Feeling Excited l April 2015

Our kids regularly face situations that provoke strong emotion: the first day of school, playing in a big game, giving an oral report, attending the prom. At those times, it’s not uncommon for them to feel unsettled and ill at ease. They might say they’re feeling anxious. We’ve been there; we know what they’re talking about.

Anticipating “big” moments, the body becomes physiologically aroused — shortness of breath, faster heart rate, moist palms — reflecting so much emotion. In this Age of Anxiety, we might hear them say “I’m anxious” or “I’m nervous.” But before we embrace the label of anxiety at those times, there may be a better way for us to respond, since the way we talk about our feelings can make a big difference. Consider labeling their emotion “excitement.” Excitement shares with anxiety many of the same signposts of high physiological arousal, but as a frame of reference, it offers considerable advantages.

It’s well known that anxiety can decrease self-confidence and get in the way of performance. Children focused on anxiety tend to worry about whether they’ll do well. By contrast, labeling heightened arousal as excitement invites positive — not negative — associations, freed from implications of pathology (“I have a problem”) and linked instead to something normal and natural. One study found that reappraising anxiety as excitement led to both increased excitement as well as improved outcomes on a variety of tasks.i Youngsters understand that excitement is a good thing, a sign that something special is about to take place.

So when our children come to us at certain challenging moments, describing feelings of nervousness or anxiety, we can listen to them patiently, determine for ourselves if there’s any real problem that needs addressing, and offer them a better lens through which to understand what they’re feeling. “Sounds like you’re excited. Of course you are! Anyone would be excited at a time like this.” It’s a lens that can shift their viewpoint from what’s wrong to what’s right, allowing them to embrace positive expectations of opportunity and success.

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i Brooks, A. W., Get Excited: Reappraising pre-performance anxiety as excitement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 2014. Volume 143 Number 3. 1144-1158.

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Receiving Criticism l February/March 2015

Can your kids easily accept criticism? Can they receive feedback calmly and with an open mind, or do they get touchy and defensive?

How good are you at receiving criticism?

Our children learn a lot about how to receive criticism from the example we set. That’s why it makes sense to do a lot of demonstrating: frequently ask them to give you feedback. Say: How do you think I did in the kitchen tonight? What do you think about the way I spoke to the salesperson just now? What do you think about how I handled your friend when he started misbehaving during your play date? After they say a few words:

  • Model non-defensiveness by calmly asking them to elaborate, as needed, so that you can fully understand their thinking.
  • Gently correct them if they critiqued you-as-a-person rather than your behavior. Teach them that criticism must always be about actions or words, never about the person as a whole. “You’re lazy” is unacceptable; “You didn’t finish cleaning up after yourself” is better. “You’re stupid” is unacceptable; “Your words confused me” is better.
  • Say, “I appreciate your comments. I’m going to think about what you said and decide for myself what to accept and what to dismiss.”
  • In a day or two, revisit the conversation and let your son or daughter know what you’ve decided. (“Your feedback will be helpful to me and I’m going to take it seriously,” or “I’ve thought about your words, and I don’t agree with what you told me. But I do appreciate hearing your ideas.”)

We want our kids to recognize the power they have in passing any and all criticism through the filter of their own logical brain — whether it comes from you, teachers or friends — taking in what they’ve decided is of value, and setting aside what they’ve decided is not. As youngsters, they will need your help learning how to weigh and measure any feedback they receive, in order for them to learn how it’s done. But your example will carry the most punch as they observe you receiving their feedback — calmly listening, bringing an open and curious mind to what you hear, taking time to reflect and decide whether there’s value. The goal is that they learn to receive feedback without suffering emotional injury or building a wall of defensiveness.i

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i If you’re unable to set this sort of example for your children, make it a priority to work on it yourself. A few sessions with a counselor may help you jump-start your own capacity to become, in this way, the skilled parent you hope to be.

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Violent Gaming l January 2015

While kids everywhere play violent videogames, parents wonder about negative effects from all that shooting, maiming and killing. Some scientific research is worth our attention.

It’s no surprise that research has documented increased physical and psychological arousal in the aftermath of violent gaming. Of particular concern is the finding that such games result in ruder and more insensitive behavior toward others immediately after the game playing.i The effect has been found to last up to nine minutes — long enough to be an issue if your game-playing youngster rejoins family activity immediately upon leaving the game console. Observe your child’s re-entry after violent gaming. Perhaps there would be benefit from a “cooling down” period — chilling out with a book or non-stimulating TV show — so he or she is better positioned to bring courtesy and sensitivity to others, and to exercise self-control.

Researchers are concerned that over the long term, violent gaming leads to desensitization — violent images stop having any impact after enough regular exposure. There’s evidence that areas of the brain responsible for empathy in particular, show negative changes among teens exposed to violent images over long periods of time, leading to what some researchers describe as a kind of moral immaturity.ii Speculation is that excessive violent gaming may be replacing traditional, positive social experiences in a youngster’s life — hanging out with friends, participating in extra-curricular clubs and activities, reading or watching TV — allowing the games’ values to carry undue influence when it comes to the development of an accurate sense of right and wrong.iii

Parents might be wise to set time limits on violent game play (while endorsing non-violent videogames), and make a point of educating youngsters (through film, television, books and especially conversation) about the suffering that results from even relatively minor violence. The goal is to promote in our sons and daughters the development of empathy and a recognition that senseless violence must never be treated casually or with indifference.

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i Barlett, Christopher, et al. How long do the short-term violent video game effects last? Aggressive Behavior, Volume 35, Issue 3, May/June 2009, pages 225–236.
ii Brock, Bastian et al. Cyber-dehumanization: Violent video game play diminishes our humanity. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 48, Issue 2, March 2012, pages 486–491.
iii Bajovic, Mirjana. Violent video gaming and moral reasoning in adolescents: is there an association? Educational Media International, Volume 50, Issue 3, 2013, pages 177-191.

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