Today we talk with Dr. William Stixrud, a clinical neuropsychologist and faculty member at Children's National and George Washington University School of Medicine, as well as the author of the book, The Self-driven Child in his book, which runs the gamut on topics related to child development, such as technology, sleep, exercise, homework, motivation, academic testing, control, and yes, stress.
Mon, 4/26 9:20AM • 33:02
kids, non anxious presence, parents, book, anxiety, anxious, child, stress, rat pups, life, experience, people, play, wrote, mothers, communicate, studies, confidence, handle, ideally
Terri Novacek, Joseph Porter, Dr. William Stixrud
Joseph Porter 00:07
If humans are naturally drawn to learning, why doesn't everyone enjoy school? If everyone has unique gifts and talents, why do some people feel dumb, depressed and insignificant? If you want something different, you need to do something different. Welcome to the element is everything podcast where we discuss real world experiences, research and strategies around finding your element, what it is, how to do it, and how to support others in developing it. Please welcome your host with over 30 years experience in public education and independent learning, Terry Novacek.
Terri Novacek 00:49
Imagine yourself calm, compassionate, wise, whatever it is, you need to be in the moment to have a non anxious presence. Today we talk with Dr. William Stixrud, a clinical neuropsychologist and faculty member at Children's National and George Washington University School of Medicine, as well as the author of the book, The Self-driven Child in his book, which runs the gamut on topics related to child development, such as technology, sleep, exercise, homework, motivation, academic testing, control, and yes, stress. Bill, thank you so much for spending time with me today. I understand you have a second book coming out soon. Let's start with that.
Dr. William Stixrud 01:42
It's called What do you say? And the subtitle is talking with kids to build motivation, stress tolerance, and a happy home. And what happened, Terri was that our agent, or literary agent said, you know, you guys wanted to write a book, just have a lot of dialogue there just make this easier. Well, here's what you say. So it's not it's not on the same kind of order as how to talk well, so kids will listen. But that there's chapters, for example, it kind of relates to the first book is that the chapter on communicating with kids to build connection and closeness. And then there's a second chapter on the language of a parent consultant, which the idea from the front and also that communicating a non anxious presence.
Terri Novacek 02:32
Of course, in your book, you're talking about the anxious parent, but even in leadership, as an anxious manager, it trickles out to your team.
Dr. William Stixrud 02:41
Where we got that expression of non anxious presence was from a guy who writes who wrote about leadership. He just he studied organizations that went from the family to a corporations that they all work better if the people in charge are not highly anxious and emotionally racked.
Terri Novacek 02:58
And I learned a new term when I read your book, epigenetics. And I was hoping that you could touch on that a little bit.
Dr. William Stixrud 03:08
Let me just tell you, it's a couple of really interesting things about some one of the people who pioneered the study of epigenetics and and was got a Michael Meany was a psychologist, and was one of his paradigm studies was he separated these rat pups from their mothers, and the mothers happened to be high licking and grooming mothers meaning low and low anxiety in the lower anxiety, the more affectionate they were in. So they basically separated these rat pups and their mothers for 15 minutes, twice a day. And the separation was very stressful. They're handled by these graduate students, and then put back to the mother. And when they're getting back to their mother, the mother licked them and groom them, until basically they weren't stressed anymore. And they did this. They did this for two weeks. At the end of the two weeks, these pups who had this experience of being stressed but then being completely restored and completely de stressed. There all the researchers referred to them as California laid back rats because they are almost impossible to stress. And then they looked at they looked at what and epigenetics means that your genes don't change, but the change, but however, genes can turn on and off. And the epigenetics is the science of how genes turn on or off. So give me an example. Anxiety disorders and depression are about 30 to 40%. Genetic, the date so there's some genetic vulnerability, but it takes it takes experience in most most cases, it takes experience typically stressed to turn on the genes for eight that need to be turned on for anxiety disorder, depression. So you may be born with vulnerability, anxiety or depression, but it takes certain experiences particularly stressful experiences to turn on those genes to express they could express in a way that you get anxiety or depression. It also tiered that Michael Meany that is beautiful study where he fostered rat pups from, from low licking and grooming highly anxious mothers to high licking and grooming non anxious mothers. And they also became California laid back rats impossible to stress, even though they're genetically programmed to be anxious. So, we know we know that stress is contagious, we know that when we're stressed, it can change the way our genes turn on, in for ways that are good and bad. We also know that one of the other moderates of the Navy SEALs is calm is contagious, as well, because if you can, these, these these rat pups that were read that we're genetically programmed to be anxious, it changed the expression of their genes having this very calm, nurturing mother. So there's, there's a lot that we can do to influence the nervous systems of our students and our own children. And, and they benefit greatly from that the more that we can be a non anxious presence in their lives.
Terri Novacek 06:17
Right. But you know, you also mentioned in the book just how technology and just modern society, what how we're set up these days, back in the day, when kids left after breakfast, and they were out playing all day, and their parents who said, you know, come home, before the streetlights are on, there weren't cell phones, and everybody went out and did their thing. And because we have this information at our fingertips, I guess we feel a pressure to use it, and be asked to, you know, check in with you all the time, and you want to know what they're doing all the time. And if it as a parent, like I said, you feel that pressure, you know, am I being careless or neglectful if somebody were to ask me where my child is. And I said, I don't know,
Dr. William Stixrud 07:11
I have a couple comments about that. One is that I love the work of a guy named Peter Gray, Peter Gray, who's a science social scientist at Boston University who studies play instead for his his whole career, he studied play from a developmental and physiological point of view. And he thinks basically, we need kids need much less school and much more play. That play is the way mammals learn to become adults. And within the last 30 years, we dramatically short circuit, the way that kids play, the amount of play, kids get and the way they play it. So kids do very little independent imaginative play, or rough and tumble play, because by the time they're too much of their play is on teams, you know, the first two year olds on a soccer team, or it's electronic, and it's pre programmed. And so I think that there's this, Peter Gray says, you know, the thing that connects this decreasing sense of control that kids young people have that we wrote about in The Self-driven Child. And this increase in anxiety and depression that we wrote about is the lack of play. Now, that's not the whole story. But I think it is part of the story that kids because kids used yet, when kids used to be in charge of their whole Saturday or the whole Sunday. And the parents didn't know where they were, they were basically developing a stronger sense of control of their own lives. The other point in Ned Johnson, my co author of The Self-driven Child, and I were in Houston, before the pandemic, and we had, we had dinner with the moms who were part of this committee to bring speakers into the school. And they are all using Life 362 this this, this tracking thing you put on your phone, so they knew where their kids were at all time. And they asked us what do you think about that. And I said, I think you ought to stop that immediately. Because the message we want to give kids is that this world is really a pretty safe place. And that I that I have confidence in your ability to keep yourself safe. I can't keep you safe. Even if I knew where you were, I need some help. I couldn't prevent it. And also, we want to give kids courageous messages, not fear messages and that that kind of monitoring just communicates fear that the world is very dangerous. I need to know where you are all times. I couldn't go for 10 minutes without knowing where you are. You need me to keep you safe. I think these are these are not the message that we want to give kids which we're I have confidence in you that you can handle hard stuff, you can figure out your solve your own problems. And when they're younger, we need to do everything we can to keep them safe. But that's They get older, the ideal message is I have confidence in your ability, and being upfront about the fact that I can't protect you from all the dangers in this world.
Terri Novacek 10:09
Right? Well, I'm sitting here thinking, Okay, guilty.
Dr. William Stixrud 10:15
Well, that, you know, it's, we all are. And luckily, you know, parents, kids don't need parents and teachers to do everything perfectly. We're pretty adaptable and resilient beings. But I do think that it that it's often hard to remember that what we're trying to what we ideally what we want to communicate, it's a sense of courage. And it can indicate a sense of confidence, not that you need me that to solve your problems for you, but but you can solve them for it. I'm here to help, if you need my help, but I'm not here to do it for you. And I really can't protect you from the dangers of this world.
Terri Novacek 10:52
Right? Well, so you know, using the airplane analogy, you know, take care of yourself first. Yeah, in order to be able to take care of your child, what, what things do I need to do for myself, as a parent, or as the adult in this situation with a child that helps me get comfortable with that, what is my mindset need to be?
Dr. William Stixrud 11:20
Let me give you an example. I mean, I was first I will say that we will, what we want to communicate is a courageous attitude. I mean, I there's a really a very influential book on raising children that was written in 1964. By Rudolf Draco's called Children the Challenge. And there's a chapter in it that says, the title of which is don't feel sorry for them. And the idea is, we want people to face life with a courageous attitude. And we don't want kids to feel sorry for themselves. So even when I see kids who have a really have all kinds of handicaps, or this that I just taught myself, I don't feel sorry, for I assumed that somehow, if there's a plan for their life, this is part of the plan. And I want to communicate that I have confidence they can handle their life. So I think that that's, that's one thing is that we want to communicate that attitude, that that you can handle it, there's a new program for treating childhood anxiety, that just works with the parents, it just worked the parents and changing their the way they react, because anxiety. And part of the program is offering kids supportive statements and supportive statements are where you communicate empathy, and understanding and competence. So let's say you got a kid who's who's frightened to be in any room of the house, unless the parents with you say, I know, this is really scary for you to be in a room by yourself. But I'm also 100% sure that you can handle it. So I'm not going to be going with you to the room that they're in every room anymore. Because I know that you're going to handle it. And I know if I go with you, I'm going to make you weaker, because we know that anxiety that it's untreated. And if we accommodated kids anxiety that did to protect them from anxiety, their anxiety just gets worse. And once we once we know that when we accommodate that when we when we basically try to protect kids from things that that may be stressful for them, we actually weaken, because we make them more anxious and more fearful, this knowing that can give us the courage to not make the combinations to not track them to deal with our own anxiety. And we know that there's studies that we talked about our second book, that it said he has these kids in a room with a computer trying to solve these computer generated puzzles that are really hard, and their moms in the room with them. And the mom just said the only instruction the fathers don't help. But if they get really hard, and most of the moms can't help themselves, we say put over here to do it this way. And when the moms do that, their anxiety level goes down, but the kids goes up it knowing things like this that we want, what we want to do is you want we want to have empathy, if kids is that that something scary, that gets having anxiety, but we know that they can handle it, they can handle some Distress, they can handle some some uncertainty. And then we have to work on our own anxiety. Yeah, and I'm a huge fan of possess as we talk about the self driven child. I'm a huge fan of meditation. And in the chapter in our book called a non anxious presence. The idea is that all organizations including families, they work better if the people in charge are highly act anxious and emotionally reactive. There's just so much easier to soothe an infant or to help a toddler calm down after a tantrum or to help a 15 year old who's girlfriend just dumped him kind of deal with emotional distress if we can stay calm. And so I think that many of the families, Terry who come to me with really highly anxious kids, and what do I do, it's not, it's not intuitive to most families that that one of the best ways I can help is lowering my own anxiety. So I think there's a lot that we can do as parents and educators, just in terms of whatever we need to do to to, to lower our anxiety, heal our own stress, so that we can be had that kind of courageous attitude.
Terri Novacek 15:35
And, you know, so as parents, we will sometimes put the pressure on ourselves on how our children behave. And we tell ourselves, well, I want my child to have good manners, you know, close your mouth when you're eating and say, Please, and thank you and sit up straight and all of that. And it well, gosh, even in education test scores, we see parents that are very anxious about their kids wanting to take a test, because they feel like that reflects on them if their child doesn't do well, and it becomes about them. And what are some ways that would help me that parent that is taking all that in? You know, it's my job to make sure my child does well in school and has manners in public all the time? And how do I keep from being the badger? Where's that fine line, I know, it's my job to make sure my child has what they need to succeed. But what do I do if they're not going out there in shining quite as much as I would like them to.
Dr. William Stixrud 16:41
So the first thing is that it helps many parents to realize that all our fear all our anxiety about our kids is about the future. Yeah, because if you got a kid who's not doing well in school, and you came to me, and I said, I'm a neuro psychologist, and I test kids who aren't doing well in school, and I said, look at I've seen 5000 kids like this 99% of them, they end up doing great. You just don't have to worry, then you'd see whatever they're going through, if they are doing well, they're kind of under achieving, you just see that this is just part of their path. And, you know, I was a C plus student in high school, and was really, I was really, I was really very involved in rock and roll music. I played basketball and baseball, my junior in high school, but I just wasn't academically interested. But as I matured a little bit, at the very end of my senior in high school, I started college and straight A student. Even though I flunked English, by the second quarter, my senior year of high school, it kind of woke me up and my father died, that kind of woke me up. And to say, that all our anxiety of our worry about our kids, it's about the future, but they're going to get stuck in some kind of negative place and not get out of it. And unless we get stuck along with them, they usually just grow out of it. And also, with sometimes we think that we're the ones that have to make our kids see the light, you know, you get you got to work harder, this is so important. You're kind of screwing up your whole life. And we forget how many we forget how negative it is, you kind of just badger kids like that, and how terrible is our relationship. Now they just turn us off and we aren't gonna have any ability to influence them when that happens. But we also forget how many influences there are on kids like how many other people that they're going to meet who they made a kid and underachieving 15 year old is interested in a girl who doesn't want to doesn't want a boyfriend is a slacker. And it just, I've seen this a lot, you know, that they kids, kids realize I'm not gonna be able to graduate, my friends, you know, keep kids turned on that I really want to make the basketball team and they work their butt off. And so I think that also, you know, one of the best things that we can do, if there's values we want our kids to have, this is simply model. This is simply we want, we want to kind of walk the walk ourselves, and then whether it's table manners, whether it's interest. And we also that way, especially teenagers are so adept at picking up on hypocrisy. So ideally, we walk that we model the virtues that we want. Yeah, and we want to remember that as I saying, that just telling kids repeatedly the same thing over and over again, it's just just it's it's harmful to relationship. And if you told the kid wants about how important is it that they sit up straighter, have good manners? Tell him 10 times, it's not gonna they're gonna respond any more than if you tell him one or two times. And so in our in our new book, what do you say? We talk about strategies for getting by so that we can have maximum influence on our kids. And part of the kid influence is really is having a positive relationship. Having a nurture that Were were much more engaging in positive formative interactions than negative ones. And in the book, we take john Gottman magic, what he calls the magic ratio for a healthy marriage, which is five positive interactions to negative two to every one negative one. And say, with parents with our kids, well, let's shoot for that ratio of five to one, five affirming, positive, enjoyable, fun, interactions total, one where we're scolding or whatever we're doing. So a few thoughts.
Terri Novacek 20:32
Yeah. Thank you. And can you talk a little bit about structure versus autonomy? How much control Can you give a child in their life or anybody for that matter, but then there does need to be some boundaries and some structure to help them succeed?
Dr. William Stixrud 20:51
I have a couple different thoughts about that. One is, we have natural authority in our families, because we're bigger. And we're smarter. We know more, you know, we have more experience. And but we don't want to do is, so we just have, we kind of inherit some natural authority, and we blow it. You know, if we get in shouting matches with our kids, you know, if we're constantly frustrated or anxious that we kind of blow that natural authority we have. And so we definitely we want it we want to set limits kids. Needless to me, that that kids, especially younger kids, that they don't feel safe, if there's not real clear limits and boundaries. And ideally, we work out limits and boundaries with kids, that we kind of negotiate with them. Or you talk about what's what seems fair to you, or what would what would I ask to be something I can live with. But then we negotiate whatever the limits are? And then what happens if either What if I don't follow through a, you know, follow through? What should we do. But what happens a lot of times is this, some kids break a lot of rules, and they get a lot of consequences. And it turns out that the kids who get who get the most consequences commonly learn the least from what we want to remember is that when we have limits, and we have consequences, that we want kids to learn from their experience, but we don't want them to do it in a way that just jeopardizes our relationship with as lecturing about the adolescent brain to a couple 100 Secondary School teachers. And I said, What, what's the key to teaching adolescence, and this woman, one woman said, it's the three R's of teaching, relationship, relationship relationship. And so we've talked about this in our second book, we have a chapter about consequences. And what we want to do ideally is, is if kids screw up if there's a natural consequence, okay, that that's, that's great. If they leave their bike out in the rain, and it gets rusted, welded, then they may they need to save up money for another biker what like battered. But also, but we set up its natural consequences. And that is its problems. You know, kids misbehave, let's instead of just saying Go to your room, or do that, no TV for two days, talk talk about talking about what's what seems to be what would be a reasonable consequence. So ideally, consequences we develop ahead of time, and we talk about the limits with kids that we kind of negotiate, it's not that having a sense of control doesn't mean you get to be the boss of everything doesn't mean that you get to be the end, you think about, there's a chapter in our book on kids with ADHD, and learning disabilities and autism, who need a lot more structure than most people. And we're all we want kids to have what they need. And so we want, we want to offer all the structure and support and supervision that kids need. It's just that we don't want to force it on. Because we don't want them spending all their energy trying to fight it, fight with the try to fight what they need. It's a terrible way for kids and teenagers. So unless kids are completely out of control, unless they're suicidal, unless they're they're so depressed, that that is can't think straight, that I that we offer help. We offer this structure, we offer the support that they need, but we don't try to force it on. And what are the one of the most powerful things I've ever learned here was that it's in the book, but one of my friends who I grew actually grew up with is a neuro psychologist that did training in a certain kind of psychotherapy. And the therapists were told, don't work harder to help your clients solve their problems. And they do, because you're going to weaken them because they're going to end up thinking that you're the source of the solution to their problems rather than now. And I've trained hundreds of tutors to work with kids with learning disabilities and ADHD over the years. And I've always said, don't work harder to help your client. Get better reading or whatever you're working on than the kid. That's because you're gonna weaken it. And if it feels like you're working hard to say, somehow his picture because I feel like I'm working harder than you are. And I love you and I want to help You don't want to we all work as hard as you do. But I don't want to work hard. And almost always, when just when just upfront about that, the kids kind of step up to the plate. And so that's a long wait way of saying that we want to support autonomy, it's it's really that sense of control. It's just a no, I wrote a whole book about it's just enormous. And it doesn't mean the kids don't need limits, doesn't mean that we did that limits can't help kids learn from their experience, which is ultimately what discipline is about. It's about learning from experience. So a few ideas, great.
Terri Novacek 25:33
As a parent, how, what are some things I can do to gauge how well I am giving the appropriate level of control to my child, my student?
Dr. William Stixrud 25:47
So I think that to two things, number one, how much is the kid fighting? You know, and number two, how many things are you doing for a kid that the kid really could be able to do for himself? You know, and and i think that that is certainly kind of a rule of thumb is don't do for kids what they can do for themselves. And that that's, that's not a that's I'm not black and white about that. But there's some times where your kid just kind of just had lazing around in it, well, I'll do it for you. And it's that way you might for a spouse or a friend. But as a rule of thumb, we don't want to do stuff for kids that they can do for themselves. And also, we don't want to fight about the same thing over and over and over again, which is always toxic, that it feels like kids are fighting you that I think ideally we say this is your life. Let's see how it goes that not if you're saying I want to play video games, 10 hours a day, but that's something you negotiate, you can negotiate down. But the two questions that come to my mind are number one, how much are they fighting, if they're fighting you a lot, then I think that often that means that we need to, we need to do some negotiating here to try to give them more control. And secondly, if it feels like you're doing stuff for them, that they couldn't be able to do for themselves, then then that, then that that's something that needs to be examined. because ideally, we want kids and my goal for kids is that they be able to run their own life for at least six months, before we send them off to college or that they they leave home, do whatever they're doing. And most kids don't come close to being able to run around in their own lives. And interesting, Terry, I was lecturing in Houston a couple years ago, and I mentioned this elite, this very elite school independent school in Washington, DC. And after the lecture, the woman came up to me to introduce herself as a family therapist at the Menninger clinic is this very well known, prestigious mental health clinic in Houston. And she said, we know this independent school in DC really well, because so many of these kids get into most elite colleges, but they can't handle it emotionally. And so they take a medical leave, and they come here for treatment, they simply don't have enough experience running their own lives. And so that's my goal, the goal is for kids to be able to run their own lives. So we want them ideally there by the time that they're 13, or 14, when they should be if they if they're capable of doing their laundry, let them do laundry, they should have chores, they should be able to go shopping, and certainly by the time they're in high school, the goal of them is to be able to do what they need to do to run their own life so that when they can so when they leave home, they don't run into the ground. Then I wrote a wrote an article in The New York Times, I think, in May of 2019. around Thanksgiving, because we already but by November 1, we knew seven kids who had started college and were already home by November 1 that already given up or flunked out or by number of firms and tool one, they just didn't have that experience running in our lab Do they have their parents are still waking them up, or you're managing their use of technology, or on them all the time about their homework, we don't have an assignment to do. You can't You can't go out this weekend because you have homework to do that kind of stuff. And I'm not blaming her, but we are doing the best we can. But I am saying that that should be our goal, because be able to run their own way. As opposed to that they're always doing well. And we want them to understand who's responsible for what
Terri Novacek 29:26
right. Give them the gift of independence with a mind try always tried to tell me, I didn't always live by it.
Dr. William Stixrud 29:35
Well, none of us are 100% living by our values. All right. Well, I
Terri Novacek 29:41
really appreciate you sharing all that information with us. And I am so excited about the second book. I'll be looking for that and in August.
Dr. William Stixrud 29:51
Yeah. And for whatever it's worth people can preorder that our new book that's called What do you say? How to talk to kids to build muscle Innovation, stress tolerance, and a happy home. if I do say so myself, it's a pretty good book. There's a lot of useful stuff in.
Terri Novacek 30:08
Oh, great. That's great. Dr. Stixrud reminds us in his book, The Self-Driven Child that if we're unable to accept our kids as they are, how can we expect them to accept themselves? Enjoying your kids is one of the best things you can do for them and for yourself? When you think about it, that fits all relationships, friends, spouses, colleagues, even our own parents. How much time and energy do you spend focused on others, worrying, controlling, wishing and wanting At first I was thinking a non anxious presence meant, don't let them see you sweat. But I realized now it's more than that. It's more of a don't sweat, the small stuff thing. And it's all small stuff. That's not to say people, safety, feelings, and success are small stuff. It's just a reminder that the best we can do for others is to let them do for themselves. It may look different than we want it to. But we have to keep things in perspective. I think of the parent who corrects the grown child about elbows on the table, the spouse who corrects the others choice of clothing, the organizational leader who micromanages decisions rather than providing the information necessary for others to make the decisions. These are all first person experiences by the way. Research shows that when people have a sense of control over their learning their work in their lives, they experience higher levels of confidence, which then leads to taking more positive and calculated risks. They also have smoother emotional adjustments and develop better values over time. What brings us success are our drive and the ability to learn from mistakes. Well, we can't learn from mistakes if we aren't given the opportunity to make them. As parents, we can prepare our children for the future by giving them experience with judgment while it's low risk. We can't protect them for 18 or 30 years, and then send them out to the world to survive on their own. The same can be said for organizational management. mistakes and mishaps are part of the path the journey toward greatness. with a focus on strengths however, acceptance, self care and support. We can offer experiences which create confidence and capability. Just as stress is contagious, so is calm. Which of those would you rather spread?