Contemplations on Control: How we make (good) decisions

Some people have trouble making good decisions. Boundaries are a challenge and saying “no” feels impossible. For others, they are quite comfortable making decisions. They might even enjoy telling others what choices they should make. Parents often feel a need to tell children what to do all the time. They believe that children can’t or won’t make a good choice. As we contemplate the elements of control in our lives, we want to find that balance between laissez faire attitudes and acting like a control freak. 

Making choices, even bad ones is a way to feel powerful. Many children and adults will act in the opposite manner just to feel some form of power in their own lives. Authority figures are seen as untrustworthy, no matter how experienced or wise they might be. That isn’t the point for a person who feels powerless. Control and the defiance that often comes with it feels like the only way to find power or freedom.

We value the freedom that can come through choices. It is one of America’s highest personal values. Unfortunately, freedom to do anything one wants, whenever one wants to do it, and not expect any real consequences is not true freedom. True freedom comes when we exercise self-control. 

Ask Dr. Seuss, if you don’t believe me:

You have brains in your head,

You have feet in your shoes,

You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.

Sound advice. The trick is choosing the right direction! 

Parents want children to listen and obey because they have more experience dealing with the complexities of life. Children want to assert their control in order to better know themselves. There are specific stages where this most evident, like in 2-3-year-old toddler stage and the 13-17 years of adolescence. The reason these ages and stages are so fraught with power struggles is because the child is going through rapid brain growth, hormonal changes, and social/emotional demands. That requires a lot of self-assertion in order to master it all. 

As I have already described in other blog posts, a parents job should resemble a coach more than a director. While this isn’t always possible or practical, it is the healthier approach to successful parenting. A parent TELLS a child what to do. Children can’t become responsible human beings or eventual adults if they rely on parents what to do. Parents can expect more self-responsibility and problem-solving if they don’t let the child make choices. 

A parent coach offers choices in order to empower children to learn from their choices. Isn’t this how we all learn? Of course, understanding this approach and performing it in the heat of the “battle” is difficult but that isn’t a reason not to use it. The good news is that the drive to choose is built into our nervous systems. You don’t have to tell a child to have an opinion. They already have one. You don’t have to model how to prefer for one type of food over the other or one game over the other. The child just does this naturally. Coaching allows us to direct what is already inborn. Parents should let it work to their advantage!

Forcing control, although at times necessary, shouldn’t be our primary parenting plan. Parents can give choices for things they approve of…usually two is good. If the child wants a third option, and they will, simply repeat the two choices and when the situation becomes a game, and it will, make the choice for the child. This is where parents can be direct and assert their wills. Pick your battles well in other words.

Researchers on control like to use the words “agency” or “self-efficacy”. I guess it sounds more clinical. The more agency we use in life the more power-full we feel. The more good decisions we make, the more confident we are to try new and more challenging things. Good deciders set bigger goals in life than bad deciders. They get along better with other people, can be better team players, have higher academic achievements and work ethics, and they are healthier and happier people overall. 

That all sounds good until you make a few bad choices and start to believe that you don’t have the ability to make a good choice, ever! People who go through trauma often feel this way. Depression is a common hallmark of making bad choices or having gone through bad things. This is what researchers call “locus of control”. Someone with an internal locus of control believes they are the cause of a successful outcome. An extern locus of control refers to things happening by chance or luck. After a traumatic event or series of events, a person can feel helpless and have an external locus of control. If something good does happen, it is random and accidental.

It is possible to have an “illusion of control” where someone feels they can master things they really can’t. They don’t have an overdeveloped internal locus of control and may take on too many tasks or make claims of being able to accomplish tasks that are too difficult. They are ready to accept responsibility for success but blame others/events for failures. This illusion prevents them from really learning how to be successful in life. Much of wisdom comes from making mistakes and then trying a new approach next time. 

The answer to all of this may be acceptance of reality. This is a philosophical idea and spiritual practice of letting go of expectations and desires that create most of our on-going suffering. When something happens that we don’t want or we don’t get what we do want, we suffer. The truth is everyone does this and everyone suffers. Acceptance allows us to be aware of it and adapt. We don’t blame others for our mistakes or at least, our part of a situation/problem. We are humble and try to find the wisdom of our failures. We don’t allow others to control us and we don’t use control to deal with anxiety. We simply allow what is to be and find the truth in the experience. As the Bible says, “Truth sets us free” (John 8:32). 

Acceptance isn’t another form of helplessness, however. We accept our situation but continue to hope for change. Christians, for example, trust that God’s will, however difficult or uncertain, is the better choice over their own personal will. When the two wills conflict, we submit to God’s will. Continue to control people and events, in order to get what you want, alienates family and friends, and puts tension between your reality and your desire to have what you want. This tension will result in negative emotions and behaviors. Learning to accept and let go will allow using that energy to make the best of your situation. Now that does require self-control!

“Accept — then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. This will miraculously transform your whole life.” Eckhart Tolle

“Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.” William James

“The art of acceptance is the art of making someone who has just done you a small favor with that he might have done you a greater one.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

>> Learn more about “Acceptance and Change” in our Freedom From Anxiety course at http://FamilyHealer.tv

>> Invite Ron Huxley to speak at your next event by contacting him at rehuxley@gmail.com or 805-709-2023. 

Contemplations on Control: Rebellious Teens

Whenever we think about the challenges of parents, there is probably nothing more colorful than the problem of a rebellious teenager. Trying to control an out-of-control adolescent can drive a parent crazy!

I want to do a series of blog posts that address the issue of control through the spiritual discipline of contemplation. Contemplation is the act of looking thoughtfully at something for a long time. It is a deeper reflection on the motives and desires of our heart…and out teenagers.

Control, by nature, forces us to react to external behaviors. In the case of a “rebellious teen,” we are faced with unpleasant back take, arguments, manipulations, curses, eye rolls, blank stares, aggression, lying, stealing, and other acts that defy our rules and our morals. 

As we contemplate this, ask yourself the following questions: 

“What am I trying to control?” 

“Am I trying to control out-of-control behavior?”

“Do I want to win? At whatever the cost?” 

“Is it possible to have two winners and no losers?”

“Is it really my mission to dominate the will of another person?” 

“What is the long-term goal of parenting: relationship or being right?”

“What is better: A change of heart or a change of behavior?”

The idea of attempting to control someone who is out-of-control sounds like a war in the making. How can the two things approach one another? Control that is viewed as a way ends us with no winners. Parenting is not a competition. You do not have to always be right or win every battle. In fact, why is parenting even seen as a battle? There must be something deeper than this relational reality.

If you make two lists with all the things that a parent can realistically control on one side and all the things that parents cannot control in their teenager’s life, you begin to see the discrepancy in the lists. Parents who focus on the child’s side of the list will be more frustrated than those who stick to their own side. 

Control can be a negotiation. There are things on the parent’s side of the list that the teenager wants and there are things on the side of the teen’s list that the parent wants. There is room for negotiation and working together toward a common goal. 

A common area of power on the parent’s side of the list is transportation. The teen needs to get places and the parent has control of the car. An easy trade-off can be negotiated. Chores completed can result in transportation to a friends house, for example. There doesn’t need to be loud, angry words shared back and forth. Just a simple, direct offer to trade chores for transportation. Don’t react to “moodiness”, eye rolling, or slamming doors. I know it’s hard. Focus on the bigger lessons here. 

What parent really want is to see their teen make “good choices.” Choices imply a sense of power that allows the child to try and choose between good and bad and learn from that experience. This is how the neural software gets its updates: experiences, good ones and bad ones. Suffering natural consequences can be painful to watch, for the parent, but it allows teens to mature and grow up. 

What teenagers want is power over their lives. In reflection, it would seem the parent and the child are working toward the same goal. The parent wants their teen to have the power to make good choices. The failure in this contemplation is that teens view it differently. They want the power to do whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want, without consequences. This is their immature view of adulthood. As adults, we know this is just fantasy. The negative consequences of these kinds of choices taught us that power is really about managing ourselves well. Negative consequences will teach our teens too if we let it. 

Control is about communication. Parents believe that they are clear and perhaps they are but continuing to clearly state expectations and needs may have to be repeated. There are split moments of gentle normalcy where parent and teens can really communicate. Use those moments to understand the child’s needs and struggles. Don’t use it to lecture or give advice. Listen and learn to give you more control. Control is knowing how to meet the needs of the child in a way they can cooperate with you. 

Powerless people feel like they have no power, so they engage in power struggles to get more power. Power-full people know they are powerful and learn to manage themselves. Powerless people must be empowered to know they are power-full too. 

Power is believed to be unequal. Some people have more than others. In most situations, this is true but in terms of power being about managing ourselves, and not managing others, it is fairly distributed to everyone. Teenagers see parents as having all the power. Therefore they believe they must take it from parents by rejecting them, defying them, and manipulating them. The result in continuous power struggles. What a hard view of the world to have! 

Focus on problems when in the heat of the power struggle. Parents who focus on the person exaggerate the struggle. Ask the child what is the problem and how do they want to solve it. Control is coaching a child to a logical conclusion even if it means trying answers to the problem, the parent already knows won’t work. Let them try. Let go of the tug-of-war rope and join the child on their side of the circumstance and ask coaching questions to help the teen see the choices, that give true power, to help them learn how to make good ones. 

In the end, control is an illusion. We have no control over anyone else. It is a common reaction to feelings of fear and anxiety. The higher our anxiety, the more we attempt to control. The more we feel out-of-control, the more we work to find some area that we can create control. It is the source of our obsessions and compulsions. It creates power struggles in relationships. It concentrates on being right over relationships. It disconnects instead of connects families. Take notice of the areas in life that feel controllable and those that feel out-of-control. Examine the feelings that come with each. Choose to respond and not react to those feelings. Don’t allow the negative lies that feeling out-of-control tries to tell you: You are a bad parent, You are a failure, You are not loved or respected, You are not safe, You can’t trust anyone but yourself, You are destined to feel horrible and lonely. Find alternative truths to declare over yourself to counter these false beliefs. They may not feel true but feelings are not the truth. Control is managing your beliefs which will, in turn, manage your feelings. 

The Mystery of the Teenage Brain

By guest blogger: Stephanie Patterson, MS, LMFT

www.SLOFamilyCounseling.com

The teenage brain is a mystery to most of us. We don’t understand teens.
Dan Siegel, M.D. is the current authority on the brain and relationships. He authored Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. It is an amazing book and a must read.

Teens do stupid things because their brain is bored most of the time. Additionally, when they do something pleasurable their brains give them an extra ‘high’ and this makes the pleasure they are experiencing much more compelling. Dopamine is the chemical in the brain responsible for pleasure and reward. Dr. Siegel says, “the baseline level of dopamine [in a teen’s brain] is lower but its release in response to experience is higher, which can explain why teens may report a feeling of being "bored” unless they are engaging in some stimulating and novel activities.“ 

So be sure to provide your teen(s) with plenty of healthy, thrill seeking activities, such as river rafting, swimming in the ocean, traveling, learning a new skill, laser tag or paint-balling, or operating a new piece of equipment like a tractor, golf cart or car. Otherwise, if the teen does not have the needed activity, he or she may become withdrawn and shut down or may be drawn to risky behaviors, such as drugs, alcohol, and sex.   Also note that a pruning of unused neural connections happens between age 11 and 13. That means if you have a special skill (such as music or a sport) you want your teen to learn, it is best to have them practice it before adolescence. Otherwise, the neurons will be cut out. And rebuilding them in adulthood is much harder. Trust me, I’ve been trying to learn Spanish for 7 years now but I am making little head way! Seize the day; adolescence is a last ditch effort to get these neural networks in place.

Teens are emotional and aggressive because their brains often bypass the prefrontal cortex, which uses reasoning. A research experiment showed a neutral face to adults and teens. The adult brains simply showed flow of thought. For teens, the emotion center, became activated. "The result for teens can be an inner conviction that even another person’s neutral response or a bump in the hallway can be interpreted as intentional, and a teen may respond with an irritated remark even if the look or bump was completely innocent.” Sound familiar? Now you know why: their brains are sending intense messages of emotion and perceived aggression. 

So what is helpful?

Teens need their drive for innovation and creation to be honored. This does not mean setting no limits. “It means acknowledging the intention behind the actions." 

Teens have good intentions. Make sure you give those intentions their due credit. 

Time in, that is time listening to your own thoughts, feelings and body, causes your brain to grow more integrative fibers that create your ability to regulate emotions, attention, thinking, sense of well-being, and connection to others. This is the cure for the woes of teenage-hood. You can find mindfulness, meditations, and ways to be present in the moment, or ideas for time with nature online or in this book. A teen should take time to exercise his or her brain. 

Focused learning without digital distractions is also important. Put away the iPods, tablets, and cell phones while studying. Focused attention is important work for the brain. 

"Don’t do it” doesn’t work. Instead promote a positive value your teen already has. For example, an anti-smoking campaign tried something new. Instead of intimidating teens into saying “no” they focused on “being strong in the face of manipulative adults out to get rich.” Did it work? You bet. The next time you attempt to set a limit with a teen, try encouraging a value they already possess instead. Common values for teens are independence, not being manipulated by adults, creativity and adventure.

Most of all, remember to respect the drastic changes happening in the teenage mind. Calling teens “out of their minds,” “crazy,” or “hormonal” is disrespectful and unhelpful. These mental changes are useful adaptations for their future success. As Dan Siegel puts it “We are moving out of our old minds and into new ones as adolescents, and our adolescent mind is full of positive power and the potential for creativity. And this power is something we all need to honor. The key as an adolescent or as an adult is to tap into that potential and help cultivate that power.”

It is easy to see how parents of teenagers can become so frustrated with them. It seems like every word that comes out of their mouth is defiant and demanding. Every interaction is selfish and narcissistic. What if every time your teen talks, it was an open window to their heart? Ignore the sounds of what is coming out and use this opportunity to speak words of grace, love and kindness. Pretend they are speaking a language your don’t understand and the only language you know how to speak is positive affirmation. Blow their minds with this strategy and transform their heart as well. 

Learn more power parenting tools with Ron Huxley’s parenting book: 

Love and Limits: Achieving a Balance in Parenting

A recent article by Scientific American reviews desperate attempts to change unruly teen behavior around. One of the toughest challenges is to reach an adolescent who is angry, defiant and acting out in destructive ways. Confrontational strategies and harsh punishment, the article explains, has only short-term benefits. No studies prove lasting results from this type of “scared straight” intervention. So what does work? The article ends with this summarization: 

results show that merely imposing harsh discipline on young offenders or frightening them is unlikely to help them refrain from problematic behavior. Instead teens must learn enduring tools—including better social skills, ways to communicate with parents and peers, and anger management techniques—that help them avoid future aggression. Several effective interventions do just that, including cognitive-behavior therapy, a method intended to change maladaptive thinking patterns and behaviors, and multisystemic therapy, in which parents, schools and communities develop programs to reinforce positive behaviors. Another well-supported method, aimed at improving behavior in at-risk children younger than eight years, is parent-child interaction therapy. Parents are coached by therapists in real time to respond to a child’s behavior in ways that strengthen the parent-child bond and provide incentives for cooperation [see “Behave!” by Ingrid Wickelgren; Scientific American Mind, March/April 2014].”

What can you do to strengthen your bond with your child? How can you reach his or her heart, locked behind a wall of pain and anger? Don’t expect overnight miracles. Turning your defiant teen around will require consistency and continual micro-shifts of change in you and your child. You will probably blow it on days and be exhausted from the effort on others. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Focus on who the child will be and not on who they have been or what they are doing. Consequences are natural and necessary. Boundaries are even more important! Just don’t equate your love with positive behavior. Nothing your child does should make you love him or her any less and nothing can make you love them more. Love just is…

Family Dinners May Help Teens’ Mental Health

A recent study suggests that family dinners could be good for many teens’ mental health.

Researchers found that this type of regular dinner pattern could help prevent bullying and cyberbullying, which occurs in about 1 in 5 adolescents.

Unlike traditional bullying that can be physically dangerous, cyberbullying also carries harsh mental consequences that can directly affect the risk of certain mental health issues. Researchers studied the association between cyberbullying and mental health and substance problems to determine how family dinners could help out.

For the study, researchers examined survey data on 18,834 students (ages 12-18) from 49 schools in a Midwestern state. The authors measured five internalizing problems (anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicide ideation and suicide attempt), two externalizing problems (fighting and vandalism) and four substance use problems (frequent alcohol use, frequent binge drinking, prescription drug misuse and over-the-counter drug misuse).
Results showed that close to 19 percent of the students reported that they had been a victim of cyberbullying during the previous 12 months. However, researchers also found that family dinners appeared to help moderate the relationship between this issue and other related problems.

“Furthermore, based on these findings, we did not conclude that cyberbullying alone is sufficient to produce poor health outcomes nor that family dinners alone can inoculate adolescents from such exposures,” the researchers noted, in a news release. “Such an oversimplified interpretation of these associations disregards other exacerbating and protective factors throughout the social environment. Instead, these findings support calls for integrated approaches to protecting victims of cyberbullying that encompass individual coping skills and family and school social supports.”

Family Dinners May Help Teens’ Mental Health

Depressed Teenagers: The Problem, Risks, Signs, and Solutions

Is your child sad or appear to have no affect at all? Is your
child preoccupied with the topic of death or other morbid
topics? Has your son or daughter expressed suicidal
thoughts or ideas? Are they extremely moody or irritable
beyond the normal hormonal twists and turns of childhood?
Has there been a drastic change in your child’s eating or
sleeping patterns? If you answered yes to any of these
questions, your child may be suffering from a common but
devastating mental health disorder, called depression.

The Problem:

Depression occurs in 8 percent of all adolescent lives.
Research indicates that children, in general, are becoming
depressed earlier in live. The implications of this is that the
earlier the onset of the illness the longer and more chronic
the problem. Studies suggest that depression often
persists, recurs, and continues into adulthood, and
indicates that depression in youth may also predict more
severe illness in adult life. Depression in young people
often co-occurs with other mental disorders, most
commonly anxiety, disruptive behavior, or substance abuse
disorders, and with physical illnesses, such as diabetes.

The Risks:

Teenagers often turn to substances to “self-medicate” the
feelings of depression. They reject prescribed medications
because of the way it makes them feel and because of the
negative social implications of being labeled as depressed.
Drinking alcohol and using other substances may make
teenagers feel better for a short period of time but the need
to continually use these substances to feel “high” creates
dependence and poses a serious health risk. Depression
in adolescence is also associated with an increased risk
of suicidal behavior. Suicide is the third leading cause of
death for 10 to 24-year-olds and as much as 7 percent of
all depressed teens will make a suicide attempt.

The Signs:

Signs that frequently accompany depression in
adolescence include: • Frequent vague, non-specific
physical complaints such as headaches, muscle aches,
stomachaches or tiredness • Frequent absences from
school or poor school performance • Talk of or efforts to
run away from home • Outbursts of shouting, complaining,
unexplained irritability, or crying • Being bored • Lack of
interest in playing with friends • Alcohol or substance abuse
• Social isolation, poor communication • Fear of death •
Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure • Increased
irritability, anger, or hostility • Reckless behavior • Difficulty
with relationships

Parents often witness these warning signs but fail to act on
them. Why? Because some teens hide the symptoms from
their parents or parents chalk it up to a stage or
moodiness. Many teenagers go through a time of dark
looking/acting behavior with all black clothing and bizarre
hair arrangements. This can throw a parent off of the trail of
depression by the bewilderment of teen actions and
behaviors. In addition, many teens react aggressively when
confronted about possible depression by their parents
causing mom and dad to back off.

The Solutions:

When dealing with teen depression, it is always better to
“be safe than sorry.” Coping with an adolescent’s anger is
much easier to deal with then handling his or her successful
suicide or overdose. When parents first notice the signs of
depression, it is important to sit down with their teen and
ask them, gently but firmly, if they are feeling depressed or
suicidal. Contrary to popular belief, asking a child if he or
she has had any thoughts of hurting or killing themselves
does not cause them to act on that subject. If the teen
rejects the idea that they are depressed and continues to
show warning signs, it will be necessary to seek
professional help.

If the child acknowledges that he or she is depressed,
immediately contact your physician and seek the assistance
of a mental health professional that works with children and
adolescents. In addition, parents can help their teen by
confronting self-defeating behaviors and thoughts by
pointing out their positive attributes and value. Parents may
need to prompt their teen to eat, sleep, exercise, and
perform basic hygiene tasks on a daily basis. Doing these
daily routines can dramatically help improve mood. Try to
direct the teen to hang out with positive peers. Steer them
away from other depressed adolescents. Explore
underlying feelings of anger, hurt, and loss. Even the
smallest loss of a friend or pet can intensify feelings of
sadness. Allow the teen to talk, draw, or journal about their
feelings without judgment. And for suicidal teens, make a
“no-harm” contract for 24 to 48 hours at a time when they
will not hurt themselves.

With proper care and treatment, depression can be
alleviated and suicidal behaviors prevented. Parents and
teen may even find a new, deeper relationship developing
between them as they work through the dark feelings of
depression.

Reference:

National Institute of Mental Health Web Site. “Children and
Depression: A Fact Sheet for Physicians.”
http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/depchildresfact.cfm