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How to help your daughter find autonomy
How to help your daughter find autonomy

By Liz Hulme, Director of Health and Wellness

During Parents' Weekend in October, Santa Catalina School welcomed Dr. William Stixrud and Ned Johnson to campus as keynote speakers. Their recently published book, The Self-Driven Child, explores how fostering children's autonomy can help solve two challenges endemic to kids today: facing anxiety and developing intrinsic motivation.

Dr. Stixrud is a clinical neuropsychologist and a frequent lecturer on topics related to neuropsychological assessment, brain development, motivation, meditation, and the effects of stress, sleep deprivation, and technology overload on the brain. Johnson is the founder of PrepMatters, a tutoring service, and is a teen coach on study skills, sleep deprivation, parent-teen dynamics, and test anxiety.

Through the combination of cutting-edge brain science and practical advice based on the latest discoveries in behavioral therapy, the authors gave an engaging and compelling presentation on why students thrive and are happier when they have control over their own lives. They discussed how certain types of stress can negatively impact the developing brain and why having a sense of autonomy actually works to reduce stress. They also articulated why radical downtime, daydreaming, and imagination are all essential elements to healthy brain development and happy, thriving students.

Using the book as an outline, the speakers discussed why sense of control is so important, how to let children be decision-makers in their lives, how to promote inner drive, the concepts of radical downtime and sleep, taming technology, exercising the brain, and how to be a non-anxious presence with our children. Practical suggestions offered at the end of each chapter of the book are designed to create engagement and conversation.

A few examples are:

  • Are there situations in which you could give your child more independence or more choices?
  • Encourage "Plan B" thinking by asking your child, "What are some things that you can do if things don't turn out as you hoped?" Plan B thinking strengthens the ability of the brain's prefrontal cortex to regulate stress and anxiety and promotes resiliency.
  • Ask your child, "Do you feel you have enough time to yourself, time when you are not studying, doing sports, or talking to other people?" If your child says no, help her to think through when she might find a few times in the day to sit quietly and let her mind wander.
Dr. Stixrud's 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, He is also a rock and roll musician who plays in the band Larry Close Enough. Johnson's work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, and BBC.

Read a recent article by the authors about helping your child navigate the college search.

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