Be Your Child’s Social Coach

Our teens have all kinds of coaches: sporting coaches, academic coaches (tutors), reading coaches, driving coaches (we call them instructors), and music coaches (private teachers) to name a few. The most important coach, however, is their social coach. Do you know the best person to fill the role of your teen’s social coach? You. Their parent. Parents are the most readily available person to offer social coaching. Parents know their adolescent best. Parents have years of experience in managing social situations. But, as always, there is a caveat.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology explored how parents (mothers in particular) guide (AKA, coach) their children during the transition into middle school and adolescence.  As part of the study, they measured the transitioning children’s level of arousal in response to social stressors like being bullied or teased, experienced rude peers, being harassed by peers, or having problems with a friend. The amount of social stress aroused in response to the social stress determined what type of parental “coaching” was most helpful. 

Specifically, teens who experienced minimal arousal in response to social stress benefitted most from specific advice on how to manage the situation and the challenging peer. These teens benefitted from active, engaged coping ideas specific to the situation.

On the other hand, those who experienced a high arousal in response to the social stresses inherent in peer interactions responded best to a more “hands-off” coaching style. In this style, the parent is less actively engaged and encourages more autonomy and self-reliant problem-solving. They do not offer specific advice. Instead, they ask their teen what they think about the situation. In fact, specific advice seemed to increase the teens level of stress. So, the parental coach helped their teen think about the situation and what they thought offered the best way to work through the stressor without giving direct advice.

Taken together, this study offers great advice about effectively coaching our children and teens in social situation. It starts with paying attention to how much the social situation impacts your child. Specifically, here are two pieces of advice for coaching your teen in response to social stresses.

  1. If they are just a little stressed by the situation, listen and offer specific advice. Actively participate in problem-solving. Reframe the situation. Help broaden their perspective to understand the other person’s perspective. Offer specific advice on ways to communicate and maintain boundaries that encourage respect and appropriate interactions.
  2. But if they are highly stressed by the situation, listen. Then ask about their feelings and thoughts in relation to the stressor. Validate their concern. Strive to understand their perspective. Listening and validating will help your teen calm their emotions. Ask them what they think might be the best way to respond to such situations and trust their abilities in responding.

Coaching our children through the social stresses inherent in moving toward middle school is a challenging task. However, these coaching tips can help. As you remain present and available for your children—offering a listening ear, seeking their input, and offering counsel—your teen will grow and mature into an adult who knows how to manage any social stress that arises.   

A Little “Self-Nudge” Goes a Long Way

Have you heard of the “Quarantine 15”? Maybe you have even gained it. I know I’ve gained a good part of it. Overall, the pandemic has changed our routines, our activities, and our eating habits. It has impacted our moods, our emotions, and our relationships. We are home more, out less, and stressed more. One response to all this stress and inactivity could be choosing what is most comfortable, enjoyable, and attractive in the short run instead of choosing what’s best for us in the long run. The result? Weight gain. Binging our favorite TV shows while neglecting other important duties. Strained family relationships.

There is a way to help avoid this though. Self-nudging. Yes, self-nudging is a behavioral science term (Using self-nudging to make better choices). It describes a way of designing and structuring our environments to make it easier for us to make healthier choices. Although science refers to it as “self-nudging,” I believe we can also practice it within the loving support of our marriages and our families. When we do, it will strengthen our marriages and our families as well. Here are some ways to practice “self-nudging” in your family to promote healthier living and healthier families.

  • Use reminders and prompts. Reminders and prompts can encourage you to make healthier choices on a personal level and on a family level. For instance, putting reminders of your spouse’s birthday, your anniversary, and your children’s birthdays in your phone can prevent those important dates from “slipping your mind.” Leaving notes for your spouse or children to find that remind them of your love for them is another way to use reminders to strengthen your family. A picture in your suitcase can encourage faithfulness while on one of the many business trips you might have to make. The list goes on. Reminders and prompts can help build an environment that nudges you toward intimacy with your family.
  • Practice putting decisions into a different frame that reveals priorities. We often think of choices in light of what we want and find pleasurable in the moment. However, the choice between sitting down to play a video game or talking to my wife about childcare becomes more difficult in this frame. Perhaps, when it comes to our family, we need to frame our choices in terms of how to express love and build relationship. I want to play video games and relax. But talking to my wife about childcare expresses my love and concern for her. It allows us time together to build relationship. Or, I want to sit down and rest but taking my child to their friend’s house expresses love and allows us to have uninterrupted time to talk and build relationship. The choice becomes a little easier when we remember that higher priority of love and relationship.
  • Make the healthy things more accessible than the unhealthy. This self-nudging technique is obvious when it comes to food. For instance, keep more fruit and healthy snacks in your house than sweets and “not-so-healthy” snacks. But what about family? Not subscribing to channels that provide temptations or putting the computer in a common area of the house make unhealthy viewing less accessible. Charging children’s phones in a common area overnight rather than in their bedroom removes the temptation to stay up all night texting friends or surfing the net. Creating an environment in which your family knows you are accessible and available limits their need to turn to other people for their connection, sense of value, and desire for guidance. Keeping yourself available nudges the family toward health.
  • Build positive relationships. Support one another. Be accountability to one another. Use encouraging words to nudge one another toward health. Gentle guidance nudges families toward health. Clear, consistent rules and boundaries enforced with loving discipline will make healthy choices easier to make. Open communication and acceptance will encourage healthy choices.

These four points offers only “the tip of the iceberg” in describing what you can do in each area to “nudge” you and your family toward healthier choices. Get your family together and talk about each area. Let the whole family come up with ideas for “self-nudging” your family toward health. Write them down…and enjoy a healthy, growing family.

The Two Become One

Parents operate best as a couple rather than two individuals. In fact, researchers from Nanyan Technological University (Presence of spouse alters how parents’ brains react to children stimuli) found that husbands and wives who are in the same location show greater brain synchrony in response to their children crying or laughing. In other words, when their children cry or laugh the two parents become one as far as brain activity goes.

Interestingly, the synching of brain activity did not occur between random couples, only with the other parent of the children.

It did not occur in response to static noise either. Only in response to their children’s emotional expression.

And, it only happened when the parents were physically present with one another—in the same room at the same time.

What does all this mean? It makes me think of a couple of things.

  • When couples raise their children together, they become more united. Their brains synch, especially in their “attentional and cognitive control mechanisms.” In other words, they become more attentive together and they begin to “mesh” how they respond to their children. Similarity in the brain translates to greater similarity in parenting. This will help them parent more effectively and lovingly as a “united front.”
  • As parents’ brain sync up, they will also grow more intimate with one another, more united in their love. They will gain understanding of one another as they work together on the common goals of raising healthy children. Seeing their parents’ love grow will also strengthen a child’s sense of security. Greater security translates to greater confidence and less misbehavior.     
  • As parents respond to their children together, they will experience greater success and growing confidence in their parenting. Who doesn’t want to feel confident in their parenting?

There may be more benefits for this growing synchrony between parents’ brains as they parent. What benefits can you think of? I just found it interesting that when two people who have developed their own lives work together to raise a child, the two become one…literally.

What Your Child, My Child… Every Child Needs!

Schools continue to struggle to determine exactly how to start this school year. Parents and school districts struggle to determine how to balance safety, economic needs, and educational needs during this time. Sports remain an issue of debate. Will school sports’ teams compete or wait until the pandemic is resolved to enjoy competition? While all these decisions remain unresolved, life has become unpredictable for our families and our children. A lack of predictability will create a sense of insecurity in our children; and, insecurity contributes to negative behaviors and even health issues in our children’s lives. So, we need to find ways to help our children feel safe and secure even during the unpredictable nature of our world right now. How can parents do this? Here are 5 things you can do every day to get you started.

  1. Listen. Give your children the opportunity to be heard. Get curious about their emotions, challenges, grievances, and fears. Strive to understand what lies under their misbehaviors (Read Misbehavior: A Call for Love? to learn more) rather than lecture and reprimand. As we listen and understand, our children will feel more secure. They will become calmer and more able to problem-solve as well.
  2. Establish daily rituals. Rituals help to build daily predictability that will contribute to our children’s sense of security. They also provide opportunities to talk and build deeper, more intimate relationships (Is Your Family Like a Scene from RV? Try Rituals).  Rituals don’t have to be complicated. You can build them into your daily life. For instance, rituals might include eating a meal together, reading together at bedtime, establishing a 20-minute conversation time each day, having a puzzle you work on each day.
  3. Invest in your relationship with your children’s other parent. A strong, healthy marriage contributes to a child’s sense of security. Let your children bear witness to your love for one another.
  4. Spend time with your children. Children spell love “T.I.M.E.” Time is the currency of love and security for your children. When they know you will put down your cell phone, postpone a job for a moment to talk, or make time to engage with them, your children learn you value them and care enough to keep them safe. Make time for your children. (How to Spend Quality Time with Your Children.)
  5. Share healthy physical affection. Give a hug. Put your arm around your children. Wrestle. Healthy physical affection increases our sense of connection and an increased sense of connection makes us feel secure. Give your children a hug! (Six Reasons to Hug Your Family.)

I’m sure there are more ways to help your children feel secure during this time of unpredictability. But, these five will give a great start. What ways would you add?

Speaking the Truth in Love

Building a healthy family requires some tough conversations—tough conversations with our spouse, tough conversations with our children, and even tough conversations with our parents. These conversations often put us in a moral bind between the desire to be honest and the desire to be kind. Of course, we can approach these tough conversations in a variety of ways. Emma Levine, a University of Chicago psychologist, describes five ways to approach these tough conversations.

  1. We could just fail to address the issue. This approach is low on honesty and, in the long run, kindness. We avoid the discomfort of bringing up unpleasant material. But our family member does not learn valuable information. And, we miss the opportunity to nurture a more intimate relationship through the conversation.
  2. We might tell a “little white lie,” a false kindness to protect our family member’s feelings. Once again, we avoid the unpleasant confrontation, but our family member misses out on learning important information. Intimacy is hindered. And, if the “white lie” is discovered, our family member may even become resentful.
  3. We could simply speak with brutal honesty. In this scenario, we speak the truth but do not take our family member’s feelings into consideration.  Our family member will likely feel criticized or attacked  and, as a result, reject the message. Once again, family members do not gain important information. Intimacy is hindered. Relationships are harmed.
  4. The fourth approach involves telling your family member something true and positive but irrelevant to the “real” issue. For instance, your son asks about his performance during the baseball game and you reply by saying, “It was a beautiful sunny day to watch your game” rather than offering a direct, but loving critique of his performance. Unfortunately, your family member will likely view this as no different than telling an outright lie. They will become frustrated. Intimacy will be hindered. Relationships harmed.

Why do we use these ineffective approaches? Dr. Levine believes we choose one of these ineffective approaches because we focus mainly on our own feelings during the anticipated interaction and we focus on short-term comfort rather than long-term kindness. All this aside, Dr. Levine does describe one more approach… and this one proves most effective. It shifts the focus to the long-term growth and increased intimacy we might gain rather than the short-term comfort. .

  • Articulate a sincere interest in your family member’s long-term benefit before describing your concern in a gentle, straight-forward manner. Remember, the conversation will end like it begins so approach the interaction gently, with a “gentle start up.” Even if you fumble over some words, your family member will sense your attempt. They will experience the warmth of emotion expressed and recognize your genuine concern. As a result, they will be more able to hear the concern…even if it is unpleasant in the moment. In other words, speak the truth in love. When we do, family members gain important information. Everyone grows. Intimacy is enhanced.

To speak the truth in love is an ancient wisdom that helps us grow more mature, more intimate, and more secure.

A Card Game to Change the “Same Old Fights”

I love this quote: “What makes conflict so painful is that we are desperate to be heard but too upset to listen, desperate to be understood but too upset to be understanding, desperate to be validated but too upset to validate. What can help you get what you need is [a] willingness to stoke even a small ember of empathy for your partner’s experience.” (Dr. Alexandra Solomon)

An incredibly wise statement. Arguments are not resolved without listening, understanding, and validating. Unfortunately, the heat of a conflict sends us into a fight or flight mode, making it extremely difficult to listen, understand, and validate. So, what can you do? Here is a neat little “card game” that can help you become less “desperate” and more able to listen, understand, and validate. It demands some prep time, but the results can be wonderful.

Preparation:

  • Think of the tone of voice that escalates your conflicts. Then, write down the tone of voice that will help prevent an escalation. This may include calm (vs. agitated), gentle (vs. harsh), soft (vs. loud), sincere (vs. sarcastic), and any others you think of. Make one note card for each positive tone of voice.
  • Think of the words and phrases that escalate your arguments. Now, write down words and catchphrases to help calm an escalation. These might include repair statements John Gottman talks about. They can also include phrases that affirm your love for one another, phrases like “Even when I’m upset, I still love you” or “We can disagree and still love one another.”
  • After you have made these cards, put them around your house—on the fridge, on the mirror in the bathroom, on your dresser drawer…where ever you will see them throughout the day and where ever they will be readily available to you in the “heat of the moment.”

Playing the Game:

  • Now that the cards are spread throughout your house, make a point of reading them as you go about your day. Say them out loud when open the fridge, look in the mirror, or any time you see a card.
  • If (when is probably more accurate) you find yourself in an argument with your spouse, recite one of the cards. If you struggle to remember what any of them say, walk as you talk and read the cards along the way. Walking and looking for the right card as you talk may change your argument in and of itself…may even make you laugh a little.
  • Also, as you read the new statements and follow the new tone of voice directions, you will be changing your style of argument for good.

You may even find yourself better able to listen, understand, and validate. Better yet, doing all this will turn the argument into an opportunity to learn about one another and grow more intimate. Now that’s the way to win a great card game!

It’s All Fun & Games Until… It’s Something More

Teaching our children to be helpful and generous is all fun and games…at least in part. That is what I learned from a study published in November 2014. Actually, it was a series of four studies. The first study involved 1- and 2-year-olds assigned to one of two groups. In the first group, a researcher engaged a child in reciprocal play such as rolling a ball back and forth, pushing buttons on a musical toy together, or handing large rings to one another. In the second group, the researcher engaged in parallel paly with the child. Specifically, the researcher played with one set of toys while the child played with another set of toys.  After six minutes, the researcher acted as though they needed help reaching an object. Those who had engaged in reciprocal play helped the researcher get the object significantly more often than those who had engaged in parallel play.

The second study involved assigning children to the same two groups as the first study. It also added a third group in which the researcher merely sat nearby and talked to the child while he played. This time, the researcher left the room and a second researcher, who did not know which child was in which group, came into the room and exhibited a need for help. Once again, those who had engaged in reciprocal play helped significantly more often, even though the person they helped was unknown to them, a stranger.

The third study involved 3- and 4-year-olds in the same two groups as the first study: a reciprocal play group and a parallel play group. As in the second study, the researcher left the room and an assistant carried out the rest of the study. This time, rather than asking for help, the researcher offered the child 6 opportunities to give stickers to him- or herself or to the absent experimenter through the assistant. Guess what. Those engaged in reciprocal play were significantly more generous.

Finally, in a fourth study involving 4-year-olds the researcher asked two assistants to play with the child while he left the room to complete a task. One assistant engaged the child in reciprocal play for one minute. The other engaged in parallel play with the child for a minute. Then the experimenter returned. He showed the children a picture of the two assistants and asked them to point to the one they thought would give them a gift, help them open a door, or share a toy with them. The children consistently pointed to the one who engaged in reciprocal play with them.

These studies suggest that engaging our children in interactive play—play that involves sharing, taking turns, working together—nurtures their willingness to show kindness to others, even those they do not know but trust. It also increased their tendency to act generously toward others. Generous and kind children…triggered by our own interactive play with them. Simply playing a different game next to them did not promote kindness or generosity. Neither did sitting next to them and talking while they played. Getting involved in their play, interacting with them—tossing a ball back and forth, sharing play objects (dolls), or working on a project together (Legos)—promoted kindness and generosity. In other words, teaching our children to be generous and kind is all fun and games. So, be generous enough to kindly give your children the time to interact with them in play…and they will grow in kindness and generosity as well.

A Challenge for Families of Teens

The media often tells us about the challenge of teens. We hear about their fluctuating moods, out-of-control hormones, and risky behaviors. We raise concerns about the prevalence ratings of teen sexual activity, drug use, or bullying. But maybe these stories sell our teens short. Maybe there is much more to our teens than the media would suggest. In fact, research published in the Canadian Journal of School Psychology asked 191 ninth grade students to engage in five acts of kindness in a week. In response, the students completed 943 acts of kindness during that week! 94% of the teens reported completing 3 or more kind acts of kindness in response to that challenge. Not surprisingly, after completing one week of kind acts, the students showed an increase in their perception of their own kindness. Binfet, the author of this study, noted that “when encouraged to be kind, the teens surpassed expectations.”

This reminded me of a concept Tony Campolo espoused many years ago in his book Ideas for Social Action. He believed that young people are attracted to challenge more than entertainment, meaningful action rather than “pie in the sky when you die” promises. In this study, Binfet challenged students to kindness and their response “surpassed expectations.”

What does all this mean for parents and families? Perhaps, rather than focus on the challenge of teens, we need to offer our teens a challenge, a challenge to kindness, a challenge to reach out to the others in love, a challenge to live a life of service, sacrifice, and meaning. In response to the study above, Binfet suggested that our teens would benefit from parents and educators finding “ways to best structure opportunities for youth to be kind to help foster their development.” I believe this challenge begins at home. How can we, as parents, provide opportunities for our children and teens to show kindness to others? When we do, I believe we will be pleasantly surprised as our teens “surpass our expectations.” So, rather than bemoan the challenge of teens, lets challenge our teens and our selves to engage in acts of kindness.

Here is an experiment you can try this month. It is a challenge for the whole family, including your teens. Challenge every member of your family, including the teens, to engage in 5 acts of kindness every week for a month. Note the acts of kindness can be done within the family or outside the home toward friends, acquaintances, or even strangers. At the end of each week, talk about the kindnesses each one has shared and how those acts of kindness impacted you as an individual and the world around you.

Six Reasons to Hug Your Family

A hug is defined as the “holding or squeezing of someone tightly in one’s arms.”  But, in reality, a hug is much more than simply holding or squeezing another person. A hug is powerful. A hug can change a life. In fact, here are 6 reasons to hug your spouse, children, and parents on a regular basis.

  • Research out of Carnegie Mellon University suggests that receiving a hug on the day of a conflict contributed to feeling less negative emotion the day of the conflict and the day after the conflict. The hug also prevented the conflict from reducing positive emotion on the day of the conflict. In other words, a hug helps people feel better even after a conflict.
  • In another study involving 404 participants, hugs were found to buffer the stress caused by daily stressors and resulted in less severe symptoms when infected with a virus for the common cold. Want your loved ones to be less stressed and have fewer symptoms of illness? Give them a hug.
  • Hugs may boost heart health also. A study published in 2003 found that people who held hands with their loved one for ten minutes and then hugged them for 20 seconds (compared to those who simply rested for 10 minutes and 20 seconds) had lower blood pressure & less increase in heart rate during a public speaking assignment. In other words, physical affection, including a hug, reduces our reactivity to stresses and promotes better heart health.
  • A good 20-second hug releases oxytocin…and oxytocin counteracts stress, helps us relax, increases our level of trust, and increases our empathy and feelings of intimacy. You could say hugs release oxytocin and make us feel good.
  • Hugs also communicate affection and love to the other person. A hug communicates “You belong.” Who doesn’t like to know they belong? Everyone enjoys knowing they are loved. Communicate your love…give a hug.
  • Last, but not least, hugs feel good. You can feel the comfort and the relaxing of the muscles even as you feel the other person’s arms engulf you in a hug.

Hugs benefit our physical health, our emotional health, and our mental health. They communicate love and help people know they belong. Give your loved ones a hug today. Better yet, give them several hugs today.

Conflict With Your Spouse? Try the Elmo Approach.

Remember Elmo from Sesame Street? Elmo talks in third person most of the time. The Sesame Street Workshop Frequently Asked Questions tells us Elmo talks in third person because of his preschool age. In fact, many preschoolers do speak in third person. Elmo simply says he “was born that way.” Whatever his reason for talking in third person, he may be on to something that could benefit you, your marriage, and your family.

Teresa Frisbie, a professional mediator and director of Loyola University Chicago School of Law’s Dispute Resolution Program, helps clarify what Elmo can teach us. She notes we often react to stressors, disagreements, or perceived threats with a fight, flight, or freeze response. John Gottman also states that marital arguments trigger this fight, flight, or freeze response. During this response, we become defensive and self-protective. We are less able to listen well or understand another person’s perspective. As you can imagine, that is not good for resolving the argument with your spouse. In fact, it only makes the conflict worse. But what can we do? Which leads us back to Teresa Frisbie.

Teresa Frisbie suggests we try what I call the Elmo Approach. She suggests we begin to use a third person perspective, just like Elmo does. Simply shifting our perspective from the first-person (I, me, mine) to third person (Elmo says…) helps us gain distance from the perceived stresses and perceived threat so we can remain calm and gain some clarity. The third person perspective helps us maintain a healthy optimism as well, which helps resolve disagreements. The Elmo Approach can also help us listen better and appreciate multiple perspectives. It will help us resolve the disagreement more easily.

You may be thinking, “Elmo can talk in third person, but I’ll look crazy talking in third-person during an argument.” Well…. Here’s the beauty of this? You don’t have to say it out loud. You can simply begin referring to yourself in third person in your mind. Beginning to use the third person in your thoughts can produce the same results. So, give the Elmo Approach a try. If you find yourself stressed or overwhelmed, start referring to yourself in third person (by using your name or referring to yourself as he, she, him, or her) as you contemplate your response. Whether you find yourself giggling like Elmo or not, you will find it easier to maintain some distance from the stressor and resolve the conflict more easily.

Read more about this in How to Get Some Emotional Distance in an Argument from The Greater Good Science Center.

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