Family Tips

Invite Boredom l April 2017

Has boredom become extinct?

Do our kids' ever-present devices prevent them from experiencing in-between moments when they aren't engaged in something -- bored moments when there's "nothing to do"? The idea of "nothing to do" seems quaintly old-fashioned in a world where kids busy themselves texting or online, filling every micro-moment. Once upon a time, they might instead have done a bit of daydreaming or reflecting on the past, musing about the future, observing the people and space around them, or just following their imaginations to new and interesting places.

Screen-attached kids nowadays are missing out on...boredom! Why does that matter? Because boredom is the prelude to imagination. When bored, the mind is given the time and space to do nothing but drift and wander -- to indulge the imagination. It's the imagination at play when we daydream, follow our thoughts and fantasies, work out solutions to problems and challenges, and discover what interests us most.

Research has recognized for years a connection between children's imaginative capacity and their exposure to external sources of stimulation. A large-scale study in the 1980s of three Canadian communities compared the imaginativeness of children who lived with no television against kids who watched TV. The children in a community lacking TV reception scored significantly higher in imaginativeness than the kids with television in their homes. Two years later, after TV became present in all the children's homes, the difference in imaginative capacity disappeared.i

"Imagination is important," writes psychologist Teresa Belton. "Not only does it enrich personal experience, it is also necessary for empathy -- imagining ourselves in someone else's shoes -- and is indispensable in creating change. Children...often fall back on television or -- these days -- a digital device to keep boredom at bay."ii

You needn't feel guilty if your kids complain of boredom. Better to see boredom as an opportunity, not a problem that needs fixing. Encourage your kids sometimes to do nothing but gaze out the window, or find new ways (with your oversight) to occupy themselves with stuff already available -- in the basement, attic, kitchen, garage or yard. There's much to be gained by exercising imagination to pass the time, rather than always depending on a screen to do the work for us.

i Williams, T. M. The Impact of television: a natural experiment in three communities. (Orlando: Academic Press) 1986.
iiBelton, T. How kids can benefit from boredom. The September, 2016.

When Kids Cry l Feb/March 2017

Perhaps the toughest thing when our children cry are the emotions their tears trigger in us: empathic upset and sadness, plus a sense of helplessness that comes from thinking we need to do something while unsure what that would be. If we ourselves feel uncomfortable with those emotions -- upset, sad, helpless -- our kids' tears will be that much harder for us to be around.

For some parents, kids' tears trigger discomfort with vulnerability (crying being an obvious expression of vulnerability). Many men in particular can't tolerate the sight and sound of a crying youngster, regarding it as a sign of weakness and, with tearful sons, effeminacy. Those parents may sharply insist: "There's no reason to cry," "I'll give you something to cry about!" "Big boys/big girls don't cry," "Don't be such a cry baby," etc. In contrast, parents less unsettled by the vulnerability of crying may offer gentle words of comfort yet still wish to stem the flow ("It will be all right," or "It's not worth crying about"). Such parents often pull their tearful child into a physical embrace.

Why do people cry? A prevailing view is that certain positive and negative emotions -- upset, sadness, awe, joy, hurt -- experienced at strong intensities knock us off our emotional equilibrium, crying being the body's natural way of restoring equilibrium. Strong feelings create a build-up of a kind of emotional tension which crying releases, allowing emotional balance to be restored. Some researchers believe that emotional tears (versus tears generated by itchy eyes or chopped onions) release stress hormones or toxins. Emotional tears contain a natural painkiller -- leucine encephalin -- which may explain why we can feel better after "a good cry."[i]

What our sobbing kids need from us is precisely the opposite of what we tend to deliver: they need to feel our uncritical acceptance of crying (and the feelings behind it). So give the crier room -- emotional and physical space -- to experience the tears and the feelings, without doing anything to interfere. Being touched, and especially hugged, interrupts the restorative process that crying seems designed to deliver. Delay the urge to touch -- the hug can come later. Offer caring words of empathy: "I see how sad/upset/frustrated you are..." while staying physically close. Say, "It's good you can cry," and just remain quiet while reminding yourself that tears, allowed to run their course, restore our emotional balance.


Naming Emotions l October/November 2016

Your daughter comes home in tears. She can barely choke out words to describe the mean things some girls said to her on the school bus. You listen to her story and try to comfort her. If you’re really skilled, you’ll offer her attunement (Are You Okay? March 2014).

After a couple months practicing for his first driver’s license, your son fails the behind-the-wheel test at the motor vehicle department. On the way home, you sense his distress as he complains about the unfair examiner and how he deserved to pass. You try to comfort him.

Recent research suggests that there’s something else — something enormously helpful — that you can do that may reduce the intensity and duration of a child’s distress: coach your kids to identify and name the specific emotions they’re feeling during moments of emotional pain.

Studies have found that when people identify and specifically name their emotions, they are “less likely to be overwhelmed in stressful situations.”i That’s because when we use precise labels for our feelings, we understand more about what’s happening to us emotionally, which then can lead to identifying a smart (and healthy) course of action. Clearly labeled emotions become easier to regulate (“I’m sad” rather than “I feel bad,” or “I’m disappointed” rather than “I’m really bummed out”). Once we know the feeling we’re dealing with, we can tailor our response to it rather than just fall back on the customary habits we rely on in order to feel better (especially unhealthy habits like erupting into anger, turning to alcohol, bottling up the pain, bingeing on food, etc.)

People skilled at naming their feelings have been found to drink 40% less alcohol when stressed,ii and are 20% to 50% less likely to retaliate with verbal or physical aggression against someone who has hurt them.iii Impressive evidence exists that teaching school-aged children to expand their understanding and use of precise emotion words improves both their social behavior as well as their academic performance.iv

If we’re going to teach our kids to speak the language of emotions, we’re going to need to speak the language ourselves. It doesn’t require a huge lexicon; angry, sad, hurt, afraid, upset, disappointed, discouraged, guilty, and ashamed are the basics. Incorporate those words into your vocabulary, and when your kids are distressed, coach them to do the same.

i Kashdan, T.B., L.F. Barrett, P.E., McKnight. “Unpacking emotion differentiation: transforming unpleasant experience by perceiving emotion differentiation.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, February 2015 vol. 24 no. 1, pp.10-16. doi: 10.1177/0963721414550708.

ii Kashdan, T. B., P. Ferssizidis, R.L. Collins, & M. Muraven. “Emotion differentiation as resilience against excessive alcohol use: An ecological momentary assessment in underage social drinkers.” Psychological Science, 21, 2010. 1341–1347.

iii Pond, R. S., T.B. Kashdan, C.N. Dewall, A.A. Savostyanova, N.M. Lambert, & F.D. Fincham. “Emotion differentiation buffers aggressive behavior in angered people: A daily diary analysis.” Emotion, 12, 2012. 326–337.

iv Brackett, M. A., S.E. Rivers, M.R. Reyes, & P. Salovey. “Enhancing academic performance and social and emotional competence with the RULER feeling words curriculum.” Learning and Individual Differences, 22, 2012, 218–224.

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