the rules are, and how to determine where the boundaries lie. If we shut them out of the process, we risk them shutting us out of their decision-making, too.
Helping kids this age develop the skills to be productive, happy, fully functioning adults is part of our job, and including them in the conversations about rules and systems is messy but vital. So when you notice that something isn’t working (curfew or classroom norms or family routines), it can be helpful to embark on some process improvement work.
Each of these steps requires that all parties engage in a certain way in order to come to a better outcome. Everyone is an equal partner in this process, so building consensus is vital.
Understand/Assess requires everyone to lead with curiosity and a willingness to listen. It’s important to define what isn’t currently working and remind folks that just because something isn’t working doesn’t mean they’re to blame – it’s the process or system under scrutiny right now – not the individuals.
Recommend requires permission. Is everyone in agreement or ready to move forward with new ideas? Are there some folks who need to talk or listen more?
Test/Revise requires curiosity and a willingness to collaborate. This doesn’t have to be the final iteration – just an honest attempt to make things better. If everyone agrees to disagree with ideas instead of people, this will go more smoothly.
Agree/Plan requires honesty and dialogue. Where are the areas of alignment (what worked ok for everyone)? Where are the areas of divergence? Everyone involved should feel as though their ideas are equally important and their voices equally valid. Capitalize on the agreements to build a plan.
Communicate/Implement requires effort and careful listening. Does everyone understand the ground rules? Does everyone know what to expect as the new system is put in place? Does everyone have a role to play in setting things in motion?
Listen/Examine requires curiosity and honesty. If something isn’t working or anyone is feeling resentful or unheard, it’s important to know that. Are there unintended consequences of the new system?
If kids know that we’re willing to look closely at our rules and norms and engage them in a process of making things work better for everyone, they’re more likely to open up and feel empowered. Adolescents need to be reminded of their importance and the impact they can have in the systems that serve them as well as their responsibilities. Giving them opportunities to practice being part of the solution can often help diminish the amount of complaining and defiance they engage in and it helps them develop the skills they’ll need to work with others as they move farther and farther out in to the world. Adolescents are also often much more creative in their thinking than adults who have been entrenched in systems for years and it’s beneficial to us as parents and educators to be exposed to their ideas.
I’d love to hear how folks implement these ideas to change the way they do things with teenagers and get some feedback on how it worked.
We have all been accused of it at least once, and some people seem to be more prone to it than others. There is at least one TED talk about it, and dozens of books have been written on the subject. And then, today, an article in the New York Times about why we procrastinate and how to stop doing it.
But what if it’s not always task avoidance?
What if, sometimes, what other people see as procrastination is actually our natural process?
Have you ever had a deadline staring you down that freaked you out? Have you ever forced yourself to get to work on something only to produce something mediocre and not up to par and have to scrap it and start over? Have you ever worked on something over and over again and gotten incredibly frustrated because you knew it wasn’t your best work, but you HAVE A DEADLINE SO YOU HAVE TO KEEP AT IT?
On the flip side, have you ever waited until you were inspired or feeling in a flow state and created something with much less effort that was far superior to anything you’ve created before?
Deadlines are external things. Necessary, to be certain (at least in most cases), but they often have no relationship to our own internal learning or creative processes. There is no universal timeline that says how long it “should” take each person to craft a comprehensive report or write a novel or make a piece of art. External deadlines have an effect on our emotions, which, in turn, affect our cognitive functions. Simply put, the more worried we are about meeting that deadline, the less we are able to access the portion of our brains that solve puzzles, that work out complex ideas and synthesize ideas.
Additionally, while our culture reveres “work” and willpower, they can be misunderstood. Our minds are working all the time whether other people can see it or not. So going for a walk or organizing that spice drawer alphabetically can actually be in service to the ultimate project we are working on, if only because it allows our subconscious to be kicking away beneath the surface, making connections and playing with ideas. It may look like procrastination to other people, but often when we can give ourselves the space to do other things, we produce more amazing outcomes than if we had tapped in to willpower to work hours and hours every day and exhausted ourselves creating things we ended up having to revise.
For me, the important thing is to remember that I don’t have to justify my seeming inaction to anyone else. I’ve experienced enough cycles of work and subconscious processing in my life to trust it. I like to think about it as a growth cycle. I planted a seed and gave it what it needed – even though it looks like nothing is happening up above, at some point, all the work that happened down below culminates in a shoot poking up from the ground. It seems miraculous because the actual effort wasn’t witnessed, but it was really just the way I work best. The more pressure I put on myself to “look” like I’m working, the more frustrated I get with less than optimal results. Forcing the process only makes me unhappy and tired.
To be sure, we are all guilty of task avoidance from time to time. But maybe the next time you’re being hard on a student or your child or yourself because you assume they’re procrastinating, you can ask whether your conscious self is actually just not quite ready to produce work. It doesn’t mean there isn’t work happening below the surface, and when inspiration strikes, you might be surprised at the pace and easy flow that happens.
I’m part of a task force that includes a number of different stakeholders with diverse backgrounds and opinions and desires and fears. We are doing important work and sometimes, it is amazing to me that we are able to move forward at all, given the complexity of the issue we’re trying to untangle and the range of ideas we bring to the table. And frankly, it wouldn’t happen if we didn’t have some amazing facilitators keeping us on track, pushing us out of our comfort zones, and sometimes using some pretty cool tools to help us get clarity.
One such tool that I loved seemed to me to be immediately applicable to the parent/teen relationship, if only because it helps get us to the places where we really need to talk.
We were divided in to small groups of four to do this exercise, but I think it’s doable with one parent and one child, or as an entire family unit.
The first step is to identify what the issue is: for example, curfew or social media activity.
Next, talk about where your ideas Align and where they Diverge. Make a column for each and lists underneath. No explanation is necessary at this point, it’s just a way to identify where you all agree and where the ideas are different. It may seem simple, but it can be eye-opening to truly understand where everyone’s head is, and it might be surprising to realize that you align in quite a few areas (ie. kids’ safety, kids’ social connections, etc.)
It may be that the only thing anyone agrees on is that the current status is not workable for anyone, and that’s ok. It’s a starting point, and by defining what it is that everyone thinks is going awry with this current situation, you may discover some additional insights.
When you’ve made your lists, start exploring the divergence. Look for barriers and opportunities – is there a way to honor the alignment and build a solution? Even if you can’t come to consensus about the solution, this is a great way to learn something about each other and more fully flesh out where each individual’s values and priorities lie.