Last week we had the privilege of hosting Dr. Erica Reischer, best-selling parenting author and psychologist, speaking about her research on parenting practices. Her insights hit home with us, beginning with the importance of self-awareness and mindfulness from parents. The foundation, she shared, is in using mindfulness to create a pause between our internal thoughts/feelings, and the external boundaries we create and actions we take with kids. Similarly, much of our work with young people is to help them develop the ability to take this pause, so that we are not stuck just reacting to what is happening around and within us.
The growing body of neuroscience describing the adolescent brain adds context and importance to this approach, as Dr. Reischer explained. As students begin puberty, during the middle school years, their brains go through an intense period of 'remodeling,' rivaled only by the zero to 5 years in its rapid change and growth. During this time, kids are much more sensitive to external stimulation; "what sounds like a chime to us is a gong to them." They are far more easily distracted by peers, or absorbed in concerns about how others perceive them. Their feelings have become more powerful, and their ability to manage those feelings is racing to keep up. The work for both parents and educators is to help early adolescents integrate their more powerful feelings with their growing capacity for reflection and cognition. We can help them accept their feelings, without shame or repression, and fully utilize their discernment to make wise decisions about how feelings turn into actions.
Less theoretically, she offered a variety of specific parenting tips along these lines, drawing from her book What Great Parents Do: 75 Simple Strategies for Raising Kids Who Thrive. For example, many laughed in recognition at the pattern she identified of "Ask, Ask, Ask, YELL" in which we attempt to treat our kids politely but end up, if we are too cautious setting boundaries, teaching them that they can ignore us until we yell. As another great parenting author, Madeline Levine, describes, the hard work here is finding the balance between overly permissive and overly authoritarian parenting - offering kids clear boundaries but also modeling empathy, teaching them to set boundaries not only out of obedience but out of self-awareness. Ongoing work for all of us!