Category: Discipleship

I Missed My Son’s Stop Sign

Hi there. This is Chris, Jen’s husband. Jen invited me to share this week about a time I missed my son’s stop sign. I hope you find this helpful.

Recognizing overwhelm signals (Skill 9) and staying connected during intense emotions without going over the top, known as interactive quieting (Skill 15), are two key skills we need to sustain healthy relationships. In an ideal world, we develop these skills early in life because parents, family members then teachers and coaches, use these crucial skills to interact with us. While these brain skills sound easy on paper, practicing them in real life is hard work.

Do you know anyone who frequently runs people over with their words and intensity? What about someone who loses it at the drop of a hat? What about a person who can’t seem to stop once they start? Do you know anyone who uses anger to get results? These are all signs Skill 9 and 15 are needed. Sometimes the symptoms are more subtle and we simply avoid conflict or fear making people angry or upset. Using these skills in live time, with big emotions, under intense pressure requires purposeful effort and focused training.

For a number of years now I have practiced these skills but every now and then I drop the ball and fail to utilize these invaluable skills. After a recent bout of sickness, I finally felt good enough to get back to life. I missed my sons, so I sought them out. I found my 5-year old son Andrew playing in his room. Peeking in his room he saw me and responded with a big grin on his face. I walked in and started playfully tickling and wrestling with him. We were having a ball and for fathers, this is a common way dads like to bond with their children. It is also an ideal time to train brain skills. After a few moments of interaction, I was tickling him when he said “Stop!” “Stop!” “Stop!” while laughing. Wanting to get in a few more good tickles, I gave him a last round of tickling before saying, “Ok, buddy. That was fun! But now Daddy is going downstairs. I really missed you!” After a hug he said, “Ok Daddy” as I walked out.

Because he was laughing I didn’t give this much thought but I just broke my own rule for our household. When someone says “Stop” you stop. No more tickling or playing. You simply stop. I also interrupted his play instead of waiting for him to approach me which does not foster a secure attachment. In all honesty, at the time, I didn’t think about these things until my wife told me 10 minutes later that Matthew, our oldest son, said to her, “Daddy never stops.” When I heard this a knot formed in my stomach. While I knew he was exaggerating by saying never, he was also right. He was listening to the recent wrestling match between Andrew and I where I failed to stop the first time. I knew I needed to repair and update minds  with my sons.

On my way to talk with Andrew I saw Matthew playing with his new robot dinosaur. I paused and said, “I am very sorry to know that you feel Daddy never stops. How frustrating for you! This makes me very sad because it’s important that Mommy and Daddy both stop when you and brother say stop. I am very sorry for this. Will you forgive me?” He looked at me and, still holding his dinosaur, said, “Mr. Dinosaur gets mad at you when you don’t stop and you didn’t stop when Andrew told you to stop.” “Yes I bet he does!” I said. “I get mad as well when people don’t stop. I am very sorry for messing up.” Knowing this was a golden opportunity for repair, I stooped down, looked my son in the eye, then I looked Mr. Dinosaur in his robot eyes, and reiterated what I said previously adding, “Matthew and Mr. Dinosaur, will you forgive me for not doing a better job stopping? I am very sorry this happened and I hope you will give me another chance.” With the help of Matthew, Mr. Dinosaur nodded in agreement then Matthew mentioned, “Mr. Dinosaur is also mad at you that we are moving.” I knew my son is processing some big feelings so I validated both Matthew and Mr. Dinosaur about how hard moving is, and how sad it is to leave behind special friends. I said, “I hope you and Mr. Dinosaur will give this move a try and we will see what fun we can discover in our new home.” I received a nod from Mr. Dinosaur and while I knew we would be talking more about these matters, I thanked Mr. Dinosaur and Matthew for expressing these feelings with me. I said, “I am so, so proud of you and Mr. Dinosaur for speaking up about these important things. Thank you!” With a smile on Matthew’s face and some dancing from Mr. Dinosaur, it was now time to repair with Andrew.

I walked into Andrew’s room and sat next to him on his bed. I said, “Buddy, I am really sad right now. You know why?” “No, why Daddy?” he said looking perplexed. “Well, I did not stop when you first said to stop when we were playing. Instead of stopping I kept tickling you. I broke our house rule and I am very sorry. Will you be able to forgive me?” Andrew paused for a moment then said, “YYYEEESSSS, I forgive you.” With a smile I said, “Thank you Andrew. I want you to tell me when I forget to stop, ok?” He agreed and after a few moments of chatting I gave him a hug and thanked him for being such a good son.

With Overwhelm Recognition, Skill 9, we simply need to stop once we notice that we or the person interacting with us has reached their peak and needs to rest. Stopping once we start talking, playing, splashing, tickling and interacting in general requires self-control and vigilance. If we have the skill this will feel natural for us. If we do not have the skill we keep going and push, yell, stare, splash, tickle, etc. without noticing we ran through the big red stop sign.

Interactive Quieting, Skill 15, builds on this foundation but is more demanding because, instead of simply stopping, we continue the interaction at a high level of energy reaching the very edge of the overwhelm cliff  – without going over. What makes Skill 15 so difficult is that we have to do two things at once. First, we regulate our own emotional intensity while we continue the interaction. Second, we carefully observe for signs the other person is close to maxing out then we delicately interact at high levels of intensity with brief moments to pause in order to keep the high-energy interaction going safely and smoothly. It is here where the lack of training shows up. People who cannot regulate their own emotions and do not respect the limits in themselves and other people end up getting into altercations, become argumentative, overly aggressive as well as verbally and physically abusive. Trust is broken and relationships are painfully ruptured.

Imagine a world free from violence, abuse, mockery, contempt or road rage! Imagine what would change if every person knew when to stop and avoided relational casualties because they remained relational without going over the top. Fathers are the ideal people to train these two skills but for many of us, these skills are simply not in our relational arsenal so we pass on our deficiencies without realizing it.

The good news is this. Every one of us can learn these invaluable skills! Learn more about relational brain skills in my new book, Transforming Fellowship here. While my scenario was minor and low on the intensity spectrum these are often the times we minimize the impact on others, because we were having fun, we were not fighting or arguing. Yet, the skills are just as essential under these conditions for the health of our brain and bonds. I hope you learn from my mistakes and press the brake pedal when it’s time to stop.

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Marshmallows, Moving and Michigan

My family is in the middle of a major transition. For over a year Chris and I have sensed God is up to something. While in prayer for God’s direction and clarity, we felt like our time in Illinois was coming to a close. We had the sense Immanuel was calling our family to a new adventure in Michigan. I felt a sense of excitement along with some dread!

You see, about 11 years ago we moved to Illinois from Michigan. Since that time, we have dreamed of returning one day to the land of lakes, ice cream and cherries. My husband and I have the flexibility to continue our ministry from wherever we live, so this direction worked out well to continue doing the work we love from the place we love.

To be honest, I am not a big fan of change. The prospect of moving was scary. From the moment we felt God nudging us this direction we began working during the winter months to get our house on the market. We began praying for God’s timing with the sale of our house. The last two times we felt God guiding us to move, He worked in miraculous ways to quickly sell our house and settle us into our new place. Because our intention this time around was to keep our sons in school here in Illinois until the end of the school year, we expected this move to be different than previous transitions. Little did we know.

As soon as our home was on the market and ready to sell, I began to fearfully question whether Chris and I were doing the right thing. Keeping our home in “perfect showing condition” with 5 and 7-year old boys along with my husband’s dear 94-year-old grandmother, has been stressful. While God continues to encourage and faithfully guide us along in this new adventure, I find myself dreading the thought of starting over. Starting from scratch feels, well, it feels overwhelming to me. Can you relate?

Anyhow, now that the boys are done with school I feel restless. I am eager to sell our home. The urge to, “Get this move over with already!” becomes stronger with each passing day.

Recently, I was praying and expressing to God my desire to have our house sell. “Sooner rather than later would be GREAT God!” I desperately pleaded. I then sensed Immanuel remind me that when I feel afraid, my way of handling fear is that I simply want to get it over with. Quickly. Now.

I sensed Immanuel tell me that He knows I am scared about the process of finding new friends and getting plugged in to a new community. He understands I feel worried about getting the boys settled. Yet, I sensed Him saying, “I have everything covered. I am going before you and preparing your path. My timing is for the best possible transition.”

After hearing this from God I felt a deep, profound peace settle over me. It was at this point an odd thought popped into my mind. “Do you want one marshmallow or two?”

This thought reminded me of the study on delayed gratification a team of Stanford researchers led by Walter Mischel first performed in the 1960’s. Basically, they left a young child in a room with one marshmallow in front of them. The children were given instructions they could eat the marshmallow or wait until the adult returns and have two marshmallows instead of one. Sounds easy, right? Well it was not so easy. Those who waited for a second treat often creatively distracted themselves in some way while waiting up to 20 minutes for the adult to return. Those who gave in to their cravings would usually sit and stare at the marshmallow before gobbling up the treat.

I felt like God was showing me that waiting on His timing would bring the best possible outcome for this transition. If I push for my timing to “get this move over with” I will be settling for less than the best that He has for me and my family. I sensed Immanuel asking me to trust Him and rest in His timing. I quickly answered, “Yes!” Then I proceeded to give Him permission to help me during the inevitable moments I begin to doubt and worry. I felt comforted that God has all the timing worked out, including Chris’ travel schedule, our July THRIVE Training, the boys starting school, etc. As only God can, I sensed He is going to work everything out. At this point I took a deep breath and relaxed.

While I still check in with Immanuel for daily doses of peace, I am excited to see what the Good Shepherd has in store for my family. Where do you need some peace today?

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Jesus Met Me In My MRI

Continued from last week…

When I arrived at the hospital I was immediately interviewed by an admitting nurse about my symptoms. In addition to the numbness and tingling in my arm, I was showing signs of weakness in my right arm and leg. These symptoms concerned the nurse so she called a doctor to examine me. He quickly notified the stroke team then they cleared a room for me. Here is when the craziness started!

Suddenly there were 14 people in my room asking me questions. They began poking and touching me to identify what I could feel. They asked about my family history and pressed me about previous medical conditions. I answered, “I have none!” They asked, “If you had to live with your current symptoms, how would this impact your life?” Surprised by this question, I noticed my head start to swirl. I wasn’t sure what to say.

The medical team informed me they believed I was having a minor stroke. The big question was whether to give me a “clot-busting” drug. At this point they told me 6% of people who take this drug end up with catastrophic bleeding on the brain, 30% of people experience relief from their symptoms, and the remainder experience nothing. Because it took me so long after my initial symptoms to get to the ER, I had 30 minutes left in order to decide what to do before the window closes to take the medicine. No pressure!

There was no time for an MRI to confirm or rule out a stroke. This information would have been helpful to make a decision about the medication. I noticed my anxiety levels increase. My breathing grew shallow and knots rolled and formed in my stomach. I called Chris and explained the decision. Before we could discuss anything, the doctors asked me to call him back so they could talk to me. They recommended against the medicine because my symptoms were minor. Weighed against the risks of taking the drug, they felt I should not take it. I was relieved to hear their recommendation! Their thoughts lined up with my thoughts.

I was still very overwhelmed. My head was spinning with all the information, the risks and the unknown. They decided to take me for an MRI to look at my head and neck. While I don’t consider myself claustrophobic, I do have a fear of heights. Both fears come from the same region in the brain’s emotional control center. I wondered how I would last packed into the loud and narrow machine.

This was the first MRI in my life. Once they wedged my head into the headrest and moved me into the tube, I started to panic. I closed my eyes and focused on taking deep breaths. Quieting is what the brain needs when we experience intense fears so I noticed how my body felt as I calmed down. Paying attention to our body helps to activate the “Captain” in the brain that can override the fear center responsible for phobias. I began to share with Immanuel that I was afraid and I did not like feeling smashed into this tube. I asked for His peace.

As the words floated out of my mind I noticed an overwhelming sense of peace wash over me. My heart rate slowed down. My breathing steadied and I felt calm. Despite 45 minutes of jackhammer sounds echoing all around me I felt so relaxed I almost fell asleep! This Immanuel peace was exactly what I needed to quiet after the chaos.

When I returned from the MRI, Chris was waiting in my room. Everything moved slowly and calmly from there. The staff admitted me for the night and continued to run tests. Eventually we received the MRI results which showed no signs of a stroke. By the next morning my symptoms were completely resolved. The stroke team returned to my hospital room and shared their conclusions: “Well, we have no idea what happened to you!” They went on to say they ruled out a long list of concerns and by all appearances, I was the picture of good health.

I still do not know what caused the strange symptoms, but I am relieved to feel normal again. I am grateful for the prayers of many friends and family members while I was in the hospital. I feel thankful for Jesus’ profound peace in the midst of the chaos and the unknown. I am glad to have practiced the quieting skills as well as the interactions with Jesus that calmed my big emotions. Practicing these skills in the calm times made them available in the stressful, scary times.

It is much harder to learn to quiet or interact with Jesus for the first time in the midst of high stress and anxiety. I encourage you to start practicing these skills now when things are calm so they are available to you when you most need them. Take a look at the 19 skills here or read more about the skills in my husband’s new book, Transforming Fellowship here or on Kindle here.

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Appreciation Changes Everything

Just before bed last night I had an upsetting interaction with a friend. It was not a fight or an argument, but I was worried about her. In the past, something like this would have ruined my sleep. Yep; in days past this distress would have spun out my mind. I would have replayed the bothersome event while my heart thumped out of my chest and cortisol pumped through my veins. Doesn’t that sound fun?

Now that I am a mother of two active boys, I just cannot afford to lose a night of sleep over something like this. Sleep is a valuable commodity; losing it costs me too much. Thankfully, by the grace of God, I have worked hard over the years to improve my quieting and appreciation skills. This means I can better calm down, rest, and feel thankful as I need to. Last night was one of those moments I needed to put my two skills to use. I spent a few minutes reflecting on highlights from my day. I glanced at a few fun pictures from earlier when the boys went sledding. The memories and images of their smiles brought me some much-needed peace and joy. I noticed my body was relaxed while my breathing was deep and steady. After a short time my nervous system settled and I peacefully prepared for bed.

Do you know that you can change what your brain knows as its natural state? For some of us, anger may seem natural. For others, we may feel like fear is a normal part of our personality. Some may think sadness is the home base. Ideally, our natural state is a combination of joy and quiet where we alternate between glad to be togetherness and moments of peaceful restfulness. We may consider ourselves “happy” “content” “secure” and more good things, but, far too often, this is not the case. Most of us quickly recognize we could use a minor (or major!) adjustment to the thermostat of our nervous system to run a bit “hotter” or somewhat “cooler.” In fact, just how you can adjust the thermostat in your house to a temperature that feels comfortable, you can actually change what feels normal to your brain – with a bit of purposeful effort and practice.

Intentional practice with appreciation can change how we approach life and relationships. Appreciation is a brain skill that can, well, change our brain! Appreciation is one of the easiest skills to start practicing because most of us have already experienced it in the form of gratitude and thankfulness. Appreciation is what my husband Chris calls, “packaged joy” that can be remembered and shared anytime, even when circumstances are not bringing us joy.

Our friend Dr. Jim Wilder shares that feeling five minutes of appreciation three times a day over thirty days can change our outlook on life and reset the nervous system to run on joy. Five minutes sounds easy on paper but it does take some work. Five straight minutes of sustained appreciation can be hard to maintain because you have to stay focused and feel appreciation in your body. In the beginning you may find your mind starts to wander. Soon the warm feeling of appreciation begins to fade like an old stick of bubblegum. Don’t give up! The more you practice, the easier it will be to sustain the appreciation feelings. Also, I have a useful suggestion for you to try.

I have found it helpful to have a list of special moments in my journal that bring me appreciation. I like to have a one or two word “title” for the moments that will remind me of my appreciation memory. For instance: Snow Fort, Sunset, Michigan Beach, Giggles, Sledding, Camp Fire, Blowing Bubbles, Bedtime Snuggles, etc. These words jump-start my appreciation and give me a list to refer to in case my appreciation feeling fades. At this point I have a new appreciation memory to focus on. Many people find it helpful to look at pictures on their phones or photos from family albums or scrapbooks to get them started. Find what works best for you.

Appreciation is such a significant skill for building joy, strengthening connections between people, recovering from upset and helping our relational circuits come back on, to name just a few. Appreciation has helped me in many difficult seasons of my life, in my marriage, and for my parenting challenges. Go ahead; set your appreciation timer and have some fun today!

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My Joy This Week

My sons are very blessed to grow up in a home where they are learning relational skills. These skills are the foundation my boys will need to navigate life and relationships. Many of us were not so lucky to learn relational skills early in life.

Just this last week I enjoyed the privilege of leading a group of motivated people who earnestly wanted transformation in their lives and relationships. I led what we call Track One of THRIVE Training. This is one of four training tracks we offer through our 5-day interactive training events. What a blessing it was to watch people change in the same week! It makes me think of a butterfly bursting forth from a cocoon!

Monday the group arrived eager to learn but trepidatious and unsure what to expect. Some people came in feeling low on energy, low on joy and a bit frazzled. In spite of this these courageous people were in pursuit of the 19 brain-based relational skills that are practiced at THRIVE and each person was intent to bring the skills home to pass on to their families and communities.

You see, ideally these skills would have been passed on to us by our family and community members early in our formative years. Once learned, we would have used these skills throughout our lives without even thinking about it. By adulthood we would be experts using the skills and we would be ready to pass them onto the next generation of young minds. Unfortunately, for many of us, we are simply trying to survive life, navigate relationships the best we can and fumble our way through parenting – without the necessary tools. We know there must be more.

One simple skill that many of us are either weak in or not utilizing to its full potential is Skill 2, Quieting. Calming and quieting help us get through the emotional roller coaster of daily life and the intense overwhelm of hard times. When we do not have this skill we may push ourselves to the point of exhaustion and burnout. We may run ourselves ragged each day without moments to recharge, much like using our phone all day without plugging it in. We end up with a depleted, drained battery.

One simple test to see how effectively you can use this skill is to take 5 minutes of silence. Set a timer, breathe deeply and notice how you feel when you finish.  Are your muscles relaxed? Did your thoughts and busy mind slow and settle down? Is your breathing deep and calm? (Mothers and fathers with little ones, you may have to try this when your littles are napping in order to find some quiet.) If you answered No to any of the above, it is likely you could use more practice. Don’t worry; most of us can use more practice with this essential skill.

For me, when I first tried this exercise my mind would busily race with a To Do list. My muscles tightened and tensed as though I was preparing for a marathon. I held my breath as the long list of items swirled through my mind. It took a lot of practice quieting in the calm moments in order to improve my ability to use this skill. Thankfully, I can now quiet myself very quickly – even in the midst of chaos. Once you are effective at using this skill you will be able to take a few deep breaths in the midst of screaming children full of demands and feel your body relax – even when nothing changes in your circumstances. As parents, the skill of quieting can really be a sanity saver!

My THRIVE group this week spent a lot of time practicing skills such as quiet, joy, appreciation, engaging stories, interacting with God, disconnecting to rest and fun exercises designed to build emotional resiliency. By Friday I saw joy breaking out regularly on their faces. There was a deep sense of peace in the room each session and I noticed attendees were spreading appreciation to those around them. This group appeared fully alive and one person even commented that this training week was the most amazing experience of her life. These are skills that have changed my life, my marriage, my family and my parenting, so it is extremely rewarding to see how people are learning and passing on the skills so that more families and communities will receive the blessing of joyful transformation.

These skills are so valuable to us as parents. Not only can they make the difference between barely surviving parenting and thriving despite our circumstances, they are also crucial to our children and preparing them with the tools they will need to navigate life as they grow. If you would like to join me at one of our in-person training events, learn more by visiting THRIVE Training as well as our weekend Joy Rekindled marriage retreats. To start practicing these skills in small groups or with a friend, check out Transforming Fellowship, Joy Starts Here, Connexus and 30 Days of Joy for Busy Married Couples.

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