Tuesday, November 17, 2015

New Study Reveals Life's Disruptions Rattle Boys More Than Girls

Photo Credit: CBS News

A new Northwestern research study found that boys are are more sensitive than girls to disadvantage. It seems that disruptions in their lives have a far greater impact, whether it's a move, a divorce or reduced financial circumstances. This study cites a number of ways in which boys are falling behind more so than girls: fewer boys are graduating from high school, fewer boys attend college, and more of them are likely to have disciplinary problems and learning disabilities.

It's hard to understand why boys react in a more negative manner to disadvantage. There are, of course, multiple variables that could account for this. This study is consistent with earlier studies documenting boys' greater sensitivity to their environment. One of these studies in particular revealed that from birth, boys are more emotionally expressive. They use their bodies to make more gestures and communicate through sounds aimed at engaging others.

So why wouldn't these sensitivities be a plus for boys? These are skills we encourage in children. We want our kids to be attentive, engaged and interactive. Unfortunately, this level of emotional sensitivity runs counter to cultural stereotypes for masculinity. While it is fine for girls to be sensitively in touch with what's happening around them, it's not for boys. A recent interview with Psychologist Ronald Levant revealed that both moms and dads start limiting boys' expression of emotions early on. In fact, for boys, it's more emotional suppression than expression. Social stereotyping for boys means learning to be stoic, self reliant and aggressive. Softer emotions and vulnerability are discouraged. Boys are left to manage their emotions without support and comfort, and when they express vulnerability, they are subject to shame and ridicule. Boys don't cry, boys don't act like sissies, and they definitely don't act like girls. Their range of emotional expression is seriously curtailed. Boys can be competitive and seek leadership roles. They can be angry and even aggressive. We tolerate this and say "Well, boys will be boys." Boys can be boastful and cocky, but not vulnerable, ashamed or sad. Boys can to be protective, but not tender. In other words, according to the cultural stereotype of masculinity, boys only get half of what's available.

While parents can't do much about the prevailing stereotypes, they can counter much of this in their own home. One consistent result of the Northwestern research study is that families who invest more in children are protective for boys. This suggests that perhaps parental guidance can help boys expand what they believe about being male. Here are some ideas for encouraging boys to get comfortable with a full range of emotions:

  1. Help both boys and girls understand that all their feelings are okay. Help them identify their primary emotions. Make a chart of the primary emotions they can refer to and ask each day which feelings they felt.
  2. Counter the attitude that boys need to be strong and unemotional. It takes energy to suppress emotions, and that compressed energy can turn to aggression. Being able to express emotions helps release that energy and produce more positive behavior.
  3. Help boys feel at ease with being vulnerable. Life is full of disappointments, lost opportunities, and misunderstandings. It's important to acknowledge when something upsetting has happened, rather than deny that reality. Being in touch with our hurt, sadness or shame is human. Dealing with these feelings makes us sturdier and able to handle life's ups and downs with greater ease. 
  4. Encourage emotional connection rather than isolation. Boys especially need to know it's okay to seek comfort, support and conversation when things are hard. It is through this kind of sharing that we begin to understand intimacy and trust. And we want boys to establish and build solid relationships with others.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

How Childhood Stress Affects Future Health

NPR just reported a new study that points to the importance of helping children name and manage their emotions. The study reported in the Journal of American College of Cardiology found that emotional distress during childhood, even in the absence of high stress during adult years, can increase the risk of developing heart disease and metabolic disorders such as diabetes in adulthood. The data was from a large study tracking 6,714 participants from ages 7-45.   

The surprise in the study was exactly how much these early experiences of childhood stress were linked to future health. I think it's a surprise only in the sense that we discount childhood stress. We tend to minimize childhood stress not believing it has real significance. We say things like, "They'll get over it" or "It wasn't that bad". And we're relieved when kids don't talk about it because we truly hope that all is well. Sometimes this is the case because kids can be resilient. This is especially true of kids who possess easy going temperaments. These kids are able to meet new experience with ease while other kids who are temperamentally reticent or cautious will fare less well with challenging situations.

I've seen many instances with children where early disturbing experiences have lingered, increased or become somatic. Disturbing experiences generate strong emotions, and they affect our body and our behavior. I remember one little girl who was devastated by a harsh remark from a teacher. She developed a school phobia which no one understood because up to that point she had loved going to school. She didn't tell anyone about being upset, but the remark undermined her confidence. Her solution was to avoid school, so that no one would see her incompetence.

Similarly, I saw a young boy whose teachers and parents complained was oppositional. He had a loving home and sympathetic teachers, but his behavior was a puzzle. I soon learned that he had undergone a frightening medical procedure in which he had to be restrained. After his initial hysterial crying, he calmed down and everyone thought he was okay. However, this experience lived in his body and was revealed by his pushing people away and being uncooperative. His trust had been compromised and adults were seen as untrustworthy.  

Another young girl had sustained multiple separations from her mother which were sudden and mysterious. Little had been explained to her, and although she seemed fine, when her mother returned she became clingy, had trouble sleeping and wouldn't let her mother out of her sight.  Her fear of abandonment had surfaced during these separations, and she couldn't tolerate any additional ones.

This study is another reminder of how important it is to take our children's emotions seriously. When you know that something disturbing has happened to your child, make sure to check in and mention the expereince a few different times.  This lets them know that you're aware of them and concerned about their well being. You can state that disappointments and scary experiences are hard for everyone. Normalizing a child's feelings is calming. Haim Ginott, in his classic book Between Parent and Child says, "Strong feelings do not vanish by being banished."

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

When Is Being Cheerful Counterproductive?

Photo Credit: Disney Pixar

I've been curious about Joy's role in the Pixar movie Inside Out.  Joy was a primary emotion in Riley's early life in Minnesota.  Riley was secure and all her major experiences were happy ones.  Joy didn't really have to work very hard, but that changed when Riley moved to a new city.   Suddenly, Joy had to work a lot harder because Riley was increasingly unhappy.  We see Joy hovering over the control panel keeping Sadness at bay and energetically maneuvering to put a positive spin on Riley's experiences.  She only wants to keep Riley happy and help her make the most of her new situation.  We can identify with Joy's desire to emphasize the positive, and we know that maintaining a positive attitude often proves useful.  Research studies have consistently shown the benefits of a positive attitude: better health, school and career success, longevity, secure friendships, happiness and resilience.   Yet, in the movie, even with Joy's help, Riley's mood isn't changing.  

I think Riley's experience represents those times in life when we're overwhelmed with disappointments or loss and need time to adapt.  We need someone to see and acknowledge how we're feeling and being positive seems to deny our reality.  Actually, research is showing that there are times, like the situation Riley is facing, where being overly optimistic does not serve us well.  Searching for a silver lining can ignore reality and be detrimental.  

I'm reminded of a family session I conducted recently.  The adult son shared with his mother that her positive attitude sometimes got in the way of his feeling understood.  He talked of the time when he was young and seriously ill.  Her optimism had, in fact, made him feel more alone and frightened.  He knew he was ill, felt very weak and thought he was dying.  He had no one to share his fears with and only felt anger that his mother was denying reality.  He was in danger and he knew it.  He desperately needed confirmation of his reality and comfort.  Sometimes, the intensity of a situation taxes our resources; we need help mastering our situation and cheerful reassurance feels hollow.   

In Inside Out, Riley felt a disconnect between what she was feeling inside: sad and lonely; and what she was supposed to show on the outside: joy and optimism.  She desperately needed her parents to know how much despair she was feeling.  When difficult or scary things happen to us, we need our reality confirmed.  When it is minimized or ignored, we'll feel misunderstood.  The gulf between ourselves and another becomes larger.  My client would have fared much better, and not still be carrying this old hurt around, if his mother had acknowledged his fear and what was happening to him.  Similarly, Riley would have fared better if her parents had seen her sadness as it was happening and taken the time to listen to her feelings.  When we listen to someone's sadness or fears, we are not giving in to negativity; we are only accepting reality.  

In Inside Out, the acceptance of Riley's reality is represented by Joy's giving over the control panel to Sadness.  Joy acknowledges that hearing Riley's sadness is the way back to happiness.  And in truth, acknowledging reality can create more positive outcomes.  It makes us feel understood and cared about.  With this support we can help figure out ways to make things better and reassert our competence.  Riley does this by trying out for the hockey team again and succeeding this time. 
So, as research and the movie suggest, there are times in life that are too serious to be taken lightly.  Times when we need to accept rather than deny a difficult reality.  We can, though, have a positive attitude towards whatever challenges we face and a belief in our ability to manage them.  Looking reality in the face, helps us grow our capacity to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.  And this ultimately makes us studier and better able to handle difficult situations in the future. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Sadness Saves the Day In Pixar's Inside Out - Part II

                                                             Photo Credit: Disney Pixar

The first island, Family, represents secure connections. Because of her attentive, loving parents, this island has always felt solid for Riley. But now, as Riley's parents are preoccupied, she feels neglected and this formally reliable island is shaky. The second island, Honesty, which represents personal values, is also in jeopardy. Riley wants to go back to Minnesota, so she steals her mom's credit card for bus money. The trust that made this island sturdy is now undermined. Meanwhile, the Friendship island crumbles because Riley feels friendless in her new city and wonders if her old friends still like her. The next island, Hockey, which is about personal likes and talents, has taken a hit when she doesn't feel excited about playing and quits her tryouts. And lastly, Goofball island, representing our silly playful nature is about to crumble as well. Her family has always clowned with one another, making goofy monkey gestures; now Riley doesn't even try to be funny.   

As Riley gets more out of sorts, we have a parallel story of Joy and Sadness accidentally getting sucked out of the control tower and landing in long term memory. There's a long sequence about their journey back to the control tower. While I think the crew at Pixar did an amazing job of illustrating how memory works, I think most young kids will have trouble following it. It's abstract, but the story line between Sadness and Joy keeps us engaged. Sadness is so sad that she flops on the floor and Joy has to pull her around. It's mimics the low energy Riley is experiencing, making her sullen and hiding in her room.  

Sadness' depleted energy and sense of helplessness starts to change when she and Joy encounter Bing Bong, Riley's nearly forgotten imaginary friend. Sadness sits down next to Bing Bong and does what she does best.  She listens to him remember some of the fun times he's had with Riley. His sadness is especially strong because he knows Riley has forgotten all about him. Sadness' allows Bing Bong to grieve the loss of his special relationship with Riley and helps him recover. With the support of Sadness, Bing Bong now has the energy to help them find their way back to the control tower. Joy is puzzled and doesn't quite realize what Sadness has done. Yet, she knows it is something unique to Sadness and something that she can't do.   

When Joy and Sadness get back to the control tower, things are whirling out of control: the other emotions aren't able to keep things in balance and there's a crisis to control and Riley is running away from home.  It is at this critical moment that Joy remembers how Sadness helped Bing Bong, so she puts Sadness in control.

Sadness helps Riley return home and talk to her parents about her sadness. Embraced and comforted by her parents, Riley cries and shares all the things that have been hard for her. Being heard and having her sadness acknowledged reassures her of her parents concern and caring.  Sadness is the emotion which, although not fun, helps us understand the value of things we've lost. Riley had good friends that she had fun with and it's hard to not have them close by. She was a valuable member of her hockey team and she misses the fun of being part of that team and knowing she was a valued member. Her family did lots of outdoors activities together and that's no longer happening.  She has lost all these things that once were a regular part of her life.  Without them her life has felt sad and empty.     

Riley needed space to feel sad and talk about what's been hard about giving those things up. Throughout life we all have to manage change and let go of things that have been meaningful. But that process is made much easier if we can embrace our sadness rather than hide it.  And then compassionately allow ourselves whatever time we need to heal.  When we give ourselves that space, we regain our resilience and open ourselves up to new experiences. Riley did this after she shared her heartbreak with her parents. The energy of her sadness got released and new energy emerged that allowed her to successfully join a new hockey team. Riley's new team will be different from her old one. But she'll have her memories, and the possibility of new connections and the knowledge of her capacity to manage change no matter how hard.

How did you like the movie? I'd love to know - tweet me @PeggyKTietz!

Monday, July 20, 2015

Sadness Saves the Day In Pixar's Inside Out - Part I

Photo Credit: Disney Pixar

What a great job Pixar has done in creating a movie about emotions. It's inventive, fun and teaches us that all emotions are okay and necessary. Of course, I love it - the message mirrors that of my book, Yell and Shout, Cry and Pout: A Kid's Guide to Feelings. Like Pixar, I wrote the book to help kids understand the purpose and usefulness of each of our emotions.

Emotions have gotten a bad rap; we tend to consider them troublesome, rather than helpful. Pixar challenges this perspective and shows that emotions help us enjoy life and cope with difficult situations. Life is full of both ups and downs; this is represented in the movie by Joy and Sadness. There is tension between the two until they recognize how they are each unique and can help Riley, but in very different ways. 

Inside Out takes us inside 11 year old Riley's mind. We see her five emotions ready for action in front of a control panel. Joy sports short blue hair and is a kind of perky Tinkerbell. Sadness is a blue blob in a sloppy sweater and big round glasses. Anger looks like a red Sponge Bob. Fear is a frantic long nosed character in bow tie and then there is Disgust with sparkly green hair and lashes. 

In general, Joy is in charge and focuses on keeping Riley happy.  She's creative and persistent in finding ways to make difficult situations better.  The other emotions fill in as needed. Joy is often seen running interference to keep Sadness from influencing Riley's experience, or from coloring her memories a sadder shade. At one point, frustrated by Sadness' negative interpretation of things, Joy restricts her to a tiny circle on the floor.  

Joy's commitment to Riley's happiness is amplified by Riley's parents who have always experienced Riley as their "happy girl."  It's clearly hard for them to see her unhappy. Of course, it's always hard for parents to witness a child's unhappiness. But if we ignore or shield them from difficult experiences, we inadvertently deprive them of the opportunity to master those situations. We also teach them that it's not okay to be sad.  As we see in the movie, when Riley's parents try to get her to be cheerful, when she's clearly not, she feels less understood and more downhearted.

So what's happened to Riley? Her life has been turned up-side down and nothing feels right. Her family has moved to a new state and everything is different and uncomfortable. Her new house is not cozy like her old one, and even seems kind of spooky. There's no backyard swing or pond for ice skating. The kids in her new school look different and she's not sure she fits in. Her best friend back home in Minnesota has already made friends with the girl who's taken Riley's place on the hockey team. This makes her feel as if she's not even missed. 

When she tries out for a new hockey team she hasn't the confidence to do well. Her parents are preoccupied - Mom talking with the movers who haven't delivered any of their belongings; Dad is busy on the phone or away trying to sort out work problems. Riley is starting to feel overwhelmed and her sense of security is threatened. Her usual anchors, represented as islands of her personality, are crumbling. 

Part II coming next week...

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Rescue Kid's When Their Emotions Explode

Kids are still learning about their emotions and how to keep their emotions in balance. They frequently feel their emotions intensely, and don't know what to do with them. We see the results in their melt downs and overreactions. So how do we rescue kids when they are overwrought and can't manage what they're feeling?

1. Be A Calm Anchor
You first help kids by being calm yourself. It's easy to get caught up in their energy and then react with intensity yourself. Who hasn't yelled "calm down" when kids are out of control? Of course it makes things worse because now there are two people out of control. Kids look to us to be their steady anchor when they're out of control; to help them sort things out and be their support.

2. Stay Connected 
Your physical presence is critical in helping kids get back in control. Too often we send them off to be by themselves exactly when they most need closeness. You might suggest they come sit in your lap or offer a hug. If they resist, stay in the same space but occupy yourself with something of your own. At some point when they're ready to reach out to you, you'll be available. Kids know when their behavior has been extreme and fear rejection. Your calm acceptance is profoundly reassuring. You're not condoning their behavior, but waiting until they're calm enough to discuss what happened.

3. Show Them How to Calm Their Body
Help kids learn to calm their body by showing them what to do. Try breathing techniques first. Tell them to mirror what you're doing. Hold your hands over your heart and take deep belly breaths. Teach them the difference between shallow anxious chest breathing and relaxed full belly breathes. If this is too hard, show them how to sip in a small breathe and exhale to the count of 7. You can make it fun and relatable by having them pretend to be blowing out birthday candles. Sometimes it can be more helpful to focus on the exhale than the inhale. If they are too agitated to do breathing techniques, try something more physical. Together you could do running in place, jumping jacks, stretching to the sky and then slumping down and touching your toes; any non-aggressive physical activity helps. After some of their energy is released you can try again to introduce the breathing techniques.

4. Label Their Feeling  
Kids can act intensely and not know why. They might say they're "mad" or "frustrated," but in fact they might be feeling jealous or guilty. Naming these emotions will help them build a "feeling vocabulary," which will help them begin to distinguish between feelings. When we say: "I think you're feeling ashamed about not telling me the truth about who broke the mirror," they can recognize that what they're feeling isn't anger, but shame. Learning these distinctions will help them be more accurate when they tell you what they're feeling.   

5. Distinguish Between Feelings and Behavior
While we want to help kids learn to moderate their responses, we don't want to invalidate their feelings. It's important that kids know that something real happened to cause their behavior. If we invalidate strong feelings, kids grow to fear those feelings and eventually learn to hide them both from themselves and others. We want kids to have access to all their feelings and also to learn appropriate ways to express them.

6. Discuss What Prompted the Feelings
Encourage kids to tell you what happened. Then listen attentively to their story. It doesn't have to make sense. Often it won't, but telling their story will help dissipate some of the energy of their emotion. Then when they're calmer, you can begin to sort out a more realistic picture of what happened. When emotions are high we can't "think straight." It's literally true; our body needs to calm down before we can engage our "thinking brain." Emotions give us clues about how we're behaving and then our "thinking brain" can help us continue to sort things out and come up with wise responses. Having access to both our emotions and logic keeps us balanced and in control of ourselves.

How do you help your kids manage their feelings? Let me know! Leave me a comment below or tweet me at @PeggykTietz. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Help Kids Decode What They're Feeling

Be A Translator

When kids have strong feelings they often can't express what they really mean. They take short cuts and say things like, "I'm stupid," or "You're mean." While they're able to express the energy of the emotion they're experiencing, they might be unable to give it a name. When this happens we can give them "feeling" words to help make sense of their experience. We can reduce their confusion by linking their behavior to the feeling they're experiencing.  

When we increase their feeling vocabulary they become better able to identify their emotions and the situations that cause them. For example, when a child says "I'm stupid," you can comment that they seem dissatisfied with themselves. Then you can ask questions or explore together what's not going well for them. Maybe they're angry with themselves because they tend toward perfectionism and have trouble making mistakes. You can then help them develop tolerance for less than perfect attempts and be more gentle with themselves. Or perhaps they're sad and feeling hopeless about their ability to do well on their math homework. You can sympathize knowing that this a difficult subject for them while also reminding them of their competence and the importance of persistence. When you name the emotions they're exhibiting you help them gain self knowledge and you have the opportunity to offer guidance and support.    

Imagine What They're Feeling

It might seem wrong to just guess what a child is feeling, but it's better to guess than not comment at all. It's true you might be wrong, but there are two reasons to try. The first reason is that your attention, not your accuracy, is what matters most. Kids depend on our noticing their emotional states; it is being attune to their feelings that makes them feel seen and important. Secondly, if you've guessed wrong most kids will readily let you know. It's important to them that you to get it right and they'll correct you if you're off base. When you're uncertain about what feeling is being expressed, check their body language. Notice and comment on their facial expression. Say something like: "I see there's a frown on your face." Or notice their tone of voice and say: "Your voice is so quiet, I wonder if you're feeling shy." Or perhaps there's a behavior you can comment on: "I see you're pacing; that must be a hard assignment." Commenting on what you're seeing can help open up discussion and lead to unearthing whatever emotions haven't been fully understood. Your support helps them become more emotionally aware and better able to mange their emotions the next time.

What experiences have you had helping your children through their feelings? What kind of body language have you encountered that has clued you into what they might be feeling? I would love to know - Tweet to me at @PeggyKTietz.