Category: Parenting

The Fun of Joy and Rest

My oldest son Matthew is now in school full days, so I try to find meaningful ways to connect with Andrew when he is home. Because Andrew is the youngest behind a big brother who happens to have a very big, out-going personality, Andrew tends to take a backseat to Matthew’s antics during interactions. Andrew is much more reserved, and he simply does not get as much attention or one-on-one time with Chris and I. Because of this we try to connect with him in special, fun ways. One of my favorite ways to connect with Andrew is cuddling during nap-time. My goal is to protect at least one nap each week so I can lie down with him. We can both nap together, which is a nice reprieve for me as well! Yesterday was one of those fun nap afternoons, and this time we enjoyed a delightful twist to the interaction.

As we were lying next to each other, Andrew started a little game. He would make silly noises to grab my attention, then I would look at him. Our eyes would catch each other and our faces would break into smiles. He wanted to keep looking at each other, but I suggested we look away then look back to start over again. The interaction turned into an interactive dance of joy glances where we have each other’s attention and our eyes light up in response to the other. Our faces quickly stretch into wide smiles, then we look away to rest. After a pause, we would start the fun all over again. The smiles, laughter and giggles were contagious.

This “game” that Andrew came up with was especially fun because this interaction is the unplanned version of an intentional exercise I lead during the THRIVE Training each year. The exercise goes something like this: We position partners to sit facing each other, knee-to-knee. We direct them to build joy with their partner using their eyes, then, as the joy starts to peak, they look away for a moment of rest, then engage again. While we do different variations on this exercise, the mutual dance of joy and rest is something all of us would normally learn during infancy. A number of important things happen in your brain during the mutual sharing of gaze and rest cycles, but that is a topic for another day.

Because of the brain’s visual cortex development that increases after 2-3 months of life (due to the process of myelination where proteins accumulate around neurons to increase the speed of signals in the brain), a baby’s vision becomes clear enough to begin building and amplifying joy by looking into mommy’s eyes. If you have ever watched a mother and infant caught up in a wonderful exchange of joy, the sequence probably went like this. Baby looks up at mommy. Mommy notices baby’s gaze, then lights up in response to baby’s invitation for connection. Baby responds to mommy’s big, bright smile, then the joy builds and increases on their faces. In a matter of seconds, baby reaches her limits and looks away to rest. It is time to recharge for more joy. At this point mommy, if she is attuned with baby, will look away, quiet herself, then patiently wait for baby to return for more fun. Once baby looks at mommy, the dance continues.

This joy and rest sequence is crucial for building a joyful brain. One of the best windows for the developing brain to build joy occurs at 9 months of life (from 8 to 9 months). This time frame provides the greatest opportunity for baby to build joy that she will ever have in her lifetime! During her ninth month, baby can spend up to 8 hours a day building joy with mommy. Guess what this means? The mother or father who wants to download a lot of joy might have a difficult time getting much else done during this 30-day period. In an ideal world, this is where family and community would step in and support the couple.

Because Andrew was our second child and Matthew was extremely hyperactive during his early years, Andrew did not get as much one-on-one time nor did he receive as much attention as his older brother. Unfortunately, he also did not have as much joy building time as we would have liked. (Yes, even those of us who understand brain development and use the skills are not perfect parents!) When Andrew was about 2 years old I noticed he avoided looking me in the eye. This was happening during an overwhelming season of life when I was low on joy and high on stress. At this point Chris and I realized we needed to be intentional about building joy with Andrew. During interactions I started working to catch his eye in joyful ways. I turned “Peek-a-boo” games into a high-energy joy and a low-energy rest dance where we would lock eyes, smile, then quickly disconnect. Within one week of deliberate joy practice, Andrew was more engaged and more attentive during our interactions. He started making eye contact more frequently. We felt like our son was back!

While joy is crucial to the well-being of our children, joy is also highly beneficial for us parents. With more joy we develop greater capacity for the difficult things in life. While there are ideal seasons of development for the brain to grow joy, it is never too late to increase our capacity for joy by purposefully practicing exercises to build joy. If children are older, we may require more creativity in order to keep them engaged while we build joy, but it is well worth the effort. Watch what happens when your face lights up to see someone you love today!

I highly recommend Joy Starts Here: The Transformation Zone here and 30 Days of Joy for Busy Married Couples here to jumpstart your joy 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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BIG upset and BIG joy

Like many of us, Matthew, my six year-old son, continues to learn how to handle BIG feelings. Just today he was having trouble listening and obeying my instructions so I took away a privilege. At this point the little guy became very upset with BIG reactions. Once my little negotiator realized he couldn’t talk me into restoring his privilege, his upset escalated. This interaction was heading south while negative emotions intensified.

At this point we were driving home and he started saying he wished he was never made. Talk about painful and intense! When I heard this, I synchronized with him. I validated his BIG feelings and affirmed that he must be very mad and super sad to wish he was never made. I shared how his absence would make Mommy, Daddy and little brother very sad since we love him and are glad he is in our family. Next, I mentioned that because Jesus is the One who made him, we should ask Jesus if there is anything He would want us to know about this. After a few moments of listening, Matthew said he didn’t hear anything because he wasn’t listening. It was clear to me this was not the right time to force an interaction with Jesus but some mutual quieting was needed.

My husband Chris and I make a purposeful effort to interact with Jesus on a daily basis, during good and hard times. This daily pursuit of interaction with the Living God is what we and our colleagues call an Immanuel Lifestyle. We desire to pass on this example and teach our boys the same purposeful skill. Because of this goal, we have given the boys practice since they were young. This process works best if the boys begin from a place of appreciation and gratitude, so we start out by inviting the boys to talk about something that, “makes them smile.” Next, we encourage them to ask Jesus what He wants each of them to know, then we suggest they pause and pay attention to thoughts or images that come to mind. After several seconds we follow up with the question, “Did Jesus give you any ideas or pictures?” and we wait for a response. We help the boys sort through the responses in their heads in order to figure out whether a thought brings them peace and if it lines up with what Jesus might say to them. As parents, it is important that we maintain our connection with Jesus as we walk with our children through this process and help them discern their thoughts. We have had success with the boys since they were 3 years old, although their responses are more consistent as they grow older.

Now back to Matthew’s BIG feelings. So, after some quieting and a bit of time passed, I entered his room, sat on the floor and started playing with him and his Legos. While we were playing, I asked him to tell me about something that brings a smile to his face. Matthew quickly shared about his favorite swing set from our summer vacation. After a few minutes of reminiscing, I mentioned how sad I felt earlier in the day when he was sad and mad, and he wished he wasn’t made. He looked down for a moment then I suggested we ask Jesus what we should know about those BIG feelings. After asking and listening, Matthew shared that he had a picture of Jesus standing in front of him with a BIG smile on His face. This made me smile. I affirmed that this picture sounded like a gift from Jesus since Jesus is glad to see him. I then suggested Matthew ask Jesus what he should know about the image in his mind. After a few moments Matthew said with a smile, “Jesus said He is glad that He made me because He loves me.” This thought gave both of us BIG grins! I suggested Matthew follow up once more to see if there is anything else Jesus wanted him to know. Now Matthew answered that he had a funny movie in his head, so I suggested he check in and ask Jesus what Matthew should know about the funny movie. Matthew replied, “Jesus likes to be silly with me because He loves me”. We ended the interaction with giggles and big smiles.

While I have no doubt there will be more moments where BIG feelings arise, and possibly other times Matthew wishes he wasn’t made, at least now we have a foundation we can build on. Now I can refer him back to this so that Matthew can reconnect with Jesus.

I share this because all of us can model what it looks like to talk with Jesus about anything and everything. Our children, grandchildren, friends and community can learn that Jesus is a good place to turn to during moments of joy or when painful emotions and problems strike. We do not have to be perfect parents but skill practice goes a long way. One of the best gifts we can give our children is the opportunity to discover that Jesus is always present and available. In this way God’s patient and gentle presence becomes a never-ending resource to carry them through the ups and downs of life.

 

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Discipline that leads to rest

Both of my boys have been extremely hyper today. It is clear their little brains have been spinning which causes their behavior to spiral out of control. They keep getting into trouble which means a lot of time spent in quieting practice. In case you are wondering what quieting practice is, I would like to tell you about this sanity-saving opportunity designed to reset their boisterous brains.

A couple years back my husband and I changed how we handle discipline. Around the time we discovered Matthew exhibited symptoms of ADD/ADHD we knew we needed some useful solutions. Matthew was very hyper which meant he was in constant motion, incredibly impulsive, unable to focus or calm down and he ended up in trouble because he did not listen, stop or obey. Timeouts and other discipline techniques were not working. My husband and I felt like we were spinning on an out of control merry-go-round!

We realized, ultimately, one key skill was missing because my son was not able to effectively quiet himself. His inability to “down-regulate” and calm down was impacting every one of his relationships and every single interaction. In many ways, it is like trying to walk when you have a leg cramp. This is no easy task, and for my son, his brain was in a cramp and he needed some relief!

For children with ADD or ADHD it is much more difficult to quiet. Some brain regions are working too hard while other areas are not working hard enough. This means children need more practice to learn how to calm and quiet as well as learn to use the skill effectively in life and relationships. Even when children have learned the quieting skill we parents must help our children find the motivation to use the skill. Learning a skill and having the motivation to use a skill are separate issues and each requires purposeful effort and clear guidance.

Now back to how we handle discipline issues. Instead of a “Timeout”, we frequently tell our boys to take a “Quiet Practice.” This means they must go to a designated chair and sit quietly and take some deep breaths to calm their body and thoughts. They are not allowed to talk or play with toys. We usually wait until they have been still and quiet for about 2 minutes then we release them. If they talk or interact the time starts all over. If they “sit and stew” or look enraged all the while sitting still, the 2 minutes does not begin until it is obvious they are trying to calm themselves. Their designated seat is usually somewhere in the room with me, so I can see if they are quieting, but if they are both in quiet at the same time and interacting with each other, we send them to their own separate rooms so they no longer interact.

Sometimes Matthew and Andrew argue about going to quiet or, if they are angry, they will do something destructive or mean while walking to their quiet moment. This leads to what we call a “punishment” or “consequence.” In the past, when they did not obey, I would take away television privileges or toys for the day, but the problem was it was such a big consequence I did not have additional options if they further disobeyed. We had to find a small enough consequence that I had enough options when they would rack up 10-15 on the way to their quiet destination! We have defined a punishment as 5 minutes without toys though, when we first started this process, we started with 2 minutes while they were getting used to the new system.

While there are still occasions when we use other kinds of consequences for behavior, this is our go-to system. What I enjoy about incorporating quieting into their consequences is this: no matter the reason they end up in trouble, they will benefit from quieting whether they are sad, mad, overwhelmed, or frustrated. While this is especially helpful for Matthew with his ADD, it is also very effective for Andrew as well.

I am thankful to say that the day has improved after the boys spent much of their morning in quiet. They better regulate their emotions and are staying kind with each other. They are more grounded than before and the day has not spun out of control like it would have in the past. Now that they have practiced this skill for some time, I often say to Matthew, “You are getting hyper, go calm yourself or you will end up in a longer quieting practice” and he is able to calm down his energy levels before he needs a formal consequence. All of this has gone smoother because my husband and I first practiced quieting ourselves and spent a lot of time quieting with the boys when they were infants. Quite simply, every one of us benefit from some much-needed rest.

Discipline is a hot topic today because there are many strong opinions and different camps on what’s appropriate – or not. This can feel overwhelming. Additionally, many of us parents feel hopeless trying to find what works for our children. I find it helpful to remember that discipline is not so much about getting results rather it is about guiding our children to learn how to manage and return to joy from distressing emotions, learn to stay themselves while feeling upset and learning right from wrong. These are gifts we can give our children and a rewarding investment in their future.

 

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Thunder and Terror

Our older son Matthew used to have an intense fear of thunder and storms since he was a little boy. We worked hard with him over the years to “disarm this landmine” as it was a frequent topic for our interactions with Jesus. Thankfully, his fear has diminished and while he still does not like to be alone in his room during storms in the night, he no longer runs into our room screaming and crying.

Our younger son, Andrew, did not have a fear of thunder. However, after watching his brother’s freak-out reactions over the years, he has developed his own fear-bond and terror reaction to thunderstorms. While we have made some progress growing peace in this area, he still runs into our room screaming and shaking like a leaf whenever thunder wakes him up. As you can imagine, this response is quite a jolt to the nervous system when my husband and I are sleeping soundly.

Last night we awoke to Andrew loudly crying in a our room. He was terrified of a thunderstorm. I was in a deep sleep and had difficulty waking up to help him calm down. Thankfully, Chris was awake and able to interact with him. Chris helped Andrew settle on the floor with his blankets and pillows then held, comforted and calmed him. Andrew was tense and shaking. My husband then invited Andrew to ask Jesus what He wanted Andrew to know about the thunder and God’s presence in that moment. My husband noticed Andrew’s face was no longer contorted in fear and his little body began to relax. A slight smile broke across his lips. Andrew answered that Jesus said, “You do not have to be afraid of the storm.”

Something simple yet profound happened here. At first this sounded like what Andrew has likely heard from others hundreds of times. Yet, it was obvious to my husband that Andrew was much calmer. Our son went from shaking like a leaf to some restful calm and quiet. One of the main signs we look for to determine whether something we “hear” is actually from Jesus is whether it passes the “peace test.” We ask, 1. Do the results of our interaction with Jesus leave us feeling peaceful? 2. Does this sound like something Jesus would say or do?

In this case, Andrew’s interaction passed the peace test. While I am sure Andrew will still wake up in fear with the next round of midnight thunderstorms, we expect that ongoing interactions with Jesus will disarm the fear-bomb. As we can see with Matthew, while he doesn’t like thunder, the sounds no longer send him into a terrified state because he has a rich history interacting with Immanuel that has calmed his fears.

It is wonderful when we can be aware of Jesus’ interactive presence in the midst of the scary things in life. For children, this can be thunderstorms, the dark, or even “monsters” under their beds. For adults, our fears can be the lack of finances, that our spouse no longer wants to be with us,  or that people wouldn’t like us if they saw the “real us.” No matter what you fear, Immanuel wants to meet with you, and give you His gift of peace – regardless of the circumstances.

One of the best gifts we can give our children is leading them to an interactive relationship with the Living God. By living an Immanuel Lifestyle, where we search for Immanuel daily, in the good as well as the bad, we demonstrate how Jesus is a real, caring, loving and present resource in our lives. By leading our children to interact with Jesus, we are giving them a wonderful tool to walk out their relationship with Him in the good and bad times, even when we are not around to help them.

For more resources on this topic I recommend Share Immanuel, Passing the Peace, Joyful Journey and The Immanuel Approach.

 

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Turn down the volume!

As I mentioned last week, Chris and I are trying to help our boys learn about overwhelm and how to recognize limitations in themselves and other people. I want to share with you a recent interaction between our 5 and 6 year-old sons that was very encouraging to me. First, let me give you some background.

We do not let our boys watch many movies or television shows. When we do, we are very cautious of the content so we filter what they see. We filter for language, sexuality, violence and examples of bad behavior. We also pay close attention to the levels of intensity in the programs. Recently, we were watching a movie with the boys that had some fairly intense scenes in it. Have you ever noticed how filmmakers want to tense you up and generate suspense in a scene by using a specific style of music and turning up the volume level? Certain types and levels of music can put the nervous system on edge! If you have never noticed, try watching an intense movie scene on mute to see if it has the same effect as a similar scene with full volume.

Anyway, one of the ways we were filtering the intense scene was to adjust the volume levels, to the degree that the volume was nearly muted during some over-the-top scenes. The boys asked why we were turning it down and we explained that the music during those scenes was supposed to make them feel more tense and even scared, so we turned it down so they wouldn’t feel too frightened and overwhelmed. They returned to watching the show but we weren’t sure if they fully understood our objective.

Now back to the recent interaction between my boys that I happened to hear. I was working at my desk outside of the room while the boys were watching one of their favorite cartoons. At one point I heard the volume levels drop very low. I peaked into the room to see Matthew, our six year-old, holding the remote in his hands. Next I heard Andrew respond, “Matthew, why did you turn down the volume?” Matthew replied, “Because, it is too intense and I don’t want it to scare you.” This interaction brought a big smile to my face. Not only was Matthew following our example, he was trying to protect his little brother from intensity that could overwhelm him. “They are starting to get it!” I thought to myself.

Recognizing signs of overwhelm in ourselves and in others is such an important skill as we navigate one of God’s great gifts to us: relationships. Yet, knowing when to stop is one of the harder skills to acquire. Once we get to the point of recognizing these signals, responding appropriately is another big challenge. It warms my heart to see my sons learning a skill that I did not have until I was much older in life.

To learn more about how to recognize overwhelm as well as the other 19 brain-based relational skills, take a look at Chris’ new book Transforming Fellowship here.