You must feel sad. Human emotion is not capable of being monochromatic; one must accept the full spectrum of brain chemical combos. You cannot feel happy without allowing yourself to feel sadness as well. Instead of sitting with feeling sad or angry or frustrated or overwhelmed- we distract our selves. We eat, check our phones, throw ourselves into work, turn on the tv, have a drink. Repeat.
Socially this is acceptable; encouraged even. Especially if we're checking our work email.
Binge watching Netflix is a usual weekend, having the newest iphone is a status symbol, my supermarket sells more type of ice cream than fruit, beer is a international symbol for bros being men together and wine has literally been nicknamed "mummy juice". When when you finish the bag of chips, turn off the tv and put down the glass- the feelings are still there...Repeat.
And we've teaching our kids the same trick. Crying? Have something to eat. Bored? Watch tv. Lonely? Check your phone. Disappointed with the results? You should have worked harder. Sad? Let's go for an ice cream cone. When do we let our kids feel before trying to "fix" it.
Youth is idealised in our culture but also we say it’s wasted on the young. We put a huge amount of pressure on our kids, teenagers and students to do better than we did at the same age...while also teaching them our unhelpful emotional habits. How unfair is that?
I think we need to cut our kids, teenagers and ourselves some slack.
Some things are good things in youth: Being fit, having a range of possibilities in the future, parents footing the bill– easy, exhilarating and relaxing.
Some things aren’t: The alarming feeling of having no ideas what life is about or how it’s going to unfold– nauseating, exhilarating and terrifying.
In a culture that is obsessed with ‘Happiness’ (note the capital ‘H’), we often forget to allow ourselves to mourn or be bummed out or know that our feelings are fleeting. They come, they go. And I think we are forgetting to teach our children, teenagers and students these skills of resilience, too. For one, we rarely role model it. As parents, we think we have to be strong. As teachers, we think we have to be intellectual. So where are kids and teenagers learning about the highs and lows of being human?
A friend’s 21-year-old step-daughter called her from Australia in tears because she wasn’t feeling happy all the time and thought she’s made a mistake in following her career and moving away. She was living the dream but it didn’t feel like a dream.
My lovely, sparkly, sensible friend replied, “Oh, honey. In real life, you are not supposed to feel happy all the time.”
A simple statement but genius.
Happy all the time? Ridiculous. Why are we so uncomfortable with feeling other things? I blame TV, social media and the embedded commercial advertising. What kind of expectations are we putting on our kids and ourselves?
If we’re not happy, we can certainly spend enough money to become happy, right? Buy the clothes, the wine, the beer, the ice cream. We're buying pride, relaxation, bro buddies and a child's idea of happiness. Do we really think think we can buy positive feelings?
Beyond Happiness, there is a full spectrum of things I want my children and students to feel: satisfaction, ambition, curiosity, pride, adventure, adoration, gratitude. I want them to be moral creatures and good humans which involves feeling a range of not-so-sought-after emotions like disgust, outrage, betrayal, empathy and a little bit of fear or guilt are not a bad thing either. Everyone emotion serves a psychological purpose. What is with the happiness obsession?
So how do we build the ability to feel all the feels?
Adjust your expectations
Some days are easier than others. Fact. I remind my students of that all the time. A bad day, doesn’t mean a bad life. More poignantly, a bad hour doesn’t have to mean a bad day. We choose how long we dwell and ruminate on the negative. Someday days are easier than others makes for a great mantra. A clear minute of repetition is enough to break even the most stubborn rumination. The idea that tomorrow might be better can de-escalate teenage panic immensely (or prepubescent panic or post-menopausal panic).
Allow yourself and your kid to feel sad
If it’s a bad moment, say it. Have a cry. Acknowledge how you feel to yourself and to someone else, just for good measure. Give yourself an appropriate amount of wallowing time and then seek some antidotes in the second half of said time. For general ‘bummedness’, I think an hour for wallowing, a cry, complaining, or sulking followed by some serious intentional moodboosters
Cure for a glass half empty day? Good music, a trip to the gym, a hot shower, reading a book that doesn’t suck and a quick reminder of three things you’re grateful for. Then go get some fresh air. Note the wallowing and solving def are not quite equal parts. Spend more time of the intentional mood-boosters.
The grass is greener where you water it.
Remember nothing is forever
Thirdly, know that this too shall pass and pass that message on to your kids and students. My daughter gets angry, or has a cry and then tells me about it. I could rush around trying to solve it (though often, it has to do with something I did – like say no) or I can listen and validate her feelings and then talk about these feelings as a fleeting part of the human experience.
Sometime she just needs to be told, “You won’t feel like this forever.”
One of the most alarming things ever to come out of my stepson’s mouth was, “It’ll never be right again.”
As an educator in a country with one of the high suicide rates for teenage males in the world, I cannot express how much that phrase broke my heart. Of course things can be right again, maybe not the same, but things can feel right again and we need to remind ourselves and our young people of that too.
Like being a child or a teenager, parenting and teaching has some pretty sweet highs and some fairly tragic lows. For everyone. So enjoy the whole ride.
Celebrate the peaks, find solace in the troughs and know you won’t feel like this forever. Take it one minute at a time but keep an eye on the next.
Well-Being is a bit of a buzz word at the moment and it’s something I take quite seriously as a teacher and a parent.
Even our best and brightest kids (especially our high achieving, good souls) get tripped up by things like social pressure or anxiety. This is an epidemic across New Zealand and the world. So I have been looking an research informed strategies to train the brain for optimal performance in the classroom, on the field, court, stage or in an exam… and, more importantly, for life.
At first I was doing in Professional Learning for my professional: my students, my school and my community but as I delve down the rabbit hole of research, I can't help but be affected personally.
I graduated with an Honours Degree in Psychology in 2003 but the world has learned more about the human brain since the 1990s than all time combined before!! So I’ve have to update my knowledge. I’ve been doing the research and readings (so you don’t have to) and I’ve just finished a Diploma of Psychology and Well-Being which focused on the research looking at humans who flourish; the psychology of people who are truly successful and fulfilled in the truest sense of the term.
My biggest takeaway?
Bottom line: We are most productive and effective when we are not miserable.
Funny that! Optimal brain function involves a lot of good neurotransmitters and positive emotions (and not I’m talking about positive thinking or the ever elusive “happiness”). So with that in mind, I am going to write this blog using research and evidence based practices to improve well-being and brain function and in turn teaching our students and children. Skills for life!
Three Good Things
Good Things is a relatively simple and short evidence based exercise to rewire the brain. Negative Bias (our and our teenagers’ stunning ability to focus on the worst of a situation) has very useful evolutionary roots. Our brains try to predict the worse possible outcomes in order to avoid them. Very helpful when trying to avoid being eaten by predator; a little bit counter-productive if over used in the comfort of our own homes and classrooms.
I once read that “Anxiety is the shadow of intelligence” and to that I say- we need to learn where to stand in the sun to reduce the size of the shadow we cast and that's what this intervention is about.
Three Good Things is just that. Name 3 good things about the moment or day:
This is an excellent activity to do with yourself in trying to rewire or create new habits in the brain. Start with the little things (“Jack was hilarious at lunch today” or “Rugby practice”). After a few days, 3 things will easily flow into 6. At the end of each day, this is a nice way to review the earth’s rotation before sleeping. Better than the loop of, “Man, I really should have told that guy where to go...”
When I teach this is my Mental Fitness class at school (yeah, people- I get to teach this for a living!), some students can barely get to 2. By the end of my 10 weeks with the class, the teenagers can do it without even paying attention. So simple and yet, such a effect pathway to be building in our teenagers' brain. Perhaps even though the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, life is still worth showing up for!?!?
Parents of all ages, this is an easy way to engage your kids in a conversations about school. Role model this first. Warn your kid! Teenagers can be very suspicious.
With my kids, we talk about of difficult thing and 3 good things (to uphold Fredrickson's Positivity Ratio). I generally aim for one social good thing (“Having lunch with people I like at work”), something about personal progress (“I learned a new poem today”) and something a bit more mundane (“I’m wearing my pink flamingo socks that nobody saw but I like”). At first, my daughter and stepson coat-tailed on my ideas but that’s not a problem- it’s a starting point. And I learend so much about what is happening in the secret lives of children.
So just ask!
At first, be prepared for “I don’t know” and “Lunch”- but don’t lose your cool. Both are expected. The second one is a very acceptable answer. Cheerlead or ask follow ups (“What was the best part of lunch?”). Many boys and girls will struggle with this at first. But like any habit, it will get easier with practice. I liken it to burpees. Burpees might never feel natural but after doing 3 every day for a week, you can suddenly do more.
Shining a light on what's good in our lives is a mood-booster. The grass is greener where you water it.
Three good things: simple, quick and evidence based. So on that note, what are your 3 good things today? I'd love to hear them and also I'd love to hear if you've tried this with yourself, your family or in your classroom.
Extra for Experts: Next level (like in all subjects) is to start examining 'the why'. A clever Psychiatrist friend of mine explained that this is particularly effective because ultimately the answers lead back to our choices or relationships and therefore lift our own self-regard.
Also finding one good thing embedded in the difficult challenge grows hope and creates meaning (for example, when I couldn't find the answer, I was brave enough to ask for help and I got it).
Adrienne Buckingham has been teaching teenagers for 15 years, parenting for 8 and is on a quest to do it all better using evidence based strategies.