Social media rumors, including “challenges” that encourage acts of defiance or violence, and the fear of school shootings recently had children, parents, and law enforcement supports on high-alert in response to a tiktok-school-threat warning. This warning was dismissed as not credible; however, many still feeling emotionally unsettled. Depression, anxiety, and responses such as fear impact can result from school violence and impact mental health. In 2021 alone, it was estimated that there were 149 incidents of gunfire-on-school-grounds, 32 deaths, and 94 injuries nationwide.
Tag Archive for: Raising teens
*Trigger Warning*: Self-Harm
The first time Faith-Ann Bishop cut herself, she was in eighth grade. It was 2 in the morning, and as her parents slept, she sat on the edge of the tub at her home outside Bangor, Maine, with a metal clip from a pen in her hand. Then she sliced into the soft skin near her ribs. There was blood–and a sense of deep relief. “It makes the world very quiet for a few seconds,” says Faith-Ann. “For a while I didn’t want to stop, because it was my only coping mechanism. I hadn’t learned any other way.”
The pain of the superficial wound was a momentary escape from the anxiety she was fighting constantly, about grades, about her future, about relationships, about everything. Many days she felt ill before school. Sometimes she’d throw up, other times she’d stay home. “It was like asking me to climb Mount Everest in high heels,” she says.
It would be three years before Faith-Ann, now 20 and a film student in Los Angeles, told her parents about the depth of her distress. She hid the marks on her torso and arms, and hid the sadness she couldn’t explain and didn’t feel was justified. On paper, she had a good life. She loved her parents and knew they’d be supportive if she asked for help. She just couldn’t bear seeing the worry on their faces.
For Faith-Ann, cutting was a secret, compulsive manifestation of the depression and anxiety that she and millions of teenagers in the U.S. are struggling with. Self-harm, which some experts say is on the rise, is perhaps the most disturbing symptom of a broader psychological problem: a spectrum of angst that plagues 21st century teens.
Adolescents today have a reputation for being more fragile, less resilient and more overwhelmed than their parents were when they were growing up. Sometimes they’re called spoiled or coddled or helicoptered. But a closer look paints a far more heartbreaking portrait of why young people are suffering. Anxiety and depression in high school kids have been on the rise since 2012 after several years of stability. It’s a phenomenon that cuts across all demographics–suburban, urban and rural; those who are college bound and those who aren’t. Family financial stress can exacerbate these issues, and studies show that girls are more at risk than boys.
In 2015, about 3 million teens ages 12 to 17 had had at least one major depressive episode in the past year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. More than 2 million report experiencing depression that impairs their daily function. About 30% of girls and 20% of boys–totaling 6.3 million teens–have had an anxiety disorder, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health.
Experts suspect that these statistics are on the low end of what’s really happening, since many people do not seek help for anxiety and depression. A 2015 report from the Child Mind Institute found that only about 20% of young people with a diagnosable anxiety disorder get treatment. It’s also hard to quantify behaviors related to depression and anxiety, like nonsuicidal self-harm, because they are deliberately secretive.
Still, the number of distressed young people is on the rise, experts say, and they are trying to figure out how best to help. Teen minds have always craved stimulation, and their emotional reactions are by nature urgent and sometimes debilitating. The biggest variable, then, is the climate in which teens navigate this stage of development.
They are the post-9/11 generation, raised in an era of economic and national insecurity. They’ve never known a time when terrorism and school shootings weren’t the norm. They grew up watching their parents weather a severe recession, and, perhaps most important, they hit puberty at a time when technology and social media were transforming society.
“If you wanted to create an environment to churn out really angsty people, we’ve done it,” says Janis Whitlock, director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery. Sure, parental micromanaging can be a factor, as can school stress, but Whitlock doesn’t think those things are the main drivers of this epidemic. “It’s that they’re in a cauldron of stimulus they can’t get away from, or don’t want to get away from, or don’t know how to get away from,” she says.
In my dozens of conversations with teens, parents, clinicians and school counselors across the country, there was a pervasive sense that being a teenager today is a draining full-time job that includes doing schoolwork, managing a social-media identity and fretting about career, climate change, sexism, racism–you name it. Every fight or slight is documented online for hours or days after the incident. It’s exhausting.
“We’re the first generation that cannot escape our problems at all,” says Faith-Ann. “We’re all like little volcanoes. We’re getting this constant pressure, from our phones, from our relationships, from the way things are today.”
Steve Schneider, a counselor at Sheboygan South High School in southeastern Wisconsin, says the situation is like a scab that’s constantly being picked. “At no point do you get to remove yourself from it and get perspective,” he says.
It’s hard for many adults to understand how much of teenagers’ emotional life is lived within the small screens on their phones, but a CNN special report in 2015 conducted with researchers at the University of California, Davis, and the University of Texas at Dallas examined the social-media use of more than 200 13-year-olds. Their analysis found that “there is no firm line between their real and online worlds,” according to the researchers.
Phoebe Gariepy, a 17-year-old in Arundel, Maine, describes following on Instagram a girl in Los Angeles whom she’d never met because she liked the photos she posted. Then the girl stopped posting. Phoebe later heard she’d been kidnapped and was found on the side of a road, dead. “I started bawling, and I didn’t even know this girl,” says Phoebe. “I felt really extremely connected to that situation even though it was in L.A.”
That hyperconnectedness now extends everywhere, engulfing even rural teens in a national thicket of Internet drama. Daniel Champer, the director of school-based services for Intermountain in Helena, Mont., says the one word he’d use to describe the kids in his state is overexposed. Montana’s kids may be in a big, sparsely populated state, but they are not isolated anymore. A suicide might happen on the other side of the state and the kids often know before the adults, says Champer. This makes it hard for counselors to help. And nearly 30% of the state’s teens said they felt sad and hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row, according to the 2015 Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey. To address what they consider a cry for help from the state’s teens, officials in Montana are working on expanding access to school-based and tele-based counseling.
Megan Moreno, head of social media and adolescent health research at Seattle Children’s Hospital, notes a big difference between the mobile-social-tech revolution of the past 15 years and things like the introduction of the telephone or TV. In the olden days, your mom told you to get off the family phone or turn off the TV, and you did it. This time, kids are in the driver’s seat.
Parents are also mimicking teen behavior. “Not in all cases, obviously, but in many cases the adults are learning to use their phones in the way that the teens do,” says Moreno. “They’re zoning out. They’re ignoring people. They’re answering calls during dinner rather than saying, ‘O.K., we have this technology. Here are the rules about when we use it.’”
She cautions against demonizing technology entirely. “I often tell parents my simplest analogy is it’s like a hammer. You know, you can build a house that’s never existed before and you can smash someone’s head in, and it’s the same tool.” Sometimes phones rob teens’ developing brains of essential downtime. But other times they’re a way to maintain healthy social connections and get support.
Nora Carden, 17, of Brooklyn, who started college in upstate New York this fall, says she’s relieved when she goes on a trip that requires her to leave her phone for a while. “It’s like the whole school is in your bag, waiting for an answer,” she says.
School pressures also play a role, particularly with stress. Nora got counseling for her anxiety, which became crushing as the college-application process ramped up. She’d fear getting an answer wrong when a teacher called on her, and often felt she was not qualified to be in a particular class. “I don’t have pressure from my parents. I’m the one putting pressure on myself,” she says.
“The competitiveness, the lack of clarity about where things are going [economically] have all created a sense of real stress,” says Victor Schwartz of the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit that works with colleges and universities on mental-health programs and services. “Ten years ago, the most prominent thing kids talked about was feeling depressed. And now anxiety has overtaken that in the last couple of years.”
Tommy La Guardia, a high-achieving 18-year-old senior in Kent, Wash., is the first college-bound kid in his family. He recently became a finalist for prestigious scholarships, all while working 10 to 15 hours a week at a Microsoft internship and helping to care for his younger brothers.
His mom, Catherine Moimoi, says he doesn’t talk about the pressure he’s under. They don’t have a lot of resources, yet he manages everything himself, including college tours and applications. “He’s a good kid. He never complains,” she says. “But there are many nights I go to sleep wondering how he does it.”
Tommy admits that the past year was tough. “It’s hard to describe the stress,” he says. “I’m calm on the outside, but inside it’s like a demon in your stomach trying to consume you.” He deals with those emotions on his own. “I don’t want to make it someone else’s problem.”
Alison Heyland, 18, a recent high school graduate, was part of a group in Maine called Project Aware, whose members seek to help their peers manage anxiety and depression by making films. “We’re such a fragile and emotional generation,” she says. “It’s tempting for parents to tell kids, ‘Just suck it up.’” But, says Alison, “I feel like it really is less realistic for you to go after your dream job today. You’re more apt to go do a job that you don’t really like because it pays better and you’ll be in less debt.”
Meanwhile, evidence suggests the anxiety wrought by school pressures and technology is affecting younger and younger kids. Ellen Chance, co-president of the Palm Beach School Counselor Association, says technology and online bullying are affecting kids as early as fifth grade.
The strain on school counselors has increased since No Child Left Behind standardized testing protocols were implemented in the past decade. Tests can run from January through May, and since counselors in Chance’s county are often the ones who administer the exams, they have less time to deal with students’ mental-health issues.
“I couldn’t tell you how many students are being malicious to each other over Instagram or Snapchat,” she says of the elementary school where she’s the sole counselor for more than 500 kids. “I’ve had cases where girls don’t want to come to school because they feel outcasted and targeted. I deal with it on a weekly basis.”
Conventional wisdom says kids today are oversupervised, prompting some parenting critics to look back fondly to the days of latchkey kids. But now, even though teens may be in the same room with their parents, they might also, thanks to their phones, be immersed in a painful emotional tangle with dozens of their classmates. Or they’re looking at other people’s lives on Instagram and feeling self-loathing (or worse). Or they’re caught up in a discussion about suicide with a bunch of people on the other side of the country they’ve never even met via an app that most adults have never heard of.
Phoebe Gariepy says she remembers being in the backseat of a car with her headphones on, sitting next to her mom while looking at disturbing photos on her phone on social-media feeds about cutting. “I was so distant, I was so separated,” she says. She says it was hard to get out of that online community, as gory as it was, because her online life felt like her real life. “It’s almost like a reality-TV show. That’s the most triggering part of it, knowing that those real people were out there.” It would be hard for most people to know that the girl sitting there scrolling through her phone was engaged in much more than superficial selfies.
Josh, who did not want his real name published, is a high school sophomore in Maine who says he remembers how his parents began checking on him after the Sandy Hook shooting that killed 20 children and six adults. Despite their vigilance, he says, they’re largely unaware of the pain he’s been in. “They’re both heterosexual cis people, so they wouldn’t know that I’m bisexual. They wouldn’t know that I cut, that I use red wine, that I’ve attempted suicide,” he says. “They think I’m a normal kid, but I’m not.”
In the CNN study, researchers found that even when parents try their best to monitor their children’s Instagram, Twitter and Facebook feeds, they are likely unable to recognize the subtle slights and social exclusions that cause kids pain.
Finding disturbing things in a child’s digital identity, or that they’re self-harming, can stun some parents. “Every single week we have a girl who comes to the ER after some social-media rumor or incident has upset her [and then she cut herself],” says Fadi Haddad, a psychiatrist who helped start the child and adolescent psychiatric emergency department at Bellevue hospital in New York City, the first of its kind at a public hospital. Teens who end up there are often sent by administrators at their school. When Haddad calls the parents, they can be unaware of just how distressed their child is. According to Haddad, this includes parents who feel they’re very involved in their children’s lives: they’re at every sports game, they supervise the homework, they’re part of the school community.
Sometimes when he calls, they’re angry. One mother whose child Haddad treated told him that she found out her daughter had 17 Facebook accounts, which the mother shut down. “But what good does that do?” says Haddad. “There will be an 18th.”
For some parents who discover, as Faith-Ann’s parents Bret and Tammy Bishop did a few years ago, that their child has been severely depressed, anxiety-ridden or self-harming for years, it’s a shock laden with guilt.
Bret says Faith-Ann had been making cuts on her legs and ribs for three years before she got the courage to tell her parents. “You wonder, What could I have done better?” he says. Looking back, he realizes that he was distracted too much of the time.
“Even for us as adults, you’re never away from work now. Before, there wasn’t anything to worry about till I got back on Monday. But now it’s always on your phone. Sometimes when you’re home, you’re not home,” Bret says.
When Bret and Tammy joined a group for parents of kids with depression, he discovered that there were many girls and some boys who were also depressed and hurting themselves, and that few parents had any idea of what was going on.
Tammy said she wishes she’d followed her gut and taken Faith-Ann for counseling earlier. “I knew something was wrong, and I couldn’t figure it out,” she says.
Self-harm is certainly not universal among kids with depression and anxiety, but it does appear to be the signature symptom of this generation’s mental-health difficulties. All of the nearly two dozen teens I spoke with for this story knew someone who had engaged in self-harm or had done it themselves. It’s hard to quantify the behavior, but its impact is easier to monitor: a Seattle Children’s Hospital study that tracked hashtags people use on Instagram to talk about self-harm found a dramatic increase in their use in the past two years. Researchers got 1.7 million search results for “#selfharmmm” in 2014; by 2015 the number was more than 2.4 million.
While girls appear more likely to engage in this behavior, boys are not immune: as many as 30% to 40% of those who’ve ever self-injured are male.
The academic study of this behavior is nascent, but researchers are developing a deeper understanding of how physical pain may relieve the psychological pain of some people who practice it. That knowledge may help experts better understand why it can be hard for some people to stop self-harming once they start. Whitlock, the director of the self-injury research program at Cornell, explains that studies are pretty consistent in showing that people who injure themselves do it to cope with anxiety or depression.
It’s hard to know why self-harm has surfaced at this time, and it’s possible we’re just more aware of it now because we live in a world where we’re more aware of everything. Whitlock thinks there’s a cultural element to it. Starting in the late 1990s, the body became a kind of billboard for self-expression–that’s when tattoos and piercings went mainstream. “As that was starting to happen, the idea of etching your emotional pain into your body was not a big step from the body as a canvas as an idea,” she says.
The idea that self-harm is tied to how we see the human body tracks with what many teens told me when I interviewed them. As Faith-Ann describes it, “A lot of value is put on our physical beauty now. All of our friends are Photoshopping their own photos–it’s hard to escape that need to be perfect.” Before the dawn of social media, the disorders that seemed to be the quintessential reflection of those same societal pressures were anorexia or bulimia–which are still serious concerns.
Whitlock says there are two common experiences that people have with self-harm. There are those who feel disconnected or numb. “They don’t feel real, and there’s something about pain and blood that brings them into their body,” she says.
On the other end of the spectrum are people who feel an overwhelming amount of emotion, says Whitlock. “If you asked them to describe those emotions on a scale of 1 to 10, they would say 10, while you or I might rate the same experience as a 6 or 7. They need to discharge those feelings somehow, and injury becomes their way,” she explains.
The research on what happens in the brain and body when someone cuts is still emerging. Scientists want to better understand how self-harm engages the endogenous opioid system–which is involved in the pain response in the brain–and what happens if and when it does.
Some of the treatments for self-harm are similar to those for addiction, particularly in the focus on identifying underlying psychological issues–what’s causing the anxiety and depression in the first place–and then teaching healthy ways to cope. Similarly, those who want to stop need a strong level of internal motivation.
“You’re not going to stop for somebody else,” explains Phoebe, the teenager from Maine. Even thinking about how upset her mother was about the self-harm wasn’t enough. “I tried making pacts with friends. But it doesn’t work. You have to figure it out for yourself. You have to make the choice.”
Eventually, Phoebe steered herself out of the dark, destructive corners of the Internet that reinforced her habit by romanticizing and validating her pain. She’s now into holistic healing and looks at positive sites populated by people she calls “happy hippies.”
Faith-Ann remembers the day her mother Tammy noticed the scars on her arms and realized what they were. By then she was a junior in high school. “I normally cut in places you couldn’t see, but I had messed up and I had a cut on my wrists. I lifted my arm to move my hair, and she saw it. It was scary because the cuts were in a place that people associate with suicide.” That was not what she was attempting, however.
“If she’d asked me before that if I was cutting, I would have said no. I wouldn’t have wanted to put that pain on her,” says Faith-Ann. But that night she said, “Yes, I am cutting, and I want to stop.” Tammy cried for a bit, but they moved on. She didn’t ask why, she didn’t freak out, she just asked what she could do to help. “That was the exact right thing to do,” says Faith-Ann.
The family got counseling after that. Her parents learned that they weren’t alone. And Faith-Ann learned breathing techniques to calm herself physically and how to talk to herself positively. Recovery didn’t happen all at once. There were relapses, sometimes over tiny things. But the Bishops were on the right road.
One of the most powerful things Faith-Ann did to escape the cycle of anxiety, depression and self-harm was to channel her feelings into something creative. As part of the Project Aware teen program in Maine, she wrote and directed a short film about anxiety and depression in teens called The Road Back. More than 30 kids worked on the project, and they became a support system for one another as she continued to heal.
“I had a place where I could be open and talk about my life and the issues I was having, and then I could project them in an artistic way,” she says.
Bellevue’s Fadi Haddad says that for parents who find out their children are depressed or hurting themselves, the best response is first to validate their feelings. Don’t get angry or talk about taking away their computers. “Say, ‘I’m sorry you’re in pain. I’m here for you,’” he says.
This straightforward acknowledgment of their struggles takes away any judgment, which is critical since mental-health issues are still heavily stigmatized. No adolescent wants to be seen as flawed or vulnerable, and for parents, the idea that their child has debilitating depression or anxiety or is self-harming can feel like a failure on their part.
Alison Heyland’s dad Neil says that initially, it was hard to find people to confide in about his daughter’s depression. “I see everyone putting up posts about their family, they look so happy and everyone’s smiling, everything is so perfect and rosy. I kind of feel less than,” he says.
For both generations, admitting that they need help can be daunting. Even once they get past that barrier, the cost and logistics of therapy can be overwhelming.
Faith-Ann still struggles at times with depression and anxiety. “It’s a condition that’s not going to totally disappear from my life,” she says over the phone from Los Angeles, where she’s thriving at film school. “It’s just learning how to deal in a healthy way–not self-harming, not lashing out at people.”
Of course Bret and Tammy Bishop still worry about her. They now live in Hampstead, N.C., and at first Bret didn’t like the idea of Faith-Ann’s going to school in California. If she was having trouble coping, he and Tammy were a long plane ride away. How can you forget that your child, someone you’ve dedicated years to keeping safe from the perils of the world, has deliberately hurt herself? “It’s with you forever,” says Tammy.
These days, she and Bret are proud of their daughter’s independence and the new life she’s created. But like a lot of parents who’ve feared for their child’s health, they don’t take the ordinary for granted anymore.
This appears in the November 07, 2016 issue of TIME
By Susanna Schrobsdorff
“Treat or Treat!!”
Trigger Warning: Suicide
One November day in Gaston County, NC, traffic was at a stand-still on I-85. It was unfortunately caused by a 16-year-old who took her life on the highway. As cars grinded to a halt, a pick-up truck was rear-ended by someone not paying attention. The driver of that truck lost his life.
If someone had recognized the warning signs of suicide in this young girl and gotten her help, two deaths could have been avoided that day.
This incident really affected me. I’m from Gaston County and with all the advocacy work I do in Charlotte as a member of NAMI Charlotte and as a new state board member of NAMI NC, I felt that I had neglected my hometown as a mental health advocate. Also, I know what it’s like to feel the pain of wanting to take your own life.
I felt that way twenty-two years ago on Valentine’s Day, 1995. Thank goodness, my aunt heard my cry for help, knew the warning signs and saved my life. When you go through something like that, I feel you are obligated to turn around and help others who are dealing with the same pain. I knew I had to do something in my hometown.
Starting The Conversation In School
I went to Ami Parker, Director of Counseling Services for Gaston County Schools, and told her, “I don’t want to see what happened to the young lady on the Cox Road Bridge happen to another child.” I asked her to consider a Mental Health Awareness Week in the Gaston school system. And Ami didn’t hesitate. She even took it a step further, planning for the children to take the lead.
She knew kids would respond better to kids and the conversations they would start amongst themselves—and they did. They went online and got information to present to other students that would get them involved. Because of this, kids from middle to high school were truly engaged in the week-long Mental Health Awareness Week. They created posters and banners from everything that said, “See the person, not the illness” to “Our school is StigmaFree.”
I can’t tell you how proud I am of the kids being so engaged and involved. One middle schooler told me that she rode the bus with a boy who cut himself. She had told him to “quit cutting” himself, but he didn’t. In this teachable moment, I told her that she did the right thing, but he needed more help than she could give. And she needed to let someone know he needed help. The young girl agreed that she would.
This is exactly why events like these are so important. It starts conversations among children. If we can start conversations with children, maybe those conversations can spread to parents.
Steps To Spread Awareness To Schools
If you want to have a Mental Health Awareness Week in your local school, start with the school’s counseling department, like I did. Make sure you’ve done your research on mental health, stigma and suicide, so when you talk to a counselor they’ll see you’ve done your homework. Most counselors would be glad to help you bring this deserving cause to the attention of the principal and teachers. I am so proud of and thankful for Ami Parker and her willingness to be proactive with bringing awareness to mental health. And I’m sure there are more people like her out there. We dedicated our event to the young girl who died by suicide in November, in hopes to stop others kids from going down the same path.
Kids are our next generation. We should be teaching them about the importance of mental health and the warning signs of mental illness. If we teach them well enough, maybe stigma won’t exist once their generation grows up. Maybe they will know when to ask for help and when to offer someone support. Maybe lives will be saved. With the looks of things, I think Gaston County schools are off to a very good start.
By Fonda Bryant
Fonda Bryant is very active in the community bringing awareness to mental health. She has been a volunteer with NAMI Charlotte for over three years and recently was elected to the state board of NAMI NC. She also volunteers with MHA of Central Carolinas and with the AFSP. She speaks to the rookie classes of CMPD, and is vocal about mental health, whether on television, in the newspaper or radio, her passion for mental health knows no boundaries.
Kids do all kinds of things that we don’t like, things that drive us nuts. Sometimes they do things that are dangerous, things that scare us half to death. They cross lines and test boundaries. My oldest son climbs on everything. My second son is overly aggressive with his affection, especially with his baby sister. My third son struggles with hitting, pinching or biting when he becomes angry.
This is all part of growing up. This is all part of being a parent. These little people we call our kids are trying new things and trying to figure out the world around them. In order for them to do this successfully requires that we set and help them understand limits, boundaries and consequences.
I love the way that Genevieve Simperingham explains our kids process of learning how to interact appropriately and empathetically with the world around them. She says,…
“Children mostly learn that they’ve crossed a line through the feedback of others. The image comes to mind of travelling in another country, there’s a lot of strict cultural rules about what’s okay and not okay and we only learn that we’ve been inappropriate when we get the feedback – how scary! We’d truly hope they had compassion for our lack of prior immersion into their culture and see our clumsiness as lack of awareness rather than lack of care or respect.
Children learn about empathy mostly through the direct experience of being empathized with and feeling how that helps them feel better.”(Setting Limits with Love, Genevieve Simperingham, www.peacefulparent.com )
Limits, Boundaries and Consequences, Oh My!
Limits, boundaries and consequences all work together with love and empathy to teach and help our kids perceive and interact with the world in positive ways. In this article I’ll address each concept of limits, boundaries and consequences and some practical ways to understand and utilize them in positive, peaceful ways.
Setting Limits: A limit is an imposed request or restraint on our child, and is most often coupled with stating a clear consequence. Sometimes the natural consequence is simply built into the limit itself. Some examples may include…
- Lead with a positive, empathetic response: “You may go play as soon as your room is clean.” In this example, play is limited on conditions of the child completing his chore. The natural consequence is that he may choose when he will do the chore and thus postpone or move him toward his playtime.
- Set limits with love and firmness: Tell them how you feel and what you don’t like as well as what you do like. Then reassure them of your unconditional love and regard for them. An example might include, “I know you’re frustrated right now. I don’t like when you hit me. I like it when you ask me for the things you need.” When your child asks to do something, for example, “Mom, can I go to Jimmy’s house?” You could respond with, “That sounds like a great idea another day. Right now we are getting ready for dinner.” If they continue to protest and ask why simply and empathetically say, “I know you really want to go. Sorry that’s not going to happen tonight.” If it still continues, just state the famous Love and Logic phrase, “I love you too much to argue.”
[Tweet “Set limits with love and firmness”]
- Don’t limit emotions, limit behavior: Stop the behavior through direction, separation and redirection. It’s okay for your child to be upset about it, but it’s important to separate the emotions from the negative behavior we wish to limit. For instance, it is okay to be angry, but hitting is not okay. “No throwing toys, because that hurts people and the toys.” It may require that we take the toy or separate our child from the situation, but no punishment or further action is required.
Setting Boundaries: A boundary is a statement or action of personal limits. It communicates, “This is where I end and you begin. This is what I am willing to do and what I am willing to allow you to do or not do to me. Dr. Henry Cloud describes it like your own fence around your personal property that keeps the bad stuff out and your personal treasures in. This doesn’t mean we never let anyone inside our boundary, it simply means that there is a clear boundary and a gate by which you can let others come and go in a way that is comfortable and wise.
- When kids make demands or requests of us. My kids often make demands at the dinner table. They say things like, “Dad, get me some water” or “I want a different glass or plate or utensil.” These demands are often made of my wife or me when we are busy preparing one of our small children’s food or finally sitting down to eat our own meal. Sometimes, parents respond simply by not responding. They ignore the request. Sometimes parents snap back at the kids, “Can’t you wait a minute? I’ll do it, just wait!” Sometimes parents just give in to the demand against their will. There is a better way that acknowledges the child’s request but asserts our own personal boundaries as well. We can say, “I would love to get that for you as soon as I done fixing your sister’s plate or after I am done eating. If you don’t want to wait, you are welcome to get it yourself.” If you are not willing to do the task for your child at all you can say, “Thanks for asking. I’m eating right now. If you would like water, you are welcome to get it yourself. Thanks.”
- Use “yes” as a boundary setting tool. When a child asks you to buy something for them at the store, say “Yes, you are welcome to buy that with your own money if you would like to earn the money and bring the money with you when we come to the store.” In essence we are saying, “no, I’m not going to buy that for you with my money” but we are not putting a limit on what they can do with their own money. This can artfully place appropriate boundaries out of what we are willing to do while also teaching them and motivating them to do things for themselves.
- When a child hits or is aggressive. We can firmly state our own personal boundaries. “I will not let you hit me.” This may include backing away to get out of arm or leg range, putting a hand out to stop hits and kicks or gently holding a child if they are receptive and need you to help them calm themselves.
Establishing Consequences: A consequence is simply the effect that follows any given action. Consequences are inevitable. They are natural and constant. There is no action that does not have a consequence. Kids sometimes struggle to see and understand the natural consequences of their actions and definitely struggle to anticipate consequences. It can be helpful for parents to teach kids about consequences and help them anticipate consequences that will arise, whether natural or imposed consequences.
- Educate them about positive and negative consequences: Consequences are not necessarily something we have to impose upon our children. It’s not something that I do to my children but it’s just part of living. Consequences are best learned as they are woven into our limit and boundary setting. It’s important to teach our kids that consequences are not just negative things, but that all of their choices have consequences. Positive choices also provide positive consequences. I’m not referring to rewards that parents give but just regular everyday benefits of making good choices.
- Allow natural consequences: Too often parents jump in and either overshadow the real life natural consequences of a situation by either giving a harsh punishment or unnecessary reward instead of simply letting them experience the natural consequences. If they choose not to complete their homework, poor grades or other consequences at school may follow. If they refuse to get shoes on before it is time to leave the house (when age appropriate), they get to carry their shoes with them to the car or go without shoes. When they refuse to go to sleep, they get tired. On the other hand, they feel good when they do something kind for a brother or friend and they get to move on to play time when they complete their chores. We all experience consequences in our everyday lives and we learn from them without any lectures or punishments.
- Follow through with realistic, rational consequences: When people think of consequences, they most often think of groundings, taking privileges away, spankings, lectures and other punishments, but these are neither necessary or effective for teaching positive skills and values. The more natural, realistic to life and related to their behavior the consequence is, the more effective it is in teaching the desired lesson. When a child makes a mess, the logical consequence is that he cleans up after himself. When a child damages something, a natural consequence is that they replace it. As referred to in the limits section, the natural consequence of a child refusing to do chores is that they postpone their own play time. When we follow through with natural consequences and show empathy we take the focus off of us and allow our child to learn from the consequence. It give us opportunity to help our child learn to solve their problems rather than causing them to blame us and see us as the problem.
5 Important principles to remember when setting TRU limits, boundaries and consequences:
It can be helpful to evaluate the limits, boundaries and consequences we set and how we set them in accordance with the principles of TRU parenting. Do our limits and the way we deliver them teach our child what we want them to learn? Do they build on our relationship? And do they allow me to upgrade myself and improve my own boundaries? The following are 5 specific guidelines to help set limits, boundaries and consequences that meet the principles of TRU parenting and promote positive ongoing cycles rather than simply demanding immediate compliance only.
1. Lead with the positive and with empathy: The connection and relationship between parent and child is one of the most important elements of setting positive, clear limits, boundaries and consequences. When we approach a limit with understanding and with words that ignite positive, agreeable feelings, we find that kids are much more cooperative. My wife’s cousin recently shared the following story with me about my wife and second son. She reported…
“Eli (my 6 year old son) was teasing and upsetting Emma (my 2 year old daughter). Camille (my wife), was watching and recognized what was going on. Instead of saying “Eli stop” or “Don’t tease your sister” she kindly said “Eli, I don’t think we have hugged today come over here and give your mom a big hug” He happily jumped up and gave her a big hug for a few seconds and then magically he went about playing and NOT teasing his sister.”
I thought this was so awesome! This is such an incredible example of empathy and my wife recognizing my son’s underlying need. She set a limit by redirecting his behavior to a more appropriate avenue and left the formal teaching for a later time. The need was met and the behavior stopped, all in a way that taught positive principles, built the relationship and Upgrading my wife’s state of mind and being. I know, my wife is amazing!
2. Don’t be afraid of “NO” but don’t overuse it: Sometimes the best way to define or set a limit is with a good old fashion “no.” However, I’ve found that when “no” is overused on every nitpicky little irritation, it loses its value and creates a negative atmosphere.
3. Don’t set limits while sitting: Be actively engaged. When we sit back and bark out limits and orders from our arm chair, our limits have no power. Move toward your kids and reach out to them. Deliver limits and boundaries at their level both physically and developmentally.
4. State what you will do or not do and do or don’t do it: Try to focus on what you will do rather than on what they should do. Mean what you say and say what you mean. Be a Mom or Dad of your word. For example, if your child wants a different color cup than was placed on the table you can say, “I would love to get it when I’m done eating if you would like to wait. I’m fixing food right now and eating my dinner. You are welcome to either get it yourself or wait for me to be done with my dinner.”
5. Teach and plan during the good times: Use weekly family nights, play time or other fun and positive times to be together to teach and plan appropriate social boundaries and show them what consequences might come in different situations. Use role plays and games to help them learn limits, and cause and effect relationships. It doesn’t have to be a struggle to set clear limits. It really can be fun.
Other great resources on setting limits with our kids…
I’ve been meaning to write this piece for weeks, but I’ve been too busy parenting. In fact, I’m only starting this after the dog’s been walked and fed, the baby’s had some food placed optimistically in front of him and been convinced to go to sleep, and the dishes have been (mostly) done. There’s a pile of clean, unfolded laundry in the hamper and another wet one festering in the washer, but I’m choosing to ignore both. I know that if I take those five minutes to put the damp clothes in the dryer and another 15 to fold the dry ones, it’ll somehow be 30 minutes before I’m back at my computer, and this sliver of nighttime quiet is precious, precious time.
My husband and I didn’t give much thought to what would happen when our careers ran up against the challenges of having a child. We had muddled through the domestic stuff fairly decently until then―or at least that’s how it seems in retrospect. And then we dropped a kid into the mix and what seemed like occasionally uneven scales tilted dramatically in one direction. I don’t mean to imply that my husband doesn’t help. He’s a modern, enlightened, all-around good sport who is especially receptive when handed to-do lists, although he often greets them with an “I’ll do my best”―a phrase I’ve come to loathe for its impervious good intentions.
But the truth―and he would not contest it―is that I do more. Once, in a fit of peevishness, I tracked every minute he and I devoted to household work and tallied the figure at the end of the week. I had done over 12 hours, my husband just over five. I accounted for our totals for a few more weeks and then gave up because of―what else?―lack of time. Was this tabulating ungenerous and shrewish? Probably. Did that make its conclusions any less annoying? No.
The disparities are augmented on nights like tonight when he’s across the ocean tending to business, and I’m at home white-knuckling it on my own. Because of some combination of social, professional, and financial pressures, he travels more for work, works longer hours, and when, in a few weeks’ time, we have our second child, I’ll take about 12 weeks of leave from my job and he’ll take two.
We are far from alone, although we are, in many ways, on the extremely fortunate end of the spectrum. We have a babysitter who works pretty much full-time Monday through Friday, allowing us both to have careers, and local grandparents who help out with childcare. We’re able to pay someone to clean our apartment every now and then and someone to come fix cabinet doors that won’t stay shut. All this means that we spend less time than the average American woman or man on household work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics: She clocks in at 2.6 hours a day; he logs 2.1. (Childcare, in the BLS’s metrics, is broken out as a separate category, but women still exceed men in those responsibilities.)
WAS THIS TABULATING UNGENEROUS AND SHREWISH? PROBABLY. DID THAT MAKE ITS CONCLUSIONS ANY LESS ANNOYING? NO.
But all that good fortune doesn’t stop me from harboring resentment about the disparity in our household labors and wondering if the dream of an egalitarian marriage―hell, even the honest attempt―inevitably collapses under the responsibilities of child-rearing, when social pressures amplify and leisure time diminishes. Because, I thought in some subconscious section of my brain that I’d married a Marty Ginsburg (husband of Ruth Bader) or an Andrew Moravcsik (husband of Anne-Marie Slaughter), a man with ambition and drive but also a willingness to put his own career on the back-burner when his wife’s was taking off.
Failure is excruciating. But it’s not as excruciating as watching your child fail. It’s not just that parents are biologically programmed to care about them. We really want them to succeed, partly so they have a great life and partly because, frankly, their success reflects well on us.
But as parents increasingly navigate their kids’ lives so that they avoid failure, those kids lose an important life skill, and one one they will inevitably need: how to find the courage and motivation to get back up. So how do you help kids fail, or rather, how do you help kids deal with failure? Brené Brown, whose new book Rising Strong is about coming back from failure, has spent nearly her whole career studying shame and courage, and in a recent interview with TIME she gave this advice: first, don’t try to fix it.
“If my child, you know, tries out for a team, or you know really wants to get into a certain college or gets shunned at lunch,” she says, “am I willing to sit with her or sit with him and not fix it, but just be with her or him in the struggle? Am I willing to look over and say, ‘God, I know how crappy this feels right now?’ “
Brown wants parents to let kids feel the sting of failure and learn to overcome it. Even when parents can fix something, she sees more value in teaching kids to feel the emotions failure produces. “Teaching them how to get curious about it, teaching them how to name it, teaching them how to ask for what they need,” she says. “That’s the gift that parents give.”
Brown, who has two kids, also thinks it’s helpful to give kids a reality check, to retell their stories to them. “I’ve got a 16 year old daughter who sometimes can compare her life with Instagram,” she says. “And the stories she makes up: this is what everyone looks like, the fabulous stuff everyone is doing, the time with the entire posse of friends. A lot of times I’ll say, let’s reality check the story you’re making up right now.”
Brown then recounts her daughter’s story a slightly different way. “You’re at home studying chemistry, and you’re making out that everyone is out having a fabulous time. Where are your friends tonight? They’re studying for chemistry. Right. And did anyone ask you to do something tonight? Yes, they did. And why didn’t you go? Because you’re making a choice to study for chemistry.
Getting kids to cast themselves in their own narrative helps kids recall what they consider success and reminds them what their aims are. “We don’t want to be victims in the story. We don’t even want to be heroes in a story,” says Brown. “We want to be the author of the story. And you can’t do that unless you own the story and dig into it.”