May 03, 2023
By Dr Kathy Weston
A recent conversation with my teen about driving lessons entailed discussion of the concept of the ‘biting point’; the point at which clutch plates first come into contact with one another. When we are learning to drive, it is important to understand these sensitive points in order to determine the optimal moment when the vehicle will move smoothly off from stationary. Recently, I have reflected on this concept when thinking about its application to parenting, considering how beneficial it can be when struggling with pertinent questions.
We are in the middle of revision season in our house, and many of you, like me, might have considered the question: ‘When might my ‘encouragement’ morph into intolerable pressure on my child’? Or, thinking about teen phone use and social media management: ‘How can I support my teen to engage with particular apps, whilst empowering them to regulate their usage and protect themselves online’? How can I ensure my teen enjoys the positive benefits of social media without their mental health being compromised?
Social media is an excellent example of where the concept of ‘biting points’ might come into play. We know from research that social media can be both friend and foe. It can enhance teen socialisation and wellbeing, but excessive time spent on it, engaging with content that might fuel body dissatisfaction or affect the way we feel about ourselves, can be problematic.
When considering teens’ digital diets, as parents, it is good to be mindful of what researchers describe as a ‘Goldilocks Effect’. Optimal levels of engagement can be determined (preferably with teens), by exploring what just the right amount of time online looks like and evaluating together the impact of what we look at on our minds, moods and motivations.
‘Biting points’ are best discovered through reflective and sensitive parenting. As parents, we know our children best. I know my eldest can manage well under quite a lot of pressure, whilst my youngest would check out early if ever encouraged to work that hard. One child is extremely good at monitoring his own social media usage, taking an interest in the data on his phone logging how much time he has spent online. The other needs nudging. As parents, we need to be aware that ‘one size will not fit all’ and remain flexible.
The concept of ‘biting points’ can also be applied when thinking about optimal ways to engage with our teens on troubling topics. A very recent preoccupation of parents (and educators) has been the dominance of toxic influencers like Andrew Tate. Last weekend, I read a very disturbing account of what some schools are seeing and experiencing in classrooms. Some schools are being advised not to mention the ‘A’ word (Andrew) for fear of inadvertently amplifying his appeal. Tate’s fan base extends to boys (and girls), men (and women), of all ages and backgrounds across the world. His videos have been viewed over 11 billion times. How could we possibly not engage with our teens about him within family life? Particularly, if they seem to be supporting his views.
That said, talking about Tate with teens who are spouting his content isn’t something to approach lightly. I have done a great deal of exploration about what might be optimal when it comes to challenging the impact of toxic influencers and reached the conclusion that there is an identifiable ‘biting point’ when talking about Tate, that adults can strive towards.
In this context, the biting point is where discussion is ignited within an environment that feels psychologically safe to teens and where we model an approach to unpicking ‘Tate Truths’ in a way that nurtures their cognitive flexibility. Can they share their viewpoints but consider different ways of thinking? Can they acknowledge the appeal of someone like Tate (as wealthy entrepreneur, charismatic champion kickboxer, etc.) but also how polemical and hurtful some of his views are to girls and women? Can we help them to weigh things up, seek a more nuanced view, and consider different, healthier versions of masculinity that provide a sense of balance to Tate’s views? Signs indicating that a biting point has been reached might be a Tate teen fan sounding slightly less defensive about Tate or agreeing to mull over some of the points you have raised. A shard of increased flexibility in their thinking would be a good end goal.
Inspired by a recent interview with neuroscientist and expert on extremist ideologies, Dr Leor Zmigrod, I am confident now, as hinted above, that the antidote to toxic ideologies lies in creative and flexible thinking. So much richness lies in developing a sense of criticality which amplifies our children’s agency and disempowers the toxic influencers. Yes, teachers are well-placed to enable discussions about such material but, unlike us, they have to battle classroom dynamics where pupils can be tempted to show off, engage in ‘banter’ and publicly challenge the teacher on this material in ways that feel deeply uncomfortable. What I am suggesting is that we cannot and should not expect teachers to manage these important debates and discussions alone.
So, what can we do to support teachers and help our children? We have a duty of care towards our children to keep them safe from harm; psychological as well as physical. We can start by anchoring teens in our own, benevolent, equitable family values and ensuring they can articulate them. That’s right. Ask your teen what your family values are when it comes to things like how we treat others, managing digital diets, gender equity or how we talk about those who suffer from poor mental health. Tate considers depression a sign of ‘weakness’. What do our teens think about that? As parents, can we promote the kind of tenderness in relationships that Andrew Tate considers ‘weak’? He thinks rape victims should bear some responsibility and that women belong at home servicing men’s needs. He believes men should feel aggrieved by what they have ‘lost’ and fight for a version of masculinity that is under attack. There is much to discuss.
Through conversation, we can try to place Tate’s comments in a much wider context that can help young people appreciate the cumulative harm that can be done via toxic influencers. During one Bank Holiday discussion with my teen, he muttered something about ‘women having more power than men’, which made me pause, engage and help him to challenge that assertion.
“I hear what you are saying, but is that really the case?”. Let’s look at some global figures. 71% of the 40.3 million people in modern slavery are women and girls. Females are overrepresented in forced labour (59%), forced marriage (84%) and forced sexual exploitation. Of those in forced sexual exploitation, 99% are female. We explored the World Bank data together and hovered on one striking statement: “By the time they are 19 years old, one in four adolescent girls who have been in a relationship will already have been physically, sexually or psychologically abused by a partner”.
Presenting an alternative perspective on the threat of global ‘female empowerment’ (as depicted by Tate) and diluting his impact will take more than the sharing of a few stats. Challenging entrenched, ideologically harmful viewpoints requires ingenuity, patience and the commitment of caring adults. Neither shutting conversations down, nor engaging in blazing rows with young people will get us to where we need to be: a place where open questions make way for ‘higher order thinking’ and where young people are willing to consider an opposing view and acknowledge the courage it takes to stand down.
As mentioned earlier, it is exam season and the month of April, just past, was Stress Awareness Month. Stress has a biting point too. Experiencing too little means we might get nothing done, too much and one’s ‘engine’ could stall or cut out.
Understanding stress and how it may impact our physical and psychological wellbeing has been a topic of interest since the early 19th century. French physiologist Claude Bernard (1865/1961) noted that the maintenance of life is critically dependent on keeping our internal milieu constant in the face of a changing environment. This was later referred to as “homeostasis.” Physiologists used the term “stress” to describe anything that disrupts our feelings of homeostasis, a bump in the road if you will. It is important during times of stress that we have a sensitive and supportive network – as research continually shows that social support is a tremendous protective factor. In fact, this is even the case for animals. Studies with rat pups found that if the mother was more sensitive and attentive to them in their infancy, then they were less likely to produce stress hormones when placed in a stressful situation later in their life.
Stress is a common occurrence in our lives and doesn’t always have to disadvantage us. Associate Professor Daniela Kaufer highlights that ‘manageable’ levels of stress can be beneficial and increase our alertness and performance. However, unmanaged stress can have some serious negative impacts on our brain, body and behaviour. The symptoms of this type of stress could be increased heart rate, feeling a little less in control of life and tasks, more irritable than usual or getting less sleep. But research tells us that stress, particularly when left unchecked, can manifest in many different and unexpected ways. Recently, a friend going through a divorce mentioned she was experiencing a number of odd symptoms including a bad cold, hair loss, lethargy and a persistent headache. In conversation, she attributed these symptoms to a bad sickness bug that she was struggling to get over, but the cause would likely/arguably have been stress. Like many people, she assumed that stress presented psychologically, rather than physiologically, but it can do both. As such, it is important to look out for all signs aligning with changes in lifestyle or environment that could be a precipitating stressful event. Whilst my friend was not able to connect these dots on how all of the things she was experiencing may have been linked to her divorce, she was able to articulate how she was feeling and to acknowledge how this big change in her life could definitely have been the main stressor.
Children, on the other hand, may not so easily recognise the signs of stress or identify the stressor, so we need to be vigilant when looking for changes in their temperament and emotions. Signs of stress will vary depending on the developmental and chronological age of the child, but here is a great resource UNICEF has developed to help you gauge this.
Why not talk about ‘stress’ within family life and discuss if you have ever experienced it? Can we spot the signs of stress in one another? You might refer to positive stress as the type we feel when we experience excitement or mention tolerable stress (when we go through something challenging, but can cope because we are surrounded by people that love and support us, for example).
Toxic stress is hopefully something none of us or our children have yet experienced, as it can be much more harmful. It relates to the response when a child is being/or has been exposed to prolonged experiences of abuse and/or neglect, with no caregiver intervention or support. This type of stress response is long lasting, and as such it can disrupt bodily systems including brain development, which can affect learning, behaviour, and health across the lifespan, the effects of which can be severe. It can be hard to keep up with all these different terms, but it is important to note that toxic stress refers to the response to exposure to adverse events and experiences that can be potentially traumatic.
So what can we do within family life to monitor and tackle stress in general? And if we or family members are affected by more chronic levels of stress, what can help? What works?
As a first step, we can be ‘stress literate’ and teach our children to pay attention to their thoughts and feelings, and the impact they have on their bodies. Talk about how stress works and the concept of ‘fight or flight’. Discuss scenarios when you have felt scared and how you have coped. Put in place all the lovely things that keep stress at bay; exposure to things and people that we love, social connection, movement and regular exercise. Think about ideas and tools you can add to your own family ‘coping menu’ and encourage your children to remember and refer to what works for them.
Particularly at the moment, with revision season well underway, we can nudge our children towards activities and ideas that can ease stress and keep it at optimal levels. We can encourage them to take a walk around the block, shoot some hoops outside or take a breather in the garden. We can be there to observe, monitor mood and encourage. Watch your own levels of stress during this time too and take care of yourself. The same suggestions that can minimise our children’s stress work for us. Perhaps organise an outing with a friend, talk to people who make you feel better about everything, and try to inject a sense of gratitude into every day.
For those of you reading this concerned about a family member who is experiencing toxic stress (where the ‘biting point’ has been truly surpassed), or recognise this experience in yourself, here are some suggestions. Firstly, it is always a good idea to talk to your medical doctor about what you are worried about and why. Ask them to signpost you to local services that you could attend or liaise with too. Sometimes speaking to someone who has been through a similar experience can be extremely helpful. The Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard University has produced some great information around toxic stress responses.
Reaching out to speak to family or friends can also help. We know that a large protective factor against any kind of stress, but particularly toxic stress, is social connection and support.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
Our digital library now contains over 600 resources and is packed full of material relevant to all of the subjects covered in this week’s edition of Wednesday Wisdom. If you’re a Tooled Up subscriber and you’d like an overview of what we do, why not browse through our new, snazzy A-Z of Frequently Asked Parenting Questions and find out how we can help. If we’ve given you some food for thought on initiating conversations with teens about problematic points of view, you might be interested in listening to our interview with Dr Leor Zmigrod on ideological thinking and radicalisation in teens, or in watching our webinars on misogyny and toxic influencers with Dr Lisa Sugiura.
If you’d like some immediate tips on coping with everyday stresses and anxieties, you might find our stress less activity and our spinning plates idea useful. If you have teens approaching important exams, we have a whole section packed full of advice and tips which you can find here. Consider using our Mood Thermometer or seeking inspiration for healthy coping mechanisms with our menu of ideas.