How to Help Kids Under Pressure:A conversation with ‘teen whisperer' Ana Homayoun.

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Ana Homayoun is an educator and counsellor specializing in helping young people navigate the pressures of education and life that are unique to this generation.
She has written three books: “That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week: Helping Disorganized and Distracted Boys Succeed in School and Life,” “The Myth of the Perfect Girl: Helping Our Daughters Find Authentic Success and Happiness in School and Life,” and her latest, “Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World.“With alarming increases in anxiety, stress, and depression among teens today, families and teachers can benefit from the Homayoun’s expertise.
 In a video on your website, you explain that you started your counselling and consulting business, Green Ivy Educational Counseling, to provide a place where “kids were encouraged and motivated to follow their dreams.” The kind of advice and support you’re offering young people is, perhaps, more needed today than ever before. What initially drew you to this work?
Ana Homayoun: Shortly after publishing my first book, I had coffee with a reporter who had interviewed thousands of people over the course of her career, and she said something that has stuck with me for nearly a decade: She found that the people who love their careers the most generally have work that started out of something they enjoyed doing in middle school and high school. And this is true for me as well. In high school, I would help classmates and younger students get organized and manage stress. I was always happy to lend a helping hand and saw how so many classmates were wrongly judged based on their grades and scores. As I graduated from college, I had a college professor who asked me about the three qualities I wanted from a job, and I replied, “I want to help people. I want to write. I want to travel.” And now, two decades later, I feel like I have the best job in the world and love what I do nearly every single day. My work is all about helping students, parents, and educators feel supported and have the skills needed to navigate a world that seems overwhelming and always “on” whether it is digital content or otherwise. There is always something new and different, and working with students keeps me feeling energized.
What do you wish parents better understood about supporting their kids’ dreams and aspirations?
Ms Homayoun: So much of parenting has become fear-based and I do think that over the past two decades, during a time when so many new careers and opportunities have popped up, it is somewhat ironic that we’ve narrowed the definition of what success looks like. We’re encouraging every kid to follow a somewhat similar path, but every kid is different. I wish parents knew that understanding and accepting their children as they are, while supporting their children’s sense of autonomy (so they understand they have choices), competence (so they understand they are able to make intelligent choices and decisions), and relatedness (so they feel a sense of belonging) truly creates the foundation for long-term success and wellness.
What do you wish schools did better to support the dreams and aspirations of their students?
Ms. Homayoun: So much of my work in schools is around helping with advisory curriculum, and helping students design their own blueprint for success to focus on daily habits rather than grades or scores, to move from an idea of multitasking to monotasking, and to put more proactive, preventive measures in place to help students with social, emotional, and physical wellness. Oftentimes, schools feel forced to act from a place of constant reactivity constantly putting out fires instead of actively thinking of ways to prevent them. It doesn’t mean that the fire won’t happen but it does mean more measures are in place. I think that technology in schools has been a total game-changer, and I wish that it wasn’t all-or-nothing. There are so many ways that technology can be helpful in lessons, for instance, 3D modelling and looking at complicated biology topics or interactive lessons that bring sensitive topics to light. At the same time, there are situations where technology use can be counterproductive for instance, if everyone has computers and laptops out during a discussion that requires openness, vulnerability, and full focus, it can be less than helpful to have the potential distractions of screens.
Today’s teens seem to be experiencing unprecedented levels of pressure. The well-reported spike in anxiety and stress of this group is of great concern to families. What do you attribute this sharp increase in stress and anxiety to?
Ms Homayoun: A number of factors contribute to the sharp rise in stress and anxiety. Many experts want to focus on social media and technology use, but it’s far more nuanced than just that. Social media and technology aren’t good or bad but how they are used makes a difference. Keeping up with supportive friends and family can be an incredibly positive experience. For students, heightened self-expectations can come from the comparison culture that happens online and in real life, and in many ways that culture has narrowed the definition of success. This narrowing of success, coupled with the angst over productivity where every second is scheduled, leads to a lack of time for reflection and what I like to call “emotional detox.” So many kids feel pressured to respond to texts and notifications all the time, and research suggests that 45 per cent of teens feel as though they are on all the time. The information overload is stressful, the way that likes loves, comments, and followers have become new barometers for popularity. At the same time, our 24/7 news cycle hasn’t made it easy for anyone adults or kids. We don’t realize that kids are receiving so much content through different streams and channels that we don’t know about.
What advice would you give parents who are concerned that their kids are too anxious or stressed?
Ms Homayoun: A recent article in the Yale Daily News highlighted SPACE Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions which was described as a new technique that focuses on parental support rather than child interventions, and has been seen to have incredibly promising results. The first thing parents can do is step back and look at their own lives and get themselves support because in my experience parents need outside support to effectively navigate times when students feel anxious and stressed. At the same time, making sure children have access to people who both are supportive and offer clarity peers who are supportive and trusted adults who can help provide clarity is key. Many times, students who feel overwhelmed don’t think that they have anyone to turn to, so putting preventive measures in place is key. Some of my students refer to work around this as “creating their emotional toolbox” that includes supporters and clarifiers, as well as identifying five positive behaviours they can turn to when feeling overwhelmed. My students have said going outside, reading a book, taking a shower, listening to music, playing with pets, exercising, and writing in a journal are all ways they decrease stress.
Your book “Social Media Wellness” speaks to technology’s significant impact on the lives of today’s teens. What does a healthy relationship with technology look like for teens, in your opinion?
Ms Homayoun: Earlier this week I spoke with several hundred high school girls around social media wellness, and I received the question I often receive: How much time is average or normal or appropriate to spend on a phone? And the answer is, it depends what works for one kid might not work for another. We need to look at technology and social media use as a public health issue akin to nutrition rather than constantly talking about it like it is all toxic and bad. We need to give students tools so that they know what unbalanced or problematic overuse looks like so that they can step back and take active steps to make changes. And we need to empower students to understand they have a choice in how and where they spend their time online and in real life. It can be done! This morning I received an email from a mom whose daughter heard me speak: “Hi Ana. Your talk had a direct impact on my daughter. Last night she put her phone outside her room to get more concentration time. I was so pleased!”
How can parents identify when their kids have an unhealthy relationship with technology? What can they do about it?
Ms Homayoun: Much of my work is about preventing an unhealthy relationship with technology, and focusing on three key steps: awareness, compartmentalization, and consistency. Awareness involves building in the opportunity to really know how much time is being spent online. I had one high school sophomore boy check his screen time usage during our appointment, and he discovered that he had spent 40 hours in the previous week on his phone and decided that was preventing him from moving toward his own goals. He realized that he needed support to create consistent opportunities for compartmentalization, so that he could do his work without distraction and, instead, focus on consistency, which involved making sure he had daily and weekly opportunities for a digital detox and being offline. In terms of what parents can do, it really depends on where the child is on the spectrum of problematic overuse. I have a quiz in “Social Media Wellness” that highlights concerning behaviour (for example, anger when technology gets taken away, despair, irritability, hiding, secretive behaviours, and the like). I cannot overemphasize how important it is for parents to get outside support.