There are some simple, easy-to-learn, but important “tools” we could and should be giving all our young people while they are in school. Unfortunately, we aren’t.
Consider all the things that go wrong in and outside classrooms, now and later in the lives of young people. So much of what does is either defined by generating a dysfunctional amount of emotion, or caused by what they do because of it, or to get relief from it. For example, many young people have anger problems, anxiety disorders, low self-esteem (shame, anxiety) or suffer from depression. Many are violent or abusive, or on the receiving end of it. Too many of them turn to tobacco, alcohol, drugs, food or even suicide to get relief. Any of these issues can and usually do negatively impact their readiness, willingness and ability to learn, and function at levels they are capable of.
Teaching these “tools” to young people in age appropriate ways can be like giving them a mental and emotional vaccination against all mental health, health, and social problems. It can be a form of mental and emotional self-defense, or karate, against any rough spots or threats in life, including bullying. It can give them the mental and emotional fitness to allow them to function at levels they want to and are capable of academically and athletically, and later professionally. Even for those who are functioning fairly well, the “tools” can be a mental and emotional tune-up kit for when things get rough.
One of the first things we want to teach children to have is what Dr. Albert Ellis called Unconditional Self-Acceptance (USA). The simple reason is shame. Shame is what people feel when they believe they’re not living up to their own or others expectations.
With all the expectations coming at young people, there are plenty of opportunities for them to feel shame. Shame can be and often is the primary feelings they seek relief from through alcohol and drug use and abuse, and suicide. It can also be a secondary disturbance in that it makes them want to keep what they think and feel a secret. Many bad things happen because young people keep secrets, including suicide. As Dr. Ellis used to say, “shame blocks change”. It makes young people less likely to seek or accept help that is available to them when they are struggling inside.
The basic belief we want to instill in young people is that whatever they think, feel, say or do is understandable given what they’ve been through. That doesn’t mean it’s healthy or helpful, or will be acceptable to others.
It just means that if you put other human beings through exactly what they’ve been through, most would probably end up thinking, feeling, saying and doing pretty much what they do. They’ll never be the first or last human to think, feel, or do something. They’ll always have a lot of company. It’s part of being human and nothing to be ashamed of.
The second, and simplest, easiest, but most important thing we could and should do is to teach young people to have an internal (inner) locus of control. Most people have an external locus of control. They believe that what others say and do, and what happens makes them feel the way they do. That includes most teachers and parents, and that’s why children end up having one. This often causes people of all ages to feel worse than they need to, for longer than necessary, and to miss opportunities to feel better.
However, it’s the thoughts we generate about the events of our lives that really cause how we feel. Thoughts cause feelings, not events.
The formula for feelings is:
EVENT + THOUGHTS = FEELINGS. It’s like that algebraic formula we all learn, a + b = c, where a is a constant and b is a variable. If a stays the same, and you change b, c changes.
Likewise, if an event stays the same, and we change our thoughts about it, our feelings change, perhaps for the better, perhaps for the worse.
We all have a host of cognitive choices that really determine how we feel. For example, how we choose to look at what happens, what meaning we attach to it, what we expect of ourselves, others and life in the first place, what we focus on, what we compare things to, what we remember about the past, or imagine for the future, and how much importance we attach to what does happen.
We make these choices all the time, usually without being aware that we do. That’s because the way we do is so practiced and rehearsed, and “rutted” in our brains that we do so automatically.
We can and should teach and remind young people, and ourselves, what our choices always are. That would be very empowering. As Dr. Victor Frankl once suggested, our last freedom is always our attitude.
If young people misspeak semantically or grammatically about anything else, adults will often be quick to correct them, saying “We don’t talk like that”. However, people of all ages routinely misspeak about how their feelings come about, and no one says anything. Every time someone says, “That makes me mad”, a teachable moment is missed.
We also want to teach and remind them of what they do and don’t control, and encourage them to focus on and work with what they do, instead of trying to control things they can’t. None of us can control what others think, feel, say or do. Many of us like to think we can, and talk and act as if we do. However, we only really control what we think, feel, say and do.
Finally, we want to teach them to avoid taking unnecessary responsibility for how others make themselves feel. That doesn’t mean that we’d be trying to eliminate empathy, concern or compassion for others. It’s just that others can upset themselves as much or as little as they want to. We don’t control how they make those cognitive choices they alone can make. Do we want young girls for example, to think they make their boyfriends angry by not wanting to do something, and to believe it’s their job to make their boyfriends feel better?
The rest of the “tools” I believe should be part of a “Tool Kit for Life” we give young people can be found at www.itsjustanevent.com. The beauty of teaching these and other such “tools” to young people is that it wouldn’t require any new teachers, classes or money to start and continue to do so. Plus, it would be good for teachers to develop Unconditional Other Acceptance toward students, and an internal locus of control for themselves. Teachers make a lot of mistakes with students, especially the most troubled and troublesome ones. Those are ones we can’t afford to make mistakes with. Learning and teaching these “tools” to students would also help teachers be more effective and make fewer mistakes. It would also improve their mental and physical health. Finally, if students become proficient in using such “tools”, it would make teachers’ jobs easier.