Where Brain Growth Happens
Effort in the face of challenge:
Teens need to learn that there is growth in their struggles. I don’t mean emotional growth and learning. We all grow when we deal with adversity if we focus on what we can learn from the difficulty. I mean real, physical brain growth.
As teens are a work in progress, their brains are not fully developed yet, and so their life is often a struggle. Their frontal lobe, the part of the brain that is responsible for negotiating behavior for the future and lets us see the potential consequences of our choices, is the last part of the brain to develop. In fact, it takes until our mid-20’s for the brain to mature. And because of this lack of maturity, life and the demands it places on our kids can be hard, creating some struggle. It is, however, in this struggle where the brain actually grows. Without the brain growth, all the executive skills needed for success, all the futurizing and working through and perseverance in the face of adversity to achieve successes, will not happen. So as parents you can celebrate the struggles of adolescence knowing that your child’s brain is growing every time they miscalculate the consequences of their actions. And you can teach your children how to grow their brains from these struggles.
Currently, there are many ways in which our society conspires against this growth. Schools, while successful at teaching academics, aren’t so good at teaching the grit and executive function skills necessary for life success. Sure, skills like self control and resisting temptation are required to be successful in the classroom (raise your hand instead of blurting out the answer, stay in your seat instead of running outside on a beautiful afternoon) and in life (don’t hit that snooze button or answer every time the text tone dings on your phone). But what kids don’t often get is the guidance toward persistence in the face of difficulty. We are living in a time when technology makes it easy to have information instantly - no need to dig deep for information. That same technology substitutes for our own working memory - it recalls phone numbers and dials them for us; it advises us of other people we might want to include in an email. Our technology is with us 24/7 never giving us a breath. And even when we are not on social media, our personas persist in our absence. On top of that, the level of competition in our children’s lives has increased bringing along with it stress - soccer is now year round and being seen by the right scouts is the new full time sport. Parents are rescuing their kids more and more as the perceived consequences of the child’s failure seems higher. Parent stress becomes kid stress. All these issues reduce the ability to develop long term thinking and goal directed persistence. It is that perseverance through difficulty that is needed to be successful beyond talent; to develop skill. Once skilled, effort is required to gain more skill and then achieve because at the top of any game you need skill plus effort. This is where the brain grows. In the effort. The practice. The learning about making plans, following through, making corrections when things go wrong. Competition can set the stage for growth. When you surround yourself with the outstanding, you have to work harder. This is where you grow. Surround yourself with the mediocre and while you might feel accomplished in that mix, you will not grow any further. That effort in the face of something hard, the possibility of failing, is what keeps you in the game. Otherwise, you become complacent, resting on what you already know and too scared to take a risk that would bring growth even through failure. I am not suggesting that everything is or should be a competition. And I am certainly not advocating for stress. What I am saying is that having to work hard is ok. Not only is it ok but hard work is necessary to grow. When something is difficult for a child, it is up to the adults in her life to focus on the effort and what she can learn through this difficulty. If parents view difficulties as debilitating, so will the children. It is a balance though. Parents need to support the child enough so risks can be taken without setting her up for failure, but not so much that there is no growth or effort involved.
So how do you help your teen grow? As Carol Dweck says: change the mindset.
Recognize the power of YET thinking. I am not there, YET. But I will be
Shift focus. What you focus on becomes the reality. It is what you see, what you take note of. If you focus on how hard something is, or the potential for failure, you will prove yourself right. If you focus on your goal and your potential to succeed, you will be right about that too.
Teach to Say YES versus no. YES creates buy-in while No puts up barriers and increases anxiety
Change the “Have to” mind, to the “Want to” mind. Address why you are doing what you are doing. Where does it lead? What will you get in the future? Focus on what you want for yourself and how that class, that assignment, going to school, gets you a step closer to what you want. Here are the reasons why you work through something hard.
Change the P’s. Notice how when something is hard the tendency is to focus on the Personal, the Pervasiveness and the Permanence. Most times, however, failure is not personal (it is about an aspect/behavior not about the whole person or who you are as a human being in the world); it is not pervasive (it isn’t about everything you do or say or are); and it isn’t permanent (you can change the situation, fix the situation and sometimes just accept that situation and then move beyond it - usually in the scheme of things, that set-back does not alter one’s life forever)
Take control of the story. What story you tell yourself about your situation is in your control and how you see the story will shape how you feel and how you move into the future. If you were in a car accident you can think you were unlucky or lucky depending on the story you create about it.
Take a look at all the famous failures like Michael Jordan, Henry Winkler and get inspiration.
Create situations that are setups for success. Remove temptation because willpower is a limited resource. Put your phone in the other room while studying. Look into the future and ask why you are doing something so that you support your future self. Give yourself enough time. Notice the sabotages that block success.
Create stress antidotes. Do something you love to release natural high. Exercise before doing something hard. Take 5 minute breaks every 20-30 minutes. Sip on a sugary drink (NOT SODA) while studying. Build in rewards. Break hard tasks down into smaller chunks.