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FAMILY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES – TALKING WITH YOUR TEEN ABOUT INSIDE OUT AND THE PURPOSE OF SADNESS

In our series, Family Night at the Movies, we recommend movies for viewing and later discussion whose message may be helpful for teenagers and their parents.
In one of our previous articles, you can read more about movies as valuable tools in addressing the emotional and social needs of teens.

Our latest choice is Inside Out, the acclaimed Pixar animation movie of 2015 directed by Pete Docter, which deals with the emotions, specifically sadness:

The film is set inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley, with the main characters actually being her primary emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust, who argue and compete with one another. The conflict between Joy and Sadness forms the basis of the action.

Warning: spoilers!

When her father’s new job requires that the family moved to San Francisco, Riley’s emotions are thrown into turmoil. She has torn away from her familiar, harmonious Midwestern life and forced to adjust to a new environment. In this classically stressful situation, we watch the battle of her emotions as they try to navigate these new challenges in her life.

Taking into account that the complexity of psychological processes is impossible to fully explore in a movie, Inside Out nevertheless effectively illustrates how our emotions work and how they connect to happenings in the outside world and to our cognitive processes.

Various lessons can be taken from this movie, among them that all emotions are equally important and the danger of the imperative to stay positive all the time. We have addressed these in a previous article, Come to the dark side, we have emotions. Here, we address an important third lesson – the purpose of sadness.

PURPOSE OF SADNESS – ADAPTATION OF LOSS

Emotions are specific reactions to happenings that are important to us and the purpose of each is an adaptation to the change, reconnection with important others, and ultimately the ability to move on with our lives. We are sad when we anticipate or experience the loss of someone or something valuable to us, so the particular purpose of sadness is a psychological adjustment to loss.
At the beginning of the movie, Joy, Riley’s dominant emotion, introduces the other emotions. She explains why each of them is important to Riley and points out that they all work as a team. However, when she comes to Sadness, Joy just skips it, admitting that she doesn’t really understand its purpose. So, in the face of this stressful situation, Joy prevents Sadness from acting and does not allow Riley to be sad, although that is clearly her most natural emotional reaction. She is losing her old way of life and being forced to adjust to a new one. She misses her old house, her friends, her hockey team, and also her father, who is more frequently absent because of his new job. She is struggling to adapt.

When we allow ourselves to experience certain emotions, many processes in both our mind and body work in concert to prepare us for action. The work of sadness differs in that when we are sad we feel listless and to all appearances become passive. Yet our mind is working actively to try to process the loss and reorganize our inner world in order to adapt to the new reality.

PURPOSE OF SADNESS – RELIEF AND CONNECTION

Another important function of sadness is its specific bodily expression. When we experience sadness without repression and let it flow freely through our body, we manifest specific facial expressions and body posture and will cry or sob.

Crying is a natural healing process. When we cry we are relieving tension and pain from our body as if the tears were melting the pain and alleviating our sadness. The release is complete with deep crying that involves sobbing since our distress is expressed through our voice and a different pattern of breathing. After a while, breathing is deeper, the body is relieved of tension and we feel much better. Reassure your children of any age; give them permission, let them know it’s okay to cry.

The specific body language associated with sadness has its social dimension, too. It is obvious to others that we are sad and they may show compassion. This is what, in the end, Joy finally recognized and came to understood to be the purpose of Sadness.

When Joy allowed Sadness to act and Riley finally expressed her sadness, her parents hugged and comforted her. In her distress, Riley’s image of “family” had collapsed and almost caused her to run away. Now the family was once again a team, reunited and reconnected.

DANGER OF REPRESSING SADNESS

Sadness or any other emotion can be repressed when it is perceived as less valuable. “Being sad is for weaklings. I must be strong.” Our system of values is mainly formed through family and wider cultural influences.
Today we are witnessing a global trend which values “positive thinking”; a sort of industry of happiness to keep us smiling, optimistic, shiny and happy, which is not in accordance with our psychological makeup. Under certain circumstances, it is natural to feel fear, sadness, or anger. Every repression, denial, or compulsion to feel differently than we actually feel, leads to imbalance.

This is exactly what we learn in the movie. Since Joy doesn’t understand the purpose of Sadness and is afraid Sadness will spoil Riley’s happy life and infect her joyful memories, she multitasks in order to keep each new experience positive or funny at all costs.

The pressure to stay positive is even stronger when her mother praises Riley for staying so cheerful despite everything, implying that if both of them just keep smiling it will ease the pressure Riley’s father is going through. We’ll see later in the movie the consequences of this attitude. It is a reminder also for us parents to be careful with the messages we’re sending to our kids. You never know what kind of battle is going on in their heads and how they will interpret our words.

“Don’t feel” or “Don’t feel (certain emotion)” are frequent injunctions that repeat in the back of the minds of depressive or anxious clients going to therapy. The authors of Redecision Therapy, Goulding and Goulding, observed that when sadness is repressed, repression of joy and other pleasant emotions follows. As a consequence, a person is unable to emotionally bond with others.

That is why it is important to reassure your child of any age that feeling sad is okay. How do you do that? By understanding, allowing, and encouraging your child to feel and express sadness (and all other emotions), so cleansing can take place and the child can move forward. It is especially important to discuss later what happened and what made her/him so sad.

With teenagers, you can engage in even deeper conversations and we hope that some of the information in this article will help.

Ask your teens what they’ve learned from the movie. Did they ever feel as Riley did? What is the purpose of sadness, in their opinion? Can they identify their dominant emotion and the one they’re tending to neglect? For more about particular questions and how to lead a conversation after the movie, read here.

by Milena Ćuk,
Life Coach and Integrative Art Therapist-in-training

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PROCRASTINATION AND TEENS – HOW CAN WE HELP?

by Milena Ćuk,

Life Coach and Integrative Art Therapist-in-training

“Much of the stress that people feel doesn’t come from having too much to do. It comes from not finishing what they started.”

David Allen

Have you ever spent hours staring at a blank page trying to write a meaningful paper or e-mail, etc.?  Have you ever postponed a boring or unpleasant task until the last minute when you couldn’t put it off any longer? Have you ever caught yourself doing all sorts of unimportant activities such as washing dishes or rearranging the furniture instead of getting started on a pressing obligation? What was your favorite time zapper when you were a student yourself?

Let’s face it – we’ve all procrastinated. If you want to help your teen avoid becoming a chronic procrastinator, we suggest you start by admitting that you’ve dealt with this issue as well. We hope that gaining a better understanding of the underlying causes of procrastination and following some of the tips we suggest, will enable you to help your teen overcome the habit.

So, what is procrastination?

Authors Olpin & Hesson (2013) define procrastination as the avoidance of doing a task that needs to be accomplished. While delaying tasks from time to time is nothing to worry about, it becomes a problem when transformed into a habit and starts to affect important aspects of our lives – academic, professional and personal. Or,  as Alyce P. Cornyn-Selby put it: “Procrastination is, hands down, our favorite form of self-sabotage.” Fortunately, each habit is learned so it can be unlearned as well.

In order to understand a teen’s mind and world better, I asked my 15-year-old niece about her experience with procrastination as it related to schoolwork. This is what she told me:

I used to have a lot of problems with this pro, pro… Now it’s much better, but back when I was routinely putting my school obligations off, it was always when I was up against more complex tasks; when I knew the work would be more difficult and that I’d need more time to complete it. Why was I acting like this? Because I didn’t want to face it. I didn’t want the burden. It was easier to leave it to the last minute. I could force myself to study only when it was urgent and when I knew that I couldn’t postpone it any longer. Deadlines, actually, are a great help in this! And while I was waiting till that very last moment, I was usually hanging out, watching movies, a TV series on the Internet, or just lying down and doing nothing.

According to psychologist Linda Sapadin, author of the book How to Beat Procrastination in the Digital Age: 6 Change Programs for 6 Personality Styles, my niece fits the Crisis Makers style of procrastinators. Crisis Makers, addicted to the rush of high emotion, wait until pressure mounts to take action. Other styles are: Perfectionists (afraid of making mistakes, they waste tons of time unnecessarily focusing on details); Dreamers (lack initiative and fail to translate their big ideas into action); Worriers (afraid of change, they’re focused on worst-case scenario); Defiers (may be openly rebellious or passive-aggressive, defy authority or avoid making agreements and often don’t do what they promised); Pleasers (have problems setting priorities and saying “No”, so they make the job harder than it needs to be).

It is very important to first identify the root of the procrastination since this is the key element in pursuing the ongoing battle against it. For instance, if you realize that your teen’s perfectionism is the reason he’s putting off his school obligations, you should focus on helping him overcome his fear of making mistakes, as well as talking to him about time management and related coping skills.  Reassure him it’s okay to make mistakes; teach him that perfection is an illusion, the enemy of the good; advise him just to keep moving, not to get bogged down in details and lose focus on his main objective.

We should acknowledge that chronic procrastination is not a simple matter of time management or self-discipline but a complex psychological and/or neurocognitive issue (Burka and Yuen, 2008). These authors suggest that procrastination is a strategy people use to manage other issues, for instance: fear of failure, fear of success, fear of feeling controlled, or fear of facing reality.

Also, in this high-tech, digitalized age we live in, the accessibility of gadgets and the virtual worlds we tend to inhabit (this applies especially to teens) are not helping us win the procrastination battle. On the contrary.

You can read about the advantages and disadvantages of technology in one of our previous articles: Education and Technology: A Match Made in Heaven or Hell?

So, what to do if you recognize that your teen has a problem with procrastination?

I asked my niece what has helped her. She said:

When I was younger, my parents would keep reminding me to study but it didn’t work. I would pretend to study in order to please them but in actual fact, it was waste of time and I’d end up cramming anyway. Now that I’m in high school, I realize that everything depends on me. My subjects are more complex and since I want good grades, I’d exhaust myself staying up at night with mountains of schoolwork. And I was tired during the day, both in class and during training (volleyball). I realized that procrastination makes me tired and leads nowhere. I now try to organize myself better and study more consistently. And it’s funny – it is not as hard as I used to think. I think that’s because I made the decision on my own, nobody forced me to. It wouldn’t have worked if anybody else tried to force me or to organize my time for me. I had to do it for myself.

We can learn a lot from our kids, don’t you agree? However, it is also useful to get empowered through reliable sources. There are comprehensive and detailed programs developed in order to overcome the habit of procrastination. For your information, you can check the references at the end of the article.

In a nutshell, these are our suggestions:

  • Talk openly and without criticism about the issue of putting obligations off. Show empathy. Through talk and through time it is more likely that a teen will gain insight about how procrastination is affecting him and whether and what he wants to change.
  • Remember your own experience with procrastination and how it made you feel. Share that with your teen. What tasks nowadays do you hate to do and tend to put off? You can talk about it as a common problem and search for solutions together.
  • Share what worked for you when you struggled with procrastination. It doesn’t mean it will work for your teen, but it’s a good start. Praise his efforts to beat the habit.
  • You should figure out what is at the root of his/her procrastination. Underlying reasons need to be addressed, such as any kind of fear, resistance, perfectionism, etc. Don’t hesitate to ask for help from a coach or therapist if you estimate that it is needed.
  • Help him/her learn how to study and how to plan his/her time.
  • Help him recognize his favorite time zappers – how he usually deflects when he procrastinates (social networks, TV, video games, surfing the Internet, oversleeping, panicking, etc.) and make a deal that he try to overcome these impulses during study time. That is where time management skills are important.
  • Encourage him to ask for help if he doesn’t understand the subject matter or doesn’t know how to do his homework.

One of the first authors of self-help books, Robert Collier, has suggested:

“If you procrastinate when faced with a big difficult problem… break the problem into parts, and handle one part at a time.”

This strategy is well-known and is recommended in all manuals for overcoming procrastination: to break a bigger task into smaller, measurable actions with a realistic deadline for each of these smaller actions.

The other one well-known tip for more demanding tasks is to hit the most difficult (or the most unpleasant) part first, if at all possible. As the pioneer in the personal development field, Dale Carnegie observed: “Do the hard jobs first. The easy jobs will take care of themselves.”

Help your teen recognize what motivates him and what gives him energy. Teach him to use these as rewards for maintaining self-discipline and progress in the adoption of a new habit. It is easier to go through unpleasant tasks if we know that we will be rewarded afterward.

Teach your teen to deal with details at the end. For instance, if he is writing a paper, teach him to write the main parts first, to keep moving and to leave dealing with details last.

While these are general tips to deal with procrastination, keep in mind that each person is unique and tailor your approach to what works best for your teen.

Need additional support in helping your teen overcome procrastination? Don’t hesitate. We can help. Schedule an appointment with our coach.

References and useful links:

  1. Procrastination: Why You Do It, What To Do About It Now, by Burka, J. B. & Yuen, L. M. (2008)
  2. Stress Management for Life: A Research-Based Experiential Approach, by Olpin, M. & Hesson, M. (2013)
  3. Beat Procrastination in the Digital Age, by Dr. Linda Sapadin http://beatprocrastinationcoach.com/
  4. Procrastination and Science, including quotes related to procrastination https://procrastinus.com/
  5. Award winning video by John Kelly about examination of procrastination https://vimeo.com/9553205
  6. TED Talks: Tim Urban – Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator https://www.ted.com/talks/tim_urban_inside_the_mind_of_a_master_procrastinator#t-831583

TO PLAY OR TO LEARN? 5 BENEFITS OF IMAGINATIVE PLAY.

For their children to succeed, parents usually think that they should steer their minds away from playing and get them focused on academics. Pretend play, also called an imaginative play, has been proven to develop skills employers are looking for, and it also is the foundation of abstract thought. Thus, the question today is not whether you should encourage your child to study more or let him/her play. The question is how to encourage your child to engage in imaginative play as much as possible. This article aims to show ways to do so and will also list some of the benefits of this type of game and explain why it is so important for your child’s development.

What is an imaginative play?

This type of play, also called pretend play, make-believe play or symbolic play, entails acting out different stories. During this process of acting, children play with emotions and ideas forcing them to decide between many possible scenarios [3]. For example, when you see your child enjoying an elegant tea party with his or her teddy bears or become a part of a superhero/superheroine group with friends, you are witnessing the imaginative play.

Children develop the ability to pretend very early in their childhood, around 18 months [1]. At this age, the imaginative play associates with the infant’s ability to recognize relationships between objects and the actions related to them. For example, the child first recognizes that a cup is connected to drinking. Next, they use sounds or gestures to indicate drinking. Finally, the child will start to combine this knowledge and begin using an object similar to a cup to feed his/her tea party teddy bears [6]. This pattern gets more complex with age, peaking when children are pretending for longer periods of time when the parents start taking notice of it, or when the child vocalizes that they are pretending [5].

How is this beneficial for my child?

Many parents worry that imaginative play is a waste of time, or that their child may go too far and lose sight of reality [5]. While these fears are understandable, it is imperative to note that this is a healthy and even beneficial part of a child’s life.

  • Imaginative play encourages the cognitive development of a child. Research has shown improvements in their executive functions (higher functions that allow people to act more goal-oriented and adaptive). These children also have a better working memory which means they can manipulate information as they process it. Also, they are better at shifting their attention from one task to the other [8], helping to promote logical reasoning. Each developed scenario has its logic that they must continue to recall, involving lots of reasoning and attention to detail [5].
  • Imaginative play encourages the development of emotional abilities and emotional regulatory skills as well [5]. While engaging in this sort of game, children have to act out emotions, which in turn helps them express their emotions later. Highly emotional games such as “playing doctor” may help them cope with similar situations later in life [4].
  • Children might be pre-exercising for skills they will find useful later in life. For example, playing “house” entails a lot of recollection of things they see their parent(s) doing every day. Acting these scenarios out may help them succeed in a parenting role later in life [7].
  • Imaginative play encourages the development of generic knowledge. Accomplished through the authenticity of their imagined world/scenario, generic knowledge is useful in following verbal instructions [7].
  • Social skills are also being nurtured through imaginative play as this type of game usually involves the presence or imagining of others. Children learn how to initiate and sustain the social relationship. They also start to acknowledge that they are not the only ones in the story, thus losing their egocentricity and considering other people while creating or modifying the story [5].

How do I encourage this behavior?

With a bit of patience, time and imagination, this should be easy and fun!

As a parent, you can get involved in your child’s game by imitating. If you notice that he or she is pretending to be something or someone, your first step should be to get involved in the dialogue according to the scenario. By asking questions about the character or story you inadvertently extend their playing by forcing them to expand upon their imaginary world and to come up with alternate scenarios.

Exposing your child to new experiences gives them more material to pull from when playing. These new experiences and a few props can lead to extended play time and some unique stories.

While encouraging your child to pretend, it is important always to make them feel that they are in control of the story. Let them know that you are only there as a part of the story and they can decide how it ends.

Finally, playing and learning are synonymous to each other. Imaginative play encourages cognitive development, emotional regulatory skills, generic knowledge, and social skills. Being involved in your child’s imagination is stimulating and educational for them, and fun for you!

References:

  1. Bosco, F. M., Friedman, O., & Leslie, A. M. (2006). Recognition of pretend and real actions in play by 1- and 2-year-olds: Early success and why they fail. Cognitive Development, 21(1), 3–10. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogdev.2005.09.006
  2. How To Encourage Pretend Play Just Pretending : How to Encourage Pretend Play and to Support Young Children in the Land of Make Believe. (2016), (July).
  3. Kaufman, S. B. P. D. (2012). The Need for Pretend Play in Child Development. Retrieved December 26, 2016, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/beautiful-minds/201203/the-need-pretend-play-in-child-development
  4. Lillard, A. S., Lerner, M. D., Hopkins, E. J., Dore, R. A., & Smith, E. D. (2013). The impact of pretend play on children’s development: A review of the evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 139(1), 1–34. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0029321
  5. Narvaez, D. (2014). Is Pretend Play Good for Kids ? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/moral-landscapes/201404/is-pretend-play-good-kids
  6. Orr, E., & Geva, R. (2015). Symbolic play and language development. Infant Behavior and Development, 38, 147–161. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.infbeh.2015.01.002
  7. Sutherland, S. L., & Friedman, O. (2013). Just pretending can be really learning: Children use pretend play as a source for acquiring generic knowledge. Developmental Psychology, 49(9), 1660–8. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0030788
  8. Thibodeau, R. B., Gilpin, A. T., Brown, M. M., & Meyer, B. A. (2016). The effects of fantastical pretend-play on the development of executive functions: An intervention study. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 145, 120–138. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2016.01.001