How Focused Attention Can Help Our Kids Battle Stress and Anxiety

With focused attention we can actually change the physical structure of our brain.

In the midst of my worst moments of anxiety and panic, I would focus incessantly on the physical sensation and fear that it was something serious and harmful. But, as I learned over time from several experts, my attention was directed on the wrong thing. What if I could shift my focus to something else – something more interesting and positive?

As it turns out, scientists have discovered over the past several years the incredible power we have within ourselves to transform our brain, and therefore, our thoughts. In “The Whole-Brain Child,” author Daniel J. Siegel M.D. explains how the brain physically changes in response to new experiences. “With intention and effort, we can acquire new mental skills. …when we direct our attention in a new way, we are actually creating a new experience that can change both the activity and ultimately the structure of the brain itself.”

How does this work? Our new thoughts activate neurons in our brain, a process referred to as neural firing. This leads to the production of proteins that create new connections between neurons. Therefore with focused attention we can actually change the physical structure of our brain.

This entire process is called neuroplasticity, a very exciting new realm of science that experts are trying to learn more about every day. Because our brain can change based on what we experience and focus on, we can alter the way we respond to and interact with the world around us. We can even reduce negative patterns and form new, healthier ones.

How we can change our brain

A collection of scientific evidence shows how focused attention can reshape our brain, as Daniel J. Siegel points out. Brain scans of violinists, for example, show dramatic growth and expansion in regions of the cortex that represent the left hand, which is the main finger used to play the violin strings. Another study showed that the hippocampus, which is critical for spatial memory, is enlarged in taxi drivers.

The magic of focused attention is that we can use it to help get over negative emotions like fear. We can redirect our attention towards something that relaxes us.

“By directing our attention, we can go from being influenced by factors within and around us to influencing them. When we become aware of the multitude of changing emotions and forces at work around us and within us, we can acknowledge them and even embrace them as parts of ourselves – but we don’t have to allow them to bully us or define us. We can shift our focus to other areas of awareness, so that we are no longer victims of forces seemingly beyond our control, but active participants in the process of deciding and affecting how we think and feel,” Siegel writes in his book.

Fortunately, we have many effective tools to use to achieve more focus and create deep connections in our brain. We can use mindfulness meditation, yoga, Qi gong, breathing techniques, guided imagery, cognitive behavioral therapy, and even brain exercises to develop our focused attention. All of these approaches involve directing our attention to a specific object, image, sound, mantra, or even our own breath.

In addition, Siegel developed a whole new technique called “Mindsight” to become mindful of all our mental activities, reorganize them, and then re-wire our brain. It goes a step further than mindfulness because it’s not just about being present in the moment, but about having the ability to monitor what’s going on and then to make a conscious change. This can have huge implications for those suffering from stress and anxiety.

Ways for kids to practice focused attention

Teaching our children this special trick of focused attention can help them in so many ways throughout their lives. By being aware of their emotions and learning how to shift their concentration, they will be empowered and feel in control of their thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. From an early age, we can start to introduce some fun ways for kids to build up their focused attention muscle.

  • Point out the positive. When faced with setbacks or unwelcome news, ask your children to find the positive in those situations. Paying attention to the positive rewires our brain for happiness and increases our awareness.
  • Play listening and conversation games. Because of all their technology use, our children are missing out on really important skills like listening and how to hold an in-person conversation. Play games like “whisper down the lane” or verbal memory so that your kids can improve their ability to listen carefully.
  • Creative arts. When our children are immersed in art – whether it be music, painting, writing, or drawing – they reach a state of flow, the sense of being completely engaged in an activity to the point of being in a near meditative state. When we are in a state of flow, we forgot about all our thoughts and lose track of time. Sign your kids up for an art class or music lesson, encourage them to spend time journaling, and bring out the karaoke machine to get them focused through creativity.
  • Mindful play. Choose toys and games that require your children’s full attention, such as spinning tops, dominoes, building a house of cards, brain teasers, or board games like Operation and Memory.
  • Breathing exercises. One of the most basic and commonly used meditation approaches is deep breathing, which has been found to help return our breathing back to normal and alleviate unsettling feelings of stress and anxiety. Practice breathing exercises with your children so they can learn how to do it on their own when they are stressed.
  • Yoga practice. Yoga offers so many incredible benefits to our children, including a time for inner focus and to connect to their bodies. Enjoy doing poses together as a family and showing your kids that they can tap into the skills learned during yoga throughout their day to address the pressures and stress they endure.
  • Enjoy nature scenes. Focusing on awe-inspiring scenes of nature – whether in person or through pictures and videos – can engage our children’s attention. Schedule some outdoor time, sit down and watch a nature show, or enjoy gorgeous photographs of our natural environment. Teach your children that just sitting quietly and staring at these images is relaxing and a helpful focus exercise.

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Helping Kids Let Go Of "Sticky Thoughts" Using Mindfulness

As a clinical psychologist, I see a lot of kids (and adults for that matter) get “stuck” on thoughts. This exercise can help release them.

As a clinical psychologist, I see a lot of kids (and adults for that matter) get “stuck.” Through experiences, the words of others, or just by temperament, they become stuck in their thoughts about themselves, others, and the world. A lot of prevalent clinical presentations (think anxiety, depression, and oppositional/defiant behavior) come down to this type of “sticky” thinking.

Psychologists have long used the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) idea of “thought challenging” to “get rid of” these types of thoughts. After explaining an “unhelpful” or “negative” thought to a psychologist, one may be met with a barrage of questions: “How likely is that to happen?” “Is that a helpful thought?” or “Is it true?” While helpful for some, CBT can place a lot of attention on our less helpful thoughts, even while trying to eliminate them. The more we push them away, the tougher they get.

I think of it like a garden: A seed that is watered grows into a tree, right? It grows bigger, stronger, and more permanent. That’s also what happens when we “water” (pay attention to) our thoughts. The neural pathway associated with the thought grows in strength, accessibility, and permanency. So, what if by engaging in CBT, the very act of challenging our thoughts to try to reduce them, is actually watering them instead?

Cue mindfulness and acceptance and commitment therapy. Mindfulness is really growing in popularity, but it is often seen as a bit of a minefield, perhaps even a bit flakey or “hippie.” It can be especially hard to explain it to young people. Basically, mindfulness is about being in the present moment, becoming aware of what’s happening in your mind (and body), but not judging your thoughts or trying to “get rid of them.” It’s about not “fusing” too strongly with them.

An example of being fused with a thought is this: I have a good friend who has a seven-year-old son. This kid is a complete champ. The top reader in his class, popular, and an absolute flipping expert on dinosaurs. But he doesn’t try anything new. Like, ever. He is so fused with the idea that he is good at everything, that something inside him doesn’t want to change that idea, so he doesn’t try anything that he may not be immediately good at. This type of fusion can cause kids to become “stuck.” Not only is he stuck on the idea that he needs to be good at everything all the time, but he’s also stuck in life, unable to enjoy new and exciting activities.

Enter defusion! Defusion can be next to impossible to explain without just doing it, especially to kids. Rather than go too scientifically into what it is, I’m just going to list some activities to practice it with your kids. By hearing about the activities, I think you’ll then know exactly what defusion is. In short, it’s the act of becoming less attached (fused) with your thoughts. Noticing them, but having them mean less, and thus not watering them into big, strong, hard-to-move trees.

Here we go!

1 | Write down everything you think of in one minute

Set a timer and have your kid write down whatever comes to mind in this time. No checking for spelling or grammar or worrying about handwriting. It’s best to handwrite and not type if possible. This stream of consciousness activity is a real winner. Writing down everything you think of in a minute can be hilarious and surprising. It also serves to help us to see that we can move past thoughts that we have and not get stuck in them.

In reading back what your kid has written with her, you’ll hopefully be able to identify positive thoughts (I can’t wait to go to the zoo tomorrow), neutral thoughts (that curtain is green), and negative thoughts (I hate my sister). We can teach our kids that when any of these thoughts come up, it’s possible to notice them, be aware what we’re thinking, and then move on to another aspect of our lives . We can then move in a valued direction, rather than watering the thoughts that we don’t want to grow.

We can teach them that it’s not only possible, but that they have already done it through the writing exercise. This exercise is the first step towards learning to accept thoughts without becoming fused with them. Older kids may move on to “Mindfulness Meditation” in time.

2 | Name that story

When you notice a specific pattern in your kid’s thinking (whether this be through the writing exercise or just in general conversation), it may be a good idea to put a name to it. Does he often talk about how he is “hopeless” or “no-one loves me”? That may be his “not good enough” story. This helps separate his thoughts (story) from who he is. It also stops both him and you from becoming fused with the thought.

I bet you’ve found yourself fused with your kid’s thoughts before, right? This might have looked like a long argument, such as: “Lots of people love you. I love you. Daddy loves you. Mr Biggles the cat loves you.” Or trying to convince him that the rollercoaster ride is not that scary with: “Look how much fun everyone else is having on it.” This is you stuck on his sticky thoughts, on his story. This arguing is similar to a CBT practice.

Rather than engaging in an argument and trying to convince him that his thoughts are not true, next time why not try giving the thought a name, and asking him, “Wow, here’s your ‘I’m not good enough’ story again – what do you want to do with it?” and see how that goes? You may just find that when the seed stops being watered, it shrinks.

3 | I am!

Kids can get stuck on their “I am” stories, like my seven-year-old buddy. “I am good at everything; I am an achiever,” or “I am anxious” or “I am naughty.” An idea to move past these sticky “I am” thoughts is to have your child write out on some poster paper all of the “I am” statements she can think of. I am a friend, I am an animal lover, I am a good basketball player, I am cheeky, I am scared sometimes. She can even draw pictures that go with each “I am.” Then explain: “I worry sometimes that you are getting a bit ‘stuck’ on this ‘I am.’”

It may be that she’s stuck on having to be good at everything, or it may be that she’s stuck on being anxious and generalizes this to being “just who she is.” Learning to let go of stuck “I ams” is such a valuable life skill.

Mindfulness people would say that it’s important not to fuse too strongly to any particular thought or any particular aspect of who we are. It’s important to be flexible in our thinking and in our lives, to not water the seeds of unhelpful thoughts, and hopefully to see them shrink!

New Study Shows That Even Infants Can Learn the Value of Hard Work

Findings suggest that infants even as young as 15 months may be able to learn the importance of effort by seeing adults try hard.

This is a submission in our monthly contest. October’s theme is Determination. Enter your own here!

I don’t often use four letter words, but when I do, you can bet it’s because I’m trying to figure out driving directions without a GPS (when my phone dies, naturally), attempting to assemble something with confusing instructions (which is every gift my children have ever received), or going for a run (a habit I take up every two years or so before remembering why I much prefer power-walking). In the midst of these challenges, I tend to get so frustrated that I nearly forget my attentive three-year-old is in tow until I hear his little voice ask in earnest, “What’d you say, Mommy?”

“Oh nothing, honey, I’m fine,” I say, and I take a deep breath and try to reset.

I feel awful when he sees me lose my cool, convinced that he and his younger brother are absorbing all of my stress and learning to become easily frustrated individuals themselves.

But a recent research study, published in the journal Science, suggests that bearing witness to my bumbling efforts may be actually helping my children learn the value of hard work and the pay-off of persistence.

Researchers at MIT designed and conducted an experiment in which a group of infants observed adults performing tasks (removing a toy frog from a container and a key chain from a carabiner) and then were given their own task to work on. Half of the babies watched the adult accomplish the task efficiently, while the other half saw the adult struggle for 30 seconds before accomplishing it.

When the babies were then given their own task (turning on a musical toy), researchers found that the babies who’d watched an adult struggle tried harder to succeed by pressing a button that appeared as though it should turn the toy on. These babies pressed the button almost twice as many times as the babies who’d seen the adult succeed without difficulty. They also pressed it twice as many times before giving up or looking to the adult for help. Researchers also showed that babies put forth more effort when the experimenter directly engaged with them, using their names and making eye contact.

These findings suggest that infants even as young as 15 months may be able to learn the importance of effort by seeing adults try hard. Researchers have not yet studied how long these effects last, but they say their findings still hold a helpful message for parents.

“There’s some pressure on parents to make everything look easy and not get frustrated in front of their children,” says Laura Schulz, a professor of cognitive science at MIT, quoted in Science Daily. “There’s nothing you can learn from a laboratory study that directly applies to parenting,” she says, “but this does at least suggest that it may not be a bad thing to show your children that you are working hard to achieve your goals.”

It makes so much sense. How can kids learn that success requires hard work if their parents, whom they model their behavior after, hide all of our efforts and make everything look easy? That’s just not reality.

So, while my process of completing tasks, solving problems, and achieving goals may not always (or often) look pretty, I do always finish what I start, and that sense of determination is something I do hope to pass on to my children.

After reading this study, I think I’ll start being more honest with them about the effort it takes to succeed when they ask why I’m red in the face and clenching my hands in frustration. (As for the F-bombs, I’m not sure that has scientific evidence.)

The Mantra That Keeps Me From Trying to Fix Everything

Managing everyone’s constantly changing emotions is a full-time job, and I’m pretty sure I want to quit.

This is a submission in our monthly contest. October’s theme is Determination. Enter your own here!

One sunny day this summer, on a hike in Maine, one of my daughters was complaining. She was complaining about doing a very short hike (about 400 feet) to get a view of Acadia National Park after biking on wide smooth carriage trails with her cousins.

I know. Ridiculous, right?

My insides squirmed. How privileged of you! How dare you be complaining! Don’t you realize how lucky you are?! Lucky to be on vacation, lucky to be in a national park, lucky to be with your cousins and your parents, lucky to be doing something fun and healthy.

More complaining and then some arguing ensued. My emotions ran away with me, there among the pink granite and pines. They hijacked my body and made my blood boil. My daughter’s unhappiness became my unhappiness. I seethed, cresting the hill. I tried to take in the mountaintop, the ocean, and the tiny islands dotting the Maine coast. They were there, but I couldn’t see them clearly. My view was clouded by frustration. How could I be raising someone who doesn’t appreciate this?

My sister-in-law, who was on the summit already, looked at me. She shared what a friend of hers says to her about dealing with her children, “Be like a colander.”

“What?” I said, confused. I stared at the tiny boats floating like small toys in the bay.

“Let your child’s emotions, whatever they are, flow through you. Don’t hold on to them. They are her emotions. You don’t have to carry them.”

Whoa. I stopped. I looked at her freckled, sun-kissed face and her wind-tousled hair.

“I don’t have to carry them,” I repeated.

“Nope,” she said, and joined her son and husband at a rocky overlook.

This idea was revolutionary.

So I stopped. I let my daughter walk ahead, and tried to be like a colander. She huffed and puffed on the hike down, complaining to the wind, as I joked with my sister-in-law about the movie “Frozen” (we also may have sung a little bit).

The colander idea clearly links to my current meditation practice. I’ve been practicing for a while (using the Calm app). Like many people, I have a very active mind, like a hamster on a wheel. When thoughts come in during mediation, I’ve been learning to note them, as in, “I see you there, but I am not going to focus on you right now. I am going to focus on my breath instead.” Then I say to myself, “I am inhaling…. I am exhaling,” to refocus. I try to picture my thoughts floating down a river. I think, There you are. There you go, floating away. I’ll get to you at some point, just not right now.

While I’ve been able to do that in practice, filtering my kids’ emotions on a regular basis has been much harder to do. As parents, we are biologically hardwired to feel our babies’ emotions and to help them in times of distress. As they get older, this can become overwhelming and overbearing, not to mention exhausting. Managing everyone’s constantly changing emotions is a full-time job, and I’m pretty sure I want to quit.

So, back to the colander.

I started imagining my colander. What would it look like today? That day, mine was a shiny, sparkly hot pink, made of stainless steel. I have no idea why, but I pictured it like that. Water and emotion flowed right through my hot pink colander.

When I was frustrated later, I pictured it again. It helped me think that I am not my emotions, or the emotions of my family. I don’t have to fix everything.

This can be used with anyone who works closely with children, or any humans actually. We can stay with the discomfort of someone else’s emotions without becoming those emotions ourselves. We can show empathy and be with our kids, students, friends, and co-workers without being sucked down a river of emotions ourselves. This might help us be less tired, less on a roller coaster, and more able to manage our complex, daily lives.

So, when faced with strong emotions from a child, partner, family member, or work colleague, I ask you: What color is your colander?

How to End Screen Time Without A Struggle

Do you ever struggle with getting your kids off the screen? Does it often end in tears (both theirs and yours)? This could help.

Do you ever struggle with getting your kids off the screen? Does it often end in tears (both theirs and yours)? Like so many other parents, I used to give my children warning.

“Five more minutes, then it’s dinner!” I’d yell from the kitchen.

This statement would either be ignored or grunted at.

Five minutes later, I’d march into the living room and turn the TV/tablet/gadget off, expecting them to silently accept and for us all to have a lovely, quiet dinner together.

Cue screams. Cue tantrums. Cue cold dinner. Cue grey hairs.

I realized something was wrong. Something was wrong in the way I was approaching the issue. My children aren’t naturally prone to tantrums, so I was thrown by this. I couldn’t work out what I could do to stop the sudden screaming at the end of every screen-time.

I wanted to find a way of gently disconnecting my children from the screen, of bringing them back into the real world without continual bumps and bruises along the way (because this happened almost every night), but I didn’t know how. Then a friend introduced me to a little trick by Isabelle Filliozat.

Isabelle Filliozat is a clinical psychologist specializing in positive parenting. She is the author of many books about children’s education, and an authority on gentle parenting in the French speaking world. From one day to the next, my world changed. I suddenly knew how to handle the end of screen-time without the screams, the tantrums, the cold dinner, or the grey hairs.

Here is Isabelle Filliozat’s very simple method to end screen-time without the screams.

The science behind screen-time

Have you ever had the electricity cut off just as the football game reached its most nerve-wracking stage?

Or your toddler pressed the “off” switch just as the protagonists in the deeply engrossing romantic comedy were finally going to kiss?

Or you ran out of power just as you were going to kill that alien and move up a level?

It’s hard to come out of the state of pleasure, which is what screen-time creates in our brains. It’s hard for adults. For a child, it can be terrible. Literally. Here, according to Isabelle Filliozat, is why.

When we human beings (not only children!) are absorbed in a film or playing a computer game, we are, mentally, in another world. Screens are hypnotic to our brains. The light, the sounds, the rhythm of the images puts the brain into a state of flow. We feel good, and don’t want to do anything else. We certainly don’t want the situation to change.

During these moments, our brains produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter which relieves stress-and pain. All is well – that is, until the screen is turned off. The dopamine levels in the body drop fast and without warning, which can, literally, create a sensation of pain in the body. This drop in hormones, this physical shock, is where children’s scream-time begins.

It doesn’t matter that we parents are quite clear that now is the end of screen-time. After all, we’d discussed and arranged it beforehand (”20 minutes!”), and/or given them warning (“5 more minutes!”). To us, it’s clear and fair enough, but to the child, it isn’t. When in front of a screen, she isn’t in a state to think that way or to take that information in. Her brain is awash with dopamine, remember? To turn the “off” switch on the television can, for the child, feel like a shock of physical pain. You’re not exactly slapping her in the face, but this is, neurologically speaking, how it might feel to her.

Cutting her off forcefully is hurtful. So instead of simply switching the “off” button, the trick is not to cut her off, but to instead enter her zone.

The trick: build a bridge

Whenever you decide that screen-time should come to an end, take a moment to sit down next to your child and enter his world. Watch TV with him, or sit with him while he plays his game massacring aliens on the screen. This doesn’t have to be long, half a minute is enough. Just share his experience. Then, ask him a question about it.

“What are you watching?” might work for some kids.

Others might need more specific questions. “So what level are you on now?” or “That’s a funny figure there in the background. Who’s he?”

Generally, children love it when their parents take an interest in their world. If they are too absorbed still and don’t engage, don’t give up. Just sit with them a moment longer, then ask another question.

Once the child starts answering your questions or tells you something she has seen or done on screen, it means that she is coming out of the “cut-off” zone and back into the real world. She’s coming out of the state of flow and back into a zone where she is aware of your existence – but slowly. The dopamine doesn’t drop abruptly, because you’ve built a bridge – a bridge between where she is and where you are. You can start to communicate, and this is where the magic happens.

You can choose to start discussing with your child that it’s time to eat, to go have his bath, or simply that screen-time is over now. Because of the minute of easing-in, your child will be in a space where he can listen and react to your request. He might even have been smoothed back into the real world gently enough, and is so happy about the parental attention that he wants turn off the TV/tablet/computer himself. (I’ve experienced my children do this, hand to heart.)

To me, simply the awareness of what’s going on in my children’s minds helps me handle end-of-screen-time much better than before. It isn’t always as smooth as I want it to be, but we haven’t had a scream-time incident since I discovered Isabelle Filliozat’s little trick.

Don’t take my word for it, go and try it yourself

Next time your child is sitting in front of a screen, and you want to end it, try this:

  • Sit with her for 30 seconds, a minute, or longer, and simply watch whatever she is watching/doing.
  • Ask an innocent question about what’s happening on screen. Most children love their parent’s attention, and will provide answers.
  • Once you’ve created a dialogue, you’ve created a bridge – a bridge that will allow your child to, in his mind and body, step from screen back into the real world, without hormones in free-fall, and therefore without crisis.
  • Enjoy the rest of your day together.

How Kids Can Cope With Stress in Our Unpredictable New Reality

This practice gives kids strategies for developing self-awareness, improving mental focus, handling emotions, and increasing kindness and empathy.

In the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, six of the largest school districts in the United States closed, and 1.7 million American students missed school. This figure doesn’t take into account school interruptions after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and elsewhere where officials have no clear timeline for school re-openings for over 350,000 students.
According to some experts, such school closings could have disastrous consequences the likes of which we’ve seen only after Hurricane Katrina. I worry about the students in Texas, Louisiana, Florid, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands who have been displaced by these recent storms, because they may experience the kind of stress my New Orleans students had to handle in 2005 and 2006. Officials on the ground are already reporting a mental health crisis in Puerto Rico. And, as if the hurricanes aren’t enough, scenes of assault weapons spraying bullets on a crowd in Las Vegas pop up in our children’s news feeds and cause more anxiety.
After Hurricane Katrina forced evacuations and devastated New Orleans, I returned home and volunteered to teach creative writing in a public school. My plan was to help children write stories to express their emotions and creative voice. I quickly discovered, however, that many of my students had high levels of anxiety and poor academic success. They had difficulty focusing in class, following my instruction, and sitting still to write. They also fought with each other on the playground. As I got to know them, I learned why.
Many of these children were growing up in poverty, and their families had limited resources to evacuate during the storm. Some had stayed in New Orleans and witnessed trauma. After Katrina, their families moved to other cities – often living in shelters – and my students had missed school. Like many displaced children, they exhibited depression, anxiety, and behavioral disorders. Some also faced other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), including abuse, neglect, exposure to unsafe environments, and a broken family structure.
Research has shown that children who experience stressful events at an early age may have behavior problems and below-average academic and literacy skills. They are also at increased risk for developing health problems as adults. The good news is that children often respond well to interventions, including classroom mindfulness activities. With a mindfulness program, teachers have reported improved classroom behavior of their students especially in the areas of paying attention, self-control, participation, and respect for others. As a long-time practitioner of mindfulness, I decided to teach my students mindful techniques at the start of each writing class.
Mindfulness is a method of paying attention – on purpose, with kindness and patience – to what’s going on inside and outside of you in each moment. This practice gives adults and children strategies for developing self-awareness and acceptance, improving mental focus, handling difficult emotions, and increasing kindness and empathy. In my writing class, I taught my students many of the mindfulness exercises I still use today as a way of preparing them for the day, and for writing. Here is a sample:

Mindful breathing

Feel your breath come into your nose or mouth, into your lungs, and into your tummy. Feel your lungs release each breath before you take another. Put all of your attention on the air going in and out. If you start thinking about something, shift your attention back to your breathing. This exercise helps you focus on where you are and what you are experiencing in your body in the moment.

Squeeze and release

After taking three mindful breaths, focus your attention on your feet. Squeeze all the muscles tight and then release. Move your attention up your body, squeezing and releasing all your muscle groups until your reach your head. End with three more mindful breaths. This exercise, too, brings your awareness to the physical sensations in your body. You can try it lying down to help you relax.

Mind bubbles

Try this one as a way to release the stressful thoughts that are bothering you. Think of your worries as bubbles that pop. Take three mindful breaths and imagine holding a bubble wand. Breathe in and notice your worry. Breathe out and blow your worry through the wand to form a bubble that floats away and pops. This is a way to see your thoughts as temporary and release them. Repeat the visualization until you feel ready to continue your day. This exercise may not take away immediate problems, but it gives you a tool to release troubling thoughts so you are better prepared to face your life.

Finding the pause

Breathe normally, and at the end of each breath, notice the short pause before you breathe in again. Relax a different part of your body during each pause. Continue as long as you wish, relaxing your whole body a little more with each pause. This exercise helps you handle your emotions and problems with more confidence.
I taught my students these or similar techniques, which we used before writing. In the absence of a controlled study, I can only report that I saw many changes in my students over the school year. At the start of my class, the majority of my students could not write a complete grammatical sentence much less a story with an intact narrative thread.
By the end, every student contributed at least one complete story to our classroom collection, which we printed and bound. They also performed on stage, many reading their writing aloud to a packed auditorium. They also improved in paying attention and controlling their behavior. We simply got along better by the end of the year, and my students were calmer, at least in our classroom.
For the teachers and school administrators who have been affected by the 2017 storms, I wish them courage as they face the challenges of returning to school. They too had to evacuate or shelter in place and may struggle to create a safe environment for their students who could be traumatized. I hope they can put interventions in place that allow for healing and growth during this tough time.
No matter how bleak or surreal our daily reality becomes, our kids don’t deserve to fall into a desensitized-yet-anxious funk we often feel, especially after a series of crises. We owe them a way to cope. Mindfulness is a helpful tool.
For more on mindfulnes, visit Barefoot Books. Whitney Stewart is the author of “Mindful Kids: 50 Activities for Kindness, Focus, and Calm“.
 

No Son of Mine…

Before I broadly bash modern-day childrearing, allow me to point a finger squarely at the mirror. I do not want my son to follow in my flawed footsteps.

This is a submission in our monthly contest. October’s theme is Determination. Enter your own here!

My wife and I, both 36, are expecting our first child, a boy, this coming April. Our emotions are a mix of joy and fear, enthusiasm and pause, hope and anxiety. We are simultaneously awaiting the greatest gift of our lives and bracing for a sleep-depriving time bomb to explode. We’ve been told, repeatedly and at length, that this is perfectly normal.

The logistical preparation is worry-free: The baby’s room has been determined, most of the furniture selected, and our soon-to-be son’s three living grandparents reside within babysitting distance. Check, check, and check.

That leaves the longer-term question of how to go about actually raising this kid. And with less than four months to go, I – uber-opinionated me, who often writes op-eds that read more like papal encyclicals – am completely void of any ideas toward a comprehensive parenting strategy.

I don’t even know where to start. Besides seeming overwhelming in general, the process of combining broad, proven parenting practices with subjective, far more personalized principles has no defined, logical point of commencement.

Rather, I find myself in a pre-planning phase – certainly remedial, hopefully helpful – with which, I hope, other formerly expecting parents can sympathize. Specifically, I have strong feelings about what type of parent I don’t want to be.

Before I broadly bash the hellscape of shoddy modern-day childrearing, allow me to point a finger squarely at the mirror. I do not want my son to follow in my flawed footsteps. Motherless since age three, I was raised by a father from a broken, alcoholic home, one who struggled mightily at parenting for lack of example. I grew up angry, afraid, and alone. The result was a 20-something man-child with untreated depression, anxiety disorder, and, eventually, alcoholism.

As it stands, my four years of sobriety does not a role model make. In terms of sound parenting practices, the only valuable takeaway is a solemn determination that no son of mine will replay the mistreated, misguided, and altogether miserable childhoods of his father and grandfather before him.

That leaves me looking out into the world around me for input, and I can’t say I’m in love with what I’m seeing.

Me Me Me first

The most obvious and immediate subject matter is Generation Y. Though it seems like tiresome target practice to pile on the already much-maligned Millennials, the set of young adults a decade or so my junior is, quite simply, the latest and therefore freshest crop of humanoids available to fully showcase parental handiwork. I can’t judge the parents of a ten-year-old because… well… the kid’s 10 for God’s sake.

To retread all traits good and bad associated with Gen Y is unfair in its generalization, and unhelpful in its inconclusive verdict. I’ve alternately liked and disliked Millennials displaying a range of opposing tendencies: some lazy, others diligent; some cookie-cutter, others creative; some wise beyond their years, others 25-year-old children with checkbooks.

But far above all others, one trait is shared by the vast majority of Millennials I’ve known: self-absorption. And though self-absorption is certainly nothing new to our American way of life – Baby Boomers, after all, were given the moniker “The Me Generation” in the 1960s – there’s a reason that, two years ago, Time magazine titled its Gen Y cover story “The Me Me Me Generation.”

When such a trait is so overwhelmingly found among young adults, it is almost certainly the result of broad, sign-of-the-times parenting. This is nurture, not nature.

Millennials are the result of an extreme, low-altitude form of helicopter parenting buttressed with perpetual, dubiously warranted praise. They are the participation trophy generation – an undeservedly confident set that, far too often, never learned what their special talents were because, they were told, they were so damn good at everything.

Self-esteem – liking oneself, flaws and all – is healthy; self-assuredness – pompous confidence in one’s own supremacy despite clear signs to the contrary – is not, because that mindset doesn’t foster a hunger for knowledge and personal growth that, for example, any 22-year-old recent college graduate should exude. No son of mine is going to enter the real world thinking he knows everything, or that he’s special to anyone except his family, because making him think otherwise would set him up for a series of avoidable rude awakenings.

All-consumering

Especially in their adolescent years, Millennials also were shaped by the Internet, social media, and on-demand entertainment, each perpetually available through requisite gadgetry like smartphones and iPads. As technology gets increasingly and exponentially sophisticated, those growing up behind Gen Y – my son’s generation – will experience ubiquitous, potentially inescapable connectivity in ways we’re only beginning to see take shape. It already seems too inundating – too noisy, too disruptive, too constant – and it’s only going to get more saturating.

Some of the parental pitfalls associated with this cyber-omnipotence are already common knowledge. Bullying is no longer limited to playgrounds, while violent and pornographic content is far too accessible to impressionable youths.

What worries me just as much is the expansion of consumerism – or, rather, its expanded meaning. Today’s consumerism isn’t just a frenzied collection of extraneous, superfluous items, but also a frenzied collection of extraneous, superfluous experiences. Smartphones, iPads, social media, and 500 channels of mostly mindless television combine to form a fool’s paradise where no one ever has to be bored for a single second.

We’ve all seen stories about the best ideas coming in the shower. Undoubtedly, an important factor is that the shower is one of the few remaining times we’re actually disconnected for 10 consecutive minutes… at least until someone, inevitably, invents an iShower.

This isn’t only eating away at attention spans, but fueling the unattractive notion that we somehow deserve to be entertained 24/7 – that the world should cater to us, at our beck and call. No son of mine is going to feel so entitled that he can’t stomach sitting silent for five minutes. Patience is a virtue I wish I possessed in far more plentiful reserve.

True or false?

Adding to my concern about the ever-present media is its ever-declining content.

Any reasonably-responsible parent can warn their kids that, for example, what they read on the Internet isn’t necessarily true. It’s easy to communicate that the World Wide Web has opened the door for anyone to become a blogger, and that some people online, just like some people in real life, simply don’t know what they’re talking about.

Today’s media landscape requires far more than such a standard disclaimer. We live in a bitterly partisan society divided not only by differing opinions but, to an extent unprecedented in modern times, by facts and morality. Settled science like climate change and evolution is somehow disputed. Bigotry and racism are not only tolerated but encouraged.

The media is fully complicit. Under the guise of telling “both sides” of any given story, news outlets give weight – sometimes inadvertently, but often purposefully – to things that simply aren’t true. The result is a free-for-all where even reasonably intelligent adults are either hoodwinked or, equally dangerous, disgusted to the point where they completely disengage, abandoning responsibilities of informed citizenry such as voting, protesting, and supporting worthy causes.

This essay has no clean conclusion; that was never the point. Hopefully, it at least provides a few counterpoints – some bad examples and unhealthy trends for me to be mindful of as my baby becomes a boy, my boy a young man. For now, “I’ll do my best” is the best I can offer.

No son of mine will have a father who doesn’t, at least, try.

This was originally published January 2016 in The Good Men Project.

What Harry Potter Teaches Us About Mindfulness

Relate the strategies and techniques of mindfulness to the perennial favorite, “Harry Potter,” and you’ve got a whole new set of tools.

I’m a clinical psychologist who has worked extensively with children and young people. My patients come to me seeking help for prevalent mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression. I’m also a mum and a huge Harry Potter fan!

The struggle is real when it comes to explaining a concept like mindfulness to young children, and often to parents too. It may seem too abstract, too complicated, or too “hippy-dippy” to be effective in their lives with their very real and present problems – you know, the ones they came in to get actual, realistic help with? Uttering the words “meditation” or “mindfulness” is a quick way to see glazed-over kiddie eyes, and a flash of disappointment cross the parents’ faces while they mentally scroll the yellow pages for someone who is going to provide “an actual fix” for the presenting issue.

Perhaps part of the issue is the way we are communicating what mindfulness is, and the profession’s own difficulty in describing it. Another issue is that mindfulness has become such a trend in pop psychology (think coloring books) that it’s not deemed serious or academic enough to help in any real way.

I do think that as far as treatment plans go, mindfulness-related strategies hold the potential to help kids with a myriad of concerns, whether they be clinical presentations or simply as a way to live in a more positive, engaged way.

A simple way to explain mindfulness is to notice what’s happening right now. Notice what your body is doing. Notice what your mind is doing. Be present in the moment. It’s about paying attention in a specific way, on purpose.

This is not often a concept that reads well with young kids. But in re-reading Harry Potter for the umpteenth time (I’m not proud of the number), I began to notice some parallels between the Harry Potter stories and mindfulness strategies. I started to think about ways to explain mindfulness to kids using Harry Potter language (provided they’ve either read the books or watched the movies).

The following parts of the series do, I believe, teach us something about mindfulness strategies and techniques. There are so many strategies relating to mindfulness that it would be impossible to cover them all in one post, so I’m going to write about some of my favorites (and most effective, based on my own clinical population).

Contentment and gratitude

When Harry stumbles across an ornate, ancient mirror, the Mirror of Erised, on one of his nightly wanderings through Hogwarts, he sees an image of himself surrounded by both of his parents, smiling, happy, and most importantly, alive. For Harry, whose parents are both gone, this was a stunningly emotional moment. He tells his friend Ron to have a look and see his own family, but Ron sees himself as head boy and winning the Quiddich Cup. Confused, Harry comes to realize that the mirror reflects one’s deepest desires. Ron, who is constantly surrounded by his large family, deeply desires to stand out and achieve as his own person even more than his high-achieving brothers. Harry, who’s already famous, just wants his parents back.

Later, Professor Dumbledore confides in Harry that the most well-adjusted, content person would simply see an image of herself, as she is today, with no embellishments. What does this mean?

We spend the majority of our waking moments awash in thoughts of “What if” or “If only.” Regret, envy, and discontent follow us through our days, rendering us stuck and blind to the present moments that we are told to “cherish.” We’re not cherishing them, are we?

An important component of mindfulness is to be aware when our thoughts are going down these tracks, to stop and ask ourselves what are some things we are grateful for, to remind ourselves that the big and the small things matter. People find journaling a beneficial way to do this. Listing five things we are grateful for each day is a good place to start. Gratefulness leads to contentment when we see that our grass is just as green as the grass next door, we just have to water it! Think of thoughts as seeds, the ones we “water” (pay attention to) are the ones that grow. Water gratefulness!

Defusion techniques

Russ Harris, author of “The Happiness Trap,” talks about defusion as a way to detach or step back from our thoughts. The kids in Harry Potter learn to do this with the help of Professor Lupin and his Boggart, a dark, immortal, non-being who shape-shifts to take on the appearance of the darkest fear of whomever is closest to it.

As an example: Ron, Harry’s friend who is deathly afraid of spiders, gets confronted with the Boggart, which becomes a spider. His challenge is to picture the spider in a funny way, using humur as his weapon. He pictures it with roller-skates on and the Boggart changes into a clumsy object of fun. When Ron laughs, the fear is banished and the Boggart leaves him alone.

When our kids are learning to “defuse” from their thoughts, they can be taught to look at their fears from a distance. Their thoughts about their object of fear are not necessarily the truth, more a story that they are telling themselves. If they can look at the fear in another way (say wearing roller-skates), the story can change and their fear can shift. “The Happiness Trap” has some really good techniques for learning the skill of defusion. In the meantime, an effective question to ask is, “What are some other ways of looking at that?”

Mindfulness meditation

The Dementors are dark creatures who suck out your soul through your mouth. (Yes, this is a kid’s series, but when I write it like that it does seem a bit morbid.) In the Harry Potter series, Dementors bring about a sense of fear and hopelessness, much like the experience of someone going through anxiety or depression. After encountering a Dementor, one feels better by eating chocolate. I like this idea.

Practitioners who utilize mindfulness techniques teach us about “mindfulness meditation,” which focuses our whole attention on our sensory experiences. It may be leaving a piece of chocolate (yum!) or a raisin (less interesting but okay) in our mouths, and focusing our attention on that for a window of time, noting the taste, feeling, sensation, and so on. When our intrusive, worried “what-if” or hopeless “if-only” feelings come in (our Dementor thoughts), we are not to judge or pay attention to them (don’t water them!), but to let them pass us by, bringing our attention back to the piece of chocolate instead. People also do this by focusing on their breathing, but chocolate is yummier than air.

In starting to write this piece, I’m thinking of more and more examples of mindfulness in Harry Potter. I could go on all day! This is just a taste of the types of things mindfulness encompasses (besides coloring books!). It is really worth looking into, for both us parents and our kids. And Harry Potter provides a really good way to explain the concepts to them. Perhaps a good place to start is by reading a book about mindfulness (I recommend “The Happiness Trap” by Russ Harris) and then reading or watching (or re-reading or re-watching) Harry Potter with your kids. Mindfulness is truly a ground-breaking way to live in the moment and learn to let go of intrusive and unwanted thinking patterns.

As Dumbledore would say, “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times…if one only remembers to turn on the light.”

The Case for Boredom to Ignite Our Minds

We may assume that curing boredom is a good thing for all of us. But researchers fear that not being bored is the problem.

The demands of careers and parenting mean we’ve lost time to let our minds wander. There are always tasks that need to be handled.
Then there’s the other obvious way we cure boredom should it have a chance to strike: technology. Smartphones give us the opportunity to constantly engage with social media, games, news, or countless text threads. All of these serve as distractions that keep our minds from dealing with boredom for even a minute.
We may assume that curing boredom is a good thing for all of us. We’re not bored, the kids aren’t bored, we don’t have to listen to the kids complain about being bored, and everyone can grab their smartphones or tablets should boredom arise.
But researchers fear that not being bored is the problem.

Why we need boredom

Research shows that people will go to extremes to avoid sitting alone with their thoughts. Studies found that boredom can cause excessive drinking, gambling, and eating when we’re not hungry.
Fortunately, most of us don’t have to engage in these harmful activities to stave off boredom. Unfortunately, we turn to smartphones as a safe option when they are not.
According to studies used in author Manoush Zomorodi’s TED Talk, we now shift our attention every 45 seconds while working because technology makes it easy to do so. We also spend time checking our phones when we don’t even know what we’re looking for. Notifications constantly pop up, and we become Pavlovian in our responses to them, searching for them when they’re not even there just because we can see the phone.
A recent study showed that even having our smartphones in the room with us lowers our cognitive function.
Smartphones and the way we use them keep us from allowing ourselves to get bored, and that means we’re missing out. When bored, the brain goes into default mode. It’s in this mindset that we can reflect on our past and problem solve for our future.
When bored, we daydream, we create ideas, and we stick with a train of thought that can lead us to create. A study even found that participants asked to perform a boring task before solving a problem using creativity did a better job than those whose brains weren’t first prepared by boredom.

How to be bored in the technology age

Journalist Manoush Zomorodi launched a podcast in 2015 that challenged listeners to engage with technology responsibly and put some boredom back in their lives. It wasn’t a cold-turkey technology detox. Most of us have to use some form of technology for jobs or communication with others. Zomorodi launched her challenge to help people learn to do it responsibly.  She wanted participants to give themselves time during the day to free their minds from simply staring at a screen for no reason.
Her challenge led to a book that came out this year titled “Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self”.  It details how to engage responsibly with our phones while giving our brains the sacred time they need to be utterly bored.
Challenges include deleting our favorite apps from our phones or walking without a phone in our hands for an entire day. None of these challenges seem that hard until participants are forced to perform them.
That’s when many who signed up for the challenge on Manoush’s podcast realized they were addicted, though some had inklings of that before. It’s why they signed up in the first place. Most of us know we are missing time we used to have, time where our minds roamed and we used wonder and curiosity to cure our boredom. Our brains had room and time to develop ideas.
Children born into the smartphone age need to be trained to use technology responsibly because they will not remember having all that tech-free time. That longing we have to unplug will be foreign to kids who live electronically plugged in at all times.
Parents can set the example by using self-control and making technology work for their lives, but not take them over. In the process, they teach their kids the sacred practice of boredom.
These simple guidelines are a good start:

Keep the phone out of the bedroom

Let those boring moments before sleep get the creative juices flowing and preserve rest. Phones in the bedroom can cause sleep problems.

Go hands-free

When walking or driving, don’t hold a phone like it’s an extension of the body. Instead of focusing brain power on looking at the phone or wondering when it’s going to offer a notification, go hands-free and let the brain go into default mode.

Set times for engagement

Those in the technology development industry have no problem admitting they are creating a product, and they want it to be as addictive as possible. Manoush believes that it’s so hard to be bored because our technology is designed to draw us in.
To combat this, set up rules and times for engagement. Don’t let tech designers decide how and when you use technology.

The long-term payoff

Creativity was identified as a leadership competency that CEOs look for in employees. Creative people may be hard to find if we now live in a society that doesn’t value boredom. We are also living in a society full of people who feel guilty about the unhealthy relationships they have with their phones.
We can change the course, though, and raise a generation that benefits from technology while still using their minds to create and problem solve without distractions. We can have the conveniences that smartphones offer without the addiction or the brain drain they cause.
It’s as simple, and as difficult, as embracing boredom.

How an Anxiety Mascot Can Help You Manage Panic

When you’re in the middle of your anxiety, you cannot think calmly and rationally about all that you know about a topic. You need to DARE.

I published my first piece on Parent.co one year ago. The focus of that piece – and most pieces I’ve written over this past year – is how better research skills can make more capable, confident, and relaxed parents. I’ve written about why you shouldn’t panic about sending a baby to day care, why you shouldn’t be terrified of laundry pods, and why you can probably let your snoozing child stay in her (attended!) car seat.

I advocate doing strong and thorough research and making well-reasoned decisions based on that research, even if it acquires you a lot of internet trolls.

Except when it comes to driving.

I got rear-ended last spring. As accidents go, it was thoroughly unremarkable. Another driver reached for her cell phone and hit me. Thanks to good brakes, I didn’t hit the UPS truck in front of me. The other driver was uninsured, so the experience was expensive and frustrating, but I was thankful that no one was injured.

My son moved on months ago – really, mere minutes after the accident when the officers let him play with the siren – but I was terrified for the entire summer. When I’d get behind the wheel, even hours before then, my reptilian brain would take over and no amount of data on driving safety could convince me that either I or my child was safe. What if there’s heavy traffic and I can’t get over to the right side and I have to keep driving? What if we get hit again but this time I can’t stop fast enough? What if my son notices my panic and grows up as irrationally afraid of driving as I am? What if I get killed? What if he gets killed?

The what-ifs didn’t abate with driving, as every car coming up in my rear-view mirror was certainly about to hit me and every car turning into traffic was surely going to swerve into my son’s side of the car. Every time I’d gotten safely back to my garage, I would feel guilty for being so panicked by something that nobody else seemed to have trouble with.

With fall approaching, and along with it daily drives to preschool, I knew I needed a new approach. So instead of turning to the data on car safety or even the comparatively strong driving records of anxious drivers like me, I turned to psychology.

Anxious people are creative people

The most freeing concept in Barry McDonagh’s “DARE: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks” is that anxious people are not weak or feeble people. We’re creative people. The same creativity that lets us dream up countless hours of ambitious craft projects also grants us a unique knack for imagining worst-case scenarios.

The key to being a less-panicked person, McDonagh asserts, is being as creative in response to your anxiety as you are in summoning it.

When you’re in the middle of your anxiety (whether it manifests in the form of a panic attack or not), you cannot think calmly and rationally about all that you know about a topic. You can’t calm yourself down with reason, because you didn’t reason yourself into the situation. You need a phrase that’s both easy to remember and apply mid-panic. You need to DARE.

Defuse

The first step of the DARE strategy is the hardest. McDonagh asks readers to defuse their panic by answering each “what if” with “so what?”

What if there’s heavy traffic and I can’t get in the right lane? So what? I’ll merge over when I can and turn around at the next light.

What if we get rear-ended? So what? I can’t prevent what the driver behind me might do, but I can leave enough space in front of me so we don’t hit others. If we do get hit, well, maybe my son will get to play with the siren again, and I’ll have an excuse not to cook dinner.

Sometimes, my what-ifs seem too grim for flippant so-whats. I can joke about the chores I won’t have to finish or the facebook comments I’ll never have to read if I get injured in a car crash. I can’t joke about that happening to my son. However, I can ask myself if never leaving the house again is really living.

Allow

Once you’ve defused the situation, it’s time to allow. McDonagh argues that many of the strategies we use to cope with anxiety are designed to ignore or push away anxiety. For people who experience panic attacks, this strategy tends to backfire, as focusing on not having a panic attack only makes people more aware of the signs of an impending panic attack, which leads to panicking about panic.

McDonagh asserts that we can’t rid ourselves of anxiety, because anxiety is baked into the human condition. Our job is not to dismiss our anxiety. It’s to sit with it as more of a detached observer.

“Let this uninvited guest be welcome,” McDonagh advises. “Never get upset when anxiety shows up at your door. Smile and be the perfect host: invite it in, sit it down, and serve it tea.”

That invitation is a wonderful opportunity for anxious creatives. McDonagh encourages readers to visualize their anxiety:

If you’re a visual type, give the anxiety a mental image like a ridiculous cartoon character. Come up with a great nickname for it. Imagine it about a foot tall, telling you about all the terrible things that might happen. Give your new friend a comical squeaky voice like it has just inhaled a can of helium. It bursts through your front door no bigger than a small dog, squeaking profusely.

My anxiety mascot doesn’t have a name yet, but she’s a six-inch tall cartoonish mix between Cousin Itt and the McDonald’s fry kids. She wears black and white striped tights, a rotating collection of neon Chuck Taylors, has long purple hair in front of her eyes, and is prone to bursting into my office yelling “PANIC!!!!!”

McDonagh instructs us to be hospitable to our anxiety, to acknowledge it, and even invite it along with us. So now at 3:00 when I’m getting nervous about the preschool pickup run (and its proximity to the high school full of new and distracted drivers), I literally say, “Let’s go, Anxiety.” Then I picture my anxiety mascot hanging from the rear-view mirror.

Run toward

McDonagh’s third step is to run toward anxiety instead of away from it. The theory underlying this step is that the adrenaline produced by anxiety is not physiologically different from the adrenaline we experience when we’re excited. When we tell ourselves we’re excited by anxiety, then we will panic less about any physical sensations that accompany it. This advice may be especially helpful to those afraid of having panic attacks.

No amount of talking about being excited about driving is actually making me excited about driving. But I do find it helpful to be excited about what I’m driving toward: what my son is going to learn about trees, what I’m going to research about salmonella, and the gummy bear taste test we’re going to conduct after school.

Engage

The last step focuses on what to do after an anxiety-provoking event. When you engage, as McDonagh puts it, “you keep your anxious mind out of the way so that your nervous system can fully desensitize and relax back down.”

This step is relatively easy when you’re coming home with a car full of children. They’ll solve the engagement problem for you with homework help or requests for a ninth reading of “Captain Underpants.”

When I come home alone, I find it much harder to engage because the silence affords me an opportunity to think about all of the things that went wrong with the drive. I find it helps not to sit down. For 10 minutes, I run around clearing up from the morning, which helps me shake off my anxious feelings before sitting down with a clear head.

I don’t believe in the power of any single acronym to completely transform a life, but McDonagh’s book provides a great starting point for the creative among us who feel crippled by anxiety. Once you’ve created an anxiety mascot and invited it in, you’ll find it easier to try all sorts of things that you might not have been willing to do before – like clicking “submit” on a personal essay about your anxiety.

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