Your Kid is Full of BS

 

A wise man once told me that after an early divorce and 40 years in a second marriage, he had figured out the secret to successful relationships. This small pearl of wisdom has stuck with me for years, assisting me in my work with kids around issues of self-esteem and peer relationships.

This wise man said that every person carries around a certain amount of “bullshit” that is simply a part of who that person is. Having bullshit is a fixed condition, so to speak. He went on to explain that many relationships fail because people expect that they will be able to change or get rid of their significant other’s bullshit. His advice was that upon meeting someone, we should take note of his or her bullshit and decide whether this particular brand of bullshit is something we can live with or not. If we can live with it, proceed, if not, get out. So I’ve come to understand that this philosophy, or as I like to call it “BSosophy,” can be used to help our kids manage and maintain friendships, provided we change some of the terminology.

A few weeks ago I posted about the metaphor of Shopper vs. Merchandise that helps kids increase self-esteem. BSosophy follows the same philosophical logic as the idea of the Shopper, as BSosophy challenges kids to be the observer not the observed. My daughter recently experienced a social situation that illustrates this idea perfectly.

My daughter came home from school upset, because she felt one of her good friends was ignoring her when they played in groups during recess. This had happened several times over the previous year and my daughter was feeling increasingly bad about herself because of it. She said that she felt that, when with other girls, her friend was choosing other girls, and as a  result she began to wonder what they had that she didn’t. I pointed out that when they were by themselves, this friend was great with my daughter and that  they clearly had lots in common and loved playing together. I suggested that we think about what might be going on that did not have anything to do with my daughter being undesirable to her friend. In other words, I suggested: “Let’s analyze your friend!!” (insert maniacal laugh)

Brainstorming is the first part of BSosophy, as we are turning the lens away from my daughter and her self criticism and onto her friend’s BS. We came up with two reasons that might be responsible for this friend’s behavior in groups. Either the friend has trouble being partial when in groups, or she might feel so secure in her relationship with my daughter that she doesn’t work as hard on that relationship when they’re in groups as she does with girls she’s not as comfortable with. Once the lens was turned away from my daughter, I asked about the second part of BSosophy: “Do you think you still want to be friends with her if this keeps happening?” She didn’t even hesitate in saying “yes.” Quickly a more productive strategy emerged: Perhaps it might be a good idea not to play with this friend in groups.

Choosing to not play with her friend in groups will likely not work for my daughter all the time, but changing the focus away from herself was productive on several levels. The narrative that her friend shows "limited attention in groups” helped my daughter to stop beating herself up. Taking this approach also allowed her to look for other playground options that better suit her needs. Lastly, it took some pressure off the relationship, allowing both girls to be more comfortable when they are together.

When we talk about issues of self-esteem, the damage that people inflict on themselves is usually far worse than anything anyone else can do. It’s so hard for parents to stop their kids from going down the road of self-blame because they never listen to our compliments or praise. Introducing BSosophy can help our kids to look outward for answers when things don’t go right interpersonally. It also may empower them to cut loose those “friends” who are causing more harm than good.

One last bit of important advice: We must make sure to explain to our kids that discarding those we feel have too much BS does not work with family members. I recently had to re-explain to my daughter that she is stuck with her brother, no matter how much bullshit he brings to the table.  

Is Your Kid the Shopper or the Merchandise?

Many kids struggle with low self esteem. As a parent, this is hard to deal with, especially when kids are having a hard time with their peer relationships. No matter whether they are being teased, left out of weekend plans, or ignored on someone’s Instagram post…it all hurts.  As parents we are often powerless against our children’s negative thinking because no matter how many times we tell them how beautiful, wonderful, funny, smart, and interesting they are, we get the classic line “You’re just saying that cause you’re my Dad (Mom).” There’s no defense against this because mostly they’re right: we are biased. But we are also powerless in fighting negative thinking because self-confidence comes from within.

A lot of my job as a psychologist revolves around helping kids to cultivate a positive sense of themselves. The world is seemingly divided into Shoppers and Merchandise. I often use this metaphor to help kids think about themselves in a different light, in a way that empowers them to build a tailor-made social network that is reliable over time. Let me explain:

The problem with being the Merchandise

Many kids (and adults) who struggle with low self esteem think of themselves as Merchandise. They feel that they need to change something about their packaging (the way they look, the topics they talk about, the way they talk, the way they dress) in order to attract and maintain relationships. They are constantly making adjustments to themselves to better fit the potential Shoppers (sought-after peers) out there.

The problem with being Merchandise is that they are always dependent on the attention of Shoppers to either pick them up or let them down. The fear of rejection is a powerful inhibitor here, as it’s very hard for Merchandise to hop off the shelf into someone’s cart, because a Shopper might look at them and say, “Ewwwww I don’t want you in my cart!”

Merchandise never truly feels safe in relationships, because Merchandise only shares things that might be of value to potential Shoppers. At the same time, Merchandise must hold back or hide the things Shoppers might not find interesting.

I worked with a college age boy who was very passionate about building models. He shared this information with no one, fearing that people would laugh at him for having such a “childish” hobby. He had a history of being unable to make and maintain friendships. We discussed what it would be like to begin talking about his hobby and actually finding a friend or group of friends with the same passion for models. The sense of security in this would be unlike any other peer relationship he’s had because he’d know his friends really see him for who he is…and like him. Herein lies the key to being a Shopper.

How to be a Shopper

The key to being a Shopper is really having a sense of who you are and what you like. Once children have this knowledge, they can set out to try and find these qualities in their peers. However, this is especially hard for kids who are naturally worried about what other people think of them because they fear being rejected. So the idea of actively expressing these passions to others is very scary. So how can we parents help our kids to be Shoppers?

The first step is helping kids figure out what they like. Often kids start with activities that they like to do with friends, but encouraging kids to think about what they like or want in relationships is probably more important.

So let’s ask our kids which qualities they would like in a friend. This can be a hard exercise for kids, but my father once said that if you don’t know what you like, then start with things you don’t like. We can help our kids process both the positive and negative qualities of their interactions with peers to form a unique picture of their ideal friend. Essentially, we’re creating a shopping list.  

Once the list is formed, I often suggest that kids take a few weeks to simply look around them at school and in social situations. They are supposed to get a layout of the store and the merchandise on display before actually shopping.

This middle step of being an observer allows for two things to happen. First, kids can ease into the idea of actually reaching out and picking friends, which can provoke a lot of anxiety as it involves the risk of rejection. Second, by observing first, kids can begin to feel like a Shopper and in doing so, start to move away from the idea of being the Merchandise. They’re now looking instead of being looked at.

Observing may in fact be the most important step in all of this. Observing helps kids to stop trying to keep up with the cool kids and to realize that they don’t have to work so hard. Observing also helps kids to look at their peers with a critical eye, allowing them to start seeing some of the positive and negative qualities of the people they’ve been chasing as the cool kids all this time.

The last step in becoming a Shopper is actually shopping. I’ve often seen that the observation process allows many kids to re-notice old friends who may not have made the cool cut: the friend from elementary school who fell to the wayside in middle school; the one we absolutely loved who was cast aside for the obnoxious cool friends. Additionally, new Shoppers seem to generally gravitate toward more approachable, kind, and sensitive kids making the task of reaching out much easier. I often encourage teens to listen to their peers in class for interesting responses. Several have then been able to approach their peers by simply saying “I liked what you said in class”.

A final word of caution to parents reading this…Helping our kids see themselves as Shoppers rather than Merchandise is a process that takes a lot of time, perhaps even years! I suggest many conversations about likes and dislikes in evaluating current friends and known associates to really develop that shopping list before moving on. As my wife has told me countless times, "You can’t be a good shopper without a good list!"

Your Kids Aren't Addicted They're Just Annoying

Another holiday season has come and gone and our kids just got the new technology they begged for. Now might be a good time to start discussing how we can better manage our kids’ use of said technology. This is obviously a concern for many parents these days as technology seems to grow more captivating by the minute. Parents I talk to are frantically trying to get a handle on how to manage their children’s video game play, which is is not an easy task. Having the right philosophy and a strong plan around limit setting can help us stay grounded, even when the landscape of technology is constantly shifting under our feet. So here are some ways of thinking about screens/video games that I share with parents. Since this topic is so broad, I’ve broken it into two posts. If you missed the first on addiction it’s here.

videogameaddiction.jpg

There are a whole host of annoying behaviors around screens and video games that drive parents nuts and contribute to our feelings of helplessness. Parents often link the feelings of helplessness to concerns about addiction. But these behaviors don’t point to addiction, they are just annoying! Consider this:

They always want to play: Just because this is what our kids want to do more than anything else does not mean they are addicted. Our job as parents is to teach our kids about having balance in just about everything they do (i.e., sweets vs. carrots, sloth vs. exercise). We want them to be able to go off on their own and make healthy decisions, but it will take a long time until they master this. So we have to just keep at it.

They usually don’t want to stop, so expect attitude or tantrums: Ask most kids and they will say that playing video games or watching screens is the best part of their day. Nobody wants to stop doing what they love doing, no matter what it is. The younger they are, the more tantrums. Oh, and sometimes the older they are (14/15) the more tantrums.  

Don’t expect them to stop themselves: The inmates will not voluntarily lock themselves in prison when the guards are gone. Our job as parents is to stop them continually and consistently until they go off and can do it themselves. Even older teens do not necessarily stop themselves while we are around and wait until we step in, instead. This does not mean that they won’t be able to do it when they go off to college or out on their own, it just means they defer to us when we’re around.

Expect to say it more than once: People don't listen when their attention is occupied and the screens are magical attention grabbers. And not just for kids. When I’m watching something on TV and my wife tries to talk to me...let’s just say I am not the best listener.

Fire a warning shot: Give at least one warning before asking your kids to stop but 2 or 3 may work better. All games take time to complete, respectively it takes time to get to a place where they can stop and save their progress, so warnings can help prep them. This also helps kids prep themselves for the impending loss of playing. Sometimes setting a timer works well too.

Expect them to go over the time limit: Even with warnings, many kids have trouble stopping. Again this is not a sign of addiction, but I do find that parents often blow their stack when their kids go over the time limit even after several warnings. Set one limit for your kids and another for yourself a few minutes later so you don’t have to blow up when they go over. This is how it works, we set the limits and they go over them.

OK are you with me?...Not addiction, just annoying! Now we have the philosophy or mindset down, but there is still the business of setting limits that stick:

Setting limits is a cold cold business

I feel that one of the most important aspects of setting firm limits is removing the emotional quality of our interactions with our kids. Think about all those cliche movies you’ve seen where the emotional hot blooded jailers are always the ones that allow our hero to escape. It’s never the cold unaffected jailers! When we are angry and lose it while simultaneously trying to set limits, four things happen:

  1. We say the most ridiculous things that we can’t or won’t ever follow through on (i.e., You’ll never watch TV again!, I’m going to throw your Xbox in the garbage!).

  2. We often feel badly about how things went and in repairing the damage are more likely to give back what we took away or limited.

  3. We are implicitly sending the message that the situation is not in our control. We are asking our kids to calmly deal with the loss of the game/screen, but how can they do this effectively if we can’t?

  4. We give our kids a way of feeling in control and having power over us as they figure out they can do things to make us lose it.

Basically, I just said the same thing I always say, which is: Stay Calm! Now that we’re all staying calm, here are a few other suggestions when considering a limit setting plan:

Make a plan you can enforce easily: The most effective plans are often the simplest ones. The most important thing is the follow through. The goal is to set up a structure now so they can do it on their own later. Here are a few examples of simple plans:

  • A time limit for the week and one for the weekend.
  • Homework done then play time.
  • For every minute of screen time there are two minutes of outdoor time.

Don’t be afraid to get nasty: Like I said, follow through is key. Many parents I’ve worked with get overwhelmed when their kids resist their verbal commands. Sometimes it’s important to show them who’s the boss (following all the above steps first). This means pulling the plug, taking control paddles, shutting off the internet. These are often last resorts as kids usually go nuts when we use them, but you only need to draw the line a few times before they get the message and understand you mean business.

The key to winning is losing: The goal of setting limits with our kids around screen time is to teach them how to take care of the things they have to do so they can enjoy the things they want to do without us telling them to do it. So when they get angry and upset after we tell them to get off the screen and go outside, we’re actually helping them to deal with the loss of not playing/viewing. Every time we go through the annoying steps of telling them to get off, having them get upset, then having them get over being upset, we are actually teaching them how to deal with loss. This ability to cope with loss is much bigger than just managing screen time...it’s  continuing a job search after being rejected a few times or compromising in a relationship or showing up at school after being dumped by your girlfriend.

There’s no surefire plan that will always work. Sometimes the best we can do is to just keep at it with the understanding that fighting the battles now will pay off in the future.  And for those parents who have young kids, my advice is to start firm now because it’s much harder to get tough after being loose then to loosen up after being tough.


If you had a plan that really works or a plan that was a complete disaster, please reach out and share it...We’re all in this together!!

So My Kid is Addicted To... Lemonade?

As we enter the Holiday Season and our kids begin asking for the newest technology, now might be a good time to start discussing some of the worries we parents have around these requests.  Namely how we can better manage our kids’ use of said technology. This is obviously a concern for many parents these days as technology seems to grow more captivating by the minute. Parents I talk to are frantically trying to get a handle on how to manage their children’s video game play or screen usage, which is is not an easy task. Having the right philosophy and a strong plan around limit setting can help us stay grounded, even when the landscape of technology is constantly shifting under our feet. So here are some ways of thinking about screens/video games that I share with parents. Since this topic is so broad, I’ve broken it into two posts. 

I feel I have to start with my thoughts on addiction, as this is usually what parents worry most about when it comes to screen time and video game play. The fears that our kids will become addicted has a strong effect on parents’ approach to setting limits. A more informed perspective on addiction and the risks involved can help us make better decisions.

Two types of addiction

There are two types of addiction, physical and mental. Psychology Today does a good job defining both types of addiction. Over the past twenty years, researchers have attempted to link the rush of game play to a release of endorphins in the body, however, there is no clear evidence to indicate that video games cause physical addiction in its users. Mental addiction, or the feeling like you just need something, usually in response to emotional stress, is the right way for us to think about how kids are affected by video games and screen use. Let me explain with a story.

lemonade

Am I addicted to lemonade?

Several years ago I was speaking to a class of fifth graders in an all boy’s school. After describing the two types of addiction, a boy raised his hand and said that his mom often buys sparkling lemonade and he likes it a lot. He went on to say that when he has a stressful day at school he will come home and pour himself a large glass of lemonade and this makes him feel better. With the utmost sincerity he asked, “Am I addicted to lemonade?”.

After settling down the classroom from hysterics at the absurdity of the question, I realized that it was not at all absurd. In fact, one could argue that the boy was addicted to lemonade. Taking this a bit further one could make the argument that we all are mentally addicted to something. Whether it’s watching Real Housewives of NJ, exercise, reading the news, or playing video games, all these activities help us to shake off the stress of the day. We often use the prospect of unwinding to a TV show or a good book in order to get us through a rough day.

Am I saying we should just let our kids use as much technology as they want because they’re stressed? Hell no! I make this point more for us to consider that while video games or iPad apps may not be our chosen form of stress relief, is it fair to judge or label our kids as addicts simply for their passion and fascination? Probably a more neutral way to judge whether there is a problem is for us to focus on what our kids do and do not do as a result of game play.

Taking care of your business

The first thing I ask parents when they tell me their child has a video game/technology addiction is “Do they take care of their business?”. Are they doing their homework, chores, and other responsibilities? If they are not doing what they’re supposed to do, then I still usually see video games/screens as secondary issues. The primary issues often have to do with difficulties in learning, defiance, attention issues, or parents lacking a clear and executable plan around limit setting (we’ll get back to this last one).

If kids are doing what they’re supposed to do, then the question becomes how much time is too much for games/screens? This is a much tougher question to answer and I feel the answer is as personal as politics or religion. So, I’m not going to suggest a certain time limit for screen use. I will say that my own unscientific and anecdotal observations of my kids regarding screen use suggests a direct correlation between the amount of time they play and their irritable mood afterwards. In other words, the more they play/watch screens the worse they seem to behave and this negative mood usually persists long after their initial upset at having to turn the screens off.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recently given more specific guidelines on how much screen time is too much, so perhaps this will help.

Putting aside some of the emotional knee jerk reactions we have around addiction can make limit setting a little easier. There are, however, many things that kids do around our attempts to set limits regarding screen time that look a lot like addiction, but are actually just annoying. The sister post will focus on kids’ behaviors around setting screen limits that drive parents nuts, as well as suggestions for setting lasting limits that take into consideration both our children’s passions and what’s good for them.