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Bullying: How to Recognize it and Build Resilience

Bullying is a very emotional topic for kids and parents alike. Unfortunately, we are used to hearing about bullying incidents that mostly happen during middle and high school, due to the biological, social, and emotional changes adolescents undergo during this period. [3] That being said, it’s important to emphasize that while bullying tends to be more noticed during those years, for some children it can start as early as preschool.

If you’re not certain whether something constitutes bullying or not, ask yourself these questions: Is there a power imbalance?, Is the negative behavior intentional?, and, finally, Was it a single incident or is it ongoing? 

A power imbalance makes bullying easier. The bully can be physically stronger than the victim, but that doesn’t have to be the case. These days, being popular creates the biggest power imbalance in schools and often allows spreading rumors and name-calling to be perpetrated with no repercussions.

Also, bullying is an intentional infliction of harm. Bad things can happen accidentally – if a bad message goes to the wrong number by accident, it’s not bullying. But if it’s sent with full intent, then whoever sent it could be considered a bully – if it’s not a single incident. A single bad action cannot be viewed as bullying, though it should be dealt with firmly. Bullying implies the incidents are being repeated, creating a vicious pattern. [4]

Types of bullying

Many people tend to think of bullying specifically as physical abuse. A physical act of bullying can be any situation in which the student’s physical integrity is under attack – pushing, kicking, hitting… However, it’s not the most common form of bullying today.

The two most common are verbal and relational bullying, and a very specific form that’s being practiced more frequently – cyberbullying. [3]

Verbal bullying is very common and it mostly revolves around name-calling. Relational bullying doesn’t necessarily involve face-to-face contact between the bully and the victim. Any form of social exclusion (not allowing someone into a peer group, denying them access to social activities on purpose) or rumor-spreading falls under relational bullying. Another form of relational bullying is issuing orders and ultimatums to peers in order to command more power in social circles, for example, “you can’t hang out with that person and still be part of our group ”.

Cyberbullying is a growing problem for many reasons. For one, access to technology has never been easier, and with a growing number of platforms where someone can express their opinion by sending and receiving messages, the proportion of cyberbullies is growing as well.  Instant messaging allows perpetrators to “hide behind a screen”, which instills a lot of anxiety in the victim, given that the identity of the bully is often not known. [5]

Recognizing bullying is the first step in tackling an issue that’s been going on for a very long time. However, recognizing a child who’s being bullied is just as important.

Signs that a child is being bullied

It’s not easy to recognize that a child is the victim of bullying, but you should be able to notice that something is wrong. The best thing you can do is create a loving, positive, and safe atmosphere in which your child feels comfortable enough to tell you they’re being bullied.

Bullying can have many consequences, from emotional distress to lower grades.

Behaviors resembling depression or anxiety are very common indicators that a child is being bullied. You may notice that they have trouble sleeping (insomnia, nightmares) and they look sad and worried. Consequently, their desire to go to school, as well as their grades, might be plummeting. It’s difficult for a student to concentrate on studying and paying attention in class if they’re afraid of what’s going to happen after class is out. [7] If they look fearful and anxious before going to school, or they’re constantly making up excuses to avoid going, the best thing to do is talk to them about it.

If you notice that they look nervous after interacting with technology, it could be a sign of cyberbullying. Some children will become socially isolated due to rumors being spread or name-calling, so they might not be hanging out with friends as much as they used to. [4]

In extreme cases, the child might resort to self-harm as a way to cope with stress and fear. If you notice any cuts or bruises they try to hide, you should talk to them about it. They could also start acting out in an unusual way – they could become aggressive verbally or even physically towards others, both as an outlet for frustration and out of the belief that aggression should be battled with aggression. [4]

As we mentioned before, these are some of the signs that could help you notice something’s off, but it’s difficult to know for sure unless they tell you themselves or a teacher reports it.  Remind your children often to let you know if they’re being bullied – anywhere!  Assure them that you will not overreact, but instead, will assist them in dealing with it themselves.

Why do they hide it?

The solution to this problem would be easier if all the victims of bullying came forward. Unfortunately, many students do not do so. One reason is that they don’t want to seem”weak“ in front of their peers, so they choose to take it silently rather than admit to it.  Another possibility is fear of retaliation once the bully is punished for their behavior. Last, but not least, they sometimes think their parents will want them to change schools, and they don’t want to leave their classmates and friends behind. Starting over can be very difficult, especially in adolescent years.

Because of this, we need to create a safe environment that clearly condemns bullying; we need to tackle it systematically. However, parents can do their part as well, and to help with that we’ve prepared some advice.

Building resilience

Often, we tend to (wrongly) assume that if we remove the bully, we stop the bullying. This might be the case for some children, but for most, bullying is an ongoing process that has to do with their vulnerability. And while no child is to blame for being bullied, there are some characteristics that make them susceptible to bullies, and that parents can help them strengthen.

By achieving resilience, children start feeling:

• in control of their lives

• strong enough to battle this issue

• confident that they have enough strength and outside support to do it, and

•able to communicate their problems and expect a positive outcome.

One of the characteristics that might make them vulnerable is solving problems by internalizing them. They feel anxious and depressed when dealing with stressful events, they have trouble telling anyone about it, and aren’t assertive enough. Kids like these may be perceived as easy targets who won’t retaliate if attacked. [4]

Alternatively, if children tend to externalize their problems, dealing with them by showing aggression (yelling, breaking things), their peers might not accept them, leaving them without social support and vulnerable to bullies. [4]

Once we have this in mind, we can work on strengthening the characteristics important for resilience.

1. “This is my fault”. Victims of bullying often feel they’ve done something to deserve it. Parents and teachers alike have the responsibility to talk to children and let them know that nobody deserves to be bullied. However, this might make them feel there’s nothing to be done about it; if it’s not about them, how can they change something and stop it?

It’s of the utmost importance to help children understand that bullies come after those whom they think either won’t defend themselves or appear to believe they have no one to defend them. This is what makes confidence, sense of self-efficacy and assertiveness pivotal to resilience. [2]

2. Confidence and self-efficacy. Children who have experienced bullying often don’t have a lot of confidence, and don’t perceive themselves as being in control of their lives. They don’t think they’re able to change anything, and that leaves them vulnerable. [2]

In order to be able to solve problems and acquire confidence, children need to be given two things: autonomy and support. You should encourage them, from an early age, to try and tackle the obstacles they face. If they see you believe that they’re strong enough to solve something on their own, they’ll eventually start believing it themselves. [1]

However, you should also be there for them as a safety net. They need to know that should a problem prove to be too big to solve alone, they can always confide in you and receive support and help.

3. Being assertive. When faced with bullying, vulnerable children often try to deal with it in one of two ways: they either hide and take it silently or they try to battle aggression with aggression. Neither of these options is beneficial; they should instead be taught to be assertive. This means they learn to express their emotions and thoughts, letting the bully know how they feel – that the behavior is wrong and punishable. If that doesn’t prove to be enough, assertiveness also means they can confide in their parents, friends, and teachers and expect that the problem will eventually be solved. [4]

4. Standing up against bullying. Even if your child is not the one being bullied, standing by as some other child is being abused makes an audience out of them, and that audience is often what reinforces further bullying. They should understand from a young age why bullying is wrong and, if they see it happen, they should support the child being attacked and help them report it. It’s also important to know that children who have close friends (particularly at school) have less chance of being bullied than children who have no peers to protect them. By becoming part of a peer group ready to protect their members against bullying, they are well on their way to becoming more resilient. [6]

5. Dealing with stress and emotions. The cornerstone of resilience is being able to deal with stress without being overwhelmed by anxiety. A positive reaction to stress means being able to keep a clear head and think of different ways to solve a problem. Of course, feeling sad or angry is a normal reaction to negative events, but the important thing is to not internalize or externalize.  Keeping problems and emotions to ourselves even as they overwhelm us is a mistake, but so is acting out.

A healthy reaction to stress consists of confidence in our strength to solve a problem as well as the belief that there are people in our lives who will help us if it becomes too much to handle. If you can instill that way of thinking and feeling in your child, they’ll be much more protected against any type of bullying. [4]

What can you do?

Dealing with bullying is not an easy task, and the solution is not a simple one. And as with any other problem, mistakes are always a possibility. So to help you be there for your child in the best way possible, we’ll list some of the things you shouldn’t do, and advise you on what to do instead.

Taking away their phones/computers. If your child is being cyberbullied, taking the technology away from them doesn’t solve the problem; if anything, it creates a bigger one. Many children won’t admit to being bullied because of this exact reason – fear that their parents will take their computers away from them. Instead… 

…Build resilience. Try to find out who the bully is, talk to teachers and other school staff. Taking the phone away doesn’t mean that the bullying won’t continue in “real life”. [5]

Overreacting. Similarly, you might want to change schools as soon as you hear about bullying. But what if there’s another bully in the next school? Running away from a problem doesn’t help solve it. Alternatively, some parents tell their kids to just stay put and they’ll take care of things. But solving the problem while keeping them excluded could lead the child to think they’re not strong enough to solve their own problems. So if a similar situation comes up later on, they might react even more negatively than the first time. Instead… 

…You should work on it together and discuss every possible solution with them. Once included, their confidence and perceived sense of control will grow. [1]

Telling them it’s all a part of growing up. Sure, kids can be mean,  but a joke is only a joke if both parties understand it as such. If your child is feeling negatively towards being called names or pushed around, telling them it’s all normal and that “boys will be boys” won’t help them build resilience. If anything, it will teach them that being aggressive and not respecting others’ emotions is okay. Instead…

…You should show empathy and understanding towards their feelings and work on the best possible solution – together.

by Jelena Jegdić

References:

  1. Grotberg, E. (1995). A guide to promoting resilience in children: strengthening the human spirit. Early Childhood Development: Practice and Reflections Number 8
  2. Narayanan A. & Betts, L.R. (2014). Bullying Behaviors and Victimization Experiences Among Adolescent Students: The Role of Resilience. The Journal of Genetic Psychology Vol. 175 , Iss. 2,2014
  3. Wang, J., Iannotti, R.J., & Nansel, T.R. (2009). School Bullying Among U.S. Adolescents: Physical, Verbal, Relational and Cyber. J Adolesc Health 45(4): 368–375.
  4. Arseneault L., Bowes L. & Shakoor S. (2010). Bullying victimization in youths and mental health problems: ‘Much ado about nothing’? Psychological Medicine / Volume 40 / Issue 05/ pp 717 729
  5. https://pro.psychcentral.com/cyber-bullying-recognizing-and-treating-victim-and-aggressor/00112.html
  6. Craig, W.M., Pepler D., & Atlas, R. (2000). Observations of Bullying in the Playground and in the Classroom. School Psychology International, Vol. 21(1)
  7. Juvonen, J., Wang, Z., & Espinoza, G. (2011). Bullying Experiences and Compromised Academic Performance Across Middle School Grades. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 31: 152

Is helping your child with homework beneficial?

Now that October report cards are here, many parents will be asking themselves how they can help their child more with their grades. Is it okay to help them with homework, or should it be 100% on them?

The short answer is – yes, it’s more than okay! Helping with homework involves a lot of challenges and poses a lot of questions, but once you find the right approach to it, both you and your student will benefit. Here we will explain why, and we’ll also give you some tips on how to work through the challenges.

Benefits of helping with homework

Attitude towards learning. If you manage to create a comfortable atmosphere where mistakes are allowed and knowledge is rewarded, it will translate into a positive attitude and motivation to do and learn more. You’re showing your child that you believe in the school process and what it is trying to accomplish; you’re also guiding them to understand that hard work pays off. This mindset is a huge plus during their school years and in their future lives as well. [1]

Confidence. For some children, school is a piece of cake – they’re motivated, hard-working, and bursting with confidence about their grades. Yet for many of them, things aren’t so easy, especially at school where the teacher cannot focus on each student individually. But you can. At home, you can offer them the chance to develop and show off their skills without worrying whether their answer is correct or not. And after a while, this way of thinking will transfer into their school environment, giving them the confidence to help them progress.

Closeness. This part is especially important if your child is a teenager. As they grow up, children start craving more autonomy, becoming closer to their peers and spending less time with their parents. So bonding over homework and creating a welcoming atmosphere at home could be rewarding for your child, as well as you. Thanks to this interaction, you’ll be aware of what your child is currently learning, what their aspirations are, and whether you share an interest that could allow you to talk to them more.

How do I help?

If you have a child who’s currently in school, they’ve probably asked you to help them with homework a couple of times. You might have sat down with them, helping them with the difficult steps, or encouraged them to come up with the answers themselves. And while doing homework helps them understand school materials better, it also raises some questions parents often ask – How can I help them with their homework without solving too much for them? Should I monitor the whole process or just help them with the most difficult things? Am I capable enough to help them? – and so on.

To help answer these questions as well as any others you might have asked yourself, let’s start with a few tips on what to pay attention to when the time comes for your child to open the textbook.

Things to pay attention to

Atmosphere. While being knowledgeable about the topic at hand is likely to help you aid your child, it’s far from all that’s important. Even if you’re not too familiar with the topic they’re asking you about, you can still help by providing a good learning atmosphere that will help them concentrate better. And later on, who knows – maybe they’ll be able to come up with the answer themselves!

Now, what constitutes a good learning atmosphere?

This is different for every child, so there’s no simple answer. Let’s start with the way they act in their school environment (you will understand this one best if you contact their teacher and ask them). Are they usually interested and able to concentrate in class? Are they active and asking questions? If the answer to these is mostly “yes”, then you should create a similar, more structured atmosphere for homework as well. You can offer to time them as they do their homework or make sure they’re sitting at a desk clear of unnecessary and distracting things (such as a phone).

However, if they’re usually bored in class and have difficulty keeping their attention undivided, they may benefit from a less structured homework environment. In that case, having a bunch of things on their desk or even sitting on a couch as they try to do their homework could suit them better. If they feel comfortable, their attitude towards homework will be more positive, making it easier for them to finish their tasks. [2]

Learning style. This is similar to atmosphere, but it’s more about details than the amount of structure. Parents who understand their children’s learning style are better able to explain something to them in a way they will understand. While some children can sit in front of a book for hours, just reading and soaking up the knowledge, others do better with visual representation, so make sure to tailor your explanations to their individual style.

Also, children will enjoy the process of doing homework more if it matches up with their preferences. For example, some children prefer silence so they can focus more clearly; others work better if there’s some light music in the background, or just the regular everyday noises (neighborhood dogs, cars, etc.). And if your child tells you they’re calling friends over for a study group, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll just hang out and get nothing done. Some students thrive in the presence of their peers – they can motivate and explain things to each other. A group can often possess more knowledge than an individual. [3]

Level of directness. If you’re wondering whether you should give your child the answers or just hints, the answer is – it depends. When it comes to very young children (first or second-graders), they’ll most likely need direct answers. But as they grow older and more autonomous and start thinking in abstract terms, they’ll benefit from indirect answers. This is just a general rule, and it differs from subject to subject, task to task. If they need to memorize something, direct answers are the only way to help them; but if they have a science project or need to write a poem, you should merely stimulate their thinking with some helpful instructions and hints. [2]

Rewards and incentives. While it’s true that children should internalize the need to study and do well at school, giving them some rewards and incentives can help them along the way. A lot of children, both younger and older, tend to put off their homework until after they go out with friends, or until after that new episode of their favorite TV show is over. Instead, you can offer them a reward for after they finish homework. It should be something they really enjoy – a bigger allowance, a favorite dinner, slightly delayed bedtime, or a promise to take them to the concert they want to go to. Once you offer them something you know they want, they’ll be more motivated and get to their homework faster.

Just be careful with this – you shouldn’t reward them for every homework assignment, otherwise they might not internalize the motivation to do it! After some time, you can go from short-term to long-term incentives – if they get an A at the end of the school year, they’ll be rewarded. This way, they’ll realize they need to pay attention to homework in order to reach a future goal and they’ll be on their way towards having a positive attitude and greater motivation for it. [2]

Keep it short. For some parents, homework is just not very enjoyable. For others, it can be exhilarating, especially when it comes to subjects they really enjoy. It’s important to allow your child to focus on finishing their assignments before sharing your passion about the subject with them. Later on, if you notice they’re asking you some extra questions, you can enjoy a lengthy conversation with them. But while they’re in the middle of their work, they’ll prefer short and specific answers so they can deal with the task at hand before moving on to the next one – otherwise they might start getting distracted. Sharing your passion is a good thing; just make sure the timing doesn’t interfere with their assignments and doesn’t undermine your child’s needs. If you keep it short, you’re also showing them that you are focused on their needs instead of your own. [1]

Don’t be a prison guard. If you know your child’s motivation for homework is pretty low, you’ll be tempted to check their homework every day, maybe even against their wishes. And while some children like to have all their answers checked, others might feel as though they’re being constantly monitored and not smart or good enough if they get more than a few wrong.[1] So, how do you best work with these different points of view?

You can try to meet in the middle. For example, you can offer to check on the part of homework they find the most difficult. That way, they keep their autonomy for the majority of the assignment, but you’re showing them the importance of doing their work correctly at the same time.

Challenges

Now that you’re familiar with some of the tips you can use to help with homework, it’s only fair to mention some of the challenges parents might face themselves – the most important ones being time and knowledge.

Time. For some parents, squeezing in homework time can be difficult. You may work long hours and once home, you may be too tired to give your full attention to school assignments. So one fair solution could be to split the homework tasks – Dad could help on Mondays, Mom on Tuesdays, and so on. But this isn’t an option in all households. And while you may decide to give it your all and try to help despite being tired, if the homework takes too long, you may get even more tired and frustrated, which doesn’t help the situation.

So instead of going beyond your limit, you can schedule regular helping sessions that aren’t too long, but are enough to show your child you’re available and willing to help. With younger children, you can read together for ten minutes two or three times a week; with high school students you might discuss their science project after work.  Instead of battling to keep your eyes open so you can help with everything, you can have a short, enlightening discussion that will still be able to help them. This doesn’t only help them with their grades – it’s also a way to be a positive support for your child and to be engaged in their life, while making both of your lives easier! [2]

These arrangements are possible within most family schedules and still allow you to help; and besides, you can always offer rewards, as we mentioned before, and give valuable advice.  For example, if you notice your child is overwhelmed and becomes anxious about homework, suggest they separate it into smaller units and tackle one at a time. These don’t take too much of your time, but it still keeps you up to speed. [2]

Knowledge. Some parents might feel as though they’re  not up to the task when asked to help with homework, especially when it comes to older students. If you tend to think this but still want to help your child, the first thing you should do is talk to their teacher. Ask what they’re currently learning and, if time allows, you can also ask the teacher to recommend some books so you can familiarize yourself with the topic.

Another thing you can do is start from a positive standpoint – make yourself available for your child when they have questions and, who knows, maybe you will know the answer. However, if you don’t, it’s better to admit it than lead them astray. You can still help in two ways:

  1. By asking them to describe the problem to you. By going through it and answering their own questions, using you as a sounding board, they might find the answer themselves. [1]
  2. Create a positive atmosphere. As we mentioned before, giving an answer and being knowledgeable about the topic at hand are useful, but that’s not the only way you can help with homework.

Needless to say, every family is different. So if there’s still some issues not mentioned here, there’s plenty of experts willing to help you.

by Jelena Jegdić

References:

  1. Solomon Y., Warin J. & Lewis C. (2002). Helping with homework? Homework as a site of  tension for parents and teenagers, British Educational Research Journal, 2002 28 (4)
  2. Walker J.M.T. et. al. (2004). Parental Involvement in Homework: A Review of Current Research and Its Implications for Teachers, After School Program Staff, and Parent Leaders
  3. Perkins P.G. & Milgram R.M. (1996). Parent Involvement in Homework: A Double-Edged Sword, International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 6:3, 195-203

Extracurricular activities – how (many) to choose?

The Romans had a saying – Mens sana in corpore sano – a healthy mind in a healthy body. And they practiced what they preached. In ancient Rome and Greece, it was expected that students not only give their all in philosophy and mathematics; they were similarly required to practice gymnastics – what we would now call “athletics”.

Nowadays, we tend to have a different view of what’s necessary for an adolescent. We often expect them to figure out their own particular interest or vocation and to channel their energies exclusively into that one thing.

However, attitudes are changing.  We’re beginning to acknowledge that adolescents need more than one narrow focus and we’re encouraging their participation in extracurricular activities. And that’s a good start towards fostering a multi-oriented young person with a wide variety of interests and skills.

Unfortunately, society dictates a lot of the choices adolescents have. There are certain labels that, once established, can be very difficult to shake off. We have “jocks”, “nerds”, “cheerleaders”, etc., – and their peers (and adults alike) tend to see them as one-dimensional. For that reason, “nerds” will go for chess club rather than trying out for the football team where they might not be easily accepted. But why shouldn’t a young person who has both the interest and skills go out for both – as unlikely a combination as that might appear to some? It’s up to us to encourage them and teach them that it’s okay to do well academically and be a good athlete at the same time.  Not only is it okay, it’s very good for both their mental and physical well-being!

So, how do we recognize which extracurricular activity is right for a particular adolescent?

Here’s some questions whose answers might offer a solution to that dilemma

1. What is your child interested in?

Even though adolescents spend a lot of time with their friends, parents have obviously been with them far longer. They’ve watched them grow up, playing with the same toys for hours and begging for that soccer ball until they finally got it. You are clearly the ones who can best try to answer this question – what is it that always interested my child? Sometimes, girls will be interested in new technologies and dream of becoming a programmer or a game developer. But once they enter high school, they’re told that it’s a man’s field and they might be encouraged to go for soft skills instead. The same goes for boys and, say, dancing. But if these kids had spent years practicing different programming languages or dancing in their room, you should talk to them about it and try to convince them to pursue their passion by joining a computer club or a dance troupe. Just make sure to be as objective as possible. Try to remember those early occasions when your child asked you for something, not when you bought it for them without asking first. It’s important (and not always easy) to distinguish between your child’s and your own interests, as parents often see themselves reflected in their children.

Extracurricular activities shouldn’t be there to fill in their free time with just anything – they should offer children a unique chance to develop, to find something they are passionate about and, who knows, maybe make a living out of one day. Adolescents who work at something they’re interested in and motivated by tend to have more success in that field than their peers, as well as being happier and more fulfilled. [2]

2. What are they good at?

Another important thing to consider is not only what children like, but also what they seem to be talented at. If they choose to engage in activities they already have a gift for, it will significantly elevate their fragile self-esteem. [1] Adolescence is a time when it’s important to develop a sense of self and confidence, and for most, years will pass before they master this. So being very good at something and having the opportunity to prove oneself might be extremely beneficial. That being said, the chosen activity should still be sufficiently challenging – they might not enjoy “easy wins”.

Now, if what interests them and what they are good at are one and the same, they’ll have the perfect extracurricular activity. But what if it’s not one and the same? What comes first? Should they choose what interests them or what they’re good at?

Well, there’s no reason to choose. There’s nothing wrong with participating in several organized activities in one’s free time.  And when they’re involved in more than one extracurricular activity, adolescents tend to like school more and do better academically than their peers who only follow one. [3]

3. Do they enjoy socializing or are they shy?

So far I’ve been arguing that extracurricular activities should be tailored to the child’s interests, but there’s definitely more to it. Different activities offer different possibilities, and if they choose the right one, children can develop all sorts of skills. For example, if an adolescent prefers doing things alone – not because they are shy, but because it’s simply their preference – joining a math club or chess club may be the right thing to do. However, if you’ve noticed that your child wants to socialize but feels too shy to attempt it, a team sport could help them enormously. Of course, it might be difficult in the beginning. Trying new things usually is. But as time goes by, spending hours of their free time in a structured environment with their peers learning responsibilities and team spirit will start reaping benefits, and you’ll soon see them turn from shy to sociable.

4. What are their priorities?

It’s good to encourage adolescents to try many different things. But occasionally, you’ll find children who’ve been obsessed with a only one activity since their earliest years. They may see themselves only as dancers, or actors, or game developers, and they focus all their efforts on becoming better at that one particular thing. In that case, it’s okay to remind them there are other activities out there, not just drama or computer club. It is up to them to decide whether they’ll give them a try or not, though. If they identify strongly with the activity they’ve chosen, they might see other activities as a waste of the time they’d rather be spending practicing what they enjoy most. [3] However, bear in mind there are certain caveats here. If their action-of-choice is a physical thing, such as football or dancing, go for it! But if the activity they’ve chosen is sedentary, it might affect their physical and mental health negatively. Since most school activities are done while sitting down, going to a computer club just to sit some more could carry certain health risks. This is why it would be good to encourage them to practice a variety of extracurricular activities. [4]

Mixing it is best!

Adolescents need to be stimulated both in terms of learning and physical development. Their brains and bodies alike are undergoing a lot of changes that are sometimes confusing and not easily understood. It definitely helps if they can hold on to something throughout these changes.

School tends to focus on academic achievement, be it through math, languages, or science. That’s far from a bad thing, but it’s not enough for a developing young person. And even though they have the opportunity to practice PE, its benefits are easily diminished by the overwhelming amount of time spent sitting, studying, and doing homework. So, if your child wants to only do things related to athletics outside of their school time, it’s okay. School will deal with their knowledge and learning habits, and athletics will help with that, too.  Children who engage in physical activities such as sports or dance have shown greater liking for school and enhanced learning ability, probably because physical activity increases blood flow to the brain, making it more active and alert, which positively influences their attention. [4]

What are their choices?

Up until now, I’ve been separating extracurricular activities only into academic and athletic, but there are at least two more types of activities a child might want to try – performance arts and prosocial activities. If they are interested in performance arts, they might want to join a school band or a drama club, for example. The children who will go for these are usually those who enjoy being in front of the audience, but shy children can benefit from participation as well; performing is good practice for the future, as they may one day be required to give a speech or hold a presentation. And there’s the added benefit of the built-in socializing factor that goes along with it. Just keep in mind that it’s up to you to encourage your child to try something, but in the end it’s up to them whether they feel comfortable enough to do it.

Finally, we have the so-called prosocial activities –  the one most commonly practiced being volunteering. This one is very important, as doing something for the community helps an adolescent feel more a part of things and gives them a sense of belonging. Not only that, they become part of a social network of both peers and adults who could potentially give them useful advice and teach them new things.

The important thing is that all of these activities have a lot of pros – they all lead to better grades and a higher college attendance, while prosocial activities and performing arts also help prevent potentially risky behaviors. Now, I’ve mentioned previously something along the lines of “the more, the merrier”- but there’s a limit to that. So where do we draw the line? At what point do we tell them they’re putting too much pressure on themselves? How many activities are enough and how many are too much?

Magical number 5-19

Different cultures have different expectations for their children. In Europe, students are expected to have high grades, while volunteering is looked upon as a plus. Anything above that is a bonus, but not necessary for success. In many countries in Asia, they have a different outlook. From a very early age, children take on piano lessons, English classes, swimming, baseball, art… And that’s just for one child. Children who have too many responsibilities and too little free time growing up tend to be very stressed-out, not only as adolescents but also later in life. However, children who have few commitments and challenges during their school days also tend to be under a lot of stress once they get a job and responsibilities, since they’re not used to the pressure and not well equipped to deal with it. So what’s the solution? Moderation. Children whose parents’ expectations for them are moderate tend to go on to lead more fulfilling, healthy lives while still managing to succeed in their chosen area.

But what exactly constitutes “moderate”?

It’s been shown that adolescents who spend between five and nineteen hours a week doing extracurricular activities are less likely to engage in risky behaviors. Anything above nineteen hours has either no effect or a negative one, as it leads to adolescents being under too much pressure and resorting to risky behaviors to try to find a way out of anxiety or depression. [3]

So, what can we conclude?

Encourage your children to try different things. If they are shy, a performance art might help them. If they feel like what they love doesn’t fit their perceived role in society, urge them not to give up on their passion. If they are only interested in academic or prosocial activities, help them fit a physical activity into their schedule. If you’re not sure what they are interested in, feel free to recommend them one you’re interested in or have experience with, as long as you don’t push it on them. It will give you some extra time with your teen that they might otherwise prefer to spend with their peers.

And last, but not least – don’t let them over-commit themselves. They still need some unstructured, free time with their peers or alone.

by Jelena Jegdić

References:

  1. Eccles, J.S. (2003).  Extracurricular activities and adolescent development. Journal of social issues, Vol. 59, No. 4, 2003, pp. 856-889
  2. Holland, A. & Andre, T. (1987). The Effects of Participation in Extracurricular Activities in Secondary School: What Is Known, What Needs To Be Known
  3. Farb, A.F., Matjasko, J. (2005). The role of school-based extracurricular activities in adolescent development. Review of educational research.
  4. Biddle, S. J. H., & Asare, M. (2011). Physical activity and mental health in children and adolescents: A review of reviews. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 45, 886-895 doi:10.1136/bjsports-2011-090185

Getting into Flow

The concept of flow

What makes us happy? What does it mean to have a meaningful life? Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi thinks that the answer to these fundamental questions has a lot to do with a specific kind of experience that he named “flow”. He defines flow as a psychical state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it. Flow is a universal phenomenon that can be achieved while performing many activities ranging from cooking and performing surgery to dancing and rock climbing. However, some flow activities are more likely to provoke a flow state. These activities have rules, they require skill learning, they make it possible to set goals, and they provide feedback.

What are the positive effects of flow? Many studies have shown that experiencing flow is in positive relation with psychological and subjective well-being, increased concentration, self-esteem, creativity, and performance. Adolescents who regularly experience flow are friendlier, happier, and more sociable.

In the first part of this article you will learn more about the concept of flow and its characteristics, while at the end you can find some practical tips for nurturing flow in your own family.

How to recognize flow?

In his TED talk, Csikszentmihalyi specified different aspects of flow. We can use some of these aspects to determine if we succeeded in entering flow or as guidelines that can help us enter this state.

Firstly, someone experiencing the state of flow feels completely involved in the activity they’re doing. The human cognitive system has a limited capacity for information processing and during flow this capacity is used for only one activity. Our attention is focused. At the same time, this means there is no more capacity left to process any other information, which leads to merging of action and awareness – you stop being aware of yourself as separate from your actions, your attention is completely absorbed by the activity.  However, in everyday life, we are often bombarded with various stimuli and our attention is dispersed. Therefore, attention plays a major role in entering and staying in flow. This has some practical implications. In order to facilitate entering flow you should get rid of potential distractors (for example, turn off your smartphone while studying)

Secondly, it is important that we know what needs to be done and how well we’re doing it. This means that in order to achieve flow, we should set specific goals and pay attention to the feedback. The nature of this feedback differs from situation to situation, but its main role is the symbolic message it carries – I have succeeded. However, sometimes we cannot set clear goals (for example, in some artistic activities). In this case, we must develop some sort of personal sense of what we want to accomplish.

Thirdly, the experience of flow is intrinsically rewarding. Contrary to extrinsic motivation, where someone performs an activity in order to attain a desired outcome (money, reputation…), intrinsically motivated people perform an activity for its own sake. The state of flow itself is recognized as a reward, or as Csikszentmihalyi would say, an action becomes autotelic (auto – self, telos – goal).

The fourth aspect of flow has to do with our skills. In order to achieve flow, we must perceive an activity as doable. In other words, we must evaluate our skill level as high enough to successfully perform an activity. The relationship between skills and challenges has a key role in entering flow and is described in the following section.

Finally, we experience temporal distortion. A person in flow usually has a feeling that time passes much faster compared to time spent doing mundane, boring activities.

Models of flow – relationship between skill and challenge

Csikszentmihalyi “mapped” flow experience using a simple schema that includes measures of skill and challenge.

models of flow

 

In his early work, Csikszentmihalyi thought that in order to enter flow it was necessary to find a balance between your skills and challenges (as represented in the first model). If the equilibrium was broken, you would experience either anxiety (when challenges are overwhelming) or boredom (when challenges are too easy).  However, many studies have shown that balance alone is not enough to enter flow. In situations where both skills and challenges were slight, people did not experience flow or actually, anything at all. Imagine playing a Tetris game set on minimum speed. You would most likely be very successful in sorting blocks and clearing rows but eventually it would result in complete boredom, even apathy.

These findings led to the modification of the prior schema. The new model included the concept of apathy (low skill/low challenge alternative), and a more detailed view on possible states when there is a discrepancy between skills and challenges. The center of the concentric circles represents an average level of skill/challenge that is different for every individual. In order to achieve flow, a person must perceive their own challenges and skills as higher than average. States of arousal and control are close to flow, and one can easily slip into the desirable flow state by making adequate modifications. A very important thing to notice is that we have the power to modify or change our challenges/activities, and improve our skills. In order to achieve flow from the state of arousal (high challenge but the skill is not quite there), we must improve our skills. On the other hand, when someone has a feeling of control (high skill, but the challenge bar could be set higher), one can easily slip into flow by increasing the challenge.  We all have the power to choose and we are responsible for our chosen objectives. Another important fact is that we can use the feelings presented in the second model as feedback that informs us what kind of  change we need in order to achieve flow.

way to slip into flow

 

Let’s return to our Tetris example. What happens if we increase the difficulty of the game to maximum without any prior practice?  Blocks would start filling the screen before we could react and the game would end, resulting in a player who would experience, maybe not anxiety, but certainly some level of dissatisfaction. What happens if we develop our Tetris playing skills but always stick to medium difficulty? In this case the player is in control (which is a good state to be in, according to Csikszentmihalyi) and can have a reasonable amount of fun, or, at some point, play the game for purely for relaxation. However, flow as an optimal state of mind can be easily entered from control just by increasing the difficulty and creating a more challenging task.

How to nurture flow in your family

Rathunde, one of the authors who studied flow, specified five family characteristics that provide an optimal context (autotelic family context) for adolescents to achieve flow.

  1. Clarity – adolescents have a feeling they know their parents’ expectations. Communication in the family should be unambiguous and goals explicitly defined. Parents need to provide clear feedback regarding the adolescent’s behavior.
  2. Centering – adolescents have a feeling that their parents are truly interested in their actions, feelings, and experiences. Parents need to explore the teenagers likes and dislikes, and pay close attention to both verbal and non-verbal communication.
    Existence of choices – adolescents have freedom of choice. They can even disobey the rules set by their parents if they accept the consequences. This may be hard for parents to accept, but having freedom of choice has many positive effects, including development of an internal locus of control – the feeling that we can have control over various life events.
  3. Commitment – children need to feel secure in order to lose themselves in an activity. If parents threaten to withdraw their love from a child every time a rule is broken, the child can become anxious and insecure.
  4. Challenge – parents need to create/provide increasingly complex opportunities for action. In doing so, parents must be careful not to set challenges way above or below the skill level of their children. Providing both support and challenge helps your children become more confident and independent.

These 5 C’s of nurturing – clarity, centering, choices, commitment, and challenge – set the stage perfectly for adolescents to be able to enter the state of flow. As mentioned earlier, there are numerous positive effects of flow. Some even argue that regularly experiencing flow is the secret of happiness. Because of that, it is not surprising that there are experts on flow who can help adolescents and parents create an optimal environment and bring more flow into their lives.

by Marko Nikolić

References:

  1. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: Basic Books.
  2. Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, I. S. (1988). Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness. New York: Cambridge university press.
  3. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). Flow and the foundations of positive psychology. Dordrecht: Springer.
  4. TED Talk – Flow, The Secret To  Happiness (2004).

Are You A Helicopter Parent?

It’s perfectly normal to be concerned for your child’s safety.

Parents feel the urge to keep their kids protected from any perceived threat that could harm them. However, our best intentions can trick us into going overboard to make sure our children are safe and lead us onto an emotional slippery slope that could actually harm the child.

One of the biggest parenting challenges is how to support your child in a way that helps them feel secure but also helps them build resilience – the ability to “bounce back” when something goes wrong.

With so many terrifying stories in the media, how can we know that the next risk we take won’t be the one we regret?

Protective Bubble: “I seriously need to wrap my kid in bubble wrap.”

Write down a list of daily concerns you have about your child.
Then, write down the things you do each day to address those concerns.
Now, ask yourself – what would happen if I stopped doing these things?

Our own fears can sometimes overwhelm us. A reaction aimed at helping us cope can easily turn into a habit with time, if it has proven successful. We continue to do things to protect ourselves and people we love, even after the perceived threat has passed. Worst-case scenarios linger in our minds long after the “real” threat is gone.

The protective bubbles we create frequently do indeed protect our children from harm. But when well-meaning protection is carried to extremes, our kids are denied the opportunity to develop their own capacity to deal with difficult situations.

This can mean that, when faced with a challenge, they get trapped by that “fixed mindset” persona inside them that gets scared of a failure they may never have even experienced: “I can’t do it! I’m not ready!” Or they may be experiencing Learned Helplessness that prevents them from even knowing where to start when dealing with a problem.

Clearly, we’re not talking about life-threatening situations where they undoubtedly need your support. We’re talking about those situations where, no matter how much you want to be there for them, you need to let them experience the consequences of their decisions.

Let’s say you’ve invited a couple of families to your home on a Saturday evening. While you’re all talking on the deck, you hear noises in the basement. Turns out, kids were teasing your child and calling them rude names. What do you do?

Your child got a bad grade on a test they’d studied for, because the teacher decided to set different types of problems at the very last minute. They feel really disappointed and think that’s unfair because it’ll affect their grade significantly. Do you go talk to that teacher?

Your son’s or daughter’s soccer coach believes in the “tough love” approach, to which the child doesn’t react well. Do you go talk to the coach?

Before you intervene, we’d like you to give yourself a chance to consider the option of your child being able to deal with these situations on their own.
“What if they fail?” “What if they get hurt?” “What if they get embarrassed?”
You might be having these thoughts. And that’s okay.
You want what’s best for your child and you’re concerned.
Still, does that mean you should run to help every time they stumble?

Removing obstacles, keeping the path of life “clean” and “flat” so that a child can safely walk through childhood is one of those solutions that might seem beneficial in the short-term, but is never a sustainable one. Why? The very world that a parent is trying to protect them from, will reach them eventually. And when it does, it’s important they know how to navigate it.

How can we help?

We want to help our kids develop mechanisms to cope with the world inside them and the world around them.
How can we do this?

Help your child understand the reasons behind your worry and suggest ways they could deal with challenging situations they confront. We know that it’s never easy to put that into words – but try anyway!

Teach them and guide them through these experiences rather than “protecting” them from them. Analyze what happened in situations where they felt they were treated unfairly. Brainstorm on different ways they might handle things next time.

Help them discover their strengths and abilities to deal with different challenges.

If they’re discouraged, try to understand what would encourage them.

Lead by example. Show them that all learning starts by making mistakes from which we grow.

Problems are strength-training for our brains. They toughen our mental muscles. You won’t be able to stop every single obstacle from reaching your child. However, you can be there to support your kids as they learn how to fly on their own. You’ll probably be surprised at how well they do and their sense of pride and confidence will grow the more opportunities they have to handle challenges themselves.

One of the most famous writers from my country, Duško Radović, says:

“If you solve all of your children’s problems, the only problem they will have is you.“

Do you agree?

by Ana Jovanovic

Coach for Nobel Coaching

Do Children Need Role Models?

I want to be like Superman. He fights bad guys!

The gamer I watch on Youtube didn’t graduate and he’s still doing awesome and making more money than some college graduates. So, why should I study more of what I’m not good at and neglect what I am good at?

My dad studied very hard so he could get a good job and earn lots of money and buy this huge house we live in.

If the values of our society could be represented through the image of the role models our children choose, what do you think they would be?

Merriam-Webster defines a role model as “a person whose behavior in a particular role is imitated by others.”

Some consider role modeling a driving force in learning in that we emulate an example we perceive as desirable. Now, even if we don’t agree that role modeling is the most powerful way to learn, it’s nevertheless the way our children learn. So, we need to be concerned with how they learn, or rather, from whom they’re learning.

The market of potential role models consists of every single character that your child has ever seen – real or fictional, young or old, male or female, living or historical… Every. Single. One.

Who they choose as their role models depends on various factors.

How do we choose our role models?

Let’s play a game! We’ll try to read your thoughts.
Please follow our instructions:

  1. Think about somebody you admire. Somebody who inspires you.
  2. Now that you have that person in your mind – What is this person doing that you find so inspirational? How does this person behave?

Our guess is that the answer to #2 reflects:

  1. How you already act
  2. How you currently aspire to act
  3. How you wish you could act one day

Are we right?

Our role models are our psychological support in the challenges we face throughout life. They help us distinguish good from bad, right from wrong. We choose them for a specific purpose – to give us support and guidance when we need them. We choose them to stand by our side when we’re fighting for a goal, when we feel discouraged, when we’re uncertain about what to do next. We choose them because they appeal to us, because they represent a desirable image we should strive to attain one day.

Why do you think our children’s reasons might be different?

What kind of role models do our children choose?

Children choose their role models according to what they find appealing, That, of course, depends on their needs, preferences, challenges, aspirations…
If you don’t know what kind of role models your child chooses, ask them. They’ll tell you. However, be careful not to judge the book by its cover. The same role models might be chosen for different reasons. Some might opt for Superman because of his strength, some because he can live a double life without anyone knowing who he really is.

role model for kids infographics

 

How can we help our children choose the right role models?

Step 1: Find out who they look up to

Ask:
Who’s your hero?
Who do you look up to?
Who inspires you?
Who do you want to be like when you grow up?

Step 2: Understand the similarities between your child and their role model

Ask:
What do you have in common with this character?
How are you two similar?

Step 3: Understand the differences between your child and their role model

Ask:
How are you different from this character?
Is there something this character can do that you’d like to do, but can’t?
Is there something this character has, that you don’t?

Step 4: Find out what your child most values in this character

Ask:
What do you like most about this person?
If you could pick this person’s best quality, what would it be?

Step 5: Check your understanding

Share your understanding of what this character represents for your child.

(Don’t describe what this character is to you! Focus on your child’s perception.)

Example: So, when you grow up, you want to be just like Mr. Blake. He’s your favorite teacher. Both you and Mr. Blake love math and are very good at it. Everybody loves Mr. Blake because he’s the best teacher, even to those kids who hate math. What you most like about Mr. Blake is that he always wants to help you out. Right?

You can always ask more questions to get a better picture…

How do you know that everybody loves Mr. Blake?
What does Mr. Blake do to help out?

Step 6: Look for the connection

Look into the connection between the role model and your child, and the top quality that your child sees.

“Everybody loves Mr. Blake…  Even the kids that hate math.”

“He always wants to help out.”

Maybe the kids who hate math aren’t very nice to be around. Mr. Blake might be a bit of a “geek” and still be popular. If your child were more like Mr. Blake, would he fit in better?

Don’t jump to conclusions, though. Ask questions and let your child tell you whether something makes sense or not

Step 7: Role modeling

Ask:
What has Mr. Blake most helped you with?
What are you learning from Mr. Blake?
What can Mr. Blake teach you?
What skill can Mr. Blake help you with?
What do you see Mr. Blake do, that you’ve started doing?

At this point, you’ll probably be able to tell whether Mr. Blake is the “right” choice of role model for a child who, let’s suppose, doesn’t really get along with the popular kids.

Now, following on, you’ll probably want to help your child think about what Mr. Blake does or doesn’t do that helps him be so loved.

You might also be able to think of some good movies, books, stories, or other examples of people dealing with the same challenge who might help.

“You know who Mr. Blake reminds me of? Let me find that movie and I’ll show you.”

Another step you might consider is asking your child how they might respond if their role model were to mess up. That could open up a whole new discussion about how the role model is perceived, what kind of mistakes they could possibly make, and how tolerant the child might be of those mistakes.

The role models we choose are similar to training wheels on a bike, which give us the impression we know how to ride a bike even though we haven’t quite acquired the skill. They fulfill their role in teaching us that we can do something, and they encourage us to follow their lead and achieve what we deem important.

This teaching function of role models is why we should try to understand who they are. The odds are they will be one of the most influential teachers our children will have.

More about the parents’ role

Our children’s self-image is largely built on who we, the adults in their lives, think they are. They do something well, we tell them: “Oh, you’re so smart.” They stumble on a rock, we say: “You’re clumsy.” Sometimes it seems children are collecting all the adjectives we use to describe who we think they are, mentally noting our tone of voice, consequent actions, and how often we use those descriptions, into one great pool of attributes they’ll one day call their personality. While some might say: “My child was like that from day one!” others might say this or that particular feature is something you noticed as a parent first, something that you labeled (“as shy, stubborn, hyperactive”) and something you either tried reinforcing or changing.

Parents are our first role models. They give us an intuition of what is valued or not. What’s acceptable, what’s not. What’s desirable and what should be avoided. Of course, as children grow up they become more able to compare their parents to other people. (It starts with questions, usually followed by criticism. If you’re a parent of a teenager, you definitely know what we’re referring to.)

Parents are their children’s first representatives of how society operates.

At first, children imitate what’s at hand; then they imitate behaviors they believe are valued.
First, they will imitate dad cursing in front of the TV while watching football, just because they see it. Then, they’ll start doing it because it seems like the “right” way to watch a good game.

What does your child perceive as the values you are conveying through your own behavior? This is not to blame parents if a child has chosen a “wrong” role model. This is to help reflect on how we communicate values to our kids and how they are interpreting our communication.

by Ana Jovanovic
Coach at Nobel Coaching

Understanding Shyness: How to Help a Child Who Is Shy

Jake is that kid on the playground who waits for others to tell him he can join in the game. Sometimes, it seems it’s much easier for him to be alone in his own world than to talk to others. He definitely doesn’t enjoy talking to people he’s not familiar with. He’s quite talkative at home, though. He also doesn’t enjoy being the center of attention. And when he is, he hesitates to speak up; he tends to mumble and easily gets confused. He’s only comfortable talking about Math because he loves it. For anything else, even if he knows the answer, he seems afraid to say it. 

They don’t quite understand why.

Jake’s parents say he’s very shy.

“Shy”

Such a little word, a simple and familiar adjective, that carries so much meaning.

Shyness is often linked to anxiety, a lack of confidence, or low social intelligence. It is often connected to those experiences where you might have felt uncomfortable, embarrassed, or socially inadequate. It leads people to avoid situations in which they perceive some sort of a threat.

Many people have unproven but strongly-held theories that shy people don’t have much of a chance of succeeding in life. It seems as though the world favors dynamic extroverts who connect easily with others. Consequently, parents often seek professional help when they feel that their children might be behaving in a way they perceive as shy.

Where does shyness come from?

There are many theories which attempt to explain how shyness develops.

Some argue there is something “built in” that makes us shy and others claim we might have picked it up by watching somebody important to us act in a similar manner. Some might say that we are, from an early age, aware of our shortcomings, which makes us feel insecure in the presence of a group. Generally speaking, “shyness” could denote a feeling of inadequacy in regard to certain expectations (i.e. Everybody is good at sports. I am the only one who’s clumsy).

But we’ll take another path.
Let’s not look at the theories. Let’s focus simply on understanding each child individually.

How not to be supportive

Let’s start with how you certainly won’t show understanding.

Describing your child as shy everywhere you go and interpreting every single behavior that includes withdrawing from the group as shyness won’t help. Also, telling them not to blush every time they do might be a bad idea. Making excuses for them every time they stall, get confused, or refuse to talk to people might not be the best way to support them.

“He takes after his father. He’s not talkative either.” Comparing your child to someone else or speaking about their behavior as if it were a fixed trait isn’t going to be of much use. You want your child to believe they can change something they don’t like about themselves, right? So don’t make them feel they can’t.

Understanding ourselves as parents

Now, here’s how you can help.

Explore why it is that your child might be acting in a way you think of as shy.
Ask yourself the following questions so you can understand better.
It’s important to be aware of your own thoughts and impressions.

  • How do I know that my child is behaving shyly?

(Recognize the specific behaviors. It’s important to distinguish specific behaviors from our interpretations of those behaviors.)

  • When did I first notice my child acting this way?

(The behavior could be seen a reaction or response to a specific event in the past.)

  • Why do I think this might be a problem?

(It is important to acknowledge our own understanding of the way our child is behaving and what we see as the effects of that behavior.)

  • What do I think are the main reasons for my child’s shyness?

(We need to take into consideration the variety of different factors that might be influencing the child to behave that way.)

  • What are the consequences of my child not changing?

(Recognizing and understanding your own fears and worries is one of the most important steps.)

  • When is this shyness most apparent?

(You can try to recognize specific triggers by looking at specific situations.)

  • Are there any situations where the shyness eases?

(What is it about these situations which differs them from those in which your child is extremely shy?)

  • How do I react when I notice my child being shy?

(What we say and do has a significant bearing on how our children behave.)

  • How does my child respond to my reaction?

(The response is often a reflection of how the child sees our reaction.)

  • Is there anyone else in the family who acts the way my child does?

(“Shyness” is often a learned behavior.)

  • Have I ever asked my child why they are behaving like this?

(If not, why haven’t I?)

  • Do I understand how my child perceives the situations in which they are shy?

(How does the world look through the eyes of my child?)

Sometimes, we might be too emotionally invested to be able to answer these questions and reflect upon our answers. But that’s what Coaches are for. The Coaches navigate you through this exploration process with their questions.

Understanding your child

Now, all the above questions can be modified to help your child express their perspective, too.

What’s important is to understand that this “shy” voice inside your child, even when it’s quite dominant, is just one of the many voices inside them. Your child might take the lead in some situations, even though in many more they decide to stay on the side. Help your child recognize that part of themselves that keeps them stuck. Look at those situations where you see the same behavior and ask the child what they have in common. It might be that the common denominator is a trigger for that part of you that says “You’re going to embarrass yourself”, “You’ll fail” or “Nobody likes to be around you”. Don’t disregard or ignore that part. Try to understand why it’s there.

Frequently, when we detect a behavior that we “don’t like” to see in our children we try to find ways to eliminate it. However, every single behavior has its own internal logic and a purpose which needs to be understood. Shyness can often protect a child from getting involved in situations where they feel they might get hurt.

Again, our emotional bias sometimes makes this hard to do. We have the impulse to protect our child from feeling bad, which is why, when they share a thought such as “Nobody likes me”, we’ll try to convince them that’s not true. The Coach would continue with questions such as “How do you know that?” or “When did you notice that?”

Suggestions on what to do

Each segment in this section is a suggestion on what you could do.

Understanding is always the first step.

There are specific strategies on how to help a child open up and feel free to explore their actions in everyday situations. Feel free to use whichever seems to make the most sense for your child.

  • Give your child a chance to practice getting by in unfamiliar situations. This doesn’t mean you should expose your child to a frustrating situation unprepared, and show them over and over again how they’re not managing it. It means that you should take them with you, teach them and make suggestions, and then let them deal with the situations on their own, step by step. For instance, you could take your child to the park and tell them: “Why don’t you go up to that kid over there and ask: ‘Do you want to play with me?’ Mom can’t play with you now. It’ll be much more fun with another child. Just go over there and try it. I’ll be right here waiting for you.” Encourage your child to participate in interactions with others.
  • There’s no need to describe your child as shy in front of the child. A “shy child” can easily become a role children slip into and start playing without wanting to relinquish it. Any chance to adopt more easy-going behavior should be supported and rewarded. Help your child explore some other sides of themselves. The creative one? The playful one?
  • Show your child that you want to understand them. Try to understand the way your child sees other children in their peer group and how they think those children see them. In case your child tells you that they know other children are mocking them or that they see other children as evil and bad, try not to be defensive but consider other options you could take. How would your child like to be seen by other children? Why can or can’t they achieve that? Why do they think that the way they are is exclusively good or bad (depending on how they think of themselves)? Use the answers your child gives you as a way to continue the conversation and better understand, and not as a reason to attack another child or condemn other parents.
  • Check – maybe your child simply prefers playing alone as opposed to playing in a group. Try to understand why. What wouldn’t they have if they played in a group? What would they lose if they did this? What are the risks of playing in a group?
  • Ask your child without judgment: “It sometimes seems you’re avoiding other kids and don’t want to talk with people very much (describe the “symptoms” of shyness). Is there a reason you do this?”
  • Pay attention to the way your child perceives the situation in which they are usually shy. How do they describe it? What do they feel? While the child is telling you about this, be aware of your own expectations regarding your child’s behavior.

how to support your shy child

 

Bear in mind that every child is different.
That is why the path to helping your child is understanding them.

The reasons why somebody acts in a certain way are highly individualized. Don’t generalize.
We attribute so many meanings to that simple adjective  “shy”. Let’s understand those meanings.

by Ana Jovanovic

Coach at Nobel Coaching & Tutoring

Where Do Bad Grades Come From

Long before they start school, children are given feedback on how they are doing in the form of stars, bows, stickers, and other tangible rewards. These are not only reinforcing for the child, but also for their parents. Once school begins, many parents assume that grades (whether expressed by numbers, letters, or smiles) are a good indicator of their children’s knowledge.

“You were great! You get an A!”

“You get five stars for reciting the poem!”

Consequently, when a child brings a test back home, parents will commonly remark solely on the grade itself: “Why did you get a C?” or, if the grade measures up to what the parents consider good enough: “Wow! You got a B+ on your test, I’m so proud of you!
Bad grades alarm most parents, concerned that something “isn’t right”. To them, this usually means that the child is lazy, that they procrastinate, that their “attention is poor”, and so on.
Once you consult with professionals, you’ll see that they rarely rush into giving you a definitive answer as to the source of the problem.
This article aims to address some of the most common reasons for bad grades. Think of it as a “checklist” to direct your attention into exploring the possible issues that, when resolved, might help the student achieve better results.

They can’t or won’t study?

If there is a line between “can’t” and won’t”, ability and motivation, it is very thin. The two are often intertwined. Recognizing what comes first – difficulty with handling a task or a lack of willingness to do it – is a very important step for those working with the student.

Abilities – Reasons why they “can’t”

Cognitive abilities

Let’s start with abilities. Parents, unaware of an underlying problem, often push their children to succeed and exacerbate things by frustrating the child with demands the child can’t fulfill. It is important to assess whether the child’s cognitive status, their “intelligence”, is equal to the task. If there is a suspicion that the issue is the child’s intellectual ability, it’s necessary to contact a psychologist, who can determine, through testing, exactly what  “isn’t working” in the way the child thinks. After assessing the problem, the psychologist then designs a plan to work with the child. Other abilities we need to pay attention to are the student’s hearing and vision. You want to make sure there are no sensory problems causing the learning difficulties.

Attention problems

Cognitive-abilities testing also encompasses attention issues, with subtests specifically designed to gauge attention deficit. Frequently, a child simply gets distracted because the material isn’t interesting, engaging, and stimulating enough, not because they haven’t learned how to focus their attention. With gifted children, especially, it’s quite common to confuse a lack of interest for attention issues.
However, for some students, directing attention and maintaining focus is more difficult. Their brains just function differently. That’s why, if you see that no matter how much you try helping your child focus, and no matter how hard they are trying, nothing seems to really work, make sure you have them tested for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or attention deficit disorder (ADD).

This, of course, does not mean that once the student is diagnosed and gets treatment and begins focusing better, we should give up exploring how engaging the material and how difficult the task may be for them.  ADHD/ADD can often go together with various learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, dysgraphia or dyscalculia, as well as with students who are very interested and gifted in specific subjects and lacking interest in others.

Speech and language development

Speech therapists assert that reading and writing problems are rooted in earlier phases of speech and language development. Being able to differentiate the sounds that constitute a word or having sufficient vocabulary are both prerequisites for acquiring reading and writing skills. If your student has had problems with speech development, a consultation with a speech therapist is recommended.

There are also cases where the child’s abilities aren’t in question. The problem with grades is masking another problem.

Reasons why they won’t

Attention seeking (due to concerns at home)

Given that parents value and care about academic performance, a perceptive child can use their concern for bad grades as a means of manipulation to achieve a personal goal. This is not to imply something “bad” or “negative”. For instance, the child may figure out that a bad grade can divert a busy parent into dedicating more time and attention to what’s going on with them and help with homework even if that help is not actually needed.  For those children who feel uncomfortable communicating their need to spend more time with their parents, getting bad grades “on purpose” can be an effective strategy.

Bad grades can, in some cases, be seen as a symptom of challenges within the family. Family therapists have many times described examples where “helping the child with motivation” serves as a common goal for parents to work on together when the student sees the parents going through tough times in their marriage. The student offers the problem to help change the family dynamics. This is not to say that bad grades are caused by inadequate parenting. It says that to understand where bad grades come from, the dynamic within the family should be addressed and better understood.

The subject, the teachers, the peers

When we talk about a student’s motivation, it’s important to consider whether the student is not getting good grades in all their classes or only in specific ones. Some classes might just not “suit” the student’s skills and interests in a way that motivates them to push harder. They might see a class as boring and not worth the effort. Try exploring with the student: “If there was anything that could make Math fun, what would that be?” or “If you had a chance to transform your Language Arts class, how would you do it?”

The student-teacher relationship is also an important factor to consider.  Teachers play a major role in sparking a student’s interest in a subject and we need to learn the student’s opinion of the teacher in a class where they’re not performing well.   Another question worth asking is: “Who’s in your class?” Just imagine a teenage boy in the same class with a girl he really likes, and you’ll get the idea about why this is a good question.

The “I don’t care about grades” approach

Sometimes, when asked why they don’t want to try to do better in school, the student will just shrug, “I’m lazy and I don’t want to do it.” This can leave the parents frustrated and feeling helpless. How can you support a kid who does not want any support?
That is precisely the right kind of challenge for Coaches. We unpack “the box” of behaviors that the label “lazy” has been put on.
We look carefully into the meaning of all of those behaviors headed “lazy”. Perhaps the child isn’t used to doing something that demands more work and did all their previous tasks with ease (or the tasks were too easy and this is the first time they’re being faced with something that requires more effort). It may be that the student does not connect grades to any tangible goal they might have for themselves in the future. It might be that they feel better “saving” their energy for something with more meaning to them. In some cases, it’s easier not to try and call yourself “lazy”, than try, not succeed, and call yourself “a failure”.

The “good grades aren’t cool” approach

Are bad grades perceived as socially acceptable? “Cool”? For a student trying to fit in, academic performance can sometimes not count as much as being on the basketball team or having an amazingly cool shirt. So good grades can be “sacrificed” for the sake of different positioning within the social group.
How to deal with this challenge? We need to understand why it is so important for the student to fit into a specific group and why they see that as more significant than getting good grades.

Stage fright and other fears

There are cases where it’s not that the student doesn’t care about the grades but actually cares too much. So, when they “practice” at home, they achieve great results but have problems when it comes to presenting what they’ve learned. Tests, quizzes, exams, and other ways of assessing knowledge can be a great source of stress for children. Children, like adults, often suffer from stage fright and don’t perform at their best. If this ends up being a problem, the child should work on their fears with a professional Coach, who can help them identify key triggers and the source of those triggers. By reaching a deeper understanding of why the fear exists, the student and the Coach can come up with better ways to cope with it in a more functional way.

Where bad grades come from is a complex question to which the answers never come easily. Sometimes, we become so focused on what we perceive as a problem, that we miss the solution – or too focused on what we think is the solution, that we misunderstand the problem.
And given the emotional investment and attachment to their child, it makes it all the more difficult for parents to approach the problem in a way that would truly help.

That is why it is a good idea to consult with people who can help provide your student with the best possible support.

We have tried to outline the most common “roots” for bad grades. Bear in mind that this article cannot cover each issue in detail. That’s why we welcome your questions. We’ll be happy to answer them.

by Ana Jovanović

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The Growth Mindset – The Power Of Yet

One of the more talked-about topics in psychology and especially in educational psychology is Carol Dweck’s idea of the “growth mindset”, a concept she discusses in her book Mindset: The new psychology of success. Growth mindset isn’t something that Dweck invented and is now teaching us all how to attain. It is a distinctive trait she observed in people who are happier and more successful, which led her to seek ways to help develop and nurture it in people who do not share this predisposition.

So what actually is growth mindset?

While working as a young researcher, Dweck noticed that some children face challenges in a much more “positive” way than others. They would say things like “Oh, I love a challenge” or “I expected this to be informative”, instead of having tragic and catastrophic thoughts when faced with difficulties. Dweck coined the term “fixed mindset” for children who shrink before obstacles, and “growth mindset” for those who seek challenges and become even more engaged when faced with obstacles. Of course, these two mindsets apply to us all, and it is important to note that whereas we can’t have a growth mindset in every area of our lives, we sure can try to develop it.

To show what growth mindset really is, let’s try to contrast it further with the fixed mindset. People with a fixed mindset think that their characteristics are carved in stone and can never be changed. They firmly believe that intelligence, creativity, and personality are things we are born with and can hardly be something we develop. People with a growth mindset believe we can cultivate these characteristics through effort and that the process of cultivating them is more important than the actual outcome. A fixed mindset, on the other hand, wants results right away and doesn’t care as much about the process as it does about the outcome. Of course, Dweck doesn’t deny that people differ from the get-go, but she claims that we can all “change and grow through application and experience” (Dweck, 2006).

Another thing that differentiates these two mindsets is how they perceive and react to failure. People with a fixed mindset are more likely to believe they can fail and that by doing so their abilities will be questioned. Just the act of hitting obstacles would prove to them that they aren’t capable of overcoming them. People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, don’t really see failure as on option – obstacles are just perceived as opportunities to improve and learn, and by being faced with them and, generally something new, we get smarter.

Dweck illustrates this difference further with an interesting remark about language and how we use it to rate success. She mentions how saying “not yet” to students instead of saying they failed a class is a much better way to show them that even if they have difficulties overcoming something now, the time will come when they will succeed if they continue tackling the obstacle from different angles. The use of “yet” shows that there is a learning curve, and points to the process, not the outcome. This also tells children that they aren’t being taught to learn simply for grades, but for their future and it encourages them to dream big and think about what they want to do with their lives, instead of on focusing only on what they are currently achieving in school.

This entire idea of the power of yet and growth mindset isn’t just something Dweck came up with and wrote overnight. She (and many others) actually did research and showed time and time again that if a growth mindset is encouraged, children earn better grades and achieve better results than they did before – even better than some of their peers from much more affluent schools, which shows that growth mindset is a great path to achieving a more equal education system.
This research illustrates two important facts about growth mindset: it does work and it can be developed. It is not something we are born with.

What is a false growth mindset?

Before we dive into the exciting topic of how a growth mindset can be developed, we need to do some myth-busting. As with any other trending topic in education, it is hard nowadays to avoid the words “have to”, “need to”, and “all” when reading about growth mindset. It is often declared that we should all have to develop growth mindsets because they are just so much better, which ignores the principle behind the concept. Firstly, a growth mindset isn’t something you can just achieve overnight. It takes a lot of work and develops over time. Secondly, it isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card you can use whenever you’re faced with difficulty. Dweck points out that we are a mixture of both growth mindset and fixed mindset, and at different times and in different areas of our lives either one can predominate.

Another point she makes is that people often claim they have a growth mindset when they actually don’t or use the concept of a fixed mindset to excuse why someone is failing when the only failure is actually not providing the context in which a growth mindset can be achieved. It is also easy to think that simply by encouraging children and praising their effort, we are developing their growth mindsets. It’s a bit more complicated than that – it is not just about praising, it is about praising the right way.

So how is a growth mindset developed?

Developing a growth mindset is a complex process, but it is not unattainable and can actually serve as a great first obstacle on which to practice our mindsets.

The main point that Dweck makes is that a growth mindset is developed through praise, but not the usual after-the-fact praise which focuses on outcomes, but the praise that focuses on the process of learning. This isn’t about blanketing children in praise for any of their efforts, but about praising the strategies they used and the entire process that leads to outcomes. A simple example of this would be saying “I love how you tried all these different strategies while solving this problem until you got it” instead of saying “Great job. I knew you’d get it, you are smart!”

That example showcases another point that Dweck makes; we should praise the process, not the abilities. Praising abilities encourages the fixed mindset that these things are set in stone, which definitely doesn’t promote change or development. Rather, it makes children think that what they can do is what they can do and the same applies for what they can’t do.

Another reason why Dweck insists “it is not the outcome, it is the effort that counts” is ineffective is because it lets students believe that if they try hard enough, they will succeed no matter their strategies. In effect, it can bring them to repeat the same futile strategies over and over again. On the other hand, insisting on the process or the use of multiple strategies until the obstacle is overcome, and praising that effort, teaches them that they need to change their strategies in order solve the problem. It also shows them they can use all the resources available and ask for help when they need it.

And finally, Dweck points out that even failure should be addressed as something that enhances learning. We can ask children “What is this teaching us? What should we do next?” instead of either praising the effort or protecting them by saying things like “Don’t worry, not everyone can be good in everything. You are not the only one that failed.” In both cases, we are developing a fixed mindset and letting children know that we believe they can’t do better, while a switch in mindsets would help them achieve so much more and help them in their future lives.

If you are already thinking of implementing these ideas while raising your child, there is more encouraging news. The growth mindset isn’t something we can start developing only in early childhood, Dweck says it is never too late for change, so why not try it on yourself, too, and see how it goes.

Resources:

  1. Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
  2. Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindset: How you can fulfill your potential. Constable & Robinson Limited.
  3. Dweck, C. S. (2014). Developing a Growth Mindset.
  4. Dweck, C. S. (2016). What Having a “Growth Mindset” Actually Means.
  5. Gross-Loh, C. (2016). How Praise Became a Consolation Prize.
  6. Romero, C. (2015). What We Know About Growth Mindset from Scientific Research.
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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