Research shows there are two ages in a child’s life that are almost guaranteed to be stressful: year one and adolescence, says neuropsychologist Rick Hanson.
While our teens’ brains are remaking themselves, we parents are also shaking from our own storms, such as approaching menopause, marriage turmoil, or caring for aging parents. This stress is why Hanson asks parents to look at themselves before helping their stressed out teens build resilience.
“The model is us. If we build up a calm center for ourselves, we’re showing our kids how to do it,” says Hanson, author of the book Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness. “If you know how to bring the stress meter down from a seven to a three by exercising control of your breathing, your heart rate, and your mind, you’ll be able to walk evenly over uneven ground.”
In fact, says Hanson, research shows the most direct way to teach your teenager resilience is to first clean up your side of the street; that’s where a parent has power. Recently, Your Teen spoke with Hanson about how parents can grow calm and happy cores, and how they can offer these practices to their teens, too.
Q: What’s the first step to building a calm center?
Hanson: To evaluate and choose to do it. I had my moment as a parent when I realized I was spending too much time in the red (anger) zone. Maybe you know that’s the last time you want to quarrel like that with your child.
Or, when you know life is tough, and you’re giving to everybody and feel like crap, you recognize that’s wrong. Choose to be on your own side and chill out for your kid’s sake—and there’s a sweetness for yourself there, too.
Q: How can parents learn to be calmer in everyday life?
Hanson: Breathing is the number one way to settle down the autonomic nervous system. Make your exhalations longer for a few breaths, and then breathe more evenly. When you’re in the middle of the fire: Exhale, then exhale again.
Another tip: Slow it down. Quarrels go fast, and we say things too quickly. By slowing it down and observing what’s happening, we’re allowing the prefrontal cortex — a powerfully slow part of our brain that plans complex cognitive behavior — to catch up with the fire engine amygdala and your stress hormones.
Q: So that’s the calm part. What about the happy part of our unshakable core?
Hanson: It’s powerful and scientifically proven that having a dozen positive moments for seconds at a time throughout the day pull us out of the red zone and into the yellow and green zones.
Notice the positive, authentic moments of feeling good: you finish a task; you look out the window and it’s a decent day; someone sends you a funny cat video; you have a nice moment with a friend. By having these moments and realizing these moments are good, you’re lowering your heart rate and your blood pressure.
While those little irritations and hurts add up and wear us down, it’s the little things that bring us up.
Q: How does experiencing ordinary joys make parents more centered in the long run?
Hanson: Technically, the easy part is to have a good moment, which happens even when we’re busy. The tricky but wonderful part is using these moments to change your body. I tell people there are three steps to turn these experiences into lasting change:
- Look for the good.
- Lengthen the feeling by staying with it for 5, 10, or 20 seconds.
- Incorporate the feeling into your body. Place your hand over your heart and notice it slowing or feel the warmth of a tender moment.
There’s a saying in brain science that the neurons that fire together, wire together. The longer and more broadly you fire the positive neurons, the more your body is primed to focus on the good. It’s a way to hack our brain’s system of focusing on the negative.
When we hardwire happiness by experiencing it, feeling it in our body, and noticing what’s rewarding about it, we can be calmer in the face of tribulations.