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Are You Okay? l March 2014

We say it often — “Are you okay?” — when we notice that our child’s mood seems “off,” or he’s experiencing an emotional setback, or she’s tripped on the pavement or fallen off her bike. We say it because we care; we’re concerned.

The problem is, “are you okay?” closes rather than opens conversation, alienates rather than builds connection. Kids tend to answer with a simple “yes” when clearly they’re not so okay; they say “yes” because nobody wants to think of himself as “not okay.” But we know there’s more going on, that they’re experiencing distress of some sort — which is why we inquire in the first place. Youngsters don’t always know how to talk about their distress, their tough emotions; they need our help finding the right words and making sense of what can be confusing to them. “Are you okay?” offers none of that.

What kids need from us during their moments of distress is attunement(think: tuned-in), our being “in touch” with what they might be feeling — and transmitting to them that we see (or sense) some feelings stirring.* Here’s how attunement can sound:

  • 4-year-old slips off the monkey bars and tumbles onto the sand below. She runs to you in tears. Rather than asking, “Are you okay?” you say, “That must hurt! Look how upset you are!”
  • 10-year-old appears vexed as he sits in front of his video game screen. Rather than asking, “Are you okay?” you say, “You seem really frustrated.”
  • 12-year-old reads a letter indicating that he didn’t make the cut for a neighborhood sports team. Visible emotion crosses his face. Instead of asking, “Are you okay?” you say, “You look disappointed, and maybe sad.”
  • 16-year-old lies across the sofa staring at the ceiling with a lost and troubled look on her face. You can’t even guess at her emotions. Instead of asking, “Are you okay?” you can at least say, “I sense difficult feelings right now.”

When our children receive an attuned, empathic and accepting response from us at the times their difficult emotions stir, they feel less alone, and less confused about their emotional experience through the language we give them to understand and label their feelings.** Plus they feel better about themselves knowing their emotions aren’t somehow weird or inappropriate. Over time, our empathic attunement is an important way we promote their self-confidence and mental health.

But we don’t achieve any of that by saying, “Are you okay?”

*Siegel, Daniel J. and Mary Hartzell (2003), Parenting from the Inside Out. (New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.)

** By labeling emotions, we’re inviting the rational left brain (via the prefrontal cortex) to regain hold of the steering wheel from the emotional right brain, which had seized it and taken us on its unchecked joyride. It’s only the rational brain, the seat of logic and self-control, which can steer us wisely to a balanced and healthy destination.

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Sacred Spaces With Kids l January/February 2014

Is it ever easy to connect with our children, to get them to open up about their lives? Surprisingly, it’s what they yearn for — to be truly seen and heard in all their authentic dreams and hopes and fears. It’s what we all desire, but kids need it differently than we do. It’s how they form healthy identities, discovering who they are through the mirror that we hold up to them when we reflect back the feelings and hopes and dreams that we hear them talk about.

Are we listening? Are we taking our heads out of our devices long enough to converse with our sons and daughters? And are we insisting they take their heads out of theirs?

We must create sacred spaces, device-free zones where pings or whistles can’t interrupt, where screens don’t glow and metal can’t vibrate, stealing away everyone’s attention. “Sacred” because it’s time — when we use it well — that nourishes our children’s heart and soul in a way that online life rarely can. Real connection, through good listening and eye contact and the gift of full attention — letting the call roll into voicemail, ignoring the chime of a text — that’s what nourishes them. That’s how we step into our children’s lives, seeing the world through their eyes; that’s how they know that nothing is more important than our solid connection to them. This is what helps them thrive.

Consider establishing these sacred (device-free) spaces:

  • Car rides. Expect little from a short ride, but much if you have 15 minutes or more: it takes “warm up” time before most kids open up. Go out of your way to a mall across town just to extend the time in your sacred space. (Note: Putting away your device may not be easy for you, either.) Review The Long Car Ride.
  • Before bed. Establish, say, a half-hour before lights out for quiet conversation, a time for saying, “tell me more.” For tips on skillful listening, review The 5:1 Ratio.
  • Mealtimes, whether at home or in a restaurant. Research shows that even smartphones on the table, untouched and unused, compromise our pleasure in each other’s full attention. Let the kids be your only focus; someday they’ll be gone.

Children have always tried to hide from parents, and technology makes that easier than ever. They want and need you to listen, but first they need you to insist on sacred spaces.

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To Give & To Get l December 2013

Is the old adage true — ‘tis better to give than to receive? In this holiday season, which for many children represents an annual Get-Fest, it’s worth thinking about the virtues of giving versus receiving.

Studies have identified two forms of “giving” which, if they become habits, grow into a foundation for truly happy lives. The first is acts of generosity. By giving to others, we often become aware of our own good fortune — the blessing that we in fact possess something that can be given, including our time or energy or something material. Having a sense of our own good fortune instills the feeling of gratitude, which research has revealed to be a common element in the lives of happy people.i So whether it’s dropping part of their allowance into a Salvation Army bucket, baking cookies to bring to a housebound neighbor, or delivering retired toys to children in need, giving is one of the most reliable ways our sons and daughters can develop a sense of gratitude. (A conversation about giving and receiving often helps lubricate this process — see below.)

The second form of “giving” is expressing appreciation to others — to those who have helped or taught or inspired us. Studies have found that expressing gratitude directly to someone promotes strong and enduring feelings of happiness, especially when the expression is done in person, face-to-face.ii

December offers a perfect opportunity to foster these two forms of giving as part of your children’s repertoire. Here are two ways to approach it:

  • Have your kids go through their drawers and closets collecting the toys and clothing they’ve outgrown. Help them deliver the items to social service programs or schools or pediatric units that seek such donations. (Arrange for the recipient to do more than just say “Thanks”; ask to have your child told how the merchandise will be used, and what it might mean to the recipient.)
  • Talk to your children about how much need is out there among kids of all ages, and ask them to imagine what it might be like for others to receive what they couldn’t come by without his or her help. Ask them to notice what they feel as they think about bringing happiness to others. If they need help, prompt them to look for feelings of gladness or pride, which would understandably attach to acts of generosity.

  • As a holiday activity, have your kids identify the people who this year have helped or taught or inspired them, then ask them to consider ways they might express appreciation to those people. Handmade gifts or personally written cards are fine ways for appreciation to be expressed (being sure to avoid email, a format too ordinary for this special gesture).

Turn the holidays into a time when important life lessons can be learned that go beyond the fleeting pleasures of receiving gifts.

Emmons, R.A., and McCullough, M.E. Highlights from the research project on gratitude and thankfulness: Dimensions and perspectives of gratitude. www.psychology.ucdavis.edu/labs/emmons/

ii Seligman, M.E.P., Steen, R.A., Park, N., and Peterson, C. (2005) Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.

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