Thursday, April 16, 2009

Two Paths and Yellow Jeeps

Our minds are designed to solve problems in the external world. They are really good at that overall. If they weren't we wouldn't be all over the globe. When we want something our mind helps us go after it. When there is something in our way, our mind helps figure out how to get around it, move it or climb over it.

Getting Stuck
The problem is that we use this same sort of problem solving to try get rid of or avoid emotional pain. It is the natural thing for us to try because this approach works so well externally. But for coping with difficult emotions it just isn't effective over the long haul. Whether anger, anxiety, hopelessness, whatever, when we try to get rid of it or push it out of our minds, we end up stuck with it. Yet by nature we seem to try a thousand different variations on getting rid of it, even though the long term results are always the same if we take time to look back. We often arrive at the stance of "As soon as I get rid of (anxiety, panic, hopelessness, lack of confidence) then I can pursue what matters to me (improve skills at work, get in shape, make my yard look like I'd like it to)."

Doing Something Different to Get a Different Result
The alternative is counter intuitive, and it takes practice to get the hang of. It involves stopping all the variations on trying to control your emotions and distract yourself from having them. So what can you do instead? You can be willing to have those emotions. It turns out that the rule of how this works is something like this: If you aren't willing to have certain thoughts and emotions, you will be guaranteed to have them. On the other hand if you are willing to have them, you will either have them, or you won't. If we struggle against difficult thoughts and emotions (experiences that are unavoidable in life), we get all tangled up in them and turn a given portion of unavoidable emotional pain  into a giant glob of extended suffering. When we are willing to have these experiences, it changes our relationship with them.

Once I ___________, then I'll _____________.
Most of us at one time or another were waiting for our anxiety, lack of confidence, fear, panic under control before we start to make our life as we want it. Rather than waiting, it makes a lot more sense to begin now on what is important to you. Be willing to have the difficult emotions and act in a valued direction. Work on a better relationship with your kids or your partner, pick up a musical instrument, begin making exercise a regular part of your life, start doing that art you've wanted to try or take the class that is going to help you reach a goal you have.

Two Paths In Brief
One path: Continue variations on trying to control and avoid unpleasant thoughts and emotions and continue being stuck with them.

The other path: Change your relationship to your unpleasant thoughts and emotions by being willing to have them, and begin acting toward making your life about what you want it to be about.

Try it out with Yellow Jeeps
Reading this post may give you a taste of what is possible. But you'll need to figure out if what I'm describing is confirmed by your experience. How about we begin with one exercise right now: Ask yourself how many times the last two weeks you've been thinking about bright yellow Jeeps. Write your answer down and save it. Next, try with all your concentration commit to not allowing yourself to have a single thought about yellow Jeeps. If you mess up and think of a yellow 4 x 4, just make sure you don't have another thought about it. Pretty simple, right?  Continue with this throughout the day. Check back with your slip of paper, and then check back in here and let me know how successful you were or weren't.

Stay tuned for more exercises to help you decide if avoidance of emotions and thoughts brings about more of them, by checking to see if this notion is consistent with your own experiences, and also to get some more experience with what flipping your willingness switch to "on" is like.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Is Any Child Actually Unmotivated?

In the previous post we looked how the roots of missing motivation go deep, and aren't just caused by kids having a "bad attitude". Another way to view this is that children cannot be unmotivated across the board. All of us can only be motivated or unmotivated in reference to particular tasks. So in this sense these kids are only unmotivated to do the sort of school work that they are being asked to do. Most schools, for a wide array of reasons, don’t do nearly enough to engage the child’s imagination or buy in. Not that I'm saying this is easy to do. But there are many charter schools and alternative schools that do a far better job of engaging the child by finding out what he is interested in, and collaboratively coming up with meaningful projects for him from there. This was John Dewey’s huge contribution to education. Doing math on a ditto is altogether less meaningful than doing math to solve a problem you’re interested in, like say calculating how many schools supplies you would want to buy to open a school store.

Or yet another angle to look at this from is that in a sense we are all motivated across the board in one sense, to make sense of the world, to preserve our self-concept and to protect ourselves emotionally. Lots of this sort of motivation occurs below the conscious level. From this angle engaging the unmotivated student involves finding out what sorts of topics she tends to find meaningful and proposing projects that would help her to explore these areas.

In regard to the emotional aspects, it inolves learning to talk with her in ways that support her opening up and taking a chance rather than keeping herself up inside her shell where it makes sense from her perspective to be, since it seems to her that exposing her wishes, interests and dreams will only result in more pain as it has in the past.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Unmotivated Kids

In my estimation this is a very wise thought by Charles Fay, PhD from the Love and Logic Institute. Seeing kids like this as manipulative and willful misses an awful lot of what is going on. In addition to the emotions that Charles addresses below, there are also a lot of lagging skills and unsolved problems that are often keeping the child trapped in the "unmotivated" state:
In approximately 99% of cases, the child's lack of motivation results from far more than simple laziness or a conscious desire to act out. The roots of apathy go far deeper, into feelings of frustration, anger, hopelessness, lack of control, or loss. The majority of these feelings lay at the subconscious level, where they wreak havoc on a child's ability to engage in higher-level thinking tasks, such as sustained attention to detail, problem-solving, memory, perseverance, and self-control.

This is why punishing children for getting bad grades usually backfires. Since they are already feeling bad about life, how is making them feel worse about it going to get them motivated to succeed?

…rather than making it worse with anger, lectures, threats and punishments. At the core of what we teach is the importance of loving kids for who they are…rather than who we want them to be. Yes! The healing process begins when we end the power struggle by saying, "We will love you no matter how well or poorly you do in school. Your grades are your grades…not ours. That's why we are no longer going to fight with you about them. Just let us know how we can help."
What are your thoughts on what's going on with these kids?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Of Sun Breaks and Saddles

We're done with my daughter going through a week and a half of strep while my wife was out of town. Next up, I've got an upcoming presentation on parenting young children at the Multnomah Athletic Club. Unfortunately it is for members only, or I'd invite you to come along. 

Did you know when people are surveyed about how they would rate their "life happiness" on a scale of 1 to 10 that weather accounts for three of those ten points? If you ask them in the middle of a wintry or rainy spell they might say, "I'm a four". But if you cue them to think about weather first they adjust their rating, so they'd say something like, "Well I would say four, but I'm thinking the weather is making things look a bit more bleak. So I'd be about a seven." There is a theory though that was explored here in Oregon that suggests that some of the depression we currently attribute to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is likely in part cause by our low activity level when were in the middle of slush or rain. When the sun comes out, you see garage doors open, bikes around, and people walking dogs and such. 

So after this presentation, and with this sun boost, I plan to be back in the blogging saddle more consistently. Hope to see you 'round.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Why I Chose to Leave Teaching

I ran into a friend on Facebook that I haven't seen since high school. We were catching up and he wanted to know why I left teaching in 1999 to become a counselor. I've had a number of people ask me this question so it seems like it might be worth posting this brief version of why on the blog:


Though I enjoyed most aspects of teaching, bits of it I'm glad to be away from, the couple parents you get every year that can eat up large amounts of your time with things that aren't important, and working beneath bureaucratic policies that miss the big picture and that grind through talent and man hours without good enough results.

What led to the change was my chomping at the bit to go back to school, and wanting to do something that has a better ratio of pointless paperwork and jumping through someone else's hoops to work that is more intellectually and personally engaging. I was frustrated with not being able to get to the kernel of what was preventing some students from learning nearly as much as they could. I began to realize that working with the families directly was accessing the heart of where things happen in kids' lives. I also hated being accountable for those aspects of teaching that are actually beyond your control as a teacher.

The intellectual challenges of the crafts of therapy and coaching have turned out as I expected and even better. Being in private practice now allows me a lot more flexibility to be with my family. I love the concepts involved in the work enough that much of my free time is taken up by reading and discussion of all manner of things related to how the brain functions how it interacts with the environment, as well as to what makes human beings tick individually and in the context of their relationships. It is a really nice overlap that augments my work, and that also satisfies outside of work. I'm now accountable for variables that are much more within my control and within my areas of influence, which I find much less stressful. Or put differently, the stress is related to the challenges of the work itself rather than to being accountable for variables outside my control.


That's the gist. I still have great respect for the craft of teaching and think that we should be paying better wages and working to attract the very best out there to be with our kids. We're slipping further behind all the time compared to other industrialized countries. We need to rethink what we're doing in education and where it lies as a priority. If we don't our lack of courage and foresight to do so is going to be a huge encumbrance that drags on our economy and every bit as importantly, the quality of our democracy.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

When Your Child Lies and Digs In, Part 2: Why They Do It

So why do kids sometimes lie and then proceed to dig in, even when it seems obvious to everyone else that they lied. Sometimes it is fear of punishment, often they are trying to save face, and occasionally it is because they initially lied for one of those reasons, and once they've repeated it a few times one of a couple things can happen. One is just an extension of saving face. They know that they lied and repeated the lie even when called on it, and if they 'fess up now, they have to admit that they have been lying repeatedly—not a spot any of us likes to find themselves in. Sometimes a child repeats the lie often enough that they genuinely come to believe in their own lie. I've worked with a few kids where I had a hunch this is what happened. It is what makes the suggestions on handling childhood lying to come in future posts so important. This process has a way of snowballing if you don't have experience or some insider tips on handling it.  

When an adult who is good at it wants to avoid lie detection they can do so is by repeating their lie often enough that they become much more comfortable with it. They can literally rehearse their response. If we hooked up wires to measure the skin conductance of one of these adults attempting to deceive, we'd find that when they first lied, they showed more physiological arousal. As they continue to practice their lie, the biological signs of stress begin to decrease. As an aside, adults that are sociopaths, by definition, are able to lie without their conscience getting the best of them, because for all practical purposes they don't have a conscience. 

Parenting is all about keeping, losing and regaining perspective. Here is one tip for gaining the big picture view you need when your child lies. When we catch our children lying it can feel like a punch to the gut. To recover enough to handle this difficult situation, it is helpful helpful to tap into our empathy skills to remember a time during our childhood when we'd cornered ourselves in a lie. Many of us learned not to lie and dig in in one of the central ways that humans often need to learn, by doing it and experiencing the consequences. We had an experience lying to someone we cared about in the moment, and then saw how it hurt our relationship with them when the lie was found out. Often as adults, it is easy to look at our kids through the lens of the wisdom that we've accumulated throughout the years, and forget that we once had to make poor decisions and learn from them before we gained the wisdom we now have. We wish they could learn through our past errors rather than make them on their own, but just as our own parents likely hoped for the same and winced as they watched us make that very mistake they hoped they could get us to avoid. 

In upcoming posts in this series we'll at what happens when in our anger and frustration we use language that labels our child a liar. We'll also take a look at ways that you can avoid this mistake and handle the challenge in a way that will increase the odds that our response will help our children to use the experience to grow an even stronger sense of conscience rather than becoming more hardened to the relationship injuring aspects of lying.


Monday, November 24, 2008

When Your Child Lies and Digs In Part 1

It is going to happen if it hasn't already. One of these days your child is going to not just lie to you, but even though you are darn close to certain that they've lied, they are going to dig in and deny it. Maybe even to the point that they'll begin to believe themselves that they didn't do or say whatever they are lying about.

This is a little bit heart breaking when this happens, but it is inevitable. And fortunately like most childhood misbehavior there is learning opportunity hidden within. 

In handling lying there are a couple of things to avoid. One is letting your child think that she got by with lying without you knowing (or caring). On the other end of the continuum is making sure, even though it is important to let them know that you're pretty certain that they did lie, that you don't end up labeling your child as a "liar". Even if you have a child that lies fairly frequently that label is certain to work against you. After all what do liars do. If that label sticks, I can predict a lot of what is likely to happen in your relationship. And it isn't pretty. In upcoming posts I will take you through a middle path that winds its way between both of those errors.