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Episode 56: Why it’s Important for Kids to Have a Sense of Control with Dr. William Stixrud

Brief summary of show:

In this episode, we’re talking about why it’s important for kids to have a sense of control.

Why do we feel the need to control things as parents? And is it necessary for our kids to feel like they have control too? If we're not giving some control to our kids, then they're not gaining confidence and learning to do things for themselves.

Joining me for this conversation is Dr. William R. Stixrud, a clinical neuropsychologist and founder of The Stixrud Group. He is a member of the teaching faculty at Children’s National Medical Center and an assistant professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine. Additionally, Dr. Stixrud 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 the author of several articles and book chapters on topics related to adolescent brain development, stress and sleep deprivation, integration of the arts in education, and meditation.

His work 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.

Listen in as we talk about:

  • [2:25] Why we as parents and kids need control

  • [8:00] How to help our kids find their own motivation

  • [11:05] Tips for parents who feel like it’s too late to make changes

  • [16:30] Why it’s okay to let our kids “fail”

  • [20:28] What happiness means to young people

Resources mentioned in this episode:

Notes from Natalie:

Connect with Dr. William Stixrud

Connect with Me

View Transcript for this Episode

[00:00:00] Natalie: Hey everyone. It's Natalie. I am excited to let you know that I'm opening up spaces for collaboration and advertising and sponsorship on this podcast. And on my YouTube channel, if you're a brand looking to grow in the wellness family or mindfulness spaces, I would love to collaborate with you. You can find the link to get in touch with me in the show notes, and you can always find out more about what I'm up to on Natalie

[00:00:25] I'm joining you from my school job today. Usually I recorded my home podcast studio, but I had so much going on today that I'm here in my school office. So it's a little bit different if it sounds different. That's why I think you're really going to like this topic today. I think it's a really important one.

[00:00:41] I'm talking about control, gaining control and letting go of control. Why do we feel the need? Too often control things. I have to admit something to you. I like feeling in control. It's been something that actually, as a parent, I've had to learn to deal with, because if we're not giving some control to our kids, then they're not gaining confidence and learning to do things for themselves.

[00:01:08] We have to be able to give away control, to empower other people. You're going to love my guest today. I learned so much from Dr. William sticks read. He is a clinical psychologist. He has a doctorate degree in educational psychology. He's a faculty member at the children's national medical center. He's an assistant professor at George Washington university school of medicine, and he's a best-selling author.

[00:01:35] He has so much insight into empowering our kids and our family members because let's face it. Our goal should not be to make our kids do well.

[00:01:46] Our goal should be to help our kids want to do well. So how do we do that? You're going to find out in the podcast today.


[00:01:56] Natalie: Dr. . I want to talk today about the need for control, why we think as parents and then why our kids need control. What is that? I mean, we all do it right. Is it a natural human

[00:02:09] Dr. William Stixrud: thing? Well, you know, it's interesting that my coauthor nine ed Johnson, we worked on our first book. It's up to him and child.

[00:02:16] we, we lectured together a lot before we started working on the book. Stop it's related to kids, stress motivation, not getting enough sleep and various things. And we re we realized that everything that we recommend to parents that's useful to the kids has to do with increasing kids' sense of control of their own life.

[00:02:35] And we, we, we, we know, we know that the, the, the, what makes life stressful, you can summarize it with the acronym nuts and it's novelty, novelty, unpredictability. Perceived threat and a low sense of control. It's not being with that, that low sense of that, that as opposed to feeling helpless or hopeless or passive, or just chronically overwhelmed, you had a healthy sense of control that I can manage this.

[00:02:58] I can make my life go in a direction that makes sense. And that it's hugely related to the mental health. And if that low sense of control, this is the most stressful thing you can experience. And so we figured, and also every place we looked under. How do kids become the self motivated self self-driven kind of adult or adolescent adult.

[00:03:20] It, all the arrows pointed in the direction of autonomy. We support autonomy. This is my life. I'm going to get out of what I put into it. And so we figured this must be a really big deal. It turns out that a sense of control is, is related to everything. Everything positive you could want for your kid is related to that healthy sense of control.

[00:03:38] So it's a big deal. You think about it just from a mental health. If you're anxious, your thinking is out of control. You got all this unwanted thoughts. You, you can't stop. And if you're depressed, you got no sense.

[00:03:51] Natalie: Let's divide this up into the parent that feels out of control. And then the kid that feels like they have no control because as a parent, I'm often thinking like, I need to, I need to figure this out.

[00:04:04] Like I need to figure this out for them. That gives me a sense of control. And then I feel like I'm doing good by my kids, but I'm actually not. If I'm controlling everything

[00:04:15] Dr. William Stixrud: well, it's true. I mean, certainly we're, we're wired. W w as mammals, we're wired to purpose this suit, protect our young and to soothe them.

[00:04:25] But the challenge is if we do all that, the protecting and the suiting and problem solving for them, they don't learn to do it in themselves and just become anxious. And the way kids develop that confidence that they aren't actually, I can handle. They developed by handling stuff. And so if we're solving the problems for them, that it just doesn't develop in the way that we want.

[00:04:46] They actually make the kids more anxious and more dependent on other people. So,

[00:04:51] Natalie: but the kids then, and their need, and the first thing that comes to my mind, I have a college age daughter, high school daughter, and a middle school son. I did this when I was a kid. So I know that it's a thing, but my kids will say, well, now that you told me to clean my room, I don't want to.

[00:05:07] And I'm like, okay, well that doesn't work. So that need for them to be in control of their own situation. But yet as the mom. If you're not going to do it, I want you to form good habits. So you hear what I'm saying? This balance, if I want them to feel in control, but if they're not doing it, we've got a

[00:05:25] Dr. William Stixrud: problem.

[00:05:26] Yeah. what we're talking about is a sense of control. It doesn't mean that they get to be a boss of everything. They're never, they never to do anything. They don't feel like doing know, it is this idea that we do. Yeah. When kids feel forest and the whole part of the premise is you really can't make a kid do anything.

[00:05:45] And why don't you make peace with that? It's really empowering. We talk about in our new book, we, we, we talked a lot about the language of a parent consultant. How do you give up the idea of using force? Try to use force and to, to change kids. And, and we, we use the power of getting buy-in that says that we don't try to lay stuff on kids.

[00:06:03] We, we say, we ask questions tended to be like, you know, is there a way that I can. I wonder what happened if you did it this way? And I think with the example you gave here now, nobody, most kids don't like to be told. And so what you can do is say is when we, when we're not, w we're not frustrated, sit down, let's talk about this a little bit.

[00:06:23] We were big fans of the collaborative problem. Let's talk about collaborative problem solving. Let's talk about this, that, that I, that I had this earth to tell you what, when to clean it. If I know that you're capable of doing that on your own, but what would be the best way for us to work out. Th th th the chores get done, but when w what, I don't have to tell you to do it, but suggestion from kids.

[00:06:43] They may not be perfect, but moving that direction of working things out with kids and getting out of the being their boss or their manager, And think about yourself. We recommended both of our books. Think about yourself more as your consultant, your kid, because ultimately whether they do this chore this week or next week is not that big a deal, but by your relationship with them is a very big deal.

[00:07:04] And you're communicating confidence. They can figure that out on their own is a very big deal. So

[00:07:10] Natalie: yeah. love this idea in the most recent book that you have of creating the motivation in your kids to want to do something versus again, being forced to it, that in intrinsic motivation, tell us about how we can help our kids find and discover their own motivation.


[00:07:30] Dr. William Stixrud: Yeah. So for, for Ned, NEI, my coauthor and I that are our north star in terms of understanding, motivation is what's called self-determination. It's been around for 30 years and it holds it for kids to be intrinsically motivated for us too. But you have to have three needs fulfilled. One is for a sense of relatedness or a connectedness, one sense to competence.

[00:07:52] And the third is a sense of autonomy and we net and I interviewed one of the guys who developed self-determination theory when we were writing this up to the child and said, we feel that that autonomy is the most important. Is it? Absolutely. So if, if nothing else remember that, that one of the best things we can do is support kids.

[00:08:12] That sense of autonomy, that sense of this is your life. The sense that I don't always know better than you do. And we can do that in part, by encouraging kids to make their own decisions and I, I personally think that the best message you can give a teenager, besides that I'm crazy about. Is that I have confidence in your ability to make decisions about your own life and to learn from your mistakes.

[00:08:35] They want you to have a ton of practice doing that before I send you up to college our angle is that we want kids to be able to run their own life for at least six months at living at home. Before we send them off to college. Yeah. Yeah. So that, that, that's why this, the promoting that sense of autonomy sense of control.

[00:08:53] It doesn't mean that, that, that things that the consequences, or did they get to do whatever they want, as I said, but it does mean that our rule, you know, from our point of view, our role is to think about how do we help kids figure out who they want to. What kind of life they want and how to get there, as opposed to thinking, I know it's best for them.

[00:09:11] Here's what you need to do. Here's here's the plan for you. But I think so. I think that sense of control is hugely important. Both in this motivational, is it the autonomy piece of motivation, but also in the mental health? Because simply you gotta, when you're, when you have a healthy sense of. As opposed to feeling helpless or passive or overwhelmed, the prefrontal cortex regulates the rest of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, which can think clearly logically put things into perspective, calm yourself down.

[00:09:43] When you start to get stressed, breathing regulates the rest of the brain. When, when you have a low sense of control, your, your stress response basically rents your brain. And we want our kids to be for kids to be in their right. And for us to be in the right mind, we want that, that, that healthy brain state it's associated with a sense of control.

[00:10:01] So

[00:10:02] Natalie: I know there are people listening or watching this who are thinking. I'm too far gone. My kid is making bad decisions or have a teenager who is again, making bad decisions, or I don't even know where I'd begin with this. Can, can one be too far gone to start implementing some of this? If you have a teenager who feels in control, but that type of control is say their language or using drugs or getting bad grades, like where do you start in turning things around?


[00:10:36] Dr. William Stixrud: So, I mean, I think that there, there are in, in both our books, we talk about there are some limits to decide. You think about yourself as a consultant. And one is, if kids are deeply depressed or suicidal, you put them in treatment, whether they want to be in or not, you do a power play. If we think kids are seriously drug involved, we do the same thing, but shorter, that shorter that we want to offer help, not to.

[00:11:04] And and I think that, that the question about is are there ever too old? Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Jesus. I, I, I mean, it's, it's very common. Then there would be before COVID then that would be lecturing about our book. Somebody who I had to for about 10 minutes, say, what if I've already screwed up my kid, you know?

[00:11:21] And well, you know, you just, you apologize, you say, I used to think, you know, I, I used to. That I needed to do to be in charge of your life. And I realized that did that. That's crazy. You're S you're a smart kid. You can figure it out and I'm going to change my role here. I'm not, I realize also I couldn't force you to stop.

[00:11:38] And so we, our new book, we have a lot of this language that we can use. But, I mean, I, I just at our new book, we, we talk about this motivational interview, this way of communicating with, with kids does use no force. There's no pressure to try to change.


[00:11:56] Dr. William Stixrud: Well, w what it involves is people are talking about a problem and you, you, you kind of ask open-ended questions to try to understand it, and you reflect back to them.

[00:12:06] So what we're saying is that here's what I, what I'm getting is I'm understanding this, right? So we flat re reflect back and we wait for them to, to, to basically articulate with what they call change. Which is the act. Yeah. That, that spoken pot makes me feel great for a while, but, but, you know, and, and I rush relaxed.

[00:12:25] I don't worry so much about. But I'm not going to indict you. Very, I can't play basketball. I can't practice, but basketball's husband and kids listening for people to, to voice their, to articulate their own business for change really powerful. I had a conversation with a mother who is 27 year old, who graduated just a couple of weeks ago, graduated from college and was a star baseball player actually call it.

[00:12:49] Worked for a couple of years, but, but then it'd been, got laid off. Girlfriend, dumped him, got depressed. And I was living at home doing nothing for two years. And, and the mother told me all the things she's tried to do, the kid the change. And I said, it seems to me, they're all the energy is focusing on, get him to be different, but that's, that's completely, these complete completely power you have, you can't, you really can't change another person unless they're asking you to, to, to help them.

[00:13:16] And so I suggested ways that she can change the energy and, and let him know that, that that she's not trying to get him to change, but, but she's, she's that one possibility is not freeloading here, that if he's got problems, he needs to get treatment or, or whatever she, she could live with, but just changing the energy from trying to change him to be assertive about by herself, but what she's willing to do, and that we'll need to do very quickly.

[00:13:44] That this kid could call me for the first time and wanted to talk with me, pick my brain. And basically initiating H helped me here. And he hadn't, he had been wanting people to help him for two years, and it was simply that change that energy. So it's never too late to use these principles even more with our adult.


[00:15:16] Dr. William Stixrud: Yeah.

[00:15:16] Natalie: I listened to you on another interview where you talked about this motivational talk. So let's give an example of that for my 12 year old son who comes home from school. And you know, my first question to him first year in middle school is, do you have any homework? No, I did.

[00:15:32] Most of it. Well deal have a little bit of homework. No, I'm pretty good. What can I see your homework? Like, so for me, I'm just thinking he's not getting it done or maybe he's getting it done. I'm not really sure. So I go back and forth on, do I go through it every single day with him and make sure or do I just kind of let him fail a little bit, forget something and then feel that sense of, Ooh, that didn't feel good.

[00:15:56] Like how would you guide me or.


[00:15:59] Dr. William Stixrud: I asked myself three questions. Don't worry. Am I thinking about my relationship with my own children that I have since there was very little whose life isn't whose problem is it? And who's responsibility is, but my sense is that this is your son's life. This homework is his responsibility.

[00:16:18] If he's not doing it, that's his problem. And I think we, we can get. Hmm. If we act like that, it's not really their lives. If we take responsibility for something, that's there, we try to solve their problems for them. So my recommendation Natalie is simply to say, have a talk with him and say, you know, middle school is a lot different than elementary school.

[00:16:41] And I know there's a lot more organizational demands and kind of keeping track of all the homework. And I just want you to know I'm willing to help you in any way. If it would be useful to you, we want you to do kind of a daily check-in with me and to kind of, let me show you what assignments are. If we can brainstorm a little bit about how to get it done, if you want me to do it occasionally to check, you know, the go, go online and check the assignments to make sure I'm missing anything.

[00:17:04] I'm happy to do. But from my point of view, that taking responsibility, part of what you communicate to them is I don't trust you to do this. I don't have confidence that you can figure this out yourself. It the worst thing in the world, but you're not doing your assignments. And I just think you think differently.

[00:17:21] I think that the worst thing. Was that him resisting your attempt to pay, help him chronically and lying, starting to lie about his work and say, I've done it when I really hadn't. You, you want to change that energy. It's it's really, you know, obviously sure. You're a wonderful parent that kids don't need perfect parents, but you can't change that energy right now to think about yourself more as a consultant and his role is to help him figure it out.

[00:17:45] How do you guys work done and do as well as he wants to do in school? Yeah.

[00:17:50] Natalie: And it's so interesting as a parent of three, my kids, and you tell me in your experience, they are all completely different. What motivated one didn't work for the second and now with the boy and the third it's like, whoa, It's so different and you can't ever expect just as I learned one thing, I thought I could do it with the second one and it didn't work. That thing didn't motivate the second child.

[00:18:14] Dr. William Stixrud: Well, it's so interesting. I have to, you know, and I have a little different stage in life, you know, they're, they're, they're 40 and a 36 but they're, they're extremely they're might my daughter.

[00:18:23] It is a brilliant, always as a top student, completely motivated completely on top of schoolwork could probably could've raised herself. There's certainly she could an educator herself and my son is an incredible, and he's got ADHD and he had ADHD and learning disabilities and, uh, and school was hard for him for, for a long time.

[00:18:41] And yet I walked this walk in. It's the same, the same principle that self-driven child and our new book. What do you say? I want this walk. I said, my wife, in terms of, we, we played a consultant role for him. This is a way that I could help you get a tutor and help you out with that, as opposed to trying to force.

[00:19:01] Yeah, and we focused on all the ways of just maintaining our confidence in him. You can pick up your stuff out. And then he got a PhD in psychology and his is working at Goldman Sachs with the top executives there and just He's just a wonderful human being. And he and his sister are very different.

[00:19:19] They're very close, but they're very different. And so th th th th th the, the, so some of the specifics and the way that we interact with kids, we change the kids, but these principles that it's really their life did this, their response. They're problem that our rule couldn't be, you get them to, to turn out a certain way.

[00:19:39] You couldn't be too to get them, make them do this or that our role is to help them figure out who they want to be and how to create the life that they want and can support them in any way we can. That's what we think is our role as parents. And if we think about it like that, it's much less stressful for.

[00:19:55] Oh, yeah. Yeah.


[00:19:58] Natalie: Let's talk for a minute about this notion of what happiness is because you know, one in college now, I, I, all I have is to relate it to is what we've gone through. And one who wants to study something in college. And, and I just keep thinking my husband and I keep saying, let them follow their passions.

[00:20:17] Then they will be happy and figure out what to do with it in their futures versus. You need to study something serious or, you know let's talk about happiness and what that means, especially to young

[00:20:28] Dr. William Stixrud: people. So I mean that, and our new book, w we have a chapter it's called the it's called talking with kids about the pursuit of happiness and it's based in part.

[00:20:39] On our perception. Did the kids just have a very distorted view because most of the kids in all the areas where we're Ned and I lectured about our book, kids grew up thinking the most important outcome of their childhood and adolescence is where they go to college. Yeah. Th that somehow it's college and without offers to you top colleges, that it guarantees the happy life it's complete and utter bullshit.

[00:21:03] And so we figured let's start talking with kids early on. Here's what we know about what makes people happy and accomplishment is part of it. I mean, we don't want, it's just not, it's not the main. Let me think about how many people, you know, really successful people who are miserable with commit suicide, but Ned and I were lecturing and and in Palo Alto, a couple of years after they had the spate of suicides in high schools in Palo Alto.

[00:21:30] And the week before we were there, two Stanford undergraduates committed suicide, including a Olympic Olympic champion. And the year before. There were 31 suicides in Chandler, Arizona in 15 months. And we think the high achieving kids. And I think that we just have to kind of keep their, recognize that going to elite school, having a prestigious job, making a lot of money.

[00:21:56] There's nothing wrong with that. It's just that it's not necessary. The kids grow up, thinking it in this area, they'd stay it's, it's, it's either Yale or McDonald's you go to Palo Alto. They say it's Yale or jail, you know, and they had this crazy, crazy idea that if you don't go to a top college, you're going to have a C minus life.

[00:22:17] Um, And as a proud graduate, the university of Washington Uh, I'll tell you, I wouldn't yield to anybody in, in terms of having, I have a completely terrible. And so I just think that, that if we really, we can start talking with kids from early on, here's what we know about actually makes you happy and achievement is I want you to work, right?

[00:22:34] I want you to work hard to develop yourself. So you have something useful to offer this world. But I also, I want, I want you to let you know that the relationships, I really, I love how close you are to your friends, how much I agree. They're there they're as important as your grades. Hmm, but I want you to really figure out what, what, what, you're really you talk to your kids about their highest value, but what's really important to you because that, meaning that, that says that what I'm doing is meaningful is a hugely related to happiness.

[00:23:01] So start

[00:23:02] Natalie: talking about things even when they're young like that, that it's not, you have to get into this school or you have to, we've always said in it, it's been so rewarding now to hear our college daughter say, you always told me if I worked hard. It wasn't the, a, it was, you saw me working hard, so the B was fine or, you know, so starting that type of conversation, even when they're young.

[00:23:25] Dr. William Stixrud: Yeah. Yeah. And certainly we, we, we have a chapter on new book on, on motivation and the work of Carol Dweck. Is we were Carol Dweck talks about the growth mindset versus a fixed mindset growth mindset is that I get better through my own efforts. And, and it makes sense to support kids that give you the message that to really let them know about appreciating how hard you work at that, as opposed to their innate abilities.

[00:23:48] So yeah, and encouraging kids to work on letting the, also letting them know. I love you as much. If you work hard as if you don't, we don't want that conditional love and approval, you always got to work hard. You always got to do your best. We talk about that in our, I think the chapter on expectations in our book that you always got to do well, which among us always does our best.

[00:24:10] And th there's a cartoon of a kid coming to the parents and said, is this my best? You know, and I think that there's, we talked about that. The most important message you can give. Because I'm crazy about you. I love being with you and most importantly to life to me. And I think that it's not that we don't set limits that kids get there in the household, but th that we we, we focus on the things that are really important, including nothing more important than our relationship with our kids, because having a closer really feeling when kids feel close to the parents, it protects them more than anything else.

[00:24:45] From mental health problems.

[00:24:47] Natalie: Yeah. And when they don't feel judged you know, someone said years ago, and I've tried to implement this with all of my kids and I try to be this to other kids that, and I'm curious your opinion on this, that every young person needs at least five people that they feel like they could just say anything.

[00:25:04] And not an outside of just their parents. So I think about that when these kids come rushing in my house from high school and I go, I hope I'm one of those that you anything, but at least five. And so I add that up and I go, are there five, like, and maybe the number isn't as important as just people they know they can go to who won't be

[00:25:23] Dr. William Stixrud: judgemental.

[00:25:25] I love that. I love that Natalie. And, and You know that, and I we're working on our new book. We interviewed a bunch of children that an older adolescents, and we said, who do you feel closest to in this world? And sometimes you said a pair, but very often it was a cousin or an older brother, or it was a teacher or a coach or a counselor.

[00:25:45] And we said, what does it makes you feel close to this person? And invariably, they said something on the. They listened to me without judging me and they don't tell me what to do. and one of things we say is that we want, we want a close connection with our kid, but we don't want to worry that somehow if our kid doesn't tell us everything that somebody wouldn't have a good relationship.

[00:26:04] And when my son was in high school, there's certain stuff that I talk about sex or various needs to look at. I talked with coach Rosen. That's good luck. And we weren't cause they have other people they can go to, as you said, who listened to them without judging them and can give them advice, but not try to tell them what to do.

[00:26:22] Yeah. And I think that that is it's huge. I mean, we were just, we were so struck Natalie by how consistently that's what kids said without any prompt it. Wow.

[00:26:31] Natalie: Yeah. Yeah. Well, where can people get more information on everything you're doing, your books? You just have so much to offer. Well,

[00:26:40] Dr. William Stixrud: thank you so much.

[00:26:41] And it's been a very rewarding. Kind of proposed right. And kind of late stage part of my career here to D to write these two books. And so Ned Johnson and I met my coauthor. Um, So the first book is called the self-driven child. And this new book is, is called. What do you say? How to talk to kids, bill, how to talk with kids to build motivation, stress tolerance.

[00:27:02] And a happy home. And so those two they're both. I have I say some of this up they're great books. I just, I kind of rereading part of what I'm the day to the new one. There's a lot of great stuff in it. And it's based on principles that just how. That I think I just, part of the reason that the sense of control it's so powerful and the idea that you can't make somebody do something good.

[00:27:26] So the idea that, that communicating in a way to, to, to, to keep a focus on that close relationship, that, that unconditional love this stuff, that's kind of universal just, and it works and it works that it can you adapt it from kid to kid, but the principles are United. Yeah. So it's these two books and we, we actually, we have a group called self-driven

[00:27:47] The best self-driven is our website. We have a closed Facebook group, pretty well like our books, and we'll do these Facebook live presentations and people can let people know what we're doing, where we're lecturing and that kind stuff.

[00:28:00] Natalie: I'm going to join that Facebook group for sure.

[00:28:03] I love your books. I love the way you approach this. It's a tough time and yet the most beautiful and rewarding time as well, being a parent. So thank you for

[00:28:12] Dr. William Stixrud: that. Well, I love talking with you.

[00:28:15] Natalie: Thank you. Well, we'll talk hopefully again soon, and I just appreciate your time today.

[00:28:20] Dr. William Stixrud: It was great.

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