Comparison, benchmarking and grandstanding in lockdown.

It’s worth knowing that the ability to compare and have perspective, only really reliably and accurately comes into play after adolescence – with the fuller connection of the pre-frontal cortex that life’s repeated experiences (good and bad) wire in.
So right now our children are working doubly in the dark – and needing to borrow our adult brains more often. When I do my training and speaker events, I often start by referring to my logo – of the Yin and Yang of the brain.

On the left of my brain tree logo are the Tsunami waves of emotion and overwhelm when life gets too much, change or threat occurs and our anxiety circuitry (which has neurological primacy) takes over. When we are in this zone, like a little boat on a stormy sea, it’s hard to see ahead – we can’t find our True North, we can’t see the shore, or see the way we are going – we are too busy trying to keep the boat afloat. 
On the right hand side, we see the more regular wave pattern- this is the calm, logical, ‘yes brain’ – open and receptive to new information, able to see the shore, look to the horizon and make better judgments. 
Children and teens – teens especially – are more emotionally volatile, and subject to the ‘tsunami’ brain. When under stress – especially though these elongating periods of isolation and threat – their emotional skin is likely to be that bit thinner around certain trigger points. 
We all learn how to regulate our feelings – move from Tsunami state to the calmer seas – by quality, consistent experiences of attunement from our caregivers. This means that when overwhelmed, we have access to a parent – or teacher – or mentor figure, who will allow those feelings to exist without judgment or shame, will receive them, and – by virtue of their fully connected pre-frontal cortex – will help us process those feelings – work through them. So in essence we lend our brains to our children – to help them find the perspective that is still distant to them, reconnect to their values and strengths, and be resourceful in how to use them.

Right now, our kids are having to work alone. Even if they are side-by-side with siblings, they lack their peer-group around them to be able to benchmark themselves. Without that 360 degree mirroring, it’s hard to see yourself – and see yourself accurately. Equally WITH that mirroring of comparison, it’s still hard to see yourself clearly because developmentally children and teens will find handling comparison hard. 
Key questions to focus on with respect to school work wobbles:

  1. On a scale of 0-10 where 10 is awesome and 1 is awful, how are you feeling about this? What is so important about this to you? (Check in first)
  2. How do you think that feeling is serving you whilst you are struggling with this? What do you need to be able to work on this effectively? (Preparing the ground)
  3. Do you feel that you have made progress? (Evaluating)
  4. On a scale of 1 – 5 – where 1 is not at all and 5 is completely – where do you think you are with understanding this topic?
  5. What can you do to get help / move forward with this? (Contact teacher, contact friend, get help from parent, sibling, or relative, what web-based resources are available?) (Agency)
  6. We are all doing our best in difficult circumstances. That is all we can ask of ourselves and each other. Do you feel you’ve done your best with this? That’s more than enough. (Reassurance)
  7. Everyone will have topics that they’ve found shaky during crisis-schooling. What can you do to keep a really helpful and clear log of things you feel less secure on? Why might that be important? (Perspective)
  8. It’s so hard, having to do school on your own like this. Everyone will be having their struggles. And holding on to difficulties that can’t easily be resolved can make things even harder. Do you think you can hold onto this as unfinished business? (Check-in, validation, perspective)
  9. On a scale of 1-10 where 10 is awesome and 1 is awful, where are you with your feelings on this now?

So – some insight in what their current fears or fantasies may look like – based on the wellbeing work I am doing with various schools during lockdown – and my coaching work. Some of these you may know are live for your kids and may immediately resonate. Some you won’t:
I am the only one who feels like this.
Is it normal to feel like this? I feel so weird.
Why am I happy one minute and sad / fearful the next?
I am getting behind with my work.
I am the only one who doesn’t get it.
What will happen when we get back to school and everyone finds out how stupid I really am?
Everyone else is having fun / succeeding.
I don’t know what my friends share doing.
Will my friendships resume when we get back to school?
Why wasn’t I included on that Zoom call? 
My younger brother / sister has it so easy.
I feel like I can’t go on.
I’m just working and surviving.  
OMG My voice just broke! / My periods just started AAAAAAARGH!!! WHY MEEEEE?
I was really struck by a lovely email from a mum who attended one of my parenting sessions who had immediately gone and created a questionnaire to ask her daughter various things about how she felt about the lockdown. She encouraged her daughter to draw a heart – either broken or whole next to each one. Most of the hearts were broken – and thus a process of opening up and talking about it has begun. It reminds me that our kids have secret emotional lives driven by all sorts of things that we won’t know unless we stay connected, check-in regularly and continue to nurture trust… 
Looking at connection in my last newsletter (7th May), I was talking about tuning our parental eyes in to how our kids are showing up immediately after peer interactions online. Being observant and curious about what the impact / effect is on them. Beginnings and endings are always revealing…how are they feeling about the virtual meet-up? Enthusiastic, excited? How are they afterwards? Rewarded? Fulfilled? Deflated? 
Most teens know cognitively that what gets projected online is generally not reflective of the rounder truth…much online communication via social media is grandstanding of some kind or other – whether it’s the carefully constructed selfie, or the highly curated and edited life being projected. But there’s a wide ocean between knowing that cognitively and feeling it, emotionally. 
The same is true of our virtual conversations in parent-land. It’s fairly rare that we use that space to be vulnerable in. Somehow off putting and unbearable to see that miniature self in the corner of the screen own up to misery. We’ll tend to duck out of the Zoom or Teams arrangement instead and hunker down in front of one screen or another…
It’s a rare child – and a rarer teen – who will go to the confessional and dive deep into their insecurities in that virtual space – without that more nuanced facial and gestural reading face to face contact yields. And so ‘everyone’ is fine – and of course ‘no-one’ is truly lonely – because that would be uncool. Let’s move on into shallower waters.

Why do kids / people grandstand?

  1. They are highly defended – for whatever reason – and are fending off feelings of vulnerability.
  2. When they are anxious their capacity to be reflective is dimmed somewhat. 
  3. Projective means of discomfort come to the fore – so instead of being able to reflect on and own the difficult feeling (eg loneliness), they push that feeling out into others by -for instance – talking about people they’ve run into on their exercise excursions…(inspiring FOMO). It’s an unconscious process.
  4. They can be very status driven – especially 11+ and so will opt for whatever action places them in a positions of social dominance rather than genuine likeability. 
    It’s a real opportunity – during these times – to be able to talk with our kids about how they see themselves – how they benchmark themselves and define what success is. It’s a chance to really re-connect and develop their self-concept. And this can be an investment that can pay off much much more than whether they are on track with Spanish / History / Maths etc…
    Dr Judy Ho talks about why we often self-sabotage and get in our own way. She uses the acronym LIFE
    Low or shaky self-concept
    Internalised beliefs
    Fear of change or the unknown
    Excessive need for control.
    These aspects reflect aspects of our personalities – and how we relate to the world and are acquired when we are young. Because we live through these influences over time, they tend to be outside our awareness. SO intervening when these questions, fears and fantasies about the self that social isolation is bringing to the fore can be an investment indeed.
    What can we do?
    Help NORMALISE – the feelings, the universality of many of their fears. The reality and humanness of them. Especially given the developmental stages of our kids…8+ more self-conscious, puberty, and adolescence. 
    Help work on their SELF CONCEPT and see it as made up of many different components. It’s quite a nice idea to create a mind map looking at different social roles or a map of different perspectives. As a student, friend, sports-person, musician, son/daughter, brother/sister etc. And how these different functions are associated with different levels of self-esteem. 
    Talk about VALUES – what they stand for / believe in / would like to be a champion of.

Look together at the CHARACTER STRENGTHS they have…you could do the VIA Character Strengths survey* and see which are ranked the highest – how you see them, where they get to really exercise those strengths, what other strengths they’d like to work on and how…
*Born out of research from the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Dept, headed by the Father of positive psychology, Prof Martin Seligman. Used by millions, including the US Military’s PERMA resiliency and psychological fitness programme. This is no slouch of a survey.
In doing this work we can start to uncover what their INTRINSIC MOTIVATION is. (AS opposed to trophy hunting). This is about what sort of impact they want to have on people, the world around them…Their ambitions and goals -and how they will feel – and how they will know when they’ve made progress towards them. 
We can watch what part we might be playing in developing INTERNALIZED beliefs that may be less helpful. As I did my Infant and Young Child observations in my training at the Tavistock & Portman NHS Trust, family life is often replete with ‘Spice Girl’ designations…the sporty one, the clever one, the difficult one…And checking the way in which our behaviour and beliefs place either a limiting or a facilitating filter on the world…ie our pessimism about the world might need to be brought into check – what we and our kids need right now is hope and agency…Our negative self talk about ourselves is something our kids learn from too…
By these methods we can strengthen our children’s self-concepts and challenge some of the less helpful internalised beliefs that may be taking root…Self sabotage rears its ugly head when we have a low self-concept – either generalised or about certain areas of our lives / roles. And the more our kids have patterns of self-sabotage, the harder and more frustrating that part of life becomes, the more a lower self-concept is reinforced and negative self-beliefs become internalised. 
This will pay dividends as we move towards the transition back into school life and the anxieties around those changes…but also pay it forward for our kids as the challenges of life unfold and their relationship with themselves is impacted on their perceptions and relationships with others and the wider world. 
I hope this edition may be of use to you. Please get in touch with reactions and stories of how you may have put some of it to use – and your learning. 
After a lot of pivoting and going through hell with my open internalised beliefs about my IT skills, I am now doing wellbeing webinars for schools and businesses about family life, leadership, both for parents, teachers and pupils. Do get in touch if you are interested in this for your community, or pass this on. 
The greater flexibility of our routines (Ha! – good and bad days!!!) has meant I have also been able to work with more coaching clients…so if the above really resonates and you feel that you or your teen could use a more neutral and objective confidential space to do some structured thinking around self-concept or self-sabotage, please get in touch. 
As always, with love and gratitude – and the aim of making the world a happier place, one child, parent, teacher at a time…

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