What, Be Still? l July 2015

Imagine sitting quietly in a room for ten minutes, doing nothing but being still. Could you — or your kids — handle it? Or would you, if given the option, self-administer electric shocks as a preferred alternative? That’s what more than half of the subjects chose to do in one research study — they gave themselves electric shocks rather than sit quietly with their thoughts and feelings.i

Being still isn’t easy. And it’s grown even harder since we’ve become accustomed to filling every microsecond with some form of distraction. Non-stop input — texts and apps and phone calls and websites and television and music — stretches the brain beyond optimal functioning, impairing focus, learning, retention, and more. There’s a problem here, and it’s called “cognitive overload”: more input than the brain can effectively handle. Studies have found youth particularly susceptible to overload, as their immature brains have developed fewer mechanisms to tackle so much. “Overload” can lead to ill effects on health, relationships, and academic success.ii

Once upon a time, our brains enjoyed moments of relative stillness. Waiting in line and simply thinking. Riding in the car and simply looking. Walking down the street and simply observing. Our children’s developing brains especially need a break from the overload. Moments of stillness allow the brain to organize and process what it’s been exposed to in the classroom, on the sports field, in conversations with friends and family. A quiet mind allows the day’s learning to become consolidated in the brain’s “hard drive,” where it’s more accessible for recall.

We human beings need stillness in order to recharge our batteries … to think creatively, to plan, organize, innovate, solve problems, make decisions, resist temptations, learn new things easily … and control our emotions … everything we need to do in a given day.iii

Here are some ways parents can impose stillness:

  • In longer car rides, enforce at least 15 minutes without screens, conversation, or radio.
  • At meals, allow nothing that uses batteries or electricity.
  • Thirty minutes before bedtime, put technology to rest. Keep phones and laptops in the kitchen until morning.
  • Turn off the television when it’s just providing background noise. Use the mute button to silence the commercials.

Remember that our children’s eyes are often on us. If we don’t set an example of regular stillness, we shouldn’t expect them to be still either.


iWilson, Timothy D. et al. “Just think: the challenges of the disengaged mind.” Science, 345. Issue 6192.
iiFrein, S., Jones, S., and Gerow, J.E. 2013. "When It Comes to Facebook There May be More to Bad Memory than Just Multitasking." Computers in Human Behavior (29:4), pp. 2179-2182. Also: Calderwood, C.; Ackerman, P. L.; Conklin, E. M. (2014). "What else do college students "do" while studying? An investigation of multitasking." Computers and Education 75: 19–29.

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Stay Out of It l May/June 2015

It’s an undeniable fact of family life: siblings bicker. Some studies suggest that young sibling conflict occurs an average of eight times per houri. It can drive a parent crazy!

But their fighting has an upside: it’s how they learn the consequences of playing unfairly (your playmate might up and leave), or the consequences of provoking someone bigger and stronger (you might get punched in the arm). Sibling relationships are a training ground for life.

Too often, parents step in when conflict erupts. We referee and look for fault, we admonish or preach, we dictate what should happen next — in so many ways we usurp our kids’ ability to discover they can work it out themselves.

And worse, we unwittingly tilt the scales, admonishing one sib more than another, fomenting jealousy and resentment. Studies reveal our lack of neutrality, how frequently parental differential treatment (PDT) occurs. Our sympathies — consciously or unconsciously — go to the child who reminds us of ourselves, or the smaller child who seems more vulnerable, or the child whose temperament is easier to live with. Rarely are we neutral referees. It’s no surprise then that PDT — what kids perceive as favoritism — is associated with less positive relationships among brothers and sisters.ii

If your bickering kids rush over to you, acknowledge everyone’s emotions (I hear how upset you both are) . Say: I have confidence you can work it out yourselves. Then walk away, or usher them out of your airspace. I can’t concentrate on what I’m doing with all the noise, so please take your bickering elsewhere.

In the annals of sibling conflict, broken bones or emergency room visits are virtually unheard of; your fears are likely overblown. Only when there’s physical or emotional violence on a regular basis (and weeks of staying out of it have brought about no improvement) should you step in, interrupt the fight without taking sides, and engage the services of a family counselor.


i Berndt T.J. and T.N. Bulleit. Effects of sibling relationships on preschoolers’ behavior at home and at school. Developmental Psychology. 1985; 21(5): 761-767. Also Dunn, J. and P. Munn. Sibling quarrels and maternal intervention: Individual differences in understanding and aggression. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 1986; 27:583-595.

ii Brody, G.H., Stoneman, Z., and Burke, M. Child temperaments, maternal differential behavior, and sibling relationships. Developmental Psychology. 1987; 23(3): 354-362. Also Stocker, C., Dunn, J. and Plomin, R. Sibling relationships: Links with child temperament, maternal behavior, and family structure. Child Development. 1989: 60(3): 715-727.

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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.


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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