Understanding Pre-Teens

And How Best to Support their Social and Emotional Development

“I had a dream that I told the girl I have a crush on that I liked her and seconds later, I watched as the whole world exploded,” my ten-almost-eleven-year-old told me as he was getting ready for bed last night. This morning, I noticed him spending time fixing his hair in the mirror, an act that, in the past, may have only occurred once a year for a big occasion like a wedding or major holiday. “I feel scared but I can’t tell you exactly why,” was another reflection he offered. Yes, for fifth graders and indeed, all the way from ages nine through fourteen as puberty begins, children are feeling a newfound sense of vulnerability and sensitivity. 

Younger children are busy with the work of figuring out who they are, what they believe, and how they can explore their environments. Their greatest learning comes from play. And their belief system – how they make sense of the world around them – is magical. Fairies are just as likely to show up at their breakfast table as their baby brother. 

As puberty begins around nine or ten, a child’s body begins the long (or short – depending upon your perspective) process of transforming into an adolescent on its way to adulthood. But the body is not the only aspect that is changing. A child’s ways of thinking, feeling, and perceiving the world is changing too. And though a tween’s brain is beginning a major reconstruction moving from magical thinking to the more logical thinking required of their adult years, that shift will not fully occur until their early to mid-twenties. So we witness phases – or stages – of those shifts in thinking.

Research provides helpful insight. Studies have found a direct correlation between a raised social awareness and social anxiety. As one increases, so too does the other.1 With the onset of the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, it may exacerbate a child’s social worries and feelings of isolation. It’s critical though that we as parents understand that their anxiety is developmentally normal but more pronounced because of our complex times. Why? The answer lies in the magic and the mishaps of middle childhood.

The Magic of Social Awareness

As our tween-aged sons and daughters grow in their social awareness, they can gain:

Empathy, or working to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, a learned skill. This is an ideal time to help cultivate empathetic thoughts in your child. Notice when others are hurting and question why together. Your child is capable of engaging in more in-depth conversations now about others than ever before. This “magic” is the very foundation of their social capital, leadership abilities, and healthy relationship skills for today and for their future. Try engaging in conversations about social issues that affect your family or friends. Ask questions to prompt thinking, such as, “What do you think that homeless person on the corner is thinking and feeling?” Marvel at their growing ability to deeply consider others and widen their circle of concern.

Compassion, or taking action from empathetic thoughts and feelings to provide help or support to another, or simply put: acting on empathy. When your child expresses genuine concern for that homeless person on the corner, what will you do about it? And more importantly, how can you brainstorm with them what they can do about it? Perhaps begin by taking a look at other youth who are serving their communities, raising their voices as advocates, or simply helping out where help is needed. Use your screen time together to look for inspirational models! I love this example at Pitt River Middle School. Check it out! 

Deeper connections with you, with friends, with teachers, with extended family. If you thought that no deeper intimacy was possible than that of your newborn baby snuggling up to your side, try discussing the meaning of life with a ten-year-old. Tens, elevens, and beyond are capable of far deeper insights into the human condition. They are curious about the world yet have not fully erected their emotional security walls from being rejected time and again (as later adolescents and adults have). They are open to thinking big and your exploration with them will open your own eyes to new ways of seeing and perceiving the possibilities. Middle school children, though they are weighed down frequently by the anxiety of their newfound social awareness, are also purveyors of hope if we only create the safe space for questioning and dialogue. If we can show we are receptive to their big ideas and big questions, our intimacy will deepen. And similarly, children can create stronger friendships and relationships with grandparents, with caregivers, and teachers through their ability to understand how others think and feel.

Deeper learning at home and at school with the asset of social awareness. Research confirms the conditions necessary for deep learning to occur. Positive relationships in which students collaborate with teachers and with one another is essential.2 And the emotions that are generated from a commitment to caring relationships – like love, belonging, curiosity, awe, and concern – are necessary for learning to take place.3 Children, though they are attempting to think more rationally, don’t lose their ability to believe in magic and think creatively. In fact, this ability to innovate paired with social awareness can be a powerful force for making a difference in others’ lives. Check out the video Ten Kids Who Changed the World and be inspired by our children’s awesome potential! 

Mishaps with Social Anxiety

As our tween’s social awareness increases, their social anxiety increases which can create:

Clumsiness in the spotlight. This could be a phenomenon you’ve experienced with your ten, eleven, twelve, or thirteen-year-old. To understand what they are going through, picture yourself going out on a theater stage with a spotlight lighting up just you as you look out on hundreds of people you know, people whose opinions really matter to you. Yes – your parents, your boss, your boss’ boss, your in-laws – the gang is all there watching every move you make. Does just the thought of it make you shrink a bit? Are you visualizing running off the stage, driving home, and burying yourself under your bed covers? If so, then you are experiencing empathy for your middle school child. Their new ability to experiment with and try to make predictions about other’s thought and feelings (note: those words are chosen because it takes a whole lot of practice to become skilled at accurately predicting others’ thoughts and feelings. We are not born mind readers!) make them feel self-conscious. And when you have a heightened sense that others are scrutinizing you, you make mistakes. You blunder. Go ahead and add a giant growth spurt and a surge of male and female hormones to the mix. Your child might be clumsy and painfully aware that he’s clumsy. 

What can you do? Oh, how they need Moms, Dads, teachers, mentors, grandparents, and others to reassure them that these changes are normal…that they are truly brave, strong, kind, creative, smart, and resilient! They are old enough to learn about their own development so learn together what changes they are undergoing.

Snap-back measuring tape phenomenon. While tweens are feeling increasingly sensitive to the perceived or real judgments of their peers, they are simultaneously attempting to mimic their peers and exert their independence from you. They want to pledge allegiance to the cool kids but when rejection strikes in any form, they snap back to you as quickly as a measuring tape falls back into its original state curled up inside its case. If we are caught unaware, this extending out and pushing away can hurt us. “Mom, no more hugging me when I come out of school and can you just wait in the car?” might be the kind of message we hear after a decade of hugging and eagerly waiting for their sweet face. And the snapping back can hurt us. Tweens can become highly emotional, need us desperately, and resort to behaviors that seem much younger than their actual age. Yet, this is a normal, healthy aspect of their development.

What can you do? You can adopt the mantra, “it’s not personal, it’s development.” Being aware and being ready helps extend your patience. You can remind yourself that it really isn’t about your connection to one another but about your tween’s growth and learning. Remind yourself of those times when you pulled away or ran back home when you were a similar age. Find empathy and offer compassion for all that they are managing.

Awkward attraction. This may be an understatement when describing what it feels like to see your friends and peers in a whole new light. These people are not just playmates, they are teachers. They possess all of the social capital and cultural wisdom of the young person community. Connection and belonging to peers is not just a nice-to-have, it’s necessary to survive in school. Yet, peers can smell desperation. So middle schoolers know they must hide if they can, their vulnerabilities, including crushes. They may just feel like their world is blowing up if they confess their attraction. So they feel the heat of the magnetizing pull to their peers while they push away and attempt to appear cool! 

What can you do? Normalize it. Otherwise, it’s easy for your child to feel like the only one who’s experiencing all of the social awkwardness. Share your best embarrassing stories. Share your social blunders. Laugh but also, share your empathy for what they are going through acknowledging that it’s an important step in figuring out how to have healthy relationships. Also, be sure and share what healthy relationships look like and feel like so they have a model from which to work.

Tribal survival. This may describe our children’s need and also, account for the sensitivities of our tweens. At times, we may wonder, “why did my daughter lose sleep over a simple disagreement with a friend? They’ll surely make up tomorrow.” Though we realize the sky is not really falling, the emotions felt by our middle schoolers are real and not over-dramatized. As our children gain an awareness of the larger world beyond our home and their school, they also begin to realize that they will continue to reach for independence. And as they push you away to become more self-sufficient, they know they are going to need their friends more and more as a necessary support. This is their tribe. And figuring out the rules of the tribe and how they can fit in is a critical job of middle childhood.

What can you do? Accept his/her feelings. Don’t roll eyes, minimize, or otherwise show that your tweens feelings aren’t real. The saying “name it to tame it” really works! Use more feelings words to build your emerging teen’s feelings’ vocabulary. At times, it’s a wild mash-up of emotions. “Seems like you are frustrated, hurt, and worried. Is that right?” Build your child’s emotional intelligence and they’ll feel more competent to ride the waves of their new insights with style and grace!

We can expect that our tweens will show regressive behaviors at times seeking comfort in the joys of earlier years. How can we seek out small joys together? How can we connect them to friends – even just one – who are kind and appreciate our tween for who they truly are? How can we show that we love them even when they are pushing us away? These can guide our thinking to offer the support they need to not only survive tough times but learn to thrive.

References:

Benson, P. L. (2006). All kids are our kids: What communities must do to raise caring and responsible children and adolescents (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA, US: Jossey-Bass.

Durlak, J.A., Dymnicki, A.B, Taylor, R.D., Weissberg, R.P., & Schellinger, K.B. (2011). The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions. Child Development, Jan/Feb 2011, 82(1), 405–432.

Elias, M. J., Zins, J. E., Weissberg, R. P., Frey, K. S., Greenberg, M. T., Haynes, N. M., et al. (1997). Promoting social and emotional learning: Guidelines for educators. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

How Parents Can Support Children Through Their Worries

Learning Together and Starting Small Can Help Children Manage Anxiety and Build Strength, Resilience, and Confidence

As soon as Tina spied her daughter’s face walking in the room, she knew something was wrong. Tina said, “Are you okay?” but daughter Alyssa quickly shut her down. “I’m fine,” she said in an aggravated tone with a stop-looking-at-me whince. Alyssa slumped onto the couch and dived deep into her device looking as if she were nearly crying. Tina kept quiet. After mere seconds, Alyssa took off running to her room slamming the door shut. Tina could just barely hear her sobs and wasn’t sure whether to knock or give her time. Tina brewed some tea and allowed herself a few hot, comforting sips before she went down the hall and gently knocked on Alyssa’s door. “Come in,” Alyssa said softly. She had calmed down enough to be able to talk. “Can you tell me what’s going on?” Mom asked. The words spilled out of her mouth like a waterfall, intense and flowing. “I hate not seeing my friends. I hate feeling left out of group chats! It feels like everyone is getting together and having fun but me.”

Whether its anxiety over your own house rules related to COVID, missing social relationships, dealing with cancelled camps or vacations, or anticipating the great unknowns of school starting in August, summer in the midst of a pandemic brings lots of altered expectations and nostalgia for the past along with feelings of loss and sadness and also, worries and fears of this new context in which friends and extended family have to remain distant.

It is a highly emotional time for the whole family but parents add yet another layer of upset as they watch their children feeling sad, anxious and worried. Zoom connecting with friends and family can offer necessary connection but can also leave family members emotionally exhausted as they long for in-person contact and work hard to exercise their ability to focus their attention, listen, and manage their impulses while not getting outside and moving as much as their bodies require.  

Worry is a normal part of growing up and actually increases with our children’s awakening social awareness particularly starting around the age of nine. As they work on empathizing and taking the perspective of others, they also become self-conscious. “What if I’m criticized? What if I’m rejected?” These are common concerns of the pre-teen and teen years. These questions are heightened and persistent in this time when friends may not have the chance to connect in person at all. So then the trick becomes, how can children, tweens, and teens learn to manage that worry in healthy, constructive ways so that they can identify their feelings and use them as assets? If they do not learn healthy coping strategies, feelings can take them over and they can begin to turn to unhealthy coping strategies.

So there is a significant opportunity for parents and teachers alike to support them in learning how to manage these big worries. Check out the following ideas along with a few pitfalls to avoid along the way!

Anxiety is contagious! Manage yourself first.

When your child is upset and anxious, the first instinct of a caring parent will be to dive in and fix that problem. But in reality, if you dive in with your own stack of worries, you could (and will likely) escalate your child’s worries. That’s because your own raised heartbeat and furrowed brow can’t hide. Your child and you are deeply connected (in good times and in bad) so that they will “catch” your worry and elevate their own. Tina brewed some tea and sipped on it before she went in to talk with Alyssa. Find ways to pause, breathe, get some fresh air and a fresh perspective (“This is not the end of the world nor will it determine my child’s long term success.”), and then talk to your child.

Normalize big worries.

When you do talk, be sure and let your child know that worrying is a normal part of being human and growing up. Don’t allow him to perpetuate the myth that he’s not the only one who’s spending more time alone or feeling ridiculed. Help him identify his feelings – “I see you are feeling really worried about not seeing friends. Tell me more.” Listen to his responses while reserving your own judgment or fears. Also, talk about the roles of stress – that it can be a positive force for keeping you sharp during a test but you have to learn ways to manage it so that you are in control and it doesn’t control you.

Learn together.

Be sure you understand what the worry truly is concerning. So often we make assumptions about our child’s fears only to discover later that she really didn’t care about being invited to the group chat but merely wanted to connect with one particular friend. Actively listen and reflect back thoughts and feelings before jumping to any conclusions. Be sure that you are open to learning from your child what concerns are there so that you can be most helpful.

Empathize together and choose compassion.

When a child or teen has social anxiety, she is focusing on herself and what others think of her. If she begins to consider how others are experiencing worry or pain, if she considers how she might ease others’ challenges, then she cannot focus on her own. Help her consider: “Amanda wrote some hurtful words today online. What do you think could be going on with her? Is her home life okay? Is she worried about her friendships?” Often these questions uncover hurt that another child is undergoing. You might follow up with, “what could you do or say to help her feel more comfortable and accepted?” These questions shift your child’s focus in a positive, healthy way.

Tackle in the smallest increments. 

When your child is feeling overwhelmed by disappointments or social pressures, sit down together and break it down into the smallest pieces possible. Then, simply just focus on one at a time. How can that one issue be tackled? Then, make a plan or set a positive, specific goal together for how she’ll tackle each one of the other issues. Set a clear timeframe and be there to support her through it.

Practice healthy coping strategies.

On a sunny day when emotions are not running high, grab a blank sheet of paper or markers and newsprint and do the “Feeling Better” challenge (yes, we all love a challenge that is entertaining and game-like). See how many healthy coping strategies you can list together. Remember: the smaller and easier, the better! You want to be able to use them anywhere, anytime you or your child is upset. Practice some deep breathing like ocean wave breathing, or making the sound of the ocean and imaging waves coming in and out with the rhythm of your breath. Discuss other ideas like walking in nature, tensing and releasing toes and fingers, or pretending to blow bubbles.

Stop rumination and find a new thought.

Rumination is worry run-amok. When you hear your child mentioning the same concern over and again, they’ve moved into rumination. And it’s never productive. Why? Because it’s a vicious hamster wheel turning the same thoughts and feelings over and over without any new thoughts changing the perspective. Share that the churning we tend to do does not prevent horrible events from occurring and in fact, only weighs a person down and prevents them from finding positive solutions. When ruminating, tell yourself, “Stop.” And coach your child to help them tell themselves “stop.” Then ask, “what’s one new way you can look at this situation that you haven’t considered?” “What can you learn from this?” Also, if you can, ruminate a bit on the positive. Are there friends that await connecting in safe ways? Is there summer fun yet to be experienced? Are there interesting exploration opportunities at home and in your neighborhood? Swirl around in the goodness of all that you do have in your life.

Create a small experiment.

In other words, if your child is really worried about going to the store in a mask, can you set a small goal to go and check out the parking lot, look around, and take it slow? Usually kids find that they can make it all the way through but the whole event seems overwhelming so offering small checkpoints or smaller goals helps reduce anxiety. If you set a small goal to tackle a challenge, then decide on when and how you’ll take a break or what small piece you’ll accomplish together. Celebrate with a high five or simply reflect on how they were able to get that small piece finished. Recognize together how tackling one step at a time made – what seemed like a monumental task – manageable.

Support Sleep.

Sleep is not only critical for learning the next day but it will also offer the self-control a child needs to get through his anxieties that day. But worries can keep a child up at night. So what can you do? First, be sure and stick to a consistent routine that gets business accomplished (bath, brushing teeth) and is also connecting (reading, snuggling). Make sure that there’s a calm down period with low lighting, low noise, and no screens. Let her know that worrying at night is rumination and will not accomplish anything so it’s important to leave it behind. You might try the following:

  • Have you seen the Mexican worry dolls? You tell the dolls your worries before bedtime, put them in their box, and they work on your worries while you sleep. You can do this with a favorite stuffed friend. Assign him night duty. Allow her to share her worries with you and her stuffed friend (or just with the stuffed friend) and then assign the task of taking care of her worries overnight so that she can put them away. Make sure she only says them once because repeating them turns into rumination and her stewing won’t change her thinking so rumination doesn’t get her anywhere. Teens can write worries down in a journal and then, place the journal in a safe location overnight where they won’t look at it.
  • You may also want to try a guided sleep mediation for children. Check out these from New Horizon. Visualize a calming, happy memory together from your summer fun. Or you can simply play nature sounds (I like this simple Family Mindfulness App) and listen carefully in the dark together as you take deep breaths.

Instead of catching your child’s worries and fueling them further, look at the changes this summer as an important opportunity to teach her healthy ways to manage her stress and reframe her perspectives. Those skills will be critical as she continues to face greater challenges. Your support and practice together now will become invaluable sources of strength and resilience for a lifetime.

Check out this delightful and practical picture book:

The Worry Box by Suzanne Chiew

References:

1. C + R Research. (2018). Highlights State of the Kid Report. Honesdale, PA; Highlights for Children.

Today – Discussing Parenting with Emotional Intelligence during The COVID-19 Pandemic

Jennifer Miller of Confident Parents, Confident Kids will be talking with Kristin Bednarz, host of the online event, The Power of Purposeful Parenting, about our big feelings as parents during this pandemic and how we can deal with them and help our children through them with emotional intelligence. In addition, we’ll be discussing the pressing challenge of family responsible decision-making during these complex times.

There are numerous respected expert speakers that will address a range of parenting challenges. Catch my interview free and sign up here for 21 days of interviews. Watch one a day, feel supported and guided, and see how it will fuel your energy and motivation!

High Stakes Conversations

critical conversations image 2 001

In a Complex World, How Can You Talk to your Children about Hot Button Issues?

The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.  

–  John F. Kennedy

When E was between the ages of two and three, he adopted the very developmentally appropriate habit of running away from me. He thought it was hilarious. I thought it was downright dangerous. The first few times it happened, I envisioned a similar scenario by the road or a steep staircase in which he would take off running on his wobbly, not yet confident feet.  When I moved toward him with an impassioned “Stop! Don’t go there!” he moved in the direction I was moving – toward the dreaded danger – not away from it. After a fall down our staircase (it’s a miracle kids survive these ordeals!), I reflected on how I needed to change what I was doing. After all, it was a critical moment and I was not responding in a way that changed his behavior. And so I stopped and thought about how I could change my behavior in order to change his.

Skip ahead to your tween-age eighth grade daughter whose best friend has been trying to get her to return to school in the Fall when your family is concerned about safety and choosing homeschooling. Your daughter is crying about not wanting to lose her best friend and also not getting to see other friends and while you comfort her, you try and figure out the right thing to say.

Fast forward one more time to your fifteen year old son who has been repeatedly threatened by a group of other boys in the neighborhood. Though it’s been going on for some time, this is the first time you are hearing about it and you fear for his safety.

Whether we are communicating with a preschooler, a fifth grader or a teenager, it helps to think through how to have an open dialogue when those important moments strike. The New York Times Bestselling book, Crucial Conversations; Tools for Talking when Stakes are High1 gives significant insight into how to think about and handle those conversations to move toward collaborative problem solving even when the moment turns intensely heated. The authors of Crucial Conversations claim that the people they’ve observed that are effective at opening up dialogue in those critical moments are those who create a safe space to share personal visions and contribute to shared meaning. In that space, they make it possible to “solve the problem and build relationships.”

pool of shared meaning venn diagram 001

The writers describe dialogue as “a pool of shared meaning.” Those who are effective in high stakes conversations contribute to the pool of shared meaning and open it for others versus typical fight or flight responses like using aggressive language, trying to cram one’s own agenda into a conversation or employing the “silent treatment.”  I’ve taken some of the book’s most important steps for “crucial conversations” and added my own developmental spin for parents who are talking to children. In addition to the steps below, the book is well worth reading for any critical conversations in your life.  The skills involved are not some magical blend of personality and temperament. They are indeed learnable skills. Try the following the next time you are in a critical conversation.

Pause a moment and calm down. Your emotions, whether you are aware of it or not, will be mirrored in your child so take a moment to breathe before proceeding. That short centering pause could mean the difference in your child listening or shutting down.

Move to eye level. For most of us with children, that means sitting or kneeling down at a child’s level. In the case of a teenage son, that might mean sitting so that his taller presence is more on level with your own.

Be direct.  With little ones (toddler through early elementary), use as few words as possible. In the example of a toddler running away, back up to create space for him to run forward instead of away.  You might get down on her level and say, “Danger. Follow me.” Beckon to follow and move away from the street or staircase. (Don’t turn it into a chasing game which only fuels the fun and excitement of that developmental desire for independence and boundary testing.) For older children, they need to exactly what you are concerned about in the simplest terms. Avoid attempting to manipulate your child’s attitude or behavior since children can sniff that motive immediately. If it’s an emotional topic for your child, they may only hear or connect with a fraction of what you say. So make it short, authentic, and to the point.

“Start with the heart.” Voice your genuine concerns in the situation. “You know I want to make sure you are safe but I also know it’s important to you that you have the independence of walking or biking in the neighborhood.” Own your role in the situation since you are the only one you can control. “I know at times I seem overprotective but my goal is just to work with you so that both of us feel you are proceeding safely.”

Articulate “mutual purpose.” Your daughter is focused on her friendship and the fear of losing it. You are focused on her academic performance and integrity. But finding and articulating your mutual purpose will help you find a common ground from which you can seek solutions together. In this case, your mutual purpose could be to help her sustain friendships and be successful in school while playing by school rules. Patterson et al. (2002) write that those skilled in facilitating dialogue do not see “either/ors” but find an “and” in any situation. Explain that she does not have to choose between friendship or integrity. But how can she find a way to maintain both?

Show “mutual respect.” Children will retreat and not be open to a conversation in which they feel a sense of blame from you. “YOU didn’t do your homework! We need to talk about this.” And your child shuts down. And it may take a while before you can reasonably revisit the conversation and get anywhere with it. If you see your child is not listening or backing away, they are likely not feeling respected. Address it directly. “I trust your good judgment. I know you are a good student as evidenced by all of your hard work in the past year. I just want to help you through a difficult situation. I think if we work together, we can come up with a solution that you’ll be happy with.”

Offer the “contrasting” view. Sometimes you need to say what is not true or not your purpose in order to allay any fears on the part of your child. Often in challenging, emotionally charged situations, our minds create a more inflated story than is the actual reality. In fact, teenagers are known for this trait. Saying what the situation is not will help eliminate those worries. “I’m not saying that your friendship is not important. I absolutely know it is. I like Cynthia. But I think she will still be your friend and may even respect you more if you make a choice that is good for you and her.”

Return to “safety.” If at any point during your important conversation, you see you are losing your audience – your child is losing focus, looking away or getting defensive -, focus solely on safety. They are feeling a lack of respect. They are feeling misunderstand or blamed and are pulling out of the “pool of shared meaning.” Quickly create safety by articulating their competence, autonomy and belonging – their ability and track record of making good choices. “When you were faced with a backlog of homework last year, I know that was so hard for you. But you took the challenge head on, worked hard and got through it. I know you can do it because you have already shown you can.”

Critical conversations are a tough challenge for everyone. But take just one of these practices and try to use it. Replay it in your head. And bring it forth when you have a chance. Try it out on your spouse. Maybe there is a lower risk situation in which you can get some practice. As you do, the strategies will feel right and more natural to you so that you will be able to regularly use these skills in critical moments. Being a skilled dialogue facilitator can mean the difference in successful problem solving with work and family challenges. And aren’t these the moments that help define and model character for your child?


1. Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. (2002). Crucial conversations; Tools for talking when stakes are high. NY: McGraw-Hill.

Family Fighting? Use the Peace Rose

“What do I do about my siblings fighting constantly?” I heard one Mom lamenting recently. They are together all of the time. “Should I let them handle it? Should I intervene? I want to help them learn conflict management skills but I’m not sure how to respond.” Certainly, this is a common issue in family life. And with the pandemic, we are home with each other much more than we typically would be. The reality is — fights happen. So then, how can we prepare ourselves and our children for them so that we can ensure no harm is done and our relationships strengthen and grow because of the way we respond to conflict?

Last summer, I learned about a preschool that uses a Peace Rose to help build children’s skills. The application for families is easy to see. It can work for any age, preschool and up, between children or even between a parent and a child. Here’s how a Peace Rose can be used to help your children learn and practice valuable conflict management skills.

First, make a tissue paper rose. This can be an excellent rainy day project. Instructions on how to make one follow this article. (You can buy a silk rose too but there will be greater investment and concern for a rose that has been carefully constructed by your children.)

Second, make or find an unbreakable (yes, this is important!) vase. One can be constructed out of a decorated frozen concentrate juice can or empty milk carton. Or if you have a plastic vase that’s sturdy, that could do the job.

Third, play act the process with your kids. Here’s how it might go. A parent might say:

We are fighting over a toy and I feel upset about it. I don’t want to fight.

That parent picks up the Family Peace Rose. She might say:

When I hand it to sister Addison, what I am communicating to her is “Let’s work this out together.”

Your children would then follow each of the following steps. Be sure and post the printable version of the steps (at the end of the article) so that they can follow along with you and after practice, use it as a guide to do on their own. Or if you have young children, play act and practice several times so that they get in the habit of the routine.

Step One. Breathe in the sweet smell.

Ask both children to “breathe” in the beautiful sweet scent of the rose (even if imagined) giving them the chance to take a deep breath. Make sure you are in a comfortable, private location to talk.

Step Two. Take turns communicating feelings and the problem.

Use this simple I-messages structure to ensure that your children are communicating with one another in an assertive, not aggressive way. This helps the individual take responsibility for their own role and their feelings while avoiding blaming language like “you did…” (which closes down the mind and ears of the other).

Here’s how it might sound as you play act it out:

I feel frustrated and angry when you take my toy because I feel like you don’t care that I was playing with it. How do you feel?

I feel frustrated when you have the toy I want to play with.

Step Three. Generate ideas. Now it’s time to share ideas. How can you work it out? Can you take turns? Can you play together? Should you set a timer for the toy? Do you want to both play with something else and put that toy away?

Step Four. Try it out. If the children find an idea they can both agree to try, then let them go and try it. If they try it out and it doesn’t work, then get the rose out again and generate another idea that might work for both.

Step Five. Reflect. If they have resumed playing and seemed to have resolved the issue, to deepen the learning a parent can ask when you are cleaning up, “How did it work out?” “Was the idea successful?” “Would you want to try the Family Peace Rose again?” “What would you do differently next time?” This step helps children realize that they have gone through a problem-solving process. It helps them think through how they have done it and how they could use it in the future. If they have learned a new skill or process through the experience, the reflection will help them internalize and remember it for future instances.

Leave the Family Peace Rose in its vase in a playroom or main family room so that it can be easily accessed at any time by your children. Adopt this simple practice in your home and see how it helps family members better communicate with one another and work through problems. You might find your children working through their conflicts on their own while practicing critical skills that can last a lifetime!

Here’s the printable version of the Family Peace Rose Problem-Solving Process.

Here are simple instructions from Very Well Family on How to Make a Tissue Paper Flower.

Special thanks to Rachel Choquette Kemper and the Kennedy Heights Montessori Center for this great idea!

Originally published September 13, 2018.

Join Today Free! the Power of Purposeful Parenting

An Online Event!

Join me today in the launch of the Power of Purposeful Parenting Online Event. Need some boosts of inspiration in your parenting? Need some new research-aligned strategies because you are sounding like a broken record repeating the same statements with no changes in your child’s behaviors? Jennifer Miller of Confident Parents, Confident Kids will be discussing our big feelings during this pandemic and how we can deal with them and help our children through them with emotional intelligence. In addition, Jennifer will be discussing the challenge of family responsible decision-making during these complex times.

There are numerous respected expert speakers that will address a range of parenting challenges. Sign up here for this free 21 days of interviews. Watch one a day, feel supported and guided, and see how it will fuel your energy and motivation! Learn more!

The Power of Purposeful Parenting Online Event

Join Confident Parents, Confident Kids’ Founder Jennifer Miller for a FREE online series hosted by Kristin Bednarz titled The Power of Purposeful Parenting beginning July 6, 2020 to discover how you can BREAK FREE from overwhelm and BE EMPOWERED to raise connected, confident, and compassionate children! Find the support and guidance to transform even the most challenging situations into opportunities for growth. Experts facing the same challenges you face each day will encourage you to let go of your expectations and give yourself grace when situations don’t always go as planned. You’ll be coached to respond to your children, rather than react, building a relationship based on mutual trust and respect. Best of all, you’ll join a village of trusted experts you can turn to when your questions arise and feel supported by a community of like-minded individuals.

Here’s what you’ll get out of these interviews:

  • Learning how to implement mindfulness and stay grounded as a parent.
  • Understand your child and how to nurture their growth and development.
  • Key strategies for dealing with strong-willed children and setting clear boundaries.
  • How to stop the fighting with your children.
  • Inspiration on ways to transform challenging behavior on a daily basis.
  • Handling strong emotions and building resilience in our children.

I particularly love the style of this conference because Kristin plans to run the conference videos each day for 21 days starting on July 6, 2020 so there’s plenty of time to take in this helpful content free!

Sign up FREE here!

Check Out New Parent-KId Activities From Making Caring Common

Many parents and caregivers are spending more time with their kids these days. Wouldn’t it be nice to try a new family activity and receive a gift card while you’re at it? 

Our friends at Harvard’s Making Caring Common are here for you! They are looking for parents and caregivers of kids ages 4-10 to join their parenting research project by Monday, July 6. 

In 2018, I was invited to join the Parenting Advisory Board for Making Caring Common. Their team was in the early stages of developing new research-based activities for parents and caregivers, and they were hoping to learn from experts in social and emotional learning, early childhood development, and parenting. The goal was to create simple, fun, connecting activities for parents to use that could promote three areas research confirms are essential to children’s success including empathy, gratitude, and diligence. Since then, Making Caring Common has been developing and testing its activities, and now they are ready to hear from you!

I hope you’ll consider participating in the research and sharing your candid feedback with the Making Caring Common team. Participation involves one intake survey (link provided below) – which will include the list of activities to choose one from – and a weekly feedback survey for a month. You’ll get $5 per feedback survey completed, and an extra $20 if you do all four! MCC will also interview some parents, and give an additional $10. You just need to have one child between the ages of 4 and 10 to do the activity of your choosing with – ideally every week, for four weeks!

To learn more and enroll in the study, you can take their intake survey now or email Milena, MCC’s Research and Evaluation Manager, directly at research@makingcaringcommon.org

Harnessing the Strengths of Your Survival Impulses

KEEPING YOUR RESPONSES TO STRESS, UPSET AND UNCERTAINTY HEALTHY

“It was all your fault,” I hear either as a real statement or the sub-text of an accusation from family members and with my whole body, I want to run. “I’ve gotta get outta here!” I think with a sense of pressing urgency. My survival personality is the runner. I don’t want to fight. I have great difficulty in the heat of a moment responding with words (yes, freeze is another of my survival responses) so my instinct with danger is to exit stage left. Yet, in family life, leaving may not be practical or possible. Running away may even escalate the problem along with the upset feelings if family members feel ignored or stonewalled by my quick escape. So, I’ve asked myself, how can I ensure my reaction – my words and actions – are constructive and healthy when I find my survival persona taking over?

When stress runs high or anger and frustration rule, individuals – adults and kids alike – become emotionally “hijacked,” a term coined by Daniel Goleman, author of the bestselling book published in the mid-90s, Emotional Intelligence.1 Our primal brain assumes full command control and our thinking centers on fight, flight, or freeze. And this reflex is rigged for our survival. If we met a tiger in the woods, one of these strategies might keep us alive. But we have to consider how these reactions play out in family life since, if we follow these impulses without consideration, they could potentially lead to harming others. As we know from experience, it’s can only be a short trip from following those impulses to regret and shame. 

Friend Jared says that his instinct is to fight. He admits when tensions run high, he attempts to control everyone and everything to get a handle on the situation. And when he’s unable to control others’ choices, he lashes out with his words, criticizing or judging. Placing blame outside of him, finding someone who is responsible for his anger or sadness, is what he believes will make him feel better impulsively.  When triggered, he struggles to control his impulses to attack back. 

On the other end of the reactionary spectrum, Alyssa confesses not only that cannot she not think, but she cannot take any action. She freezes and feels stuck in the swirl of upset and stress. While others are fighting around her, she is silent and tunneling down a pit of a lack of control and helplessness. 

Our instincts will change depending upon the situation that presents us with a threat. Our child becomes defiant and refuses to do their school work. Our urge is to fight. Our spouse is angry about a loss at work and his irritability makes you want to run. But our home life triggers are common and often, predictable. At times, they can catch us by surprise particularly as our children grow, change and challenge in new ways. But also, there are a number of triggers that return time and again. These are life’s do-overs. And if we view that in that way – a do-over – then, we always have a next chance to work on our reactions and manage them in ways that offer us a sense of agency – self-power – while building up – or at least not cutting down – our closest family members. If we use those predictable triggers as rehearsals for healthy responses, then we may just prepare ourselves for any of the surprises our children can and will toss our way.

Recognizing the Pitfalls and Assets of Your Own and Your Children’s Survival Persona 

Because each of the primal brain’s survival reflexes were established to protect us from harm, they can each serve us in critical ways if we recognize and focus on healthy expressions of those reflexes. There are two well-worn paths, though, that can lead us down a destructive road. These are:

1.) Self-beating — If we’ve fallen into unhealthy versions of those survival stances in the past, we may be ready to mentally beat ourselves up for our reflex. “How could you think that, feel that, or act that way?” you may recite to yourself after a particularly stressful and upsetting battle with your child. But that self-beating won’t produce the kind of turnaround we need. In fact, guilt turned to shame whittles away at our self-confidence and our ability to feel a sense of agency. We become victim to our internal states and our external influences. And if we allow this to continue over and again, we can fall into a pattern of giving away our power leading us into anxiety or depression or both as we succumb to the forces inside and around us. 

2.) Other-blaming – Though we may point the finger at our child’s defiance, or our partner’s insensitivity, or our neighbor’s rudeness, we can only control our own reactions to those behaviors. If we point to others for our stress and upset, we again give away our sense of agency. The power lies in “their” hands to determine our worth, our well-being, our experience. In fact, it’s only when we accept our role, our part we play in the problem and in the solution, that we can begin to feel control and power in any given challenge.

So in these uncertain times when many forces are out of our control — like when a vaccine will be successfully tested and widely distributed for COVID-19, like when systemic racism will be fully acknowledged by each human and addressed, like when we will be able to interact with other members of our community, friends, and family without barriers like political disagreements, fear of illness, or fear of safety — how do we recover our sense of agency? How do we recognize the assets of our survival mechanisms and take control of them, so that we only use those aspects of our impulses that are helpful and not harmful? “Agency is, fundamentally, the ability to slow things down, focus, and size up your current situation and make good decisions,” write Paul Napper and Anthony Roa in the book, “The Power of Agency.”2 In order to do this, self-awareness is a required first step. So consider the following questions for yourself (then, go back through the questions and consider how those you are closest to — your children, your partner, or intimate others — might respond to those same questions).

1.) Think about the past few weeks. When did you feel a sense of overwhelm, of a lack of control? What were the specific precipatating events that contributed to your feelings?

2.) Consider moments when you were put on-the-spot with upsetting interactions. Maybe you were attacked verbally by your child. What was your first impulse — fight, flight, freeze or a combination?

3.) When upsetting events occurred, what was your self-talk saying? Were you pointing the finger at others? Were you blaming yourself? 

4.) If you’ve named a few events that have been upsetting or overwhelming, can you discover a pattern consistent between those events that contributed to giving away your power — or sense of agency?

What did you learn through these questions about your moments of intense upset about your impulses? These reflections are vital to understanding how you can play on your strengths, minimize your limitations, and practice healthy responses that do no harm to yourself or others. Let’s examine further those strengths to build on…

Harnessing the Assets of the Flight Response. Whether it’s your own or your child’s response to flee from the scene of conflict, this can be a significant strength if reflected upon, planned for, and utilized in healthy ways. Certainly if your child is in a dangerous situation with a peer where their safety is at stake, you want them to leave and quickly. But what if your child has incited a power struggle with you? If you leave the room without a word, that could be considered stonewalling or a passive aggressive response. They will feel the force of your removal and may get scared or feel rejected and hurt or both. Use this strength by preparing your family in advance that this is your survival super power. Decide on how exactly you will leave. What few short, memorable words will you plan to utter — like, “I need a minute.” — to exit the room and cool down before responding further. Practice with small incidents since you’ll need the rehearsal for the bigger, more heated moments in life. If you let your family know this, when you are in conflict, they will recognize you are taking care of your needs and may not feel the same kind of fear or rejection because you have prepared them. Now your response can be healthy and strong and you can regain a sense of agency. 

Harnessing the Assets of the Fight Response. Though fighting has a mixed reputation – the thrills when we watch a movie with fighting, the fear and chills when we witness fighting, the fear of ourselves when we engage in fighting — we can learn the assets of fighting and use it to our advantage while ensuring that all stay healthy and safe through our responses. Yes, it’s possible. First, physical fighting in family life is never fair. There are only winners and losers in a family physical fight and we never want to put our intimate loved ones in the position of losing. So for any who have an impulse to hit or an impulse to throw things, how can you pause and manage your reaction so that you do not lash out? Maybe fleeing is the best option? But what about our words and our tone of voice and volume? In the heat of the moment, we may be ready to yell or we may impulsively want to criticize, blame, or name-call. These can be destructive to any relationship. And in fact, yelling will only increase your bodies’ anger as it feeds the hormones required to fight when you increase your volume. But we said fighting could be an asset and it can. The trick is to convert that fight impulse into assertive, confident words and actions. And the only way we can do that if fight is our reflex is to engage in the absolutely vital pause. Stop long enough for thinking to wash over impulse and feeling. And then ask, “what can I do here to not harm myself or others?” Or “how would I feel if I were on the receiving end of the words and tone I’m considering using?” Healthy family relationships require that we assert our own needs and boundaries clearly and specifically but in non-blaming, non-judging terms. Our reflections and planning for those moments can mean the difference between strengthening our family’s resilience or tearing it down.

Harnessing the Assets of the Freeze Response. In the animal kingdom, a number of creatures will play dead when they are being stalked or attacked and the tact often works. In our lives, the freeze impulse can further annoy or frustrate the individual who is already upset since their ability to think seems impossible and they cannot do anything in a heated moment. Yet in family life, sometimes freezing is precisely what is needed to initiate the deescalation down the heated ladder. As your child is throwing you a zinger, you are stopped in your tracks and paralyzed in that moment. If you know this about yourself, reflect on what you can do in those circumstances to take care of yourself and those around you. Maybe you need to plan to plop down right where you are standing, close your eyes and return to center? Perhaps you need to tell your family in advance that your typical impulse is to freeze and when you are in that state, you’ll utter the word “freeze” and ask your family members to respect that you’ll need time to recover in those upsetting times. If you do, you’ll use this freeze impulse as your super power and model for your children a powerful self-management strategy.

At the beginning of summer, I held a webinar for the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning CASEL Cares Initiative about the COVID pandemic and how we can support families. At the start, I asked participants to offer up how they were feeling. The most common response was overwhelmed. It’s no surprise that we are feeling that way since no one has been able to escape the stressors of this year. But we can become reflective about our responses to stress. If we do, we take back our sense of agency. Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning and concentration camp survivor wrote, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”3 This is our challenge. This is our opportunity.

References:

1. Goleman, D. Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books, 1995.

2. Napper, P., & Rao, A. (2019). The Power of Agency; The Seven Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on your own Terms. NY: St. Martin’s Press.

3. Frankl, Viktor E. (Viktor Emil), 1905-1997. Man’s Search for Meaning; an Introduction to Logotherapy. Boston :Beacon Press, 1962.

Expanding Social Awareness and Teaching Activism through Your Summer Reading


Widen Your Family’s Circle of Concern through Children’s Literature

When we consider our child’s daily interactions with others, they may not get the kind of exposure to various skin tones, cultures, differing belief systems, or other income levels to expand their circle of concern. We want to raise socially aware and inclusive kids who are able to make connections with or act kindly to a person of any age, gender, ability, color, culture, or creed, but our neighborhood may not be conducive to forging those important connections. Ah, but the world of children’s literature can…and in the comfort of our very own homes. 

Consider that story can act as a central builder of empathy, the skill of seeking to understand others’ thoughts and feelings. And empathy can be exercised and practiced and honed in our kids. In addition, the conversation of racial injustice can become uncomfortable with an accompanying range of big, complex feelings so books help provide a gateway aiding us in those necessary conversations. Deepen your own trusting relationship by reading and discussing together. Yes, point out differences and be certain to articulate the strengths of those differences. And then, also discover how many truly important commonalities there are between these characters from all parts of your city or the world and you! 

Picture Books:

One Day, So Many Ways
By Laura Hall, Illustrated by Loris Lora

Discover what daily life is like for kids all around the world! Meet children from over 40 countries and explore the differences and similarities between their daily routines. Over 24 hours, follow a wide variety of children as they wake up, eat, go to school, play, talk, learn, and go about their everyday routine in this stunning retro-style illustrated picture book. Gorgeous illustrations! This book is a must have. Published by Quarto Group.

The Skin You Live In

By Michael Tyler, Illustrated by David Lee Csicsko

With the ease and simplicity of a nursery rhyme, this lively story delivers an important message of social acceptance to young readers. Themes associated with child development and social harmony, such as friendship, acceptance, self-esteem, and diversity are promoted in simple and straightforward prose. Vivid illustrations of children’s activities include a wide range of cultures.

A Kids Book about Racism

By Jelani Memory

Yes, this really is a kids book about racism. Inside, you’ll find a clear description of what racism is, how it makes people feel when they experience it, and how to spot it when it happens. This is one conversation that’s never too early to start, and this book was written to be an introduction for kids on the topic. This book helps young children learn about racism and how it hurts people and supports parents in raising this vital conversation in the preschool years.

We Are Family

By Patricia Hegarty, Illustrated by Ryan Wheatcroft

Through illness and health, in celebration and disappointment, families stick together. Some families are made up of many people, and some are much smaller.

Sometimes family members look like each other, and sometimes they don’t! But even though every family is different, the love is all the same. Illustrations many varied types of families.

First Chapter Books/Early Readers:

Max Loves Muñecas 

by Zetta Elliott

Max wants to visit a beautiful boutique that sells handmade dolls, but he worries that other children will tease him. When he finally finds the courage to enter the store, Max meets Senor Pepe who has been making dolls since he was a boy in Honduras. Senor Pepe shares his story with Max and reminds him that, “There is no shame in making something beautiful with your hands.”

Lola Levine Is Not Mean 

by Monica Brown

Lola loves writing in her diario and playing soccer with her team, the Orange Smoothies. But when a soccer game during recess gets “too competitive,” Lola accidentally hurts her classmate Juan Gomez. Now everyone is calling her Mean Lola Levine! Lola feels horrible, but with the help of her family and her super best friend, Josh Blot, she learns how to navigate the second grade in true Lola fashion–with humor and the power of words. 

The Year of the Book (one in a series) 

by Andrea Cheng

In Chinese, “peng you” means friend. But in any language, all Anna knows for certain is that friendship is complicated. When Anna needs company, she turns to her books. Whether traveling through “A Wrinkle in Time,” or peering over “My Side of the Mountain,” books provide what real life cannot—constant companionship and insight into her changing world.

Middle Grade Novels:

Merci Suarez Changes Gears 

By Meg Medina (Latinx)

Thoughtful, strong-willed sixth-grader Merci Suarez navigates difficult changes with friends, family, and everyone in between in a resonant new novel from Meg Medina. In a coming-of-age tale full of humor and wisdom, award-winning author Meg Medina gets to the heart of the confusion and constant change that defines middle school — and the steadfast connection that defines family.

Inside Out and Back Again

by Thanhha Lai

A Newberry Honor Book, this moving story of one girl’s year of change, dreams, grief, and healing. Inspired by the author’s childhood experience as a refugee–fleeing Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and immigrating to Alabama–this coming-of-age debut novel told in verse has been celebrated for its touching child’s-eye view of family and immigration.

Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World

by Ashley Herring Blake (LGBTQ)

When a tornado rips through town, twelve-year-old Ivy Aberdeen’s house is destroyed and her family of five is displaced. Ivy feels invisible and ignored in the aftermath of the storm–and what’s worse, her notebook filled with secret drawings of girls holding hands has gone missing. Mysteriously, Ivy’s drawings begin to reappear in her locker with notes from someone telling her to open up about her identity. Ivy thinks–and hopes–that this someone might be her classmate, another girl for whom Ivy has begun to develop a crush. Will Ivy find the strength and courage to follow her true feelings. 

Amal Unbound

by Aisha Saeed (Pakistani)

Life is quiet and ordinary in Amal’s Pakistani village, but she had no complaints, and besides, she’s busy pursuing her dream of becoming a teacher one day. Her dreams are temporarily dashed when—as the eldest daughter—she must stay home from school to take care of her siblings. Amal is upset, but she doesn’t lose hope and finds ways to continue learning. Then the unimaginable happens—after an accidental run-in with the son of her village’s corrupt landlord, Amal must work as his family’s servant to pay off her own family’s debt. 

Young Adult Novels:

The Poet X 

by Elizabeth Acevedo (African American)

A young girl in Harlem discovers slam poetry as a way to understand her mother’s religion and her own relationship to the world. Debut novel of renowned slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo. Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking until she finds poetry.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

by Erika L. Sanchez (Latinx)

Perfect Mexican daughters do not go away to college. And they do not move out of their parents’ house after high school graduation. Perfect Mexican daughters never abandon their family. That was Olga’s role. 

 Was Olga really what she seemed? Or was there more to her sister’s story? And either way, how can Julia even attempt to live up to a seemingly impossible ideal? But Julia is not your perfect Mexican daughter.

American Panda 

by Gloria Chao (Asian American)

At seventeen, Mei should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents’ master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies. Can she find a way to be herself, whoever that is, before her web of lies unravels?

Enjoy expanding your children’s reading possibilities while also expanding your families’ circle of concern!

* Special thanks to Kimberly Allison and her school, Columbus Academy’s SEED diversity council for her/their outstanding recommendations!

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