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As Finals Approach

I have been struck by the resilience in the students, staff and faculty during the past three challenging semesters. Yet, pandemic burnout leaves many of us hollow as we approach the most demanding period of the academic calendar. The end of the academic year is not only when final exams take place but it is when many year long commitments end, life transitions take place, and uncertainty and accomplishment go hand-in-hand. Many universities offer self-care advice on websites to help support members of campus at all levels during this time. Of all the lessons we can impart to our students, how to practice self-care during times of stress is perhaps one of the most important.

Encouraging self-care in a way that does not add to the unreasonable to do list (self-care as value-added not an untimely stressor) is a reasonable goal for the month ahead. And linking the benefits of self-care to the goals of the month ahead is one form of encouragement. When we take care of our bodies, minds, souls, and relationships, we perform better, enjoy the journey more deeply, and celebrate with more energy.

During this time of pandemic burnout and societal tensions, self-care may also include acknowledging that the sprint turned into a marathon. And we have done our best. Noting what you are proud of this past year is centering. Realizing what you did accomplish in the face of challenge is important when life is hard, when school and our jobs are hard, and when living in a pandemic is hard. Be bouyed by your success.

And reasonable in your expectations. Divide your to do list into activities that are essential, value-based, and expendable. View the essentials list with a skeptic eye – negotiate deadlines, accept something less than excellence, and verify others’ expectations to pare this list down to the barebones. This trimmed-down version stays on the list. What to-do list items bring you joy and align with your values? Do you value social connection? Be sure you make time to connect with others each day, even briefly. Be sure you to do list includes one thing that aligns with your values to see you through. And the rest, set it aside for another day. You have my permission. All you need is yours.

Be sure to check out other tools for self-care (including our self-care through self-massage videos) to find the right mix for you. Or, if you are a UNC student, check out upcoming wellness workshops we offer through Kenan-Flagler or the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience.

Spring 2021

Welcome back to UNC-CH students, even though we resume in remote mode. It’s been a week, with historic events punctuating the long-distance shuffling of classes during a later than usual kick-off to the year. This semester, I am more heavily engaged in undergraduate instruction than in recent years and what I am finding in the hearts and minds of these young adults is heartening. Resilience, gratitude, respect, purpose – it’s all there. Sure, there is isolation, fatigue, frustration, and fear for what it all means. But the combination is heady. It is the stuff of hope. And the fuel to put hands to work in making a difference. I know there is concern about the role of colleges and (for some) college students in the spread of the pandemic, particularly for those living in college towns. Recognizing these concerns, the failied and successful attempts of institutions to respond, the responsible acts of some and irresponsible acts of others – in other words, taking that all into account – I get it. Yet, I believe. I believe in these students. I trust in their vision of the world they want to build. I have faith that the lesssons of the pandemic and surging racial tensions of the past year will not be lost to the past as they craft our future. And if I can play even a small role in constructing the bridge that takes them from here to there, I’m all in.

‘Tis the season, even in hard times.

In lieu of a full blog post, this week I direct parents to the following piece in National Geographic Family for what gratitude researchers have to share with parents. (Link available in blog post – click title to follow.)

Give and Receive

At 10Am on Friday, November 6th, 2020, I was belly down, legs akimbo, stretching under my king-sized bed in a desperate yet vain attempt to wrestle two cats out and into carriers for a nail trim scheduled for ten minutes earlier. On another day, I probably would have given up. Let the cats win. But not that day. In this season, on that Friday, in that hour, I needed a win. A sense of control over life around me. And even if I was going to be twenty minutes late arriving at the vet, we would show up.

It’s like that for a lot of us right now, especially other white people like me. Who grew up believing that if we go for it, if we wiggle our butts just a little farther under the bed and grab at it, we can grasp success and hold it to our chests. Our effort, our drive, our motivation, our success. We might think less about how that success has arrived in our hands, and more about the satisfaction of achievement. Acutely aware of our own roles in making it happen, we may overlook the roles played by  others, by  our social privileges, or by serendipity, or by luck,  or – for those who believe – by divine intervention.

But by doing so, we miss out. We miss out on the opportunities to understand the world beyond our front door. A world struggling with diversity and equity and inclusion and justice. We rob ourselves of perspectives not our own with the power to flex our thinking and enrich our problem solving. And we fail to experience the incredible gifts that others have to offer, that they are giving us whether or not we pay attention, each and every day. Yes, I would argue that our rigorous individualism may not only over emphasize the I in accomplishment but also deprive us of the critical social need for connection.

Practicing gratitude is perhaps one of many antidotes to this societal poison. Many popular practices of gratitude focus on giving – mixing the idea of what happens to us when we deeply receive something with the acts of generosity, volunteerism, civic engagement, and activism. Although these acts may all be ways that we choose to pay forward the kindness shown to us (and in turn engenders the experience of gratitude), they may or may not be ways to practice gratitude itself. As a six-year old in the Raising Grateful Child study once told us, “She said thank you, but she didn’t mean it.” The teens call it virtue signaling – saying the right thing or doing the right thing for the social bonus points it may bring you.  My Aunt Gingy would call it good manners or playing nice.

The practice of gratitude may look very similar on the outside to these pay-it-forward actions and many other ways that we show appreciation. But unless those practices are motivated by the thoughts and feelings that come with noticing the role of others in the good things that come into our lives, they fall short of gratitude. The trick is to set aside our need to protect our own sense of self, of identity, long enough take in others. Teenagers get a bad wrap for how they negotiate this dance, but in truth it is what they do every day. The job of an adolescent, from a developmental point-of-view, is to figure out who they are and how to get and stay connected to others. And if they can learn to do this, so can the rest of us.

For those of you interested in picking up some tools, Andrea will be presenting on the Gratitude Conversations Program at the Love Consortium’s upcoming community event (11.19.20 at 3pm EST) – free event but registration required. Presentations by Sara Algoe and Rainy Gu will talk more about the science of gratitude.

COVID-19, Families and Youth.. the science is coming

Like many researchers around the globe, we have been doing our part in the Co-Lab to better understand the impact of the pandemic on what we study. In this case, the focus is on how parents, children, youth and families function. Pre-prints of our first two papers in this area are available on ResearchSquare as they await peer review. I’m not sure how I come down on public release of pre-prints prior to peer review, but this is another call to action of our times. The families we are studying participated over the years in the Raising Grateful Children study, a relatively privileged sample (in terms of education) from whom we have learned much about the development of gratitude in children and what parents can do to foster gratitude.

In this sample, we are seeing that different types of coping are more helpful and others less so (more emotion-focused strategies) for preventing mental health symptoms associated with the pandemic. We are also finding that pandemic life events, both positive (yes, there might be some for some families) and negative predict how families function during the pandemic, with implications for youth mental health. But we are aware, as we prepared our findings for review, that this is one only modest sample of rather similar individuals (about 80% identify as white). Yet, even in this sample, we see greater impact of the illness on racial/ethnic minority families and those of relatively lower economic resources. How much more is there to learn from families experiencing the pandemic from different corners of the county and, indeed, the world?

We think bucketloads. That’s why we are co-Lab-orating with the Society for Research on Adolescence in their effort to coordinate researchers worldwide in learning about the impact of the pandemic on youth development over the long haul. A free webinar that will kick-off this effort is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct 20th from 10-11 ET (more information here).

In the context of this pandemic, my family is among the lucky ones – luck as much received through unearned privilege as anything else. But each of my family members still experiences the impact of the pandemic in our own ways. Perhaps the most salient finding in our (yet to be peer-reviewed – yep, still conflicted about sharing this prior to publication) work is the benefit for both individual and family functioning of parents getting social support from outside of the family. As we note in this paper: “Encouraging and facilitating social support seeking for parents…is not simply a matter of self-care but also of family-care.” Take care, my friends, and be well. Where ever you are.

Grad Applications

It’s the season for putting together materials for graduate training programs in psychology. And like every other area of our lives, things this year will be a little bit different. For a summary of tips and answers to questions about applying to work with my lab, check out this video.

And breathe. Life is a non-linear path meant for exploring. There are many ways from here to there.

The NIH on COVID-19, children and mothers

One Month out…

As universities look to the fall and figure out a game plan, students, families, and faculty alike are trying to create a vision for what is to come. Here at the Co-Lab we are seeking ways to inform justice intiatives through our work on gratitude and other-focused actions in children from relatively privileged families, on how African American families talk to their college students about the risks of drinking, and on parenting youth in an increasingly diverse world. We have initiated work targeting the wave of mental health challenges that accompanies our shared and unique pandemic experiences (Raising Grateful Children during COVID-19) and developed easy implementation tools to relief associated distress (Self-Care through Self-Massage). But what I am most excited about is interacting with graduate and undergraduate students, even though remotely, this Fall. With more than 20 years at UNC-CH, I know that the challenge of engaging and learning with students and its rewards – the more you reap, the more you sow. We are waiting for you! 7.6.20

A new world..

2020. A new world that pulls our attention in several directions at once. That puts the big issues front and center. That calls us to be better people than we have ever been. That requires us to think, feel and act beyond the self. To connect with others. To celebrate others. To learn from others. Embracing this shift, I have closed the era of the Developmental Risk and Resilience Lab and entered into a new one marked by collaboration. Or, as I call it, Co-Laboration. The Family Journeys Co-Laboration. Rejecting the ill-fitting role of academic as expert, I aspire to join with communities from all walks of life to address problems that confront children, youth and families in their daily lives. I have no idea what the future holds, but our youth and young adults are brave, bold, and ready for change. And in them is hope. 6.25.20