Surviving or Thriving? The Teenage Years.

It was really great to meet so many parents, carers and teachers last night at Debenham High School. I was thrilled that so many of you are keen to hear more about the developmental tasks of adolescence and the latest research on the teenage brain. 

Here's a short list of my favourite books, websites and resources that I hope will guide you - and the young people you care for - towards thriving through the teenage years. 

Books (available through Suffolk Libraries):

Brainstorm - The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain - Daniel Siegel 

Blame my Brain - The Amazing Teenage Brain Revealed - Nicola Morgan

Websites:

Reading Well - Wellbeing books for young people

https://www.suffolklibraries.co.uk/health/reading-well-for-young-people/

MindEd - Information for parents about mental health

https://www.minded.org.uk

ThinkAvellana - This is my own website, where I write a blog and have a quarterly newsletter. On Facebook, I tend to share articles and new research relating to well-being, parenting, and mental health that I find interesting. 

www.thinkavellana.com

www.facebook.com/thinkavellana

Hey Sigmund - Written predominately by a psychologist, with helpful articles about parenting, teenagers, and ways to take care of our mental health. 

www.heysigmund.com

Mindful - Great articles about ways to look after yourself, to reduce your stress and practice that essential skill of ‘breathing’ through the tough times. 

www.mindful.org

Think:Business, Think:Education, Think:Family

Three Good Things. That's it!?

Last year I wrote an article called ‘How To Teach Your Kids About The Brain’ that I hoped a few of my friends might see… to date, it’s actually been read over 100,000 times. 

I continue to get emails about it from people all over the world, commenting on my ideas and sharing theirs. Many adults tell me that they didn’t realise their brains worked in the ways I described - and that having this new understanding has really helped them. One of the ideas that has resonated with people is that naming emotions and brain functions can help us understand the brain better. Let’s focus on what I called “Frightened Fred” (which you might call Frieda, Froggy, or any other creative name you can think of). 

Frightened Fred’s got the volume control: 

The part of our brain designed to keep us safe is Frightened Fred (along with his friends Big Boss Bootsy and Alerting Allie) who can trigger our ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response. This part of the brain has been brilliantly effective in the survival of humankind, but it can also get in the way of our daily living sometimes. We have become GREAT at listening to Frightened Fred and spotting the potential pitfalls at every turn: “Did that person in the supermarket just give me a dodgy look?” “Is that chap standing a bit too close to my kids?” 

We are primed to take care of our own survival and that of our off-spring. Some days, Fred turns up the volume and we focus all our attention on these risks, potential dangers, failures and worst-case scenarios. 

Sometimes I listen to Fred. Sometimes I don't. 

Recently, I was invited to speak at a big conference next year. I came off the phone feeling dizzy with excitement. I sat down with a huge grin on my face and allowed the feelings of self- congratulatory praise to come flooding in. Except they didn’t. Fred started making an appearance. “What if I make a terrible mistake?” “What if I face-plant on stage?” “What if I quote someone’s research and that person is actually there, and they tell me I’ve got it all wrong?”

“What if…?” “What if…?” 

Let me slow this down. Fred sees the potential threat of a big crowd looking at me. Fred decides to warn me: “Don’t do it, it will end in tears!” 

Sometimes I listen to Fred (remember he IS trying to keep me safe) and sometimes he is silenced by Problem Solving Pete and Calming Carl. They say things like: “But what’s the best that could happen?” and “If the worst case scenario does happen, you’ll still be okay - except perhaps for face-planting, you may need medical assistance for that one.”

How do we learn to turn down the hum of unhelpful negativity from Frightened Fred? 

Here’s one way: Gratitude

In Woods, Froh and Geraghty's review of the gratitude research they explain gratitude as “noticing and appreciating the positive in the world”. This could include: the appreciation of other people’s help; feelings of awe when we see something amazing; focusing on the positive in the ‘here and now’ moments; or an appreciation rising from the understanding that life is short. 

Grateful Gerty

Let me introduce you to Grateful Gerty, our brain’s gratitude representative. The research tells us that building up Grateful Gerty’s strength is associated with a whole host of benefits. Gerty can make Frightened Fred simmer down and reduce anxiety. Expressing gratitude provides a path to more positive emotions. People who express more gratitude have also been found to have better physical and psychological health.

Robert Emmons is one of the world leading gratitude researchers. Here’s what he says about the benefits:

“We’ve studied more than one thousand people, from ages eight to 80, and found that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits:

Physical

• Stronger immune systems

• Less bothered by aches and pains

• Lower blood pressure

• Exercise more and take better care of their health

• Sleep longer and feel more refreshed upon waking

Psychological

• Higher levels of positive emotions

• More alert, alive, and awake

• More joy and pleasure

• More optimism and happiness

Social

• More helpful, generous, and compassionate

• More forgiving

• Feel less lonely and isolated

• More outgoing” 

So how does it work?

When we search for things to be grateful for, neuroscientist Alex Korb explains that this activates the part of our brain that releases dopamine (the feel-good hormone) and it can also boost serotonin production (low levels of this neurotransmitter are associated with depression). Or, to put it another way: on Halloween, Gerty’s the one handing out the treats. 

Gratitude can change our thinking habits. Regularly spotting the good things in our life can also make it more likely that (even when we're not looking for them) we see more positives. 

And gratitude works on a social level too. It can help us feel more connected to others, which in turn can improve our well-being. 

So how do you strengthen Gerty?

Grab a journal and, before you go to sleep each night, write 3 things that went well that day and why you think they went well. Keep doing it for a week. That’s it. 

When I first read the research on gratitude, I felt like there must have been some pages missing. “So, they wrote about things they were grateful for, and then they…”? But no. It really is as simple as that. 

As Froh and Bono point out, we can be great at analysing why we’re anxious or sad. But when we’re happy, we don’t often stop to ponder why. Mainly because when we are experiencing positive emotions, it's a signal that all is well in the world; we can relax and enjoy ourselves. 

Keeping a gratitude journal allows us to focus on the positive things. It teaches us how to strengthen Gerty’s ability to spot them in the first place - and how to savour them. Some people worry that they won’t be able to find anything to be grateful for. While it’s true that some days the searching may be harder than on others, Korb reminds us that “it’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place.”

There will always be more important things than gratitude. 

Pets will need taking to the vets, reports will need to be finished, kids will need feeding, cups will need cleaning… gratitude can quickly fall down the ‘to do’ list. But that’s the challenge with taking a proactive approach to well-being. It’s hard to prioritise because you can’t easily see the things you’re preventing. 

You may be preventing the onset of depression or anxiety. You may be moving yourself further up the well-being spectrum towards thriving. But scientifically, it would be very hard to prove that. 

Be a scientist of your own world.

Just like we know why it’s good to eat healthily and exercise, my mission is to help share the research on ways that we can all take better care of our well-being. I want people to have access to evidence-based ways to improve their mental health. 

Some of these ideas might work for you, some of them might not. So, what I’d encourage you to do is this: become a scientist of you own life, and if you decide to try keeping a gratitude journal, observe how it feels for you. 

And maybe, just maybe, Gerty will give out some treats.

Think:Family, Think:Education, Think:Business

I'm Doing My Best - the hunt for a realistic journal

IMG_4772.JPG

Recently, while browsing through the stationery section of a big department store, I was struck by the number of notebooks and journals with messages written on the front. The research on priming demonstrates what happens when we're faced with the same message regularly: our thoughts, feelings and behaviour can all be influenced. There’s plenty of evidence for how athletes use this idea of priming to their advantage.

Some of the inscriptions on the journals said ‘Be Happy Always’ or ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’. They were beautiful, pastel-coloured journals, embellished with gold pineapples. But something about them made me feel a little uncomfortable. I wondered about the effect of these messages.

I’m a big advocate for positive psychology and ways to enhance well-being. My training in clinical psychology has also allowed me to study the importance of the (so called) ‘negative emotions’.

We can’t be happy all the time. This just isn’t a realistic goal and, while I imagine that the makers of these beautiful journals understand this, they also know we're seduced by the idea that a permanent state of happiness is attainable. 

We've been gifted with such an amazing spectrum of emotions, and they all have an important place in our lives. Imagine if we didn’t allow ourselves to feel all those emotions. If we weren't sad when someone shared devastating news, or weren't worried when our teenagers didn't come home after a party.

When we try to aim for 'happy all the time' I think we can also open ourselves up to self-criticism - and close the door to self-compassion. I loved the editorial in the latest Flow magazine (Issue 15), where Irene and Astrid talked about aiming for ‘good enough’ and not trying to be superhuman and brilliant at everything.

Barbara Fredrickson’s groundbreaking research on positive emotions revealed the importance of negative emotion in our lives. She has found enough data to support the idea that there's an optimal ratio of positive to negative emotions. Achieving this ratio makes it more likely that we can build positive relationships with others and strengthen our resilience and well-being. 

The magic number is 3. If, on average, we can achieve 3 positive emotional experiences to every negative 1, her theory suggests we are building our well-being. Notice that she doesn't suggest a ratio of 3:0. So, perhaps the Be Happy Always journal could have a little sub-heading "Except on the 1 out of 4 occasions that you aim not be happy"? 

After some searching in that shop, I came across a journal with ‘I’m doing my best’ on the front cover. To me, this seems like one of the most important messages to use to prime my brain. There is comfort and compassion in this phrase, since it allows for the good days and the not-so-good ones. It motivates me when needed, but also quietly sits alongside me on the days when "my best" might not feel very productive. 

I handed the journal to the cashier. ‘Cute’ she said, scanning the item. I smiled,  ‘Cute... and realistic’ I said.


If you want to discover your positivity ratio you can take Fredrickson's evidence based assessment here. If it's not as high as you'd like, be gentle with yourself (perhaps even try saying 'I'm doing my best'), stick with me and find out what the research says about how journals can improve our positivity in my next blog post.

Positive Relationships

We know that eating well and exercise is good for us. But did you know that your friendships are equally important for your physical and mental health? Today, on World Mental Health Day (10 October 2016) start a positive ripple and connect with someone. The great thing about ripples is you never know how far they will travel. 

Think:Family, Think:Education

How to teach your kids about the brain

Photo by Jessica Roberts -  http://jessica-roberts.com

Photo by Jessica Roberts -  http://jessica-roberts.com

How to teach your kids about the brain: 

Laying strong foundations for emotional intelligence. 

 

Knowledge is power.

When children understand what’s happening in the brain, it can be the first step to having the power to make choices. Knowledge can be equally powerful to parents too. Knowing how the brain works means we can also understand how to respond when our children need our help.

Sometimes our brains can become overwhelmed with feelings of fear, sadness or anger, and when this happens, it’s confusing, - especially to children. So giving children ways to make sense of what’s happening in their brain is important. It’s also helpful for children to have a vocabulary for their emotional experiences that others can understand. Think of it like a foreign language; if the other people in your family speak that language too, then it’s easier to communicate with them.

So how do you start these conversations with your children, make it playful enough to keep them engaged, and simple enough for them to understand?

Here is how I teach children (and parents) how to understand the brain. 

Introducing the brain house: the upstairs and the downstairs.

I tell children that their brains are like a house, with an upstairs and a downstairs. This idea comes from Dr Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson's book "The Whole-Brain Child" and it’s a really simple way to help kids to think about what’s going on inside their head. I’ve taken this analogy one step further by talking about who lives in the house. I tell them stories about the characters who live upstairs, and the ones who live downstairs. Really, what I’m talking about are the functions of the neocortex (our thinking brain - the upstairs), and the limbic system (our feeling brain - the downstairs).  

 

The Brain House

Who lives upstairs and who lives downstairs?

Typically, the upstairs characters are thinkers, problem solvers, planners, emotion regulators, creatives, flexible and empathic types. I give them names like Calming Carl, Problem Solving Pete, Creative Craig and Flexible Felix 

The downstairs folk are the feelers. They are very focused on keeping us safe and making sure our needs are met. Our instinct for survival originates here. These characters look out for danger, sound the alarm and make sure we are ready to fight, run or hide when we are faced with a threat. Downstairs we’ve got characters like Alerting Allie, Frightened Fred, and Big Boss Bootsy.  

It doesn’t really matter what you call them, as long as you and your child know who (and what) you are talking about. You could have a go at coming up with your own names: try boys/girls names, animal names, cartoon names or completely made-up names. You might like to find characters from films or books they love, to find your unique shared language for these brain functions. 

Flipping our lids: When ‘downstairs’ takes over. 

Our brains work best when the upstairs and the downstairs work together. Imagine that the stairs connecting upstairs and downstairs are very busy with characters carrying messages up and down to each other.  This is what helps us make good choices, make friends and get along with other people, come up with exciting games to play, calm ourselves down and get ourselves out of sticky situations. 

Sometimes, in the downstairs brain, Alerting Allie spots some danger, Frightened Fred panics and before we know where we are, Big Boss Bootsy has sounded the alarm telling your body to be prepared for danger. Big Boss Bootsy is a bossy fellow, and he shouts ‘the downstairs brain is taking over now. Upstairs gang can work properly again when we are out of danger’. The downstairs brain “flips the lid” (to borrow Dan Siegel’s phrase) on the upstairs brain. This means that the stairs that normally allow the upstairs and downstairs to work together are no longer connected. 

Flipping your lid

Sometimes, flipping our lids is the safest thing to do. 

When everybody in the brain house is making noise, it’s hard for anyone to be heard. Bootsy is keeping the upstairs brain quiet so the downstairs folk can get our body ready for the danger. Boots can signal other parts of our body that need to switch on (or off). He can make our heart beat faster so we are ready to run very fast, or our muscles ready to fight as hard as we can. He can also tell parts of our body to stay very very still so we can hide from the danger. Bootsy is doing this to keep us safe. 

Try asking your child to imagine when these reactions would be safest. I often try to use examples that wouldn’t actually happen (again so that children can imagine these ideas in a playful way without becoming too frightened by them). For example, what would your downstairs brain do if you met a dinosaur in the playground?

Everyone flips their lids. 

Think of some examples to share with your child about how we can all flip our lids. Choose examples that aren’t too stressful because if you make your kids feel too anxious they may flip their lids then and there!

Here’s an example I might use:

Remember when Mummy couldn’t find the car keys and we were already late for school. Remember how I kept looking in the same place over and over again. That’s because the downstairs brain had taken over, I had flipped my lid and the upstairs, thinking part of my brain, wasn’t working properly. 

When the downstairs brain gets it wrong. 

There might be times when we flips our lids but really we still need the upstairs gang like Problem Solving Pete, and Calming Carl to help us. 

We all flip our lids, but often children flip their lids more than adults. In children’s brains, Big Boss Bootsy can get a bit over excited and press the panic button to trigger meltdowns and tantrums over very small things and that’s because the upstairs part of your child’s brain is still being built. In fact, it won’t be finished being built until the mid twenties. Sometimes, when I want to emphasise this point, I ask kids this question:

Have you ever seen your Dad or Mum lay on the floor in the supermarket screaming that they want chocolate buttons? 

They often giggle, and giggling is good because it means it’s still playful, so they are still engaged and learning. I tell them parents actually like chocolate just as much as children, but adults have practiced getting Calming Carl and Problem Solving Pete to work with Big Boss Bootsy and can (sometimes) stop him from sounding the danger alarm when he doesn’t need to. It does take practice and I remind children that their brains are still building and learning from experience.

From a shared language to emotional regulation.

Once you’ve got all the characters in the brain house, you have a shared language that you can use to help your child learn how to regulate (manage) their emotions. For example, ‘it looks like Big Boss Bootsy might be getting ready to sound the alarm, how about seeing if Calming Carl can send a message saying ‘take some deep breaths’ ’’ .  

The language of the brain house also allows kids to talk more freely about their own mistakes, it’s non judgemental, playful and can be talked about as being separate (psychologists also call this ‘externalised’) from them. Imagine how hard it might be to say ‘I hit Jenny today at school’ versus ‘Big Boss Bootsy really flipped the lid today’. When I say this to parents, some worry that I’m giving children a ‘get out clause’ - ‘can’t they just blame Bootsy for their misbehaviour?’. Ultimately what this is about is enabling children to learn functional ways to manage big feelings, and some of that will happen from conversations about the things that went wrong. If children feel able to talk about their mistakes with you, then you have an opportunity to join your upstairs brain folk with theirs, and problem solve together. It doesn’t mean they escape consequences or shirk responsibility. It means you can ask questions like ‘do you think there is anything you could do to help Bootsy keep the lid on?’. 

Knowing about the brain house also helps parents to think about how to respond when their child is flooded with fear, anger or sadness. Have you ever told you child to ‘calm down’ when they have flipped their lid? I have. Yet what we know about the brain house is Calming Carl lives upstairs and when Bootsy’s flipped the lid, Calming Carl can’t do much to help until the lid is back on. Your child may have gone beyond the point where they can help themselves to calm down. Sometimes, parents (teachers or carers) have to help kids to get their lids back on, and we can do this with empathy, patience and often taking a great deal of deep breaths ourselves!  

Where to go from here?

Don’t expect to move all the characters into the brain house and unpack on the same day; moving house takes time, and so does learning about brains. Start the conversation and revisit it. You might want to find creative ways to explore the brain house with your child. 

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. draw the brain house and all the characters 
  2. draw a picture of what it looks like in the house when the downstairs flips the lid
  3. find a comic, cut out and stick characters into the downstairs and the upstairs 
  4. write stories about the adventures of the characters in the brain house
  5. use a doll’s house (or if you don’t have a doll's house, two shoe boxes, one on top of the other works just as well) and fill it with the downstairs and upstairs characters. 
Sophie flipping her lid

If you find other creative ways to explore the brain house, I would love to hear about them on Facebook or twitter.

Make it fun, make it lively and kids won’t even realise they are learning the foundations of emotional intelligence.

Written by Dr Hazel Harrison - Clinical Psychologist

Think:Family, Think:Education

Bright Future

                                                                              Illustration: "Bright Future" by Peter Knock

                                                                              Illustration: "Bright Future" by Peter Knock

When I first saw Shawn Achor’s Tedtalk, I knew that something exciting was happening. I stopped everything. I watched it again. I rushed in from my office to show it to my husband. He watched it and at the end, smiled and said ‘Hey, he just said what you’ve been saying for the last few months’. 

And this is what I’ve been saying:

I think we need to start teaching our children about emotional wellness.

Children should know as much about their emotional health as they do their physical health. If you ask a 10 year old what being healthy means, they can tell you: eat five-a-day, exercise, and get plenty of sleep. But what if we ask them what emotional health is? Do they know about that? 

Statistically, in a class of 30 children, 3 will suffer from a diagnosable mental health problem. 

3 is too many. 

So here’s the plan. I’m going to share what I’ve learned from my work as a clinical psychologist, both from the research and from my experiences with children and families. I’ll talk about the useful ways we can teach children about how our brains work, the safe ways to explore about ‘big’ feelings and how we can help them develop emotional intelligence and reduce their risk of mental health problems. If you know of other parents who might be interested in learning this, please let them know about ThinkAvellana too.

But for now, I start my journey by sharing Shawn’s TedTalk with you. He figured out the Happiness = Success equation: the first steps towards a bright future. 

 

Written by Dr Hazel Harrison - Clinical Psychologist

Welcome to ThinkAvellana

We wanted to tell you a bit about us, our mission and how we can help you. 

Dr Hazel Harrison (Clinical Psychologist) founded ThinkAvellana as a way to bring psychology out of the clinics and into everyday life. We work with schools, businesses and families, sharing the best bits from psychological science to help you achieve your goals, enhance your happiness and make your everyday even better.