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5 Parenting Tips for Back-to-School 

As students put away the flip-flops and put on backpacks this back-to-school season, many parents dread the arguments over homework, the amped-up scheduling and other parental stressors. Here are some tips to help parents manage the September Stress:

  1. What homework? My first rule is simple: Stop asking about homework, hovering over your child and checking homework.

From what I hear regularly from patients, parents today seem to be far too involved in “helicoptering” about homework issues.

What are you teaching your child when you ask relentlessly and anxiously about homework? Is she learning lessons about her ability to disappoint you if she gets a bad grade?  Or maybe that you only care about academic success, not about her social or emotional fulfillment? Or that your self-image is defined by her grades?

Importantly, what are you teaching about personal responsibility when you daily remind an older child to do homework? Younger children need structure and direction most of the time. But as kids get along in elementary school these reminders should taper way off.

The way to teach about consequences is to let “natural consequences” occur. If your child forgets to do his homework, the result is he will feel embarrassed by his “0%” and realize he has disappointed himself, his teacher and his parents. He will not enjoy that sensation of shame, so he will likely change his behavior. By protecting him from learning this lesson you are not teaching him what I believe is one of the most important lessons of life — to acknowledge shame and learn be accountable for one’s behavior.

2. What, me worry?

Apologies for the antique cultural reference from my youth, but parents need to stop worrying about a child’s academic success.

Sure you want your child to be a “success.” But be honest.  Consider the real reason for your worry. Is this worry more about YOUR fears of looking like a failure as a parent if your child does not do well in school? Is this worry largely due to YOUR fear of getting the call from the teacher or principal about a forgotten book report or a poor behavior? Do you have high expectations for yourself and are you passing those perfectionistic traits to your child?

While it is easy to believe that your child reflects on your self-worth as a parent, let go of this belief. Free yourself and your child. Let your child be his own person and make his own path.

3. Put away the tech.

Studies have found that too much exposure to gadgets and games in childhood causes cognitive delays, attention problems, increased tantrums, sleep deprivation, increased impulsivity and more.

Two studies by the University of Southern Maine showed that college students who merely had a cell phone sitting on their desk while doing a simple cognitive test performed 20% worse than students who did not have technology nearby. Just the mental distraction of thinking about the cell phone seemed to worsen performance, even if the students didn’t actually use it.

If kids are working on a computer, have them shut other tabs to social media sites.

4.  Model your values.

You push your child to study and succeed academically. But when was the last time you read a book that was educational? Do you attend community education classes, visit museums or master a musical instrument? Do you watch PBS or educational TV shows? Do you discuss politics, current events, philosophy or religion at the dinner table or in the car?

5. Nix “How was your day?”

This article has 30 conversation-starter questions to use to replace that tired standby, “How was your day?”

In general, parents should focus on reducing anxiety surrounding school and making it a relaxing, enjoyable topic, so that kids experience learning as stress-free and maybe even fun!

Experiencing The Positive Power of Self-Compassion

Recently,  due to a missed text, I ended up inadvertently double-booked on my patient calendar.

This simple incident reaffirmed for me the positive power of self-compassion, or conversely, the negative impact of self-shaming.

Certainly, I recognized that this mistake was minor. Considering that I see more than 30 patients a week and have several changed appointments per day, a mistake like this every six months or so is certainly not a reason to get down on myself.

I even had some logical explanations as to why the double booking wasn’t entirely my fault. I had been updating my phone software at the time the patient texted. The patient also did not get a confirmation from me agreeing to the changed appointment time and just assumed it would be OK with me.

Even though this mistake was clearly unintentional and despite my logical, cognitive reassurances, I chastised myself for the double booking.

Quite suddenly, a parade of self-critical thoughts arose. Over the next few hours as I ruminated about my mistake, I began to feel irritable and distracted. As I sat with patients, I had more difficulty focusing and remaining in the moment. I failed to follow their narratives and my thoughts wandered.

I was not an attuned, empathic therapist. I could clearly feel the difference in my body, brain and emotions from my normal self.

By the time I went home a few hours later I really wanted a drink to calm my cranky mood and I had a hard time relaxing enough to go to bed.

The feeling continued the next morning with minor irritability, lack of focus and generally low mood. To be sure, all of these sensations and thoughts were very mild and I was certainly well able to function.

To get out of my funk I repeated the logical explanations for the mistake and thought kind, compassionate thoughts about myself.

Later the next day I was completely back to normal — happy, contented and motivated. But as I look back at this incident, several lessons are apparent.

My radical change in mood due to one small mistake really confirmed to me the harm of self-shaming — a practice I had long ago give up.

Fear-triggering beliefs of inadequacy lead people to become self-critical, because they fear others will find them unlovable. People are afraid of the thought that if others knew them and saw these flaws, they would reject them.

When people feel inadequate, they feels powerless or “less than” others. It is then natural to react with a feeling of threat or fear if faced with an emotionally difficult situation. This leads to reactions of “fight,” “flight,” “freeze,” or “avoidance.”

The brain goes into a primal “survival mode” and reacts, rather than pauses and thinks realistically about a situation. The brain relies on the limbic system, where reactive, fear-based emotions are processed, not the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is where reasoning, problem solving and higher pro-social emotions, such as empathy, sharing, and compassion, are processed. If the brain spends enough time in this emotionally fearful state, it can create habitual ways of thinking and being.

Through years of the use of mindfulness, self-compassion and self-acceptance, I almost never have self-shaming thoughts and the resulting anxiety. I am nearly always in a good mood, with no fear of the judgment of others. I am calm, relaxed and in the moment, rather than critical, judgmental and fearful.

Because I am not in “fight-or-flight” mode and emotionally self-protective, my PFC is able to generate feelings of compassion for myself and for others.

Self-Shaming and Depression

What is interesting is that after my scheduling mishap I also suddenly started feeling sorry for myself about unrelated issues. Even though the day before I was quite happy with my life, out of the blue I began having negative thoughts of dissatisfaction. Thoughts of self-doubt expanded from questions about my attention to detail to questioning my ability as a therapist. I felt a lack of motivation to do housework. I noted that I have not been in a relationship in a long time and suddenly felt lonely and isolated, where hours before I did not have these thoughts.

We often label these types of thoughts and feelings as “depression.” However, my experiences of feeling mildly sorry for myself in that brief incident are indicative of how the brain works. When we feel threatened emotionally by fears of failure, we start to see threats and negativity everywhere.  These threats cause us to withdraw socially, isolate ourselves, give up trying, and feel hopeless and helpless.

The Power of Shame

In looking back at this incident I am amazed at how quickly these negative, shameful thoughts and feelings came over me, despite my cognitive understanding of the situation and my overall excellent emotional resilience. When my mind, emotions and body experienced even a brief taste of emotional upheaval due to thoughts of self-judgment, I did not like it!

I realized how difficult it must be for so many, many people who live with this feeling on a daily basis and often at much more extreme intensity.

If I had not had psychological insight and emotional resilience, I may not have been able to recognize what had happened to me. I might not have had the ability to talk myself back to normal.

Fortunately, years ago I learned the power of self-judgment to cause anxiety and depression.

I learned that compassionate self-acceptance is the key to emotional health.

As a therapist I use techniques with patients to address self-shaming and self-critical thoughts by improving their ability to be mindful and self-compassionate. I know these techniques work, and my brief experience confirmed for me the need to be self-accepting and self-compassionate.

Consider Yourself an Expert? Or Are Emotions Clouding Your Self-Assessment?

expertDo some people misjudge their own knowledge and expertise? A new study says this is true and that some over-estimate their abilities. Probably no news flash there. Certainly some people are not good at realistic self-appraisal.

However, as with many psychological studies, this one missed the boat in a fundamental way. It failed to investigate WHY people misjudge their expertise. And I believe the researchers missed the role of emotions, especially the emotion of shame.

One likely explanation is that this study was probably conducted by cognitive psychologists, who are focused on thinking and fail to take into account emotions as drivers of human behavior.

This study was published in Psychological Science and was recently blogged about with the headline: “Feeling Like An Expert Has An Ironic Effect On Your Actual Knowledge.”

(It seems this headline is also inaccurate. The study does not appear to show that if one feels like an expert it actually decreases actual knowledge. The study merely discovered that people seem to overestimate their own knowledge. These are very different concepts.)

In the study people were given a general knowledge quiz about personal finance with some fake terms thrown in. People who stated they were financial experts were more likely to claim they knew all about these three bogus terms.

What the study really shows is that some people have a deep inability to be wrong, which indicates they have a difficulty tolerating shame. This study isn’t about knowledge or expertise. Instead it is about pride, hubris and defending against shame.

We all know someone who is the “expert” on every subject, has an opinion about every topic, will argue unceasingly about a point, and can’t back down and be wrong. In “Pack Leader Psychology” I label these people “Dominators.” They lack an ability to be accountable and be wrong, because they are deeply insecure people. As a result, they have difficulty tolerating any additional experiences of shame.

This study points out a behavior that this “Dominator” type of person exhibits: They think they know a lot and proclaim they are “experts.” And even if they don’t know something, they certainly will not admit it. That would feel too painful to their delicate sense of self-worth.

One key insight into human behavior is this sentence: “Even after people were warned that some of the terms were made up, people who thought they were experts still over-estimated their knowledge.”

This indicates a person who — even when given a warning flag — cannot consider that they might be headed in the wrong direction.

What the Sandra Bland Case Teaches us About the Power of Shame

shame artI saw key parts of the dashcam video from the Sandra Bland arrest and immediately noticed how the emotion of shame played a big role.

Early in the traffic stop Ms. Bland stated to state trooper Brian Encinia that she hadn’t signaled a lane change because he was coming up behind her quickly and she was trying to get out of his way. That was the turning point in the interaction.

The officer quickly became irritated, then angry, which led to the interaction escalating.  Sadly, Ms. Bland later ended up dead in a jail cell following her arrest and three-day detention.

The psychology is quite obvious. The officer did not like the fact that Ms. Bland had an explanation for her behavior that pointed, ever so slightly, at him having some accountability for her alleged traffic violation.

People who have difficulty tolerating shame have great difficulty handling any criticism. Even if that criticism is a fact.

These people, which I label “Dominators” in my book “Pack Leader Psychology,” have a hard time handling shame or blame they feel from others. They have high levels of self-loathing and this leads them to fear and protect against experiencing any additional shame. Most noticeable is the Dominator’s inability to be accountable for behaviors. These people are defensive, attack others, blame others, shame others, refuse to apologize and can never be wrong. All in service of protecting them from feelings of shame.

Anger is Shame’s Bodyguard

As the saying goes: “Anger is shame’s bodyguard.”

When Dominators are insulted or even perceive an insult they can be easily triggered into anger and even violence.

The police officer in the Bland case likely experienced feelings of shame when she alluded to his responsibility for her behaviors, then felt Ms. Bland was disrespecting him by smoking and later insulting him. It all fed his feelings of shame.

If he had insight, he would recognize that he was feeling and thinking something like this: “Your questioning of me and disrespecting me makes me feel ashamed and hurt. So I’m going to lash out in anger at you to avoid dealing with these feelings of shame. It’s too hard to feel shame and feel so unworthy as a person.”

The influence of shame may be subtle in this case, but it’s there. Shame is a powerful influence on human behavior and, sadly, is often masked over by anger. It is easy to notice the anger and miss the fact that a person’s shame is the real driver of the behavior.

We must begin screening police officers for their ability to tolerate shame. Those who can’t tolerate shame escalate to anger and cause situations like this.

Happy Birthday, Reilly

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Happy 11th Birthday, to my muse for “Pack Leader Psychology,” and my instructor on how to become a pack leader. I am so glad I spent nearly 10 years and 7,000 walks with this fabulous dog. She was the best model for a calm, assertive, balanced pack leader who came into my life at a propitious moment. I hope where you are now there are lots of  woodchucks, squirrels, deer, waterfall ponds, and meadows to race in all day long. Hope and I miss you!