“Don’t TELL me to CALM DOWN!” Why it won’t work

Ever heard these 6 words when you’ve been upset?   Ever said these words because someone else was upset?

And how did that go for you?  I’m guessing, from personal experience, not well.

I admit I’ve lost it probably more than my fair share of times – You know what that looks like and sounds like:  In my case, a screechy voice, troll-like red dripping nose, zombie-like eyes spouting fountains of tears, hiccups, maybe throw in a foot stomp or two.  Shall we say, not a pretty picture?  I can’t form sentences, at least not ones that are coherent to humans.  But more to the point, I cannot hear you.  Especially if you are calmly telling me to “just calm down.”  Even though I’m guilty of saying it to my own teenaged daughter.  Even though I know it won’t work.

But why is this so ineffective?

When the limbic system takes charge, it hears your pre-frontal cortex command to “calm down” as a personal affront.

When my pre-frontal executive rational logical functioning mind goes off-line because all my mental energy is consumed with anger, betrayal, injustice, hurt, fear rumbling like a volcano spewing forth, I cannot hear your words.  At least not the way they are intended.  Those words get filtered through the lava of anger, betrayal, injustice, hurt, and fear so what I hear when you say, “Just calm down,” is:

Judgment:  Why are you so upset?

Critique: There’s nothing to be THAT upset about.

Impatience: You are just over-reacting.

Belittlement:  It is not a big deal.

Disgust: What’s wrong with you, anyway?

Dismissal: What you are feeling is wrong, out of control, and not nearly as important as you think it is.  IE: You and your feelings are not important.

Of course this is NOT what you are trying to communicate to the person who’s lost it in front of you!  But what you may be communicating when you say, “Just calm down now,” is:

Your amygdala’s display of such uncensored and apparently out-of-control emotional volatility is making me uncomfortable, and I can’t help you when you are like this, and that makes me uncomfortable, so please calm down and we’ll all feel much better.

So what to do?  Imagine that apparently out of control limbic system in front of you is a scared, wild animal.  Because honestly, it pretty much is.  Soothe it – don’t command it.  Reach out to comfort it – don’t dismiss it.  It’s skittish, and scared, and lonely.  Don’t threaten it.  Let it know you won’t hurt it, you understand, because to them, in that moment, the world is not safe, and they aren’t convinced you are safe.  Under no circumstances say, “Just Calm Down.”  That’s like fuel to the fire.  And no one feels better.



Can we agree? The Gun Edition

1. This blog will change no one’s mind.  It’s true – Brain research shows that no matter how hard we try to be open minded, everything comes through our preconceived filters.  So this blog will only help solidify your stance on the gun issue.  But I’m writing it anyway, because surely we can agree on SOME things, right?  (maybe not, but here goes)

2.  Guns are getting into the wrong people’s hands.   As I drove home from worship yesterday, NPR’s news break reeled off 3 different gun violence deaths, starting with last Wednesday’s AME church shooting; (Is that now going to be a thing?  Like “school shooting,” we’ll have “church shooting?”)  then one at a block party, and finished with one at a park.  Clearly those guns were in the wrong hands.

3.  If we can agree that guns are getting into the wrong people’s hands, can we agree that maybe the current laws are not working? That seems logical to me, but I have to be honest about my own firsthand experience.  Studies of our brains also show that firsthand and anecdotal experiences hold much more weight in our opinions than say, science, or research, or facts.  So, because my cousin-in-law was able to lawfully buy another handgun the day before he was to be arrested for murdering his mother with the first handgun, (and in a twisted blessing, used it to kill himself) you’ll be hard pressed to talk me out of #2 or #3.

4. Part of our inability to find common ground is that evidenced-based public policy on guns suffers from lack of extensive research.  We all know something needs to change. (Please, please tell me we all agree on that!)   Some say more guns, others say less, but what does evidenced based research, aka the scientific method suggest?  That’s a hard sell right there, because we can’t agree that science should have a voice at the table, let alone a voice that outweighs our beliefs and personal experience.  Our brains naturally prefer story – It’s how we’re wired to learn.  Plus, our brains naturally divide the world into “us” and “them,” and the gun problem is with “them,” (read, poor, inner city, black, drug dealers, gangs, etc.) Throw a little reframing fueled by the “us-them” divide – –  “Guns aren’t the problem – Violence is the problem,” (and it’s them – those violent people – who have a problem.) and you can see how our brains aren’t always our best friends.

4.  We read the Constitution (selectively) literally.   Okay, you might not initially agree with this statement, but hear me out:  Some folk insist they read the Christian Bible as God intended, literally, factually, every single word true, but no one – NO ONE follows ANY whole holy scripture entirely literally (For a great laugh-out-loud example of what it might look like to do so – check out A.J. Jacobs book, “My Year of Living Biblically.”)  When we worry about changing our interpretation of the Second Amendment, it might do us well to remember this world is not what the founding fathers imagined.  After all, they wrote the constitution to apply ONLY TO : Free.  White.  Over-21.  Men.  Landowners.  We now understand their words apply in a wholly different context, in ways they never foresaw.  Let me just say as a women, I’m grateful, although in my more paranoid flashes, I am capable of wondering if someone will decide to lead a crusade to exclude women from the “All men are created equal” phrase.  The constitution as it stands does not prohibit that.

5. Given how our brains work, guns work way too fast.  Our brains are not (you can argue, yet) designed, equipped, evolved, capable, of using guns responsibly in a threatening situation, unless we’ve gone through extensive re-training or practicing over-riding our brain’s natural tendencies to “shoot first, ask questions later.”  An active responsible amygdala runs the show, and fear makes decisions much faster than logic, leading to tragic results.  That’s not me speaking, that’s science.  That’s how God made our brains, if you like:  To keep us alive first, ask questions later.

Those are my thoughts, with a little neuroscience thrown in, in the “for what they are worth” column.  But let’s agree on this:  You won’t change my mind, and I won’t change yours.  We have to find a different approach.

Dipping my toe back in: Neuroscience and Free WIll, or Does science prove Calvin was right?

Why did you decide what to eat – or not eat – for breakfast this morning?  Or, to make the stakes a wee bit higher, why does someone decide to kill another person?

Yes, it’s been a year since I’ve written or posted on fb.  That’s for another day.  Can we just say, “My brain made me do it?”

Because that’s the answer, and a very hot topic these days:  How culpable are we for our deeds and misdeeds, if our brains made us do it?  Implying that our brains are somehow separate from our selves, but in control of our selves.  Are we are just puppets, because our unconscious brain is in charge?  How accountable do we hold someone accused of a crime, if neglect and abuse shaped the earliest years of their brain?

If we’re born with a genetic pre-disposition to alcoholism, and we grew up in a home with alcoholic parents – Is it fair?  No.  Is it right?  No.  Does it explain how hard it is to resist certain patterns of thought and behavior?  Yes.  Does it then excuse our own addictive behavior and let us off the hook?  No. The brains of every one of us arrived pre-wired, then grew, with certain tendencies and characteristics.  There are folk whose brains don’t function well enough to hold them accountable.  But if you can read this, that isn’t you.

From one perspective it seems brain science proves Calvin right:  All is pre-determined.  But science also supports free will.  With your prefrontal cortex, how will you live with the brain you’ve got?  The self, the soul, the heart of who we are can rise above the influence of our reptilian impulses.  We have self-agency, and a responsibility to care for our brain just like we’re to care for our body, our children, our world.  No excuses for neglecting your center of compassion.

But what do you think?  How much of who you are and how you live is determined by your brain’s unconscious patterns and drives, and how much can you be held responsible?  I’m curious how you answer the question …


Brain: FAIL. Alzheimer’s & Depression

I’m reading an absolutely breathtaking book written from the first person perspective of a 65 year old medical doctor struggling with early on-set dementia. It’s called “Turn of Mind” by Alice LaPlante, and we are immersed in the mysteries of her own brain’s failings, her self-understanding moving in and out like the tide, and the death of her best friend.  We only know what she knows at any given moment.

turn of mind

This is what hits hard:  Her reality is so convincingly utterly absolutely true to her in that moment, even as we know, it’s dementia ruling the day.  But what she does, what she says, what she thinks, it all makes absolute sense to her.  Sometimes, she can be brought back to the more objective reality of those caring for her.

She insists one night it is an emergency, she absolutely must get to the drugstore THIS INSTANT, she is out of tampons.  Her caregiver reminds her she is 65.  “O,” she says, “Right.”  The strange working of the mind, that one minute she knows without a doubt it’s a crisis.  The next second, her medical mind remembers no 65 year old woman should be having an emergency tampon crisis.  And she can trust her caregiver who tells her, she is 65.  Crisis averted.  But she doesn’t always trust what others tell her.

Here’s the thing:  This is what depression feels like.  You forget you have depression, and your emotional responses make absolute sense to you, and you do NOT understand why no one else sees the crisis, or the sadness, or the pointlessness of this moment.

 A mundane anecdote from when I was struggling:  My daughter got up early and ran out the door without telling us where she was going.  I suspected she just went out for a run, but I was mad that she hadn’t told us.  I start to dial her cell phone, but my husband rightly said calmly, “Let me talk to her.”  Because in that moment, he knew better than I that this was not a crisis, and did not need me treating it like the emergency it was to me.  I sort of got it.  At least I trusted him enough that I handed him the phone.

LIke when tears would spring up for no reason, and I wondered what the HELL is wrong with me? Or I couldn’t find the energy or will to put on my running clothes, or if I did manage, it took everything out of me, and I had to lie down.  And again, like someone struggling to remember they have dementia, that’s why depression is so challenging to face.  Because it’s your own brain turning against you.  Since our brains are relentless meaning-making machines, the narrative runs:  “You are just lazy.  You are weak.  If you just tried harder.  Just get up off the couch!  How hard can it be?”  Resisting the obvious explanation:  You are depressed.

 And then, if you are extremely fortunate, and blessed, someone you trust will point out that maybe it’s depression coming back.  And even though you KNOW they are lying, they are just trying to be kind, they don’t know that really, you are just a lazy slovenly couch potato, some part of you is willing to believe, like the main character:  O, 65 year olds don’t need tampons.  And you trust them enough to agree maybe you should just check in with your doc.  Because maybe something isn’t right.  And maybe those stories in your head aren’t telling the whole truth about you as a person.  But it’s hard, because those stories seem so, so real.  

Works’ Righteousness Smack-Down


A pedestrian morning last week in the life of a supposedly sacred call of parish ministry:


Monday, 9:00am: The doorbell rings at home. It is the recent high school grad from the church, here to give your son a ride to church camp, where they are to be counselors together. To be polite, and because your son is not quite ready, you invite him in. To the entryway. Where just to the right hang your clothes on drying racks, because you are a friend of the earth, but perhaps not the sharpest tool in the shed. You pray instant blindness strike this poor teenage boy, faced with your personal items. This is the same child you disabused of Santa Claus in confirmation class. You are not off to a good, holy, sacred start. But you do have clean underwear.


9:30am: Your computer, which was working perfectly fine on the holy Sabbath and allowed you to print out your now long-forgotten sermon, decides to go on vacation with your secretary. Well, at least the Internet portion. Deep sighs. You don’t even know where the modem is.


9:36am: You decide God is telling you to get a’crackin’ on this upcoming week’s sermon. You open your Bible.


3 seconds later: You search, you hunt, you tear apart your wallet, your computer bag, you dump out all contents, including pens that don’t work and loose aspirin and cough drops, but no. No sign of your reading glasses. Which you are loath to admit you need, but let’s face it. You are almost 47 with some of the worst eyes ever. Deep sighs.


9:49am: After many, many deep sighs, you decide to suck it up and reboot your computer to see if that magically fixes the Internet. Of course, it does not.   You decide to step up your game and make sure the wireless button is “on.” You spend 3.3 minutes figuring out if the circle or the straight line means “on.”


9:54am: Fine. You go on a hide-and-seek mission to find the modem. What you discover is a spaghetti noodle mess of cords wrapped around themselves spewing forth from a small corner of the main office. You are reminded of the picture of the baby with spaghetti on your head. You decide it’s too much. You walk away.


9:56am: But Persevere! Says the apostle Paul! So you carefully unplug, untangle, and organize all wires with rubber bands. You check the Internet. No signal. You lay your head on your desk thinking, “What do you want from me, God?” And ponder the existential crisis of modern ministry without technology.


10:33am: You slide your chair as far back from your desk as possible, and decide to squint to at least get started on the sermon. The heck with crows’ feet around the eyes. Ministry wrecks havoc on the wrinkle-prevention program anyway.


11:36am: Is it lunchtime yet? You call your dad for his birthday. He’s not home. Has a modern “water into wine” miracle happened, and the Internet is working? No sign of Jesus today. You sigh again.


11:53am: You know you shouldn’t. The sign on the hard drive of the office server has dire warnings. But you can’t resist temptation another minute. You have lasted all morning in the wilderness of no wifi, and now the devil has shown up, chanting: “Turn it off! Turn it off! Turn it ALL OFF! That will solve it – you know it will!” You hunt and search and play hide-and-seek for the next 23 minutes trying to find the on-off switch on the server, only to realize the on-vacation secretary has covered it up with the dire warning label. You turn it off anyway.


11:57am: No lightening has struck, but no Internet either.  You decide to go visit an older curmudgeonly gentleman who is unhappily in rehab for the fourth week. At least he thinks he’s only been there 12 days or so.


12:09pm: You spend the next hour trying to make him laugh, and get him to stop complaining, and to see the silver lining of the clouds of his unhappiness. You cajole, and tease, and pat his arm. He seems in better spirits when you leave, and then you remember. You didn’t even pray with him.


1:33pm: From the parking lot, feeling totally like a ministry loser, you call your husband for a boost. He cheerfully says, “Well, you know, you are a minister. You could have used the time to pray.” As though you haven’t spent the whole morning praying. Of course, “praying” in the loosest sense possible. You genuinely have been talking to God, but it’s more like cursing God, for the modem that hid, the wires that tangled, the laundry in the entryway, the Internet for disappearing, your own technological ignorance, your own addiction to technology.   Does that count?


1:46pm: You give up. And call it a day. And head to Starbucks, for a consolation latte and free wifi. And wonder what people would think if they knew this is what the holy vocation of ministry looks like. And then it hits you, the one and only catechism anyone still alive who had to memorize the catechism remembers: “Q: What is the chief end of (hu)man (beings)? A: To glorify God and enjoy (their Maker) Him (sic) forever.” And dang it, did you really need one more reminder of your cursed cross of works’ righteousness and your worship of the idol of productivity? Apparently, God thought so. And you know it won’t be the last time you are hit over the head with a holy two by four.

Bats, Brains, and Brownies

We’re at our family River House – A cottage on a tiny island in the St. Lawrence River, Canadian side that has hosted 5 generations of my family.  (If you are imagining some beautiful lavish tastefully decorated place, keep reading.)

We’re supposed to be relaxing by the river, sleeping late, lounging around.  Only I’m wide awake.  WIDE AWAKE.  And it’s 2am.  And my husband, sharing the teensy-tiny ancient double bed with me, is annoying the HECK out of me.  Because he’s playing some dumb game on his cell phone involving lots of swiping, and every time he swipes, the bed jiggles.  Which makes me mad.  Which sends adrenalin and cortisol coursing through me, because when I O SO CALMLY and GENTLY and KINDLY suggest maybe he should quit or GO SOMEPLACE ELSE, he grumbles that he’s ABOUT to stop.  Which I know is a lie.  He loves this game.  And we’re on vacation.  And there is no reason for him to get up early in the morning.  And so now I am even wider awake.    Grrrrrrr.  It is absolutely no comfort in this moment that at least he doesn’t do drugs – His dopamine center producing these jolts of joy just need some math game on his i-phone.   

(Of course, it occurs to me the next day that perhaps the double-delicious dose of chocolate brownie I ate at, ahem, 11pm [which if you must know, is the equivalent to 3am for most people, as I am in bed by 9, 10 at the LATEST, even on vacation.]  Guess what chocolate has in it?  Yep.  Caffeine.  To which I am extremely sensitive.  [Did you know that caffeine seems to both activate the epinephrine sensitivity and deactivate the sleepiness/fatigue sensation?  It’s a doubly whammy of wakefulness.]  So maybe my husband had a point, and it wasn’t JUST the light of his cell phone keeping me awake.  But:







Only probably not so cute.  But yes, it is a bat.  Which is not all THAT unusual occurrence at our River House, seeing as there is only a 100 year old plank with some knot holes stuffed with 50 year old paper towels between me and the great outdoors.  But it’s been awhile since one has swooped through a bedroom in the middle of the night.  Of all the nights.  What do I do?

Well, I have heard Ira Glass on This American Life talk about how bats can bite you, and you don’t even know it, and they ALL carry rabies. 


And I heard on another podcast on RadioLab about the first person ever to survive rabies was a young girl bitten by a bat.  Rabies, in case you are wondering, starts at the site of the wound, and climbs slowly up the nerves to the BRAIN where it wrecks absolute havoc.  It’s true:  You want to bite.  You froth at the mouth.  You don’t want water.  And, up until this one girl, you die.  Every single time.


So I do what any sensible, sleep-deprived, angry, hopped-up on caffeine at 2am person would do. I pull the covers over my head and start issuing instructions to my beloved hubby, who:

Opens all the windows in the room – I O so CALMLY and GENTLY and KINDLY point out that he has just issued a freakin’ invitation to all the bat’s friends and family to join the fun.  Meanwhile, SWOOP.  SWOOOP.  SWOOOOOOOOP goes the bat over my head.  Finally, my hero-husband realizes our cottage is full of fishing nets.  With one SWOOP of his own, he snags the bat and ushers it gently into the great outdoors, to live out its mosquito-eatin’ life.  And he saves the day!  Or, ahem, the night.  Sort of.  Because I’m still awake.  But at least there’s no reason for me to get up early in the morning……If I could just fall asleep ……

Are you getting what you need from your vacation?

I haven’t posted lately because I was on vacation. With llamas. And yes, it was as awesome as it sounds!


But it got me thinking about our vacations, and what we want from them, and how I think I prefer the British “holidays,” i.e. Holy Days.  I know we all look forward to a break – From work, from our daily routine, from our busy schedules.  But what changes other than the scenery?  Are we still checking our email, still over-scheduling, still living out our daily lives, just at the beach, or in the mountains, or trading work stress for family dynamics stress?  How often do we stop to consider what might nourish our souls, renew our spirits, return us to our center?  Vacations filled with movies, shopping, checklists of sights seen, more tv and drinking than we can get away with at home – That’s a nice break, but doesn’t get us ready to head back into the fray.  

So what does?  Here’s what the llamas and our guide Stuart Wilde (I know, great last name!) taught me about going on “Holy Day” versus “Vacating:”

1. Time outside.  Stuart quoted research suggesting a correlation between time spent outside and happiness – The more time outside, the happier.  Although I haven’t checked into it yet, I know there has to be something magnificent going on in our brains when we step outside, into the elements.  The more we are outside, the more we are reminded how small, yet how connected, we are with all creation.

2. Moving these bodies of ours.  But slowly.  So in 24 hours I climbed from sea level to 11,400 feet for this view:  IMG_0186Then the next day, after recovering from altitude sickness – which is a real thing, people!  Not pleasant, and definitely humbling – hiking – again SLOWLY – to this view at 12,600ft:  



We all know that exercise is good for us – Releases endorphins, eases stress, lifts depression.  But this wasn’t that kind of “I better go for a run because it’s good for me” exercise.  No, this was the amazement at how my body can carry me, my muscles working with the ground, my lungs with the (thin) air, all my senses drinking in the outdoors.  

3. Relationships, flooding me with oxytocin.  And I don’t mean just with other people.  So this trek required we care for our own individual llama.  Mine was named Apollo, and as Stuart, aka llama whisperer said, Apollo was a little slow, a little out of shape, still carrying around the winter 50lbs.  And I was on the other end of the llama leash.  And I had to get to know Apollo, his quirks, his desire to go slow and stop often, his incredible patience with modeling headgear for the teens’ endless selfless:

IMG_2827IMG_2832And as Stuart warned us, within 15 minutes of meeting our llama, in spite of the randomness of pairings, each of us were attached to OUR llama.  Just like petting a dog slows our heart rate, and lowers our stress response and blood pressure and all those other great reasons dogs visit nursing homes, same with the llamas.

Now, I know most people are not going to ever get to trek with llamas.  Heck, I don’t know if I’ll ever trek with llamas myself.  But this experience sure taught me what to look for in my “holy days:”  Get outside.  Get moving.  Love and get loved (human or animal counts.)

How can you turn your “vacate” this summer into “holy day?”  

And if you want to trek with llamas, check out this website:

Here is the company: http://www.llamaadventures.com




Jesus’ Anne Lamot Moment and Parenting Teenagers

Like every single parent out there, I have great kids.  I do!  Just ask anyone.  The thing is, they are teenagers.  And because lots of people who read this blog also know my kids, I will protect their privacy and just say that our house is not immune to the travails and trials that parents of teenagers go through.  Notice I said the parents, not the trials and travails that teens go through.  Recent research suggests that this time of life isn’t hard, or stressful, or full of the sturm und drang I learned about in Psych 101.  At least not for the teens.  It’s the parents who struggle.  I don’t know for sure how my parents who had  3 teenage girls at the same time did it.  But wow, do I have compassion for all those families whose struggles are of the more extreme teenage type.  Because it’s hard enough with the normal stuff.

This week’s scripture is from Matthew 10:42, where Jesus says that even giving a cup of cold water to someone in need is ministry.  I love this. How Anne Lamot of him!  She is always talking about giving people cups of cold water.  To be perfectly honest, living a faithful life can feel so, well, hard.  Let alone being a faithful parent, whatever that might be.  But a cup of cold water?  Whew.  That I can do.  

And Dr. Barbara Fredrickson’s research at UNC backs up Jesus’ command about cups of cold water.  She says that every small act of kindness and connection we make with another human being changes our physiology – not just our brain – to make us more resilient.  Kindness, even the teensy tiny kind, can strengthen our immune system, lower our blood pressure, calm our heart rate, and forge new neural pathways to make us more compassionate.  How great is that!

And so today’s kindness is challenge is this:  Because the parents of teenagers are living with those same teenagers, sometimes we don’t see our kids the way the rest of the world does.   Actually, this is true for all parents.  We miss the forest in the midst of the daily struggles to get those trees to grow more or less straight.  And we forget, or don’t see, or don’t know, how great our kids are.   If you have the opportunity today to let a parent know something good or amazing or just nice that their kid did, let them know.  That’s like a cup of cold water when we’re trudging through the desert wilderness of parenting.  And also, let your parents know you are grateful they let you survive until you grew up, because it was hard on them.  That too, is a cup of cold water, even if it’s overdue.  

So thanks, Judy and Bob, for not sending all of us to a convent, or shipping us out to the wilderness, or leaving us on an desert island ’til we were “cooked,” as someone in my church calls it.  I had no idea how tempted you must have been.  And congrats.  You did well.  And I know it’s too little but hopefully not too late:  I apologize for how much my teenage self took for granted!  Now I know.  

My Marching Band Career

I played clarinet in marching band from 7th grade through my first year of college, when I marched with the Penn State Blue Band.

However, that sentence does not accurately reflect my ineptitude at keeping the beat, marching in step, the ol’ “8 to 5” mantra of 8 steps per every five yards on the football field did not keep me from shuffling.  Sure, you CAN do 8 similarly sized steps, left foot-right foot, just like all those around you.  OR you can take 2 little steps, one giant step to keep up, them shuffle your feet to get back to the left foot-right foot of everyone around you.  I was not an asset on the field.  In fact, one star achievement, the highlight of my marching band career, was when I was chosen to march (ahem, shuffle) off the field in the opposite direction of the rest of the Blue Band because they only needed x + 1 marchers for the first half of the show, and x marchers for the second half.   Exit, stage right.  Or was that left?

Let’s just say, no sense of rhythm makes for a very bad marching band member.  And let’s just say I practiced and practiced and PRACTICED marching around my room playing “Georgia on My Mind” trying to get it right.  I succeeded in driving my parents crazy and wearing a miniature pattern in the carpet of my moves for George Washington High’s marching band half time show.  (Yea, me and the famous Jennifer Garner, marched in the same high school band.   Here’s proof: jennifer garner band

Now, more than a quarter of a century later, NPR posts a report about just why some of us can’t keep the beat.  It’s because I have a brain disorder!

” Jessica Phillips-Silver … has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and auditory development, and she says there is such a thing as beat deafness: ‘a form of musical brain disorder’.  Something as apparently simple as tapping your foot to your favorite song is, in fact, a pretty complex process.”

“One thing that we know about rhythm in the brain is that it’s managed by a kind of widespread network — which means we can’t just point our finger to one spot on the brain and say, ‘That’s the rhythm center’ or ‘That’s the dance center,’ ” she says. “It really recruits sort of a variety of areas and pulls them together in ways that are beautiful and sophisticated, but we don’t quite understand yet.”


After 8 years of piano lessons, 6 years of marching band, 4 years of private clarinet lessons, 4 years of handbell choir and 4 of church choir, I’m better.  And I could have told the researchers there’s a genetic link.  Don’t ask my dad to dance, and don’t ask either of us to sing.  All those music lessons did teach me how to match pitch, at least.  And I can sort of tell when the piano is out of tune.  (It starts to sound honky-tonk.)  But we should have known there was something not quite right about us!   So be kind to your tone deaf – rhythm oblivious brothers and sisters.  It’s all in their heads.

Pre-Teen Mortification

“Are you guys comfortable with your Korean Heritage?”  my husband asks our two kids as he drives them to middle school.  “Because, you know, I was really embarrassed by my last name and being part Korean when I was your age.”

“O, no, we like it!  We’re fine with it!” respond Ben, 8th grader and Sadie, 6th grader.  “We think it’s cool!”

“O, good,” says my mischievous husband.  “Then you won’t mind this,” as they pull into the crowded school parking lot, with all their friends and peers pouring into the front door.

And he rolls all the windows down, locks the doors, pulls a hat like this on his head – 

Turns up the cd player in the car so he can blast Korean Rap Music (This is long before Psy and Gangam Style was hip) and begins drumming out the beat on his steering wheel with a pair of chopsticks.

They were mortified.  “Let us out!”  “Stop!  Stop right now!” as they frantically try to roll up their windows and escape the torture-mobile.

We laugh about this now that both kids are 4 years older, but at the time they were NOT amused.

Remember those years of being so mortified by your parents?  I’ve thought about what might be going on in the brain that causes such a painful response when we’re pre-teens.  And I’ve wondered a couple of things:

1. There is a specific part of our brains that determine “me” and “you.” In pop psych language, we refer to “boundaries,” and we all differ in our comfort zones.   For some people, that part of the brain doesn’t distinguish me versus you as clearly as it does for others.  (The ideal is somewhere  between the two extremes of complete overlap and no overlap at all.)  Maybe for pre-teens, this part of their brain is in high over-drive of development.

2. Part of the pre-teen’s brain development is to discover, and strengthen, and claim their own sense of “me-ness,” over and beyond their parents “you-ness.”

Yet all the ways pre-teens feel embarrassed by their parents suggests an over-identification with their parents, as though their friends will hold them accountable for their parents’ actions, as though there isn’t any separation between them.  Now that’s a strange reversal, isn’t it, after all the years parents have felt judged by their child’s behavior.  (In the extreme, this “family shame” of some cultures results in brothers and fathers and uncles killing the sisters and daughters and nieces who have “brought shame” upon the family.   Could that be a “me” versus “you” conflation in our brains?)

But for the pre-teen brain, could this mortification at their parents’ mere existence be a wicked combination of two developmental tasks?

1. A frantic, desperate need to fit in, as the pre-teen brain drives its owner to form closer bonds with their own peers, the ones who will help them survive in this world (because their parents, historically, will soon be old and doddering and useless to them.)

2. Motivating that drive is an incredibly painful intolerance for being different or calling attention to themselves in any way that makes them stand out, because at this stage, standing out could threaten their survival (on the African savannahs.)

3. An increased awareness and sensitivity to just how connected they have been with their parents.  The blurring of the “me” and “you” ness of their brains that kept them alive from birth until now doesn’t serve them well at this point and into the future.  This could be because the pre-teen brain is getting better at “meta-cognition,” that is, awareness of itself.

The conclusion?  As pre-teens we are incredibly sensitive.  It’s how we make it to adulthood.  And my husband is amazingly mischievous, which used to delight, then torment, and now makes my teenagers roll their eyes.  As I always say, he makes us laugh; I get us there on time.

In the end, don’t take it personally.  Your pre-teens’ “you-ness” is not a 100% overlap with your own “me-ness.”  And it’s just the beginning.