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Category: Sophrology for children and adolescents

  1. Sophrology and adolescence: part 2

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    So, picking up from last week.  Where were we?

    Anger and strong emotions. Anyone who lives with an adolescent knows about anger.  Their own, primarily, and then that of the teenager!  Anger is a normal and necessary part of growing up, and the challenge for the (awakened) parent is guiding the young person in its expression - which is vital, without glass breaking and doors slamming off hinges.  But it’s worth remembering that anger can mask a lot of other feelings.  It is more acceptable, socially, to feel anger than other difficult feelings like vulnerability, fear, sadness, despair.  In fact, we all use anger to displace pain: I was angry with my children the other day because I was worried about something that had nothing to do with them.  For the child, expressing difficult feelings requires both an advanced emotional literacy, and a supportive empathic environment.  In moments when these are absent, anger provides a means of getting these feelings out, sort of, and onto other people rather than trapped inside.  But then of course anger tends to trigger anger, and to the equal extent that we encounter it.  So as parents we find ourselves accelerating into rage in response to the anger of our child.  Trying to top it, almost, annihilate it.  You will not speak to me like that.  Children do not talk to their parents like that.  Ironic that we get so angry telling them not to be angry.  Bottom line, though, is this: we need to look gently and compassionately at our own anger, and our own ways of expressing emotion – our child has been watching this and learning from it since they were born.  Look at how acceptable it was for us to be angry or fearful or sad when we were young, and what our parents did, how they reacted.  Ask ourselves if we just might be acting out that unconscious conditioning.  Ask if it might be possible instead to hold our teenagers in their feelings, rather than making it clear they are no longer acceptable until they stuff them back down again.  Ask ourselves if our child might be mirroring back to us our own ways of expressing emotion.  I have a tendency to blame, and I can go there in a nanosecond.  It came from watching my father in my childhood.  He in his turn learned it from my grandparents. 

    So anger can be the spilling out of our pain onto those around us.  Hurt people hurt people, as the saying goes.  Here we must listen carefully to our young people, and feel our way to the underside of their emotions.  What is he really trying to tell me?  Is that sadness I can sense in her deep down?  We will be fumbling around in the dark here, like seeing the distant light above from the bottom of a well, but fumbling is good enough.  Keep fumbling.  Trying our best to connect, to understand, to facilitate is what will bring our young person back into relationship with us and with themselves because they will see our efforts to care and to comprehend.  And this matters – actually – more than getting it absolutely right.  So we pick around in the dirt at the bottom of the well, sensing the sadness, and perhaps the loneliness, and almost certainly the shame.  Shame is always at the bottom of the well.  I remember being deeply ashamed as a teenager that I couldn’t control my emotions better, that I didn’t have all this figured out.  Young people know somehow that their anger is a failure, and that just confirms their badness as a person.  No.  Their anger is an emotion that deserves expression – safely, and which is often a signpost both for other, more vulnerable emotions and for things which need to change.

    For anger can be righteous too.  There is something that happens with intense hormonal activity (the premenstrual time is another example of this) when what was brushed over becomes suddenly unacceptable: it’s as if a truth serum washes through you and you cannot help but call it out.  So our young people are also truth-tellers in their anger, and we owe it to them to pay close attention to what they are calling out.  Because it may well not be acceptable.  Perhaps the parent is not noticing something big going on in their lives.  Perhaps the parent’s behaviour is not good.  Perhaps it’s time to stop talking about them like that in their presence.  Perhaps the parent needs to stop talking generally and listen more – literally say nothing for most of the conversation, stop having the answers.  Just listen.  Perhaps they’re fed up with being demonised just for being a teen (the narrative is so prevalent).  There are things that rightly need to stop in their homes, their schools and the wider world.  I was a truth-teller as a young person for my grandfather.  Years of intense and distressing conflict as I told the truth again and again about his behaviour and his attitudes.  I couldn’t not say it.  As I moved through young adulthood into my late twenties and thirties, my stance softened – but so did his, and who can say what part my truth-telling had played in his evolution.  By the time he died we had found each other again, the man I had adored as a child, into whose side I had burrowed with joy, whose wide, warm hand I had clung to.

    So young people are the harbingers of uncomfortable truths.  Our task as their parents is to keep showing up, to keep listening as deeply as we can, to put aside our assumptions about what’s going on and instead tune in as much as we can to this young person before us.  To discern their deeper needs.  To be humble in the face of their truth – to sidestep the triggers and see what does need to change in our home, in their life.  Because strong emotion is an essential part of growing up.  We cannot stuff it down their throats when it surges up – it must come out.  Without strong emotion, the crucial work of building the self that I talked of last time would not be possible.  Self-building cannot happen in a space of apathy: it matters because it all matters.  How else do we know what we care about in this world, and what on earth we are going to do out there as young adults?

    This parental discernment, of course, is a very complex and subtle thing, depending not only on how conscious we are able to be of our own ‘stuff’, but how mindful and aware we can be in that moment of what the underlying need is for our child.  Here Sophrology can help us.  Breathe.  Release tensions in our own body.  See the child – your boy, your girl – in this moment.  Know that the behaviour expresses an unmet need for connection and understanding.  Make a space – even the smallest space – in our head between our triggered response and our awareness.  Wait for the snowstorm in our head to settle a bit; we will know better what to do then, and whatever we do will come from a better place.  I’m afraid it starts with us.

    Sophrology also gives physical exercises to express anger, if it needs to come out safely – for parent as well as teenager.  There is one called karate, which is literally punching ahead of you.  There is the puppet, where you can jump up and down as vigorously as you want, shaking it all off.  Indeed many of the exercises can be adapted to deliberately facilitate the release of strong emotion.  Then there are calming physical exercises to come back to yourself.  There is breathing awareness, mindfully noticing the storm of feelings, allowing it to be, creating space again within.  And while this explicit work is going on, gently behind the scenes is the self-strengthening that helps them (and us) process emotion in healthier, more conscious, ways. 

    Wellbeing and balance. Sophrology is, as I have said elsewhere, strengthening the glass of our being.  It is also, deeply, about balance in life (of which more at a later date).  At a time of profound and often unnerving change, the movement of the self between chapters of this life with all the loss and the gain that this entails, wellbeing and balance can be hard to hang onto.  But if we can gently underpin all that change, and give tools to manage difficult feelings and experiences, we have a fighting chance at coming out the other end without too much damage done.  After all, the end goal of adolescence is adulthood: and that’s just a beginning in itself – we need energy to run this race.

    Exams. A lot is said about the pressures on our young people these days.  Michael Gove decided that exams at the age of 16 should be harder and involve no coursework, so GCSE exams in the UK have become a stamina and endurance trial that not even more mature adults who are not going through intense change would navigate easily.  And once this tsunami is over, the child has only a brief breathing space before the onslaught of A-levels and university entrance – if that’s their path.  Even university finals take place around the still tender age of 21 or so: I remember having to do thirteen three-hour papers!  So much to cope with in such a short space of time.  Six years of proving yourself, jumping hurdles, all while changing from a child into a young adult, while falling in love or trying to, while leaving home, while encountering the deep sadnesses and complexities of the adult world, while working out if this person belongs anywhere in this big, confusing place.  It’s a tall order.  Alongside all the mental wellbeing scaffolding I have mentioned, and the help with sleeping, Sophrology gives clear and easy-to-use tools to help the young person both prepare for and then encounter the exams.  While it’s not going to learn the material for them, through visualisation and dynamic relaxation it prepares body and mind for the challenge, and helps them be at their best on the day despite the nerves and the exhaustion.  In the weeks and months leading up to them, we strengthen, strengthen the glass.  In the minutes waiting to go into the exam room, or in the toilet, there are subtle movements and breathing exercises that connect us with our strength and confidence.  And at the end of the day, having a sense that who you are deep inside is actually ok enables us to surf the waves more easily.  History exam – a wave.  Physics – another wave.  Breathe, connect, draw up what you need from within.  You can do this.  Precious young person, you can do this.  We love you and we see you.  And you are going to be such a blessing to this world, which needs every single one of your gifts and your strong emotions.

    Wishing you – and your young people – peace.

    Helena

    (If you are interested in reading more about ‘awakened parenting’, I recommend The Conscious Parent, The Awakened Family and other works by Dr Shefali Tsabary.) 

  2. Sophrology and adolescence: part 1

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    Sleep, anxiety, self-building and belonging

    It is acknowledged now that adolescence does not end with the teenage years, but is a less-defined process spanning young adulthood.  So this period of life does not switch off suddenly at the age of 18, when we might be catapulted into university, or 20, because there’s not ‘a teen’ at the end of the number.  It is a transition that takes its time.  And much of it is connected with what we are now understanding about the adolescent brain.  The intense pruning that goes on, stripping away neural connections so that the brain can enter its period of dramatic growth towards and into adulthood.  The prefrontal cortex that remains under construction until the age of around 25.  A great deal of adolescent experience derives from this neurobiology, alongside the hormonal activity.  The aim, after all, of our adolescence, is to bring us to the point where we can live independently from our parents.  We move towards peers, we question, we feel everything intensely, we need to belong, we sleep differently.  We are building, not only an adult brain and body, but an identity – a self.  It is like a cocoon: the pubescent child enters the chrysalis not knowing what they will become.  When I see teenagers walking along in their hoodies, I know they are in their cocoons, protecting their fragile, vulnerable selves from too much probing.  It is a paradox they must live with for those years: they want desperately to be seen and valued for who they are, but they also don’t precisely know who that is yet, so they need to hide.

    Sophrology meets them exactly where they are.  No need to talk or analyse, it assumes that everything they need for this journey is within them.  Strength: it is there.  Calm: it is there.  Confidence: it is there.  Hope for a positive future: it is there.  Gently, oh so gently, it builds that positivity within them.  It never tackles a problem head- on, but rather dances around and through it – always at the pace at which the individual feels happy to go.  The wisdom of the body and the mind will work towards wholeness if we reinforce the positive and point in the direction of what is there within all of us.  No matter what we may have experienced.

    So.  Sleep.  Young people do not fall asleep as early, and they need to sleep longer in the morning.  Because of these new rhythms, and often hindered by devices and phones, they can struggle to fall asleep and feel anxiety around it.  They are also dealing with a lot of new experience and trying to process it – often as they are quiet and about to sleep.  In conjunction with standard good sleep hygiene practices (no caffeine after 2pm, no screens half an hour before bedtime, a winding-down routine, a warm bath, a tidy bedroom, no devices in the bedroom), Sophrology works very well for sleep problems.  It is used in pretty much every sleep clinic in France and other parts of Europe.  Through breathing, dynamic relaxation and visualisation we bring calm to our bodies and minds during the day – and this is crucial for good sleep patterns at night.  We learn to be in our bodies both subjectively and objectively – both experiencing from within, and observing from a place of awareness.  This gives distance from our thoughts and feelings.  We no longer identify with every smallest thought that passes through our mind, lost in the feelings it creates.  Then at night we use both the physiological response to counted, structured breathing and the power of the mind to bring peace.  With all my children – and particularly my teenager, I have used this to help them relax and sleep, and it is usually effective within ten minutes – sometimes sooner.  I guide them into relaxation, and the body does the rest.  Sometimes it is a simple body scan.  Sometimes it incorporates breathing in a positive element (like peace, confidence, joy) that they feel they need more of, and spreading it through the body, fixing it there.  Sometimes we take a peaceful colour, the exact shade of whatever colour they feel drawn to, and we invite it in through the breath and diffuse it in the body.  Or we might spend a short time in a landscape of their choosing, their own safe place.  The power of this is enormous.  Once body and mind are safe and calm, they can rest.

    Anxiety.  There can be a lot to worry about in an adolescent mind.  Emerging sexuality, friendship issues, school and college pressures, family struggles, strong emotions, changing bodies, leaving home.  And that’s just ‘normal’ experience.  Of course there are many who hold much deeper, more painful places because of the circumstances of their lives and/or the degree of awakened consciousness of their parents. Dabrowski, a Polish psychiatrist who developed the ‘theory of positive disintegration’, says that anxiety and mental pain are a normal part of growth and change.  In adolescence, and other periods of intense change (menopause, for instance), he believes that disintegration happens in order to lift the self to the next level of actualisation.  And anxiety is part of this natural movement; as I mentioned in a previous blog entry, the spiral downwards is actually the way up.  Sophrology assists with anxiety in two ways: it gives tools to alleviate the pain in the moment of experiencing it; and over time it strengthens the person’s connection with their innate ability to handle life, which itself reduces anxious thinking.  We cannot solve anxious thinking in the mind alone, it seems to me.  Working with the body, in the sophroliminal level of consciousness, gently eases the mind and relaxes tension in the body.  When some space has been created in both body and mind, more positive capacities are able to rise up and start handling things.  These capacities were always there, but were just obscured by the anxiety, like the sun behind the clouds.  Sophrology helps to chase the clouds away. 

    Self-building and belonging.  It is a tricky business to build your identity, to work out who you are and what you stand for.  Particularly when that budding self is being battered on a regular basis by school or college and other people.  When that self is being shaped and influenced by social media, both for good and for bad.  We are, as Brene Brown says, hardwired for belonging.  After all, not belonging (in evolutionary terms) makes us vulnerable; sets us apart, makes us prey.  Recent research on the most important factors influencing longevity identified social disconnection and loneliness as the biggest threats to a long life – bigger even than genes or diet.  Not belonging literally kills us.  This is a truth that my teenage son knows on a visceral level; the drama of belonging or not is playing out powerfully in high schools across the world.  Teenagers know that belonging equals survival.  But interestingly – and perhaps especially for teens – Brown’s research clearly shows that the opposite of belonging is not what you might think.  It is, in fact, fitting in.  “Fitting in is assessing, and acclimating.  Here’s what I should say or be, here’s what I shouldn’t say, here’s what I should avoid talking about, here’s what I should dress like, look like.  That’s fitting in.  Belonging is belonging to yourself first, speaking your truth, telling your story, never betraying yourself for other people.  True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are: it requires you to be who you are.”   It’s a tall order for our young people, to be who they are and stand in their truth even as that self and truth is still shifting and elusive.  It’s why they often adopt wholesale the values and aesthetic of their chosen group: they are hitching their wagon to a story, trying it on for size.  Some of it will stick, some will not.  It’s a messy business, growing up.  Sophrology exercises allow the young person to find a space of peace, a respite, from this turmoil, and to glimpse the reservoir of strength and wisdom that lies within.  To connect with themselves.  To begin to work out their values.  It helps them to suspend the endless self-criticism and worry that who they are is not good enough and won’t belong in this world.  Non-judgement, gentleness, self-kindness.  We could all do with a dose of these, but particularly our precious young people doing their important work of growing up. 

    This is the end of the first part of this post.  Next time, I will look at anger and strong emotions, wellbeing and balance, and the dreaded exams.  Until then.

    Wishing you – and the young people in your lives – peace.

    Helena