Happy Fall, everyone! I love the morning sunrises in Oregon and enjoy this time of year when the leaves change and the air is crisp. With the help of ‘Alexa’ playing Disney’s “The Decendants 3” soundtrack (which my girls love to sing again and again), my family is waking up more readily for school. After six weeks since another school year began, I’m considering it a genuine parenting “win” that our morning routine is finally much better (not perfect, mind you, especially on Mondays. And Tuesdays.). For the most part, life is good.

That was until last Friday. At school pick-up I saw the girls’ backpacks wrapped in ‘hazard’ type bags (what I’ve come to learn is the standard protocol for a school-wide lice outbreak). Like clockwork, I see in my email inbox the newsletter from the school principal warning parents to be on the lookout for creepy crawlers. Honestly, a Heebie-jeebies shiver went down my spine as this isn’t our first rodeo with lice treatment as a family (this bald father excluded, thankfully). 

Yes, I know, I know, it’s a deep breath in, deep breath out cadence to get into rhythm with once again. I just can’t help but think about what it means for our upcoming weekend. I tried to keep a good game face on in front of kids and said something trite as we tumbled into the crumb-littered car. “Lice again, huh? Okay, no big deal. We’ll take care of it”. But my tone of voice didn’t match my body language and I knew it. I’m sure my oldest knew as well. For better or worse, she’s much more perceptive these days of both my wife’s and my emotions. I also knew that, once again, this upcoming weekend was packed. Our schedules are full with Cub Scouts, rec soccer, and various after school-related events we either volunteer for or are obliged to do. With busy lives and long to-do lists, it can be easy to miss simple, everyday opportunities to connect with my daughters. Recently though, there was a moment that stopped me in my tracks.

The other Saturday, my eldest daughter celebrated the end of a soccer game with her teammates. At the end of the game that I was coaching, the girls carried out the ritual of high-fiving the opposing team and forming a tunnel after a pretty one-sided loss. Unphased by the defeat, I watched my group of players incongruently jumping around excitedly and smiling. Suddenly, a select few exclaimed they were going to a freshly minted 8-year-old’s birthday party. It was apparent to any adult onlooker what would unfold next. But my daughter, none the wiser to it, innocently asked “What party?”- going from jumping to standing still with a serious demeanor. “The party. Only five of us were invited,” was the response. In an instant, I saw the heavy wave of embarrassment cascade over my daughter. Although my heart sank, I watched her execute a stellar game face as she looked to her group of friends. She kept eye-to-eye contact and, to my surprise, carried an even and calm tone of voice. “It’s okay, it’s okay, I’ll see you later” she replied hurriedly. 

I stood close by the whole time but didn’t involve myself, even when I felt my stomach instantly tighten up. A friend of hers attempted to comfort her by telling her she would save a special birthday prize for her even though she wasn’t going. My daughter politely said, “Thanks!” and then quickly turned and walked away. I synchronized my steps accordingly. It was just the two of us now with our backs turned and I watched her shapeshift and melt into tears as we headed to the car. Reflexively, I had a primal flush of emotions wash over me seeing my first-born hurt this way. I was really struck by the strength the emotions carried with them. And it felt deep

Logically, my adult brain kicked in, rationalizing, “These are good girls and I know they are too young to know any better.” I reminded myself that through the last few years I’d gotten to know them well and know they each have big caring hearts and are kind in general. So are their parents. But like all kids, they’re still learning social and emotional intellectual skills and still need the help of caring and trusting adults to filter the world and teach them how to gracefully handle these types of situations with tact. But at that emotional moment I needed to feel the wave of negativity as well. I didn’t have a choice- like it or not, I felt it, right in lockstep with my daughter.

So as a parent, what is one supposed to do in these situations? It was instinctual for me to want to save my daughter from experiencing the real hurt and pain from the feelings of social disappointment and rejection. But, of course, this is impossible. My heightened emotionality begged otherwise, speaking to me through every nerve fiber from the top of my head down to my toes. As the adult, I needed to take a few moments to gather my composure and gain some clarity. I kept in mind that in the end, it would not be doing her any favors to save her from life’s hurtful curveballs like this and it was my role as her father to better prepare her for life. Right?!? Right. So I started by using the “power of acknowledgement”. I validated her feelings, “Wow, that looked like it really hurt your feelings, especially when your friends didn’t seem to know what it felt like for you to be excluded.” 

Then I paused. I’ve learned the secret is in the sacred pause. I know this from my experience as a psychologist and as a parent. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still challenging to do. I reminded myself to allow my daughter to express her heartfelt feelings and then listen. Just deeply listen. Don’t talk. Listen to imagine what it must feel like to be in her shoes (or cleats in this particular case) and refrain from trying to fix it for her. I knew it would not be helpful to minimize her feelings, attempt to make them less painful, or dismiss them as if they did not matter. Sure, I could try to distract her so she wouldn’t feel the painful sting as much or overplay my Dad humor card, but this wasn’t the right time. She would tell you these days I do that too much already. Even though I fail at it sometimes, my aim is to teach her to accept her feelings “as is”. 

Admittedly, I don’t do this 100% of the time. I’m still growing and learning how to “adult.” Research says to do it one-third of the time. That’s doable. Also, it’s a positive parenting maxim to teach kids that “all feelings are acceptable, not just the good ones”. Further, I remind myself that “no feelings last forever-they’re only temporary.” I keep these catch phrases in mind to guide my parenting approach. 

Ultimately, my daughter did cry. I put my arm around her shoulder and she leaned in. After a few moments of working through some genuinely tough emotions, she began to calm. Then I said, “You know what? That was a really proud moment for me as your Dad, watching how you handled yourself the way you did. You really showed some class and dignity. And then you were kind to your friends on top of that. I’m proud of you, even though you felt really sad and embarrassed and left out.” 

She didn’t immediately cheer up, it was more gradual than that. After all, these were “bigger” emotions she felt simultaneously. She doesn’t yet have a lot of experience coping with multiple strong emotions at once.

As grown adults we know too well, ‘all in due time’. But as a parent, I did feel the genuine closeness when our hearts connected throughout the emotional arc of the moment and via our father-daughter connection. That’s when she needed me the most and I was there for her this time. We strengthened our bond. It’s another link in a metaphorical chain of these collective experiences that I hope to string together so that she’ll remember it the next time life strikes, and more importantly, later on when she’s an adult. Time will tell but my hunch and experience working day-in and day-out with youth and families has lent some insight.

To close with a take-home message in support of positive youth development, as parents it’s helpful to listen in many different ways. We listen for information and also with our empathetic hearts, seeing through their eyes and intuiting their feelings. Or sometimes, we simply take our best guess (kids will tell us when we’ve got it wrong). And after we acknowledge their feelings and see the telltale signs of calmness returning, it’s useful to highlight to a child their individual character strengths and their capacity for resilience when they face life’s difficulties, hardships, and adversities, whether big and small. That way they’re free and capable to figure out the next step to take in their ‘pinch-to-grow-an inch’ life. They also grow up to be more hardy and happier as they mature.

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*this article was first published in the Children’s Health Foundation’s Fall 2015  newsletter.

Back to school is a bit like New Year’s Day, an opportunity for kids to start fresh and earn good grades, to be one grade older, to have a new teacher(s), to begin a new sport season or join a new club, and perhaps to start a new school. For parents and children alike it can also be an opportunity to develop new ways of relating with each other and specifically for parents and supportive adults in children’s lives to make a point to nurture characteristics they would like to see more of in their children. Why is this important and how do we go about doing it?

One of the most moving and memorable lessons I learned in undergraduate and graduate school came from reading a book by Victor Frankl, MD, PhD, and watching him lecture on his brand of psychotherapy called logotherapy. In 1972, quoting Goethe, Frankl said, “If we take man as he really is, we make him worse. But if we overestimate him…We promote him to what he really can be… Let’s recognize this, let’s presuppose it, and then you will elicit it from him and you will make him become what he in principle is capable of becoming.” What I took this to mean is that by mining for and pointing out the best in people, they fulfill their potential. Children need help nurturing along their natural born interests, talents, and positive qualities of their personality.

In 1998, psychologist Marty Seligman, PhD, ushered in the science of positive psychology and study of human strengths. He and other social science researchers found that when people discover and cultivate their strengths, they report happier and more meaningful lives. He tells a story of having an epiphany about the importance of recognizing human strengths in ourselves and in others shortly after an encounter with his 5-year-old daughter, Nikki. While gardening and watching his daughter throwing weeds and dancing around, he yells at her stop. She walks away and later comes back and says, “Daddy, I want to talk to you.” “Yes, Nikki?” “Daddy, do you remember before my fifth birthday? From the time I was three to the time I was five I was a whiner. I whined every day. When I turned five, I decided not to whine anymore. That was the hardest thing I have ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch.” Upon reflection of this incident Seligman wrote, “Nikki hit the nail right on the head. I was a grouch. I had spent fifty years mostly enduring wet weather in my soul, and the last ten years being a nimbus cloud in a household of sunshine. Any good fortune I had was probably not due to my grouchiness, but in spite of it. In that moment, I resolved to change… I realized that raising Nikki was not about correcting whining. Nikki did that herself. Rather, I realized that raising Nikki is about taking this marvelous skill – I call it “seeing into the soul,” – amplifying it, nurturing it, helping her to lead her life around it to buffer against her weaknesses and the storms of life. Raising children, I realized, is more than fixing what is wrong with them. It is about identifying and nurturing their strongest qualities, what they own and are best at, and helping them find niches in which they can best live out these positive qualities.”

Psychologist Ann Masten, Ph.D. researches and writes about how for too many years the social sciences have focused almost exclusively, on what went wrong in a child’s life, and by doing so, they failed to acknowledge and highlight the resilience processes in human development and thriving. Children and adults are extraordinarily adaptive despite their life circumstances and hardships they have endured, by in large. Masten refers to this as the “ordinary magic” of people.

So just what is the ordinary magic of young people and how do you go about recognizing the strengths in your child this fall? A great place to start is identifying your youth’s strengths and learning about the main areas to focus on to nurture the whole child’s development. Go online and sign up to have your daughter or son complete the University of Pennsylvania’s “VIA Strength Survey for Children” (https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/testcenter). Afterwards, have a conversation with them about their identified top three strengths and point out times you have witnessed them applying their strengths at home, at school, and within the community.

Next, learn to listen for your child’s strengths. By listening closely to your child, they will give you clues on what matters most to them. Another important thing to do while you are listening to your child and helping them discover their strengths is to validate their feelings and help them get practice expressing themselves. Deep down all kids want is to be heard and acknowledged by caring adults and to be reassured that they have someone in their corner reflecting back to them their positive attributes and qualities. Your child’s strengths are already in their possession; they just need to be noticed and highlighted. Ask yourself what energizes and excites them? What are they passionate about? What do they naturally gravitate towards and spend their free time doing? What makes them unique, quirky, and special to you and others?

For instance, many kids I work with like Legos and the video game, Minecraft. A good way to help children discover their strengths is by asking them about intentionality. “What is it that you love about Minecraft?” Say the child responds, “I like it because there is no one way to play, and you figure it out as you go.” You could respond, “So you like puzzles?” or, “So your strength is solving puzzles.” Alternatively, let us say the child throws you for a loop, tells you that you have it all wrong, and says, “No, it’s more about just having fun and exploring.” You could then reply, “I see. So what would you say your strength is?” Moreover, the child answers, “I think I’m pretty patient and I stick to it until I find something cool.” This is the ordinary magic and epiphany. That is to say that the child just taught you that their strengths are patience and persistence. These attributes can pay future dividends throughout their lives, especially when it is pointed out and seen as an asset by the important adults in their life. Beyond video games, other kids are interested in sports, art, music, caring for pets, riding horses, singing, dancing, martial arts, etc. These activities serve as pathways into helping adults discover children’s natural curiosities, love of learning, kindness, social intelligence, fairness, leadership, modesty, integrity, humor, appreciation of beauty, and other character strengths and virtues. Keep in mind that strengths and virtues are not necessarily a child’s specific talents or skills, per se. Instead, strengths are children’s beliefs, attitude, and outlook on life and the related activities they engage in that make them feel capable, competent, joyful, and strong.

There are several benefits of encouraging children’s strengths this school year. When kids see their strengths as positive qualities about themselves, their self-concept begins to change when they are engaged in their favorite activities over time. Strengths “coaching” from others, combined with children’s imagination about what is possible in their lives, expands and builds upon their existing strengths because they will feel more confident during preferred activities and when trying new things and their combined experiences serve to stretch their mindset further. Additionally, even when they are not doing things they enjoy—they can start to notice how even when they feel bored, tired, and stressed out, their individual strengths stand to carry them through and even spur them forward to build resilience. In these ways, fostering children’s strengths can blossom into the growth of more character strengths and hardiness. Our job then as parents, teachers, pediatricians, coaches, mentors, and counselors is to make as many opportunities as possible to facilitate the process of asking about strengths to reveal them. Doing so this school year and over the course of their education will give children a better chance to fulfill their potentials and promote them to what they are capable of becoming.

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January 31, 2011

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