Cultivate Them Well

In his book Brainstorm, Dr. Dan Siegel talks describes adolescence as a time to be cultivated well. But, parenting an adolescent is hard, y’all! Really hard. They often leave parents asking which kid is real. The one who still wants a cuddle, or the one who brushes you off? The one who seeks your advice, or the one who yells that you can’t possibly understand?

The gifts of adolescence, as Dr. Siegel describes them, are novelty seeking, social engagement, increased emotional intensity, and creative exploration. Each of these has its upsides and downsides. It is easy to forget the upsides when adolescent behaviors are reckless, rude, or frightening. Parenting an adolescent is hard, but being one is ten times harder. When teens were asked for a word to describe adolescence, Siegel notes, their responses were: isolated, crazed, confused, a mess, alone, terrified, wild, out of control, lost, seeking, and frightened.

Adolescents benefit greatly from being around adults who are more interested in their cultivation than controlling their behavior. The following are some questions to consider when parenting, coaching, or mentoring the awesome adolescents in your life.

For Novelty Seeking:
What activities seem exciting and thrilling to you? What do you see friends doing that you think you might want to try, but you’re not sure how to make it safe?

For Social Engagement:
Which people make you feel your best, and which people make you feel less?
Who can you be authentic with?

For Increased Emotional Intensity:
What do you feel passionately curious about?

For Creative Exploration:
What problems in the world do you think you are uniquely suited to solve?

Regulating Emotions

Think about the last time you were face to face with a child or teen overwhelmed by emotion. For that matter, think about the last time you might have felt that way. What did it take for the turbulent seas of emotion to become calm again, enough to think clearly and move forward? This transition is heavily influenced by time and maturity, but it is also a skill that can be developed. This is especially important to consider as a parent, and the more tools to try the better!

When I began working in residential treatment, and long before I was a parent myself, I would frequently make the mistake of trying to talk or process with a client overwhelmed by emotion. Far from being helpful, this often escalated their emotions further. Over time I learned the intervention that would have the most impact would come after emotions had calmed and rational thought had resumed.

Now, as a therapist and a parent, I collect emotional regulation skills and exercises like the precious jewels they are. The list below just scratches the surface and has been contributed to by teachers, mentors, and colleagues who have been generous with their knowledge like Life Adventures Counseling in Seminole, FL.

One of the most powerful tools for emotional regulation bears a special mention: time spent in the outdoors. This doesn’t have to be complex or related to a fitness goal. Simply being in nature soothes the frayed ends of our emotions and allows us to find a healthy rhythm again. Can’t go outside? Bring nature inside with sound, plants, images, and natural objects.

Everyone is different, so you may need to try more than one of these skills to discover which ones work best for you or your family:

  • Rocking Chair
  • Exercise Ball
  • Swings
  • Drum Sticks (You can always wrap washcloths or towels to muffle)
  • Jump Rope
  • Music (Requires attention to which music is regulating versus agitating)
  • Deep Breathing
  • Coloring
  • Walking
  • Talking (Similar to music, sometimes regulates and sometimes agitates)
  • Chewing something crunchy
  • Clay, play dough, silly puddy, slime
  • Sand tray or Zen Garden
  • Writing (3 minutes, 1 minute)
  • Meditation
  • Painting

I would love to hear more ideas! Send them my way and I will add them to the list (

Questions that Bind

We all want to have awesome conversations with our kids. The kinds of conversations that invite us to learn about their hopes, passions, and fears. Sweet, tender moments when we have a chance to relate to the people they are becoming and share a bit of what we have learned. As our kids enter the tween years the once delightful little kid conversations give way to monosyllabic grunts and whole sentences seemingly void of consonants. Tragically, this is happening just when kids are entering adolescence and becoming passionate, original thinkers with really incredible insights and innovations to share.

When discussions of brain development come up, you often hear the phrase, “What fires together wires together.” Learning to use open ended questions and creating routines that facilitate conversation certainly allow for better discussions and relationships. The added brain-development bonus is that these kinds of conversations also help wire the brain for more insightful and empathetic observations. Win win! It doesn’t have to be verbal. Passing notes, a kitchen chalkboard, and journals all support the same development of insight and lead to more verbalization when the time is right.

Here’s a list of questions to experiment with. You can try these on for size or play with phrases like, “Tell me more about that…,” or, “I’m curious what you think about…” Also, side by side moments like a car ride are often better opportunities than a face to face conversation.

There are only two tried and true rules to follow: avoid questions that can have one word (or grunted) answers; and avoid the word “why,” which tends to feel like a challenge or conflict.

  • What activities seem exciting and thrilling to you?
  • What do you see friends doing that you think you might want to try, but you’re not sure how to make it safe?
  • Which people make you feel your best and which make you feel less?
  • Who can you be authentic or real with?
  • What do you feel passionately curious about?
  • What problems in the world do you feel uniquely suited to solve?
  • Roses and Thorns, Peaches and Pits types of discussions at the same time every day.
  • What was your Joy, Peace, and Inspiration today?
  • Describe an unexpected joy, delight, surprise.
  • Describe someone who inspires you.
  • Share something that went well, went sideways, went wrong.
  • What brings you hope?
  • How do you handle things when they don’t go your way?
  • On what subject do you need to gather more data?
  • Describe a situation when you thought it went well, but someone else thought it went poorly.
  • What does love look like?

The Growth Zone

The first few times I went mountain biking I came home with a bruised up backside and an unrelenting question of, “Why do people do this to themselves?” In an effort to keep me more comfortable, my husband installed a new seat on my bike. As in, the most deluxe, comfy, gel-padded seat he could find on short notice. My attitude immediately improved, because my comfort zone had been expanded.

I began to ride more this year. After a clinic for women, and a commitment to teaching others, I became connected with a wonderful group of women riders who meet weekly. While I still needed my comfort zone, I was spending more time in what I call the “growth zone,” and occasionally finding myself in the adrenaline, cortisol coated “danger zone.” As skills and confidence grew, I ran into a problem. Now able to ride more trails and explore more range of motion on the bike, I kept running into an object every time I tried to shift my mass toward the back of the bike. Yup, you guessed it…the seat.

I was afraid to let go of something that had given me a way to feel more at ease as I gained experience. Would the new seat be too hard and beat me up? Would I be free to move more and become better? Ultimately it has worked out really well, and encouraged me to try even more new moves.

Comfort zones are so important. They allow for that safe haven we all need to retreat to to recharge, especially as we are learning and integrating new things. Danger zones are equally valuable, making us aware of the edges and pushing us back toward self-care and preservation. While these zones support change, they do little to facilitate it. For new habits, skills, thought patterns, and connections to take hold we need the growth zone.

This is why Upstate FORT (Family Oriented Recreation & Therapy) is a community organization instead of simply a private mental health counseling practice. By providing recreation experiences and the alternative of adventure therapy services in addition to traditional office sessions, we aim to create more connection, empowerment, and lasting positive change.


Wearing Pasta

No thank you. You can keep your own noodle.

Have you ever thrown pasta against the wall? If it sticks the pasta is done, and if it falls you keep cooking? Keep that metaphor in mind the next time your kiddo comes to you with a problem and tries to sling that noodle at you to see if it will stick.

The word responsible gets tossed around a lot in parenting, teaching, and coaching jargon. The meaning here is, “Able to respond,” or response-able. In my experience, kids’ attempts to get someone else to respond (so that they don’t have to) fall into four main categories: the helpless attempt; the polite request; the argument; and the button push. (Ahem…this might be helpful with adults, too.)

The Helpless Attempt
Bless this kid’s heart. They just can’t…tie their shoes, get their own breakfast, get dressed in less than 15 minutes. It’s just soooo hard or soooo slow! If the schedule is going to work, you simply have to move things along, and if there is pasta in your hair, then so be it.

The Polite Request
This little angel looks up at you with that sweet face and says “please” and “thank you” every time! You don’t want to discourage such lovely manners. Of course you will help pick up the toys, take out the trash, or come up with a solution. You rather like the smell of olive oil, wheat, and egg.

The Argument
This kid could also be called the debater or the negotiator. There is always something more important than the task at hand. They really would feed the dog if they didn’t need to get started on homework, or if it weren’t tragically unfair that they have already fed the dog twice this week! Homework is important, and you can see the argument will take longer than the task, so…

The Button Push
This crafty booger, this master of distraction, has taken it to the next level. They have figured out the most useful of childhood tactics: the bait and switch. They know just the right thing to say to create an emotional response. They manage to make you angry and poof, just like that, the problem is not the wet towels on the bathroom floor. Instead the problem is you. And as your anger rears out of you like the lava monster in Moana, you see tears well up in little Button Pusher’s eyes and question whether you are the worst parent in the world. Meanwhile, the towels on the bathroom floor are completely forgotten…and you are wearing pasta.

It is natural to look for the easier path, to defer, to delay. It is also the intuitive instinct of a well bonded parent to help, to teach, to respond. So, why is this really important? Because the little things become the big things. Able to respond to self-care, hygiene, chores, and animal care become able to be disciplined, self-reliant, healthy, care for employees, work, property, and family of their own.