Category: Leadership

Returning to Joy

At my son’s final swim lesson of the season, the instructor led my 7-year old to the deep end of the pool to practice freestyle swimming. This step removes the temptation to stand on the bottom of the pool and, instead, turn to the side in order to take a breath. When Matthew initially tried this new step, he successfully navigated the process – until it was time to breathe. He tried to put his feet down and, as you can imagine, when he could not reach the bottom his survival circuit kicked in. He freaked out, bobbed under the surface, then swallowed some water. This startled him. He lost it and started screaming.

I jumped into action and grabbed him from the pool. I quickly wrapped him in a towel then helped him calm down by rubbing his back. As he quieted I affirmed how scary it was to end up with water in his mouth instead of air. He quickly agreed with my assessment. He then said, “I don’t want to get back into the pool…EVER!”

I again validated how scary it is to feel like we cannot breathe. Next, I comforted and assured him that he was going to be ok. When he appeared calm I reminded him that he knows how to paddle as well as float on his back in the water. I said, “Matthew, whenever you need to catch your breath all you have to do is practice one of these options that you already know.” He now looked intrigued. I could tell he was processing this and, after doing the math, he decided it was time to return to the pool. Remembering he had skills at his disposal allowed him to successfully complete his swimming lesson. Thankfully, he ended the pool training adventure on a positive note.

In this case I could help Matthew return to joy from his fear. Every one of us has big feelings and it is wonderful when we can help our children learn how to navigate their big feelings so they do not get stuck or develop unhelpful strategies to avoid certain emotions. The goal of returning to joy is to discover we can survive big emotions by feeling, sharing and quieting the emotions. We learn to use validation and comfort as the one-two punch whenever big feelings arise, but the validation must come first.

When we validate, “Oh my! This was really scary for you!” before we comfort, “I am glad to be with you in this. You are going to be alright!” it helps our children to better receive our comfort. When we put the cart before the horse and try to offer comfort before the validation with, “You are fine” children will not feel as seen and understood. At this point it is difficult for them to receive our comfort and they are left feeling alone and misunderstood.

Let’s look at another return to joy example, this time from anger. Matthew hit his little brother with a toy the other day. As a consequence, I took the toy away. Matthew was very sad to lose his new toy. I acknowledged how sad he was feeling. I affirmed how sad it can be to miss out on the fun a special toy provides. “I sure would feel upset if I lost my new toy as well!” I told him. By validating his feelings, I can then enter in and share his experience with him, even though I am the source of his displeasure in this situation. After validating him I can offer comfort and help him quiet his feelings. I say, “There are other toys you can play with tonight and tomorrow you can have your toy back if you are kind to your brother.”

In order to train your children in these important relational skills, you have to be able to return to joy yourself. If you are unable to return to joy from the emotion your child is feeling, you may end up minimizing their feelings or you may feel inadequate to join them in their feelings. Even though our intentions may be good, we can shut our children down when they experience emotions we cannot manage ourselves. This does not make us a bad parent but it does explain why the emotions we parents struggle with are the very same emotions our children struggle with as well. The six negative emotions are sadness, anger, disgust, shame, fear and hopeless despair. Which of these emotions do you find difficult?

Learn more about return to joy in the RARE Leadership book and Skill 11 in Transforming Fellowship. If you want to practice the brain skill, I hope you will join us for one of our hands-on THRIVE Training events. If you missed the previous posts in the series on RARE Leadership in the home check out Remaining Relational here or Acting Like Myself here.

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When The Going Gets Tough…

Recently I walked into my sons’ bathroom to hang a towel. While placing the towel on a rack, I stepped into a puddle. Since this pool on the floor was close to the toilet, it was safe to assume what it was. “Really?” I uttered. Then I let out a loud, “YUCK!” I cringed and quickly stepped away. At this point I was feeling a combination of disgust and anger. I belted out, “Matthew and Andrew – Come Here, NOW!”

Once my sons arrived on the scene I asked about the puddle. My youngest son informed me he accidentally peed on the floor…by mistake. I raised my voice in frustration and asked, “Andrew, why didn’t you tell me, so that I could clean this up for you?” Andrew broke eye contact and his face quickly dropped.

Trying to solve the problem at hand, I turned my sights to busily cleaning the floor as well as my foot. As I calmed down I realized I was intense with Andrew over this situation. I did not act like my relational self with my son and he was feeling some shame.

I searched for Andrew to repair. Once I found him, I apologized for the way I handled the interaction and explained that I did not reflect my heart to him, which made me sad. I explained that IF I had been acting like myself, I would have first calmed myself then spoken with him in order to protect him from my anger.

Thankfully, even though I failed to stay my relational self in the moment, this was a good opportunity to paint a picture of what it would have looked like if I had acted like myself. I helped my sons understand what I would have preferred to do and say, compared to how I actually handled myself.

In last week’s example with the pancakes, I knew that I was too upset in the moment to interact with my sons when I discovered pancakes smashed into our living room rug. In this scenario, I stayed my relational self by protecting them from my anger because I took the time to calm myself and ask God for His perspective.

Sharing stories about the times we act like ourselves provides a framework for our children to discover what it could look like for them to remain their relational selves during big emotions and difficult circumstances. Of course, the “live” version is always ideal because our “in-the-moment” example goes a long way to demonstrate (and download) this important brain skill. Stories tend to be useful because we can practice and improve our ability to highlight what is important about the scenario.

I try to draw attention to the times I act like myself so my children have an example and language for this useful skill. I say, “Mommy handled this much better than last time. I was feeling angry that you ruined the rug, but I took a deep breath to calm down then I talked with Jesus and, once I felt better, I could talk with you about the problem in a calm voice.” Also, I highlight the moments I mess up so the boys can learn what it looks like to repair. In these cases, I explain how I wish I would have handled the situation, and we go on to discuss what it would have looked like if I remained my relational self. I say, “Boys, I am sorry Mommy yelled. I was upset that you knocked over the lamp after I just reminded you not to stand on the table. I now see that I overwhelmed you, and I should have calmed myself down before talking to you. It is important for me to notice when my big feelings are overwhelming so that I can protect you from my anger.”

Regardless of whether we act like ourselves in a situation, it is a good teaching opportunity if we use the lens of acting like ourselves so that our children interpret our actions through this lens. We remind our children who they are and how it is like them to act. This step reinforces their identity and character is more important than their mistakes. I do this when I say, “Matthew, you are a kind boy. When you are mean to your brother you are not behaving like the kind person Jesus made you to be.” Also, I may tell him, “Matthew, when your friend was hurt today at church you brought the teacher over to help her. You then stayed with her to be sure she was alright. Good job acting out of the kind, protective heart Jesus gave you!” Ideally, we draw attention to the times they act like themselves as well as the times they failed to reflect the heart Jesus gave them.

Our children will learn how to act like themselves from our example as well as the examples within our families and communities. Ideally, there is a diverse skill set within our networks so children have plenty of examples to choose from. It is fairly common for people to misunderstand the acting like myself skill to mean that this refers to how I usually act, most of the time. Rather, acting like myself refers to acting in a way that reflects the person God created me to be. We rely on others to affirm, correct and see us as God sees us to gauge what this looks like under varying emotions and circumstances.

I hope you will pause and reflect on your day to notice if are moments you stayed yourself in a difficult situation – or if there was a moment you tried to but it did not go well. What does it look like for you to act like your true self? What would it look like if you live from the heart Jesus gave you while feeling anger, sadness, joy, fear, hopeless despair, disgust and shame?

When the going gets tough, we do well to stay ourselves in the midst of the distress instead of losing ourselves. You can read more on Acting Like Myself, the “A” in RARE Leadership, with the book, RARE Leadership. You can also review Skill 12 of the 19 skills in the book, Transforming Fellowship.

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