Susan talks with Dr. William Stixrud, author of The Self-Driven Child, about the rise of anxiety and depression in kids who report feeling increasingly controlled and micromanaged by well-meaning parents. Kids need a sense of agency to grow into resilient adults. An important, thought-provoking conversation. 

William R. Stixrud, Ph.D., is a clinical neuropsychologist. He is the author, with Ned Johnson, of the nationally bestselling book, The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives. He is a frequent lecturer and workshop presenter and has been featured in publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times of London, The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News and World Report, Time Magazine, Scientific American, Business Week, Barron’s, and, New York Magazine.

Things you’ll learn from this episode:

  • How parents have unintentionally contributed the rise in anxiety and depression among today’s kids
  • How to be your child’s “Consultant,” rather than a “Boss”
  • How we can empower our kids to gain the confidence and skills they will need to be successful adults

Would you like to learn more about how you can help your child
take charge of his or her own homework?

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Read the entire episode!
Transcript here:

Speaker 1: (00:00)

Speaker 2: (00:11)
Hello and welcome to the parenting without power struggles podcast. I’m your host, Susan stifelman. I’m a marriage and family therapist and I’m the author of parenting without power struggles and parenting with presence. So I’ve worked with families for a very, very long time and my goal with this podcast is to share some of what I’ve learned over all those years with you. I’m actually an avid learner. I’m still learning a lot. I’m a voracious reader. I take classes, I research topics that are related to raising kids and I collaborate with fascinating, smart, wise people like my guest on this episode, Dr. William Sticks, Road Height, Dr 600 in welcome. Hi Susan. I feel welcome. Okay, so I’m going to call you bill because you’ve given me permission to do that and I’ll let me tell you all a little bit about our guests because honestly I’m so excited to share his work with you and his book and everything that he’s up to.

Speaker 2: (01:11)
Bill 600 is the coauthor of one of my new favorite books, the self driven child, the science and sense of giving your kids more control over their lives. He’s written a book with Ned Johnson and he is a clinical neuropsychologist. Um, he’s on the teaching faculty at Children’s National Medical Center and is an assistant professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine. Dr Six rood is a frequent lecture on topics related to all kinds of things including adolescent brain development, stress and sleep deprivation and meditation. And his work’s been featured all over the place. The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Times of London, The Wall Street Journal or u s news and World Report Time magazine, and on and on. Dr [inaudible] is a longtime practitioner of transcendental meditation and a member of the rock and roll band. Close enough to this, the huge add on to your resume. Yeah, right, right.

Speaker 2: (02:08)
That’s the best part. The best part. So when we met not so long ago, I really felt that I had found a friend and a kindred spirit. Everything from our shared experiences starting meditation back in the 70s to the passion that we both have for helping parents raise confident, resilient kids who are just who they’re exactly meant to be. So I’m so glad you’re here, Bill. Thank you. And welcome again. I’m really glad to be here. I want to talk about the self-driven child at NPR review. You have so many great reviews, but it said instead of trusting kids with choices, many parents insist on micromanaging everything from homework to friendships for these parents, sticks, rood and Johnson. Have a simple message. Stop. Instead of thinking of yourself as your child’s boss or manager try consultant, can you talk about

Speaker 3: (03:00)
that and, and looks launched into a conversation about what you’re up to and why it’s so vital right now. Well, my coauthor Ned Johnson and I, um, we have very different backgrounds, very different training experience, but we, we, we think a lot of, like in some years ago we started lecturing about, uh, how kids become self motivated and we started lecturing. I, I’ve been lecturing about the effects of stress and kids development for 20 some years now and that, and I’ve done a quite a bit of that together and three years ago or so we were trying to figure out, we wanted to write a book. We were thinking how to organize the stuff that we know is helpful. And then at one point said, you know, I think that everything that we know is helpful for kids and their parents is related to a sense of control.

Speaker 3: (03:47)
And this made sense because we, we, we I’ve known for for years that a low sense of control was you feel helpless, hopeless, overwhelmed is the most stressful thing you can experience. And I also have known for years that that you can’t become self motivated if you don’t have a sense of autonomy. You don’t have a sense that this is my life and I can make choices. And we’ve both been pretty alarmed by what, what people are calling the, this epidemic of mental health problems and young kids which are related to stress. And so we figured if, if a, if a sense of control is very important for a healthy sense of control is hugely important for mental health. And we figured out a sense of control or autonomy is crucial for developing self motivation. It must, it must be a really big deal. So we did a lot of research in terms of the science of a sense of control.

Speaker 3: (04:44)
And it turns out that it’s good for everything. It’s good for physical health, it’s good for mental health, it’s good for longevity, performance, achievement. And so we wrote a book that for appearance and educators about how do you, how do you foster this healthy sense of control in kids, it sense of autonomy and how do you help them maintain the brain state that reflects a sense of control, namely where your prefrontal Cortex, the part of your brand, the most recently evolved part of your brain that can, can, can think logically and put things in perspective regulates the rest of your brain. And so we, we, we want with the strategies in our book about how do we help kids develop that sense of autonomy and how do we help them keep their brains and train their brains to stay in a state where they experience a sense of control, where their prefrontal cortex is regulating the rest of the brain and managing the stress response.

Speaker 3: (05:41)
And so you, Susan, you mentioned this consultant idea in the second chapter in our book, it’s called I love you too much to fight with you about your homework. And this an idea that I came up with this in 1986 because I saw so many parents button heads with their kids about homework. And, uh, it just seemed to be so crazy, especially in light of the fact that, that nobody’s been able to demonstrate that homework contributes to learning at elementary school. So I said, let’s just decide this nut fight plus this. I’m not going to fight and think about ourselves more as a consultant who can help kids. So that, so that’s, that’s kinda where it came from with my early experiences as a neuropsychologist and a therapist working, I’d work with a lot of underachievers and I’d say if you don’t turn in an assignment who’s most upset, and invariably the kid would say, my mom.

Speaker 3: (06:32)
And then I’d say, then who? Who’s next most upset? The Kid would say, my dad, then who’s next most you might my my tutor and my therapist and the kid was never on the list. And it just seemed to me that, that, that rather than, than thinking that I’m the boss, I, I, my job is they make my kid do his homework and make my kid do stuff. We think about ourselves that we appreciate the fact that you can’t make a kid do something against as well. And so we move more into this role of thinking of ourselves as a consultant to our kid. We’re supporting kids development as opposed to being the boss or the task master master or the manager.

Speaker 2: (07:08)
And one of the things that’s so excited me about all of that is that my work is built on this idea of being the calm captain of the ship, meaning that we hold a place in our child’s life as the one that they can turn to for guidance and support, but not the dictator, which is who we become when we’re trying to control or micromanage or intimidate our kids into behaving or acting in ways that make us feel better. And homework is such a hotbed of this dynamic because so many parents in a sense use their kids to make their own anxiety go away. So the kid becomes an agent or a means by which the parent can relax at least for a couple of minutes if he does his assignment, if you turned it in on time, if he gets a good grade, then the parent sort of breathes a sigh of relief. But of course that’s not how it’s meant to go. Children are not meant to be in charge of our, our emotional wellbeing. So I love that you’re really moving parents in such a practical way with so much research behind it to step away from that role. But why do you think parents do this? You know, I know I have my opinion. I’d love to hear, hear your view about why parents are so heavily micromanaging their kids and what the cost of that is. Yeah.

Speaker 3: (08:29)
Before, before I ask you a question, I’ll tell you the few, few months ago, one of my clients was reading our book and read the and, and she, she emailed me, she said, I just told my 13 year old son, I love you too much to fight with you about your homework is, and she said, first he smiled and then he hugged me and then he said, there’s something wrong with you mom. You know, apparently apparently is a little different than the conversation they normally have. And so my feeling is that parents, parents, they want their kids to be successful and they want to feel like they’re doing a good job as parents. And I think that most parents think that’s their role. My job is to make him to do it what he needs to do. And for me, that somehow the thought occurred to me, or somebody said to me 30 some years ago, that you really can’t make another human being doing something against their will.

Speaker 3: (09:17)
And, and I, I thought the more I thought about it as they make it completely obvious because if you’ve got a three year old and they will get in the car, you can pick them up and put ’em in the car, but they are getting in the car, you’re putting them in the car. And I couldn’t think of any, any, any exception to this idea that you can’t make a kid do something you use as well. So I figure, let’s start, let, let’s say I’m not going to try to force let forces off the table. And, and so I, I think that many parents though, they feel that that’s their job. And I think it’s also true regarding homework. Many kids manage their own anxiety about homework by letting their parents worry about it. You know, and I that that’s why this idea that this, this kid said, you know, this kid, the kid would never be on the list.

Speaker 3: (10:01)
The kid who was under achiever, he’d never be on the list in terms of who was upset about it because he let his parents, that’s the way that’s in Paris. Certainly they manage their anxiety and part just as you said Susan, because the thesis of our book is that what at least one of the main points of our book is a low sense of control is the most stressful thing in the universe. And if you can’t get you, you can’t get your kid to do homework. I mean, that’s very, very stressful. And so we try harder, we try to manage our own sets of control by doing something. So we’ll, we’ll Nag, will yell, we’ll threaten, we’ll do all this stuff that we know never works as a way of managing our own anxiety. That’s my ankle. Yeah, yeah,

Speaker 2: (10:42)
yeah. And then you talk about the cost of that in terms of, there’s so many powerful quotes in the book, but, um, you wrote this high, high school and college students who have steadily reported lower and lower levels of internal locus of control, the belief they can control their own destiny and higher levels of external locus of control, that it’s determined by external forces and it’s been associated with increased vulnerability to anxiety, depression. In fact, adolescents and young adults today are five to eight times more likely to experience the symptoms of an anxiety disorder than young people were at earlier times, including the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War,

Speaker 3: (11:22)
you know, and the scientist who, who studies generational differences and who, who made that discovery is who’s at San Diego state. Gene 20. Um, more recently she was pointing out that like in 2007, approximately 2007, young people were five, eight times more likely to report symptoms of anxiety or major depression. And in 2017 she writes a, she writes an article at Atlantic about more recent research. Uh, the, the article is called has a phone destroyed a generation. And she said, I’ve been studying generational differences, my whole wife, and they’re typically, they’re very subtle and they’re hard to track. She said, I’ve never seen anything like this dramatic spike since 2012 in anxiety, depression, and loneliness. And the crazy thing is that young people are, they’re so connected with each other 24, seven electronically, but, but they’ve never been more lonely and feeling isolated. So, yeah. And, and, and so, so when, when I read, when I was working on the book, one of the things was most striking to me, Susan, was that I, I’d read per example there, there’s a spate of, uh, a cluster of suicides somewhere in the country.

Speaker 3: (12:35)
And I’d read an article about it and I’d be with the experts who were asked about it, what they said, and they’d say things like, these kids feel existentially impotent or they used to fight back. They don’t try to fight back anymore. Every place I look kinda supported this idea that having a healthy sense of control, this is my life is so beneficial for, for mental health. Because you think, I mean, you think about it, Eh, w if you’re really, do you have a healthy sense of control? If you feel really anxious and your thinking is completely out of control, you don’t. And clearly if you’re depressed, you’ve got no sense of control. You have the sense of there’s this nothing you can really do that’s gonna be very helpful. And so I think that this idea that you, your, your focus on Carrington without power struggles and being this calm presence who is not who, and we take force off the table.

Speaker 3: (13:27)
It is such a powerful thing. But this idea of about recognizing that we really can’t force a kid. It’s so powerful. I mean, I did a consultation with a woman who heard me lecture a few months ago and she, she, she said, we’re an orthodox Jewish family and my son is refusing to do his bar Mitzvah, which is a huge issue in this family. Completely stressful. He’d be, he’d been hitting, been refusing to do it for nine months. He said he didn’t, I don’t believe in God, Eddie. Okay, hypocrite. And she said, I can guess what you’d advise after hearing your lecture, but could you kind of talk me through it? And I said, well, I, I recommend telling them, obviously we couldn’t make you do it. We couldn’t make you learn your Torah portion or drag you onto the Bema. We could move your lipstick. Obviously we can’t make you do it.

Speaker 3: (14:20)
So forces off the table. So just forget about, we aren’t going to try to make you do it yet. I also, I have huge respect for how your integrity about this nearly 13 years old and, and you have this integrity about not wanting to be hypocrite. I love that about you. And I also want you to know that you’re doing the departments is really important to me. It’s really important to, your dad is really important to the rest of your family and your friends. We all want to welcome you to the Jewish community and I hope you can find a way to do it. And almost predictably Susan, a couple of days later he says, okay, I’ll do it. And then they negotiate a little bit about, you know, he didn’t want too many people and he worked out the details. But once force was off the table once he didn’t feel forest, he came around. And that’s almost always my experience. And I just think it’s so, it’s so empowering really. In some ways it seems kind of, it seems paradoxical that if we recognize I really can’t try to control my kid, it doesn’t really work for it. Well that it empowers us. We’re more effective. Kids are more likely to go along with this.

Speaker 2: (15:23)
Absolutely. Because kids respond to love, they respond to respect. It’s not that they’re out to, you know, sabotage our, our hopes and dreams, but it, but when we override the loving connection and we use force or threats or bribes and all these sort of underhanded means, they’re kind of wired not to respond. And when we emphasize connection and attachment and we acknowledged their right to make choices for themselves and have the feelings they have, it’s just amazing how generous they can be. So, um, that’s a really great story. And I just want to mention in case I forget that we’re actually doing a class together and if you’re hearing this later, you can always calculate later on my website, but we’re actually doing a class with Ned Johnson on homework, homework and the self driven child. And you can find out more about that on my website.

Speaker 2: (16:14)
I’m so looking forward to that because I know that people probably have about 5,000 questions about, well, what do I do if my child absolutely refuses? And Are you saying that they should just, you know, not go to college or drop out of school? So, um, maybe you can just send some, many people won’t, you know, be in on that. Can you just say a few things about how a parent might approach a situation just to shift the momentum that is at play when the dynamic has become so predictably one of force threats and all those means that parents tend to use to get their kids to do things?

Speaker 3: (16:52)
Sure. And I think certainly that many, many people who hear this message and they don’t, they don’t want to fight with it. They know it doesn’t work very well. And especially, you know, when, when when you just remind people that, that, that when they come out of the womb what babies need is warmth and responsiveness. And we’ve, when if our kids aren’t doing well, we would do that. We forget. That’s still really what they need from us is they, they need empathy, they need warmth and they need limits setting. And then th that’s important too. But I think that the first thing for, for many families is just to apologize. You know, I’ve been thinking, I, I, I’ve been thinking that I could make you do this stuff in the summer. That’s my job to do it. But obviously I can’t make you do this. I think that just this acknowledging and sandy kids, obviously I can’t make you do, this is a really empowering thing for kids and their parents because you kind of give up that, that, that, that, that dance.

Speaker 3: (17:56)
And oftentimes th when I first started this with this idea of I love you too, most of fight with you about your homework, that w the thought was, what do you do next? Well, you say, I’m willing to do anything I can to help you. I’m willing to set my own concern. I’m willing to be your homework consultant. I’m willing to, to sit from six to seven 30 every night if, if you need me or to figure out what to do or did it to read to your w how are I can help you. I’m, I’m there for you, however, I’m not gonna fight with you about it and I’m not going to chase you around a house and then act like somehow it’s my job to make you do it. Cause it couldn’t be because all you’d have to do is flop on the floor and I couldn’t make you do it. And so I think just acknowledging that I’ve been trying to force it right. And it’s just not working very well. And I know when I, when I’d find a forest, I know it, it feels like I’m not being respectful to you and I get frustrated cause I feel I’m supposed to do it and you’ve, and nobody likes to feel forced so you fight me. So we get into this kind of toxic stuff going back and forth and we kind of forget how much we love each other.

Speaker 2: (18:58)
I love that. And you know, just for those of you who might think that control is not a great word, like some people have a reaction about, but I don’t want to talk about control. Control is d, You know, we can substitute the word agency or autonomy. It’s really about empowering our kids because remember they’re going to grow up pretty soon and then they’re not going to have you following them around with the timer. Uh, empowering them to make choices for themselves that are healthy and that are in service of the person that they’re meant to be and to become. So let’s wrap up with a tip. I always like to give people something to try at home, build something that they can focus on in the week to come. What would you like to share with people that they can sort of take from today to, to, to experiment with maybe something they could say to their kids even tonight? Well,

Speaker 3: (19:47)
I th I don’t think I can’t top, I love you too much to fight with you about your homework. And I also think that, um, I was, ned and I are working on a new book you had on design communicating with kids. And I’ve been thinking a ton about the expression of empathy and how w if, if our kids are upset and we simply look, listen to them and we try to reflect back with the, what we’re understanding of they’re trying to express to us that it calms down the brain. And it’s, it’s such a way to, for us to, to focus on our relationship with our kid, to develop our relationship with our kid. And so I think that one of the things that’s been really helpful to appearance had been been talking about this idea is that our kids aren’t doing well start with empathy rather than judgment.

Speaker 3: (20:40)
So if, if kids are struggling in some way and they, they, and they’ll give you an example, it’s very common if you’re, if you’re, uh, you go into your boss and you say, you know that that report I promise you I have in Thursday, I’m not being able to do it because I, you know, my, my kids are up all night. I, I couldn’t get it done. If your boss simply says back to you. So what you’re saying is that the report that we talked about, you’re not going to be able to do it cause your kids are sick and just didn’t have time to do it. Is that what you’re saying? That people, what they do is they say, well maybe I can’t, maybe I can find a way to do it. Maybe that when they feel understood, just as you said, they want to go along with this.

Speaker 3: (21:19)
Th Th th th th so I just think, um, try out this idea. If you fight with your kid about homework, say I love you too much to fight with you about your homework. I’m willing to do anything I had to help. If you needed a tutor, I’ll try to find you a tutor. But I’m not, I’m not, I don’t want this to be a big source of fighting between you and me. Try that. And the other thing is that kids aren’t doing well through struggling. If they’re angry, try just listening to them and letting them know that your interest, trying to understand what they’re saying and just see how that goes.

Speaker 2: (21:51)
I, you know, that is the core and fundamental cornerstone of my work. Just coming alongside being a presence that allows kids to turn to us when they, when they need comfort or understanding. So Gosh, thank you. I’m so, I’m so happy that we get to do this. I’m so excited about our class. Um, again, you can find out more about the class at [inaudible] dot com. You can find out more about bill’s work at the self-driven Um, if you have a question that you’d like me to answer in the park, press please visit [inaudible] dot com slash podcast and posh. I hope you’ve all enjoyed this conversation. I know it sparked a lot of thinking and a lot of questions. Uh, if you want to hear more, please stay in question with us. You can subscribe to the podcast. We’d love it if you’d left a rating or a review. And, um, I look forward to joining you on the next episode. Any closing thoughts?

Speaker 3: (22:46)
You’re terrific. I didn’t mean you are. I mean, I, I guess it’s, I mean, we think so much alike, you know, just, I mean, I love the way you think and it says, you know, I really feel that, that, that our book, what we tried to do was just try to align our thinking with reality, you know, with, with, with w w with what motivates people, you know, w with, with w w what the limits are and tried to make another person try to use fours. And I think that the, so I think that both of us that have have gone down similar paths in our thinking about how do we really relate to our kids in a way that is harmonious and for the most part harmonious and supportive. And really that really helps them not only achieve it, it high achievement, but allows them to enjoy their success. I mean that Ned Nicey, so many, so many extremely successful, very wealthy adults who are miserable and we want kids to be as successful as they possibly be, but we want them to enjoy their success. And I think that this, this focus on helping kids feel as that sense of autonomy, that it is their life, helping them feel respected is the best way for them to, it’s a sculpted brain as they get older that can enjoy their success. It’s not plagued by chronic anxiety or depression. Awesome.

Speaker 2: (24:07)
Thank you. Thank you. Again. I’m so looking forward to future collaborations and in our class on homework and, um, I urge people to check out your work and, um, thank you for, Gosh, you’re really a trailblazer here. I know it’s scary for parents to think of backing off a little bit, but the payoff,

Speaker 3: (24:25)
oh my God, it’s, it’s so, it’s so powerful and for, for parent and kid. And I just know that the, I feel lucky because I, when I was raising my kids, I fought the way that, that we talk about in our book and, uh, at their parole officers or it’s, they’re, they’re doing it. They’re doing really well. I just made that part up, you know? But, uh, they, they know they’re, they’re really great kids and, and th and they’re both have PhDs without any academic pressure, without any, you know, big stress over their work. Um, and it’s just kind of who they work. You know, they’re, they’re very different kids, but they are very different fields, but they just turn out to be who they are.

Speaker 2: (25:02)
Exactly. You know, I try to keep this short, but I’m going to share one short little story and then I’ll sign off. My son was homeschooled until the sixth grade and then he went to a local school and he, you know, came home every day with his books and his homework and he would spread everything out in the living room. And because I didn’t believe that homework, I just didn’t magnify its importance the way some people did. I was a little bit of a renegade. So he’s reading, everything comes in and walks in the door and he puts everything out. Maybe he has a snack and he gets his homework all out. And I said, what are you doing? He said, well, I’m doing my homework. And they said, but how have you been in school all day? Why didn’t you go outside and play? No, I want to do my homework. No, just, just take a little bit of a break. Sorry.

Speaker 3: (25:48)
That is very funny.

Speaker 2: (25:51)
We’re definitely thinking alike. Everybody. Thank you for joining us. Um, I’m so glad that you’re here. Remember that no matter how busy life gets, look to those moments of sweetness and joy. Have you enjoyed today’s episode as much as I have and I’ll see you on that.

Speaker 1: (26:08)

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