The Piedmont Education Speaker Series dives into the weighty topics of stress and anxiety and how to raise resilient children with the lunchtime Zoom appearance of Renee Jain on Feb. 9. (If you aren’t already a subscriber to the ESS Series, tickets to individual presentations are $30 per person. To learn more or purchase your ticket, visit PiedmontStore.org.)
Jain is the founder of GoZen! and an innovator recognized for integrating technology with social and emotional learning to produce online programs for youth ages 6-15, parents, professionals, and schools. A platform of nine animated programs, 125 interviews with experts, and a printable content library are the foundations for programs addressing stress, negative thoughts, anger, procrastination, and offering mindfulness, kindness, and activity kits that lead to resiliency.
As a young person, before becoming a tech entrepreneur, Jain suffered her own considerable anxiety. She founded GoZen! to help a new generation of kids, parents, teachers, and therapists by focusing on science-backed, proven methods to accept and re-orient the relationships people have to strong emotions. Jain holds a Master’s in Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and is the New York Times-bestselling co-author of “Superpowered: Transform Anxiety into Courage, Confidence, and Resilience.”
On her company’s website, the goals of the GoMindset! Program are instantly recognizable as important skills for youth and adults to learn: “Identify and use mistakes as a springboard for growth, talk back to self-critical inner voices, handle frustration and work through it, end unproductive comparisons to peers, use science-backed goal-setting techniques, accept feedback and get support, understand how to reach potential, redefine the true meaning of “smart.”
In a phone interview, Jain is eager to share the primary components and messages she will bring to program participants in Piedmont.
PE: Please describe two points of emphasis you will highlight in the program and explain why those entry points are fundamental building blocks for turning stress and anxiety into resilience.
RJ: To raise resilient kids, we need to reacquaint — or acquaint for the first time — our relationship to emotions. We all need to take an Emotional 101 course. There are no good or bad feelings when it comes to emotions. There are only data points. Most often, we’re afraid of negatives like fear, sadness, anger. These are just messages; they’re not good or bad. It’s not about changing the anger, for example, it’s about reorienting our relationship to it so our actions are different.
A second point I will highlight is anxiety. It’s an epidemic for our kids, along with (the feeling of being) overwhelmed. It’s not getting rid of it; it’s normalizing and humanizing it. How can they lean into it, not run away but feel it? How can they find what’s useful in it and what is not? Anxiety can let us know there’s uncertainty. It can motivate us and give us energy. Or, it can be destructive if we suppress or ignore it.
PE: How important is it for you to share your personal experience in terms of building trust. Do people look more at your credentials and find less value in the fact that you struggled with anxiety? Or is it not that simple?
SJ: My personal story is very important. That’s what hits home. I’m a work-in-progress, like everyone else. It’s humanizing, honest, connection. Not everyone who works in mental health or psychology has experienced anxiety, but I have. It adds practicality in terms of the interventions that will work. I know when someone says “relax,” it’s not something that’s going to work for someone with anxiety. The story I have is the story many people experience.
PE: You often speak about building these skills before there’s a problem; before it’s a wound and is already bleeding. Tell us more about that.
SJ: When you react to something that’s already happening, it’s almost a disease model. You are responding to something that’s already a problem. It used to be we went to the gym after a doctor determined there was a medical need. Now, we engage in fitness before there is a problem. If we practice skills of resistance before we are in a state of anxiety or depression, we can prevent those things. You won’t prevent tough feelings, but you will have skills you can’t learn in the moment, during those times (of peak emotional distress) when your logical brain is offline.
PE: Are people eager for this message, or do parents or teachers push back against it?
SJ: There used to be resistance because teachers would say, “There’s such limited time to teach math, let alone teach social and emotional skills!” Now there’s a lot of scientific evidence that when kids struggle to learn, it’s often because they have inner turmoil and they lack coping skills. For people who want to learn more about the research, CASEL is an umbrella group whose studies show when emotional intelligence is raised, students are able to do better academically.
PE: Please identify one or two recommended science-based strategies for parents hoping to help their kids handle with stress. Especially in light of the pandemic and students coming back into social contact with people, dealing with learning deficits, and other challenges related to the return to in-person learning, what can parents do immediately?
SJ: The last three years felt like they lasted forever and now, in a blink, we’re back in the classroom. Self-compassion is what I’d turn to first. We’re so harsh, that inner voice we use to criticize our ourselves is so negative and it’s killing our kids. We’re not using it on them, but they are looking up at us as adults and as models and they want to emulate us. They want autonomy and absorb the messages we project like sponges. We have to be kind to ourselves, use mindfulness and find common humanity.
PE: What is the number one thing parents can do better at any time now or in the future that might surprise them?
SJ: Even if you do nothing else, look at yourself through the lens of your kids. They see and internalize what they see.