Making Kids Superpowerful

By: Paula Levin

Lara Noik and Tova Goldstein are extremely busy professionals, wives, and mothers, but despite all their commitments they are plotting a revolution. “We want to take over the world…starting with northern suburbs of Johannesburg,” jokes Goldstein. Both qualified social workers, the two are energised and motivated to do far more than is possible in a day because they have a calling: to address the mental health crisis affecting adolescents. “Schools across the country are seeing an increase in mental illness, addiction, depression and anxiety, self-destructive behaviour, and bullying among children aged 11-18. The statistics are scary, one in five adolescents are being diagnosed with mental disorders,” says Noik, citing a recent study. “Just anecdotally, from our experience as social workers within the Jewish community, we are seeing adolescents really struggling. For too long we have taken a reactive approach, only dealing with things when they are already acute. It’s time for a proactive approach.”

Noik and Goldstein are determined to address the crisis with the iheart programme – a research-based proactive intervention centred around the concept of innate health, or innate resilience. iheart stands for Innate Health Education And Resilience Training. Headquartered in London, the programme has already impacted over 1,500 young people with documented results. After intensive training in London, Noik and Goldstein established Innate Health South Africa and for the past year they have been busy running workshops for both adults and adolescents. They recently completed a pilot iheart programme at a Johannesburg high school with great success and are working with a group of teens at another local school. The two also offer the course to smaller groups of adolescents and their dream is to expand the reach of the programme to more high schools.

The basic argument, developed over 6 of the 10 interactive sessions of iheart, is that innate health is our birthright. Inside us, we already have everything we need to thrive in life. “Resilience and health are built-in features of all life,” explains Goldstein. “From our breathing and digestion, to the plant and animal kingdom, all life is built to constantly move forward. No matter what happens, there is a drive towards health, towards functioning, and towards rising to the top. We see this absolutely everywhere from the microscopic level to the wisdom in the changing of the seasons. Intelligent design is everywhere. Why not in our emotional world?”

The programme’s buzzword, “resilience”, is defined as the capacity to access potential and wellbeing irrespective of circumstances, education, or any other factors. For children dealing with stress and anxiety from exams, bullying, social problems, and even abuse, this message sounds too good to be true. Bad things happen, don’t they? “Many of us believe that the world is happening to us, but we can show that in fact the world is happening from within us,” answers Noik, her face alight with the implications within this concept. “Our programme allows for a major shift from Outside-In thinking – where we believe that things outside of us have the power to make us feel anything – to Inside-Out thinking – where we understand that our entire emotional experience actually comes from our thinking in the moment. We teach kids about their superpower: the power of thought.”

iheart reveals that our feelings come from thought, not from what someone said or did to us, not from how much money we have, nor from what happened to us or from the huge test on Monday. “Nothing outside of us can climb into our heads and make us feel anything. This means that we are never victims of any outside factor.” Teenagers who have completed the programme have experienced dramatic shifts in their ability to cope with life challenges. Ari (age 15) says, “I used to get effected by everyone’s words. They called me fat and ugly and it hurt a lot. And now I know that nothing can hurt me so their opinion doesn’t bother me.”

Things go wrong when we blame other people or circumstances for “making us” feel anything. This harms relationships and gives our power away to factors outside of our control, keeping us stuck. We doubt our capacity to cope. “Resilience is not exclusive to some people who have either won the genetic lottery or have an easier time in life,” asserts Noik. Things unravel when we are afraid of our emotional experience. Noik explains that our emotional states are generated moment-to-moment by our thinking. “Feeling bad is not bad. Thinking that it’s bad is!”

“There is no hierarchy of emotions,” says Noik. “We want to teach kids that all emotions are okay and you don’t have to feel ok to be ok. There is a big difference between who you are and where you are.” So, you may be in a negative space, you may be feeling shy, you may feel anxious, but these experiences are all temporary because all they are “thought”. “Being aware of what we are feeling, and accepting those feelings sometimes lessens their intensity, which opens up possibilities and choices to us,” explains Goldstein. Says one teenager who completed the programme in London, “I have a very bad temper and would overreact and go crazy, but now that I know that anger is just a thought, and thoughts come and go, I suddenly have different options on reacting.” For Zack (age 16) the iheart programme had an immediate impact on bad habits with which he had been struggling. “It helped with breaking my habits because I realised that by thinking that I have a habit makes it real when it doesn’t have to be!”

This entire approach is a radical departure from addressing the myriad problems facing teens. “It’s a proactive approach, a shift in thinking that puts the power back in the hands of the child,” says Goldstein. “There are no to-do lists, no ‘ten steps to conquering exam stress’, no reframing how you are thinking about a current problem, not even changing the things that make us feel bad! Just awareness that we feel, that we think, and that we’ve got this.” Noik concludes, “We can’t wait to share with the world that beneath it all is the essence of who you are: healthy, resilient, and powerful beyond belief. Every child deserves to know that.”

6 March 2019

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