Kenneth Allen Burr's Blog

Teen Brains – What a Ride!
October 16, 2011, 10:36 pm
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October 17, 2011

     Your 17 year old son was arrested for doing 137 mph on a two lane “deserted” road that he thought was safe; or, your 15 year old daughter freaks out because she may be pregnant; Or your neighbor says he called the cops after “one hell of a party” erupted last weekend in your onceprivate home and castle with in-ground pool. You thought your kids could be left alone while taking  an “adult only” weekend by the sea. But those lovely memories are quickly being dashed to pieces when you discover that 70 drunken kids invaded your personal space and were diving off the roof into the pool below.  Now, you are shocked, overwhelmed and angry!  How could your kid who usually seems so responsible do such stupid stuff?  You set out the house rules; and issued threats of dire consequences if those rules are broken.   What went wrong?  Most likely, you just haven’t fully appreciated the amazing adaptability of a teenage brain and how it works.

Brains in process:  Although children’s brains reach 90% of their size by age 6, brains undergo a massive re organization between the ages of 12 and 25. By age 13-15 teenage brains are running 100X faster than the brain of a young child, and capable of greater memory and decision making processes,complex thinking skills.  The brain of a 20 year old work just as fast as an adult brain does, because the neurological networks have become thicker and more developed.  But what parents need to keep in mind is that, no matter how smart your kid is or how responsible she seems at home, she is still coping with a brain that is a work in progress. This is why teens can be so darned inconsistent, full of energy one day and exhausted the next, semi nocturnal, sleeping until noon, moody, impulsive, brilliant, sweet  and ready to take  greater risks that any adults who value  sanity.  Scientists have called this “neurological gawkiness,” which is pretty similar to the physical awkwardness of young teens getting used to their fast growing bodies. In this case, they are trying out their rapidly accelerating brains.

Risk taking: increases greatly from ages 15-25, (greatest years of risk being 14-17) which is why so many teenagers have horrible auto accidents, or begin using drugs, drinking and smoking in these early years.  Unfortunately many of these early thrills can turn into adult habits that are often regrettable.   When the teenage brain encounters thrill or pleasure, it unloads a whopping does of Dopamine, (the feel good neurotransmitter) and since teens are naturally stimulated by excitement and novelty, they respond best to rewards. What parents need to realize is that the teenage brain values PAYOFF much more than PUNISHMENT.  They will take greater risk, because it will get them what they desire….which is a thrill, the buzz…or increased social status.  Most parents hope and pray that their kids don’t do something so risky that it will permanently injure or cut short their budding futures.

Peer influence.  In Washington State there is a newer law that does not allow a beginning driver to have any other peers in the car for the first 6 months they have a license.  The reasons for this are many-fold but one reason is that the teen brain picks up
social cues that produce more oxytocin, (a hormone) in social situations, and as a result they will take twice as many risks with peers watching than they would if they were alone.  Conversely, adolescents can perceive social rejection as a literal threat to their
existence which may explain why your 16 year old daughter had a huge melt down after not being invited to a popular girl’s party. If she is acting as if her life depended on it, it is probably how she feels; and she will attempt to do ANYTHING to be accepted as one of the ‘cool kids’.  Remember, teens take more risks NOT because they don’t understand the dangers or consequences, but because they weigh risk vs. reward differently than adults.  In this case being socially cool and accepted is more than enough motivation to
push the boundaries.

What’s a parent to do?  Studies have shown that when parents engage and guide their teens with a light but steady hand, and stay connected while allowing independence, their kids generally do much better in life.   Teenage brains love learning new things; and although they often prefer to learn things from their peers, they also desire to be guided by their parents, when THEY are in the mood!  A wise parent learns to spot those moments open to parental wisdom, and uses them with finesse.  Parental talking points come off best, not in the form of a heavy handed lecture, but as a person who remembers how he or she made sense of the adult world as they first encountered it.  Although teens DO need to understand and value their parent’s perspective; they are simultaneously trying to make sense of the world they are beginning to encounter which is different than the world parents were launched in 25 years ago.

Your teen needs a parental ally who is gentle, but firm and points a guiding hand forward in life, while understanding that the teenage brain just isn’t able to handle the social influences and temptation of having a house with a pool all to themselves, or the fastest car on the block.  Wise parents  will quickly  learn to say; “Honey we DO trust you most of the time  ….but  we aren’t going to burden you by leaving the best party house in town untended, (this will  your insurance agent sigh with relief!)  Yes, you STILL have a curfew so you get enough rest, and I’m sorry but….no one in this family is getting a BMW M-3 for a long, long time!”

Play and Laughter Heal Relationships
October 4, 2011, 3:59 pm
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OcotobOctober 4, 2011!

  Have you evernoticed the effect of laughter in our lives?

The baby playing peekaboo soon learns to giggle and suddenly everyone around him laughs out loud. The 5 year old whose Father playfully chases her through the house while playing ‘monster” shrieks with laughter for the joy of pretending to be scared.   As humans grow from cute grade-schoolers to snarly teenagers on their path to adulthood, play is one of the things that can create and reinforce the bonds of our relationships, our creativity to adapt to new situations and facilitate emotional and spiritual growth.  Play allows us to discover different parts of ourselves that are normally hidden and helps us gain confidence in our risk taking.    It is so essential that somehuman development specialists have claimed that without play, humans and many animals would perish.  I would say the same thing about a marriage partnership, play is essential to our wellbeing and laughter can actually heal many of our relational stresses.

I recently met theauthors of a new book on this subject while signing books at a National AAMFT Conference.  Consequently I’ve been enjoying reading “We’re No Fun Anymore, Helping Couples Cultivate Joyful Marriages Through the Power of Play,” by Robert Schwartz and Elaine Braff, whichhas some interesting things to say about the power of play in relationships.

For instance, in grammarschool, studies have indicated that children may often laugh up to 400 times a day!  But when they become teenagers who hear the adults around them suggesting they grow up , the new message given is that work has become the highest value, rather than play.  How many times do kids here adults saying…” O grow up.. or “That behavior is SO childish.” And somewhere along the line the drive to play takes a dive, and laughter diminishes to the point that by adulthood we average about 15 laughs a day. It may be normative, but it strikes me as something sad and not all that healthy.

Laughter can increases our sense of well-being, and overall health. Our mirror neurons affect each greatly so that when my partner laughs or cracks a joke, it prompts my body to secret oxytocin (which is the same chemical released when making love) which in turn boosts my immune system, decreases my stress levels, and promotes the longevity not only of my marriage, but of my life.

So laugh a bit more, tease in good taste and if you need a jump start, watch this 12 second video guaranteed to make you smile. 

Spirituality in the Family
June 2, 2010, 9:21 pm
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    Today we  have been married for 37 years!  My wife and I tease each other that  we’ve actually had 35 good ones… because two were pretty awful when we were not able to get in synch!  At this point, the negative perspective represents only 3% of our lives so far. Not a bad average when you look at the bigger picture; and hopefully by the time leave this world those will only be a blip on the screen as we review the movies of our lives.  To take a proper picture of our lives together, necessitates using  a wide angle lens that will include a minimum of 4 dogs,  3 kids and 96 years of parenting! We’ve also had over 240 years of being nurtured by our own parents, some of whom are still with us and others who have left us with more questions than answers.  Then there is how we learn to make sense of our various careers and shared life experiences. If spirituality is first and foremost a term of connection, how can all of these connections not promote spiritual growth as we continue to make meaning out of the individual and intersected places in our lives? And don’t you wonder where God sits in the midst of it all?

  To begin this day, I poured coffee into a special mug given to me by our youngest daughter who is about to get married, pulled a tee shirt over my head from the “Lonestar Rod and Kustom Roundup,” bought while visiting our son in Austin, Tx,  wrapped myself in a West Seattle Sweatshirt, given our softball coach daughter, and topped off the ensemble with a ball cap from Lake Roosevelt where our whole family used to share stories around a campfire.  After hooking Max to a leash (the youngest family member) and sliding my wedding ring on my left hand , I couldn’t help but notice  how many symbols of our shared lives I encountered before I headed out for a morning walk; each one carrying not only a memory, but a reminder of a special type of spirituality that is only discovered as we learn how to nurture and be nurtured by each other.

   Mary Pipher says it all in the title of one of her delightful books, The Shelter of Each Other.  (Grosset/Putnam, 1998)  She states that although the family is our most cherished  and valuable institution, our culture seems to be ”at war” with families.  Unlike past generations we now live without walls that used to screen out unwanted influences, and we often feel invaded by television, internet,  ipods, ipads, instant messaging and more. But what is most lacking is our sense of community….”our shelter from the storm, our last great hope.”

    Pipher suggests we create a “tiospaye,”   a Sioux term for community. To create a tiospaye we would purpose to make connections with each other and bring people together, learn to turn off the TV, choose to not answer the cellphone every time it rings, spend more time together in nature, eating, drinking and sharing our stories of how we have encountered the complexities in our lives.  Although symbols can remind us of the important people and events in our lives, we still need to share our stories in the presence of each other. Our stories of overcoming adversity, stories of bravery and courage, stories of when we couldn’t go on but somehow took one step forward, stories of births, great celebrations and deaths, humorous stories where we can laugh at ourselves until tears run down our faces, stories that can highlight our unique perspectives and heal our polarizations, stories that quilt us together around the campfires of our lives. It’s a gift to know that  God is always in the campfire.

GOD and the Spiritual DOG
June 2, 2010, 9:14 pm
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  For you God/Dog lovers out there… here’s a chance to spend two minutes similing and loving some of the “people” who nurture your soul; a little sappy but cute…


Spiritual Solitude

  In spite of America’s affluence,…..In spite of all the materialism which surrounds us, and the innumerable activities that demand our energies…..In spite of our basic human freedoms and opportunities, we have a new kind of poverty affecting our lives. Robert Banks (All the Business of Life) says it well when he states that we have “a new poverty” in our lives for we are poorer than most countries in the world when it comes to time. “What we have gained in terms of material things, we have lost in terms of disposable time.”

     To reclaim our time poverty is a major challenge of our day. A typical response is, “Well, I’ll do that when I find the time,” right?  Yet, if we already have all the time there is…we are going to need to find better ways of managing ourselves. No one is going to create a 25 hour day! To do so, we have to re-discover what is truly important for us, learn to say “no” to requests that are not in line with our new priorities and re kindle our capacity to hear God’s spirit speaking in our lives.”
     To cure this poverty, we need an infusion of spiritual solitude. I’m not talking about becoming a monk! Nor am I suggesting that we waste time picking lint out of our navels. I’m talking about making time for ourselves to reflect upon life at a deeper level, and to hear/ sense God’s voice re-directing our hearts so we can make wise decisions based upon knowledge of our truest self.
    Thomas Merton once said (New Seeds ) “There is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend; to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him, I will find myself; and if I find my true self, I will find Him.”     Spiritual solitude is not a luxury, but something that is necessary to know our truest selves. Spiritual solitude, which consists of times to pause in reflection, or times to slow down and ponder our lives, surely is something that is blessed by God.  When we seek the spirituality of solitude we begin to calm down, seeing life with new eyes rather than reacting to the life events that do not line up with our busy plans.
     For years I would make time early each morning to read a spiritual meditation and journal my thoughts and feelings about it.  I find that my mind works differently when I write with pen on paper.  (It  also seems that there is an increase in my pen’s output whenever I am anxious or upset!) But such moments do provide me with increased clarity and direction in my life. In the early years, I was more concerned with what I was to DO, but over time I have been learning simply how to BE, and as a result be-connected. This has become one of the gifts of my own spiritual solitudes. But I wonder what your gifts will be, or how our gifts might intersect in the future? Of course not everyone will find their spiritual solitude in the same way. For instance one of my friends meditates as he stretches each morning in his bedroom in order to be centered and purposeful in his interactions of the coming day. A lady in my neighborhood, living with terminal lung cancer, finds her sacred solitude as she sips morning coffee in her favorite chair, as she ponders the ebbing of her life, and the courage to live each day to the fullest. Others walk their dogs, pausing to take in the beauty of the natural world in a beautiful scene, some write out their prayers to God each day in a journal, or listen to something inspirational that moves their hearts with love. There are those read to apply Biblical wisdom to their lives, or read something by Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, or Fredrick Buechner whose writings tend to lift our vision beyond our petty little lives. Through such means we discover that there is something greater, bigger, mystical…and spiritual. As we practice these disciplines, we begin to realize that we too, are  connected to a creative God whose ceaseless, loving energy never fails to woo us into the heart of all that truly matters …And so the journey continues…    

Spirit and the City
May 17, 2010, 4:20 am
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     A couple of years ago we decided to move back to the city after living in the ‘Burbs for over 15 years. We were excited on many counts, but one of the main objectives was to be near “our people” again.  As much as I am a proponent of natural spirituality in the country, I must admit the day we moved in, I was thrilled to hear the sounds of neighbors talking as they walked to the corner coffee shop.  It felt like home. People actually stopped to say hello, or comment on the flowers on the porch as they walked their dogs past our home.  Although we didn’t know them, we quickly began to feel connected to others on a different level that we had while living away from the city.

    Cities can reveal the breathtaking creativity of humanity. Amazing architecture, beautiful parks and public art have been set aside for our viewing pleasures.  The City inspires gourmet meals, gala events and all kinds of cool stuff in stores for our spending pleasures.  However, it easily  gets off track when wallowing in the excesses of  its creativity and materialism; for the city also reveals people who have lost their way, their jobs, or purpose in life.  In the city we see increased isolation, violence and homelessness.  Perhaps they, like Jesus, refer to themselves as “the Son (s and Daughters) of Man who have nowhere to lay their heads” at night.  

     The big question is this: How they do we respond to all of this?  Do we take the time to talk to people on the street, or in the supermarket?  Can we stop to buy a Real Change paper from the street vendor? Or do we just ignore them as we rush on by? The city is a good place to ask ourselves if we allow the plight of others to affect us in any way at all. When we stop to encounter others, our spirituality usually comes to life.

   Many years ago I worked in a retail nursery, and my Aunt Dorothy (now 97 yrs old!) came to work with us for a season. Although she came to help me get a grip on the art of retail trade, the best lesson she taught our staff was how to love each person who walked through the door. For instance…when a middle aged man came to the counter with an arm full of flowers, she would greet him warmly and say something like “O, My, those are gorgeous!   Are they for your Sweetheart?”  The man would beam and nod, pleased to be recognized by a charming older woman for doing his good husbandly deed of the day.  Dorothy would then lower her voice in a playful manner and say;  “You know, you really ought to  go back and get some for your wife as well!” She could get away with teasing comments like that because customers could sense she genuinely loved their interactions.   Every person is worthy of respect and a warm greeting.

     The city has unlimited opportunities for spiritual growth.  It begins when we take the time to make use of those “I – Thou” moments with the strangers in our lives.  A smile here, a door held open there, coffee with a friend, a walk in the park, thanking the cashiers at the market for their help; If we believe that humankind was uniquely  “made in the image of God,” then each person  can reveal a new perspective of God’s character to us.  If we take the time to acknowledge and observer the beauty in others, we may be lucky enough to discover something spiritually significant being birthed into our own life. If Spirituality is a term of connection….then the city is definitely a place of God’s presence.

Spirituality in the Natural World
May 13, 2010, 5:34 pm
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    Last week I took a hike with a friend to Turtle Back Mountain on Orcas Island where we could literally see for miles and miles. Although we had only gained about 1,000 ft in elevation, it felt like we were part of the top of the world; so moved by what we experienced were we that we found ourselves continually saying aloud  O My!; This is spectacular!  Look over there!!!! and then a heartfelt …OMG!!!,”  followed by moments of sitting in silence to take it all in. It was one of those wonderful days in Washington State where the sun was brilliant, the skies and seas cobalt blue, and eagles soared directly above us relishing the glory of their six foot wingspans. While the wind gently bended evergreen boughs, emerging grasses, and purples wildflowers, I thought, “if ever there was a place of spiritual renewal, this is it!”

      The natural world seems to naturally create a space for communion with God and each other. Those who find restoration in the natural world are deeply aware of how connected we feel in those special times to everything in the universe. It is as if we are moved by some force beyond ourselves, to acknowledge there really are powers beyond our own petty little lives; and in the process of that space and time experience oneness with all creation.  We have an intimate bond with nature, because we are part of it, and it is part of us. In these moments and sacred spaces, we split off from our daily struggles and problem solving skills, lured to just BE one with all things. Our brains function differently in places like these as it turns off the analytical left hemisphere that continually demands attention for the ego that plans and preserves our lives, to just let the right brain do it’s thing, which is to inspire and connect us, and move us to a place of  awe at the wonder of how life is SO connected; and yes, spiritual. I am not talking about pantheism where the rock or mountain is a god, but panentheism where God is in all things; moving through one and all and connecting every one of us through our passion, luring and wooing us through the creative life force to what is of ultimate value for us…to BE, to connect , to pause, reflect, worship….and just get beyond ourselves.

    St Francis of Assisi, wrote a famous canticle declaring such a moment as this:

   “Praise be to you, My Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun

    Praised be to you, my Lord, through Sister Moon and her stars\

    Praised be to you, my Lord, through Brother Wind, and through the Air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather

     Praised by to you, My Lord, through Sister Water…

    through Brother Fire…through our Sister, Mother Earth…” (adapted by Neil Pembroke PhD, Moving Toward Spiritual Maturity”)

   To breathe in the spiritual energy of the world around us, is to take God’s nurturing spirit deep into our being and let ourselves be filled with blessing.

Desmond Tutu on gay spirituality
May 10, 2010, 3:32 am
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  Here are a few choice words about gay spirituality from Nobel Peace Prize winner, Demond Tutu: “We struggled against apartheid in South Africa, supported by people the world over, because black people were being blamed and made to suffer for something we could do nothing about; our very skins. It is the same with sexual orientation.It is a given. And I am proud that in South Africa, when we won the chance to build our own new constitution, the human rights of all have been explicitly enshrined in our laws. Yet, all over the world, Lesbian, Gay, bisexual and transgender people are persecuted. We treat them as pariahs and push them outside our communities. We make them doubt that they too are children of God – and this must be nearly the ultimate blasphemy. We blame them for what they are.Churches say that the expression of love in a heterosexual monogamous relationship includes the physical, the touching, embracing, kissing, the genital act – the totality of our love makes each of us grow to become increasingly godlike and compassionate. If this is so for the heterosexual, what earthly reason have we to say that it is not the case with the homosexual?” – DESMOND TUTU

First lies….
April 27, 2010, 4:29 am
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     I can still picture from long ago, a scene where one of our kids is sitting next to the big drawings on the wall near the staircase, crayon in hand, adamantly saying it wasn’t her fault…and squirting huge crocodile tears that were  meant  to convince us that someone else had done  the misdeed!   We, of course, didn’t buy it, and made sure the message “all lies will be found out” got through.  What seemed like a big deal a couple of decades ago, cracks me up today.

  But first lies are important milestones.  A first lie crosses a line, because you realize you now have a capacity you didn’t know you had before.   For the extremely honest, it  may result in a decision that this will never happen again, but for the sneaky ones this can be the realization of a whole new way of life, because a good liar can change reality! If we get caught we probably will side with door number one, but if we get away with lying enough times we may decide it’s no big deal.  And if a person gets a thrill out of lying, it becomes easier to cross that line again, and again. Once we’ve blown it once or twice….we may tell ourselves “what the heck? I’ve already made the mistake; so what’s the point of trying to be “honest” Abe?

    Many times adults will beat themselves up over past mistakes, over and over again and use them to explain why life sucks today.  But with transgressions, and all other first experiences, we need to remember that one action does not define you.  We can learn from our mistakes and choose a different path. AA has learned not to declare addicts who fall off the wagon “hopelessly  relapsed .”  Instead they say …’looks like you had a slip!”  And when you slip what do you do?   You stand up, dust yourself off and get back on the path being your best self; again.

First Loss….
April 22, 2010, 9:16 pm
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   I remember attending a memorial service for older friend of the family a few years ago and sitting next to a woman “of a certain age” who said that she wasn’t sure how to handle this as it was her first funeral. I was amazed that she had reached her 40’s without encountering the death of someone she knew. For me, death has always been a part of life because I had older grandparents who died when I was quite young. But for that woman, her first death loss was a profound experience.

     First loss, differs from later losses because it submerges us in the icy reality that we’re in constant danger of losing people we love….a concept we have understood intellectually but isn’t fully realized until we experience it.     Robert Neimeyer, psychologist at University of Memphis…. “We’re wired for attachment in a world of impermanence..How we negotiate that tension shapes who we will become.”

    Early loss can poison our ability to trust or feel safe or give ourselves fully in loving relationships; early loss often leads to depression…and greater challenges in forming attachments. And yet, many people find that after surviving a painful loss, they actually emerge more resilient.

      As we find ourselves dealing with differing experiences of loss we begin to understand how situational factors outside ourselves greatly affect us, but when a major loss occurs for the first time we don’t have that context, which often causes people to see a loss as a reflection or failing of their own character. I’m here to say; you CAN shake it off! 

  How to get past the past

   Make a choice…decide to stop dwelling on loss or failure. Tell yourself “I know it’s hard but I CHOOOSE to move forward.”

   Contain your rumination: If you find yourself stuck in loss mode; schedule a melt down for no more than 15 minutes…throw yourself a pity party where grief and loss and failure are all welcome guests. But when their time is over, find something positive to DO to help you move off of ‘stuck.”

   Perform a reality check.   Are you thinking, “I will never be the same?   I’ll never be happy again?”  STOP!  Although things won’t be the same….there’s no reason you can’t find happiness and success or love in the present or future. In fact, after the healing takes place, your new life may be even better than before. New people, new experiences = new possibilities.

    Don’t confuse the path with the destination

    Maybe you just can’t let go of your grief.  Maybe you feel like a failure; This is time to get out the pen to re-clarify your values and re-discover your creativity. If your first loss is a job, recognize you don’t’ need your job or one person to be creative. If you have lost your first love, know this; he or she is not the only person in the world capable of loving you.  By keeping on the path, loving relationships will find you.

    Be present minded;  Join a gym; take up a  hobby, find a cause, schedule time with friends… “The best way to break free of living in the past is to get focused on the future”..says psychologist Jefferson Singer…Take a risk….DO something concrete and positive so you can create new experiences for yourself in the here and now. As you begin DOING good, the good feelings will follow.  I Promise.