The Unforecasted Snowstorm of Feelings in the Holiday Season

Yes, the magic of the season is in the air. For me, that means Christmas coffee is brewing, the seasonal tunes are harmonically humming, and the twinkle lights are being hung with care. And with it, the speed of life is picking up from a steady fall of snowflakes to a blinding sideways torrent. You know what I’m talking about. Work deadlines and school papers, volunteering and purchasing gifts, managing relatives’ expectations, decorating and plugging into or pulling off holiday traditions. All of this and the hope that under the weight of the wind and flakes, we’ll wear a smile and bring a calm, jovial attitude to it all.

Enter the first grader. She’s so excited about anticipating the gifts, and the break ahead and the gifts that she can barely sleep at night (not to mention that her pockets are filled with empty candy wrappers from advent calendars, school staff and that kind bank teller). She saves up and uses every ounce of her best self-management skills with her teacher who she doesn’t want to disappoint. But loses it in a swirl of tears and sobs when she comes home hungry, tired and beaten by the storm.

Enter the sixth grader. He is concerned with his friends. And they’ve all checked out with school work. How can you possibly concentrate in class or study for Spanish when there are new video games to check out and play with one another online?

Enter the ninth grader. I’ll take the example of my son for this one. Thanksgiving break was enough to shift his focus fully to his passions and away from the hard work of school that is expected before the next long break. We noticed he could not get up in the morning this week. And we noticed our nagging quotient rising as it became more and more difficult to get him moving.

In schools, when there is not a social and emotional learning curriculum present, that learning still takes place but can be referred to as the hidden curriculum since the modeling of reacting to feelings and engaging in social interactions still occurs and children still learn from it – whether we like it or not. So too, we have a hidden social and emotional narrative operating during the holidays. When our impatience shows or we feel overwhelmed, we are likely burying any number of challenging emotions we just don’t feel we have time for.

John Lennon croons on the radio, “another year over” and he presses, “and what have you done?” We are coming to the end of another year and perhaps, reflections on that year are making our way into our heads as we busy about our days. And as we pull out our beloved decorations like the reindeer cut-outs produced by the small hands of our former kindergartner that hang on the banister, we may feel the sting of nostalgia and the sadness and loss of the hands that are not so small anymore. We may pull out ornaments from loved ones who are no longer with us and even, those who left us in the past year.

Brene Brown, the bestselling author and researcher, likes to say that when we wall off one emotion, we wall them all off. Can’t take the sadness? Then, you don’t get to experience the joy either. It’s just how we are wired. The media is so concerned with the phenomena of FOMO (the fear of missing out) but what about FOF (the fear of feelings)? It may be more palpable during this season. We might all take a fresh breath in the new year but in the meantime, why take the chance that we can allow this snowstorm of feeling to take us over and snap – saying something we regret to someone we love?

What can we do? And how can we help our children and teens too? Here are some ideas.

  1. Create a daily ritual.

What small – and I truly mean small (cause if it’s not, we won’t do it, right?) – practice can you do daily that will renew you? Deep breathing, listening to a calming piece of music, or lighting a candle and noticing the scent can all be restorative. Maybe you take time out for an afternoon cup of tea? 

And how can you help create a daily calming ritual for your child or teen? Perhaps think together about what best helps restore your son or daughter. Create a list and post it so they have a selection of options they can go to when they need some calm. Check out this example!

2. Feel the feelings.

Sometimes the moment at hand is not the moment for your big feelings. And so there are important reasons we table our emotions and use our self-management skills to cope, distract and reframe. But if we continue to suppress big feelings, they will emerge louder and stronger and we’ll feel that blinding snowstorm beating us down, like it or not. That’s biologically how our feelings gain our attention. So carve out a space for journaling and writing down what you are experiencing. You might consider: what are the many or possibly mixed emotions you are feeling? Where are they coming from? How can you let them in so that you can feel through them to the other side? Because some – like sadness – can feel so uncomfortable that we feel as if they’ll last forever but no snowstorm ever lasted forever. They are temporary. That reminder can help us be brave and accept our walk through the storm.

For your children and teens, sit down and take the time to reflect with them if they are “off.” Pinpoint together what’s going on. Name the feelings. For younger children, use emojis, draw pictures or use a feelings list to help them express what’s going on inside. Just the simple act of identifying frustrations together can help remove some of the intensity as they feel heard and understood.

3. Make a plan for the really big storms.

If we believe that our own or our children’s feelings storms will not come, we are simply kidding ourselves. We know they will. It’s only human. So plan for those moments. And check out the following simple tools to help you plan ahead.

For tweens, teens and adults, check out the Family Emotional Safety Plan, a one-page printable that will help you decide what you will do when you get really upset and need to calm down.

For younger children, I love teaching them self-management skills by proactively creating a safe base that is ready and equipped for them to self-select to calm down and feel better. Learn more about how to do that here.

Perhaps the most comforting notion is that the blinding part of the snowstorm passes – just as emotions do – and sometimes quickly in the scheme of things. And what’s left is the beauty and magic of a blanket of pure white snow that we can appreciate and enjoy with our loved ones. Wishing you that enjoyment this season! 

Learning about Holidays Around the World…

This is a Confident Parents’ favorite already viewed by many this season.

Because of the numerous holidays celebrated through the fall and winter months, it is an ideal time to discuss how people celebrate around the world – both the uniqueness of traditions and also the many commonalities. I was struck by the number of similar themes and symbols when I did the research for the following world holiday facts. Most notably, the major holidays celebrate light in the darkness, show gratitude for food, family and life and pause for reflection or prayer. I was so enriched by learning about the beautiful traditions of celebrations around the world. I hope you will take a moment to share these with your family. Happy holidays!

Hanukkah
Cultural or Religious Origin: Judaism
Purpose: To celebrate a miracle that one day’s worth of oil lasted for eight days in the temple.
Symbols/Practices: For eight days, Jews light a special candleholder called a menorah.
Traditions: On Hanukkah, many Jews also eat special potato pancakes called latkes, sing songs, and spin a top called a dreidel to win chocolate coins, nuts or raisins. Families also give one gift each of the eight days.
http://www.jewfaq.org/holiday7.htm

Kwanzaa
Cultural or Religious Origin: African-American
Purpose: Started in the United States to celebrate African heritage for seven days based on African harvest festivals and focused on seven African principles including family life and unity. The name means “first fruits” in Swahili.
Symbols/Practices: Participants wear ceremonial clothing and decorate with fruits and vegetables.
Traditions: They light a candleholder called a kinara and exchange gifts.
http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/kwanzaa-history

Chinese New Year
Cultural or Religious Origin: China
Purpose: Celebrate the new year.
Symbols/Practices: Silk dragon in a grand parade is a symbol of strength. According to legend, the dragon hibernates most of the year, so people throw firecrackers to keep the dragon awake. Each new year is symbolized by a Zodiacal animal that predicts the characteristics of that year. 2016 will be the year of the monkey.
Traditions: Many Chinese children dress in new clothes. People carry lanterns and join in a huge parade led by a silk dragon. People take time off of work for seven days and celebrate the feast with family.
http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/chinese-new-year

Diwali
Cultural or Religious Origins: Hindu, India
Purpose: The festival of lights honors Lakshmi, India’s goddess of prosperity. It celebrates the inner light that protects all from spiritual darkness.
Symbols/Practices: Millions of lighted clay saucers with oil and a cotton wick are placed near houses and along roads at night.
Traditions: Women float these saucers in the sacred Ganges River, hoping the saucers will reach the other side still lit. Farmers dress up their cows with decorations and treat them with respect. The farmers show their thanks to the cows for helping the farmers earn a living.
http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/explore/diwali/

La Posada
Cultural or Religious Origins: Mexico and parts of Central America, Christian
Purpose: Reenacts the journey Joseph and Mary took to find shelter to give birth to their son, Jesus. It is a festival of acceptance asking, “Who will receive the child?”
Symbols/Practices: Candle light, song, prayer, actors dressing as Mary and Joseph
Traditions: People celebrate through song and prayer doing musical re-enactments of the journey. In Mexico and many parts of Central America, people celebrate La Posada in church during the nine days before Christmas. It is a reenactment of the journey Joseph and Mary took to find shelter before the birth of their child, Jesus
http://gomexico.about.com/od/festivalsholidays/a/posadas.htm

Boxing Day
Cultural or Religious Origins: United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Holland
Purpose: To share gratitude and give to the poor.
Symbols/Practices: Alms boxes were placed in churches to collect donations for the poor.
Traditions: Servants were given the day off as a holiday. Charitable works are performed. And now major sporting events take place.
http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/boxingday.shtml

Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr
Cultural or Religious Origin: Islam, Muslim
Purpose: An entire month is spent re-focusing on Allah (God) and participating in self-sacrifice to cleanse the spirit.
Symbols/Practices: The crescent moon and a star are shown to indicate a month of crescent moons in the night sky. Participants pray daily in mosques. On Eid al-Fitr, they break the fast by dressing in their finest clothing, decorating homes with lights and decorations and giving treats to kids.
Traditions: Not only do celebrants abstain from food, drink, smoke, sexual activity and immoral behavior during the days of Ramadan, they also work to purify their lives by forgiving others and behaving and thinking in positive, ethical ways. They break their fast each day by eating with family and friends after sunset. Breaking the fast on Eid al-Fitr involves making contributions to the poor and gratefulness.
http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/ramadan

Omisoka
Cultural or Religious Origin: Japan
Purpose: This is the Japanese New Year.
Symbols/Practices: Thoroughly cleaning house to purify it.
Traditions: People remove any clutter and clean their homes to purify them for the new year. They have a giant feast with traditional foods. There’s a national talent competition. Bells ring at midnight and people go to pray at Shinto shrines.
http://www.kidzworld.com/article/26414-omisoka-japanese-new-year

St. Lucia Day
Cultural or Religious Origin: Sweden
Purpose: To honor a third-century saint who was known as a “bearer of light” through dark Swedish winters.
Symbols/Practices: With a wreath of burning candles worn on their heads, girls dress as Lucia brides in long white gowns with red sashes.
Traditions: The Lucia brides wake up their families by singing songs and bringing them coffee and twisted saffron buns called “Lucia cats.”
https://sweden.se/culture-traditions/lucia/

Christmas
Cultural or Religious Origin: Christianity and Secular
Purpose: To celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, believed by Christians to be the son of God. For the non-religious, the purpose is to give gifts, receive gifts from Santa Claus and celebrate with loved ones.
Symbols/Practices: Santa Claus who was originally named after St. Nicolas, a bishop in Turkey, who was a giver of gifts to children. The evergreen tree was originally a German tradition. The star is the guiding light that led to the animal manger where the baby was born.
Traditions: Presents are delivered in secret by Santa Claus on Christmas Eve while families are sleeping. Families and friends exchange gifts.
http://www.history.com/topics/christmas

Counting the Blessings of Our Children

Reflecting on the Best in Our Children this Thanksgiving

As we begin our break for the Thanksgiving holiday, I am reflecting on how I might bring more gratitude into my life and my family’s life. I finished up our work/school responsibilities yesterday by attending my son’s parent-advisor conference at school. I felt well-prepared for that meeting thanks to last week’s article from Dr. Jenny Woo and as she predicted, the conversation began with problems-to-fix but I found myself able to shift the conversation to talk of progress, learning growth, social and emotional well-being and strengths on which to build. From that meeting in moving toward Thanksgiving preparations, I realized there’s more I can do to ruminate less on the details of the meal and the household and more on the gratitude I have for my son and my family. It’s easy to slip into a habit of ruminating on worries but that only produces more of the same (and doesn’t fix anything). Additionally, we are often engaged in trying to get others to reflect and participate. But change starts within particularly with a mindset like gratitude which can serve as a lens through which we view our lives and our loved ones.

So consider with me the benefits of ruminating a bit this season on the gifts, assets and blessings of the children in your household. I see multiple benefits including:

  • a mindful awareness of loved ones and how they contribute to your life;
  • An enhancing of your own sense of well-being as you not only accept but appreciate your children right where and as they are (not in some imagined successful future state);
  • A modeling for others of what it means to deeply appreciate others in the family; and
  • Extended patience, understanding and forgiveness for anything that might go awry (a spilled juice mess at the dinner table?) because of your appreciative thinking.

Though the clock always seems to be ticking with our children and teens, for me, having a teenager in the house has sensitized me to the fact that we have less of a time horizon with him around in our household. How can I make the most of it?

This holiday, I’m going to practice reflecting on gratitude for him, his friends, my niece, our neighbor’s kids and the many children and teens in our lives. Here are some fun ways you can do just that:

  1. The Best of Each Age

I began with going through each age and naming the top things I loved about that age. Spend time thinking this through while you are peeling potatoes, share in dialogue about it with your partners or other family members or even make a chart for all family members to fill in. Imagine what you might learn about the memories and appreciations of other family members’ experiences of your child at each age.

Age 1: He had such a determination to walk and such pride when he was able to. I remember him parading down the street with his go-cart looking up at the neighbors to ensure they were watching him take those strong steps forward on his own.

Age 2. etc.

Age 3.

Age 4.

Age 5. 

2. Doing a present-day gratitude inventory.

Consider what it is you appreciate about your child’s physical abilities, social abilities, and emotional skills. You could use Howard Gardners’ full list of intelligences: 1. Spatial; 2. Interpersonal; 3. Intrapersonal; 4. Linguistic; 5. Musical; 6. Naturalist; 7. Logical-mathematical; and 8. Bodily.-kinesthetic.1 This could be your own journal reflection or post pictures of children with space to write what famiiy members see, value and appreciate.

3. Follow a passion.

In preschool research and practice, this is called “sharing the focus.”2 Yet focusing on someone’s passion at any age may offer one of the most significant demonstrations of love. Commit a full hour, half day or full day during the break to be mindfully present to learning about a passion of your child or teen. We’ll be spending a full day at the biggest model train show of the year, our son’s passion. What are your children passionate about? How can you offer the gift of your full attention to show that what’s important to them is important to you.

We are given the gift of a holiday this season that centers our focus on family and gratitude. This break from school and work can bring us social comfort as we deeply connect with those we love. It can offer emotional support as we focus our mind and energies on appreciating the abundance in our good lives, a feeling that fundamentally alters anxiety and brings us into a more peaceful state. I wish you all these benefits by being intentional about where you focus your mind and energies this Thanksgiving.

Here are some of my favorite books on gratitude!

“We are Grateful; Ostaliheliga” by Traci Sorrell

Adult Books Nonfiction:

“Making Grateful Kids; The Science of Building Character” by Jeffrey J. Froh and Giacomo Bono

“Gratitude Works; A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity” by Robert A. Emmons

References

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: the theory of multiple intelligences. New York, Basic Books.

Center on the Developing Child.  Five Steps for Brain-Building Serve and Return. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

How to Have Productive and Honest Dialogues at Parent-Teacher Conferences

By Jenny Woo, PhD

My very first parent-teacher conference as a new parent was disheartening. I remember holding back my tears and walking out of the room feeling judged and diminished. I had a hard time shaking off these feelings for weeks.

Here’s the irony: my son was fine—he was not in trouble and was on track academically and socially. Yet, it was the way that teacher had talked to me: the tone of voice, the dominating stare, and the anticipatory pause. I felt inferior and reduced in her presence. Second irony: this was only a preschool conference!

This formidable experience took place before I became an educator myself. Having played a role on both ends, I believe conferences are a time of anticipation and strain for both parents and teachers. In a single day, teachers meet with 15-20+ parents/caregivers for 10-20 minutes with no downtime. Back-to-back meetings are tiresome. When one session runs late, the train derails. The prep work leading up to the conference can leave teachers feeling frazzled and drained.

The parent-teacher conference is an evaluation of everyone’s progress and expectations. It’s a time for parents and teachers to sync up on a student’s progress at school. Inevitably, it’s also a time when parents and teachers size up each other to understand why the student is saying what they are and behaving the way they do—and in some cases, whether the stuff the student told about a teacher (or a parent) is true. If parent-teacher conferences are an evaluation, no wonder all parties come to the table feeling raw and vulnerable.

To mask discomfort, parents and teachers often rely on ritualistic pleasantries and surface-level recaps of the progress report. As a result, parents may leave the meeting empty-handed and mildly dissatisfied. Or worse, an unexpected comment could leave parents feeling blindsided and paranoid.

How do we have productive and honest dialogues at our next parent-teacher conference? Below I propose goals, questions, and strategies to make the most of your conference.

Focus on Progress.

Many times, we walk into a conference curious about how many kids in our child’s class got a particular grade. Or we’re compelled to ask the teacher how other students did compared to your child. This may stem from our need to gauge where our child stands and, for competitive parents, a need to feel validated. When we do this, we place unnecessary pressure on ourselves and our children, deviating from what we really should be focusing on: progress.

Instead, we can ask: 

“Is my child performing at grade level?”

“In which areas has my child shown (or not shown) progress since you’ve known him/her?”

“How do you measure progress?”

“What might be holding my child back from progressing?” (i.e. knowledge, skill, confidence, motivation, self-discipline, focus)

“What does progress look like for my child?”

These questions will help you quickly understand how your child is doing and pinpoint areas of growth, needs, and barriers. Equipped with this insight, you can work with your child to celebrate recent successes, set specific and visible goals, and direct efforts toward individual growth.

Understand Your Child’s Performance Across Domains.

Kids develop at different paces and excel differently across various domains. Howard Gardner proposes evaluating intelligence (competence) by modality, such as musical, interpersonal, visual-spatial, and bodily-kinesthetic.

In parent-teacher conferences, conversations often isolate academic performance, which is related to the verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical domains. However, your child’s teacher may also be able to offer insights on domains such as your child’s interpersonal and intrapersonal skills.

We can ask:

“How does my child do in social situations with peers?”

“How does my student contribute to the class atmosphere?”

“In what subject does my child struggle/excel?”

“In what kinds of activities has my child performed particularly well?”

“Does my child get easily frustrated? Can you give me an example of the context?”

Understanding your child’s academic, social, emotional, and behavioral tendencies will help everyone better understand how to relate to and motivate your child. Understanding which domain(s) your child excels in will also help you to address areas of weaknesses creatively with a strength-based approach. For example, if your child is highly musical, then he/she can practice language skills through singing and songwriting. Remember: our goal is to spark and preserve the joy of learning in our children.

Build Lasting Partnerships.

The truth hurts sometimes. Even the slightest blemish could feel like judgment and criticism on our part. Therefore, it’s even more important to remember that everyone in the meeting wants what’s best for your child.

If your child has complained or said negative things about their teacher to you, you could be walking into the conference with a biased outlook. If you are shocked by the grades on your child’s report card, you might be walking into the room feeling defensive, perhaps even combative.

A child can behave differently at school than at home. The conference serves as an excellent opportunity to establish home-school partnership to define and align language, expectations, and norms surrounding the child.

We often expect the teacher to do most of the talking and sharing. However, to sync up, you must be willing to share situations and developments at home that could impact your child’s engagement at school. 

Viewing the conference as an opportunity to reciprocate coaching can give your child the best support in and out of school. This is not the time to point fingers or erect barriers. By speaking the truth, you give the teacher the permission to do so, as well. This mutual understanding creates a safe place for honest and objective dialogues.

Remember, the purpose of these meetings is to create:

  • Open dialogue between the parent and teacher.
  • Honest conversation about student’s progress and performance.
  • Collaboration and involvement in student’s education.

Click here for a printable list of “Progress-Performance-Partnership” questions to ask during your next Parent-Teacher Conference. 

For strategies to strengthen your partnership with your child’s teacher, check out 52 Essential Relationships. To support your child in commonly struggled social situations at school, check out 52 Essential Social Skills for K-3rd grades, Social Situations for 3-6th grades, and Social Dilemmas for 6-8th grades.

Reference:

Gardner, H. E. (2008). Multiple intelligences: New horizons in theory and practice. Basic books.

DrJenny Woo is a Harvard-trained educator, TEDx speaker, and founder/CEO of Mind Brain Parenting.  Jenny is the creator of a series of award-winning emotional intelligence games: 52 Essential Conversations, 52 Essential Relationships, 52 Essential Critical Thinking Skills, and 52 Essential Coping Skills. Her games have won the 2018 Parents’ Choice Awards, 2021 National Parenting Product Awards. Based in Irvine, CA, Jenny is a mother to three elementary-age children. 

Spreading Factual Information about Social and Emotional Learning

Parents are Leading the Way

Since summertime, a broad-based coalition of partners from youth-focused organizations like Highlights for Children, Communities In Schools and Committee for Children to educational associations like the School Superintendents Association to researchers like the American Psychological Association, Harvard’s Making Caring Common, and the American Institutes for Research along with Confident Parents, Confident Kids (25 in all) have come together to dedicate ourselves to putting out factual information about the critical nature of social and emotional learning in our schools, in our homes and in our communities. You know because you are a reader and follower that social and emotional learning equips our children, our teens, and ourselves with the skills and abilities to deeply know ourselves (a lifelong process), come to know, understand, empathize and show care for others, to create, grow and sustain healthy relationships (through listening, communication, conflict management and more) and make ethical, responsible decisions that do no harm to self, others or the environment. Here are some of the important facts we are sharing.

Independent polls confirm that:

  • 88% of parents want students to learn social and emotional skills in our schools.
  • 93% of teachers want social and emotional learning in their classrooms.
  • 86% say social and emotional learning is more important since the pandemic.
  • 75%+ say social and emotional learning can create a positive classroom climate.
  • 88% of parents are concerned about how schools address violence, mental health and emotional needs (National Parents Union).
  • 89% of parents are concerned with not preparing children for their future (National Parents Union).
  • 90% of teachers agree that social and emotional learning would improve students’ academic achievement.
  • Students participating in social and emotional learning increased academic performance by 11 percentile points.

Another key fact: separating social and emotional learning and academics is a false choice, one we don’t have to make. They integrate with, support and even boost one another just as we must integrate self awareness, collaboration and responsible decision making in our lives throughout our day and the many roles we play.

Unsure of what social and emotional learning looks like and feels like? We may have a sense in the preschool years but what about elementary, middle and high school? What about a whole district approach? And what about staff and how they model social and emotional skills? Check out these video shorts from Edutopia (the George Lucas Educational Foundation) to get a clearer sense of how it looks for our students!

Integrating SEL and Literacy — in Pear-Cohn Magnet High School

The Big Picture: Integrating SEL Across a District — Metro Nashville Public Schools

Building Adult Capacity for Social and Emotional Learning – How does professional development help staff model social and emotional skills among adults in a school?

If you are inspired to raise your voice for this critical issue as we enter voting season, there are a number of ways you can become an advocate.

  1. Post key messages on social media. You can find them here!
  2. Contact decision-makers from school boards to policymakers. We’ve made it easy! Check out these templates you can fill in and send.
  3. Write an op-ed for local media. We’ve put together lots of guidance to help you get started!
  4. Hold a conversation with other parents or educators in your school. Check out this conversation tool that makes it easy!

Join us! This is a time to stand up for what we know to be true and important for our children and teen’s development. This is not a political party-specific issue but an issue all of us can embrace who love and care for children. Help us spread the word that we know a focus on social and emotional development is just as critical as reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. Don’t miss the videos of parents and caregivers throughout the country sharing their stories of what social and emotional learning has meant to their families.

For more, visit Leading with SEL.

The Best of Confident Parents’ Halloween Posts…

The Hidden Treat of Halloween; Practicing Perspective-Taking

“There is more to the Halloween experience than just candy and frights. Children are encouraged to be someone or something else for one night a year. Halloween gives them a chance to think and feel from another perspective. The skill of perspective-taking is one that has been found to assist in problem-solving, communication, multi-cultural understanding, empathy and academic performance.

But how does perspective-taking relate to all of those aforementioned critical life skills? When do children begin learning to take another’s perspective? And how can parents encourage the development of these skills?”

Helping Our Children Deal with their Fears

“Understanding fear and how it impacts our children can help us be more responsive and empathetic parents. We can learn how to raise kids who are courageous. We can learn a lot from a study done at Virginia Tech with expert scholars who have had a 60-75% success rate in tackling severe child phobias.” Check out these simple steps that promote resilience and courage with kids in the midst of their fears.

Can You Figure Out these Illusions?

Check out this series of illusions and see if you can figure them out! Happy Halloween fun!

Fear — And the Mysterious Case of the Disappearing Parent

Want to read a short scary story? This one’s for parents’ eyes only and it is indeed fiction (though it may be true to life!). Meet Janie and Mercury Jones and learn how their friendship helped them confront the ghosts of the past and by doing so, become better parents.

Halloween Cooperative Games – Online and In-person!

Yes, these have been tested in classroom after classroom and the results = laughter and giggles! Try out one or all of them this Halloween!

The Importance of Fear and Sensitivity; And Resisting the Threatening Allure of Zombies

How do we, as parents, develop a healthy relationship with fear so that we can model and practice courage and resilience with our children and teens? Check out these reflective questions to ask yourself!

The Importance of Fear and Sensitivity

And Resisting the Threatening Allure of Zombies!

Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” – Pema Chodron

Our strength will continue if we allow ourselves the courage to feel scared, weak, and vulnerable.”  – Melody Beattie

It’s that time of year when we intentionally find ways to scare ourselves whether it’s through horror movies, haunted houses, or frightening costumes. Yet fear is not relegated to the month of October. The role of fear can loom large in our everyday family lives. Our children can show their fears when we are leaving for an extended weekend and they are scared to be away from us. They can fight bedtime and turning off the lights at night for fear of what the dark might bring. They might fear a speech they have to give in class the next day in front of their peers. And how we react to those fears and to our own can help determine their understanding of the role of fear in their lives.

We too as parents experience fears regularly though we may not express them in the same obvious ways. When we fear for our chidren’s safety whether walking on a busy street when they are small, eating at a party when our child has a life-threatening food allergy, or sending them off to an overnight where we are unsure about the family or environment they are entering, we can harbor any number of fears. We can react with anger or edginess as we attempt to cope and exert control over what we are able. And our children may not understand that underneath that edge is fear. Because we become adept at masking our fears with other emotions, we can train our children — and kid ourselves! – that’s there’s just no place or space for fears except to laugh them off at Halloween. We may send the signal that they play no significant role – except when we need to scare them into doing something to stay safe. We may even impulsively or unconsciously shut them down quick because of the discomfort they produce. Vulnerability – our own or our child’s – can feel unbearable. But beware…

Therein lies the threatening allure of the zombies! “I wish he weren’t so sensitive,” you might think about your anxious child. And so too as adults, we seek out any number of numbing agents to escape more and feel less. Yet, numbing shuts down a number of systems that are vital to our healthy relationships and personal success including:

our survival warning system that we require to help us know when a real threat is 

present or approaching;

self awareness, or our ability to get in touch with our internal state, to name what’s 

truly going on inside and to reflect on what that information means for our choices;

empathy, or our ability to understand what another person is feeling (even if we are not

currently feeling the same way);

self-regulation, or the ability to manage our impulses, to make reflective choices, and 

to persist in facing fears and moving toward our intentions or goals;

responsible decision-making, or the ability to empathize with others while projecting 

ahead to the consequences of our actions and makiing decisions that do no harm to 

ourselves or others;

agency, our confidence in our own ability to meet the challenges we face;

courage, or the ability to face into fears that don’t pose imminent destructive harm but 

move us toward hopes, dreams and goals (even and especially if they are judged, 

criticized or not socially or culturally accepted); and

the opportunity for excitement or thrill over new possibilities, the potential 

for accessing truth, and making change or transforming outdated patterns.

Let’s take a look at fears we can inadvertently instill in our children that work against our goals for them of courage, confidence and resilience.

If Our Pendulum Swings to Protection…

In our care and diligence about our parenting, we have to be careful not to attempt to shield children from the truth of our lives. “Many parents I encounter don’t tell their kids they’ve been diagnosed with cancer,” my friend told me after undergoing treatment over the past year while raising two school-aged children. “But I take my children to my appointments. I tell them what I’m going through. I want to trust them so I know they have to trust me. I have to be honest with them.” Her ability to share the truth of her situation with her children helped her family rally together around her health and support one another during incredibly challenging times. And she voiced how grateful she felt. Yet another Mom said, “I just don’t take my child to funerals. She doesn’t need to experience and be confused by that until she has to and someone really close to her dies.” But how will your daughter learn about the process of mourning before it becomes high stakes? Shielding our children and teens from the pain or fears or struggles of life leaves them with no opportunities to reflect, to learn and to exercise resilience muscles which are necessary over a lifetime.

If Our Pendulum Swings Back to Stoic Performance…

In our care and diligence in our parenting, we can dig into our notions of a single path to “success.” Our child must get top grades and excel in extracurriculars in order to go to a strong high school in order to take advanced placement courses in order to get into a top college in order to… Children are encouraged to specialize in a sport or musical instrument younger and younger and discouraged from trying anything new in middle or high school because surely, they’ll fail. Surely, they’ll lag behind since others have much more experience. And the point of this line of thinking is to perform and how mastery. But at what price? If the price is daily anxiety, that price is too high. The lack of ability to try new things and risk failure creates inflexibility and rigidity. It actually produces new fears that will manifest as problems today and in the future — fearing failure, fearing trying new experiences.

Right-Sizing to a Healthy Relationship with Fear

Developing a healthy relationship with fear means accepting and even valuing its presence. It requires us to become honest and vulnerable with ourselves and each other. Voicing when we are scared and how we are scared is an important start. What is your deepest, darkest fear? Voicing it will not make it come true. How can you share those fears with your loved ones so that they can gain important insights into what you value and what is most challenging for you? Only then can they truly see and value you for your whole self. Only then, can your children feel safe enough with you to share their whole selves.

Now What?!

…you say, “okay, so I poured my soul out to my family. Now what?”

As we are formulating our healthy relationship with fear, we need to unpack what the fear is requiring of our wisest selves. So here are some important questions to ask:

  1. Is the fear going to cause you or someone you love significant physical or emotional harm?

Sometimes facing our fear requires us to take the risk of emotional harm – as in rejection in social relationships – so we have to weigh whether or not it’s important to lean into that fear or not. Broken hearts register in our body chemistry and brains similarly to the way in which a physical injury might register so we cannot just consider physical harm.1

If yes, then your wiser self might advise you to move away from your fear.

If no, then your wiser self might advise you to move toward your fear. 

2. Is the person, situation or experience feared an imminent or perceived threat?

In other words, is there a loaded gun held by an angry person pointed at you or is there a worry of an angry person who is not present and may or may not harm you? 

If imminent, safety is the first priority.

If perceived, then getting quiet, breathing deeply and going inside to reflect (maybe journal?) will help you access your wiser self to make a responsible choice.

3. Is the fear keeping me from an important goal or aspiration?

These are fears that offer an important challenge to lean into, to risk failure or rejection.

In this case, your wiser self might advise you to stove up your courage and move toward versus move away.

4. Is the fear overpowering a deeply held principle or ethical code?

In this case, your wiser self might call for moral courage to lean into whatever barriers are creating injustice and crossing critical boundaries.

Mark Twain wrote, “courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”  We need our children and teens to learn to not always run from fear or pretend, like a zombie, that it doesn’t exist. Instead, how can we teach them that the roles fear plays in signaling us to deeply reflect gives us the opportunity to be our wisest, most courageous selves?

For further reading, check out:

Emotional Agility; Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life by Susan David

Doing the Right Thing; Twelve Portraits of Moral Courage by Tom Cooper

Reference:

  1. Sturgeon JA, Zautra AJ. Social pain and physical pain: shared paths to resilience. Pain Management. 2016;6(1):63-74. doi: 10.2217/pmt.15.56. Epub 2015 Dec 17. PMID: 26678402; PMCID: PMC4869967.

Transforming Whining into Positive Connections

Mooooommmmm, I don’t want to do my homework,” seven-year-old Elaina says in a nasily, high-pitched, and sing-song (in a fingernails-on-a-chalkboard, not melodic) way. The powerful whine is wielded to get her Mom’s attention. And it works every time. How can you not hear, turn toward, and grimace at that tone? In fact, research confirms what we already know — that whining is the most annoying sound we can hear beyond crying or yelling which also makes it a power tool for our children and teens. Though whining peaks between the ages of two and four, this tool is not limited to the young. We encounter adults who whine in the workplace when the work is stacked high or whine at partners who face a pile of dishes. 

Because whining is so irritating, we, as parents or educators, often don’t react in the best ways. “Stop whining!” might be an automatic response or “Just do your job!” may be another. Both expressions are likely to be said with force and aggression since we reactively want to match the astringent tone with the same level of emotional energy. In order to become adept at reacting to whining, we need to understand the motivation behind it. The whining may be an attempt to:

  • gain more connection with you. With children, often any attention, even if it’s negative, is good attention;
  • get a physical need met. Hungry? Tired? A mash-up of these is more often the case.
  • get an emotional need met. Children may be upset and seeking your support and understanding.
  • seek comfort and solace in behaviors from their younger years. As our children grow older, they retain all of the ages and stages from their past and can fall back to old habits when they are feeling sensitive and vulnerable.
  • gain control of their situation. If your family has been particularly stressed, you might experience your child whining more frequently. 
  • Avoid responsibilities. Children can feel overwhelmed by the mound of school work they have or a full messy room you are directing them to clean up.

Our responses then can be most successful if we address their motivation. Keep in mind that all whining is a request for your attention. How you respond can turn around the situation so that your child feels supported and knows how to gain your attention without using his caustic power tool: whining. Here are some easy tips.

Teach Positive Ways to Ask for Attention.

What could your child say or do that would guarantee your attention to their needs? Often we inadvertently reinforce whining only offering our focused attention when that annoying communication tool is used. Instead, practice ways your child could genuinely gain your focus. “Mom, I could really use a hug right now.” “Dad, I want to tell you about what happened to me today.” After practicing together what you want your child to say, work on recognizing when they are asking in appropriate ways and give them attention in response. Also, if your child is frequently interrupting you when you are talking to another, how can you create a hand signal to get your attention so that they don’t have to interrupt you to get their needs met? Maybe they raise their hand or you give each other a high five indicating you’ll be with them in just a minute. 

Trading Places — Dramatically Play through Gaining Attention

This strategy is best used if played (read: practiced) in advance. If your child is in the midst of whining to you, stop and say, “Switch!” See if you might change places — you playing the child, your daughter playing Mom. Now, Mom gets to whine and see how daughter will respond. If she struggles, then you might ask “How can we help you feel better? How can we help me feel better too?

Be Certain to Have Sacred Time Together Each Day

If your child is whining for greater connection, they may only increase their efforts until they get that attention from you. If you have multiple siblings to share your attention among, why not create a daily ritual in which you can solely focus one-on-one time on each? Perhaps bedtime is an opportunity for a five-minute time to connect and share with one another thoughts from the day? When the whining occurs, you might mention that you are looking forward to that special time together.

Identify the Feeling

The whining may be occurring because your child is feeling sensitive or hurt. How can you help meet that emotional need? First, name the feeling to help your child figure out what’s going on inside of her and show you are working to seek understanding. “Are you feeling sad? How can we help you feel better?” might be all that is needed — that and a good hug — to chase the blues away.

Meet Physical Needs

Can you tell or do you know that your child is simply worn out? Time to take a break and work on a consistent bedtime routine so that a full night’s sleep awaits. Do you know your child is hungry, or in this case, hangry? Try out a high protein snack to see if it might do the trick.

Break Down Big Responsibilities into Small, Manageable Ones

Children can easily become overwhelmed with too many choices, or too many tasks. And that overwhelm can contribute to whining and giving up trying. That’s why it helps to recognition when they are feeling like it’s all too much. Break down any homework or clean up tasks in one small step at a time. “Do you want to put away your Legos or your books?” Or “Do you want to begin with your math worksheet or spelling words?” This will teach them how to manage their work load and prevent future whining episodes.

Notice Positive Attention-Seeking Behaviors

All too often we get in the habit of calling out behaviors we want to change but when things are going smoothly, we are simply relieved and don’t say anything. When you see improvement, tell your child in the moment what they are doing well, particularly if it is a behavioral issue you are working on with him. Be specific. “I notice you waited until I was finished with my conversation to ask me a question. I realize that takes patience and I appreciate it.”

Plan for your Own Reactions

Naturally, we’ll want to cringe when our child whines to get our attention. After all, that’s the intended reaction to bring full attention to the child whining. But if we think ahead, decide how we’ll react, we can lessen future whining instead of unwittingly encouraging it with our negative responses. What can you do to help yourself remember to stop, breathe, and pause before responding? Post a note on the refrigerator? Wear a red bracelet? Then, practice moving toward your child to show support. If you are too annoyed and it will clearly show in your voice, don’t talk. Place your hand on their shoulder, rub their back or hold their hand. Show that you are trying to understand and support them acknowledging they are having a rough time.

Connect More During Stressful Family Times

Whether you are moving, renovating, having a baby, or dealing with the passing of a loved one, these stressful times can become ripe conditions for your child to whine more. And those are precisely the times when we do not react well considering that we may already be stressed to our limits. So during particularly stressful times, we can help ourselves by creating more frequent opportunities for loving connection with our children. Add more hugs, more snuggles, and more time to read together to help get through the rougher times together showing support for one another.

Simply put, if you are dealing with a whining child, it requires a little more of your time to focus on that child. As you offer more positive connections, you’ll experience less whining. And all family members can feel a greater sense of loving connection.

The Natural, Necessary and Unnecessary Pressures on a High Schooler

And How Parents Can Best Support and Not Add Unnecessary Pressure

Academic rigor, sports, theater, band, college testing and applications, and dating and dances are just a few of the expanse of performance pressures our high schoolers face. Not to mention, the developmental imperative all teenagers must grapple with in finding their tribe, their people, their friends and fully redefining their identity for themselves sometimes in opposition to parents’ or social expectations. And the knob of the pressure dial can be turned up or down depending upon the push or support of each of the influential others in their lives including caregivers, peers, friends, teachers, coaches and their school community. Some of these are natural and necessary – like experimentation with dating, like discovering your authentic identity, and like trying out passions in music or sports. But other pressures are unnecessary and as always, parents play a pivotal role.

Many of these pressures concern students performing to show mastery. Whether its GPAs, standardized tests like college entrance exams, or highly competitive extracurriculars, we seem to be pushing harder and harder. Whereas there was one game a week and practice a few nights, now teens are playing multiple sports, traveling and required to practice daily when not playing games. “We didn’t take a vacation this year because our daughter started practice for soccer in June and the season is finally now coming to an end. We are exhausted and dreaming of reclaiming our weekends and also, traveling next year when we can find the time,” confessed my dental hygientist as she cleaned my teeth this past week.

In some ways, teens’ experiences have improved. “I was told in high school as I looked to my future that I had three career choices – becoming a teacher, a nurse or a secretary,” a grandmother told me as we waited for our kids at pick up time. There are certainly many more choices for women and for anyone who is not a white American male (though of course, there’s still much work to do). But with those choices, there’s incredible complexity and increased pressure to compete.

Additionally and importantly, it seems our aims in high school turn to how every choice, every action contributes to a teen’s impending big future. But what about today? What about this moment of development as an end in itself, perfect as is? When do we take a snapshot of our fourteen-year-old realizing that the social, emotional and mental assets they have today will not exist next year. They may bring an innocence to their views of the world, a creativity and openness to ideas opened up by their teenage mind that may not be present in a future time. Perhaps they have a deep sense of justice and fairness today that could get buried and suppressed in the future? Maybe every moment shouldn’t be focused on a future day in adult life but on right where they are – uniquely a teen?

As influential individuals in our teen’s lives, it’s important to take a step back from social expectations and reflect on our own values and hopes and dreams. If we do not, we will swim in our particular school of fish and mimic the cultural and social expectations around us. Or we will project our own desires and will on them forgetting that they have their own will, heart and purpose in this world. However, if we want our teens to grow in their responsible decision-making skills, that requires our modeling thoughtfulness about why we are doing what we are doing and ensuring there’s clear alignment of our choices with our values.

As a teen parent, we need lots of grace and understanding ourselves. The teenage years pass by with lightening speed. Often, our heads are reeling from the pace of their growth and development. And if the clock wasn’t ticking before, it’s now ticking so loudly we cannot ignore that the runway is short for their time left in our home with our rules. And we have plenty of moments of mourning, grieving the loss of their younger, more captive selves who needed you in ways that may have been taxing at the time but now, we look back on with nostalgia. They do not quite have those chunky sweet cheeks of their baby days and are highly engaged in their friendships and their own life that may or may not be unfolding in ways you personally would choose.

In order to determine what you truly believe and how your beliefs align with your words and actions with your teen, consider these reflective questions:

  1. What if you didn’t have a tomorrow or a next year with your teen? What are your hopes and dreams for your teen today?
  2. What developmental assets does your teen have today (that we know are fleeting)? How can you recognize what those are and how you are recognizing, celebrating and building on those strengths?
  3. What are your very specific hopes and dreams for your teen’s future? 
  4. What’s in your control and your responsibility related to your teen’s life and what should be in their control if we are truly promoting their growing independence, knowing they will be ready for some responsibilities and not for others? 
  5. What are your emotional boundaries with your teen about the ways they are living their life today and how that may or may not impact their future? What’s theirs to hold? What’s yours to hold?
  6. How have you been pushed? How have you been supported? How have you felt about each method? How have you reacted to each? Did you ever feel forced into something? How did it go for you? What are your beliefs about the effectiveness of pushing versus supporting? Does each work and if so, when, or under what conditions?
  7. How do you exert your expectations — through pushing, through support? Is it aligned with your deepest values? Lining up your values on paper (two columns!) with your typical words and actions around their responsibilities and choices will help you measure whether there is true alignment.

It’s also helpful to have open-ended reflective conversations with your teen to discover how they are changing and what they believe and care about. Yesterday, I drove a friend’s daughter home from school, a sophomore. As I asked about what’s going on at school, she listed out the opportunities and the pressures — and there were indeed both. Her involvement in building theater sets was challenging in the best way. It fed her creative side and also, gave her a level of responsibility she’d never had before. But in school, they were taking PSATs and career assessments to determine what they want to be when they grow up. The career assessments focused on titles and disciplines – a limiting view of the possibilities. I asked her, “have you considered your gifts…what you love to do… when you lose your sense of time? How could those gifts be indicators of what you are here to do — how you can contribute the best of who you are to the world?” And I watched a light come over her face and she laughed. “Well, if they’d only asked me those questions. That’s a different story!” And we proceeded to talk about how in this knowledge worker, knowledge creator, innovative world we live in, where you can create your own career, why would you not explore those important questions of purpose, meaning and contribution?

You may respond, “but my son has to get into a reputable college, so that he can get a good starting salary so he can be independent so…” But what if all our pushing acts to demotivate our teens? What if it pushes them in the other direction? Or worse, they fear the bar is set so impossibly high that they choose not to try. It is no wonder we have so many teens grappling with anxiety.

There is a re-contracting of our parent-child relationship that has to occur in these teen years. And it will occur again in their emerging adult years (but let’s not go there yet!). How can we take the time to deeply reflect in this moment about how we are appreciating this teen before of us, the new boundaries we need to establish to offer greater responsibility and independence with our support in our safe environment and most importantly, offer and express our UNCONDITIONAL love as they work hard to figure it all out for themselves? Out of everything, out of all of our worries and diligence, it’s that unconditional love that matters most.

Want more? Check out…

The Anxious Achiever Podcast – The consequences of anxiety related to performance pressures are real and don’t go away during adulthood. In fact, often they increase. I love this podcast started by collaborator Morra Aarons-Mele called The Anxious Achiever. Our very own Confident Parent Lead writer Jason Miller was interviewed in Season 1, Episode 3. For more on adult anxiety (which has a significant impact on child and teen anxiety!), check this out!

The Swirling Vortex of Our Child’s Inner World

Teaching Your Tween or Teen to Name the Unnameable

“What’s going on?” I say at pick up time after school seeing a disturbed face on my son and feeling a strange energy from him. “I don’t know” he responds immediately with an annoyed tone. And that was all I got out of him until much later that evening. As he completed his homework and I worked nearby, he started talking. His friend had been unexpectedly mean to him at school and he didn’t know what to think about it. As we began to talk I could hear that he was angry that his friend was unkind in front of others. That anger, I suspected, disguised a bit of humiliation being verbally attacked in front of other friends. And as the story continued, it was clear, he was anxious about their friendship and what might happen when they encountered one another the next day.

I wonder if he would have told me this story if he had been able to name the strange, tangled mix of emotions that went along with his inner experience. It seems so simple to offer one label to our feelings and in the younger years, that one label – “sad” – is necessary to begin a child’s emotional vocabulary. But in the tween and teen years, our children can experience a swirling vortex of multiple feelings that may conflict with one another or seem not to make sense. Additionally, they’ve certainly been told by someone in their life whether a parent, grandparent, coach or teacher that they are fine,  to “move on” – when they’re not. There are a whole host of emotions that don’t get named because they are too vulnerable or too challenging for others to deal with — feelings like fear, jealousy, rejection, apathy, grief, disgust and more.

There’s a ride at our favorite amusement park we visit each year – Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio – called The Monster. The website describes the experience of riding The Monster as… 

“enveloping guests in pods of fear and tossing them about on a wild, wicked course…hapless riders spin independently all while tilting and jostling up and down. You might even catch a bit of weightlessness along the way, adding to the feeling of utter helplessness.”1

This might also aptly at times describe the inner experience of social drama. And unravelling those inner experiences can be quite a feat for any parent or caregiver attempting to read the situation and act as a positive emotional coach. Yet, there are major benefits to the practice of attuning to and naming your internal experience including self awareness and psychological well-being in addition, to becoming skilled at self management.2 Each time, a child seeks understanding from a caring adult by naming their feelings, they are learning to calm themselves down by telling their story and seeking support. “Name it to tame it” works!

So how can we help promote this emotional literacy at the tween and teen ages when the internal ride can become more volatile and unpredictable? Here are some ideas.

Keep a Feelings List at the Ready. Sometimes it’s easier to name your inner experience when the language is available for you. Lists help provide words for what otherwise might seem like a confusing unnameable labyrinth. When you notice particular emotions, name them and ask if you are accurate. Here’s the Big Feelings List from the “Confident Parents, Confident Kids” book.

Connect Body Sensations to Feelings. Is your stomach feeling icky? Does your head ache? Is your heart beating rapidly? Is your face temperature rising? Even subtleties in how your body feels can indicate feelings. Making those connections can help your child better manage them when, for example, they recognize the tummy ache before a test as nerves and do some deep breathing to manage it. Check in before and after your son or daughter has employed a coping strategy like deep breathing. Ask, “Now how do your insides feel?”

Write to Reflect. Journaling is a great way to uncover hidden feelings and tell your whole story. But sometimes children and teens don’t know what to write. So sometimes just offering a prompt can help such as, “tell your story as if to a best friend who is eager for all of the details.” Or ask for metaphors to describe what she’s feeling — “is it like a freight train ran you over or do you feel kicked in the gut?” Or check out our downloadable one-pager: Drama Dial-Down; A Quick Path for Teens to Mindfulness.

Name and Discern Which Inner Voice to Listen to. Around age eight or nine, you can begin to introduce the idea that each person has inner voices that speak to them. There’s an inner critic we all have that seeks to tear down even our best ideas. And there’s an inner wise elder who offers the best of who we are. As we know, the inner critic is loud and insistent particularly when we are about to take any kind of social risk. Yet if we are to act bravely and not succumb to it, we have to recognize that voice and insist it does not truly represent who we are or what we want. Our inner wise elder is much harder to hear. That’s why we have to pause, get quiet and allow ourselves the chance to listen deeply to what our best self has to offer the situation.

Turn Up the Feelings Talk But Stop Rumination. As you increase your discussion of your son or daughter’s internal state, you may notice stories repeating or worries repeating over and again. The open communication you’ve established has moved into rumination. Discussing, leaning into and moving through a feeling – even and especially challenging ones – is critical. But rumination is unproductive and leaves the individual on the ride of the swirling vortex with no end in sight. Help your child stop ruminating by talking about how the same thoughts and feelings cannot produce new solutions or new thinking. So how can you accept the feelings, decide on a way to feel better, and let go of the story? As an emotions coach, you might ask, “what can you do to make things better? How can you focus your attention on taking those small actions?”

The thrill of a good ride can leave you ready to try another. And that’s our hope for your tweens and teens – that they seek self-knowledge and understanding by pausing and reflecting. Their range of emotions can become one of their greatest assets as they learn to use the information from their hearts and guts as important data in their responsible decision-making and in managing their relationships. We can support their efforts by learning how to serve as an emotional coach when we can see they really need it.

References:

1. Cedar Point – The Monster. https://www.cedarpoint.com/rides-experiences/monster

2. Sutton A. Measuring the Effects of Self-Awareness: Construction of the Self-Awareness Outcomes Questionnaire. Eur J Psychol. 2016 Nov 18;12(4):645-658. doi: 10.5964/ejop.v12i4.1178. PMID: 27872672; PMCID: PMC5114878.

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