Category: Parenting

The Big Bad Buzzing Bees

Last summer Matthew, my 7 year-old son, was stung two times. One time a bee got him while a wasp stung him the second time. These moments made a BIG impression on him. He quickly formed a strong opinion that bees and wasps are BAD and SCARY. It was clear his brain’s fight or flight circuit created an opinion and filed these fears for the future.

Because the second sting happened towards the end of summer, we did not see much of a change in his behavior. The bugs simply disappeared for the year so the threat was gone. Now that the warm weather is back and the flowers are starting to bloom, the bees are out in full force. I have noticed Matthew is showing signs of fear whenever he goes outdoors and spots a bee. He watches the bees closely then runs away at the slightest movement. His brain’s alarm bell is ringing loudly.

I recently took my two sons to a trail near my house so they could ride their bikes. It was a beautiful, sunny day. The yellow dandelions adorned the grass all around our path. As you can imagine, Matthew quickly noticed a bee along the path. He instantly swerved his bike to avoid the bee and get as far away as possible. He rode his bike off the trail, into the grass. A few minutes later he again ran his bike off the path trying to avoid an insect he thought could be a bee. He repeated this behavior several more times as we tried to enjoy our ride in the lovely sunshine. He panicked anytime he spotted something floating in the air that could possibly be a bee buzzing around.

The threat of a bee sting took over his desire to ride his bike and enjoy the outdoors. He was functioning in a constant “fight or flight” mode. While I encouraged him to take some deep breaths whenever he saw a possible bee, he couldn’t calm down. We shortened our bike ride and returned home. It was clear we were not going to enjoy the outdoors as long as my son’s fears were intensely activated.

Once safe in our home I began talking with my son about his fear. I told him how Mommy used to be terrified of bees. Using my body and voice, I acted out how I used to panic and run screaming whenever I saw a bee. My son started laughing and we laughed together. At this point I noticed a bee flying near our patio door so I walked over and pointed out to Matthew that the bee no longer scared me. Trying to inspire his curiosity, I asked him if he wanted to learn my “secret” how I learned to calm myself. He was intrigued.

I said, “Usually bees will leave you alone unless they feel threatened. Because bees can react to someone who is afraid and moves in a way that is threatening to them, they are more likely to sting if you react when you are afraid.” I told him when I learned my fear could increase the chances I would be stung, I was motivated to learn how to calm my fear.

The part of our brain that is responsible for the fight or flight response is also the root of phobias (in our training we call this Level 2 of the brain’s emotional control center). It is the area of the brain in charge once our fears increase and become strong. This brain region is non-relational, often irrational, and we can’t be talked out of being afraid. The best way to calm this region is to activate the area of our right frontal lobe called the prefrontal cortex (PFC – what we call Level 4). Level 4 is the Captain of the emotional brain and is the only region of the brain that can calm Level 2, the fear center. One of the best ways to activate Level 4 is to pay attention to how your body feels, so we can scan our body as we breathe deeply to calm ourselves.

I shared with Matthew that I learned to calm myself by taking deep breaths and pay attention to how my belly feels as I breathe deeply. I said, “Does my belly still feel tight and in knots, or do I feel calm? If my belly isn’t calm, then I need to keep taking more breaths and notice when my belly begins to feel calm again.”

Later that day we went outside. Whenever Matthew noticed something flying around, we practiced taking deep breaths and noticed how our bellies were doing. After several days of practice, he ran over to me one afternoon from the playground. With a big grin he shared, “Mommy, there was a bee right next to me and I didn’t even run away!” We both rejoiced that he had worked so hard to calm his fears and he was already seeing some results.

Sometimes the fears children have seem irrational and we may be tempted to discount or disregard our children’s fears. There may be times our own fears are irrational so we try to dismiss them. We can deal with fears that spring up by learning to calm these fears so they don’t paralyze us. This is an important brain skill and there can be times we need to share our fears with someone who is really good at calming down from intense fears so they can help us. Sometimes we need to improve our ability to notice how our body is feeling and practice breathing in order to calm ourselves. Sometimes we focus on the things that bring us joy. As always, it is a good rule of thumb to interact with Immanuel about our fears until we reach peace. We can train our brain to quiet fears so we learn, as a Psalmist once wrote, “I will not die but live!” (118:17)


My Skills Saved The Day At The ER

As some of you heard, I recently endured an unexpected trip to the emergency room to rule out a stroke. Of course, what trip to the emergency room is really expected?

The boys and I enjoyed a fun day together. We started out with lunch followed by ice cream then some running around at a local bounce house that is useful for children to run off their limitless amounts of energy. This inside playground was especially helpful because it was rainy and wet outside.

During lunch I began to notice increasing numbness in my right finger. By the time we arrived at the bounce house the numbness and some tingling traveled up my right arm. Feeling concerned, I took some deep breaths to calm myself then I reviewed with my sons what to do in case of an emergency. I asked, “What is Daddy’s phone number?” then I calmly shared that if something strange happened and I was sick, strangers would try to help them. In this case, they should ask someone to call their father. Confused, they asked me why I was saying this. I assured them that probably nothing was going to happen to me, but, if something did happen they would be less afraid if they knew what to do. The boys nodded their heads in agreement and ran off to play again. At this point I called Chris and shared that I was feeling weird. He suggested I call our family doctor, who referred me to a walk-in clinic nearby.

I loaded the boys into my van and told them I needed to visit a doctor, but hopefully we would return to the bounce house for more fun. As expected, the boys were disappointed but I stayed grounded, kept the conversation light and calmed my fears so they would not become worried or anxious. We drove to the urgent care clinic and only later did I realize this was probably not a wise decision since I could have been having a stroke, but, at the time, no one even considered the possibility that I could be experiencing a stroke.

When I arrived at the urgent care they took me right in to see the doctor. The doctor tested me with the common stroke tests and felt it was unlikely I was having a stroke. However, she shared that the only way to rule out a stroke was to visit the hospital. When I asked if I could drive myself, the doctor gently laughed and said, “No, you need to go by an ambulance.” This response surprised me. After all, my 5 and 7 year-old boys were with me and my husband was over 35 minutes away. I asked if my sons could ride in the ambulance with me. The nurses were incredibly kind and they decided to call the ambulance service and ask about this. The office said this was not possible but a supervisor graciously offered to drive a second vehicle so my boys could follow the ambulance to the hospital. “Thank you Lord!” I whispered to myself. I sensed God’s provision.

I took a few deep breaths to make sure I was calm and peaceful, then I explained to Matthew and Andrew they were going on an adventure. I said, “Mommy is going to ride in an ambulance and you can follow me in another emergency vehicle!” They looked intrigued. At this point the boys helped the nurse find our van to retrieve booster seats and then the ambulance arrived. I was quickly loaded in then a flurry of tests were started as we drove off.

When we arrived at the hospital my husband was waiting to meet us. Matthew and Andrew jumped out and were all too eager to share about their exciting ride in the emergency vehicle. Their hands were filled with stickers and suckers the supervisor had given them. I was swiftly wheeled to the ER waiting room. Because the rooms were all filled, I was taken over to the admitting nurse so she could interview me about my condition. Chris and the boys waited in the lobby to see what would happen next. When I asked about the timeline, the nurse said it was likely I would be at the hospital for several hours. I encouraged Chris to take the boys to his parent’s house so they could get settled for the evening.

I am deeply grateful for the kind people who served me. I am relieved I could calm myself during the distressing situation so the boys would not feel afraid by the intensity of the circumstances. Because of these ingredients my sons thought the day was a fun adventure. If I would not have remained anchored during the storm because of the quieting skill, I believe this ordeal would have turned out much differently for all of us. Next week I will share more about my ER visit and how Immanuel met me during a stressful MRI test.


A Vacation From My Vacation

Have you ever felt like you needed a vacation from your vacation? This is how I felt after a recent trip to Michigan during my sons’ spring break. Admittedly, this trip was not a real vacation. You see, my family is in the throes of moving, so Chris and I spent the week searching for potential homes and plugging the boys into a new school they will attend when we make the transition. While we managed to squeeze in some family fun time, the trip was to be a productive week more than a restful time away. It is safe to say we felt sapped and zapped by the time we returned home.

Everyone was worn out from the early mornings, shared beds, missing naps and busy pace. Once home, the boys began back-biting and bickering with each other. I was on my last nerve. Have you ever felt like you have nothing left to offer? Well I sure did. At one point we loaded up for a grocery store run. I heard the boys volume increase and escalate. I quickly pointed out that our brain’s relational circuits were obviously OFF and we needed to take a breather.

First, we took a couple of minutes to breathe deeply and quiet ourselves. Deep breathing from your belly not only allows more oxygen molecules to travel to your brain but the brain has specific neurons that link our breathing to our state of mind here. I then announced it was time to practice appreciation. The boys were still offline and not very excited about this step so I offered an incentive. I said, “Whoever participates in the appreciation exercise can play at the playground once we leave the store.” As expected, this bonus grabbed their attention and they quickly volunteered to do the appreciation exercise.

We took turns sharing something we appreciated about each person in the car. As we were talking I started to feel lighter and I noticed the scowls on the boys faces were disappearing. Next, we took turns sharing about something that makes us smile. I asked questions to help the boys expand on the memory they were sharing in how the moment made them smile, and how the joy felt in their bodies. By the end of the discussion we were all smiling and giggling. The exercise turned around our sour moods and activated our brain’s relational circuits. Appreciation dramatically transformed the tone of our day. We enjoyed our time together at the grocery store. The boys were getting along. The teasing disappeared. We ended our fun with joy and play at the playground.

What could have been a painful, non-relational time of bickering, teasing and crying turned into a fun and engaging outing. Quiet and appreciation are skills that can go a long way to shift our moods and turn our dimmed relational circuits back on. When the brain’s relational circuits are on, our ability to navigate life and relationship dramatically increases. We better handle the moments fatigue and busyness threaten to rob our joy. Spend some time today reviewing moments of joy and appreciation then notice how you feel.

You can learn more about relational circuits with Outsmarting Yourself, Joy Starts Here and the Belonging module of Connexus.


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.


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.


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.