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Why is school suddenly so hard?

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Normally, Jill didn’t have any problems with her grades. Lately though, as she entered her junior year, something had shifted and Jill was struggling. In talking to her one-on-one, it was easy enough to discover that Jill felt the normal pressures of adolescence (grades, extracurricular activities, friends, parents, etc.) and that these pressures had grown significantly. What seemed a little less obvious were the themes that subtly showed up in Jill’s sharing. Themes of insecurity and not feeling understood quietly wove through much of her stories. If you remember being a teenager, or if you’ve been around one for five minutes, you’ll recognize that these themes feel almost universal to being a teen. Likewise, Dr. Dan Siegel would tell us that these feelings are increased in adolescence while the brain is going through a major overhaul. So, the themes were not odd or even problematic–what did seem to be problematic was how Jill felt when she was in conversation with her parents about everything.

We are relational beings. A part of which means, our ability to function is greatly impacted by the relational context we find ourselves in. A feeling of sadness doesn’t disrupt us too much when felt in the company of a supportive loved one. That same sadness however can overwhelm and short circuit us when felt in the midst of a fight with our spouse. Of course, as we grow in this life, we hope to achieve an internal balance that, for the most part, maintains stable across various contexts. However, it will always be normal that we look to others to help us develop and sustain our emotional world. When a 5-year-old child jumps off the couch and yells, “Look at me, I’m superman!” they are hoping for the adult to respond with an enjoyment of the child that will help them embrace their growing strength and vitality. When a 35-year-old woman comes home and shares about her promotion at work, she is hoping for her family to beam with a pride that will help her internalize her increasing sense of competency as a worker. Likewise, when a teenager is struggling with distress, they are hoping for their parent to respond with a “marked mirroring” response that holds their difficult emotions and helps the teen to process them (thereby helping the teen to internalize their growing capacity to soothe themselves).

The term “marked mirroring” is one that means a person’s response (a combination of their facial expression, their tone, their words, their touch, etc.) reflects the same emotional experience of the other but in an exaggerated or changed way (research shows we should strive for around a 30% difference). This allows the other person to recognize that their emotions are being felt and processed by another mind that is in the water with them but not drowning alongside of them. This can be difficult to give our kids though.

Often what I see in family sessions (and what I notice in my wife and I as we parent our own children) is that parents can experience a great deal of anxiety in watching their child struggle. The child’s struggle can evoke a range of difficult feelings such as: being disrespected, being helpless, feeling bullied, fear that the teen is heading down a path of no return, being overwhelmed, or even failing as a parent. While these are totally normal emotions to have, in a stuck situation, many of these emotions become disruptive because they are often linked to past experiences in life that have gone unprocessed. This makes it so that when evoked in the conversation with the teen, the parent starts operating out of their own past experiences but doesn’t realize it (they usually only feel irritated or exasperated or “done”). The teen picks up on these emotional experiences in the parent’s facial expressions, body language, tone, etc., and struggles even more. Often in a move to regulate themselves, the teen shuts down, thereby frustrating the parent even more. The parent has unwittingly become blocked by the super charge of their earlier experiences and is unable to hold the teen’s current emotional experience (which is what the teen is needing in order to tackle their current life challenges). All of which becomes a confusing negative relational cycle.

Over the last 30 years of mother-infant research, we have found that if you slow video of mother/child interaction down to frame-by-frame/second-by-second intervals, you can see the dance of attachment. When the mother and child are in-sync, they rise to enjoyment, feeding off each other, in a beautiful dance. Very quickly though, they can get out-of-sync too (which is normal since research shows that people who are trying to be empathically attuned are off 70% of the time). When this happens, the child moves to re-regulate themselves by raising their hands to block their face, turning away, closing their eyes, etc. If the mother is anxious and experiences this turning away as a minute rejection of her, she will not allow the baby the needed space to re-regulate and instead will loom in or turn the baby back towards her in subtle ways that communicate to the baby that the mother’s needs are more important than the baby’s. If consistent over time, these responses create either over-accommodation by the child in order to keep the relationship with mom good. Or it creates heightened avoidance in the child which can lead to increased conflict between the child and parent. The dance of attachment still happens in adolescence. When a teen is talking with their parents in my office, they will close their eyes, turn away, or look down when their parents “start in.” I see it all the time. Usually it goes unnoticed because the parent is experiencing their own story of distress in that moment and unable to focus on the child’s experience of them. Part of our job as parents is learning how to tune into what’s happening in us by using our teen’s nonverbal cues as signals to us about our self state. When we can learn to see their small clues of distress, we can slowly learn to deregulate ourselves and think about their experience. This helps us rejoin them as they continue to grow and develop their own emotional world.

As I watched Jill with her parents, I saw this blockage take place in two main ways. First, the topic stayed on the surface; they tried to problem solve the grades or the trust issues without becoming curious about what causes the problem. Secondly, inside of the problem solving, I saw two distinct types of responses: a) immediately moving to advice and encouragement to be positive, or b) they started talking about what they needed from Jill and how they wanted to trust her but that she hasn’t proven herself yet. This response unwittingly acted as a moral high ground that delicately shamed the teen by not acknowledging the role the parents were playing; namely, that they were struggling to help the teen with the emotional weight that was bogging her down and zapping her energy and attention span.

In Jill’s family’s case, as with many high-functioning families, it helped to first validate both the teen’s and the parent’s experience and then for everyone to be reminded that first, we connect and then we redirect. This is a term from the book, The Whole Brained Child. It means that first, we concentrate on the S words of attachment in order to calm the autonomic nervous system and help the teen restabilize and think clearly. We use marked mirroring among other tools to help the teen feel: seen, safe, soothed, secure. This helps them move from their attachment system into other motivational systems like the exploratory system in which they can problem solve. Then, the L words of the left hemisphere of the brain can be concentrated on: language, logic, linear thinking.

Does this mean our experiences as a parent don’t matter? That we should just have a one-sided relationship with our teens? Not at all! There are plenty of times where it is important for our kids to understand our experience of being a parent (whether it’s our financial, emotional, or physical reality). In fact, increasingly expecting teens to be able to consider other’s points of view is crucial for learning to relate in mutual ways. However, when the teen is struggling, it is the parent’s job to try and be there for them until they are once again ready to see others. It is also the parent’s job to recognize when they are being blocked by past experiences that still need to be worked out and then work on that. When we do these things for our kids, we help them hold onto trust that others can understand them and love them. This helps them learn that they don’t have to always trade trust in others (including God) for trust in self-defensive and protective measures. This act participates not only in helping our kids succeed but also in cultivating Kingdom values further into our world.

Aaron Mitchum is a Licensed Professional Counselor. Visit www.analogcounseling.com to find information about Aaron’s practice.

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