Category: Parenting

Immanuel’s Strong Suitcase

My seven-year-old son struggles in the fall. The rest of the year Matthew’s busy ADD brain can be a challenge, but we have skills and strategies in place to stabilize his behavior and help him focus. We have observed profound changes when we practice relational brain skills such as quieting and appreciation, utilize neurofeedback to optimize his brain, add exercise into his routine and monitor his diet. The math is simple: as long as we remain proactive, he stays grounded and the results are glorious.

However, when August and September arrive, things spiral out of control. My son’s hyperactivity increases. His ability to listen and follow directions fly out the window. The frequency of his emotional meltdowns increase. Suddenly, EVERYTHING becomes harder.

Since Matthew’s seasonal allergies also kick in this time of year, I am confident the two are connected. However, I have not figured out a way to turn my hunch into a practical solution. In the meantime, my husband and I continue to explore strategies to help him when things get tough.

The other day Matthew landed in trouble for not following through on something I asked him to do. As a consequence, he lost an expected privilege. There are times my husband and I allow our sons to earn back lost privileges, so when this happened, I decided to try something new. I reminded him it was important to know what Jesus thinks about our behavior. I then mentioned how fun it would be for Matthew to talk with Jesus about his behavior, and listen to Jesus’ response. I said, “If you do this, and share with me what you feel Jesus says, then you can earn back your privilege.”

Matthew responded to this plan with excitement, because, after all, he simply needed to do something he already does, which is interact with Jesus. [1] I then sat next to him and asked him to tell me something he appreciates. Next, I suggested he ask what Jesus wants him to know about his behavior. I reminded Matthew to “turn on his listening ears” to notice what Jesus might say.

At first, Matthew’s mind wandered a good bit. He struggled to focus. Not surprised, I then suggested Matthew ask Jesus to help him focus, and check if Jesus wanted Matthew to know anything about focusing. A moment later Matthew’s face broke into a wide smile. Seeing this response, I asked, “Did you have a thought or a picture from Jesus?” Matthew told me a picture came to his mind. He saw an image of Jesus with a large suitcase, and he saw Jesus packing up the “extra thoughts” in Matthew’s head that were distracting him so that Matthew could better focus. When I heard this my face lit up. Matthew and I then rejoiced together that Jesus wanted to help him with these distracting, busy thoughts that were flying around.

Next, we returned to the first question and Jesus showed Matthew that He was sad when Matthew had trouble listening. Matthew went on to report that he felt like Jesus said He was glad to be with Matthew and wanted to give him a big hug, even when his listening ears aren’t working. Hearing this reminded me that I need to work on giving Matthew more grace in these moments, rather than respond with frustration.

After our interaction, Matthew’s focus and attention improved for the rest of the evening and our peace  levels increased. We have since been able to return to the “Immanuel moment” when Matthew struggles to focus. We ask Jesus to, “bring the suitcase and pack up the extra thoughts” so that Matthew can better focus without being distracted by fluttering thoughts.

A busy mind can be hard for an adult to quiet, much less a child. I feel encouraged that Jesus wants to help us and our children in our struggles. Thankfully, He is able to do something about the things we feel powerless over. I bet you have a few things in your life that you are struggling with today. I would encourage you to start with some appreciation, then talk with Jesus about what is on your mind. Like Matthew, be sure you, “turn on your listening ears” to see what He might want to share with you!

[1] We call this an Immanuel Interaction. Learn more with The Immanuel Approach by Dr. Karl Lehman, Joyful Journey by Kang, Loppnows and Wilder and Share Immanuel by Coursey and Wilder.)

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Raising Resilient Children

I want to have a heart to heart with you about raising resilient children. These are children who bounce back and recover when things go wrong. Children who respond to the curve balls of life and relationships with flexibility and fortitude. Children who can quiet and calm themselves on the good and bad days. I think it’s safe to say that every loving parent wants to raise a resilient child, but the million-dollar question is, “How, exactly, do we do this?”

Should we hurry our kiddos through their tears? Do we tell them to “get over it” and “put on a strong face” so that nothing hurts them? Do we toughen them up by minimizing their feelings? I hate to say it, but the best way to ensure we do not raise a resilient child is to let our fears dictate our parenting style. I’m not going to lie. This is a tough one.

Last week we looked at how we can help ourselves navigate hardship well. Now the question is, “How do we help our children learn this difficult, but valuable skill?” How do we teach young, formative brains to be resilient?

It may shock you to know that those who are the most resilient are the most comfortable with their feelings. These are children who have learned from mom, dad, grandparents, teachers and coaches how to feel big feelings and stay relationally connected as they learn to calm down. Oftentimes we have to face our own fears of our child looking weak in order to help them become strong. Think about that. We have to accept our child looking weak so they can be strong. In order to do this we have to be comfortable with our own weaknesses. Are you still with me? We have to learn that, in spite of our own failures and follies, God is still God. God can work with our mess ups and grow good things from the garden of our weaknesses.

It takes a ton of practice to learn how to manage what we feel. Even in my adult body, with so much more capacity than my sons, I still have days when my big feelings get the best of me. Ouch! I hate it when this happens. So, how exactly can we help our children learn this valuable skill when they have significantly less emotional capacity and maturity than we do?

As adults, it is our job to stay relationally connected to others while we feel our big feelings. Whether we like it or not, our children learn to endure hardship by our example, not our words. Depending on their age and level of maturity, our children need us to first attune and synchronize with them so they learn to navigate and calm the stormy sea of feelings and fears. In this way, children learn to stay relationally connected in the midst of their distress.

The daily practice of skills during the “easy” times provide us with the tools we need during the tough times. As we discussed in previous weeks, Remaining Relational, Acting Like Ourselves and Returning to Joy are vital to practice so we have these skills available when we need them. The relational brain skills of joy, quieting, appreciation, four-plus stories and joy bonds with our children all increase emotional capacity to endure hardship with style and grace. Some of these may be skills we are painfully aware that we are missing. Here is the good news. We can proactively learn these skills and we can find others in our family and community who have these skills to be resources. Just think about the people you know. Who lights up to see you and your children? Who recovers well when things go wrong? Who stays flexible during the hard times?

Chris and I recognize the reality that our boys need more than we can give them. Because of this realization, we work extra hard to surround them with people who bring out the best in them. In this way, my sons experience a diversity of skills. For example, my babysitters don’t know it, but when I first met them, I was actually interviewing them to see if they would be a source of joy, play, quieting and other skills for my sons. You see, play is not something that comes naturally to me. This is something I have to work very hard on day in and day out. It has been extremely rewarding to watch my boys play with their babysitters, knowing that, in spite of my deficits, they are still getting a lot of opportunities to play.

In order to train our children in the skills needed to endure hardship, we must first practice them. Please do not expect something from your children that you are not willing to do yourself. Every one of us can strengthen our own skills and prayerfully find and surround our children with safe people who are strong where we are weak. You are worth the effort. Your children are worth the effort. Let’s start by asking God to meet us right where we are and find the resources and opportunities to grow. Read RARE Leadership and learn more about these essentials for your most treasured relationships.

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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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Remaining Relational with Flattened Flapjacks

Last night my family enjoyed our weekly tradition of breakfast for dinner. As my boys were devouring their pancakes, I remembered the item I found under the living room rug last week. Pancakes. Yes, that’s correct. Pancakes.

A few weeks ago my sons thought it would be funny to sneak a few pancakes, and hide them under the large rug in the living room. I discovered this a couple of weeks later after the pancakes were ground into the rug and smashed, then hardened onto the wood floor beneath the rug. As you can imagine, I was not pleased to find this hidden treasure!

I felt anger rise in me. My relational brain began to short circuit. I knew I was too angry to stay relational when I talked with them about this, so I asked them to go play in their rooms. I said, “We will talk about this problem after I calm down.”

To be honest, taking a pause to calm myself before I interact with the kids over a misbehavior is not something that comes naturally to me. I have to be very intentional to remain relational in these moments. This is one of the elements of a RARE leader. For the next 4 weeks I will share something about each element needed to be a RARE leader as described by Dr. Marcus Warner and Dr. Jim Wilder in the book RARE Leadership. It may be strange to think of yourself as a leader, but if you are a parent, you are leading your children and your family. RARE stands for Remain Relational, Act Like Yourself, Return to Joy, and Endure Hardship. This week I want to focus on remaining relational, which includes how to keep relationships bigger than problems.

One big challenge parents face is how to affirm to their children they are more important than the messes they create. In the moment when a child disobeys, hurts a sibling, breaks something, acts disrespectfully, lies or colors on the wall, it is hard to remember that the child is more important than the problem. As parents we have to stay relational and calm ourselves in order to effectively convey that the child is more important than the issue they have created. This is true for all of us, parents or not. This skill can be especially hard when the child’s behavior “pushes our buttons” and triggers our own unprocessed pain. Sometimes the simple act of disobedience makes us feel out of control. We say things like, “They should know better!”

I often catch myself feeling like an “infraction of the rules” is an emergency to be dealt with RIGHT NOW and there is no time to slow down and calm myself. Mind you, this is not my conscious thought. This is what my emotional reaction tells me. Sometimes I also catch myself feeling embarrassed by their behavior. I may notice that I suddenly feel like a failure as a mother and, after years of teaching and guidance, they would still act this way. It is in these low-joy moments when I need to ask Immanuel how He sees me, the situation, and my children so that my actions will line up with my love for them.

In the case of the pancakes smashed beneath the rug, it also meant waiting to give the consequence to my boys until I calmed myself, prayed about it and talked to Chris. Most of the time I may not need all of these steps, but sometimes I do, especially for the big infractions that really push my buttons.

After calming myself and praying about an appropriate response, I talked with Matthew and Andrew. I told them that, unfortunately, what they thought was silly and fun was damaging. I expressed that I understood they were not trying to damage the rug. However, because they were not thinking about the consequences of their actions they created a big problem. I told them they would have to pay me all of their allowance money they had been saving for a Lego toy to pay for a new rug.

My boys were distressed about this consequence and I was glad I had calmed myself so I could synchronize with their big feelings then help them calm down. Once the stormy sea of emotions had settled, I helped them interpret how, in the real world, there are consequences when we destroy property that belongs to other people. Over the next few days I gave the boys opportunities to earn extra money around the house.

Looking back on this ordeal, I am thankful I was able to recognize that I was too upset to interact with the boys about their behavior. I knew I was not going to stay relational because my brain’s relational circuits were off, and I needed a bit of self-care. Everything in relationship goes more smoothly when I can keep my relational circuits on and remain relational. My sons learned a valuable lesson about the consequences of their actions – opposed to simply learning that putting pancakes under the rug will make Mommy mad.

Next time you find yourself upset by your children, a spouse or a coworker, take a deep breath and ask yourself, “Do I feel ready to handle this situation relationally, or do I need to calm myself first?” I hope you will read the wonderful book, RARE Leadership.

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When Brotherly Love Heads South

I just walked out of the shower this morning when I heard my son sobbing in his room. I was surprised by this sound so I quickly ran into his room and scooped him in my arms. I asked, “Andrew, tell me what happened!”

Between sobs and slobber, Andrew managed to utter, “Matthew says he hates me!” I pulled my son closer and stroked his hair. I replied, “I am so sorry buddy. Those are mean words, and words can really hurt!”

At this point I noticed my anger starting to build towards Matthew. He broke a cardinal rule in our home. We do not say the word “hate” in our house – not even about our least favorite vegetable, let alone a person!

I felt the need to jump into action and make this situation right. I started contemplating what consequence would be enough to help Matthew avoid using these mean words again. It was this moment when I realized I shifted into “Fix It” mode. I felt like I had to right this wrong immediately and I knew my relational circuits were off. At this point my brain’s problem solver had taken over, focusing on results instead of hearts. I took some deep breaths and reminded myself this is not an emergency. I recognized the most important thing I could do was help Andrew calm down and get back to joy from his big feelings. I continued to hold him and stroke his back while he cried.

After a bit of time Andrew was back to his calm (but sad) self, so I left his room. I walked into Matthew’s bedroom and noticed he was lying on his bed. I asked him if I could talk with him about something important. He said “Yes, Mommy” then I questioned him about the reasons he said he hated Andrew. Matthew responded by telling me Andrew hit him hard in the face “on purpose” and it really hurt, so Matthew told Andrew he hated him. After more interviewing I was able to glean additional details about the interaction. Apparently both boys were having a fun, playful battle with “weapons” and Andrew accidentally hit Matthew in the face with the belt to his bathrobe. I synchronized with Matthew’s sadness about getting hit in the face. I then pointed out that whenever they play fighting games, the odds are very high that one or the other will end up getting injured. I suggested playful fighting is probably not a good idea if Matthew is uncomfortable with the occasional injury.

We continued the conversation by discussing the house rule about saying the “hate” word. I asked Matthew if he realized his speech caused Andrew to spend the last 30 minutes crying in his room. I said, “Matthew, is this the effect you want to have on your brother?” He looked at me with big eyes and nodded “No.” I clarified, “Matthew, hate is not simply a mean word, but it is a very cruel word. For this reason we do not say this word to a person. Using this word with a person can create a deep pain and sadness.” I could see Matthew was attentively listening and learning.

A while ago my husband and I created a useful rule in our house. Any time one of our sons says something unkind, the offender has to share 3 things he appreciates about the other person. While I was helping Andrew calm down, the thought occurred to me that I should use this new rule, but take it a step farther. In this case, I told Matthew that because his words were beyond simply mean, he needed to come up with 10 things he appreciated about Andrew. Yes, I said 10!

Matthew needed to give this some thought until he came up with 10. When he had his list, he could join the rest of us downstairs to share his appreciation with brother.

It took a while, but eventually Matthew joined us at the breakfast table armed with his list. Before Matthew even started sharing his list, the tone in the room was filled with hurt and sadness. Andrew still had not fully recovered from his hurt feelings with big brother. Once Matthew began expressing his appreciation toward Andrew, I noticed a change. Andrew’s face and countenance appeared lighter. The frown slowly melted away. By the end of the 10 appreciations, Andrew and Matthew were smiling and giggling. Joy was restored.

I was feeling thankful myself, particularly because I had insisted Matthew come up with 10 appreciations for Andrew instead of 3. I noticed during the time Matthew was sharing, by number 3, Andrew had not yet fully recovered from the relational rupture. He needed the extra boost from the list.

While sharing appreciation qualities with someone after a relational rupture will not always bring the relationship back to joy, I find that most of the time it does thaw the ice and activate relational circuits. It is here where both sides begin to find some traction and get the relationship back where it needs to be. Go on, share some appreciation with someone today!

Next week I will be starting a four week series on the four elements of RARE Leadership as it applies to parenting. I hope you tune in to check it out!

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