Round about the middle of January, in any given year, we’re each caught up in a dance we’ve created for ourselves: the making peace with a lack of progress on our New Year’s resolutions dance. You know the moves, right? You shake your head and think, “Nah, that wasn’t a big problem to fix anyway,” then you shimmy a little into an agreement with yourself: “I’ll start for real tomorrow.” Then there’s the swing of the hips where you make some positive steps only to walk it back a bit with the refrain, “Well, there’s always next week or month or year.”
And while we usually laugh about it in January, it’s true the other 11 months, too. Change is hard. I can imagine each of us could list some started (but unfinished) projects or self-improvement quests that kind of faded away. Or, maybe you have some new habits you’ve dabbled in but haven’t really stuck to. Change is hard.
Interestingly, when we’re working with our kids to improve some of their “behaviors,” (yes, you’re hearing air quotes there) we forget our understanding of change. We expect that if our kids can SAY it, then they can also DO it. And, oftentimes the changes seem so logical and obvious that we assume if our kids don’t make the change, then clearly they just don’t care.
Let’s get our brains out of this trap. We know that executive functions are complicated and nuanced. They manifest and operate differently in each brain and in each stage of life. Executive functions are intertwined with one another and depend on both internal and external factors.
I’ll use the example of having your child start using a planner, partially because I think we’ve all been there. Logically, we know that our adult brains need to have things written down. If they’re not accounted for in a list, on our phones, on a sticky note, whatever our system, then the things we need to do or remember are probably as good as gone. So, when we see our kids struggling to remember assignments or when they are genuinely surprised by deadlines and events, we think, “Duh! Just write it down in a planner.”
The cue for our brains is the struggle we observe. If you’re forgetting your to-do list, then you should make a system like a planner to help you remember. If, then. Just do it. You should. That’s the logic for those of us trying to help.
For our kids, however, their perspective could be remarkably different. They may recognize that they’re missing work, but they may attribute it to task-specific reasons. For example, they may have a story for each piece of work and be so dialed in on their reality that they fail to zoom out and see the pattern. To someone who is on the ground level, playing whack-a-mole with assignments, adding a planner will feel like just one more thing to do. Can’t you see they’re drowning already? Now you want them to write down the work in some new tool? Why would they want to see how long the list is anyway?
You hear that right. Our strategies can feel like “extra stuff” to our kids with executive function challenges. If we jump in too quickly and skip allowing our kids to see there’s a need, then our kids will push back against us.
If you’re nodding because it sounds like I channeled your kid, I hear you! And, we’ve come to the most important understanding of changing behaviors: whatever the change, it has to come from your child, not be thrust upon them. The foundation for any strategy is developing self-awareness!
Yes, from the outside, waiting until our kids have that self-awareness, waiting for them to feel the need for a strategy is painful.
But, as much as you can, resist the urge to rush the change process. No one could take your post-holiday, sweatpants-wearing comfy self and get you to a 5 am HIIT class immediately, right? Think of your child’s change in these terms, too. It will be slow if it’s going to last.
If we rush our kids, if we spend another truckload of money on planners or calendars or sticky notes or apps…they will flash in the pan at best. At worst, our kids will argue with us or even pretend to use the strategies for a while, in an attempt to please us but with no long-term buy-in.
Maybe it’s a twinge ironic right now. I’ve spent the first part of this show raising your self-awareness about your child’s change progression. Maybe you’re starting to agree that there’s a need to try something different.
Your kid’s executive function is lagging and right about now, mid-semester, that lag is showing up in lots of missing work or crazy hours spent on homework. How do you get them to agree to using strategies at this point?
It all starts with awareness. We’ve got to help our kids see the challenges, in neutral lighting. This is harder than it seems; we likely don’t want to spend the time asking questions or helping our child reflect. After all, every day without the strategies in place is another day that the grades are hemorrhaging.
My best way to increase your child’s awareness involves two main methods: depersonalize the challenges and ask lots of good questions.
Depersonalizing any challenge means taking away the judgements and assumptions about behaviors. You can do so easily by talking to your child in terms of their “brains” or their “habits.” Instead of asserting to your child “You never get organized! You lose everything!” You can depersonalize with “Man, I notice you’re looking for the same things over and over. I imagine that’s frustrating. It seems like you have a brain that has a hard time organizing.” Or, instead of accusing your child of procrastinating on purpose, which implies a moral component to the situation, you can say, “You’re doing work right before it’s due. It seems like your brain does that a lot.”
The effect of making observation statements that depersonalize is twofold: first, you help shine the beam of attention on a pattern problem, one which your kid may legitimately not yet see. And second, it helps pave the way to accept help because it distinguishes between child, the human, and your child’s brain. I myself don’t want to feel cornered, judged, or shamed. But, if someone’s noticing something about my brain or my habits, not about Sarah the human, I’m much more likely to listen and keep my guard down. When we state that someone’s brain or habits has a challenge, that preserves their dignity and allows them to separate from the problem. We validate that the human isn’t making bad choices, but, instead, their brain has some needs that are not yet met.
The second part to helping your child establish a baseline for accepting strategies is to ask lots of open-ended questions. This overlaps a ton with coaching! Good questions allow your child to examine their own thinking or notice patterns in their life. My best advice is to start with questioning what’s going RIGHT!
Here’s what I mean: when your child has an easier time with homework or earns a great grade or shows some new independence, help them tease out what’s working! Practicing metacognition (thinking about our thinking) can be done through any context, so why not start with the more positive realms?
For example, when your child finishes homework quicker than usual, you may ask things like, “What went right?, What strategy did you use to…, or How did your brain get through that work today?” Your child will likely engage with the positive reflections and will realize that there are strategies they’re already using!
This self-awareness lays the foundation upon which we can build strategies to address deficits. But, we’ve got to have a foundation and help our child see the building tools before we ever ask them to construct anything! That means it’s slower, yes, but if it’s lasting change we want, depersonalizing and raising self-awareness are the only ways to get there!
Grab that kid! Time for this week’s pep talk!
Your grown up just learned why just telling you to do something isn’t enough. Did you know that, too? I imagine there are times when you really, really want to improve something, but you find that making a change is trickier than you predicted. Or, maybe you think you got it, but when you go to try the new strategy or routine, you realize that, nope, you don’t got it.
Human brains, am I right? But change being tricky doesn’t mean impossible. You’re always changing, right? It’s just that when you want to change on purpose, let’s say, to manage time differently or to remember to turn in your homework, it takes a bit more effort.
Your grown up learned that to really get and keep strategies working for you, we need to do two things: we need to make the struggle less personal, and we need to help you see what you already do right!
How may times has a grown up, a teacher or parent, told you that you “don’t care,” “are lazy,” or “could do the thing if you really wanted to”? Lots, right? Thing is, that’s usually not true. Most of the time, you’re working against some brain challenges that you can’t control but you can influence. It’s certainly not helpful to hear that you, the human, are being naughty, when it’s your brain that’s complicating things.
So, your grown up took the challenge to help separate out brain moments from you as a person. You may hear them say that “Your brain might need…” or, “Tell me what your brain is going through,” instead of telling you that you are choosing the challenge. It’s a small change, but trust me, it will help you feel like you and your teachers and parents can all team up to HELP your challenges, rather than feeling like everyone is blaming you.
The second part is your grown up is going to help you see what you’re doing RIGHT. You probably have lots of strategies that work! Knowing what works and seeing the spots where you still need strategies is called self-awareness. It helps you get curious about your struggles, which puts your brian into problem-solving mode! And kid, once you’re in that detective perspective, you are one unstoppable human!
So, let’s figure out what works this week. Let’s think about what your brain needs and stop saying that you, the human, is choosing these struggles. Detective perspective, here we come! Can’t wait to hear about your unstoppable moments, Kid!
All my love and talk to you soon,