Teenagers Might Have a Problem With Respect But It's Not the One You Think

If you have a teenager, you're probably familiar with the feeling of being disrespected: Your teen rolls their eyes, sighs deeply, no longer laughs at your jokes, goes straight to their room and closes the door, or seems to argue with you all the time. You feel triggered: Your once-compliant child is becoming a stranger. Or your parental authority is threatened. 

You may sense that some of this disrespect is related to growing up, to your teen's desire to run their own life, make their own decisions. But they're not yet an adult, and the issues you need to weigh in on accumulate: When can they go out without supervision? What media can they use, and for how long? When can they have co-ed sleepovers, go to parties, or date? Are they doing their homework, getting enough sleep, spending time with family?

Some adults (not only parents but teachers, coaches, advisors, and more) react by taking a top-down approach, laying down their word as law: "Do it because I said so." Others take the opposite tack and abdicate their authority, letting the teens do what they want. Some adults try to micromanage teens, taking over where teens could be responsible for themselves. And others--especially those with a higher level of education--try to inform and persuade, didactically offering all the reasons why a teen should or should not do something. 

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But research is revealing an important truth: Respect is a two-way street, and it becomes especially important during adolescence. Shifting focus from how much respect you feel you're getting, to whether or not you're showing them respect, is critical. Leveraging respect for teens is key to helping them stay engaged, in relationship, and in collaboration.

So what does that look like?

Respect for autonomy is key.

Self-determination theory asserts that people are more motivated when their underlying needs are taken into account. One of the most important human needs is autonomy, and autonomy is never more important than during the teenage years.

When you have autonomy, you have the freedom to act out of your own volition, to "own" an action yourself. Teens are more likely to feel autonomous when they feel successful managing a part of their lives, when they're allowed freedom of choice and action, when they're given responsibility, and/or when they see that their actions are meaningful and that they matter. Feeling autonomous contributes to feeling respected, and it helps teens know that they're on the road to adulthood.

A number of changes conspire during adolescence to make autonomy more important than at any other time. The hormonal changes that come with puberty act on the brain to bias teens' motivation in certain ways, perhaps in preparation for adulthood. One of those changes is in testosterone; its rise in both boys and girls in adolescence is correlated with respect-seeking. (Conventional wisdom links testosterone with aggression, but researchers find that it's more accurately predictive of respect-seeking. It's just that what counts for respect depends on the context. In deviant peer circles, testosterone is associated with aggression, but if teens are in a healthy peer group, the drive for respect is channeled more constructively, like taking leadership.)

If you take a long view of adolescence, this sharp turn toward needing respect makes sense: As adults, we all need to solicit respect or status among our peers in order to make things happen and function effectively in a group. But to a parent, the sudden change can feel jarring, and parents are often unprepared.

Autonomy threat: Why teens shut down (and how to avoid it).

It turns out, teens are super-sensitive to how adults react to their growing autonomy. When teens feel over-controlled or coerced, or even when adults do too much for them, it can trigger "autonomy threat," which shuts down teens' willingness to collaborate or engage. Threats to teens' autonomy may make them feel less able, less trustworthy, and more childlike than adult-like. Autonomy threats also send negative messages about teens' competence.

Researchers have noticed that quite a few strategies that work for children don't work for teens, especially beginning at around the eighth grade. A major reason for that may be autonomy threat. 

For example:

  • A meta-analysis (analysis of multiple studies) of bullying prevention programs showed that program effectiveness drops to nearly zero for eighth graders and above. Many social and emotional learning programs that work for younger children are less effective with high school students.

  • A recent randomized control trial (the gold standard of research) of a mindfulness intervention showed that it had no benefits for high school students, even though the course was taught by an expert in mindfulness.

  • Other meta-analyses show that numerous public health campaigns aimed at preventing obesity, depression, and juvenile justice recidivism become less effective in the eighth grade and above.

In fact, scientists are now starting to think that so-called "teenage rebellion" is not an inevitable part of adolescence but rather a reaction to autonomy threat. For example, studies show that teens are willing to comply with parents when they think the rules are fair (like moral choices or ones involving safety), but they resist when the rules seem personal (e.g., what clothes to wear) or unjust. In other words, they don't rebel across the board, just when they think something is out of bounds--a distinction we surely want them to be able to make as adults.

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One clever study showed how criticism can literally shut teens down. Researchers scanned teenagers' brains while they listened to recordings of their mothers making different types of statements, including both loaded statements (criticisms) and neutral statements about the weather. When the mothers criticized the teens, saying things like, "One thing that really bothers me about you is [blank]," regions of the teens' brains that process emotions (specifically social and physical pain) became more active. Simultaneously, areas of the brain associated with emotion regulation and social cognition became less active. Scientists interpret this to mean that not only do teens react with negative feelings to their mother's criticism but that their ability to regulate those feelings also deteriorates and they become less able to take the parent's perspective into account.

So how do we talk with teens about difficult subjects without activating their autonomy threat?

One recent study demonstrated that avoiding autonomy threat, along with appealing to teens growing sense of social justice, could inspire them to make healthy food choices--something traditional public health campaigns have been unsuccessful at. Researchers Christopher Bryan at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and David Yeager at the University of Texas at Austin, along with other colleagues, randomly assigned over 500 eighth graders to one of three learning conditions:

  1. The first group learned about the importance of healthy eating through traditional, information-based health education lessons.

  2. The second group read an article about how food companies unfairly influence people's food choices in a number of ways, e.g., by engineering foods to be addictive, manipulatively targeting young people, mislabeling unhealthy foods as healthy and natural, and so on.

  3. The third group was a non-food-related control group.

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The following day, when students had the opportunity to select their own snacks for an ostensibly unrelated event, the group that had read about corporate manipulation chose healthier snacks than either of the other two groups. A reasonable conclusion is that in the case of the first group, teens' autonomy threat was triggered by the didactic style of teaching information. But in the second group, their desires both for autonomy and for social justice were appealed to--teens don't want to be controlled by anyone, including corporations, and they have a strong sense of fairness and justice.

Interventions are more effective, science suggests, when they work in concert with teens' strong values. Indeed, studies show that teens collaborate more under certain conditions: where they feel their intelligence is valued, where their potential fro growth is taken into account, when they are allowed to make choices and discoveries, when they feel safe. 

Another piece of the puzzle: secure attachment.

Teens who have a secure attachment with their parents or primary caregivers also collaborate and engage more with adults and make healthier decisions. Scientists define a secure attachment in adolescence much the same as in earlier childhood--where parents are a "secure base" for children to explore the world and master their environment. And a secure attachment in adolescence continues to confer benefits like better mental health, better social skills, fewer risky behaviors, and better coping in teens.

But attachment looks different in adolescence that it does in childhood, especially in the dimension of autonomy. Teens don't need to be as physically close to their parents, but they do still need the psychological closeness and assurances of support and protection when needed. They spend more time with their peers, away from parents, than younger children do. And they have more conflicts with their parents--though conflict itself is not a sign of a problem. Rather, some conflict is a healthy byproduct of negotiating their growing autonomy. However, how the conflict is handled matters very much: Teens do better when they are allowed to express their opinions freely (respectfully, still validating and showing empathy for the other person's point of view), without being made to feel that their relationship with their parent is threatened.

Kristine Marbell-Pierre researched "autonomy-supportive parenting" as a graduate student at Clark University, and she is now the Head of Guidance and Counseling at The Ghana International School in Ghana. Autonomy-supportive parenting is part of a secure attachment and is an approach where parents motivate teens to be collaborative.

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"You help them get behind your actions so they want to do what they're doing," she says. "They're cleaning their rooms because they want to do it, or they're studying really hard because they want to do it." How does that happen? "Through a conversation," she explains. "You let them give you their opinion, you give your perspective, and you negotiate and give them some choice."

For example, the parents of a friend of mine were getting a divorce and they felt it was important for their son to go to therapy. He wasn't sure he wanted to go, though, and his parents listened to his opinion. Then they explained why they thought therapy might be helpful...and they let him reject as many therapists as he wanted to until he found one he liked. Both parties had some control in the situation, and to this day, their son talks about therapy as one of the most important contributors to his mental health.

But what about when making a choice isn't appropriate or isn't allowed? Marbell-Pierre wondered if allowing teens choices would fly in her home country of Ghana, where families are hierarchical and where obedience to, and respect for, elders is paramount. "How can a teen feel like they're behind their own actions without undermining our value of respect for elders?" she asked.

So she surveyed both American and Ghanaian six graders about how they and their parents handled decisions together. What she discovered is that there are two separate parts to autonomy support: The first involves taking the teens' perspective, empathizing, and allowing an open exchange of conversation. The second part is the allowance of choice, or the teens' own decision-making.

Among the Ghanaian teens, obedience and lack of choice did not create negative feelings, she explained, because the teens identified more as part of the collective family. For American teens, though, having a choice was important, and negative feelings resulted when they couldn't have a hand in the decision-making. However, teens in both cultures did better and felt better when they were free to express their views, their feelings, and even their criticisms--and when they received empathy and an understanding of their different perspective from their parents. 

"Human beings across cultures need to feel heard and understood," says Marbell-Pierre.

Research confirms that all kinds of positive outcomes result from autonomy-supportive parenting: Teens learn better and do better in school, they are more engaged, and they persist harder if the face of difficulty. They also have better moods, are more collaborative with adults, and they rebel less.

"They are happier, more self-motivated, and more confident," says Marbell-Pierre.

Teenagers are one of the most negatively stereotyped groups in America, writes Laurence Steinberg, a prominent developmental psychologist.(1) And yet, as a society, we need--and we should value--teens' developmental gifts.(2) Their creativity, their energy, and their idealism are what remake society and carry us forward into the future with new ideas and solutions. Validating, protecting, and guiding their growing autonomy is important to their wellbeing and to keeping those gifts intact.

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Helpful tips for supporting teens’ growing autonomy:

Strive for an authoritative parenting style, which includes a secure attachment. It also helps to encourage the ongoing development of a child’s autonomy from an early age.

Practice deep listening or reflective listening to the teen’s side of things. It might help to:   

  • Turn off your own internal alarm system: Take a meta-moment to calm your own reaction in order to make space to listen.

  • Reframe the teen’s desire for autonomy as a sign of their growing maturity rather than a threat to your authority.

  • Notice what gets in the way of your ability to be present and listen, such as stress, worry about your teen’s future, daily hassles, over-investing your own self-esteem in your teen’s success, or an addiction to control. (These suggestions come from this website on autonomy-supportive parenting.

  • Learn reflective listening techniques. For help, see the classic book How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

Be wary of pop literature that offers simple solutions, such as this article that points to letting teens fail as the way to promote autonomy. Granted, low-risk failure is appropriate at times, but be aware that the development of healthy autonomy results from more complex processes.

Scaffold choices and decision-making in age-appropriate ways. Teens, especially younger ones, can have strong emotional responses without the skills to regulate them. That, along with their desire for status among their peers and fallibilities in logical reasoning, can sometimes put them at greater risk. One helpful strategy is to require increased responsibility concomitant with increasing freedoms. For example, allowing the tongue piercing but making the teen responsible for health, safety, and costs. Or allow your teen to stay at a friends’ house but requiring a phone call when they’re starting back home.

Hone your back-and-forth negotiation skills. Here’s a template for that kind of conversation in families. Be clear on what’s non-negotiable for you (e.g., safety), versus what you’re willing to compromise on (e.g., appearance).

Other resources: Developmental psychologist Mike Riera offers the framework of transitioning from being a child’s “manager” to becoming more of a “consultant” during your child’s adolescence. He has several books, including Staying Connected to Your Teenager and Uncommon Sense for Parents with Teenagers. And developmental psychologist Laura Kastner, along with Jennifer Wyatt, write about how to handle conflicts that arise with teens in the book Getting to Calm.

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Footnotes:

(1) Laurence Steinberg (2014). Adolescence, 10th Ed., NY, NY: McGraw-Hill, p. 18

(2) Daniel Siegel (2013). Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. NY, NY: Penguin Group.

 

 

 

 

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What Does a Developmental Psychologist See in a 40th Class Reunion?

When I told people I was going to my 40th high school reunion, I might as well have said I was jumping off a cliff. Almost across the board, the reaction was shock, though the reasons varied. Granted, I hadn’t been in touch with my classmates, so some degree of surprise was legitimate. But my friends and family also projected their own reasons: high school had been the “worst time of their lives”; that they had never “fit in”; they didn’t want to open their present lives to judgment. But I’m a developmental psychologist, and I wanted to understand what a reunion ritual might mean. Nothing is more interesting to me than discovering how children grow up and their lives turn out.

As the date approached, I finally became apprehensive myself. Most of us had been together since kindergarten, but what if I didn’t recognize people after forty years? After all, I now have silver hair and 40 additional pounds; others would also have changed. Or what if we didn’t have anything to talk about? How would I react to an old “flame,” or he to me? Could I finally uncover the story behind a friend who had so traumatically “dropped” me in sixth grade? When nervous jokes started showing up on the Facebook reunion page, I saw that I wasn’t the only one with anxiety. I recruited a childhood friend to go with me.

“I’m only doing this for you, you know,” Vic joked when she greeted me at my hotel. Our mothers went to high school together and been friends long before we were born. Vic remembers the fuzzy socks I wore in second grade and how my father had carried me into school in his arms when my broken leg was in a cast. I remember making vinegar and baking soda volcanoes at Vic’s house and singing soprano next to her in choir.

We arrived at the Curling Club (home to the winter sport of sliding granite stones on ice) to a frenzy of slightly boozed-up greetings. About a third of my class of 140 was there. A current of excitement crackled through the crowd—hails from across the lawn; flying wisecracks and boisterous teasing; and enthusiastic, if somewhat self-conscious, hugging. It was a relief to find my old friend Dave, who was just as unruffled as I’d remembered him—a straight shooter, unperturbed by his surroundings. He had worked for a time for my father, a milkman; his mother had been my beloved third grade teacher. I was happy to meet Dave’s wife, and a meaningful conversation ensued about parents, illness, children, and more.

Sociologist Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi has observed that high school reunions can trigger a sudden threat to one’s identity. In the space of a short gathering, we are called upon to reconcile past expectations with our present reality, among people who shared that past. At my reunion, the actual list of predictions that our peers had made about each other 40 years ago hid amidst the memorabilia. “Diana will run a computer dating service,” it read, and the old memory of craving connection amidst my chaotic environment flashed. Other predictions were equally unpredictive: that a high school romance would end in marriage (it didn’t) or that a career would peak in a grocery store stockroom (it didn’t); and predictions for women centered on marriage and children. Predictions can be entertaining, but since these weren’t about activating our best future selves, I regretted their presence. Reunions are not just happy gatherings, Vinitzky-Seroussi writes. They “telescope the life course” and create pressure to evaluate, or protect, or project our choices, often in the space of a very short, catch-up conversation.

But this was not our tenth or even twenty-fifth reunion, the early ones that Vinitzky-Seroussi studied. This was our fortieth, a time when life achievements are behind for most of us and some are even looking toward retirement. Fortunately, I felt well-anchored in the present, and I think others did, too.

The conventional wisdom about reunions is that people can surprise you, and I found that to be true. Who would have known that the quiet boy in the back of the band would be a pillar of the community as the trusted funeral director? Or that the guy who seemed lost in high school would be so crisp and successful at 58? Psychologists use the terms “equifinality” and “multifinality” to describe how very different paths can lead to similar outcomes, or, conversely, how similar paths can lead to very different outcomes. At the same time, our perceptions of what’s important changes, too: The kids who once dominated in popularity might now appear boring and superficial, and the former “outsiders” often turn out to be the really interesting ones. And yet when I asked Vic if she recognized everyone, she replied, “Not so much from their faces, but their energy—it’s the same.”

Even though we all shared a large part of our pasts, we couldn’t have truly known each others’ lives while we were children. A few kids had seemed to sail through with equanimity—they ran the student council at school and collected maple syrup at home–but even then, there were hints of malaise. I knew that it wasn’t right that the gentle, deer-like boy who sat in front of me in seventh grade homeroom smelled like alcohol and cigarettes. Another child was rumored to have been abused, though there was no action taken to protect her. I was a high achiever but suffered with parents who were in constant conflict; they struggled with mental health and substance use issues. Many parents were alcoholics before the disease was even named.

Psychologists now know that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are predictive of later physical and mental health problems, including heart disease, depression, and suicidality.  Research suggests that about a third of kids are lucky enough to escape trauma, but about a quarter suffer such high doses that it affects brain development, immune and endocrine functioning, and can create mental and physical disease systems that reduce the lifespan by an average of 20 years. How different might many students’ lives have been if an adult had recognized their feelings and had the skill to approach them and say, “You look down. What’s going on, and can I help?” Today, innovative schools throughout the country are feathering emotional skill development into their academic curricula, and studies show that both individual kids, and the school as a whole do better. Pediatricians, too, are beginning to screen for ACEs and offer early intervention services to families and children at risk.

Childhood is not easy, even at the best of times, and middle school is an especially stressful period. Conventional wisdom used to hold that it was the changing sex hormones that made kids “crazy,” but scientists now understand that puberty kicks off changes in the brain that make youth more emotionally sensitive, more sensitive to their social world, more willing to take risks, and more vulnerable to mental illness and addictions. Combine all of that with changes in schools, new peer groups, or family troubles, and you quickly get a pile-up of stressors that can be overwhelming.

Jockeying for status in peer groups begins as early as the fifth grade, and, in my day, peer dynamics were raw and lacking any guidance. Consistent with the research, it was the male athletes and the conventionally pretty girls (especially cheerleaders) who were conferred high status, and kids who were “different” were often marginalized—through teasing, exclusion, and gossip. Girls who physically matured earlier than average, or boys who matured later than average, were at greater risk, just as they are today. Too tall, too skinny, too heavy, too awkward, too shy, too country, too slow…the “faults” can be endless. 

Kids naturally form and re-form friendships, but without real social skills, the process can be excruciating. In sixth grade, I was shattered when my best friend of six years decided one day to simply stop talking to me. While it’s natural for a child to feel ready to find new friends, this particular friend had had no skills with which to explain her needs. Her silent treatment left a mark, and I used it both as a cautionary tale for my own children and an illustration in the college courses I taught on teen development. Research now shows that humans are such intensely social creatures that social ostracism lights up physical pain pathways in the brain; it can be more damaging than even physical abuse. Sometimes, I imagine how our friendship “breakup” could have gone differently, had we had the social skills kids can learn in school nowadays to navigate peer conflict. Though my well-being is no longer affected by that experience, I was curious to know my former friend’s side of the story. Yet when we greeted each other at the reunion, we didn’t get much beyond a hello. I took that to mean that it was not likely to be the place—or perhaps the person—where such a conversation could happen.

“Humans are storytelling, story-loving creatures,” says psychologist Matthew Lieberman, author of Social Brain, Social Mind. One of the most powerful ways we understand the experience of being human is by constructing a narrative of our lives. Young children begin this process as soon as they learn the word “I,” and parents begin telling them stories about when they were little. And at the other end of lifespan, elders engage in a “life review,” telling and retelling their stories to help them make sense of their lives.

Reunions—where our past selves meet our present selves—can be a special opportunity to re-weave our stories. I observed it happening all evening. One woman who had seemed defiant and tough in junior high apologized to the PE teacher, telling her that she hadn’t meant to be the teacher’s “nemesis” but in fact was a military kid who got moved around a lot.

“I never knew that,” the teacher breathed, empathically.

A man who had been a geek before geeks were cool enthusiastically shared that he was an inventor, held patents, had designed a part of the space shuttle and a medical device, and had made millions doing so.

A friend divulged her confusion about some same-sex experimentation that had gone on at a childhood sleepover. Of course there had been no framework for normalizing that, or even language to name it.

I, too, had a story to revise. When a popular biology teacher’s name came up, I shared that six years after we’d graduated, he had prevented my Lutheran church from marrying me and my husband, because my husband is from India. “He’s not a good guy,” I grumbled about the teacher.

The life stories flowed, from what it’s like for a Minnesotan to be transplanted to the Deep South, to taking care of grandchildren, to being the youngest in a senior citizen woodworking shop, to losing a child. There was a lot of loss and growth to process, as well as joy to celebrate.

One evening is not enough time together to truly span 40 years; it’s just a sliver of reality. But I happily put new numbers and email addresses into my phone. I want to keep up with some old friends, and I discovered new ones that I’d missed earlier.

And that old flame?

“I learned from you,” he told me. “Your family had high expectations, and I craved some of that.”

“You sheltered me at a stormy time,” I replied, remembering his laughter and easy-going manner.

Class reunion? For me, at least, it wasn’t so scary. What we went through together mattered, and bearing witness to one another’s stories—from our shared past and the years that had followed— felt like a good way to honor that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ten Reasons Teens Need an Emotion Revolution: My Speech to Lady Gaga's Foundation and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence

Developmental scientists are alarmed about American teens' well-being. Our teens are doing much more poorly, in many spheres, than teens in other countries, and indicators of mental illness have been rising among American teens in recent decades. 

On October 24th, I joined 400 high school student students, educators, policymakers, funders, and parents at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. We were there for an all-day summit to launch the Emotion Revolution--a movement to improve the emotional climate for teens at school.

Last spring, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence teamed up with Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation to conduct a survey of 22,000 diverse teens. The survey asked the teens how they were feeling in school and how they wanted to feel. In the first morning session of the Emotion Revolution Summit, the results were revealed:

  • Students surveyed reported that they are not feeling well at school. 80% of the top ten feelings were negative: tired, stressed, and bored, followed by anxious, annoyed, sad, alone, and depressed. (The remaining 20% was accounted for by "happy" and "good" or neutral.)

  • Students said they would rather feel happy, excited, and energized, along with safe, comfortable, valued, respected, connected, supported, balanced, and contented.

In response the Center, along with the BTW Foundation and Facebook, created a website called InspirED. There, teachers and students can find classroom activities of every size designed to foster exactly the feelings that students said they want to have. 

But it's going to take more than a resource center. Like any great change, helping teens feel good at school is going to take attitude shifts, policy changes, funding, and more.

I gave a talk at the Summit which laid out ten reasons, based on adolescent development, for why a revolution is necessary to bring a greater and more sophisticated investment in teens themselves, and in the environments they move in.

My 15-minute talk is here:

If you don't have time to watch, here are my points in a nutshell:

  1. Compared to teens in other developed countries, American teens are struggling in most spheres that matter.

  2. Developmental scientists, who study child and adolescent development, are calling the teen years the new Zero-To-Three. Zero-To-Three was an effort to pour money, policies, and programs into the first few years of children's lives, founded when the science revealed that what happens in a child's environment affects critical brain development. Well, now we're understanding that the brain changes that happen in the teen years are just as critical--and they need just as intense a focus. Never again in a person's life will there be such a window of opportunity.

  3. Beginning in puberty, the brain undergoes tremendous "pruning" of neuronal connections. The neurons that are necessary, and are still used, remain. The unnecessary ones get pruned, or cut out. ("Use it or lose it.") This means that teens' environments are important--what they are paying attention to becomes entrenched in the brain.

  4. A number of changes happen in the brain to make teens more emotional. They need strategies to deal with this intense emotionality.

  5. Due to imbalances in the development of brain systems, teens are "all gas and no brakes," which makes them take uncalculated risks, for better and worse.

  6. Teens are more sensitive to other people than are younger children or adults, and could benefit from more skills for handling their greater depth of feeling.

  7. Teens want to become independent, but they also want to stay connected to their parents--and have been telling researchers so for decades.

  8. This current generation of teens has strong values. They are less materialistic than earlier cohorts of teens, they care more about others, they are concerned for the environment, and they have progressive attitudes.

  9. Most human rights documents concerning youth give them the explicit right to have a say in the matters that affect them.

  10. Teens have led revolutions before.

If we give teens the skills they need and the respect they crave, who knows what force for good we could unleash?

 

 

What Does a Developmental Psychologist See in Burning Man?

When I sent my 86-year old father my photos from Burning Man, he replied that he didn't understand: Wasn't it for "hippie kids"? What was I doing there, and what did the experience do for me?

The Love Bus (photo by Zai Divecha)

The Burn is famously different for each participant. Some Burners go to strut and party, some to share their art, a few to network and get ahead. Approaching our 60s, my husband and I get the most pleasure from camping there with our 20-something kids who extended an open invitation for the second time. But I also go to stay fresh, keep up on emerging ideas, and to prevent the fixed mindset I fear might creep in with age.

Like everyone, I bring my own kaleidoscopic lens to the playa. In my everyday life as a developmental psychologist, I experience much of my social world through a chronological telescope: When I look at children, I see the adults they may become; when I meet adults, I see the children they likely were. I’m keenly aware that we are all developing, all the time.

And I recognize that we are not nailed uniformly to a single rung on some developmental ladder. While some parts of us are reasonably established in adulthood, some parts of us remain deep in childhood. Psychologists call this normal developmental unevenness décalage, a French word that translates to “lag” or “gap.” Many people are not stuck but move flexibly and adaptively—like various spiritual teachers I’ve encountered, whose equanimity is spacious and evolved, yet who can erupt with the laughter and delight of young children.

My headdress (photo by Zai Divecha)

At home, preparing for Burning Man, I gave myself permission to go the craft table and the dress-up corner to immerse myself in the elixir of creativity and make-believe. I emerged wearing a homemade caftan, wooden necklaces, and a medieval horned headpiece, along with a second headpiece of papier-mâché branches sprouting from a drywall skullcap anchored inside a turban. By the time I hopped on my bike at the edge of the playa, I could see my 10-year-old self in the mirror.

In my adult life, I advocate for improving childhood through my research, speaking, and writing. And there's much to do. In the first twenty years of life, we find out how the world works and we wrangle a place in it. For some, the process is kind, and for others it is bumpy yet manageable. For a surprising number, though, it is a tortured and traumatic path and they are deposited at the door of adulthood with handicaps and scar tissue. In a famous study of over 17,000 adults, about a third said their childhoods were free of “adverse childhood experiences” (one of ten serious conditions that can derail a child’s life), but about a quarter reported three or more types of traumas— a number that science now links to emotional and physical problems that persist well into adulthood.

And in a Hansel-and-Gretel world, the places meant to shelter, nurture, and protect children are the ones that do the most damage. Many children are traumatized in their homes, and show up at school unable to concentrate or manage their strong feelings. They are frequently misdiagnosed, drugged, punished or expelled. When adults have emotional problems, they are treated as mental health concerns, but when children have emotional struggles, they are often "behavior problems" to be controlled. Schools, too, can be unsafe:  Punishment is a popular but harmful approach to managing children, while cultivating kind, emotionally supportive school cultures is effective but slow to catch on. About a quarter of kids are bullied or harassed at school--an experience that can undermine the rest of their lives. Children do not enjoy the same relationship rights that adults are privileged with; they're made to return, day after day, to the places and people who abuse them.

Burners are a well-educated, modestly financially secure group, but emotional difficulties are equal opportunity. The playa is sometimes described as a kind of playground, but through my eyes it is unlike the one of our childhoods. This one acknowledges some real developmental concerns. Through installations, workshops, and talks, Burning Man offers a chance for some re-dos. Some rewiring.

And it can start with letting go of some of the grief collected on the journey so far. The Temple of Promise, a stunning Gothic cornucopia rising 97 feet above the playa—is a paean to both the normal and the outsized suffering of being human.

Temple of Promise (photos by Diana and Arjun Divecha)

Visitors walk through its increasingly narrowing form, leaving baggage, burdens, pains, fears, and mementos to be burned away at the end of the week. Messages fill and are hung from every available surface, and this year someone left three small suitcases. One woman vented an angry diatribe of suffering at the hands of an abusive stepfather and a complicit mother. Another message was written to parents who had died in a plane accident: “I have not been in a small plane since yours was taken down,” it said. “A friend has offered to fly me over this temple, and I am going to try to overcome my fear. My love is eternal.” On our fourth walk through the temple, my husband quietly released some of the sorrow of losing his mother three months ago.

Reflect (photo by Diana Divecha)

A giant 20-by-40-foot colored tear drop, called Reflect, was captured at the point where it hits water, to represent all the tears shed by those left behind when someone takes his or her own life.

In childhood, adult power hierarchies—based on social status, gender, ethnicity, even height and attractiveness—are replicated inside the school walls, and kids learn early who’s on top and who’s pushed to the exit ramps. Kids often punish each other for being different, and power structures like schools and other institutions use whatever behavioral control possible to keep kids “in line.” 

A 50-foot chapel called the Totem of Confessions contained dioramas of surreal and dreamlike black-and-white photos, oddities that might pop up from the subconscious into dreams or fantasies or fears, and that would likely be considered shameful by others. And as a reminder of ever-present judgment, there was a confessional in the interior of the chapel.

Totem of Confessions (photos by Diana Divecha)

Time Out Corner (photo by Diana Divecha)

A Time Out Corner appeared out of nowhere on the playa, recalling the frequent punishment—deserved or not—of our childhood transgressions. Timeouts for children are now understood to be ineffective, even harmful. Brain imaging studies show they light up the same neural pathways as physical pain.

Some days, after writing about bullying and trauma, I marvel that most of us make it to adulthood as well as we do. The striving to connect, to still try, to be able to still wonder, was manifest in the sculpture Love. There, two massive wire adult forms were seated back-to-back, heads down in withdrawal, while the glowing child inside each of them reached out for the other, touching hands.

Love (photo by Diana Divecha)

Identity Awareness    (photo by Diana Divecha)

Identity Awareness (photo by Diana Divecha)

At Burning Man, there is an invitation to sort out what is personal encumbrance and artifice, from what authentically belongs to us. A giant question mark, barely propped up by a human figure reminded us to question the source of our choices, the source of our identity.

One of the Ten Guiding Principles of Burning Man—radical self-expression—is a direct antidote to the censoring—and censuring—of growing up, making space to question the conventions we take for granted. We took part with our crazy clothes, our go-with-the-flow schedules (some of us got up before dawn when others were just going to bed), and our explorations of new topics (from beekeeping to twerking). We passed the “Dick Parade” where 150 men bicycled through camp, bottomless, while gentle hecklers (a thing) encouraged the liberal use of sunscreen. In its counterpart, women paraded topless in "Critical Tits." Overhead, a man flew a glider, naked. “You’re guaranteed to not be the weirdest kid in the classroom,” the online guide soothes. It would be easy to dismiss the naked experimentation as exhibitionism, but I'm sure some riders may have been struggling with their body image or  health concerns; for some it may have been a healing process from being bullied, targeted, or abused; and perhaps others simply wanted to walk through the wall of a conventional boundary. There are as many possible reasons as there were riders.

(Photos by Arjun and Zai Divecha)

(Photo by Diana Divecha)

But by radical, they mean deep, not crazy: Consent is the cornerstone of a civil community, the Burning Man literature reads. It doesn’t refer to just sexual and physical touch, but anything that “will radically alter the experience of another person.” Prompts to good behavior were everywhere.

Another principle, "radical inclusion," is the antidote to the emotional abuse and social exclusions suffered in childhood. The consistent expectation of kindness is refreshing and softening, and people are just more present. I felt my own guardedness melt just a bit, with hugs, gifts, conversations, and gentle heckles.

Developmental psychologists find that play is the cauldron of intellectual, creative, and social development in childhood, and according to the Burner census, many people come to the playa just for that. The playful mood is their "top priority."

Everything that can be climbed on, is:

(Photos by Arjun Divecha)

You can be a flamethrower, safely:

Serpent Mother (photo by Jordana Joseph); Fire safety rules (photo by Arjun Divecha)

Puns are everywhere:

Burning Man: What Where When (photo by Arjun Divecha); Camp Nevada (photo by Diana Divecha)

And a Disney singalong and Thriller flashmob are open to all comers—not something we normally have an opportunity to attend.

The Bunny March Against Humanity herds humans into a bus and they exit dressed as bunnies. Humans haven’t done such a good job of being in charge, the organizers say. So let’s give the bunnies a chance.

“The only cure for reality,” says the author Gary Lindberg, “is imagination.”

And finally, our sense of wonder was on full throttle much of the time. The location itself is dramatic, and the playa was saturated with one stunning installation after another. 

(Photos by Diana, Arjun, and Zai Divecha, and Julie Light)

The burning of The Man at the end of the week might not just represent an anger toward the political and economic establishment but perhaps a rebellion against the colonization of the heart and spirit as well.

This is a struggle we are all wired for. As we watched a group of young yogis strain, falter, and ultimately succeed in positioning themselves atop giant letters, an observer called out encouragement, shouting “This is what it is to LIVE!”

DREAM LIVE BE OK (photo by Arjun Divecha)

 

My Daughter Took Me to Burning Man

Originally published by the Huffington Post on September 10, 2014.

I checked my packing list for the long Labor Day weekend: antler headpiece, hair extensions, hot pants, fur coat, support hose and estrogen cream. My husband and I were going to Burning Man for the first time -- under the tutelage of our 26-year old daughter, Zai, her partner, Phil, and a large group of their friends.

We packed up the car with food and water for five days, drove to the Nevada desert, and, after a three-hour wait at the gate watching the sunset -- some waited 23 hours while the gates closed for rain on the playa -- it was our turn at the entrance. A distant din and twinkling lights beckoned in the otherwise dark void ahead.

"Welcome home," the young attendant smiled as she took our tickets. "First time?" We told her it was. "Birgins! Please get out of the car, roll in the dust, and ring the bell!"

It's easy to make fun of Burning Man from a distance, and many have. It's even easier up close: People stroll naked or half-naked, in Star-Wars-meets-Mad-Max-meets-Indian-guru garb. Sessions are offered on respectful fisting, penis worship, and making your own greeting cards by stamping your genitals with colorful paint on cardstock -- a craft I typically enjoy, though I've never used that particular stamp.

There is no Internet or cell coverage, no plumbing and no power grid. My husband Arjun gravitates to new experiences, and while I'd rather meditate in a lush forest, I was determined to keep an open mind. I respected our daughter and trusted that what she valued here would be revealed to me. After all, her visit the previous year had inspired her decision to leave a secure job and pursue her passion for metal working and furniture design. I wanted to know -- what could be so powerful here?

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Many Words for Snow and Few for Emotion

Teachers from a school near the Arctic circle who work with children of mostly Inuit families find that this unique cultural group has a "limited vocabulary for talking about emotions as well as limited strategies for managing their emotions effectively." Recently these teachers travelled to Yale where researchers have developed a comprehensive emotion skills curriculum for children that trains the entire school community ("everybody with a face," they say) how to Recognize, Understand, Label, Express, and Regulate emotions (acronym RULER).

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Mindfulness Practice in Schools? Slow down.

Meditation, my teacher used to say, is a vacation that you can give to yourself every time you tune in. For me, it’s a relief from stress and worry, a chance to hear the whispers of my own intuition, and space for my feelings that have not yet formed into words. More and more people are using contemplative practices, including educators who want to prepare their students with “21stcentury skills.” But a review in the June issue of the prestigious journal Child Development Perspectives warns that we should wait before adopting contemplative practices in schools: there just isn’t enough evidence on the benefits of contemplative practices for children to justify its widespread adoption.

There are many forms of contemplative or mindfulness practices—like meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, and the newer Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction—and they vary widely, but all have in common an important way of concentrating attention. Practitioners are guided to focus on the emotions, thoughts or feelings that flow through their awareness, without judging or getting caught up in them. For adults, these practices have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, alleviate pain and illness, and change areas of the brain that are related to regulating emotions, attention and mental flexibility. Meditation practice is even associated with the lengthening of the DNA telomeres, suggesting that it may slow aging at the cellular level.

The research on contemplative practices with schoolchildren, however, is a different story. According to Penn State researchers Mark Greenburg and Alexis Harris, there hasn’t been enough research on the subject, and what studies have been done lack scientific rigor. The majority of studies suffer from design flaws: small numbers of children, a wide range of practices, different kinds of control groups, and varying periods of practice, which makes it difficult or impossible to compare or draw conclusions. Many measures rely on self-report—where the children themselves describe the effects they experience—which yields questionable data since children often want to please adult questioners. Sometimes reports come from teachers or parents who, themselves, know about—or even participate in—the programs, another potentially biased source of feedback. And no studies look at the long-term effects of mindfulness practice in kids.

This is not to say there isn’t reason to hope that contemplative practices can benefit children.

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