Nonverbal Communication with Adolescents

teenagernotcrazyDid you know that 93% of communication is nonverbal?* A large percentage of that nonverbal communication comes through facial and tone of voice cues. What is surprising, however, is just how different the level of ability is in interpreting these nonverbal cues are when comparing adults and adolescents. Further, it probably explains a significant amount of the misunderstanding that can and does happen between adolescents and their parents.

At this point, it’s probably clear that I am a fan of Dr. Jeremy Clark and Jerusha Clark’s book, “Your Teenager is Not Crazy: Understanding Your Teen’s Brain Can Make You a Better Parent”. I blogged a review about it here, and then a follow up post on some of the neurobiology research they were exploring here. In their chapter entitled, “Why are you looking at me like that?,” they explore this topic of nonverbal cues and what the latest research is showing us about it.

Citing research from Dr. Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, they pointed out that while adults have a 90-100% success rate in interpreting the emotions and tone behind facial expressions and other nonverbal cues, adolescents only decipher them correctly about 50% of the time (Kindle location 1389).  Essentially, what the research shows is that adults interpret these cues by using the part of their brain where decision making and executive functions happen (the prefrontal cortex), while adolescents use the region of the brain where emotions are the dominating factor (the limbic system).

Where this is helpful for parents is in thinking through how we communicate with our adolescents. We cannot just assume they recognize the emotions or intent behind our words; 93% of communication is nonverbal, and teens misinterpret those cues half the time, which means they genuinely misunderstand us potentially almost half the time. We can’t change that; it’s biology. Their brains do not finish developing until around age 25. Instead, the Clarks recommend naming our emotions calmly. Let them know when you’re confused, worried, upset, etc., don’t just assume they know what you’re feeling when other adults would understand.

All that to say, if you’re a parent of kids of any age, or someone that works with young people. Get the book. It’s fascinating!

*All percentages and information in this post are drawn from the Clark’s book.

Boarding School Syndrome review

Boarding-School-SyndromeDr. Joy Schaverien’s Boarding School Syndrome: The Psychological Trauma of the ‘Privileged’ Child takes an honest and powerful look at the long term psychological impact boarding schools have on children. Having spent my teen years in a boarding school, I was particularly fascinated by her observations, based on years of counseling and diagnosing adults who attended boarding schools as children. Rather than try to summarize the book (there’s just way too much), I want to share a few of my reactions as a former boarding school student. You can read a strong summary of the book’s content and a list of the many symptoms and issues that can result in boarding school experience here.

Over the last decade, I have become increasingly aware of just how widespread and prevalent sexual and physical abuse was in all of the boarding schools run by the mission my family was a part of, which has been a horrifying realization. Dr. Schaverien primarily interacts with former boarding school students from other systems and organizations, and it was shocking to realize through her research that this sexual and physical abuse seems to be a common reality in ALL boarding schools. The combination of predators being attracted to environments where children are cut off from their parents most of the year and dangerous students with inadequate supervision around younger students consistently creates environments where abuse flourishes.

Dr. Schaverien deals with the question of why children do not report abuse throughout her book, which I appreciated deeply. She points out a combination of factors; for the child who does not have the words to express what is going on, it is a confusing situation. Children think their experience is normal; they may not like it, but it must be normal because it is what they know. Adding to that is the knowledge that their parents sent them, reinforcing the idea that this is both normal and the adults in their life are okay with it (after all, to a young child’s logic, how could their parents possibly not know?). Consequently, the abuse is normalized, and even minimized – “I didn’t like what happened to me, but it’s not nearly as bad as what happened to so-and-so.” What I was particularly struck by is her observation that it is typically around forty years of age that people will begin to recognize or speak out about the abuse they received as a child; often times as they see their own children growing up and realize just how little and unprotected they themselves were at that age and finally begin to realize just how wrong the treatment was.

That jumped out at me; I’m 41. It has really been the last five years that I have wrestled with what I witnessed as a teen and what I can do about it now. As a student at a boarding school I witnessed things that made me deeply uncomfortable and upset – but did not know how to react. It wasn’t until my early twenties as I was studying to be a teacher, and then youth pastor. taking classes on creating safe environments and protecting children from abuse that I realized many of the things I witnessed were legally considered abuse.

I found her comments and observations on former boarding school students relationships with others, the tendency to be closed relationally, abandonment issues, the sexual confusion resulting from growing up in schools forbidding any kind of physical contact (even healthy, necessary contact), issues with food, and a whole host of other ramifications to be incredibly fascinating, and enlightening in what I have seen in my fellow classmates. I think her book is critical reading for anyone who has been a boarding school student, or who has had family members attend boarding school at some point in their childhood. It is written for psychologists to give insight on how to work with boarding school students, so it is not a light read, however it is incredibly beneficial and makes a great contribution to a segment of the population that is largely ignored.

Life Without Ed review

life without edLife Without Ed: How One Woman Declared Independence from Her Eating Disorder and How You Can Too, by Jenni Schaefer, is a powerful book detailing the author’s struggle with recovery. What makes the tenth anniversary edition particularly interesting to read is that she has added additional thoughts. Where she originally wondered if she would ever truly beat her eating disorder, ten years later, she is able to proudly declare her full recovery and offer hope through her experience to others that it is attainable.

While she does write about the methods she used to pursue recovery, the real strength in her book are her inner narratives. Like many who fight eating disorders, she personified her disorder as Ed, the inner voice driving her to devastating self image and decisions regarding health. As she documents the inner conversations, the struggle between her eating disorder’s views on her image, how she should live, what success looks like, and the reality of the destruction it was waging on her health. She writes that “eating disorders are about constant self-criticism, loss of self-esteem, and unrelenting perfectionism” (Kindle location 433). Seeing the constant, overwhelming presence of these thoughts in all interactions and aspects of life, begin to help the reader to understand the impact an eating disorder can have on an individual.

Her co-author, Thom Rutledge, is a psychotherapist and brings authority to the methods and approaches discussed in the book through Jenni’s experience. Having said that, my impression is that this book is not so much about communicating approaches to counsel those pursuing recovery – it is far too complex an issue with far too many variations for someone to be equipped to that degree from this book. Instead, this book is an essential tool on two fronts; for the individual struggling with an eating disorder it helps them to see they are not alone and there is hope. They will see their struggles, their thoughts, and story echoed in Jenni’s struggle, thoughts, and story. And secondly, for the family member or caring friend of someone dealing with an eating disorder; it is an essential look into what this experience is like and is a great resource in helping build understanding, or at the very least, how better to be supportive.

Jenni’s story is an important one, and her added reflections ten years later only add to its power. I certainly recommend it to anyone impacting by eating disorders – which honestly, at this point in our culture, is everyone – whether they realize it or not. We all are connected to someone battling this issue.

Living with Scleroderma

I really appreciate this video from Jason Alexander (of Seinfeld fame) explaining Scleroderma and his family’s experience with it. It is an often times unrecognized and misunderstood disease. My son Noah was most likely born with localized scleroderma; we noticed symptoms we couldn’t explain by the time he was two years old, but it was another two years of constant doctors appointments with different specialist after specialist until someone finally figured it out – and that was only because they did a biopsy on part of the affected area of his face. Building awareness and understanding is important!

Bob is the new host of Biggest Loser

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In an interesting changeup, Alison Sweeney is no longer on Biggest Loser and Bob Harper will take up the Hosting mantle for season 17! Dolvett and Jennifer will return as the trainers for the show. It’s weird in a way, the show is so far removed from when I was on it – different production company, different location, different trainers – Bob is the only real constant over the seventeen seasons, in addition to the behind the scenes medical and nutritional crew (who don’t really get much screen time).

I’m curious to see how he does in the role. Caroline Rhea is still my favorite host for the show, but Bob could really run with it. Part of me is wondering if it’s a behind the scenes budget cutting move – the fewer celebrities on screen, the lower the bill, and Bob has a fan base they just can’t afford to lose. Either way, without him having a specific team to be championing it’s an opportunity for him to really impact the whole cast and be a voice for the show in a way that he hasn’t had before now.

Victimization in the Name of Protection

This video came out a couple weeks ago and has been tearing up the social media sites. Tens of millions of views, it is a bona fide viral hit. People are raving about how it is a must see, it is so good, etc.

I disagree.

It does make a good point, that kids are more likely to make unsafe decisions than we realize. That’s a reality I have been confronted with over and over as a youth worker; parents have no problem believing that adolescents will make unsafe decisions online, with friends, regarding drugs or alcohol, with strangers – the list goes on. What consistently catches parents off guard is that THEIR kids are the ones who will make unsafe decisions. As a nation, we’ve been educating minors about these kinds of dangers for decades, and the reality is that because of greater care we take in protecting children has resulted in those kinds of crime rates going down over the last few decades (while fear has gone up thanks to the introduction of 24 hour news media). Part of me feels like the usefulness of this video is more as a wake-up call for parents, not the kids living in their houses.

But baiting teens to come out and meet someone, only to be screamed at by their parents and posted online for everyone to see? Simulating a kidnapping, having people in masks grabbing and restraining a young girl, then yelling at her about what could have happened if they really had been bad guys? It feels more like an attempt to generate YouTube revenue and score views online than actual concern for the child. And then posting the video for all their friends and peers to see? It’s wrong. It’s a good message, but victimizing young kids to generate YouTube ad revenue is not the way to achieve it.

The Latest on Noah

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It’s been a while since I have posted an update on Noah and his battle with Localized Scleroderma. You can read some of the past updates here. The short recap is that he originally began showing symptoms of Scleroderma attacking the skin on his face around two years old, but doctors were unable to discover the diagnosis until he was four years old. He is nine years old now, has had numerous surgical procedures, powerful medications, regular blood work, multiple biopsies, and more. He is a TOUGH kid who has gone through a lot!

This past week we had his latest appointment with his primary doctor. It was good news. Essentially, Localized Scleroderma tends to attack a region of the body for around eight years. He will have it for life – there is no cure, but it’s attacks, or flare-ups, will be unpredictable and sporadic. The one we have been fighting has been on his face, and the goal of the medications was simply to halt the progress and hold it at bay until it had run its course, which the doctor is hopeful is this year. It appears to have stopped its activity; perhaps because the medicine is doing really well, perhaps because the attack is wrapping up. Either way, around Christmas the goal is to begin easing him off the medication with the hope that it will continue to be inactive! This is GOOD news.

It doesn’t mean it’s over, however. Noah will continue to have regular doctor’s appointments – both to monitor where it has been active to make sure it is truly done attacking his face, as well as to monitor potential flare-ups elsewhere on his body, at which point another eight year struggle of medications, blood work, biopsies would begin again. When he is older, as well, he will be able to have plastic surgery to undo the scarring Scleroderma has left on his face.

Ultimately, though, this is exciting. When we were told so many years ago that this was going to be an eight year battle most likely, that felt so far off in the future. Pinning him down for his first round of blood work was a nightmare and I remember thinking with horror that this was going to be our lives every few weeks for endless years. Noah quickly learned to handle the challenges, often times doing far better than kids much older than him at the hospital. He is resilient! And like us, he is excited at the thought that we are only months away from perhaps ending the medication and blood work!