Category: Parenting

Redirecting A Rough Start

The start to my day was hard. My seven-year old son did not want to get up for school. After 10 minutes of coaxing he finally moved out of bed. Next, I tried to wake up my five-year old son. He was grumpy. Soon he was crying that he did NOT want to go to school. Fifteen minutes later he finally began to prepare for the day. Usually both boys are excited for school, but not today. At this point all signs pointed to the reality that they were going to miss the bus.

Sleep during the previous night was shortened due to a noisy thunderstorm. In retrospect, I probably could have alleviated some of the sleep deprivation by letting them sleep in a bit longer then drive them to school instead of take the bus. This may have brought a more peaceful morning for all of us. Regardless, both boys finally made it to the breakfast table with ten minutes to eat before the bus arrived.

At the breakfast table Andrew started crying again because the cereal wasn’t what he wanted. By now my patience was running thin. It was clear our emotional capacity was greatly diminished!

I was beginning worry about keeping my plans that were in place once the boys left for school. Feeling the pressure short-circuit my relational brain, I became focused on results. I tried encouraging, i.e. pushing, Andrew by saying, “Hurry up and eat so you won’t miss the bus!” My plan spectacularly backfired and led to more tears. I realized using fear to motivate my son was a bad idea, but the pressure was mounting fast. I threw my hands up in frustration, and gave up on the whole idea of making the bus.

Three meltdowns and forty-five minutes later, both boys were dressed, fed and climbing into the car for school. By God’s grace I managed to synchronize with my sons in their upset and help them return to joy from their distress. However, I was sure feeling the strain! As we drove to school I noticed I was now feeling grumpy, and my relational circuits were off.

At this point the boys were happily chatting. I turned to them and said, “Boys, our morning started out rough” and, before I could even suggest sharing appreciation on the way to school, Andrew cut me off with, “I’m going first!” Matthew quickly followed with, “I have ten things to share today!” These responses brought a partial smile to my face as I realized they both knew what was needed before I could finish my sentence.

The boys proceeded to take turns sharing four things (including people) they appreciated. I had to remind my sons that I also wanted a turn. They let me share my three but I barely finished because they were so eager to keep talking about what they appreciated. By now it was clear our relational circuits were brightly shining.

After I shared, the boys took turns expressing appreciation during the rest of the drive to school. I noticed I felt lighter. My mood started to shift, and I was laughing with them over the things that made them smile. We arrived at school and each of us went our way with smiles and energy.

Not only is it important for me as a parent to help my children successfully navigate rough mornings, it is also crucial for me to keep my own head above water. This means finding things that restore me when I feel depleted. You will notice I talk a lot about appreciation in my blogs. The reason for this is because “packaged joy” as my husband calls it, is so crucial to helping me return to relational mode when the stress of parenting threatens to knock me off track.

With the busyness and stress of the holidays, I encourage you to take a few minutes to focus on what you appreciate today. Notice the difference in your mood after just a few minutes of reflecting on the good stuff.

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Can Relational Skills Make You Smarter?

Is there a subject or class in school where your child struggles? Perhaps your son or daughter just cannot seem to grasp math, or that pesky science class is a thorn in the side. Maybe reading is the big hurdle. For me, my Achilles’ heel was writing. Yep, writing was my least favorite thing to do IN THE ENTIRE WORLD. Well, this is what I told my mother when I was growing up.

Whenever I came home from school with a writing assignment for English, dread consumed my thoughts and body. Just thinking about my homework put my stomach in knots. It is safe to say that I shed many tears before my writing assignment was due. In truth, I wasn’t a bad writer. I had a mental block about writing and, for whatever reason, writing did not come easily for me. I would become so deeply upset about writing that my thoughts turned muddled and jumbled. I lacked the clarity to focus on my assignment. The mounting anxiety put my brain in a tizzy; it was clear my brain’s emotional control center plunged into a disorganized state where I felt confused. I got lost in my fear and hopeless despair.

Last night I observed a similar pattern with Matthew, my seven-year old son. He was working to correct a math paper he messed up at school. My son misunderstood the directions, and this meant he wrongly answered the entire page of equations. It was not a good situation.

Matthew is a bright student who has a solid understanding of the math concepts taught in first grade. For whatever reason, he freezes up when it comes to math. We have a number of instances where I ask him to sit down and work on his math homework. He then proceeds to melt into puddle of cries and tears, complaining that he feels discouraged and frustrated. He often declares, “I can’t do this, I just don’t understand. I will never get this!” It is quite the scene. When this happens, I help him calm down and catch his breath. However, it frequently takes longer to get to the point where he is ready to work on his math problems than it takes him to actually answer the questions.

Just last night we were playing a game to help him work on his math concepts. At one point he encountered some confusion over the game. He quickly became frustrated. I worked with him to answer several questions and I explained the problem he was supposed to solve. We went around and around for a bit, but he could not understand the concept I was explaining to him. After about 20 minutes of interaction, I realized my brain’s relational circuits had shut down. I also noticed his were off as well. With a few brief exercises we were able to restore our relational circuits and in no time our relational brains were back online. At this point he grasped the concept he was stuck on, then he solved the problem. Hurray!

It was at this point I realized my son was better able to understand and solve problems when his relational circuits were active and working. “Wow! Why didn’t I realize this earlier?” I wondered to myself. When his relational circuits were on, his ability to understand directions and solve problems was greatly improved. When his relational circuits were off, his ability to grasp even the simplest of concepts was greatly compromised. Because Matthew has struggled with math on other occasions, the frustration of trying to solve a difficult problem quickly shut off his relational circuits. Once this happens, every attempt to help him understand something felt like beating our heads against a wall. Once his relational brain was working correctly, he could utilize his problem-solving skills to figure something out with a little bit of coaching. What a difference!

Upon this realization, I then helped Matthew recognize that his relational circuits were off and his brain was not working so well to solve problems. I pointed out, “Matthew, did you see what happened when your relational circuits came back on? You could quickly understand and solve the problem!” Upon hearing this observation, a big smile broke across his face and he was just as amazed as I was at this revelation. We both decide that we ALWAYS want to work on math problems with our relational circuits online.

As I look back on my childhood writing struggles, I can see that my relational circuits were obviously OFF when I was trying to complete my English assignments. While there were other factors at play, I am sure the process of writing would have been much more enjoyable if my relational brain had been operating as God designed it to work.

What areas are you unable to live to your potential because your relational brain is offline?

Are there any subjects that send your children into non-relational mode, and make homework feel like going to the dentist to have a tooth worked on?

I want to encourage you to try some intentional exercises to restore your relational circuits, and see if you notice a difference. Because some subjects can historically feel overwhelming, don’t be surprised if your relational circuits turn on then quickly go off again. You may have to repeat the restoration exercises several times in order to keep your relational brain online. In some cases, we need Immanuel’s peace and resolution where pain and big feelings cause our relational brain to go off.

You can view Dr. Jim Wilder demonstrating some of the relational circuit restoration exercises here. Read how our amazing friend and teacher, Shelia Sutton, uses this training with her students in the book, Joy Starts Here and see my previous blog, The Brain’s Relational Real Estate for more on this topic. Our colleague and friend, Dr. Karl Lehman, has more to say here.

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Tom the Turkey

Chris and I have started what I hope will be a new family tradition for Thanksgiving. While appreciation and gratitude are important skills to emphasize, it seems especially appropriate during this season of Thanksgiving. I don’t know about you, but I find it is all too easy to get caught up in wish lists, Christmas shopping, baking, and cleaning for family gatherings – only to miss the opportunity to focus on the good I experience on a daily basis.

I now have a little basket with the image of a turkey sitting on the piano in our living room, along with a notepad and pencil. The reason for this basket is to remind my family members to write what they are thankful for each day. Each person can also write an appreciation memory, then fold the paper and place it in the basket. The plan is for us all to take turns reading the notes in the basket on Thanksgiving Day, then reflect on the many things we have appreciated over the last month.

I admit that my sons find it amusing to have a turkey sitting in our living room, and they frequently laugh about Tom the Turkey who is “gobbling up” their notes. Since we started this activity, I have noticed a big difference in my day when I pause, often in the middle of my busyness, and reflect on my day then write down my appreciation thoughts. I can feel my face warm up with a smile, as my body begins to relax and my breathing is deeper and calmer. Taking a short moment to think about and reflect on what I feel grateful for has been a turning point in my day.

At one point I checked the notes to see if my sons were understanding the directions, and I was deeply touched to see what my sons wrote on various sheets of paper. Reading my 5-year old’s note that said, “I love Mommy” touched my heart. I wasn’t sure if they knew what they were doing, but thankfully they did and are now doing much better than I thought.

What are you thankful for today? I hope you will consider how you can be intentional about building routines of gratitude and appreciation into your season of thankfulness. For more fun exercises, you can read 30 Days of Joy for Busy Married Couples here to practice the appreciation exercise that changed my life and my marriage

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The Tendency Towards Intensity

There are times even the best parenting advice and guidance does not work. As parents, we need to learn how to stay ourselves with our children even when things go wrong and it seems our best strategies are not working. Thankfully, love covers a multitude of sins.

My seven-year-old Matthew has a tendency towards intensity. Ever since he was born, Matthew is intensely joyful and, when upset, intensely upset. We have worked with him over the years to improve his ability to quiet as well as return to joy from upsetting emotions. These have been crucial tools for his relational tool belt. You see, some children need more practice with one skill and less of another skill. In Matthew’s case, he needs more help quieting and recovering.

Most of the time, my son can quiet and return to joy when things go wrong, but there are times he does not. I have noticed his reactions are intensified when he feels tired, hungry or sick. His emotional capacity is much lower under these conditions which leads to a bigger meltdown.

We recently had a seismic meltdown in the car driving home from a trip. Matthew was tired from disrupted sleep and was obviously feeling crispy. He missed some school for this trip, so his teacher sent along make-up work. We completed most of it, but that morning he opted to save the last page of his math homework for the car so he could play a little extra at the hotel.

One of the luxuries the boys enjoy when we travel is watching movies in the car on a portable DVD player. My husband and I do not allow much screen time at home, so this is a big deal while on long drives. When my son climbed into the car, I reminded him he needed to finish his last page of homework before he could watch a movie. Earlier in the day he agreed to our plan, however now he no longer liked this plan. His brother could watch a movie, but Matthew was not allowed to just yet. Upon this reminder, he declared he was NOT going to do his homework. Instead, he wanted to watch a movie. I acknowledged that he really wanted to watch a movie, and hopefully he could soon. However, it was time to finish his homework.

The explosion erupted. Matthew’s upset increased with crying, yelling and coughing fits. I tried validating his feelings along with some comfort, but it was clear his emotional brain was disrupted. He was feeling some big anger because he was not getting his way. Despite my best attempts to synchronize, validate and comfort, he headed straight for a full-blown MELTDOWN.

This particular outburst was beyond anything I have seen from him before. I watched the clock, and he screamed and cried for a full 50 minutes. WOW, talk about intense! I felt myself struggling to stay connected with him. I wanted to escape this intensity as my relational brain fought to stay connected. (Catch a 30-second glimpse here if you want a taste of this lengthy outburst.)

As parents, it is crucial we keep our emotional and relational oxygen masks on before we can fully help our children. This means we stay calm, grounded and relational during high levels of distress. I feel thankful my husband and I practice these skills because I needed every ounce of training to stay securely connected to my son in this episode.

Matthew was in the middle of a major tantrum and was beyond the point of interaction, so this gave me some time to work on grounding myself. I took some deep breaths and started to think of things I appreciate. I asked God to be with me, and give me His peace. While I did not hear any specific thoughts in response, I did feel an increase in peace.

As Matthew’s tantrum wound down, I was in a more grounded place and ready to help him recover. We took some deep breaths together and, after he calmed, we worked together to finish his homework.

At the end of the day, children need to learn how to manage their emotions while staying relationally connected. In Matthew’s case, he was distressed because he couldn’t have what he wanted. We want him to learn the world will not give him what he wants and things will go wrong, but he must learn how to recover when life throws curve balls. In order to help our children learn this, we need to hone our own skills so we have them available to help us stay consistent, loving and attuned when things get difficult.

Today, notice how your body is feeling. Are you tense? Take some time to practice quieting yourself. Breathe deeply and work to calm your thoughts. Take a few moments to think of some things that make you smile. Notice how your body feels after you have taken some time for quiet and appreciation. This useful sequence will recharge your emotional battery pack.

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Synchronizing With Your Teen is Unselfish

By Barbara Moon

Do you ever find yourself getting caught up in arguments with your teen? You see a situation one way; your teen sees it another. Disagreements are common and very frustrating. Arguing doesn’t feel good. We either want to escalate the negative emotions or run out the door, likely slamming it on the way out. If we can learn to see our teen’s perspective, we might find the road less bumpy. There is a relational brain skill that can help. We call it synchronizing.

Share Energy with Your Teen

Synchronizing with another person takes place when we share the same energy level together. We are on the same wave length, seeing life the way they see it. The energy we are sharing is joy (glad to be together), peace (quiet), or distress (negative emotions).
We can share different energy levels of joy. For example high joy is when we share fun things, excitement, laughter, or lots of smiles. A quiet level of being glad to be together might be sitting together on the deck, watching a camp fire, or quietly scratching our teen’s back.
Peace is when we share that all is as it should be, there’s no conflict; all is well. The Bible calls this “Shalom.” These energy levels are usually easy to share. So what happens when distress arises? What is it we share then?

What About Distress?

In distress we share the moment by staying calm so that we can hear what our teen’s heart is trying to tell us. Most of us are accustomed to avoiding painful emotions. That’s when we yell louder or we run away. Neither helps our teen. We don’t get angry because they are angry; we don’t try to fix their frustration; we don’t lecture, correct, or condemn. We share by staying together and working through the disagreement.
Sometimes during distress we have to take a break and get our relational circuits on before working through a disagreement. Taking a break is not the same as running away. After a break we are going to get back together and work through it because the relationship is more important than the problem. Some problems will resolve when a teen feels heard and understood. Some problems might need help from a third face.

Different Levels of Energy

Life with a teen requires different levels of synchronizing. When our teen is low energy—quiet, subdued, or occupied, we want to approach them with that same level of energy. It’s helpful to go to where they are versus yelling their name to get their attention. When we approach our teen who is quiet or occupied, our voice tone should be soft and inquiring. “Do you have a moment?” Can we talk for a minute?” Synchronizing notices the other person and what’s going on with them.

Synchronizing is Unselfish

When our brain knows how to synchronize, we will notice our teen’s face and body language before engaging with him or her. Our teen will feel loved, accepted, and understood. They are less likely to feel that we are pushing ourselves or an agenda onto them. It’s helpful to notice the energy level when our teens return home. Are they up for a hug and chatter? Do they need time to unwind? Are they down because they’re having a bad day? Is the energy level higher because they are excited to share something from their day? Synchronizing is very unselfish. Sharing like this is done best face-to-face, communicating with eyes that light up, welcoming body language, and kind voice tone. Dr. Wilder says that synchronizing is like good music—right timing, right intensity, and right tone. Picture synchronized swimming in the Olympics. Picture dancing, or playing in an orchestra.

Failure to Synchronize

Failure to synchronize is the opposite of harmony in an orchestra. It feels like the discord of an untuned guitar—bad timing, bad intensity, and bad tone. Interrupting, blasting, or jumping on someone is not synchronizing. Badgering a teen to get our point across is not synchronizing.
Not synchronizing is painful, so we want to practice and get good at this skill. When we forget to synchronize, teens can feel misunderstood. If failure to synchronize accumulates over time they could even feel unloved, alone, afraid, or unwanted. These feelings undermine relationships and we need help and healing for these kinds of hurts
It’s easy to forget to synchronize and it’s easy to get preoccupied and just not notice where our teen is coming from at the moment, but with our hearts teachable, humble, and attuned with God we can practice this relational brain skill that will smooth over some of the bumpy parts of life with our teens.

For more tips and stories about parenting teens, see my book, Joy-Filled Parenting with Teens: Hopeful Stories for Successful Relationships.

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Behavior Tells A Story

The last month has been incredibly chaotic. On top of an exceptionally busy time with my ministry responsibilites, we have also been in the midst of a major transition. The distribution center I started years ago has now moved out of our garage to a new location. I feel excited for this new adventure, however, this process added to an already overly full plate. I am sad to say my work stress spilled into my family time which was costly for our joy levels.

About a week ago I noticed a pattern in my youngest son’s behavior as it veered in a direction that concerned me. Andrew had become clingy. His usually joyful demeanor shifted to despondency and sadness. Frequent outbursts erupted when he failed to get his way. A few months ago Chris and I noticed an increase in whining and, with some focus on optimizing his joy levels, we overcame this pattern. This time, however, the whining had emerged with added intensity. His “listening ears” began to malfunction and stopped working. Andrew had been much more sensitive, especially when big brother teased or caused him trouble. Initially I thought my son was fighting a bug. After some time, when no sickness developed, I began to question what else could be going on. Andrew’s behavior was telling me a story, and I needed to pay attention.

After some prayerful reflection, I realized my emotional absence was taking a toll. I had been distracted. I had felt more rushed. My responses had been short instead of patient and tender. In my stressful state I had focused on keeping the household running by meeting physical needs and somehow I lost track of my sons’ emotional needs. With my relational circuits dim, I hadn’t given my children the attention and connection they deserve – and need. This painful absence created attachment pain, which is what children feel when mom and dad are unavailable and inattentive to their needs. Attachment pain leaves children feeling alone and creates anxiety, misery and restlessness. This is the last thing I want my children to feel!

Andrew has always been a caring, sensitive child. I like this about him. God has given my son a tender heart. I realized the change in my voice and infrequency of smiles on my face has instigated a downward spiral in his behavior and attitude. My normally secure child was shifting into a distracted attachment due to my overwhelm and lack of availability. His behavior was a warning signal saying, “Houston, we have a problem!”

If you are unfamiliar with attachment styles, there are two categories of patterns that develop in response to our closest relationships. These are known as secure and insecure styles. Secure attachments are the ideal attachment style for our children. These are established when mom and dad consistently meet the physical and emotional needs of their children in a timely, predictable manner. Children feel loved and secure. Children learn the world is a safe place because someone is available to meet their needs.

Next, there are three expressions of an insecure bonding pattern. These are called distracted, dismissive and disorganized attachment styles. Each of these insecure styles are based on fear where the child’s needs are not consistently met in a timely manner. Children learn their needs are unimportant, therefore the world is a scary place. These insecure styles take a toll on a child’s wellbeing and disrupt the child’s sense that having needs is a good thing. Insecure styles leave children feeling alone and overwhelmed. I am giving you a simple overview with the hope you will read more about these important bonding patterns with the chapter on Skill 17 in Chris’ book, Transforming Fellowship.

Once I realized my son’s behavioral changes were most likely the result of some attachment pain, I knew I needed to alter my behavior, quicken my responses and increase my availability. I needed to stay intentional about connecting with Andrew on his terms and in his timing. As much as possible, I made myself available whenever he wanted my attention. Yes, life is still incredibly busy and full, but the intentional effort made a drastic difference. In the span of one week I noticed more smiles, more laughter and less discontentment. Fiercely protecting times to build joy, play and rest together significantly turned around my son’s distressing reactions.

This is the second time in Andrew’s life where I needed to increase my intentionality because an insecure attachment threatened to rear its ugly head. While the first time took more effort, it paid off by forming the foundation for a faster recovery this time around.

If you notice your child’s behavior and bonding pattern is not what you want it to be, there is always hope. Like me, you can correct your pattern of connection with your child which can restore joy and increase security. At one point, Jesus’ disciples were feeling dread and attachment pain hearing about his impending absence. Jesus comforts them with His presence, saying, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”[1] At the end of the day, God’s peace anchors us in the hard times and, as parents, our attentive presence is the best gift we can give our children.

[1] John 16:33

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