Posts Tagged 'cognitive flexibility'

Emotional Marshmallows Part III

“If you are more relaxed, I think your brain functions more effectively.”  –Dali Lama

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response.”   – Victor Frankl

Welcome back to our discussion about resilience. When this post started,  I asserted the following skills as being key to keeping kids resilient: 1) Problem-solving skills, 2) emphasis on choices over traits, 3) cognitive flexibility, and 4) stress reduction activities. Having fleshed out 1-3, we are left with perhaps the most desired life change goal among 21st century Americans, STRESS REDUCTION.

Part of the definition of resilience is elasticity. It is the reason that  skyscrapers are engineered to sway in the wind.  The motion relieves stress and keeps the building standing. Bending, relaxing, swaying, giving and taking– are all the opposite of stress. Too much stress and things break.

Being relaxed and in control is key to resilience, especially in the face of bullying. Studies have shown that bullying has become less physical and more verbal. Name-calling and exclusion are more prevalent  than physical aggression.  As a result, being poised and ready to fight is not the deterrent that it used to be. Being relaxed and exercising self-control in the face of fire is the best defense.

So instead of teaching kids to fight, we need to teach them to dance. Not literally, of course, but figuratively. Dance is a lively sequence of steps — and flexibility is key.

How do we get a “wound up” kid to relax?

There are many approaches to managing stress in children: Exercise, mindfulness techniques, cognitive reframing, humor, art and non-directive play are all commonly used in a therapy setting. And don’t forget diet. Caffeine can make a kid’s springs become more tightly coiled.

But the simplest yet most effective technique that I’ve seen is learning to breathe. I say “learning” because it seems that many of us have forgotten how, or simply don’t feel we have the time.  A deep breath from the diaphragm, pushing the belly out, rising into the chest and lifting the collar bones– not a shallow puff from the chest but a full breath like a sleeping baby–  does wonders to calm the central nervous system and allows time to think.

Here’s the exercise:
One breathe in; one breathe out
Two breathe in; two breathe out
Three breathe in and hold (two three); three breath out (very slowly).

Make a game of it with your child or student when they are upset or “frazzled.” Count it out loud for them AND have them do it for you! Keeping in mind the quotes at the top of the page, this simple exercise makes kids more relaxed, allows their brains to function better, and creates a space between stimulus and response– all assets in managing the dance that is required when being picked on at school.

And remember, the best way to get a child to engage in any behavior (good or bad) is to model it. So, when you are driving and the rage begins to build, or if you are in front of the class and it’s one of those day when you are at your wit’s end, say to the little ones, “Give me a count…”

One breathe in; one breathe out
Two breathe in; two breathe out
Three breathe in and hold (two three); three breath out (very slowly).

And you do the same for them. Make it a game. Make it fun. Breathing and laughter mixed make the most therapeutic cocktail.

So, now that your are more relaxed and have provided a buffer between stimulus and response, what sort of dance might you do to deflect mean behavior?

I’m afraid we’ll have to save it for next time. We’ll call it the Emotional Marshmallow Trilogy Post Script. AND I promise to finally address the anti-bullying tactic that inspired it all,  “pressuring the victim” and the  “call me an idiot and I am going to make you laugh” routine.

In the meantime,

One breathe in; one breathe out
Two breathe in; two breathe out
Three breathe in and hold (two three); three breath out (very slowly).

My Best,




Emotional Marshmallows Part I

headshotbw1Each day I receive a Google Alert, listing links to current articles about bullying. Recently, the title “Bullying Message Delivered With Humor” grabbed my attention. I thought, “Hey, that’s MY gig.”

The story described an anti-bullying assembly program that was being hosted by a midwestern school district. The presenter, who is described as a youth crisis counselor, is quoted as saying that encouraging students to seek adult intervention when verbal harassment takes place is breeding a generation of “emotional marshmallows.” He further describes his message as putting “a lot of pressure on the victim… You can only build resilience by going through adversity.”

In the assembly, resilience is illustrated by a role play in which a student volunteer is prompted to verbally abuse the presenter. The performer then turns the situation in his favor, a la “You are going to call me an idiot and I am going to make you laugh.” He subsequently receives the insults with self-effacing calm and humor until his attacker loses all steam. Having seen this routine before, I assure you that the presenter succeeds and the “bully” joins in with the audience’s laughter– it’s a crowd pleaser.

While I agree that humor can be a useful strategy for deflecting mean behavior, “pressuring” a victim and achieving resilience “through adversity” are concepts that deserve some critical attention.

First, I question the idea that resilience is built through experiencing adversity. Kids do not develop resilience by being bullied. In fact, children who have been abused are typically more fragile.

Children who react to bullying and harassment with resilience do so because they were resilient before the event. We all know that some kids are harder to hurt than others. On the one hand, the media provides a constant flow of stories about bullied children who fall into suicidal despair. On the other hand we hear of kids that put up with a boat-load of abuse yet continue to persevere and become successful. You could say that they refuse to become victims. Why are some children more resilient than others? Where did the resilience come from?

Anyone who spends time with kids knows that temperament is a factor. Everyone processes information differently. From birth, some children are more sensitive and become upset more easily.  With that as a given, however, it is also true that resiliency can be taught. 1) Problem-solving skills, 2) emphasis on choices over traits, 3) cognitive flexibility, and 4) stress reduction activities all play a part in building resilience in children– and they can be taught at home and at school.

In order to keep the blog short and manageable (I know you don’t have all day to read this. And, by the way, aren’t you supposed to be working?!), I’ll limit the discussion to  1) problem-solving.

We’ll follow with 2) emphasis on choices over traits, 3) cognitive flexibility, and 4) stress reduction activities in subsequent posts. And don’t let me forget to say something about “pressuring the victim” and the “call me an idiot and I am going to make you laugh” routine.

Finally, before we begin, I must acknowledge the researcher, author, and bullying guru on whom I rely for cutting edge thoughtfulness on the topic– Stan Davis. His recent web discussion with Psychotherapy Networker led to my interest, and much of what I know about resiliency.

So, here we go:

Problem-solving: When a child is suffering, our first inclination as adults is to “fix it,” especially in the case of bullying. Using our power and experience as a tool, we intervene with a solution. Unfortunately, we lack the perspective of an elementary school student, and our solutions don’t necessarily work.

School dynamics are typically more complicated than one might predict. We can underestimate the amount of fear and shame that a child can feel when excluded or harassed by classmates with power. Oftentimes, we suggest something that they’ve already tried, causing them to feel more hopeless. More importantly, we’ve snatched from our child the very tool that will protect them in the future– honing  problem-solving skills that create resilience.

The best way to develop problem-solving skills is through gentle questioning. Reflect the child’s emotions without getting caught up in them (“I can tell you are feeling very upset about being treated unfairly”). Then inquire about what they have tried and respond positively (“That was definitely worth trying. What else can you do to try and solve the problem?)

With a warm and supportive guide, kids can be very creative. And they will learn to model your calm, analytic approach. Of course if you let your emotions take over, scream and stomp around, they’ll model that too.

The process provides children with a tool that they can use for a lifetime. Each attempt hones the skill, and each success builds confidence, self esteem, and of course resilience. Developing problem-solving skills is not quick, but it is gratifying.

Two crucial things to remember are:  1) Do not get angry; 2)Do not jump in and solve the problem until your child has tried more than one solution. And let them know that you will always be there for them if things get “too tough” for them to handle.

One of my favorite “universal” problem-solving strategies that can be used school-wide is Walk-Talk-Squawk. Everyone in the school learns it within minutes, it follows the “trying two solutions before getting adult help” rule, and IT RHYMES! Plus, I’ve been told by parents that their kids have employed the strategy at home to cope with little brothers and sisters. (How cool is that?!)

Alas, I promised to keep this short. And I was just getting warmed up!  Stay tuned for choices over traits, cognitive flexibility, and stress reduction activities. Not to mention “pressuring the victim” and the efficacy of the “call me an idiot and I am going to make you laugh” routine.  In the meantime…

what do you think? Make sense? Do you have a problem-solving story to share? Please use the “add comment” button below to join the conversation.

My Best,


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