When kids get anxious, they become avoidant instead of learning how to handle situations better in the future.
Discipline is tough. With the number of times kids need correction every day, it’s understandable that parents develop habits that aren’t always thought through. In a flood of snap judgments, chaos management and a desire to regain control of a difficult situation, ineffective and problematic discipline techniques come up. Not only don’t they work, they can make kids confused and anxious. Nobody wins.
“As parents, we have to ask ourselves questions about what outcomes we want when we discipline our kids,” says anxiety therapist Chad Brandt, PhD. “The best scenario is that they come to understand why what they did was wrong so they can learn and practice alternatives.”
Brandt sees several common discipline mistakes from parents, but luckily he has simple tools for reflection and change to help parents get their kids mentally and emotionally engaged. Then, rather than kids walking on eggshells while focusing on not getting caught, they can maximize their growth potential from challenging situations.
Physical discipline can also contribute to a cycle of misbehavior by modeling actions that are likely to land kids in additional trouble if they emulate them. “You’re solving one discipline problem with a solution that you would tell them not to use in any other instance,” Brandt says. In other words, you don’t want your kid to hit their peers when they do something wrong.
And although kids aren’t likely to find any type of discipline fun or pleasant, the anxiety that physical discipline elicits can exacerbate behavioral issues by driving kids to be even more secretive. “When kids experience the physical reaction to pain, they’ll start to hide their behavior from you.
Or they’ll lie or cover things up because they don’t want a spanking,” he says. “You’re not teaching them how to change the behavior. Instead, you’re teaching them how to avoid you.”
Successful discipline teaches kids how to understand why what they did was wrong and appropriate responses for the next time they’re in a similar situation. An engaged child will grow in self-awareness and emotional attunement. But an anxious child will become avoidant.
Want to really help your child engage during the discipline process? Brandt suggests parents show their kids empathy. Walk them through ways they can more appropriately handle similar situations in the future to add layers of positive reinforcement.
“If your child lashes out at a sibling for taking their toy, you can ask what emotion they felt when that happened,” Brandt says. “Then let them know that the next time they feel that emotion, they can either politely ask for the toy back or come get you for help. Then you and your child can practice one or both of those solutions together.”
Discipline Mistake #2: Overly Harsh Discipline
Even parents who don’t ascribe to physical discipline can be overly harsh with their children. When a kid gets put in time-out, for example, it can be tempting to keep them there just a little too long, for any number of reasons. But if the timeout stretches too long, it can become counterproductive.
“Usually, we would say about a minute per year or life with a max of like 10 minutes before it stops being a useful tool,” Brandt says. “There’s a limit to how long kids can process information. And for younger kids, that limit is pretty short. So they might have a timeout and learn for a minute, and then play in their room or sit on the chair and daydream. And that’s something that you don’t want. That defeats the purpose.”
It may be helpful to combine a brief timeout with another appropriate disciplinary action to help kids process their misbehavior. But again, the emphasis is on suitable. Being too extreme pushes the experience past being a learning opportunity and makes it anxiety-producing. Your child ate candy without asking? They don’t get dessert that night. But don’t take away dessert for the whole week.
Discipline Mistake #3: Inconsistent Discipline
“The most important aspect of discipline is being consistent with rules and consequences. In fact, consistency is going to be more important than the specific consequence, especially when kids are younger,” Brandt says.
When rules and expectations are constantly in flux, kids can get anxious even when they’re behaving appropriately. “Parents will put off disciplining their child because of how the child might respond. So the child has free rein to do whatever, until the parent snaps and gets angry,” Brandt says. “For the child, it’s confusing when they get to do whatever they want, until all of the sudden they get yelled at.”
That combination of confusion and fear is a breeding ground for anxiety. In contrast, clarity, closure, and positivity create an environment where kids can learn it’s safe to acknowledge their mistakes and grow from them.
Brandt encourages families to end any disciplinary interaction with a note of optimism as a way for everyone to move on. “We don’t want to stay stuck in that difficult moment where the kid is angry because they feel misunderstood and like they’re labeled as a bad kid,” he says.
“So I’d just end the interaction with, ‘Now we understand what happened, and how we can keep it from happening again in the future. I can’t wait to see you handle that better the next time. You’ll do great.’”
And, hey, don’t be afraid to use some of that positivity and optimism on yourself. Habits can be hard to break. In chaotic parenting moments, it’s easy to slip back into anxiety-provoking discipline methods in an attempt to regain control of the situation. But reflecting on why you reverted to the undesired habit and what you can do differently in the future gives you a chance to handle the chaos better next time. You’ll do great.
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Maybe you’re talking with your spouse. Or friend. Or brother. Or colleague. Whoever it is, you know that no matter how carefully you say something, the words won’t get through. They’re just so damn defensive.
You want to scream stuff like, “It’s not a personal attack” or “I’m just trying to have a conversation.” Mostly, you want to ask, “Can you just stop being so defensive?”
Here’s the thing: No, they probably can’t. It’s right there in the word. They’re defending. “It implies there’s a threat,” says Ellen Hendriksen, clinical psychologist and author of How to Be Yourself. It could be you, but just as likely your words are triggering something deep-seated.
Once their fears are ignited, all focus is danger related. It’s hard for the defensive person to get out of that mode. And saying something like, “Don’t get so defensive,” is about as effective as saying “Relax” to someone panicking.
So what can you do when talking to someone who always gets defensive? Turn up your empathy and turn down your assumptions, because you’re most likely going into the interaction hot. You’re bracing for that person to feel threatened and that ends up threatening you.
“Then we have two reptilian brains talking to each other,” says Laura Silberstein-Tirch, licensed psychologist and author of How to Be Nice to Yourself. That means both of you are down to three options: fight, flight or freeze. “It’s a limited repertoire.”
You want to open that up. You can open that up. It means going in with a different attitude, almost a blank slate, where what’s happened in the past doesn’t matter, and instead of continuing to pull on a rope, and trying to “win” the discussion, you drop it. As Silberstein-Tirch says.“Our hands are free, and we have the freedom to choose how to respond.”
How to Break Through Someone’s Defenses
There’s no one thing to say to talk to a defensive person, but it’s like any successful communication. Hendriksen says to stay in the first person – “you” ups the threat level – and focus on specific acts rather than making things eternal character traits. Example: “That presentation wasn’t at your usual level” is taken better than “You’re not really good at public speaking, are you?” You can also pepper in ways to make any criticism a show of confidence, with something like, “I’m saying this because I know you can handle it and because you’re really smart.”
“Turn it into faith in them,” Hendriken says.
But nothing is magic. Defensive people can turn the most benign comment into an attack, and there’s also something called sensitization. It’s like when hot coffee burns your tongue. Everything else, no matter how cool, will set it off, says Hendriksen. Your words, regardless of how thoughtful, can do that.
In those times, acknowledge the reality. It could be, “This might not be the right time. When would be better?” Or be even more direct with, “It seems what I’m saying isn’t working. How would you approach this problem?” In either of these scenarios, you’re out of the struggle, and giving responsibility to the other person to provide some insight and help with the solution.
“It allows them to show their cards a little more,” Silberstein-Tirch says.
Consider saying, “I notice when we talk about your mother, things go off. What can we do about it?” Here, you’re not talking about the issue, but talking about talking about the issue, and that one step removed makes it easier for the other person to engage. Rather than bumping heads, you’re now teaming up on the problem, which in couples therapy is called unified detachment, Hendriksen says.
But what also helps is to come into the conversation clean, like it’s the first time. You stay away from lines like, “I know you’re gonna get defensive,” a preface that has never caused someone to exhale. Instead, you want what Silberstein-Tirch calls “beginner’s brain.”
It means being present for the conversation that’s about to happen. It’s impossible to do this every time, but if you can foresee a difficult interaction, deep breathing can help slow you down. So can noticing three things you see, hear, and feel, in that order. “It grounds you in the here and now,” she says.
It all sounds doable and probably helpful, but also like a bit much, especially for someone else’s triggers. Really, it’s not your problem.
Maybe so, and if you had to run through these options all the time with a person, it would be too much. But if it only happens occasionally with someone you care about or need to keep working with, then it might be more beneficial to swallow some ego and take into account what matters the most in the long-term.
“It’s the difference between being right or being effective,” Hendriksen says. “Do you choose being right or the relationship?”
Defined by Merriam-Webster as “something that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety,” stress has been rising in Americans for years. But now it seems to have become the prevailing emotion of the 2020s.
In a survey earlier this year by the American Psychological Association, 84 percent of adults reported feeling at least one emotion associated with prolonged stress in the preceding two weeks. The most significant sources of anxiety were the future of the nation, the coronavirus pandemic, and political unrest.
For businesses, this environment has accelerated a dramatic change: Market winners and losers are being decided based on empathy—companies’ ability to put themselves in customers’ shoes and show, in every interaction, deep and genuine concern for their wants, needs, and priorities.
PERMENENTLY CHANGED CUSTOMER EXPECTATIONS
To be sure, customer experience (CX)—how a company engages with customers at every stage of the buying journey—already had become an essential business priority in a digital age that has given consumers unprecedented choices and power. But making customers feel trust and delight on an emotional level has gone from being an aspiration to an expectation in the last year and a half.
A recent report by contact center technology provider Talkdesk shows that most consumers have higher expectations of companies they do business with today than before the pandemic.
In the retail sector specifically, according to the study, 58 percent of retail customers said their expectations of their preferred brands have increased in the last year. “Ease, speed and ability to transition across channels of choice during interactions rate among their top priorities,” the report said.
According to a McKinsey report in August, e-commerce sales continue to experience huge growth, with online penetration remaining approximately 35 percent above pre-pandemic levels and e-commerce logging more than 40 percent growth over the past 12 months.
This means that retailers truly can no longer ignore that the line between digital and in-store experiences for consumers has rapidly disappeared and consumers no longer differentiate where and when they had an experience with a business, just how it felt.
Even the most eternal optimist would have a hard time believing the stressed-out climate will subside anytime soon, so businesses need to be planning for 2022 and beyond with one thing in mind: How can we forge a memorably positive emotional connection with customers and consistently deliver a consistently delightful, empathy-driven experience? Here are three ways to get there.
STEPS TO EMPATHY-DRIVEN CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE
1. Make customer empathy the company’s central cultural value.
Many businesses still operate in silos, but, as described above, customers no longer do. Thus, companies need to shed old ways of how the business has been structured and organized and adopt new ones based solely on how customers see and work with them. Everyone on every team in every department must have a clear understanding of their role in providing a holistic, empathy-driven experience and how each channel and touchpoint integrates to make that happen.
As part of the effort to cultivate human experience as a core value, every individual in the company should be able to see, hear, and feel the customers’ experience—not just a select few whose “job” it is.
Finally, companies must ask themselves if they have the right leaders for this time. Does the CEO grasp where to prioritize investments to drive the experiences customers are demanding? Do executives across the C-suite have the right levels of empathy, authenticity, and emotional intelligence? In today’s world, leaders must make decisions with their hearts as much as their heads. “Soft skills” are the new hard skills.
2. Focus on human experience as much as data.
Understanding customers on a deeper level—who they are, what their lives are like, and what their motivations are for using a product or service—has become harder as customer experiences have become less human and more digital. Companies are trying to build deep connections with perhaps millions of people they may never actually see.
As a result, most businesses have turned to collecting and analyzing data—clicks, sales conversion statistics, email response rates, survey responses, etc.—to try to glean customer insights.
But while quantitative methods can help uncover trends and patterns, (for example, that 65 percent of web page visitors are leaving without going beyond the home page) they tell only half the story: Data can provide the “what” behind customer behavior but not the “why.” It is devoid of color and context—the many nuances around customer experience that can come only from observing and interacting with customers first-hand.
Interaction with real customers must be combined with companies’ data-centric processes to inform every aspect of product design, creation, and support.
3. Take advantage of technology.
Technology exists—video, live interviews, and other research studies—to continually see and hear what customers are thinking. Companies should leverage this technology to build a feedback loop that drives the brand forward from the customer’s viewpoint—a virtuous circle in which one desirable outcome from human insights leads to another and drives continuous improvement.
In a product or app launch, for example, this can include live customer interviews before design starts, quick validation of prototypes and sketches, continuous verification during development to validate decisions and reveal problem areas, and post-launch gathering of insights to reveal any issues that weren’t found earlier.
By following these three steps, businesses can make customer empathy part of their brand’s lifeblood. In these times, there may be no greater differentiator.
Are you finding it harder than ever to concentrate? Don’t panic: these simple exercises will help you get your attention .
Picture your day before you started to read this article. What did you do? In every single moment – getting out of bed, turning on a tap, flicking the kettle switch – your brain was blasted with information. Each second, the eyes will give the brain the equivalent of 10m bits (binary digits) of data. The ears will take in an orchestra of sound waves. Then there’s our thoughts: the average person, researchers estimate, will have more than 6,000 a day. To get anything done, we have to filter out most of this data. We have to focus.
Focusing has felt particularly tough during the pandemic. Books are left half-read; eyes wander away from Zoom calls; conversations stall. My inability to concentrate on anything – work, reading, cleaning, cooking – without being distracted over the past 18 months has felt, at times, farcical.
The good news? We can learn to focus better, but we need to think about attention differently. It is not something we can just choose to do. We have to train the brain like a muscle. Specifically, with short bursts of daily exercises.
Dr Amishi Jha is a professor of cognitive and behavioural neuroscience at the University of Miami and an expert in the science of attention. She has written a book called Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day, a four-week training programme based on her research showing how simple mindfulness exercises carried out by people with high-demand jobs, such as soldiers, elite athletes and emergency medics, improve many aspects of cognitive and emotional health, including strengthening our attention.
‘Working memory is like a mental whiteboard with disappearing ink,’ says Dr Amishi Jha. Illustration: Nathalie Lees/The Guardian
When I first opened Peak Mind, I set a timer to see how long it would take me to feel the pull of social media. Three minutes in, I check Twitter. I tell Jha this and she erupts with laughter. “Oh, that’s fantastic,” she says.
I tell her this distractibility has made me anxious. She nods patiently. “There is nothing wrong with your attention, even if you feel more distracted right now. That is a healthy response to your current situation. To think otherwise is just false,” she says. “We’re in a crisis because our attention works so well. It’s doing exactly what it was designed to do: respond powerfully to certain stimuli.”
Stress is one of the biggest obstacles to focusing, says Jha. In a high-alert state, we often start ruminating and catastrophising. We get stuck in “loops of doom” or imagined scenarios. This mode impacts our “working memory”: the amount of information that can be held in our minds and used for a task. For example, choosing the words to put together in an email, or reading a page in a book.
“Working memory is like a mental whiteboard with disappearing ink,” says Jha. When that whiteboard is full of thoughts, feelings and images relating to what’s making us stressed, there is no room for new information. We might start blanking, zoning out or snapping at our partners, then feel guilty, which makes focusing even harder.
The first step to better focus is accepting a key truth: you cannot just decide to have unfettered attention
Jha began thinking differently about mindfulness when she experienced her own “crisis of attention” (“a blaring, unrelenting onslaught of mental chatter,” she writes) that reduced her ability to feel present with her small children.
So she came up with some simple practices “that exercise the brain in ways that it is prone to being weakened”. These short bursts of mindfulness training each day can help us notice the traffic of our thoughts and urges, and develop what Jha calls the “mental muscle” to observe, rather than act.
I admit that I am sceptical. Even as a trainee psychotherapist (with a vested interest in learning to be present) I find it hard to believe that something so stark, that we can do by ourselves, can help focus a mind that feels scrambled by multiple lockdowns, political divisiveness or economic uncertainty.
I start by setting a timer for three minutes each day, instead of the recommended 12 – a smaller “dose”, encouraged by Jha, to get used to it. The first exercise involves sitting upright, closing your eyes and focusing on where your breathing feels most prominent, usually in the chest or diaphragm. Direct your focus here like a beam and notice when thoughts or sensations pull it away: a memory bubbling up; a reminder that you need to reply to a text; an itch. The point is noticing when the “flashlight” moves, then moving it back. That’s it.
From the beginning, this flashlight image is one of the most useful mindfulness tools I’ve used. After three days, I start to notice when I am being pulled away from trying to focus on something (reading is trickiest for me). I am noticing when my focus is ruptured, which feels new.
The first step to better focus is accepting a key truth, says Jha: you cannot just decide to have unfettered attention. You have to practise. “The notion of an unwavering mind is a fantasy,” she says. The problem is that we now have far more sources of distraction. We are not just recipients of content, but willing participants. Despite how often we are encouraged to “unplug” from our devices, we cannot outwit the algorithms designed by armies of software engineers, statisticians and psychologists.
More unsettling is how we need our phones to rescue us from our phones. The global mindfulness meditation apps market size is expected to reach over $4.2bn by 2027. But in stepping back and learning why our attention can feel so slippery – rather than reaching for another attention-sucking app – perhaps we can assuage some of the difficult emotions associated with being distracted.
In week two, Jha introduces the “body scan”. Using the flashlight to move through the body, from toes to scalp, you are encouraged to notice what physical sensations are there. Whenever the mind wanders, return it to the area of the body where the attention was before the wandering.
Even in three-minute bursts, my mind fizzes with words, people, places and feelings. I tell Jha that I have to move my flashlight back so many times, I wonder if it will ever feel easier. “You’re doing great!” she says. “You have introduced something new and it can take time to get used to it. But know that it will get better.”
After a fortnight of doing the exercises, I notice that being able to carve a little sliver of space between myself and the contents of my mind means I am able to divert my attention back to what I need to do more easily. The body scan exercise has given me a new awareness of how distracted I am by physical sensations (a cramp; a gurgle; an itch). It is hard to explain how significant this layer of awareness is unless you’ve tried it.
I am going to carry on with the exercises, with a view to building up to the 12-minute daily dose, because something is shifting in my relationship with my thoughts. I begin another book after I finish Jha’s and reset my timer. It takes me 23 minutes to open Twitter. That’s progress.
Attention, please: five ways to focus better
1 Pay attention to your breath, and where on your body you feel it most: direct your focus like a beam of light. Do this for three minutes a day, for a week.
2 Integrate this technique into everyday life – for example, brushing your teeth. If you’re thinking about your to-do list as you’re scrubbing, bring the light back. Focus on the sensations.
3 A lot of people report that their mind is “too busy.” Your job is not to stop it – your job is to exist with it, and to place your attention back where you want it.
4 Ignore “mindfulness myths”: you are not “clearing your mind.” This is an active mental workout.
5 There is no “blissed-out” state you are aiming to experience; in fact, the whole point is to be more present to the moment.
section.47 Neuroscience 2nd ed. Dale Purves, George J. Augustine, David Fitzpatrick, Lawrence C. Katz, Anthony-Samuel LaMantia, James O. McNamara, S. Mark Williams. Published by Sinauer Associates, Inc., 2001.