When It Isn't Negotiable and How to Get Their Homework Done!
The Procrastination Problem

When It Isn’t Negotiable and How to Get Their Homework Done!

 

We offer our kids choices after choices to give them a sense of autonomy and to make the day run a bit smoother.

Do you want to wear a white shirt or the blue shirt?

Do you want to color or play with the blocks?

Do you want carrots or peas with dinner?

Do you want to do Spanish or German lessons after school?

Do you want to practice the guitar for 30 minutes and then do homework or do you want to start your homework first?

Do you want to start with your history reading or your math homework?

But there is one thing that is not negotiable: Homework must get done.

Despite this being “non-negotiable,” homework often does not actually get done.

Instead, our kids procrastinate. They play video games or Snapchat with their friends. When we ask them (or maybe even yell at them) to do homework, we hear “5 more minutes!” in response. By the time kids actually sit down in front of their schoolwork, they do not know where to start, or it is so late that, even though they had enough time to finish their work, they no longer do. This routine, left untreated, can continue for what seems like an eternity and can also escalate into serious arguments between you and your child.

What is a parent to do?

Talk with your child. 

“Jack, I have noticed that recently you have had a difficult time completing your homework. I know that you are capable of doing your homework. I have noticed that you start your homework so late that you do not have enough time to finish. Then when you turn in your homework, it is not your best work, and you do not get the grade you deserve. I imagine that is very frustrating. What do you think?”

Once your child agrees that you have an accurate understanding of the situation, move on to brainstorming.

“So what do you think we can change about our current system to make it easier for you to get your homework started earlier in the evening?”

Wait for his ideas. Try to figure out how at least one of them could work.

Jack says, “I do not have enough free time after school. I’m always working! I need more playtime.”

So perhaps you say, “Okay. Typically you have one hour of free time after school before you start doing your homework. How about we change that to an hour and a half hours of free time? We can try it for one week. However, if homework is not done, then we will try one of my ideas.” (If he actually starts homework after an hour and a half, then he will actually be starting earlier than he has every other day!)

Have some of your own ideas ready to suggest now, but only try them out next week if the homework situation stays the same. 

If the homework situation improves but is not completely perfect, adjust the new routine. Ask for their input. Try to make that work first. Then you can offer up some of your own ideas. Perhaps they need a snack after free time as part of the transition back to school mode. Have them work in the kitchen so that after their snack, they are already in their study space. Let them come up with solutions and give their choices when it comes to the means, but the end is always the same: homework gets done.

How Telling Your Kid to CALM DOWN Can Have Negative Effects!
Discipline, Parent-Child Communication

How Telling Your Kid to CALM DOWN Can Have Negative Effects!

We have talked about this – growing up I had a pretty serious temper. My dad called me the “Tiger Kat”. Mainly my temper reared its ugly head when plans changed. If I was planning on watching TV and my mom asked me to do the dishes, it flared. But it would also flare when I was planning on doing my homework and my mom asked if I wanted to be a little adventurous and see a movie that evening. I know that sounds crazy, but the stress of needing to finish my homework and not knowing when it would get done if I went to the movies, coupled with the desire to not miss out on the fun, were too much for my young, strong emotions to handle.

I have since learned to control my emotions and my stress – thank goodness. However, there is still one phrase that always ignites my temper: “Calm down.”

Usually when someone says “Calm down” it is with the best intentions and is sincere advice. However, the result is typically the exact opposite (Shellenbarger, 2016).

Why does this happen? Because when you tell someone to calm down, you are not acknowledging their feelings as valid. If I am stressed because I just got back from vacation and work has piled up, my house is a mess, I do not have time to work out or meditate, and I have to take my car in for service unexpectedly and the bill is enormous, it is not a good time to tell me to calm down!

The stress that I feel is real. What I need is empathy. After many discussions, my husband has learned to stop trying to solve my problem (starting with not saying “Calm down”), and to instead say, “Wow. That is a lot of stuff going on. That stinks. I’m sorry honey.” (And maybe he even has time to offer his help!)

And that is what your children need too.

Their stressors may not seem big to you given your years of experience and vantage point, but they still feel like big deals to your child. The stress they feel is real. So what they really need from you is not advice on how to move forward, but rather some comfort. They need to hear that what they are feeling is natural. Once they receive that validation, they will be much more open to suggestions from you on how they can move forward productively. Eventually, they will learn to calm down in these situations without being told to do so.


References:

Shellenbarger, S. (2016). Why you should never tell someone to relax. The Wall Street Journal. 

Preparing Anxious Kids for Summer Travel
Stress Management

Preparing Anxious Kids for Summer Travel

Traveling, even for super fun summer trips, can be really stressful and anxiety-inducing for kids. Doing some quick exercises with your anxious child ahead of time can make what would have turned into an anxiety attack, a much calmer, happier child, family, trip.

1. Talk about the trip and potential anxiety ahead of time. Brainstorm solutions together and come up with a plan of action.

What makes your child anxious? Can the two of you prepare for that? Are they scared of flying? Would a cuddle buddy or distractions help with that?

Have a conversation with your child about what causes their anxiety. This can be a difficult conversation, so I love the idea of using what Daniel Siegel, MD and Tina Payne Bryson, PhD, call “The Remote of Your Mind” in their book The Whole-Brain Child. To use this strategy, slowly have your child talk through what happens when you travel. “We pack our bags at home. We get in the car and drive to the airport. In the car to the airport, we sing songs…” When they start to get nervous, they can “fast forward” through the scary part and then finish the story, “Then we get to Disney World and we check into the hotel. We put our stuff away and go to the park to go on the rides!” Once they’ve reached the happy conclusion, “rewind” and help them talk through the scary part and what makes it so hard. This helps them realize that it’s not quite as scary as they thought.

Then, get your child involved in the planning and create a plan of action: When I get anxious, I will ___________________. Fill in that blank together with some ideas.

2. Practice a few breathing techniques ahead of time. A good place to start is some exercises from Sitting Still Like a Frog.

Breathing calms your brain and your anxiety down so you can think logically.

When you notice your child getting anxious at other times before you leave on your trip, ask them to take some deep breaths and think about where they feel that anxiety. Ask them to keep breathing deep breaths until that anxious feeling they feel has subsided.

3. Name feelings.

When we name our feelings, they lose some of their power. So practice naming feelings ahead of time, so that when that anxiety pops up during travel, you can “name it to tame it” as Daniel Siegel says.

4. Practice releasing emotions.

Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg suggests reducing anxiety by releasing emotions and “blanking it out”. Blanking it out means dancing it out, writing it out, singing it out, and so on. Talk with your child about how they want to “blank it out” and use it as part of your plan in #1.

5. Pack some cognitive distractions.

When we are anxious, we get caught up in negative thought cycles. Break those thought cycles with a cognitive distraction. When your brain is working on solving a problem or is using it’s language centers to read, it’s harder for it to use those parts of the brain to think about how anxious it is. Some good cognitive distractions include: reading, Sudoku, MadLibs, and trivia.

With a little preparation, we can work to really reduce that travel anxiety and make summer trips that much more fun!

I Can't? Or I Don't Wanna?
Motivating the Unmotivated

I Can’t? Or I Don’t Wanna?

“But I can’t! I’m just bad at math” your child proclaims, thus insinuating that she therefore shouldn’t study.

You know she actually can. You’ve seen her study for math and do well on tests before. If you could only get her to start studying even earlier, then she could even do really well on her test.

So you say, “Of course you’re not bad at math! You just need to start studying now.”

Well, any semblance of a peaceful conversation is gone now as your teen yells that “You don’t know anything!” And she doubles down on telling you she can’t. Meanwhile, you are left thinking, I know she can do this. She must know on some level she can do it because it always eventually gets done. She just does not want to do it. She does not want to study math so much that she’s maybe even convinced herself that she really can’t do it.

So now what?

  1. Avoid that very strong urge to continue to tell her what to do because you know best. She’s just going to keep on fighting you if you do.
  2. Say, “Okay. I’m sorry you feel that way. If I can be any help, let me know.” Then, walk away to de-escalate the situation. If you can’t walk away, at least change the subject. When you stop telling her what to do, all of a sudden her priorities start to shift from fighting with you and doing the opposite of what you say because it feels good, to thinking about what she actually should do. Kids like to do well in school. It feels better than doing badly. Therefore, if you give her space to think about it on her own, she will probably come to the same conclusion as you. But what if she is too young or inexperienced to know she should study ahead of time and more to get better grades? That’s a real lesson kids have to learn.
  3. Calmly talk through the issue with her – after you both have had ample time to cool off. Say:

I have noticed that you have been having difficulty with math and that you are anxious about your upcoming test.

I also know what a capable student you are and that you can do well on the test. (Feel free to beef this section up with more specific and sincere praise).

However, because of the anxiety you are feeling, I’ve noticed that you have been avoiding studying and that you have spent a significant amount of time worrying about the test and saying “I can’t” when if you had spent that time studying, you would already have done a lot of work and you would probably be feeling better about the test.

What do you think?  Then wait. Maybe she says, “You’re right.” If so, that’s great! Maybe she will even be willing to discuss her feelings with you further and brainstorm studying techniques. Maybe she will just want to think about what you said and what that means on her own.

Or maybe she will say, “Oh please. You don’t know anything.” In that case, you say, “Okay.” and then you give her some space to think without you there. Chances are good that even though she dismissed what you said to your face, she’s actually taking what you said to heart.

She probably won’t change her tactics too much right away, but you have got her thinking about the consequences of her actions. It takes time to make significant changes, so just continue to have this calm conversation and remind her of any progress she’s made when she forgets.

4.  When your child first comes to you and says, “I can’t do this,” avoid the urge to disagree with that opinion. Do not say “Of course you can!”

By telling you “I can’t,” she is confiding in you. She is telling you that she is worried, fearful, anxious, or any other number of feelings. She’s saying that she needs your support and empathy. If you say, “Obviously you can do this,” you are ignoring her feelings and communicating to her that those feelings are unfounded. And that is where many a fight have started.

  • So what you need to say is: Oh. I’m sorry. Okay.
  • Followed by: Well, why don’t we look at one problem together and see if we can figure it out.
  • Or: Do you want to tell me more about it?

Or, if you have an example of a time when she did well in math recently, maybe not even in math class, but perhaps when she does mental math while cooking, you could say:

Well, you know, these problems are pretty hard. But I still think you’re pretty good at math because of ____________ (insert that example you have here).

So there you have it! Four strategies to turn “I can’t” into “I’ll try”.

(Of course, utilize and adjust these strategies as necessary based on your child’s age and her areas of difficulty. Also, big emotions are natural for teenagers, so do not be surprised if your teen does not calm down right away and also do not be surprised if these conversations are a bit bumpy, at least at first).


Resources:

Ginsburg, K. (2015). Building resilience: Preparing children and adolescents to THRIVE. The Learning and the Brain Conference: Boston.

Minahan, J. (2015). Between a Rock and a Calm Place. The Learning and the Brain Conference: Boston.

Toxic Social Situations
Difficult Topics, Middle School, Self-Advocacy, Social Life, Stress Management

Toxic Social Situations

Middle school, as we all know, is an awkward time in kids’ lives, particularly with peers. And high school is not known for being a walk in the park socially either. Kids worry about being popular, being left out, saying the wrong thing, wearing the wrong outfit – the list goes on…

Imagine the following scenario:

You (well, middle school version of you) walks up to a couple of girls, who then turn their back on you. You maybe try to say hi, but then they walk away from you. So you walk away and try to be friendly again later, only for the same story to play out. Sound familiar?

As middle schoolers, we naturally internalize this behavior as indicating that something is wrong with us. And then we dwell on it and put ourselves down and enter this terrible feedback loop because we approach the next social situation with trepidation instead of confidence.

As parents of children who are going through this situation, and dealing with issues we did not have to (namely cyberbullying), we need to teach our children that it really “isn’t you (your child), it’s them (the bullies).”

That is hard when ‘everyone’ (in the eyes of your child) thinks this other person is amazing. But I suggest talking to your child about:

  • how this other student may be a bully,
  • how your child is wonderful (in specific and sincere ways, as usual),
  • how this other person behaved badly,
  • how upset you are that someone else made your wonderful child feel so bad,
  • how it was wrong of that person to behave in such a manner,
  • how your child should act in the future. 

And how should your child act in the future?

According to Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, one of the best ways to manage stress is “Active avoidance of triggers” (2015). In this situation, the other student(s) is the trigger of the bad feelings and social anxiety. Therefore, one of the best ways to deal with it is to avoid that person. Stop trying to hang out with her. Find other people who treat you well. When your friends want to hang out with that person, you can find something else to do (or give a second chance – just not too many second chances). 

Another strategy to try at the same time is to help your child find something he is really good at: a sport, school, a specific subject in school, playing an instrument, coding, drawing, building robots, volunteering, and so on… It is even better if you can help him pursue this skill with others. As Dr. Ginsburg explains, people feel better and less stressed when they contribute to the world, when they feel as though they have a sense of meaning, and when they are “surrounded with thank yous rather than condemnation” (2015). Helping your child find that sense of meaning through an after-school activity will help him find other friends and feel confident and maintain his self-esteem during those uncomfortable, and perhaps toxic, social situations.

My favorite activity is volunteering because it helps solidify a sense of self: I am a good person. Which can then help your child when confronted by “mean girls” because she can say to herself, “They just hurt my feelings by turning away from me. That is not something a good person does. I will go find other people like me to hang out with.” But all of the activities help your child define herself, can bolster self-esteem, and help your child deal with the hardships associated with growing up.


Resources:

Davis, P. (2016). Personal communication.

Ginsburg, K. (2015). Building resilience: Preparing children and adolescents to THRIVE. Learning and the Brain Conference: Boston.

Those Crazy Teenage Brains
Difficult Topics, Discipline, High School, Parent-Child Communication

Those Crazy Teenage Brains

Teenagers are trouble. They stay out past curfew. They yell at you for no good reason and roll their eyes at you. They take scary, unnecessary risks, like driving way too fast. And there is so much drama. Any moment can turn into a major scene with a teen!

So what is driving these behaviors?

A lack of executive function skills in their rapidly developing brains (Flannery, 2015). A teenager’s brain is “like a Ferrari that’s all revved up… ‘But doesn’t have any brakes!'” (Flannery, 2015).

Because their executive functions are not yet developed, they have low impulse control. Teens make their decisions more on gut feelings and their emotions (Dawson & Guare, 2015). That, along with their desire to take risks (which increases around peers) and to exercise their independence, leads to these seemingly crazy behaviors. Kids that know the risks of unprotected sex do so anyway because the thought to use a condom simply never crossed their minds in the moment (Dawson & Guare, 2015). 

In the moment, your straight-A student may drink and drive or race friends in another car on the highway. Why? Because your child has not developed the emotional control, response inhibition, and impulse control necessary to take a step back in the moment and think, “Is this really a good idea?” They have no brakes!

As parents, we need to help them develop some.

We help our children develop brakes by:

  1. Practicing using the brakes at low-stakes times. As Richard Guare suggests, “Try not to put them in a context that plays to the weakness of the executive skills when you are asking them to practice and improve it” (2015). Give them the opportunity to succeed by asking them to use the brakes when they are not also influenced by peers, stress, strong emotions, etc…
    • For instance, talking about a breakdown in executive function skills right after a huge mistake is not a great time for learning. Your kid crashed the car. Yelling at her once you reach the scene only heightens her emotionally charged state instead of actually teaching her to think about what she is doing before she drives so dangerously again. To avoid such an incidence occurring again, adjust the situation so she is less inclined to drive dangerously by only letting her drive the car during the day and with no one else in the car.
    • You want to avoid competing distractions. Therefore, do not ask your teen to do something in front of peers – they are much more likely to resist doing anything you ask of them in that situation. (My mom would always call me away from my friends and I would just know by her tone that I was in trouble, but I still walked away from my friends to her).
    • Timing is everything. If your child is rushing out the door, that is not a good time to remind him about anything. He is going to forget it immediately or be annoyed at your last minute request because his mind is moving forward with his day. So, even if your child is forgetting his coat and you want to tell him not to, don’t. Let him forget it so next time he thinks about getting his coat before he leaves the house.
  2. Teens are under a lot of stress, which undermines their decision making abilities. Meditation and mindfulness can help. According to Dr. Frances Jensen, co-author of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, “Mindfulness should be a big part of their education: being mindful of the effects of stress or social networking on their brains… They should know downtime is really important.” (Flannery, 2015).
  3. Treat conflicts with your teenagers as a negotiation. Yes, there are some non-negotiables – homework must get done to the best of your ability and you must be home by curfew. However, how and at what time of day homework gets done (as long as it is done on time) and what time curfew is are both negotiable. If your child shows she is capable of making good decisions, perhaps curfew can be pushed back half an hour. You do not have to come to the negotiation table with the solution for the compromise, just an open mind that your way may not be the right way and that you and your child will figure out a good solution to your conflict. (Sometimes you can’t, but it at least gives you the opportunity to discuss your rationale with your teen, which is hugely important).
  4. Give your child “Brain 101” (Flannery, 2015). Kids love to learn about their brains because they love learning about themselves. If you can teach your teen what is going on in his head, he will be empowered to make better decisions and practice honing his executive function skills.

Teenagers do crazy things because their brains are so amazing! “‘Teenagers are learning machines'” (Flannery, 2015). Even though it is tough, try to think of it as a wondrous adventure you and your teen are going on together. It is much easier than thinking of it as the battle or a time to “just get through” that is so often referred to.


References:

Dawson, M. & R. Guare. (2015). Smart but scattered: Helping teens strengthen executive skills to reach their full potential. The Science of Character: Using Brain Science to Raise Student Self-Regulation, Resilience and Respect. Boston: Learning and the Brain.

Flannery, M. E. (2015). Surviving the teenage brain: What educators should know. neaToday.org