The Perils Of Pushing Kids Too Hard, And How Parents Can Learn To Back Off

NPR

Kids in elite high schools face increasing pressures from peers, teachers and parents.

Francesco Zorzi for NPR

On New Year’s Eve, back in 2012, Savannah Eason retreated into her bedroom and picked up a pair of scissors.

“I was holding them up to my palm as if to cut myself,” she says. “Clearly what was happening was I needed someone to do something.”

Her dad managed to wrestle the scissors from her hands, but that night it had become clear she needed help.

“It was really scary,” she recalls. “I was sobbing the whole time.”

Savannah was in high school at the time. She says the pressure she felt to succeed — to aim high — had left her anxious and depressed.

“The thoughts that would go through my head were ‘this would be so much easier if I wasn’t alive, and I just didn’t have to do anything anymore.’ ”

Looking back Savannah, now 23, says the pressure started early.

She told us her story as we sat at the kitchen table of her childhood home in Wilton, Conn., a wealthy community near New York. Her dad commutes to the city where he works in finance.

From the outside, Savannah’s life may have appeared picture-perfect: two well-educated, loving parents; a beautiful home; siblings and lots of friends.

From an early age, Savannah says, she was considered one of the smart kids, and when she arrived at Wilton High School, she was surrounded by many other high achievers. Lots of kids take a heavy load of Advanced Placement and honors courses. They play varsity or club sports and are involved in lots of extracurricular activities.

But by sophomore year, the high expectations began to feel like a trap. Like many kids at her school – and at elite high schools across the country – she felt compelled to push herself to get good grades and get into a top college.

“Even though I was getting A’s and B’s, mostly A’s, in all my classes — all my honors classes — I still felt it wasn’t good enough,” Savannah says.

No matter how well she did, someone else was doing better. “The pressure I put on myself was out of control,” she says. She says she felt the pressure all around her — from peers, teachers and her parents.

Newfound awareness of these kinds of struggles, has started a conversation — and new initiatives — in her community. A group of parents is trying to shift the culture to balance the focus on achievement with an emphasis on well-being. Part of the equation is freeing up kids to find their own motivation and life path. There is a growing body of evidence pointing to elevated risks of anxiety, depression, and drug and alcohol use among kids raised in privileged communities.

A wake-up call

Savannah’s mother, Genevieve Eason, feels she was partly to blame for the pressure Savannah felt.

“I know I was talking to her by eighth grade,” Genevieve recalls, “about how she needed to find out what her passions were, so she could get involved in the right activities … so that would look good on her college applications.”

But after Savannah’s problems began, Genevieve says, she backed off. She helped Savannah drop some of her tougher courses. And the family started to focus on well-being.

“Up to that point, I totally bought into the idea we’re supposed to push our kids to achieve. When they encounter obstacles, we push [them] to overcome those,” Genevieve says. But pushing too hard can backfire.

Given the pressure-cooker environment in her community, Genevieve wondered how many other teens may also be struggling.

In order to find out, she got together with some other parents and counselors — and worked with Wilton High School to do something very unusual. They hired a psychologist to come in and assess the student body.

On the day we visited, the seniors were preparing for graduation. In the main hallway, there was a bulletin board on which students have each pinned the logo of the college they plan to attend. We saw Dartmouth, Yale, Vanderbilt, Harvard — and many other highly selective universities.

Clearly, many kids here excel. But the results of the mental health assessment showed that a lot of kids struggle, too.

“The survey results definitely suggested that Wilton High School’s rates of anxiety and depression with students was higher than national averages — significantly higher,” says school principal Robert O’Donnell. He says he was surprised and concerned.

About 1,200 students — almost the entire student body — took the survey, known as the Youth Self-Report. The survey found that compared with a national norm of 7 percent, about 30 percent of Wilton High School students had above average levels of internalizing symptoms. These include feelings of sadness, anxiety and depression. It also includes physical problems that can be linked to emotional distress such as headaches or stomachaches. Often, kids may hide these feelings.

The survey also found that rates of alcohol and drug use among Wilton students were higher than average, too. We asked the psychologist who did the assessment whether she was surprised by what she found.

“This is by no means unique to Wilton. It’s a common phenomenon across high-achieving schools,” says Suniya Luthar, professor emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College and founder of Authentic Connections, a nonprofit that aims to build resilience in communities and schools.

Luthar has been studying adolescents for more than 20 years. She has published several studies that document the elevated rates of drug and alcohol use by kids who grow up in privileged communities — where incomes and expectations are high. Surprisingly, she says, the rates rival what she has documented in low-income, urban schools.

“What we’ve found is that kids in high-achieving, relatively affluent communities are reporting higher levels of substance use than inner-city kids and levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms are also commensurate — if not greater,” Luthar says.

Her most recent study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, found that rates of substance abuse remain high among upper-middle-class kids, as they enter early adulthood. The alcohol or drugs are a form of self-medication.

Savannah’s mother, Genevieve Eason, says she is not surprised by Luthar’s findings.

“People choose communities like this to give their children opportunities, but it comes at a cost,” Eason says.

The survey findings have been a wake-up call for the community of Wilton. “A lot of people were in denial,” says Vanessa Elias. The mother of three children is the president of the Wilton Youth Council, which aims to promote the emotional well-being of the community.

“People don’t talk about these things,” Elias says. Families often struggle silently, not realizing that their friends’ or neighbors’ kids are experiencing the same struggles. “So having an opportunity to create a conversation about this was really important,” she says.

Dialing back the pressure

The community has lots of ideas about how to tackle these issues.

The high school is focused on continuing to train counselors, and student-directed initiatives are aimed at raising awareness about anxiety and depression.

Wilton is also offering a resilience training program — GoZen! — to elementary school students. It’s a research-based program that teaches coping and happiness skills. There’s a body of evidence to show that resilience training can help reduce symptoms of depressive or negative thinking among children.

At home, Elias says, she has tried to create a low-stress environment for her children. For instance, she limits the number of after-school activities her kids participate in so they don’t spend every afternoon being driven around, overscheduled. She also limits homework time in the evening for her youngest daughter — a third-grader. As a result, “there’s a lot less friction in the household,” she says.

And when she realized that the focus on standardized testing was making one of her daughters anxious in first grade — and giving her stomachaches — she opted her two youngest children out of standardized testing.

Elias says she has been influenced by the book How To Raise An Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims, which aims to help parents break free of what the author dubs the “over-parenting trap.”

But to really change things — to dial back the focus on academic achievement at all costs — will require a culture shift, says Eason.

“We have to broaden our definitions of success and celebrate more kinds of success,” she says.

For Eason’s daughter, Savannah, this means forging a new path.

“I don’t want to work on Wall Street; that sounds miserable to me,” Savannah says.

She enrolled in culinary school, and she is training to be a pastry chef.

“I’m never going to live the same lifestyle I did growing up,” Savannah says, “I’m not going to make that much money, but that’s OK.”

She has her own set of priorities. “It’s not about how big your house is and what kind of car you drive. It’s about happiness and peace.”

This is a different kind of success, one that her parents are now celebrating with her.

“I spend hours making a cake, and my favorite part is when you cut it up and people eat it,” Savannah says. “That’s the part when you bring joy to people, and that’s what’s important to me now.”

Tips To Dial Back The Pressure

Start a conversation — and keep it going

“Ask your kids the question ‘Am I pushing you too hard?’ ” says Colleen Fawcett, Wilton Youth Services coordinator. Don’t just ask once, she says, ask it periodically and keep the line of communication open.

Don’t supervise everything

“It’s OK to let them out of your sight,” says Lenore Skenazy, president of Let Grow, an organization that promotes childhood resilience. Let kids choose activities to do by themselves, like going to the store or walking to the park. Try this exercise from Let Grow for giving kids more control, which can buffer anxiety and foster self-confidence.

Let them play

Unlike supervised activities, Skenazy says, free play teaches kids how to negotiate, compromise, make friends and communicate. “When we deprive children of unstructured playtime, they don’t learn how to mature or deal with frustration or fear,” she says.

Underschedule

“Try to counterbalance the highly competitive culture,” says parent Vanessa Elias. Resist the temptation to overschedule your kids. Encourage them to limit their organized activities, and emphasize family time and downtime.

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What parents and teachers can do to not make the 7th grade the worst ever

ABC News

PHOTO: Middle-school aged boys stand in a hallway in an undated stock photo.STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images
Middle-school aged boys stand in a hallway in an undated stock photo.

In sixth grade, Carrie Rountrey’s son Owen couldn’t wait to get to school.

“He used to get up, make his lunch, do everything for school,” she said.

What a difference a year makes because now Owen is in seventh grade and his attitude towards school has changed, according to his mom.

“He doesn’t like school,” Rountrey said. “He loves his math and science classes, and he hates everything else. It’s been pretty frustrating.”

PHOTO: Carrie Rountrey, J.R. Gentle and their son Owen. Morefamousjack Photography
Carrie Rountrey, J.R. Gentle and their son Owen.

A professor of communication sciences and disorders at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Rountrey also can’t understand how her only child can be so disorganized.

“He forgets his keys on a regular basis,” she said. “He turns a lot of things in late.”

Fortunately, schoolwork comes pretty easily for him. Other seventh grade students aren’t so lucky.

Few kids, no matter how smart, manage to get through seventh grade without some hiccups. And, for many, seventh grade turns out to be the worst of their school years.

“Seventh grade sucked for me,” said Annie Fox, an award-winning author and educator, who has traveled all over the globe talking to teens and tweens.

A trusted online adviser for parents and teens since 1997, Fox said the reason kids — their parents and teachers as well — struggle so much when they are ages 12 and 13 is because there’s a lot happening to them developmentally.

PHOTO: Annie Fox, an educator and author, is an expert on teens and tweens. courtesy Annie Fox
Annie Fox, an educator and author, is an expert on teens and tweens.

Not only are they dealing with the onset of puberty, with all of its raging hormones, but the pre-frontal lobe of their brain, which manages impulse control, predicting consequences and planning ahead, is not fully wired.

“They are not playing with a full deck,” Fox said.

“Put 500 kids with that kind of insecurity in a group that spends six hours a day together and they are not going to be kind to each other,” Fox said.

Yet, this is exactly the time that their parents and teachers expect more from them.

“In sixth grade, they coddle them. In eighth grade, they are getting ready to go to high school so they are really elevated,” said Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at Pace University in New York. “In seventh grade, no one really cares. You’re thrown to the wolves. They really are in such an in-between age.”

PHOTO: Dr. Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist writes about teens and tweens. courtesy Jennifer Powell-Lunder
Dr. Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist writes about teens and tweens.

Parents of seventh-graders likely expect their kids to step up, too, and they are usually surprised when they don’t — or don’t even seem to care.

“It’s the age of snarky,” Powell-Lunder said. “They tend to be more irritable, kind of touchy. They don’t believe they are a reflection of their parents, but that their parents are a reflection of them.”

That means the potential for their parents to embarrass them in front of their almighty peers is at an all-time high. It’s because kids at this developmental stage put more weight into what their peers think and where they fit in.

“Their emotional real estate is so fixated on where do I fit into my peer group,” Fox said.

For boys, that can mean how they match up against their more physically developed peers. For girls, it’s negotiating often tricky relationships, aka “mean girls.”

One mom of three, who asked not to be identified, knows this all too well. She says both her girls began cutting themselves in the seventh grade.

The younger one used to complain that she felt sad and empty, she said.

“Nobody likes me. I don’t want to talk to anybody. They are looking at me weird,” she said of what her daughter would tell her.

It got to be so bad, her daughter had to be held overnight in a hospital.

Fox hears many stories such as that one. In a survey she gave to 1,200 tweens and teens, kids said the number one stressor in their lives was their peers, with school and parents following behind in second and third place.

“Every middle-schooler feels different than their peers, whether gay, straight or transgender,” Fox said. “As human beings what we are trying to do is fit in. On a species level this is the most awkward time.”

Given everything kids are experiencing at this age — socially, developmentally and academically — Fox encourages parents to exercise more compassion.

“I want parents to be a safe place to talk about anything,” she said. “They need to talk less and listen more.”

Keep reading for more helpful tips from Fox and Powell-Lunder on to how not make the seventh grade worst year for everyone.

PHOTO: Middle-school aged students sit on a school stairwell in an undated stock photo.STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images
Middle-school aged students sit on a school stairwell in an undated stock photo.

Control your own stress

Parents stress themselves out over what their kids are doing or not doing at this age.

However, parents need to let go of the idea that they have total control over their kids, Fox said.

“You have a remote control for your TV, but you don’t have one to control another person,” she said. “You can’t get them to do anything they do not choose to do. Most of the time, we parents are stressing because we are trying to point a non-functional remote control at our kids.”

Fox learned this when her own son entered the seventh grade, and it was like a bomb went off in his room, she said. After feeling like their relationship had been taken over by her nagging, she said she stopped trying to get him to clean up his room and their relationship improved.

“You cannot control someone else’s choices,” she said. “You can only modify your own behavior.”

Give them autonomy, not independence

At the same time, teens and tweens still crave structure and boundaries, Powell-Lunder said.

They may be looking for more autonomy from their parents, but they are not yet ready to be fully independent. Setting limits, especially when it comes to technology, is important, she said.

“A lot of time parents want to be the ‘nice’ parent, but kids need rules,” Powell-Lunder said.

Boundary-setting starts with knowing your child and what their individual needs are, as well as acknowledging that those needs change as they get older, Fox said.

“Mom and dad have to take a closer look at the children sitting in front of them,” she said. “They are changing so rapidly. If you don’t keep up, you won’t know how to communicate or listen to them.”

Don’t try to fix everything

With rules, come consequences. Both Fox and Powell-Lunder said parents have to let their middle-schoolers fail sometimes.

“Let them take responsibility for being a full-time student,” Fox said. “That’s a contract between student and teacher — unless you’re planning to go to college with them.”

“Be supportive but don’t try to fix everything,” Powell-Lunder said.

“Over-functioning parents will raise under-functioning kids,” Fox added.

Practice what you preach

Kids at this age are also learning a lot by observing the adults around them.

Be careful what you’re modeling to your kids, whether it’s screaming and yelling or being tethered to your smartphone.

“Show you have more self-control than your son or daughter,” Fox said.

Powell-Lunder tells teachers: “Teach by example.”

Organization helps

At a time when kids seem the most disorganized, being organized seems to count the most.

Powell-Lunder, who is a big believer in the “K-8” model because it “smooths out the rough edges,” said educators in middle schools need to be more understanding of seventh-graders and teach them the organizational skills they lack. Posting homework in one place certainly helps, she said.

Fox frowns on too much homework because she said it turns some middle school students off from education. This age group still needs time to pursue passions, she said, be with family and just daydream.

Talk less, listen more

Both Powell-Lunder and Fox encourage parents to show more empathy for what their children are going through.

“Ultimately, you want less stress and tension between parent and child, and more compassion and conversation and understanding,” Fox said. “They are not getting it from their peers or their own internal monologues where they are putting themselves down. We are just adding to the chorus if all we’re doing is finding fault.”

Explaining the News to Our Kids

With another horrific school shooting in the news, here’s a resource that may be helpful for parents.  Dave

Common Sense Media

Dramatic, disturbing news events can leave parents speechless. These age-based tips on how to talk to kids about the news — and listen, too — can help.By Caroline Knorr 

If it bleeds, it leads. The old newsroom adage about milking stories for sensationalism seems truer than ever today. And with technology doing the heavy lifting — sending updates, tweets, posts, and breaking news alerts directly to our kids’ phones — we parents are often playing catch-up. Whether it’s wall-to-wall coverage of the latest natural disaster, a horrific mass shooting, a suicide broadcast on social media, or a violent political rally, it’s nearly impossible to keep the news at bay until you’re able to figure out what to say. The bottom line is that elementary school-aged kids and some middle schoolers have trouble fully understanding news events. And though older teens are better able to understand current events, even they face challenges when it comes to sifting fact from opinion — or misinformation.

No matter how old your kids are, threatening or upsetting news can affect them emotionally. Many can feel worried, frightened, angry, or even guilty. And these anxious feelings can last long after the news event is over. So what can you do as a parent to help your kids deal with all this information?

Addressing News and Current Events: Tips for all kids

Consider your own reactions. Your kids will look to the way you handle the news to determine their own approach. If you stay calm and rational, they will, too.

Take action. Depending on the issue and kids’ ages, families can find ways to help those affected by the news. Kids can write postcards to politicians expressing their opinions; families can attend meetings or protests; kids can help assemble care packages or donate a portion of their allowance to a rescue/humanitarian effort. Check out websites that help kids do good.

Tips for kids under 7

Keep the news away. Turn off the TV and radio news at the top of the hour and half hour. Read the newspaper out of range of young eyes that can be frightened by the pictures (kids may respond strongly to pictures of other kids in jeopardy). Preschool kids don’t need to see or hear about something that will only scare them silly, especially because they can easily confuse facts with fantasies or fears.

Stress that your family is safe. At this age, kids are most concerned with your safety and separation from you. Try not to minimize or discount their concerns and fears, but reassure them by explaining all the protective measures that exist to keep them safe. If the news event happened far away, you can use the distance to reassure kids. For kids who live in areas where crime and violence is a very real threat, any news account of violence may trigger extra fear. If that happens, share a few age-appropriate tips for staying and feeling safe (being with an adult, keeping away from any police activity).

Be together. Though it’s important to listen and not belittle their fears, distraction and physical comfort can go a long way. Snuggling up and watching something cheery or doing something fun together may be more effective than logical explanations about probabilities.

Tips for kids 8–12

Carefully consider your child’s maturity and temperament. Many kids can handle a discussion of threatening events, but if your kids tend toward the sensitive side, be sure to keep them away from the TV news; repetitive images and stories can make dangers appear greater, more prevalent, and closer to home.

Be available for questions and conversation. At this age, many kids will see the morality of events in stark black-and-white terms and are in the process of developing their moral beliefs. You may have to explain the basics of prejudice, bias, and civil and religious strife. But be careful about making generalizations, since kids will take what you say to the bank. This is a good time to ask them what they know, since they’ll probably have gotten their information from friends, and you may have to correct facts.

Talk about — and filter — news coverage. You might explain that even news programs compete for viewers, which sometimes affects content decisions. If you let your kids use the Internet, go online with them. Some of the pictures posted are simply grisly. Monitor where your kids are going, and set your URLs to open to non-news-based portals.

Tips for teens

Check inSince, in many instances, teens will have absorbed the news independently of you, talking with them can offer great insights into their developing politics and their senses of justice and morality. It will also help you get a sense of what they already know or have learned about the situation from their own social networks. It will also give you the opportunity to throw your own insights into the mix (just don’t dismiss theirs, since that will shut down the conversation immediately).

Let teens express themselves. Many teens will feel passionately about events and may even personalize them if someone they know has been directly affected. They’ll also probably be aware that their own lives could be affected by violence. Try to address their concerns without dismissing or minimizing them. If you disagree with media portrayals, explain why so your teens can separate the mediums through which they absorb news from the messages conveyed.

Additional resources

For more information on how to talk to your kids about a recent tragedy, please visit the National Association of School Psychologists or the American Psychological Association. For more on how news can impact kids, check out News and America’s Kids: How Young People Perceive and Are Impacted by the News,

Marie-Louise Mares, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, contributed to this article.

Things Parents Of Children With ADHD Wish Someone Had Told Them

HealthCentral

iStock-660743358.jpg
Credit: istock

Parenting a child with ADHD isn’t always easy. Because every child with ADHD is unique and comes with a different set of challenges, there isn’t a roadmap to tell you what to do. Every day, it seems, you are faced with a new set of trials to overcome. When you finally think you have control of one issue, a different one pops up.

The following are six things parents of children with ADHD wish that someone had told them when their child was diagnosed.

YOU ARE THE EXPERT AND THE ADVOCATE

When your child is diagnosed with a medical condition, you might expect doctors to understand how the condition impacts everyday life. But not every doctor understands ADHD.

Some doctors might diagnose based on a few questions, and some might suggest medication without a thorough evaluation. Some might not understand that ADHD is more than just the major symptoms. While doctors today are more knowledgeable about ADHD than 10 or 20 years ago, you as the parent still need to be the expert.

Read everything you can about ADHD and how symptoms manifest in children. Read the pros and cons of medication and other treatment methods. If your doctor can’t provide answers, ask for a referral to a specialist. As the parent of a child with ADHD, it isn’t enough to rely on others for answers — you need to seek them out.

YOUR CHILD NEEDS AN ADVOCATE

Children with ADHD are often seen as lazy. They are frequently immature for their age, and they may need extra assistance or accommodations in school to help them succeed. Some children may need extra help navigating social situations.

When you have a child with ADHD, your job of parent extends to the role of advocate. You might need to regularly meet with teachers, attend IEP or Section 504 meetings, discuss treatments with doctors, explain your child’s behavior to classmates’ parents, and work to find social settings where your child feels comfortable. In each of these situations, you are the parent and the advocate. By acting as both, you can make sure your child has every chance of success.

YOU SHOULD BE ON THE LOOKOUT FOR OTHER CONDITIONS

ADHD rarely travels alone. Learning disabilitiesanxiety, and depression are common coexisting conditions.

Sometimes symptoms or challenges from these conditions overlap, and it is hard to know which condition is at the root of some behaviors. Your child has the best chance at success in life with an accurate diagnosis and treatment.

It’s worth your while to know the major symptoms of conditions that are associated with ADHD. That way, if you have a concern, you can immediately bring it to the attention of your child’s doctor or school and have it addressed.

SCHOOLS DON’T ALWAYS AGREE WITH YOUR ACCOMMODATION REQUESTS

To you, it might seem like common sense that your child needs extra time for tests, an aide to help him stay focused, that he not be denied recess to complete work, or any other accommodation you believe will help. But schools don’t always agree.

Meetings about ADHD accommodations can sometimes become contentious, and sometimes parents end up frustrated with the process. It helps to understand the laws regarding accommodations and commonly-used accommodations in other schools.

As a parent of a child with ADHD, you should become especially familiar with the laws governing IEPs and Section 504. It is going to be up to you to request evaluations and meetings, and to advocate for your child every step of the way.

YOUR CHILD IS GOING TO BE FRUSTRATING, BUT HE IS STILL JUST A CHILD

There are going to be days when you are pretty sure your child is being purposely defiant. You might think, “she must have heard me and is clearly ignoring me,” or “he can’t possibly have forgotten to do that, he is being stubborn.” If your child has ADHD, he probably isn’t being defiant on purpose.

She probably isn’t “acting out to get your attention.” Your child isn’t trying to be ADHD. Your child has ADHD.

Children who are impulsiveforgetfuleasily distracted, and can’t sit still for very long have symptoms of ADHD.

As a parent, it’s your job to love your child anyway. It’s your job to remember that as frustrating as it can get, your child is still just a child. He or she still wants your acceptance. In one way, it isn’t any different than any other child; love is what your child needs most.

YOU SHOULD TAKE TIME TO CELEBRATE YOUR CHILD

It’s easy to get caught up in the constant cycle of trying to improve your child’s behavior, improve grades, to get your child to listen when spoken to, and get along with siblings.

When you have a child with ADHD, there is always something that can be improved. But don’t forget to celebrate your child’s successes, no matter how small, and his or her unique way of looking at the world. Take the time to enjoy your child’s sense of humor, enthusiasm for life, endless curiosity, and boundless energy.

Your Face Scares Me: Understanding the Hyperrational Adolescent Brain

Take off your snarky hat. Adolescents get a bad rap, says Dr. Daniel Siegel, and he should know. He’s a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center, Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, Executive Director of the American Psychiatric Association, and author of many books, videos, and articles on the mind. Despite his endless awards and titles, Siegel displays in lectures the warm avuncularity of James Taylor in an off-the-rack suit as he urges parents and educators to stop viewing adolescence as a grim and crazed space that kids need to cross through quickly. Why? Because teens will perceive these attitudes and act accordingly.

Siegel’s recent and sobering book, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, relies on recent neurobiology research to explain how the mind works during adolescence, the ages between 12 and 24. It’s not just adding five years onto a ten-year-old’s brain, he says. Teenagers get a whole new brain. More to the point, his book sensibly frames how adolescents’ brain developments and concomitant personality traits serve a grand purpose — preparation to leave the nest.

According to Siegel, there are several unique features of the adolescent mind that deserve the awareness of teachers who “alloparent” (perform parenting duties without technically being a guardian).

Wait 90 Seconds

Fact:

The brain’s emotional system is more active during adolescence than at any other stage of life. So what? Shown a photo of a neutral face, an adult’s reasoning prefrontal cortex is activated, whereas the same photo lights up the emotional amygdala of the teen brain. Consequently adolescents may feel complete conviction that a neutral face is hostile or that an innocent remark is aggressive. It’s the lower limbic system getting braced to face the outside world.

Application:

When a teen over-reacts and blows attitude your way, try not to take it personally. Matching a student’s fire with our own — “Jeremy! Take that attitude outside!” — can escalate the threat level, thereby triggering the adolescent’s “fight, flee, freeze, or faint” response. Instead, wait 90 seconds — the amount of time it takes for spiky emotions to subside. Then say, “I felt some heat back there. Can you name what you were feeling?” Brain studies show that naming emotions activates the prefrontal cortex and calms emotions. So name it to tame it.

I’m So Bored . . . That’s Fantastic!

Fact:

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps to control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Baseline levels of dopamine are lowest during adolescence, but its ecstasy-triggering release in response to “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” and novelty, giggling, texting, chocolate cake, rugby, and risk, is higher than at any other stage of human development. If adolescents didn’t experience such grinding boredom living in mom’s Tribeca brownstone, they’d never leave to major in ecogastronomy, be all they can be, climb Mt. Rainier, and ride a bus for two days to see Deadmau5.

Unfortunately, increased reward drive can lead to what is often incorrectly categorized as impulsivity. A better term would be “hyperrationality,” or examining the facts of a situation and placing more “weight on the calculated benefits of an action than on the potential risks of that action.”

This played out for me in the 1980s when my parents took a trip, leaving me home for the summer. My teen brain decided that eating nothing more than three cups of Rice Krispies with skim milk each day would be a good way to lose weight. I realized this was not a healthy choice, but the benefits and originality of my solution for quickly shedding pounds overrode the headaches, mouth lesions, and two contiguous bouts of strep throat that followed. When my parents returned home, they found me woozy with hunger, and ordered me to eat a PB&J sandwich. I protested for an hour because, duh, my plan was working — and then finally relented.

Application:

Saying “no” does not counter hyperrationality. Scare tactics, admonishments, and medical information didn’t curb teen smoking, says Siegel. “The strategy that worked was to inform them about how the adults who owned the cigarette companies were brainwashing them so they could get their money.” Instead of negatively directing adolescents to abandon their risky plans, Siegel says, respect their goals, and then suggest alternative boundary-pushing actions. Example: “Todd, wanting to modify your appearance is natural, but how about swimming for an hour every day this summer? Most of your friends would find it too challenging, but they’d be impressed by how you accomplished your goal and grew muscle.”

Siegel also recommends having adolescents put their hands on their chest and their stomach to become aware of the neural networks surrounding intestines (“gut feeling”) and the heart (“heartfelt feelings”), and counter hyperrationality with intuition. Ask, “What does your heart and gut tell you about that plan?”

The Holy Grail of Brain Development

Neural integration, linking areas of the brain so that more sophisticated functions emerge, writes Siegel, is the most important concept in brain development. But 98 percent of schools don’t use one of the most effective strategies for achieving this integration, as well as recalibrating adolescents’ emotional reactivity and countering hyperrationality. Through mental trainingfor 12 minutes a day, adolescents can stimulate the growth of myelin sheaths that make their neural networks more efficient. Mental training can also lead to feeling more engaged, receptive, resourceful, and adaptive — ideal traits for learning how to develop resilience and efficacy.

What unique features of teenage brain activity have you experienced at your school?

Will Technology Make My Kid Fat, Dumb, and Mean?

Debunking the most common media myths and truths with real research and practical advice. By Sierra Filucci
Will Technology Make My Kid Fat, Dumb, and Mean?

Parents have a lot of responsibility. Mainly, keep the kid alive. Next, try to raise a decent human being. And the messages about media and tech start almost from the moment they’re born: TV will rot your kid’s brain! Video games are evil! Kids don’t know how to have conversations anymore! It all boils down to the idea that too much media and tech will ruin your kid — or make them fat, dumb, and mean. But obviously that’s an oversimplification. The truth is more complicated — and a lot less scary.

Here we break down the scariest media and tech rumors and give you some solid research and simple, no-stress advice.

Rumor: TV rots kids’ brains.
Research says
: No credible research exists that says screens cause any sort of damage to the brain. It’s pretty clear, though, that having a TV on in the background isn’t good for little kids. It’s been shown to reduce the amount of time kids play and the quality of that play. It also seems to be related to less parent-child talk and interaction, which can have a negative impact on kids’ language development. Television in the bedroom is also a no-no; research shows it affects the quality and amount of sleep kids get, which can affect learning, among other things.

Advice: Turn off the TV unless you’re actively watching it. And keep it out of sleeping areas. Play music — perhaps wordless — if you want some background noise. And set aside time each day, if possible, to actively play with little kids.

Rumor: Watching TV or playing video games makes kids fat.
Research says
: Some research suggests a connection between watching TV and an increased body mass index. But the numbers seem to point to this being a result of kids being exposed to food advertising, not necessarily being couch potatoes.

Advice: Avoid commercials by using a DVR or choosing videos without ads. Also, teach kids to recognize advertisers’ tricks and marketing techniques, so when they see ads, they can evaluate them critically. Make sure kids get exercise every day, either at school or home. If kids can’t spend time outdoors, find ways to be physically active indoors (create obstacle courses; do kid “boot camps”) and choose active video games or find fun exercise apps or TV shows to enjoy together or for kids to enjoy on their own.

Rumor: Cell phone radiation causes cancer.
Research says
: Lots of studies have been done, and the results are inconclusive. The research community is still investigating, but there is still no indication that cell phones cause cancer in humans.

Advice: Kids don’t talk on their phones very much — they’re more likely to text or use apps — so even if there were a credible connection between the radio waves emitted from phones and damage to the brain, most kids would be at little risk. If you want to be extra cautious, make sure they aren’t sleeping with their phones under their pillows (not a good idea anyway!).

Rumor: Kids use the internet/their phones too much — they’re addicted!
Research says
: While plenty of research has been done to try to figure this out, the results are still pretty inconclusive, especially for kids. Certainly, studies show that kids feel addicted, but whether many are experiencing the symptoms of true addiction — interference with daily life, needing more to achieve the same feeling — is still up for debate. Also, no one has defined what “too much” time is.

Advice: Build as much balance into kids’ days and weeks as possible. That means aiming for a mix of screen and non-screen time that includes time with family and friends, reading, exercising, chores, outdoor play, and creative time. If kids seem to be suffering in some area — at school, with friends, with behavior at home — take a look at her daily and weekly activities and adjust accordingly.

Rumor: Violent video games make kids violent.
Research says
: Heavy exposure to violent media can be a risk factor for violent behavior, according to some — but not all — studies. Children who are exposed to multiple risk factors — including substance abuse, aggression, and conflict at home — and who consume violent media are more likely to behave aggressively.

Advice: Avoid games that are age-inappropriate, especially ones that combine violence with sex. Make media choices that reflect your family’s values; that can mean choosing nonviolent games, limiting the amount of time kids can play certain games, or playing along with kids to help guide them through iffy stuff. Also, as much as possible, limit other risk factors of aggression in kids’ lives.

Rumor: Kids don’t know how to have face-to-face conversations anymore.
Research says
: Studies on this topic haven’t focused on kids yet, but that data is surely on the horizon. What we know says that many older adults think devices harm conversations, but younger adults aren’t as bothered. A couple studies have also found that the absence of devices (at summer camps or during one-on-one conversations) can inspire emotional awareness. What that means about the ability to have a conversation is unclear.

Advice: Make sure kids get experience having face-to-face conversations with family members, friends, and others, such as teachers, coaches, or clergy. Teach kids proper etiquette, including not staring at a phone while someone else is talking. Model the behavior you want to see. But also accept that digital communication is here to stay. Embrace it and use it with your kid. And don’t criticize kids for using it appropriately, even if it’s not your preferred method of communication.

About Sierra Filucci

Sierra has been writing and editing professionally for more than a decade, with a special interest in women’s and family subjects. She has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley…. Read mor

I Will Not Check My Son’s Grades Online Five Times a Day

More and more schools are adopting student information software, allowing millions of parents to monitor their kids’ attendance and academic progress. But should they?

Last week I received a letter from my son’s high school that started like this:

Dear Parent/Guardian,

PowerSchool, our student information system, allows you to create your own account and use a single password to access information for all of your children who attend school in our district. This account allows you to keep up to date with your students’ academic progress, attendance, historical grades, etc.

I believe the letter goes on to detail procedures for setting up an account that would allow me to track nearly every aspect of my son’s academic life. I say, “I believe,” because I have not read the rest of the letter. Our family had known the letter was coming, and we’d already discussed how we were going to handle it.

My husband and I handed the letter over to my 14-year-old son with the promise that we will not be using the system to check on his grades or attendance (or anything else). In return, he promised to use the system himself and keep us apprised of anything we need to know.

We’re not the only family that’s had to decide what to do with “student information systems.” According to Bryan Macdonald, senior vice president of PowerSchool, 70 to 80 percent of the schools that use PowerSchool choose to implement the parent portal, which represents about 9 to 10 million students. “Our best data suggests that over 80 percent of parents and students who have access – meaning their school has enabled remote access – use the system at least once a week…and many users check multiple times a day.”

When I posted a challenge on Facebook encouraging friends to join us in eschewing PowerSchool, I received many comments and emails, none of them neutral. Either PowerSchool and its ilk are best thing that’s ever happened to parenting or the worst invention for helicopter parents since the toddler leash.

Several parents reject the technology on the grounds that they want to talk to their kids face-to-face about school:

I am fairly certain that the fear of facing me with bad academic news was the only thing that kept my kids in line. Take away that moment when they have to look us in the eye, admit to not having studied and the ensuing results….not on your life! -Lisa Endlich Heffernan, mother of three and parenting blogger at Grown & Flown

We don’t use the info, either. We just talk to our kids. -Elena Marshall, mother of eight

Teachers and administrators have mixed feelings:

I like that parents can check grades and I encouraged them to do so. I feel that open communication between home and school is essential in educating children, and only sending midterm and final grades home makes grades seem like a big secret. With parent access on PowerSchool, there are no secrets.  I am bothered, however, by parents who CONSTANTLY check…sometimes 5 or 6 times a day. These parents tend to be the ones who push their children the hardest and are the first to complain when grades aren’t entered on the DAY an assignment is due. As a language arts teacher with 60 papers to grade, I just can’t do that!  I’m not sure parents realize the school can see how many times they access the portal. –Mindi Rench, mother of two and junior high literacy coach and education blogger

Teacher Gina Parnaby tweeted that PowerSchool is a “Bane. Stresses my students out to no end. Freaks parents out b/c they see grades not as a communication but as judgment.” Teacher Dana Salvador wrote in an email that i-Parent, the parent portal her school has implemented is a moot issue for her. This is not because the parents have not chosen to use the software, but the parents of her low-income, ESL students don’t speak English and there is no Spanish version of the software.

For a sampling of what students think about PowerSchool, one need look no far than Twitter.

Ultimately, for many, including mother and teacher Christiana Whittington, the choice to use the unfettered access depends on the child.

I think this may be best viewed as a case-by-case scenario. Our son sailed through school effortlessly with excellent grades but hit one very hard. He procrastinated telling us about his issues. By the time we found out that he was struggling, it was really too late to save him. If we had had the opportunity to check on his grades through the portal, we could have easily prevented this. Our other daughter, being dyslexic, has always struggled in school. She had not yet come to grips with the fact that she is a bright person in spite of her disability and was embarrassed about lower grades especially in the highly competitive environment. For her, we would definitely have chosen to access the portal. I think overall this is a good thing but it can also completely undermine trust between parent and child. You really need to know your child.

For the time being, I choose to trust in the power of open communication and my son’s emerging sense of responsibility and character.  When I handed him the envelope, and asked him to keep me in the loop, he thanked me and returned to his room to do his homework. He has four years of high school ahead of him, and only time will tell if my faith in him is warranted. Until then, I plan to keep my hands out of what should be his business, his responsibility, and his life.