What (Adult) Kids Want Us to Know: Growing up with OCD

After publishing 101 posts, I was starting to feel like I had said just about everything I have to say. I was considering laying this blog to rest and moving on to other pursuits. Then, I was in a session with a client I have known for more than twenty years. When I first met Marilyn, she had two teenagers, both of whom had some challenges. I was not a mother yet, but I often thought about what a great role model this woman was. She loved her children steadfastly, even when they were driving her crazy with their knuckle-headed decisions. At their high school, she advocated for them fiercely. She knew when to push them and when to comfort them. She allowed them to falter but never turned her back on them. Marilyn personified the mother bunny. (If this reference does not make sense to you, check out an earlier post, The Most Profound Book about Parenting Ever Written). Now, her children are adults out in the world making their own ways. They still falter at times and Marilyn still has moments of worry about how things will turn out for them, but what mother doesn’t? Both of her children, who suffered from some combination of attention deficit, learning problems, depression and anxiety, were at an elevated risk of developing various problems such as quitting school, substance abuse, low self-confidence, etc. You will hear from one of Marilyn’s adult children in an upcoming post.

Sitting with Marilyn recently and talking with her about her adult children, I began to wonder what they would say about the way she parented them. What did this mom do that helped keep her kids on a good path despite their challenges? Were there things she did that were not helpful? Those questions morphed into the idea for this new feature: What (Adult) Kids Want Us to Know. From time to time, I will interview adults who experienced mental health and/or learning challenges as youngsters about the things their parent(s) did that were and were not helpful.

Today’s contributor is Lauren. I will let her speak for herself:

Me:  Tell the readers a little about yourself now.

Lauren: I am a 32-year-old woman married to the nicest, most unique man I have ever met (not exaggerating!). We have a four-month-old son, and we spend most of our free time hanging out with him and/or looking at pictures of him. I also enjoy politics, talking to friends, reading, and watching many episodes of many shows. During the day, I am a clinical social worker who has focused primarily on serving children in schools since completing my Master’s program in 2008.

Me: What kind of struggles did you experience as a child and/or a teenager?

Lauren: Around age 8, I became very preoccupied with a fear that members of my family, usually my mom, would die. I tried many different rituals (doing things in even numbers, putting things in certain orders, repeating the same phrases, washing my hands) to make sure everyone would be safe, or at least to feel like I wasn’t causing some disastrous event. It was very draining to go through all of this alone, but I decided pretty early on that I had no other choice but to be silent or I would be labeled “crazy” and possibly institutionalized. So, I kept these superstitions to myself until age 11, at which time I was also experiencing intrusive thoughts that I was going to cause harm to people intentionally.

Eventually, I became so overwhelmed with panic over these thoughts that I confessed all of it to my mom. My mom contacted a friend of hers who recommended that we go see a psychiatrist immediately. I think this was scary for both of us because neither knew what was happening to me, which made it difficult to picture what my treatment would look like. Once I received a diagnosis of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and began therapy, we became more comfortable with what had to be done to manage my symptoms.

Me: In what ways did your mom support you at home?

Lauren: My mom made my treatment a priority. She was very involved in the “homework” that we were given in therapy. She read about OCD, encouraged me to have an understanding of the diagnosis, and helped me confront my fears at home. I distinctly remember her giving me the task of washing and drying utensils after dinner, which was not enjoyable for either of us! But it helped. My mom was also patient in dealing with my sharing of intrusive thoughts with her. I’m sure they were not easy to hear – particularly when they involved criticisms of her – but I think she tried hard not to take them too personally.

Me: In what ways did you mom support you at school?

Lauren: My OCD symptoms affected my school work in the sense that it took me longer to get my assignments done and affected my motivation to complete them. But I don’t recall there being a specific need for intervention around my school performance or behavior, other than trying to get me out the door in a timely manner in the morning. There was one occasion when a teacher called me “weird,” and I know she advocated for me and expressed her concerns to the school principal.

Me: Were there things your mom did that were not helpful?

Lauren: Part of the treatment for OCD involves identifying intrusive thoughts/fears and recognizing either the thought as irrational or the frequency and intensity of the thought as out of proportion to the situation. When you’re a child and you go to your parent with a fear that feels very real to you, and your parent believes your OCD has attached to it and then avoids discussing it with you, that can feel lonely. Sometimes, having my thoughts/feelings quickly labeled as OCD symptoms was difficult for me and still is. At the same time, it has to be challenging to find a balance between acknowledging a child’s anxious feelings and avoiding joining her in her anxiety, and I get that. So I won’t go so far as to say identifying my thoughts as being part of my OCD wasn’t helpful to me, but I will say that communicating that in a way that acknowledged how I was feeling may have felt more helpful to me.

Me: Did you work with a therapist and if so, what did you find helpful? Not helpful?

Lauren: I did!  In terms of treatment modalities, all of the Exposure and Response Prevention techniques were beneficial. As a kid with OCD, I struggled with feeling fearful much of the time and thought that having that feeling would cause something terrible to happen, so it was very comforting to find out that my anxiety does not have magical powers. I remember being amazed that a person could do something to cause herself to feel anxious, and that the feeling will gradually go away.

Still, the most helpful aspect to me was the general sense of hopefulness about my future that my therapist conveyed. I think that I had gotten so consumed by this fear of what people would think of me if they knew the thoughts running through my head that it was very comforting when I finally talked about it in a productive way with someone who did not react with complete shock.

Me: Do you deal with any of the same difficulties now that you did as a child/teen?

Lauren: I still experience OCD symptoms, mainly in the form of intrusive thoughts and frequent worrying. Things typically worsen when I’m experiencing a major life change and then subside somewhat as I fall into a routine. Since becoming a parent, I am feeling much more motivated to treat my symptoms with therapy and medication, and I’m about to start treatment again next week. It’s important to me that I show my son that seeking help for mental health issues is a strength rather than a weakness. I also want to limit how much my anxiety affects him and how he views the world.

Me: If so, how have you managed to be so successful in school and your career?

Lauren: A benefit of investing in treatment for anxiety as a child is that you learn very quickly that you are not going to get better if you avoid everything that makes you anxious. That was instilled in me by Dr. Sayers and my mom, and I think it set the tone for how I try to approach challenges. I also get a lot of motivation from my support system, especially my twin sister, who has been encouraging me since we were kids. She seems to have a special talent for understanding me (not surprising; we’re twins!) and giving me strength when I need it. I highly recommend that all kids and adults suffering from mental health issues build on their support systems as much as possible. Not everyone will understand what you’re going through but those special people will, and their support will keep you moving forward.

Me: Is there any advice you would give to a parent whose child is dealing with the difficulties you experienced as a child/teen.

Lauren: Listen to your child. If your child seems preoccupied by worry or engages in compulsive behavior, talk to him and get him help. Acknowledge how she’s feeling without letting her off the hook from taking small steps toward getting better. At the same time, be patient because there are going to be times, like when he’s panicking or having a tantrum, when you have no choice but to sit there with him while he gets through it and try again later. As much as possible, have fun together because your relationship, and your view of her as a lovable person, means more than you know.

Well, there’s little that I can add to the wise words of this very special former client. If you’d like, you can read more about Exposure and Response Prevention therapy here. Much of what Lauren shared applies to anxiety disorders more broadly, not just to OCD.

I’d like to thank Lauren publicly for sharing her story with me and my readers and to wish her all the best as she experiences the joys and challenges of being a mom herself.

[Names and other identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]

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De-Escalating Conflict with Kids

Imagine the following interaction that took place in my office earlier this week between 17-year-old Shondi, her mother. and me.

Mom (angrily): Tell Dr. Sayers what you and your friends did.

Shondi: [says nothing, sinks lower into the sofa, shrugs her shoulders]

Mom (raising her voice): You’re going to have to tell her. If you don’t, I will!

Shondi: [tearfully gives mother an angry look, says nothing]

Mom (angrily, to me): I told her we were going to have to talk about this, so I don’t know why she’s acting this way.

Shondi: Why can’t you ever listen to me? I said I didn’t want to talk about this! Why do you have to be such a bitch?!

Mom: Don’t you dare speak to me that way! You can forget going sledding with your friends this weekend!

This is a good example of poorly attuned responding on the mother’s part. Attunement refers to a parent-child interaction in which the parent helps the child regulate his/her emotions. It is a somewhat subtle process that involves reflecting the child’s emotions rather than responding to his/her behavior or words. Poorly attuned responses often result in an escalation and poorer control of negative emotions whereas well attuned responses do just the opposite; they help de-escalate strong emotions and improve self-control.

Once it was clear that the interaction was moving in the wrong direction, I stepped in.

Me: Mom, let me talk to Shondi for a minute. Shondi, it seems pretty clear that you are upset about whatever your mother is referring to. Am I right about that?

Shondi (turning her body towards me): I guess.

Me: You don’t want to talk about it and maybe you’re even mad at your mom for bringing it up.

Shondi: Yes. And I told her I didn’t want to talk about it on the way here.

Me: You’re angry that your mom didn’t respect your wishes.

Shondi: Yes, but that’s nothing new.

Me: You’re not only upset about what happened just now; you’re also unhappy because it feels like Mom has a habit of not listening to you.

Shondi: Yep.

Me: Whatever happened with you and your friends, it seems important to your mother that we talk about it. Do you have any idea why?

Shondi: Because she thinks I’m going to get in trouble and embarrass her in front of all of her friends. We took four beers from the refrigerator in the garage. What’s the big deal?

There was a lot more to this session, but these excerpts are enough to illustrate the power of attunement. Mom came into the session angry. She was still upset about the incident with Shondi and her friends, who had been caught by a friend’s mother drinking beer. She was disappointed by Shondi’s lack of remorse and seeming lack of appreciation for the seriousness of the behavior. And, she was angry about the argument in the car on the way to the session. To her credit, Mom is generally a very reasonable and good-natured parent. In this instance, she was too worried about the implications of the misbehavior to keep her cool.

Similarly, Shondi was embarrassed about being caught drinking beer. She deservedly prides herself on being a good, level-headed kid. Such a major rule violation is very unusual for her. Shondi values our relationship, so she was likely also worried about my reaction. Her worry and embarrassment made it difficult for her to control her emotions and therefore her behavior and her mouth.

After only a few interchanges between Shondi and me, in which I focused exclusively on her thoughts and feelings rather than on her behavior and words, I was able to facilitate a good conversation between Shondi and Mom. Shondi listened to her mother’s concerns: Shondi is too young to drink, there are legal risks, there is a family history of addiction, a different parent may not have been so calm as the one that caught the girls with the beer. Mom listened to Shondi’s point of view: everybody drinks, she hardly ever does it because beer tastes awful and is loaded with carbs, getting caught taught her a lesson. By thinking together about the problem of underage drinking, Shondi and Mom were able to agree that they have a shared goal – that Shondi stays safe and out of trouble. Because Shondi and Mom had both calmed down and were in good control of their emotions and therefore, their behavior and their words, we were able to have a productive and very important conversation.

There is no magic formula to help parents respond to children’s strong emotions, negative behavior, and inappropriate words in an attuned way. What I often encourage parents to try during these tense moments in which the relationship stakes are often very high is to do the opposite of what their impulses are telling them to do. So, if you want to lecture, listen instead. If you feel like yelling, speak more softly and slowly. If you want to say something critical (How could you do something so stupid?), say something complimentary (You usually have such good judgment.). If you feel like imposing a purely punitive consequence (e.g. no sledding), find a logical or natural consequence instead (e.g. calling the mother to apologize and to offer to help shovel snow). You can find more on using negative consequences effectively here.

Near the end of the session, when Mom and Shondi were back on good terms, I had to make a tactical decision. I hated to risk the tenuous harmony by bringing up a sore subject, but I also wanted to model for the dyad how to address a negative behavior that has been deferred for the sake of attunement. Here’s how the session ended:

Me: I am so pleased with how well you were able to turn a very negative interaction into a productive and respectful discussion, and I think it’s important we talk about what happened earlier in the session. Shondi, remember that you called your mother a pretty harsh name? Mom, remember that you told Shondi no sledding this weekend?

Shondi: I did, didn’t I? I didn’t mean it; I was just in a bad mood about this whole situation. I shouldn’t take it out on Mom.

Mom: Me too. If you are willing to call Mrs. Smith and apologize and offer to help her shovel snow, then I’m fine with you and your friends going sledding.

Me: Any final thoughts, Shondi?

Shondi (to Mom): I’m sorry I called you  the b-word and I’m sorry I stole the beers.

Me: Great, what a perfect note to end on.

[Names and other identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Talking Turkey and Gratitude

Reposting last year’s Thanksgiving post and wishing all my readers a safe holiday filled with blessings and gratitude.

What Kids Want Us to Know

For those of us fortunate enough to sit down tomorrow at a turkey-and-fixings laden table with friends and family, I have one sincere wish. I hope that amidst the talk of football and politics and “when can we have pumpkin pie,” everyone takes a pause to think about gratitude. After all, if you are with loved ones, have a full plate and a television tuned to a sporting event, are wearing warm clothes, and do not have to work on Black Friday eve, then you have many blessings.

There will be a moment during many Thanksgiving gatherings when everyone takes a turn naming something for which they give thanks. Here is my challenge to you. When it is your turn, think more deeply than the usual platitudes such as “I am grateful for my family” or “I am so thankful that the Eagles are beating the Cowboys” (or vice versa), or 

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The Last Word on the Last Word

I like to have the Last Word. Who doesn’t, right? In many of my roles, I usually get to have the Last Word: as a professor in a graduate program, as an owner of a private practice, and certainly as a blogger. Long ago, however, I figured out that, as a parent, I am much better off letting go of my attachment to the Last Word.

When my own children were tweens, I watched the father of a similarly aged client manage an argument in my office masterfully. The conflict had something to do with money, the mall, and adult supervision. It was early in my work with Christie, and as I often do when I am just getting to know a family, I asked them to discuss a recent problem so that I could watch their interaction. The argument went on for a few minutes. There were several heated exchanges. Christie rolled her eyes a lot and cried and threw around words such as “trust” and “overprotective.” Mom raised her voice and spat out words like “spoiled” and “ungrateful.” Dad didn’t say much initially, but after several unpleasant interchanges between his wife and daughter, he summed up most of what had been said in a calm and matter-of-fact tone of voice. Then, with the skill of none other than the Buddha himself, he brought the argument to a close by saying,

Christie, I know you like to have the last word, so why don’t you finish this up? – Dad, 40-something

To which, Christie replied,

Whatever. – Christie, age 12

And then, the most miraculous thing happened: everyone stopped talking. Just like that. It took me a moment to process what had happened; Dad had offered his daughter the Last Word, she had accepted the offer, and then, that was that. The argument was over.

Looking back on this interaction, I am still somewhat in awe of Dad’s zen-like way of being in the midst of family conflict. I have not achieved this level of skill nor do I expect the families I see for therapy to do so. Still, I learned something very powerful from that father, and I have shared it many times over in the past several years. Here’s what I learned:

No matter how much a parent likes to have the Last Word, it is ten-fold more important to a child or adolescent. There is nothing to be gained by a parent who relentlessly pursues the Last Word. A child is likely to pursue it even further.

If we think about what is going on developmentally for our children at the age of 12, or 16, or even 3 for that matter, it makes sense that the Last Word would be of utmost importance to them. They are trying to establish separateness and independence from their parents. They need to demonstrate, over and over (and over and over and over), that they think their own thoughts, form their own opinions, and govern their own behavior. It goes against this developmental momentum for a child simply to acquiesce to parents in the face of conflict.

For parents, giving up the Last Word does not mean relinquishing authority. In the example above, Mom and Dad were annoyed that Christie had not complied with limits they had set about a trip to the mall. By allowing their daughter to have the Last Word, they had given up nothing. They had not bestowed upon her complete freedom to do whatever she wishes at the mall. They had not retracted the stern messages they (mostly Mom) had given her about her noncompliance. They had simply allowed Christie to speak last. Really. That’s it.

Sometimes, a child’s Last Word may feel disrespectful to parents, even more so than Christie’s “whatever.” If Christie had used her Last Word to speak disrespectfully by saying, for example, “You guys are ridiculous,” it would still make most sense in the moment to let it go. There will always be future opportunities to address such behavior. At the end of a disagreement, getting caught up in a disrespectful comment would take the focus away from the issue at hand, in this case not complying with limits. Parents can only deal effectively with one problem at a time. Much more than that and kids check out completely.

This dad’s way of relinquishing the Last Word is just one way, albeit a highly skilled one. Here are some other possibilities:

  • Thanks for hearing me out. Anything you want to add?
  • Final thoughts on the matter?
  • Before I go mow the lawn, anything more you want to say?

Try letting go of your attachment to the Last Word with your own kids. Notice how this strategy changes the way disagreements play out. Notice in particular how everyone feels when arguments end. If you like what you see unfold, and especially if you don’t, let me know in a comment. I really don’t have to have the Last Word.

For more on managing parent-child conflict effectively, see Redefining Winning.

[Names and other potentially identifying information has been changed to protect privacy.]

 

 

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Questioning vs. Criticizing

In early May, I put out a request on Facebook to grandmothers and grandfathers. I asked for suggestions for a post that would be of interest to them in their role as grandparents. I received eight suggestions. One was about the impact of organized sports on family time; that suggestion resulted in a post titled Balls and Baked Ziti. The other seven suggestions, all from grandmothers who have sons, were about navigating relationships with daughters-in-law. Here is what one grandmother offered:

The hardest part for me is that you have to watch your own child make the inevitable mistakes that we all make as parents, knowing that your grandchild/ren will be the ones to suffer. I don’t want my son and daughter-in-law to think I’m judging them or criticizing them at all, so I step back completely–but I still worry that my life experience as a parent tells me that many of the things they’re doing could create real problems for their child later. I feel helpless to stop the process. So…I just try to let all of that go and just enjoy the amazing little human being that they have created and love every minute I get with him! – Elyce, somewhere north of 55 years old

Full disclosure, I do not consider myself an expert on grandparenting. Further, I was blessed with a mother-in-law who was very respectful of boundaries. While I am certain she had opinions about the ways that her son and I raise our children, she passed away without a word to me on the topic. My own mother has never held back an opinion, but she has been overwhelmingly supportive of our child-rearing practices. Given all of this, I had to think about this question from a very broad perspective. I had to apply what I know about family dynamics in general to this particular type of relationship.

Somewhere along the way, I learned the concept of listening to learn versus listening to argue. This is a really useful concept in family therapy; I invoke it often to help family members understand that listening isn’t really useful unless they are open to learning something new or to changing their opinions.

I think a similar distinction can be made about questions; one can ask a question to gain understanding or one can ask a question to express an opinion. As is always the case with interpersonal communication, the true intent of a question cannot be surmised simply from the words. One must also pay attention to body language (such as crossed arms or rolling eyes) as well as tone (such as sarcastic or exasperated), volume, and other nonverbal qualities of speech. A question such as “Why do you tie her shoes for her?” can be asked as a genuine question or it can carry implied disapproval.

Elyce is a wise and kind woman who knows a great deal about mothering as well as child development. I hate the thought that all of her great wisdom is silenced by her concern that she will offend her son or daughter-in-law. Still, Elyce’s way of parenting is only one way; it is very possible that two great parents could approach a parenting issue from two entirely different ways of thinking and both be doing a great job. And since none of us is a perfect parent, it is safe to say that Elyce made mistakes, perhaps very different ones from the ones being made by her grandson’s parents. Just as her son has grown into a fine young man in part because of all the great parenting she did and in spite of the parenting gaffs she made, Elyce can trust in the resilience of her grandson. He can still grow into a fine young man, just like his father.

As with many aspects of interpersonal relationships, asking questions in a way that conveys genuine interest in hearing another’s perspective is a nuanced proposition. Print is a difficult way to capture the nuance since so much meaning is conveyed non-verbally. Imagine the following scenarios. Then read the questions in italics at the end of each scenario. Think about how the speaker might ask the question in a way that communicates openness and respect rather than criticism.

Grandma has been staying with her son and daughter-in-law following the birth of their 3rd child. The plan is that she will stay for a month to help around the house, to prepare meals, and to transport the older children to and from school and activities. All has gone smoothly, and Grandma is very impressed with the couple’s parenting practices overall. She believes her grandchildren are happy and well-adjusted. The only struggle she has faced during the first week is that the parents allow the children to watch television while eating breakfast on school mornings. This is not a problem for Grandma’s 11-year-old granddaughter who leaves the table as soon as she is finished eating to go and primp, but Grandma has been struggling to get her 7-year-old grandson to leave the table and finish getting ready for school. She says to her daughter-in-law, “I’m having a little trouble getting Declan ready for school on time. Any suggestions for getting him to turn off the television?” [Imagine how different an impact the following question, which clearly expresses an opinion, would have: “Do you really think it’s a good idea for the kids to watch television on school mornings?”]

Papa is concerned that his daughter and son-in-law are overly solicitous with their 6-year-old daughter. He sees them preparing special meals for her because she is a fussy eater, allowing her to stay up past her bedtime if she claims she’s not tired, and driving her to school if she doesn’t feel like taking the bus. He is understandably concerned that she is becoming spoiled. One morning when Papa arrives to take his granddaughter to the park, he finds his daughter dressing Deirdre while the little girl lies limply on her bed and whines about being too tired to dress herself. He asks his daughter, “What do you think would happen if we give Deirdre some time to wake up and dress herself? We could wait downstairs.”  [Imagine how different an impact the following question would have: “Why are you dressing her when she is perfectly capable of dressing herself?”]

In both instances, the grandparents have reasonable grounds to be concerned and are careful to ask open questions which defer to the parents’ expertise on their child(ren). Any suggestions… and What do you think would happen if… are great ways to phrase questions because they communicate a desire to gain understanding. What if allowing Declan to watch television over breakfast is the only effective way his parents have figured out to get him out of bed and dressed in a timely manner? What if Deirdre’s mother knew that the best way to deal with her refusal to get dressed was to ignore it, but Mom didn’t want to inconvenience her father by making him wait for Deirdre to cooperate?

If even open, deferential questions still feel risky, then it might be a good idea to seek “permission” to ask about or comment on something you have noticed. For example, Grandma might say to her daughter-in-law, “I’m curious about the routine on school mornings. Is it okay if I ask you something?” Once given permission to do so, she could ask, “How do you get Declan to turn off the television and finish getting ready? I’ve been struggling with that.” Papa could say, “May I make a suggestion?” Given the go-ahead, he could add, “What don’t we go downstairs and give Deirdre some time to wake up and get dressed so I can take her to the park?”

If these strategies don’t work and open, carefully couched questions still elicit negative responses, it is probably best not to voice parenting concerns in the future. In therapy, I often talk about how one’s relationship with a child (even an adult child) is more important than almost everything else (see Safety, Relationship, Everything Else). Questioning your son’s approach to parenting is not worth jeopardizing your relationship with him. If your daughter and her partner are actually handling a parenting situation in a way that creates problems down the road, you increase the likelihood that she will come to you for advice when that happens by 1. avoiding critical comments, 2. respecting her expertise about her own child(ren), and 3. valuing your relationship with her above having your say about her child-rearing. Rather than risk straining the relationship, take a deep breath, trust in the power of development and resilience, and as Elyse does, just enjoy the amazing little human beings and love every minute you get with them!

[Names and other identifying information has been changed to protect privacy.]

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The Parent-Teacher-Student Partnership

You may have noticed that I have not posted anything new in several weeks. There are two reasons for this. First, I have been deeply immersed in creative writing over the summer due to the slower pace, visits to places that inspire me, and participating in a writers’ group for the past six months. The second reason is that no topics for blogging have emerged from my clinical work recently. Until now.

Last week, I spent a lot of time talking to kids about two different topics. With those lucky enough to start school after Labor Day, I spent time talking about their hopes and worries for the new school year. With those who already had several days of school under their belts, I asked about their schedules, their classes, their peers, and their teachers.

Ten year old Hatsu, a lovely and very bright girl I have enjoyed watching grow up for the past couple of years, provided me with today’s quote and inspiration. Hatsu attends a small independent school that practices “looping” in the lower grades. Looping simply means that the teacher moves up with the students, sometimes through all of the grades and sometimes just for one or two. Hatsu is a new 5th grader and has Mrs. L. as her teacher for the second consecutive year. I know that she did not have a great 4th grade experience due to a less-than-ideal match between teacher and learner. Mrs L. is somewhat “old school,” giving a lot of not-very-interesting homework and frequent tests that require a lot of memorization. She has high standards for classroom behavior and is a tough grader. While Hatsu is a gifted student, she is also very much a free spirit who loves to put her own creative spin on her assigned work. Mrs. L. did not always appreciate Hatsu’s flair, and Mrs. L.’s displeasure was often reflected in Hatsu’s grades.

When I asked Hatsu how she was feeling about the start of 5th grade, she sighed dramatically and told me that she was expecting it to be a “very terrible year.” When I asked why, she mentioned several disappointments, including a close friend leaving her school and not getting her first instrument choice for the 5th grade ensemble. And then she added,

I have no respect for Mrs. L. and neither do my parents. – Hatsu, age 10

Full disclosure: my children have been blessed with a long, unbroken line of great teachers. I have never been in the position, as a parent, where I could not respect a teacher. I can remember clearly as a student, however, complaining to my parents about a couple of teachers who were really, truly terrible, (see Dealing with a Difficult Teacher for more on this) one in 4th grade (this one believed that if a handful of kids misbehaved, then the whole class should be punished; she also made it clear that she thought boys were poor students and trouble-makers) and one in 10th (this one taught History and made outrageous statements about People of Color, “Yankees,” and other groups, such as wealthy families, that she did not respect). At the time, my parents responded in what felt like very unsupportive ways. They would say things like

  • You don’t have to like her or agree with her, but you do have to treat her with respect.
  • She’s the teacher; you are going to have to find a way to deal with her.
  • The best revenge is to do excellent work.

Now that I am old and “wise,” I completely understand why my parents responded in the ways that they did and why their responses were really on point.

  • There are at least two points of view in every teacher-student relationship, and parents typically hear a very one-sided version of events. It is naive to assume that a child can provide an unbiased account, even if the child makes a sincere effort to do so. What if, for example, Mrs. L. said “For this essay, it is very important that you follow the outline in the handout. This is the format the middle school teachers prefer, and I want you to be ready next year.” Hatsu might have heard this as, “There is no room for creativity in this essay. Just stick to the outline.” Those are very different messages.
  • School is about much more than developing academic skills and learning factual information; it is just as much about social and emotional development. Children dealing with difficult teachers (or teachers who are just not a good match for them) have the essential opportunity to practice important skills such as getting along with people they don’t enjoy, following rules they may not agree with, and finding their voices within others’ constraints.
  • Teachers who feel like “poor matches” may be the ones who teach exactly what a student needs. For example, Hatsu naturally excels at the creative aspects of projects, but she is a relatively weaker writer. She is great at coming up with ideas but has a harder time organizing them on paper. She has a keen understanding of math concepts, but tends to make careless errors because she doesn’t attend closely to details. Mrs. L. feels like a poor match to Hatsu when, in fact, she may be the exact right teacher for her at this moment in time.

After Hatsu and I wrapped up our discussion about school, which focused mostly on being open-minded and taking some responsibility for making the best of a less-than-ideal situation, I asked her to wait in the waiting room so that I could speak to her mother alone. Mom was a little put off when I asked about her conversations with Hatsu about Mrs. L. In fact, at one point, she stated emphatically, “I’m not going to pretend to like someone that I don’t.” I confirmed that Hatsu will be in Mrs. L.’s class for the entire year, no matter how unhappy the family is about this. Then, I asked Mom to think about the following question: Given that Hatsu will be in Mrs. L.’s class for the next 9 1/2 months, what is there to gain by feeding into Hatsu’s dislike and disrespect for her teacher?”

Mom was ready with a retort. She argued that joining with her daughter helps Hatsu feel supported. She believes that any attempt to challenge Hatsu’s perspective will leave her feeling unheard. I encouraged Mom to consider a middle ground that might sound something like this:

I understand that Mrs. L. is not your favorite kind of teacher and that you wish you had a teacher who is more fun and creative. Still, she has been teaching for many years and I trust that she wouldn’t be teaching at your school for so long if she weren’t good at her job. Let’s think together about what you might do to have a better year with Mrs. L. Any effort you make to improve your relationship with her will help make it a more enjoyable year for you.

I brought Hatsu back into the office and modeled what Mom could say. Not surprisingly, Hatsu came up with two excellent ideas immediately. She suggested that she could meet all Mrs. L.’s requirements for assignments and then add extra creative touches. She also suggested that she continue to pursue her creative interests during her free time. I am confident that there are many other ways that Hatsu can have a great year in 5th grade even if she doesn’t have her ideal teacher.

When parents criticize teachers or join in their children’s negative comments, they risk ruining the opportunity to partner with their child’s teacher(s). Any parent who has had a child who struggles with one or more components of school life – academics, study skills, peer relationships – knows how valuable good relationships with teachers are. It is impossible to take a child’s side one minute and partner effectively with the teacher the next. A collaborative approach, in which child/student, parents, and teachers are all on the same team working toward shared goals, much more effectively sets the child/student up for school success.

For Hatsu and her parents, this may mean a meeting (or several) with Mrs. L. in which Hatsu expresses her frustration in a respectful way, the family listens to Mrs. L.’s point of view, and then everyone works together to come up with ideas that support the shared goal of Hatsu having a successful and enjoyable year in 5th grade.

Hopefully, Hatsu is at school this morning thinking about our discussion last week. She certainly demonstrated in my office that she is capable of thinking flexibly and more positively about another year in Mrs. L.’s class. I am confident that, if Hatsu and her parents take a more collaborative approach, it can be a great year. And I can’t wait to see what Hatsu does with her first project: This Is Who I Am. She was planning to write a poem and make it into a photo montage slide show.

Posted in Children of all ages, Elementary/Lower School, High/Upper School, Middle/Junior High School | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Life Lessons Learned from Zip-Lining

Once in a while, I share a story about my family rather than a story from my work as a child psychologist. Today’s post is one of those personal stories.

In early July, my family traveled to the tiny little community of Monteverde, Costa Rica. It was the first time either of my teenagers had been out of the country. I could write volumes about the power of international travel, and perhaps I will one day, but this post is about something much more mundane.

When we told folks that we were planning a trip to Costa Rica, many asked if we were going zip-lining. Others told us that we simply must go zip-lining. So, sitting in our little house in the cloud forest brainstorming about how we would spend out limited time atop the mountain, somebody mentioned zip-lining. Neither child really wanted to go. One mentioned his fear of heights. One says no to everything unfamiliar at first, so it was difficult to know how to interpret her lack of interest. My husband wanted to go. I was torn between my fear of zipping through the sky over the canopy suspended by metal clips and nylon straps and my fear of having to tell everyone the Sayers family was too chicken to zip-line. Yep, still feeling the peer pressure.

In private, my husband and I debated what to do. Our mutual hunch was that, when all was said and done, zip-lining would prove to be an exciting and empowering experience for all of us. Plus, the naysayers would have great stories to tell about how we tried to kill them. Lucky for us, we are blessed with mostly compliant kids, so when we told them we planned to go zip-lining in a few days, they acquiesced.

On the appointed day, we treated the kids to a delicious breakfast at their favorite local bakery before heading further up the mountain. There was some mild grumbling and protesting over pancakes and in the car. Once we arrived at Sky Adventures headquarters, there was a lot of stony-faced silence. In the lobby, we were watching videos of people walking on the canopy bridges, riding the sky tram, and zip-lining. I have to admit, it all looked pretty scary.

When it was our turn, the guides gave us helmets and helped strap us into our harnesses. We listened to a spiel about what to expect. When the instructor began to talk about what to do in the event that we became stuck between two platforms, I began to think about how terrifying it would be to hang hundreds of feet about the ground, possibly in the middle of a cloud so that I could not see in any direction, with only my own wits and upper body strength to get me to safety. And I had the thought, “I can’t do this.” Simultaneously, I knew I had to.

When I was a student, I always raised my hand as soon as a teacher asked for a volunteer to be first to give a presentation or take an oral test. I couldn’t stand sitting and waiting as the feeling of dread (technically labeled “anticipatory anxiety”) grew. So, in typical form, I volunteered to zip-line first. In addition to just wanting to get it over with, I thought that my husband or I should be on the next platform to greet the kids in case one or both freaked out. Selfishly, I also didn’t want to be in the position of having to coax a panicking kid to take the plunge.

The instructor thanked me for volunteering, hooked me up to the pulley, and shoved me off the platform. No “are you ready?” or “you got this.” This, of course, is exactly the right thing to do. Not many people doing something really scary for the first time are going to cough out a “ready” when they are feeling anything but.

The best way to sum up zip-lining over the cloud forest canopy atop a mountain in Costa Rica is WOW! It is both terrifying and exhilarating. I loved it and hated it all at once. I couldn’t wait for it to be over and did not want to reach the end of the adventure. One thing was very clear by the end of our eighth and final zip through the sky: I felt like I had done something really big.

Over lunch, we talked about our experience. Because I am a dorky parent, I asked the kids what they learned about themselves from zip-lining. One said something about being fearless. The other said that it got less scary and more fun with each run.

Those two comments get right to the point of this post, that is, the big life lessons to be learned from a morning of zip-lining. Here’s the first one:

It is not necessary, or even beneficial, to have no fear. Fear is an essential emotion that helps us keep ourselves safe and respond effectively to danger. What we need to be able to do is to distinguish between fear of actual danger and anxiety about imagined threat and when faced with anxiety, to push through it. Over lunch, I made a point of telling the kids how anxious I felt on that first platform, how much I doubted that I could go through with zip-lining, how I questioned their dad’s and my decision to make them go. And then I shared with them how I had talked rationally to myself and reminded myself that thousands of people zip-line every year, how the company we chose has an excellent safety record, and how the many friends who told us about zip-lining issued no warnings about its perils.

And here’s the second:

Many a great opportunity is lost because of anticipatory anxiety, the worry that precedes a dreaded event or situation. A socially anxious kid forgoes a birthday party because she feels nervous about separating from her parents. An athletic middle schooler passes up the opportunity to practice with a varsity team because he worries he is not good enough. A teen with stage fright feels sick and misses school on the day of auditions for the play. In virtually every instance, when individuals push through this anxiety, they end up feeling glad that they did. The anxiety peaks when the child first arrives at the party, for the first few minutes of the varsity practice, and when the teen actor first walks onto the audition stage. Or, in the case of zip-lining, for the first few seconds of flying through the clouds. After the peak, the anxiety lessens gradually and is often virtually forgotten.

So, this adventure was a parenting success (not all of them are!). We all lived to tell the story and those of us who had to push through anxiety to allow ourselves to get pushed off those platforms feel braver and more empowered than ever before.

Posted in Children of all ages, Elementary/Lower School, High/Upper School, Middle/Junior High School, Preschool/Nursery School, Young Adult | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment