Category Archives: Uncategorized

How to get your child off digital entertainment.

There is so much discussion these days on children being over-exposed to television and digital entertainment. There are constant discussions on how we need to stop our children from excessive consumption of these devices. I have found that if you clearly define the timings when your child can use the digital devices, and control your own consumption of these devices, it is not that difficult to reduce their usage of digital devices.
Give your children and their friends games that will keep them engaged, give them a challenge, and it seems they don’t really miss the idiot box. That was a pleasant surprise for me on one of the recent rainy evenings. Three young boys, full of energy sitting together building towers out of Jenga blocks, and not once did they mention the TV.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This incident made me wonder whether the fault lies in us, not giving them enough opportunity to play together, fight with each other… make amends, upset each other. May be when you put children together they no longer need other devices to entertain them!
May be instead of enrolling them for endless classes and tuitions, we should just let them hang out together, play with real friends, and build bonds that will last them a lifetime.
That short stint on a weekend evening revived in me the hope that all was not lost, and that our children are not really that different from us. They too, like we did at their age love being together, playing the fool, ganging up and enjoying each other’s company. To more such unplugged evenings and indoor playtimes!

~Bharti Athray

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Is your teen’s art teacher stifling him?

Personally, I love drawing, painting and crafting things with my hands. I think that is what really makes me ‘Me!’ My teen has seen me do it, and as a child I always encouraged him to take up painting, even sent him to a drawing class that he thought was boring.

As he grew into his teens, his interest in drawing dropped completely, instead he nurtured a new interest in music, sports and took up parkour very seriously for almost 2 years. As the academic pressure of the higher classes set in, he had little time for the outdoors. Then, all of a sudden he began drawing – weird teenage stuff of course, but there he was… making pen and ink drawings in his books, telling me stories around what he drew and often referring to Dali, our favourite artist, for his inspiration. He would go through Dali’s coffee table book for hours, trying to understand the imagery and the connects. And days later, I would see some shadow of the great painter’s work in his own work.

No, he does not paint like Dali, a long way from there still, but he is trying to think like him, follow his thought process, connect different ideas and create a new piece. All of this happened after Std. VIII, when art was dropped in school as a subject of study.

‘So what exactly do your paintings and poems really say, kid?’ I asked him. ‘Oh, lots, they talk about how I am feeling in that moment, sometimes I try to write like my favourite song writers, other times I imagine I am writing for the next Spoken Word event, where I will perform my piece…’ he says passionately.

From the parent’s eyes

This was interesting for me to observe as a parent. You see, he was not a particularly good art student, could never colour within the lines, his water color paintings were often marred by patches of too much water or too little of it… and his human figures right through school were well… different. He and his art teacher did not quite hit it off, and he struggled with grades in the art exams. It was sad for me to see that as I had hoped he would grow up to love art as much as I did… but obviously, that was not to be.

So his new avatar where he began to draw and look up art books and try his hand at painting came as a surprise to me. During the last years of school when he was supposed to be studying and practicing for good grades in Maths and Science, he would buy himself sketch books and spend hours drawing, sketching and perfecting his art pieces. And with my love for the same, I could not help but sit down with him and guide him on how to get a certain angle right… not that I am a studied artist, but I have learnt a few tricks and tips along the way.

Rediscovering art

He recently completed a beautiful oil painting on canvas, it is gorgeous. He is proud of it too. This piece made me realize that in the last few years, he had been denying his creative expression through this medium. His relation with his art teacher and having been given marks that clearly showed that he was not ‘artistic’ had made him stay away from drawing, colours, paint… the works.

Once there was no judging, he found this to be a great way to express himself and found a voice all his own. His works have images combined with words and icons that he sees in his fav music videos all rolled into one.

I learnt: Art is a medium of expression, not just a profession

This experience has taught me that we ought not to judge our children by the syllabus that has been set out by the schools. There has to be a wider, more open participation and encouragement for the young minds and hearts to be able to express themselves. Not everyone is going to be a professional artist, not everyone needs to colour within the lines; but I do believe each child at every age must be encouraged to express himself through art. This is where they learn to discover themselves and deal with their emotions.

Where freedom of expression is threatened, thinking slowly dies

Let us remember that it is the dictatorial governments who stop their creative citizens from expressing themselves. The writers, the painters, the theatre performers, the singers  – they are the bravest citizens of a country for they dare to state things as they see them, for they have little to lose. These creatives are committed to their vision of the world, to have their distinctive view of all that is happening around them and they dare to say and do things that normal people don’t. The governments that are trying to control the masses, and stop them from thinking, clamp the freedom of expression; and societies where this is done face a slow down. They stop progressing, and over decades one can see a definite collapse of their social, economic and political systems (read: Communist Societies)

The future belongs to creative innovators, not repeaters!

As parents and teachers, we should take this aspect of creative expression seriously. What is taught in schools is what we already know : grammar for language, a certain method of writing, drawing singing… yes, it is important to learn the basics, but let us also use the creative spaces to teach our children to think for themselves, let them use these media to explore their personalities, to define what freedom really means to them… after all, the future really belongs to those who will be able to bring different ideas together, not those who can repeat that has already been defined. For that we have AI and bots…

I am glad my teen has gone from being a consumer of art to being a creator….

When teens go beyond the ‘safe’ careers

So what are you advising your teen to pick as her career? My son, already in his Std. X and due to pass out in another couple of months has turned my very safe and sorted advise on its head. Being responsible Indian parents, we have been preparing him for a career in sciences, in the subject of his choice.

Then suddenly in July of last year, he returned from a month long camp with Seeds of Peace in the US where he met his peers from the Middle East, our neighbouring Pakistan, from the US; and he decided he was going to be a storyteller. ‘There are enough people in the world working in the areas of science, the world does not need one more engineer or a doctor. I want to get people’s stories out there and I want others like me to understand and know what it is like to live in Palestine, to grow up in Israel; to see war every day and still love life.’ Those are his words.

Of course, after the first wave of passion had ebbed, we looked to explain to him how he needed to consider a proper education, something that would qualify him for a ‘regular’ job, and then if his passion for storytelling still was strong, he could always build his career there. So for the last six months, we have discussed, chatted and explored his career options and now even as he sits just 2 months away from his finals, the options are completely open.

As a parent, I am proud of his ability to think beyond the obvious, I am happy that he has found a passion that he really connects to. But on the other hand, I worry about what kind of a career he will have, when he chooses to tell the stories of people living in war-torn areas. Following his declaration, I checked out the various war writers and learnt that they have difficult lives, and they are totally committed to their careers. Most of them walk a very thin line between life and death, and their experiences teach them to see the war situations in a different light. Often this unique perspective of theirs threatens the political situation and they are not allowed to voice their opinions in the mainstream media. Many of these journos and war reporters have to publish their own books to get their stories out there… to me, all of this sounds like a recipe for a very unstable and unsafe future.

Is this what I want my boy to be doing? I am not sure. I share my opinions with him and he kind of listens to it all, some of it does scare him… knowing that a career on the war front would mean almost no family life, it would means living in constant fear of what could happen to him. I constantly speak to him of how he can help the people living in these areas better with technical skills in engineering or medicine, and he listens to that too.

As I read the various researches on how teens are biologically ill-equipped for decision making, I increasingly feel I must take the decision for him as he sets about choosing a line of study. Maybe the solution lies in enabling him to see my side of the story and convincing him that we have only his best interests at heart.

But this very approach makes me question whether we are not clipping his wings even before he has taken flight. Taking the safe route, studying the sciences at some good university seems like the sensible thing to do. How will it influence his dream of being storyteller, of connecting to those whom the whole world has shut out? He writes poems, creates art and loves alternative music, loves to perform and is truly the creative package. As the next few months unfold, I look forward to exploring and planning his future along with him, and I do believe that things will work out for the best.

I am well aware of the careers people are making as Instagram and Facebook influencers, having their YouTube channels, and otherwise making careers out of social media. But to me, these are short term opportunities to be cashed in. These are not careers even though they make money for the individuals involved. So while I do enjoy coming across these really popular people on the internet and reading about their success, I am rather skeptical about how long the success lasts. And what happens ones these opportunities dry up? Will the individual, if required, have the skills to survive beyond the media opportunities?

~ Bharti Athray

Why teens find it hard to study

“It’s not that we find it hard to study. See, we study when we need to, like this afternoon, I could study for 2 hours at a stretch, and I was in the zone. Then I took a break and got completely distracted, after that I found it difficult to get back.” Yes, that was my teen’s answer to the question, why do teens find it hard to study. I am sure many teens and parents would relate to this.

There is a huge amount of study out there that explains why teenagers find it difficult to concentrate on any one thing for extended periods of time. If you are one of those parents worrying about your teen slacking off during study time, take heart. Your child is not being lazy or careless – he / she is a hapless victim of neurobiology.

Research shows teen brains function like that of younger children
According to a research paper published in 2010 in The Guardian, teenagers’ brains continue developing far longer into adulthood than previously thought – in fact the development continues till the late 20s. Adolescents may look like young adults but their brain structure resembles that of much younger children.

According to Dr Iroise Dumontheil of University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, one of the authors who published this research paper in Journal of Neuroscience, it is not always easy for adolescents to pay attention in class without letting their minds wander, or to ignore distractions from their younger sibling when trying to solve a maths problem.

She goes on to explain that the distraction had to do with the structure of the teen brain that simply did not have the same mental capacities as that of an adult. In fact, when the brain activity of teens was measured through MRI scans, as they tried to solve a problem in their heads while ignoring environmental distractions, it was found that the prefrontal cortex (the front part of the brain) had as much chaotic activity as that seen in young children.

Too much grey matter causes too much brain activity
This excessive activity in the prefrontal cortex disrupts an individual’s ability to make decisions and multi-task, as the brain gets involved in a lot of needless activity every time it has to make decisions.

“We knew that the prefrontal cortex of young children functioned in this chaotic way but we didn’t realise it continued until the late 20s or early 30s,” said Dr Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, who led the study.

These experts explain that the chaotic thought patterns are a result of teenagers’ brains containing too much grey matter – the cell bodies and connections which carry messages within the brain. As we age, the amount of grey matter in our brains decreases and enables the adult brain to work more effectively.

Do not expect your teen to think like you
What this research reveals is that our teens are not be blamed if they seem distracted, disoriented and lost. I have noticed that sometimes making a simple decision like what to wear for an evening out can take a long time where my teen is involved. This can irritate me to no end, and I always end up lecturing him on how he needs to speed up the decision making.

The above facts made me realize that it is not his fault, his brain is just not processing information as mine does. I am certain that further research on the topic will explain the laid back behavior we see in these young boys and girls. If you have ever called out a teen in an emergency, you would see that their response time is appalling. One often has to call out to them a couple of times before they even register that you are calling out to them.

Disinterested, distracted teen? It’s normal.
As a parent, this research information has made me realize that I do not really need to get on to my teen’s case. I have always worried that his lack of punctuality will become a habit with him into his adult life. Also his messy habits have had me climbing walls, wondering how he was going to operate in the real world. But the above findings reveal that confusion, lack of clarity are a part of the growing up process and as parents we need to realize that and help guide them through this chaotic period in their life.

These learnings, I believe are enabling me to see my teen’s behavior in a better light, understand him better, and I am more patient with him now than I was before.

Technology adds to distraction
This said, it is important to note that today’s generation has even more distraction than the last one: with smartphones, social media, web browsing and the like. While teens do understand that it is difficult to study and manage their social media profiles at the same time, they often seem unable to control themselves. With smartphones always within an arm’s reach, these young ones can often be seen whiling away precious study time on these gadgets. In light of the above research, parents should make the effort to keep the smartphones away from the teens while they are studying. Keeping the gadgets in another room can prove to an effective solution, as it removes the temptation, and the teen does not have to struggle with having to make a decision.

What strategies do you apply to help your teen focus and study better? Please share in the comments below.

To read the original article published in The Guardian, click here.

~ Bharti Athray

21 Pilots: My teen’s role models

This is really a small peep into how my teen has chosen his role models, and can I as a parent influence the choice. Right, so my teen’s role models are the two guys who go under the name of 21 Pilots. To name, it’s Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun. My young adult knows most of the band’s song lyrics by-heart and constantly encourages me to listen to one or another amazing song that he loves by the band.

21 Pilots as role models, their philosophy

When I asked him what he likes about these two individuals, his answer was rather interesting. ‘For me, I am not interested in them as individuals but more as the band: 21 Pilots. I like what the band stands for, I like their philosophy and their lyrics.’ Of course, when my teen is waxing eloquent about his fav band, I do not break his line of thought by asking him what their philosophy is. Instead, I later google them to find that their very name has been selected to represent a way of living, choosing between doing what’s easy and doing what’s right.

How role models impact the teens

I see this line of thinking reflected in my teen’s choices and behavior quite often, and am glad to see that he has picked a band that holds values high. And that they are Christians, (though not a Christian band) they have faith. To me, having faith in something, anything – is important. When you don’t have faith, you are like a ship without a rudder. You can choose to believe in Christ, or Mary, or Krishna, or any of the many Gods out there, or of course you can choose to be an atheist. That’s fine too, but you must know what you believe in, and in your mind your set of beliefs and life rules must be well defined. This gives you a structure to live your life by, else you will find yourself swinging in different directions every single day.

Tyler is a poet, their songs are poetry. My son writes poetry too, and he does say his work has been inspired by the band. His favourite album by the group is Vessel, he says the songs are more meaningful and the lyrics are more profound. I went through the lyrics, but was not able to connect much; maybe I am missing something there that he has discovered.

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21 Pilots fans with Skeleton, key iconography of the band.

Can parents influence their teen’s choice of a role model?

When I checked with my teen how he would react if I told him that he ought to take Abraham Lincoln for his role model, his answer was interesting. ‘I will read up about him, see what he was like and figure out whether his line of thinking makes sense to me. I won’t accept him as a role model simply because you ask me to, but, ya, I would find out about him.’

This means, he is open to ideas and thinking; and it would make sense for me to connect him to the kind of role models I would like him to follow.

The problem with the historical heroes

I find that it is not so easy for parents to get the young teens to connect with those whom we consider ideal role models. You see, Abe Lincoln does not have music videos, he does not rap, he does not have instagram accounts or facebook accounts where today’s generation can find out what he’s been upto.

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This fictional story about Abraham Lincoln is the one that my teen remembers most about this great man ;(

If he has to read up about Abe, my teen will have to refer to an online or an offline book, watch a few documentaries, and watch some historical movies. How does this compare to the hot and happening alternative music band ‘21 Pilots’? Well, Abe would fall short on so many counts.

Tyler and Josh have stories about how they grew to fame, how they played music in the local high school grounds before they made it big, and how they are grounded in what they do.

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Teens can follow their favourite celebs on instagram and FB and track their every move!

Where the difference lies

This connectedness, their interviews, sharings, their interaction with their fans, the fandom – the complete package makes modern day celebrities much more attractive role models for today’s generation than all those people we looked upto in our growing up years. The difference lay in the fact that before the advent of the internet, we would read about the likes of Lincoln and Edison in books, and contemporary celebs in the newspaper.

They would not share their everyday lives, and events and stories with us as social media allows today. This core difference in the access to the people we admire is making teens today choose their role models from the world around them.

Living legends: Why it makes sense for teens to follow them

From a growth perspective, the young teen pretty much has access to all technology, media and resources that the celebs do. The difference is social networks, but successes on Vine have shown that if you keep putting your work out there, you can be successful, you will be found. This, I believe, is a great inspiration to the young, where they realize that they have everything they need to become like their role models. They just need to follow the steps.

The flip side

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I loved Woody Allen’s work and was shattered to read about his step daughter’s story of sexual abuse.

The problem with following role models from your own generation, and I am sure every generation has faced this, is that you really do not know if the path the celeb is following is the right one. With people who have made history, their lives have been studied, recorded and analysed, and we know for a fact that the decisions they took, the values they upheld stood them in good stead.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said about living legends. Case in point: Lance Armstrong, Whitney Houston, Woody Allen, to name but a few.

I have looked upto each of these people in my growing up years only to realize that Lance’s victories were drug induced, Whitney ODed on drugs and died a sad death; and that Woody Allen has been accused of sexual abuse by his step daughter.

When role models fail you

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You begin to suspect every success, look for loopholes that the currently popular celebrity may possibly have used to be successful. It makes you cynical.

But of course, this typically happens when you are in your mid-thirties, and the role models you grew up with have grown old along with you and are at the fag-end of their success run.

A Mom’s solution to Role Model Puzzle

Well, having looked at the issue from both sides, I realize there is no clear cut answer, and I can’t force my teen to look up to someone I like. I can introduce him, tell him stories about this person, but beyond that my teen will decide for himself.

A thought that comes to my mind today, is that maybe I should have started introducing the people I consider role models to my child earlier. While I have always encouraged reading in him, and he reads a lot on animals, nature and National Geographic, I never really paid too much attention to him reading biographies.

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Let’s get our little ones to read about these amazing heroes and heroines and how they changed the world. Maybe we will be a step closer to helping them choose these greats as role models in the coming years.

Would that have influenced him? Would he have found a conventional hero to follow earlier on through books and would that have impacted his thinking differently? I don’t know but it would definitely be worth finding out!

~ Bharti Athray

 

What’s happening inside your teen’s brain?

When my teen argues with me about mundane stuff like not-so-happening dinner, an extra five minutes in the bathroom when he is getting ready for school in the morning; it really irritates me. Here I am either at the end of a long day trying to finish dinner and wind up for the night; or at the start of the day, ensuring he and his brother reach the bus stop on time and all he wants to do is argue. Most of the time the argument is just a couple of lines from his side and a couple from mine, but it does bother me for he has never been the arguing type. I can’t help but wonder what’s up with him – I mean why can’t he just fall in line and do the simple things the way we do: be on time, have the meal without having to discuss it, take a bath in a jiffy… these small things really make me wonder how he is going to be punctual and organized in his adult life.

When I asked him what goes on in his head, he said studies. Not surprising, as he is currently in the middle of his term exams, and he said that was the only thing that was on his mind. This led me to check out what happens in the teen brain and the content that I came across was interesting as it gave actual scientific explanations as to why the teens behave the way they do.

Apparently, during the teens, an individual’s brain is making as many neural connections as the brain of a two year oldtoddler. So just like 2 year olds are prone to tantrums, and mood swings simply because they do not know how to control their emotions, the teens too are going through a similar biological development.

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According to an article posted by American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, adolescents differ from adults in the way they behave, solve problems, and make decisions. There is a biological explanation for this difference. Studies have shown that brains continue to mature and develop throughout childhood and adolescence and well into early adulthood. Here is what the article says about the teen brain:

‘Scientists have identified a specific region of the brain called the amygdala that is responsible for immediate reactions including fear and aggressive behavior. This region develops early. However, the frontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls reasoning and helps us think before we act, develops later. This part of the brain is still changing and maturing well into adulthood.’

As this part of the brain that enables decision making and logical thinking is still under development, teen behaviour is often seen as unreasonable. One moment they can be chirpy, happy and the life of the party and within moments they can change in behaviour and seem withdrawn and aloof.

As parents, we need to understand what these children are thinking and feeling. We need to appreciate that although the teen has almost grown to our size, they are undergoing changes that make them immensely vulnerable and sensitive. We need to appreciate that they are dealing with issues within that they may choose not to talk about and as parents we need to learn to respect their choice.

One of the most common mistakes parents make with issues of a teen, is to ignore the problem, and push it away as a minor phase that will pass. Look up the internet and you will find thousands of young men and women who have gone through the nightmare of being misunderstood, suffering from anxiety, depression, mental illness and most of these young people do not really know whom to reach out to. Telling their parents is usually avoided as they don’t want to worry their parents. And if the child lands in the wrong kind of company, this could spell disaster for the child and the family.

As parents, we need to make time for our children when we do not advise them, give the pep talk or quiz them on their performance in school. They are old enough to know what they want, but usually do not know how to ask for the same.

If you have a teen at home, please do not react to their sullen behaviour or sudden outbursts. Do not ask ‘what is wrong with you?’ even the young teen does not know why he or she is behaving in a certain way, and he / she is pushing the limits to establish new boundaries. Let your child explore new avenues and spaces physically and mentally and let him / her find his own area of comfort and joy.

~ Bharti Athray

Featured image credit: WTOP.com

Pain in the teen universe

Here’s what my teen has to say on this topic:

  • Do you know that you cannot imagine pain, you can only experience it? If I tell you, I am going to punch you, you cannot imagine how it will feel, you can only experience it if I actually punch you.
  • No, I don’t need to check my pain tolerance… my body can endure a lot.

Beyond this, I have not managed to get anything more out of him on the subject of feeling pain and putting the body through pain. So being left to my own devices, my own experiences and information of how young adults process pain, here are some of my observations.

A rather disturbing article on Time.com (http://time.com/4547322/american-teens-anxious-depressed-overwhelmed/) investigates why teens inflict pain upon themselves and what they hope to achieve. It was shocking for me to see that almost 60% of young girls and 30-40% of teen boys self harm as a way to deal with anxiety and stress. While cuts and slashed wrists to us parents seem signs of attempted suicide, it appears that is not what the teens have in mind when they cut themselves or hurt themselves. I found the article well researched and here are the key points shared:

  • Some teens do self harm to deal with extreme anxiety that they feel and are unable to express in any other way. It is a momentary release for the stress that they feel inside.
  • Others are often numbed by the pressures of their modern demanding lives: school pressures, social media pressures, online bullying, maintaining digital profiles and perceptions, and being connected to strangers and groups half way across the world. This exposure to the outside world is uncontrolled and impacts the teens in ways their parents cannot imagine. For them, physically harming themselves by cutting and letting blood is a way to be in the moment, to be able to feel the pain at the physical level, which they had so far been feeling on an emotional level.
  • Like most of us, teens too are drawn to those aspects of the world that are different from their routine lives. Hence they try to reach out to people and groups who may follow a line of thinking that is very different from their own. This line of thinking can cause them to push themselves over the edge, and test their own limits. Eg: the blue whale game. For this lot, self inflicted harm is a way of connecting with their physical body for a while atleast. It brings peace, calm and stillness to their young restless minds.

What is worrying is that these teens are continuously exposing their bodies and minds to this torture. This often goes unnoticed by parents for years, for outwardly these children seem to be living a picture perfect life, complete with good grades, caring involved parents and a happy circle of friends.

As parents, look for signs if your teen is withdrawing from social interaction, be careful about putting too many expectations on your child. And if your teen does reach out to you telling you about self harm, try to understand what your child is going through. Do not punish, demean their issues or shame them for the behaviour.

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As the graph above shows, the number of teens causing self harm, suffering from anxiety and depression is on the rise. While these numbers are 2014 numbers, and I am at this time, unable to source more current data, the graph is a very clear indicator of the continuous rise in the number of teens suffering from this worrying state of mind. Living with digital gadgets is one of the key causes, as your child could be sitting in the car right next to you but be connecting with an unknown teen suffering from depression or anxiety miles away.  The young mind is usually unable to make the distinction between screen world and reality. So even while you may feel you are spending a lot of time with your child, the fact may be that, in today’s world where we all spend a lot of time checking our smartphones and staying connected online, your teen may be feeling alone, isolated and disconnected.

Is it possible for parents to identify if their child is going down the road towards self harm? Are their signs that we can watch out for? How do we help our child deal with stress and anxiety once we realise that the child is suffering from such a mental problem and needs help. Is there something that we can do? At what point should the family reach out to counsellors? Do read the Time article for excellent information and guidelines on the same issue.  http://time.com/4547322/american-teens-anxious-depressed-overwhelmed/

~


Bharti Athray