A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled - Ruby Wax (2016)
Chapter 8. Mindfulness for Older Kids and Teenagers
Mindfulness in Schools
William James, a renowned psychologist, wrote, ‘The faculty to voluntarily bring back wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgement, character and will. An education which improved this faculty would be an education par excellence.’
(And I would have said it if he hadn’t.)
It should be compulsory that mindfulness is taught in schools. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if the students were developing social and emotional skills besides reading, writing and … whatever that last one is (I didn’t flourish in school), then there might be a drop in crime, in self-harming, drug abuse, and in the rates of mental illness and even suicide. I hope someone in the government is reading this.
On a smaller scale, if this latest generation could possibly learn to be less greedy than we were, they just might be able to save the planet we’ve trashed. What I mean by emotional intelligence is learning how to relate to other earthlings, creating trust and rapport and – dare I say it? – compassion. We aren’t really specializing in those skill sets now, and it turns out that some of the brightest end up as the most emotionally stunted. They have brains, but these high achievers are sometimes the ones who screw the rest of us folk the hardest and have no conscience about it either (see Bernie Madoff, the board of Enron, Martha Stewart, etc.).
These days, kids are force-fed information in order to get the grades. Who cares if they really understand the subject as long as they memorize the facts and ace the exams? When we’re pumped too full of pressure, the first thing to crash and burn is memory. How do we expect kids to flourish or learn anything when they’re pushed to extremes to get high grades and then they can’t remember anything? Kids’ brains are like little landmines that can go off later in life if they’re put under too much pressure.
I used to be interested in history – until I had to cram the entire Mesopotamian Empire into my brain in one night … and then got a D. I never spoke about it again. Mesopotamia was out of the picture for the rest of my life. Shame. There were so many subjects I’d have been interested in studying, but I knew, with all of them, that the day would come when I’d have to spew my knowledge on to a piece of paper in a limited amount of time. So I lost my erection for education quite early on.
Forget being inspired by anything: your mission, as a child, is only to get into the next school, and the next, and the next; there will always be something you have to get into next. I could never distil all the information I was given on a course into a well-crafted essay; I write how I talk, and sometimes there is no end to a sentence. This is why, now, I don’t know any history, maths, languages or most of the other subjects I flunked with flying colours.
If you don’t fail, you don’t fight. It’s the innovators who try, fail, try, fail … those are the real winners. It should be written on every epitaph: ‘S/he tried.’ Every new invention and creation was originally met with derision. There are many people who tend to fight original ideas, mainly because they don’t have them. Teachers should teach kids to go for the great idea with no fear of getting an F on spelling when they’re writing up their opus. Mozart probably couldn’t spell and neither could any Mesopotamian. (I learnt that much.) Rather than teachers being made to concentrate on ramming information into the kids’ minds so they can regurgitate it on the test paper later and forget it the next day, they should be in the business of igniting their little imaginations. You don’t fatten a pig by weighing it.
While I’m on my roll, I think schools should also teach a course on the art of failing. Students need to know how to deal with failing as early as possible because, later in their lives, they’re going to be carpet-bombed with it. If they seriously believe that their status as Captain of the Team is going to continue after they graduate from school, they’ll find themselves badly shot down in flames with third-degree burns.
This is why the most popular cheerleaders often end up as crack whores. They weren’t ready for the big, wide world; they didn’t learn the lesson of all lessons: you cannot be perky for ever. A set of smiley choppers, big bazookas and pigtails just don’t cut it when you’re forty-five.
Excerpt from a Speech I Made at My Kid’s Graduation from Secondary School
I was asked to give the keynote address. The year before, it was Daniel Craig … what a dip. I decided to make it a celebration of failure. So here it is.
I did not flourish at school. I began as a D student but I was sometimes a C student with criminal tendencies – they wrote my mother that. My typing teacher also wrote, ‘Ruby has the mind of someone who will end up in jail.’ My speciality subjects were pranks and smoking in the ladies’ loo. I also provided ear piercing in the stalls.
I would do anything to avoid having to go to school, so I put raw fish in the lighting fixtures on the ceiling; the whole school had to be evacuated and no one ever found out where the smell was coming from or who did it. I made a volcano in science class that set the school on fire. I couldn’t concentrate because of a rocky home life so I was put in the remedial English class where no one spoke a first language or a last language. We were asked to read our favourite poem, but no one knew one, so some of us just read the lyrics of popular songs; anything else was too taxing. I also remember getting such low SAT scores that my mother insisted something had be wrong with the grading machine and made me take them again. When they asked on the test which one of these doesn’t fit with the rest – a rhinoceros; a dog; an eagle; an artichoke – I could not give an answer. I saw no difference.
I think the reason I failed at so much was because everyone gave up on me. It’s true I was weird, but the point of going to school is to ignite something to give you a lust for curiosity. If you can keep that curiosity alight, the rest of your life will be the equivalent of getting an A star, without having to be a star.
Curiosity makes us superior to the animals. Sadly, many people don’t use it. They have it, but it has become obsolete from non-use. Most people I meet don’t ask questions, and these include some of the most brilliant people, with IQs off the planet. To me, they have no curiosity and are therefore idiots. We are born with this feature, so when is it taken away? As children, we hunger for information, we’re insatiable; we don’t even care what the story is, we just want to be stimulated. Then comes school. What kills the spark of curiosity is the fact that everything hangs on a grade. Nothing will burn out an interest more quickly. I’m aware that high grades might get you into a great university, where you will go to the best parties, but you can get hooked on this chasing-the-grade thing, and (even worse) if your parents push you too hard you might find that you get the habit of chasing a rabbit for the rest of your life, thinking that there’s some reward in front of you, but it is always just out of reach. And when you conquer something, it might not be for the personal satisfaction of attaining a goal but instead be all about beating the competition. If you do it all for money or to impress others, including your parents, that way lies madness. Only if you find something you love is life worth living.
I know the teachers here have ignited a spark in a subject for each one of you. Somebody must have ignited something in me, because when the first act of my life ended (I couldn’t do television any more) I needed to start over. Personally, this broke me for a few years, but I remembered that I had loved psychology once so I jumped on the last plane out of Depressionville and went back to school a few years ago to study it. This time, there was no one to nag me to fight for a grade. And if I managed to perform that quantum leap, anyone can do it. Just learn how to fail well and then get up again … and if you don’t fit in the box, that’s great, you’ll invent a new box.
I’ll just end with this saying, because I love it: ‘This life is a test. Only a test. Had it been an actual life, you would have received further instructions on where to go and what to do.’ Live every minute true to yourself.
Mindfulness is, at last, being taught in schools. Goldie Hawn’s MindUP programme has been very successful in the US, and is now being used over here, too. One of the most successful mindfulness-in-schools programmes in the UK is called .b (dot bee). This project was devised by Chris Cullen and Richard Burnett, among others. In order to teach .b the teachers must go through an eight-week mindfulness training course themselves, because they need to be able to walk the talk. The programme is designed for secondary-school kids (between eleven and eighteen years old), and there’s also a programme for primary-school kids (between five and eleven) called Paws b., which uses animation, film clips, games, etc. Exercises can be downloaded from http://mindfulnessinschools.org/what-is-b/sound-files/.
Teaching Your Older Kids Mindfulness
Here are a few of my favourite exercises from .b, which parents can try at home on their kids – unless they happen to be in full battling mode. Then skip it.
The Wild-puppy Brain
.b uses the image of comparing an untrained puppy to a child’s untamed mind. First they talk about what the puppy does: makes a mess, yelps, tries to jump on you, bites your toes and is generally far too frisky. The other thing puppies do is try to be helpful by bringing you things, like an old chewed-up doll’s head. This is a good image to show how our minds work: we want to think about something specific but our mind keeps bringing us all this irrelevant stuff.
The kids are asked, ‘What would happen if you scolded the puppy to make it behave?’ (They might say it would run away and hide.) ‘What would happen if they ignored the puppy?’ (It would keep yelping and jumping up.) If you told the puppy to pay attention, he wouldn’t know what you were talking about, because he only speaks Bark. In the .b course they say that the mind is like a puppy, only it creates bigger messes.
By now you will have got the hang of this and realize that this metaphor is used to teach the kids that everyone’s mind behaves like a puppy unless we treat it calmly and kindly, rather than getting furious with ourselves for having such a jumpy mind (which just makes us jumpier).
Exercise: Pay Attention
To practise using that skill of intentionally paying attention, ask your child/children to sit cross-legged on the floor with their spines up straight but not held stiffly. Then tell them to send focus to their toes (maybe even to each toe at a time). They can zoom into each body part and investigate the sensations. Is it tingling? Fizzing? Pulsing? Numb? This sharpens your child’s ability to notice the difference between thinking about a part of their body and experiencing the sense of it. Make sure they know that, if they don’t feel anything, that’s okay, too, because at least they noticed.
The kids are told to send their attention (like shining a narrow beam of light) to each of these areas in turn:
Hands (maybe each finger)
Feet (maybe each toe)
The right knee
The left elbow
The right earlobe
The left eye
… And now the nose, feeling the breath going in and out through the nostrils. (Is the breath cool, warm, long, short?)
At the end ask your child to imagine opening up the lens of the torch to take in her whole body, breathing. She should imagine that her body is like a balloon that expands and deflates, expands … and so on.
Then she should open her eyes and stretch her whole body.
Exercise: Two-minute Challenge
Ask your child to focus on her breathing wherever she feels it most in her body: in her nose, stomach, chest … If this is too hard, she can count her breath up to ten, and then start over again if she wants to. If she’s counting her breath, she should go, ‘In-breath/ out-breath is one. In/ out is two …’ and so on.
The idea is to see if she can keep her focus on her breath in that spot for two minutes. When the mind wanders, tell her to be nice, like she would be when disciplining the puppy, and then take the focus back. This is called aiming and sustaining.
Another lesson focuses on learning to stay calm when the mind gets too stormy.
Tell your child that her mind has a wild life of its own. Like a monkey jumping frantically from one branch to another, the mind jumps from idea to idea. If your child starts to get frustrated or is mean to the monkey, she might notice that it only gets more frenetic.
Introduce your child to FOFBOC, which stands for ‘feet on the floor; bum on the chair’.
FOFBOC is a first-aid helper, when your child notices that her ‘monkey mind’ has taken her over and is dragging her from tree to tree. She can then use it as an anchor.
Tell her to sit on the floor or on a chair and send her attention to her feet where they make contact with the floor; she should also sense what her socks, shoes, toes, heels and soles feel like. Then she should focus on the sensation of where her bum is touching the floor or the chair. Ask her to imagine opening up the lens of her torch (her mind’s eye) to take in the whole body.
Another tool your child can use when she’s in her ‘monkey mind’ is simply to pay attention to her breathing (taking long in-breaths and long out-breaths), not to try to make her thoughts slow down or disappear, but just to watch them. After a while, she might notice that her mind/ the monkeys slow down and get tired. She also might start to notice that thoughts just swing around of their own accord and you don’t have to take them so seriously: they’re just thoughts acting like crazy monkeys, doing their thing.
Tell your child about this endless daisy chain of thinking known as rumination (and that we all do it). It’s where we think things like, ‘Why didn’t I get invited to the party? It’s because no one likes me. I don’t even like me. Why don’t I like me? Because everyone thinks I’m creepy. Why am I so creepy? Because I’m creepy and they don’t like me. Why don’t they like me? Because …’ This is the kind of stuff that keeps you up all night.
The word ‘rumination’ comes from what cows do when they digest grass: they chew it again and again before they swallow it, and it doesn’t end there: they then bring it back up … and chew it again. That’s what we do: a lifetime of chewing.
‘Beditation’ is to be used at night when your child can’t get to sleep.
Encourage her, instead of trying to figure out why she’s so creepy and why no one likes her, to do another version of FOFBOC – a lying-down body scan.
You could join in with this one. Both of you, lie on your backs, arms at your sides. First pay attention to your breathing and where exactly you feel it in your body. Take long, slow, deep breaths, and on each out-breath feel your body ground into the bed of the floor. Allow all the tension to drain away. You should feel the full length of your body, and focus your attention into your arms, your legs, the trunk of the body, your shoulders, neck and head. If you notice any tension in any area, start to imagine breathing into it, and then out again. The in-breath helps you focus into the area of tension and the out-breath helps you to imagine letting it go. Also, when you feel tension, send your focus as far away from your head as possible, to your feet, feeling them as if from the inside. Feel the breath filling your body getting heavier with each inhalation and each exhalation. With any luck, this should end in dreamland.
Exercise: Being Here and Now
This exercise is about the child finding the present and learning the skill of being able to go and visit it when she wants to. Ask your child to notice when she’s on autopilot. Does she notice where her mind is while she is brushing her teeth, taking a bath or playing a game? Tell her that we all need to be on autopilot sometimes, but not all the time. The direct way of getting to the present is to plug into one of her senses: listening to a certain sound, tasting a chocolate, smelling a flower, touching a frog, whatever …
Exercise: Eating Mindfully
Have your child eat a chocolate as she usually would, and ask if she actually tasted it. Does she want to put another one into her mouth before she’s even swallowed the one she’s eating? This is being on automatic pilot.
Now tell your child to take a piece of chocolate, or a bite-sized piece of whatever treat she loves, and examine it as if she’s never seen anything like it before: the colour, the contours, the shape. Now tell her to bring it up to her nose and smell it. Deliberately slowing down each action, she should put it on her tongue and then between her teeth, then chew on it, experiencing and savouring the details of the taste while chewing. Welcome to the present moment.
Life isn’t always going to be a bowl of chocolates – there are going to be things in life your child won’t like – but she needs to be aware of those moments, too.
Tell your child to go and get some sort of food that she doesn’t like. It could be an olive – I hated them at that age, then got old and now love them. Ask her to do exactly what she did with the chocolate. She may not like the taste, but she should go through each step noticing with curiosity what the feeling is of disliking something, noticing how hard her mind is telling her to stop and spit it out. This teaches her that, even if things aren’t great, still to be open to the experience.
Exercise: Thoughts aren’t Facts
Ask your child to do an exercise called ‘cloud spotting’, where she sees thoughts as clouds passing by. Have her look up and notice how the clouds come and go, no matter if some are heavy or light, or stormy or bright. They all come and go.
Ask her to think of the thoughts in her mind as a radio, and to listen to the thoughts with detachment, letting them play in the background but not paying much attention to them.
This is helpful when thoughts (like tunes) come into her head like ‘I’m stupid. I’m not good enough. No one likes me. [And the old favourite] I’m creepy’: she can let them play but not take them personally – they’re just tunes, not the truth. They can’t hurt if she doesn’t give them power or take them seriously.
Exercise: Learning to Deal with Bad Things
Feelings, like the thoughts, will come and go. You can’t avoid bad things happening, but your mind can make it worse.
On an outline drawing of a body, ask your child to draw where she feels stress in her body. She can make a list of things that stress her out, for example, exams, feeling left out, feeling creepy, and then a list of how these impact on her body: headaches, sweating, heart palpitations, stomach ache. Now, if she can learn to focus only on the physical sensations and not on the thoughts, she’ll notice that feelings come and go: they aren’t facts, they’re just feelings. Whatever happens, she shouldn’t ignore or try to repress these feelings; they’re always there, so the only way to deal with them is to stare them straight in the face or, in this case, focus on the feelings, and accept them. Don’t feed them.
Okay, School’s Out. This is All about Gaming Mindfully
Kids aren’t going to stop gaming and, if you try to curb them, good luck. We can discuss how good or bad games are for their minds, but they’re here, and there are more coming. Some teenagers will refuse to learn mindfulness not only from school but from anyone. I’m starting to think that, maybe, a way to teach them mindfulness is through gaming, sharpening their ability to focus on specific goals while resisting distractions.
My son Max is a designer and coder and is working on creating the technology for combining stress reduction and emotional intelligence in games. Being his mother, I’m mentioning him because that’s what my mother did to me. I hated her for it.
A Photo a Day
Usually, Instagram revolves around finding out how popular someone is by how many ‘like’s they can hustle up. A few thumbs-down can really stoke up that sense of failure. The idea for this is to take a picture of a scene or a person that grabs your attention and pulls you into the present; not just a snatched selfie but a moment you really want to savour. When you stop to really take in what’s in front of your eyes, the noisiness in your mind subsides, and that, my friends, is a moment of mindfulness. This is a great way to store up your memories because, probably unlike other times, you’ll remember that you were there. You can start to share those mindful moments with friends so everyone catches on to the idea.
Another Max Idea: Cold Turkeying
Here’s an idea of how to come off the addiction of snorting something digital all day. We feel relieved any time we get a ping, bleep, cricket sound, moose cry, the sound of a guillotine being dropped, or whatever your ringtone is because we feel someone somewhere is thinking of us – even if it’s a wrong number. The problem is, shortly after the ping you’re right back to where you started: feeling lonely and isolated. This is the state of affairs, so, to counteract it, when you need or want to pay attention to the task at hand, set your phone to approximately how long you want to stay focused. During that time, it shuts down, as does your computer, so you can’t tweet, Facebook, email, take a photo, watch Netflix or use Grindr or Tinder. Now focus on your work and, when you notice the urge to plug into something (you can bet it will happen), sense where the urge is in your body and gently take your focus back to where it was. When the timer finally beeps it should be the sound of celebration: people applauding, a whole orchestra with a choir singing in your honour, or the Queen personally thanking you. See if you can set the timer a little bit longer each day. Then, at the end of the week, just like God, you should rest for a day. One of the best things about this activity is that you’re actually using a phone in order to avoid its distraction. Another win-win.
I think that gaming in the future should be less about killing the bad guy and more about negotiating with him. Trying to get into his mind to feel what he feels and then making choices based on that. There are already games around that teach you to read other people’s emotions, such as Tell Tale’s Walking Dead, which is all about creating social bonds in a high-stakes environment. Some games around now are good for training serial killers; the next generation of games might teach emotional intelligence. We need to stop seeing each other as good or bad guys. We’re all people with multiple identities, parts of us are angelic, other parts evil. We need to learn a little empathy because we’re all pretty much the same, under our various hair-dos.
Teenagers, Read My Lips: ‘It is Not His Fault’
We all go through it, every human being on this earth: puberty is going to happen and has been happening for thousands of generations. Pimples are universal and will sprout on a Zulu as well as a Swede. A planetary mood swing starts at the age of eleven for girls and lasts until eighteen, and for boys it starts at thirteen and finishes around twenty-four … and, for some, it never ends.
Raising a teenager makes the terrible twos seem like a holiday in Hawaii. But your child’s erratic behaviour isn’t something he’s doing on purpose to torture you, it’s because his brain is going through a transformation, so don’t roll your eyes and declare to the world that your kid is a lazy sea-slug and a maniac (if you recall, you were once one, too, and your parents rolled their eyes). Your child doesn’t know how to self-regulate at this point. He’s nuts one minute and Mommy’s baby the next; it’s like living with a newborn lion: one moment he wants to claw your eyes out and the next moment to nuzzle. The fact that this happens to everyone should be a great relief to parents. Understand that your teenagers are just developing normally for their age and they won’t necessarily (as my parents thought) become serial killers.
Raising a teenager is so much less stressful if you understand that what’s happening neurologically in that head has nothing to do with you. During this time, there’s a window of opportunity to clean up the mess you might have made during the critical period when your child was a baby. The teen has another critical period when his neural connections re-wire, getting rid of the useless ones and laying down new ones, so here’s your chance to help him re-sculpt.
There are circuits in the brain during the teen years that are noticeably different from those in childhood. As I mentioned, when your child’s a baby, billions of neurons are growing at top speed. Those forests of neurons are there waiting to be filled with billions of bits of information; his brain is working like a sponge, absorbing pretty much everything that comes into eye and earshot.
At puberty, there’s another monumental growth spurt of neurons to reprogramme the brain, and it’s accompanied by chemical and hormonal changes. These changes happen independently from environmental influences or your nagging, so there’s nothing you can do to stop them. You can shout as much as you want; it won’t stop the oceans of testosterone or oestrogen that are about to spring forth in your child. The hormones start brewing while they’re still a foetus: females are doled out oestrogen, males testosterone. You don’t need me to tell you the outcomes of these differences, you can read millions of books on why men and women aren’t and never will be on the same page. Testosterone can cause impulsiveness, aggression and an obsession with boobs. Oestrogen creates that flip-flop of emotions where you can fall in and out of love in seconds. Both genders have those mood swings, which accounts for why your teenager can swing from being Kate Middleton to Genghis Khan in seconds.
Things got worse when I hit puberty. The moment it struck, I went into shock. It’s like my organs were just sitting around chewing gum, shooting the breeze and suddenly, bam! A big oestrogen rush, and my hormones started bubbling like Vesuvius about to blow. The harder my parents tried to discipline me, the harder I rebelled. My very reason for living was to overthrow the old regime and burn down the establishment … and I never cut corners. I didn’t just run away from home at sixteen, I hitch-hiked my way through Europe, on money I had made from selling pot, to join an agitprop theatre group called Living Theatre who mainly performed nude (except for gas masks), and screamed in the audience’s faces about how they were killing children. (I never found Living Theatre, because they had been jailed in Barcelona for obscene behaviour.) Later on, I helped close down my university for political reasons I didn’t understand and now can’t remember. We boycotted classes in our rage and disgust about something, and lived in tents on campus with peace symbols on them, smoking dope into the early morning. I was usually dressed as Chairman Mao and waved a red book which was actually a Yellow Pages book that I’d painted red. I was so militant I once went into a fancy restaurant and liberated the lobsters from the tank to set them free. Sadly, many of them were run over by passing trucks, but it was the thought. ‘Stop cruelty to animals!’ I shouted through a bullhorn, as I was splatted in lobster meat.
So why everyone feels so surprised by teens being difficult I do not know. My children are ‘woosies’ compared to me.
Understanding What’s in the Teen Brain
Here, I’m only mentioning a few of the major areas that change most dramatically.
Amygdala Besides the hormonal changes, there’s a whole redecoration going on in the brain. The amygdala, the motherboard of emotions, develops eighteen months sooner in girls, but the boys catch up and then they both have these mood swings that make a bipolar seem laidback. These emotional meltdowns means that your teen’s limbic system is being flooded with uncontrollable emotions like a computer that’s crashing from overload. If you start expressing anger, you’ll only ignite his anger, and World War Three begins. You have to help him learn to cool down by staying attentive and calm and trying to get into his shoes.
Prefrontal Cortex The prefrontal cortex is still a work in progress at this stage, so isn’t always working at maximum capacity. Sometimes it’s capable of good decision-making and other times it’s out of order and the teen goes emotionally berserk. You’ll recognize that this has happened when, after a tirade of reasons why you’re so unfair, your teen will slam into his room and play ear-shattering heavy metal while ripping his pillow to shreds. Don’t worry: this is the typical teen brain finding its feet.
As a teen, the prefrontal cortex begins to link to other regions of the brain, and this integration finally creates self-awareness, empathy and the ability to think before you leap.
Brain Stem In the early teen years the primitive area is more active, so hot emotions, boiling away under the surface, can suddenly blow like a volcano, spraying lava on anyone nearby. As I said, your teen’s prefrontal cortex is still under construction, so he has absolutely no means of being able to lasso in that temper. With a half-assed PFC, he’s incapable of much empathy so has no interest in what anyone else is feeling. This is why parents are often treated like dirt. Chances are he’s not mad at you, you just happen to be in the way. You may have just said, ‘Anyone want a sandwich?’ and he interpreted it as if you’re implying he’s an idiot who wouldn’t know mayonnaise from a trouser press.
Hippocampus All this neural activity takes up energy, which explains why teenagers sleep thirty-seven hours in the day. When they finally wake up, they can’t concentrate, because their hippocampus hasn’t finished growing either, which makes it difficult to lay down long-term memory. You know how you repeat things over and over again and your teen forgets each time? This is why.
Chemicals Lacking any form of self-regulation, your teen isn’t able to switch on his feel-good biochemicals – oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine to calm him in moments of crisis – to deal with his emotional hijacks. He can’t manufacture endorphins (another feel-good chemical), which would turn off his adrenaline and would turn down the stress levels and the negative thoughts that come with them.
The Baddies I won’t go on about cortisol, I’ve gone on enough, but this is what swamps teens, just like the rest of us, when we’re stressed, freaked out and furious. More than a third of older teenagers suffer from sleeping and eating disorders. This is why mindfulness can really help with sleeplessness, worry about exams, anxious thoughts and anxiety, and eating disorders.
Serotonin Serotonin moderates your teen’s impulsive behaviour and regulates his sleep patterns. This is why he sleeps such weird hours.
Dopamine Your teen needs just the right levels of dopamine to motivate him, but too much can tip him into addiction, depression or even into a physical disorder. He will start to take bigger and bigger risks because this stuff is so addictive. Each time he comes down from a buzz, he’ll need another one.
Dopamine bumps up impulsive behaviour; there is no off button … ever. This is a state called ‘hyper-rationality’ where he has no notion of worst-case scenarios; everything is for the kick and the thrill of the moment. Part of the reason you might give your teen such a hard time is because, deep down, you’re jealous that he’s having the time of his life and you aren’t.
A Few Other Things Going On with Your Teen
Just as a baby animal will trot, leap and fly away from its parents soon after its birth, so will your teenager fly the coop to seek independence, which he’ll need if he’s ever going to be able to steer through the sharp rocks of life. He is bidding you farewell to explore the world on his own, to seek novelty, take risks, connect with peers, deal with jerks and finally realize that the phrase teens always come up with – ‘It’s not fair’ – is actually true. The neocortex gets thicker at this stage, and this can be measured in brain imaging. The result of this is an increase in conscious awareness, which creates a sense of self. This self wants you the parent out of the picture, so you’re gone, in the blink of an eye, from God status to something sticky on the bottom of your teen’s shoe.
Bonding with Their Own Kind: Socially Connecting
The oxytocin teens receive from their reward system makes social connections the most important thing in their world. They want to be popular, to be accepted by a gang, no matter how many piercings or tattoos it takes. They perceive social rejection as a threat to their existence, so not being invited to the right party is worse than cystitis.
When kids hit their teens, if they’re male they need to disengage from Mommy; if they’re female they need to disengage from Daddy. The reason for this is that, as children, they are so in love with their parents that, if it weren’t for this separation phase, they would want to marry them (see Oedipus). At this point, friends become far more important to teens than parents because, in the future, when Mommy and Daddy are in heaven, they are the ones who are going to protect and nurture them.
At some point, the teenager will find his parents boring and old-fashioned (go figure), which incites him to think more innovatively, inventing new ideas and concepts – anything so he doesn’t have to end up like them. (He usually does but, as a teen, he’s still aiming higher.) Rather than learning by rote as he did as a kid, he now argues and wants to try out everything. (It’s exhausting.) This will go on until adulthood, when he’s stuffed back into the box. Each generation feels they have to top the last one and come up with unique solutions to be able to survive an ever more complex world. Just as your old dial-a-number telephone has been replaced by an iPhone 208 and your hoover is now voice-activated.
Each generation thinks their parents have screwed up the world. The teen’s job is to clean up his parents’ mistakes and blame them for being selfish, greedy bastards who just think about themselves and are to blame for the world being a mess, the ice cap melting and the fact that there are no jobs or money because they’ve spent it all. (On these points, they’re right on all fronts.)
The biggest risk for a teen would be not taking a risk. We only progress because the latest generation always gets out there and throws caution to the wind while the old one watches television and dribbles. The teen’s brain is now producing dopamine at break-neck speed, so now it’s all about reward, no matter how dangerous the challenge. If your teen’s friends are watching, he will take twice as many risks. The death rate of teens between fifteen and nineteen years of age is six times higher than that of children between ten and fourteen.
When I was seventeen, my friends and I hitch-hiked for twenty-seven hours to Mexico to go to a festival of the Punta Yaya (or something) we’d heard about. When we got there, an old, parched taco maker offered me a ladleful of mescal, which I think is the organic version of mescaline. I swallowed a mouthful and woke up three days later, lying in the street with a hoof mark on my face … I had missed the festival. I ended up (abandoned by my friends) taking a bus filled with peyote-crazed locals into the jungle on the southern tip of Mexico. I had heard there was a community of hippies living there and wanted to find them. After four days’ travelling on a three-wheeled bus with a chicken on my head, I found them. I stayed a month; meanwhile, my parents kept phoning my room mate at university and asking where I was. For a month she said I was in the shower. They sent out a red-light alert for me when they finally sussed that no one can get that clean, and on my return had me arrested.
There are, of course, downsides to risk-taking, like crashing the car into someone’s living room and getting pregnant without being able to remember by whom.
Parenting a Teen Mindfully
If we start yelling at the kid who is having the meltdown, he’ll only yell back and get more furious. If you can manage your emotions, you stand more of a chance that he can, too. By helping him deal with his cortisol overdrive (and yours), his prefrontal cortex can bloom and grow. The first thing to do is to learn to intentionally modify your tone of voice when you want to drive a point home rather than use the nagging, screechy voice I grew up with.
I tried to have my parents surgically removed from my mind, but I found it impossible. My inner critic to this day continues to have a Viennese accent whose pitch is a top F, like an air-raid siren that never turns off. This is why every organ in my body is always ready for the next Blitzkrieg. My parents didn’t like it when I went my own crazy way, and the result was we never became close and I will never really know who they were as people. We rarely saw each other later in life and we were at war to the end. I feel it was their loss as well as mine. If they could have said, even once, that they might perhaps have been wrong about something, all would have been forgiven.
Be Mindful Yourself
If you as a parent are mindful, it’s easier to make your child mindful. If you’re playing mind games, acting out and having hissy fits, your teen will match you and sling it right back. If he just sits there and takes it, this could be an even bigger problem; either he’s sitting on his rage, or he’s shut down. You have to speak his language and see things through his eyes, rather than throw up your hands in frustration, insisting that he’s speaking in tongues which you can’t understand. You need to acknowledge that his risk-taking, his seeking of independence, the fact that he puts his friends above you, are all necessary parts of his natural development.
Don’t start grinning insanely at him either: he can sense if your outside doesn’t match up with what’s going on inside you. A teen is a professional ‘phoney’ detective (see Catcher in the Rye).
Admit Your Mistakes
If you have let it rip in anger – which we’ve all done – after the dust has settled, say you’re sorry and admit you aren’t perfect. He already knows you’re not, but it’s good he knows you know. You don’t want to get caught in the ‘blame game’, where you each retaliate with, ‘It’s your fault.’ ‘No, it’s your fault.’ ‘No, it’s your fault.’ Your anger will fuel his, and it won’t get you anywhere.
When your teen comes home with a broken heart because he hasn’t made the football team or has been rejected by someone he’s fallen in love with, listen to him. Don’t give advice, but empathize with the pain … come on, you remember how much it hurt to be dumped, so share your horrible experiences with him. Teenagers love hearing that you, too, once suffered like they are now. The worse your experience, the happier your teen will feel. You’ll become more like a human to him, instead of a Martian. If you try to understand him, he’ll try to understand you. Don’t lecture; be inquisitive, open and flexible rather than judgemental (teens hate being judged). He might even let you into his world and, as a bonus, he might let you see who he really is.
Never, never say, if you happen to be right about something, ‘I told you I was right’ or ‘Why didn’t you listen to me in the first place?’ Try to hold back on overstating things, on hammering it home. If you as a parent can pull this off, you deserve the Victoria Cross. (I haven’t got there yet; I go on and on and on.)
Compromise is the key. You may have to let your teen keep his room like a bombsite if you want him to wash the dishes and change his pants once a month. This will not only make your life more bearable, but it will set your teen up to learn negotiation techniques for adulthood.
Make deals. Maybe give him time online if he matches the time spent cleaning the kitchen. (I’ve tried to explain to my kids that I’m not a slave or a professional cleaning person, but they don’t believe me.)
Communicate with Them
When you and your teen are about to come to blows, one of you should start to think about alternative strategies. It will probably be you, because you have a bigger prefrontal cortex and should be, in an ideal world, the more self-controlled one. From experiments I’ve done myself, screaming louder, getting sarcastic, threats and slamming out of the room don’t really work well to resolve conflicts.
Awareness is everything, so try to notice when the reptile of rage is still in its infancy before it turns into the fully fledged Tyrannosaurus Rex. If you release it, your teen will, too, and now the argument becomes a blood sport. However long the ‘It’s your fault. No, it’s your fault. No, it’s yours …’ goes on, both of you will lose. I know how good it feels to ‘let it rip’, but in the end your relationship is more damaged and now you’re both flooded with cortisol, which I’ve established is not good for your health. You’ve poisoned your child and yourself in one swift battle.
If you can be aware of your rising fury before it boils over, or even in the early stages, you could try and say, ‘I hear what you’re saying, but I have to take a few minutes to think about all this and then I’ll get back to you.’ Now you can leave the room to take a breather, holding yourself back from putting a hole in the wall with your fist … or his head. (If you can do this, I bow before you.)
He may still be furious when you come back but, believe me, it’s the only way you can both cool down. When you come back into the room, it won’t help going back over the argument or why it happened, that will only ignite the fuse again or restart the mud-slinging. Try to get across (perhaps when the heat is down and you’re getting along) the fact that part of the human condition is that we’re still deeply primitive.
Let Your Teenager Teach You
Adults can learn a few tricks of the trade from teens, like living in the moment, finding novelty in things rather than doing the same old same old, hunting out new thrills and making more social connections. Some of us know that this is the route to happiness, which is why you see so many old people at Glastonbury. Hang out with teens, because sometimes it’s way more fun than being with some of your old, boring peers.
Okay, Enough of Mrs Good Guy
Pick your battles. If you constantly nag your kids, they will eventually go deaf. If you keep your powder dry for the really unacceptable behaviour, your teen will understand that you really mean business when you lay down the law and will hear you loud and clear. When you do lay down the law, do it without using sarcasm, cynicism or criticism – he has enough of that inside his brain, directed at himself. Make sure the punishment fits the crime and don’t infuse it with shame so that he feels humiliation.
If you notice your teen is swarming with dopamine and badly wants to take dangerous risks, buy him a punchbag, a tennis racquet, a jousting stick, an unbroken mustang (horse, not car) – anything to help him work off those hormones in a less detrimental way. Help him (if he wants help) to come up with a strategy to dump the dopamine.
So How Do You Teach Them Mindfulness?
Teaching mindfulness to teenagers ain’t going to be a piece of cake, especially if you suggest it; as a parent, at this point you are an object of embarrassment; an untouchable.
Your teen might wonder why he would need to do such a bizarre and seemingly useless thing. If he refuses to do something that helps him self-regulate, tell him he’ll be more popular, get better exam results without burning his brains out and be able to talk to the opposite sex without stuttering and sweating. Don’t mention mindfulness unless he asks about it. For the moment, just plant the seeds of the fact that he can do something about feeling so out of control and being at the mercy of his mind and that by becoming aware of what his mind is up to he’ll be able to lower his own stress levels.
Once those teenage years kick in and rebelling becomes the mode du jour, the question many parents ask me is how do you get your teen to practise or even comprehend mindfulness when his brain is like a bucking bronco? You’re dealing with a person who won’t get off his Twitter machine or the Book of Face. He doesn’t want to know about some technique that steadies his mind – why ruin a good time?
Exercise: Name It to Tame It
Maybe you could suggest that your teen could try to take his emotional temperature once in a while, even if it’s just by a few degrees. As the feelings start to heat up, suggest that maybe he could label them. He doesn’t have to tell you what they are, he can write them down or maybe say them to himself. Many teenagers may only know a few words that describe feelings; I know this because when I asked my teenage kids how they were, they responded with either ‘okay’ or ‘crap’. It might be helpful to give them a more extensive list of vocab. There are about five thousand words to describe emotions, so they can expand their repertoire by quite a bit.
Explain that when he gives a simple, one-word label to feelings, especially the hot ones, he’ll avoid stoking up the rumination about why he feels what he feels. A label means he’s noticed, but he doesn’t have to interpret it.
You can also tell your teen about re-routing the hot emotion from the mind to the sense of it in the body. Tell him that all feelings are okay: it’s part of being human, we all have them – even the feeling of wanting to kill your parents. (The important thing might be to learn not to act on it.)
Here’s an exercise you could try.
Make two circles out of cardboard and draw slices on them like a pizza. On each slice write down an emotion, for example, anger, boredom, loneliness or excitement. And a few of the 4,966 others. Stick the two circles on the fridge and have your teen put a magnet on the word that matches his mood. You, as a parent, put your magnet on your emotion on the circle. This gives you both a clear idea of your weather conditions within; what you’re feeling in that moment.
When you make your mood clear, your teen can understand where you are emotionally and can therefore better adjust his dials to deal with you. If you see that his magnet is on rage, walk away; if it’s on joy, bring out the confetti.
Exercise: Show Them Their Brains and How They Work
Use a drawing of the brain to demonstrate what happens during an amygdala hijack and the cortisol and adrenaline explosion that goes with it. Let your teen know that it’s hard for all of us to stop the flow once we erupt. Explain about the brain stem, how it has a mind of its own and can make all of us (not just teens) act crazy and impulsive.
Show him how the prefrontal cortex works, but explain that his is still developing. (Make sure he knows that it’s nothing personal or something he’s done wrong – all teens have PFCs in development.)
Exercise: Picture It
When your teen starts to lose it, he can try to visualize something or someone that makes him happy. Some examples might be hanging with his homies (how young and cool am I?); looking at a photo of his best friend, a holiday snap or his cat (my daughter loves baby seals; if she sees a photo she immediately goes all gooey); kicking something (not a person); calling a friend; jogging/ playing a musical instrument loudly (drums are good, but not at home, please).
It’s good if he understands that this exercise isn’t to put a stop to his feelings but that, by learning how his brain works and what he can do to deal with those turbulent emotions, he’ll be better able to deal with some of the horrors and stresses of being a teen. Here are just a few of the things that might be disturbing him: exam results; low self-esteem; feeling not good enough; feeling that he doesn’t look good enough; being made to feel like a dweeb; being left out; being bullied; being laughed at; not knowing what to do about sex/ drugs/ drink; not fitting in; standing out; feeling alone and anxious; feeling under pressure from parents/ teachers/ everyone; pimples; the future …
When your teen imagines what happens when he self-regulates, it actually starts to happen. Hopefully, someday, he might be able to say, ‘Oh, that’s an amygdala hijack I’m having.’ Or ‘Wow, that was a seriously bad cortisol rush.’ This way, he can watch how his emotions work rather than just expressing them. The idea behind all this is that he will eventually tune into his emotions and be able to sense his internal weather conditions. Let him come up with his own solutions as to how to regulate his emotions so the power is all his.