Category: Parenting

I Missed My Son’s Stop Sign

Hi there. This is Chris, Jen’s husband. Jen invited me to share this week about a time I missed my son’s stop sign. I hope you find this helpful.

Recognizing overwhelm signals (Skill 9) and staying connected during intense emotions without going over the top, known as interactive quieting (Skill 15), are two key skills we need to sustain healthy relationships. In an ideal world, we develop these skills early in life because parents, family members then teachers and coaches, use these crucial skills to interact with us. While these brain skills sound easy on paper, practicing them in real life is hard work.

Do you know anyone who frequently runs people over with their words and intensity? What about someone who loses it at the drop of a hat? What about a person who can’t seem to stop once they start? Do you know anyone who uses anger to get results? These are all signs Skill 9 and 15 are needed. Sometimes the symptoms are more subtle and we simply avoid conflict or fear making people angry or upset. Using these skills in live time, with big emotions, under intense pressure requires purposeful effort and focused training.

For a number of years now I have practiced these skills but every now and then I drop the ball and fail to utilize these invaluable skills. After a recent bout of sickness, I finally felt good enough to get back to life. I missed my sons, so I sought them out. I found my 5-year old son Andrew playing in his room. Peeking in his room he saw me and responded with a big grin on his face. I walked in and started playfully tickling and wrestling with him. We were having a ball and for fathers, this is a common way dads like to bond with their children. It is also an ideal time to train brain skills. After a few moments of interaction, I was tickling him when he said “Stop!” “Stop!” “Stop!” while laughing. Wanting to get in a few more good tickles, I gave him a last round of tickling before saying, “Ok, buddy. That was fun! But now Daddy is going downstairs. I really missed you!” After a hug he said, “Ok Daddy” as I walked out.

Because he was laughing I didn’t give this much thought but I just broke my own rule for our household. When someone says “Stop” you stop. No more tickling or playing. You simply stop. I also interrupted his play instead of waiting for him to approach me which does not foster a secure attachment. In all honesty, at the time, I didn’t think about these things until my wife told me 10 minutes later that Matthew, our oldest son, said to her, “Daddy never stops.” When I heard this a knot formed in my stomach. While I knew he was exaggerating by saying never, he was also right. He was listening to the recent wrestling match between Andrew and I where I failed to stop the first time. I knew I needed to repair and update minds  with my sons.

On my way to talk with Andrew I saw Matthew playing with his new robot dinosaur. I paused and said, “I am very sorry to know that you feel Daddy never stops. How frustrating for you! This makes me very sad because it’s important that Mommy and Daddy both stop when you and brother say stop. I am very sorry for this. Will you forgive me?” He looked at me and, still holding his dinosaur, said, “Mr. Dinosaur gets mad at you when you don’t stop and you didn’t stop when Andrew told you to stop.” “Yes I bet he does!” I said. “I get mad as well when people don’t stop. I am very sorry for messing up.” Knowing this was a golden opportunity for repair, I stooped down, looked my son in the eye, then I looked Mr. Dinosaur in his robot eyes, and reiterated what I said previously adding, “Matthew and Mr. Dinosaur, will you forgive me for not doing a better job stopping? I am very sorry this happened and I hope you will give me another chance.” With the help of Matthew, Mr. Dinosaur nodded in agreement then Matthew mentioned, “Mr. Dinosaur is also mad at you that we are moving.” I knew my son is processing some big feelings so I validated both Matthew and Mr. Dinosaur about how hard moving is, and how sad it is to leave behind special friends. I said, “I hope you and Mr. Dinosaur will give this move a try and we will see what fun we can discover in our new home.” I received a nod from Mr. Dinosaur and while I knew we would be talking more about these matters, I thanked Mr. Dinosaur and Matthew for expressing these feelings with me. I said, “I am so, so proud of you and Mr. Dinosaur for speaking up about these important things. Thank you!” With a smile on Matthew’s face and some dancing from Mr. Dinosaur, it was now time to repair with Andrew.

I walked into Andrew’s room and sat next to him on his bed. I said, “Buddy, I am really sad right now. You know why?” “No, why Daddy?” he said looking perplexed. “Well, I did not stop when you first said to stop when we were playing. Instead of stopping I kept tickling you. I broke our house rule and I am very sorry. Will you be able to forgive me?” Andrew paused for a moment then said, “YYYEEESSSS, I forgive you.” With a smile I said, “Thank you Andrew. I want you to tell me when I forget to stop, ok?” He agreed and after a few moments of chatting I gave him a hug and thanked him for being such a good son.

With Overwhelm Recognition, Skill 9, we simply need to stop once we notice that we or the person interacting with us has reached their peak and needs to rest. Stopping once we start talking, playing, splashing, tickling and interacting in general requires self-control and vigilance. If we have the skill this will feel natural for us. If we do not have the skill we keep going and push, yell, stare, splash, tickle, etc. without noticing we ran through the big red stop sign.

Interactive Quieting, Skill 15, builds on this foundation but is more demanding because, instead of simply stopping, we continue the interaction at a high level of energy reaching the very edge of the overwhelm cliff  – without going over. What makes Skill 15 so difficult is that we have to do two things at once. First, we regulate our own emotional intensity while we continue the interaction. Second, we carefully observe for signs the other person is close to maxing out then we delicately interact at high levels of intensity with brief moments to pause in order to keep the high-energy interaction going safely and smoothly. It is here where the lack of training shows up. People who cannot regulate their own emotions and do not respect the limits in themselves and other people end up getting into altercations, become argumentative, overly aggressive as well as verbally and physically abusive. Trust is broken and relationships are painfully ruptured.

Imagine a world free from violence, abuse, mockery, contempt or road rage! Imagine what would change if every person knew when to stop and avoided relational casualties because they remained relational without going over the top. Fathers are the ideal people to train these two skills but for many of us, these skills are simply not in our relational arsenal so we pass on our deficiencies without realizing it.

The good news is this. Every one of us can learn these invaluable skills! Learn more about relational brain skills in my new book, Transforming Fellowship here. While my scenario was minor and low on the intensity spectrum these are often the times we minimize the impact on others, because we were having fun, we were not fighting or arguing. Yet, the skills are just as essential under these conditions for the health of our brain and bonds. I hope you learn from my mistakes and press the brake pedal when it’s time to stop.

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When Sparks Fly

This evening ended peacefully with Matthew and Andrew working alongside each other. Andrew enjoyed helping big brother complete the 3-foot tall dinosaur robot that Matthew has been trying to build for several months. You wouldn’t know it by the picture, but the day did not start this peacefully.

Bickering, teasing, whining, fighting and tears mostly defined our household the past few days. Doesn’t that sound fun? Now that school has ended for the summer, the boys have been together for two weeks without much of a break. Usually the brothers enjoy their time together. They tend to be close and cooperative but this weekend they mixed together about as smoothly as oil and water. Both boys were getting on each other’s nerves. It seemed that no amount of refereeing could calm the chaos.

My husband Chris was sick in bed for the last three days which didn’t help. It also didn’t help that I have been feeling “off” both emotionally and hormonally, which deflates my emotional capacity because, well, I simply don’t feel well. We are still in the midst of a major transition trying to move out of state which also pulls on our emotional batteries. It is safe to say our crew has been out of sorts lately.

As much as I hate to admit it, and yes, it drives me crazy every time my dear husband points it out, we the parents set the tone in our house. If I am in a lousy mood, low on my reserve of patience, (my relational circuits are missing in action), I can expect my boys will also feel this and end up having a rougher day than usual. These are the days we see an increase in fighting, whining and bad behavior. Whether I like it or not, there is a direct correlation between the joy levels and overall well-being of parents with the joy levels and well-being of children. This reality motivates Chris and I to pursue a life of joy, peace and healing.

Anyhow, this morning the boys and I piled into the car and drove to the dentist. I apologized to Matthew and Andrew for my short fuse and my sour mood. I pointed out that all of us seemed to be having a rough day, and we could use some quieting and appreciation. At this point we took a few minutes to quiet ourselves in the car. Next, we shared some things we appreciated. Once the appreciation faucet was turned on, the boys didn’t want to stop the fun. I had to cut them off once we arrived at our destination. It was obvious we were all thirsty for some life-giving gratitude and joy.

Thankfully, these exercises uplifted our moods for a good couple of hours before the next blow-up occurred. Later in the day I walked up the basement stairs to hear both boys hysterically crying. They apparently spiraled into some sort of quarrel and verbally hurt each other’s feelings along with some pushes and scratches. Alarmed by this, I decided they needed a break from each other.

I sent the boys to play in their rooms by themselves for a while with the rule they are not to interact. A short while later I heard giggling sounds emanating from their rooms. Curious, I investigated and discovered that, after a short period of calming down, they snuck into each other’s rooms to apologize and share peace offerings of gifts with each other. “Are these my children?” I wondered.

While my sons did break the “No Interacting” instruction, I was delighted to find out they apologized to each other, and wanted to return to joy together. While my first inclination was to be upset they disobeyed, I caught myself. I was able to focus on the fact they wanted to repair with each other and they did not want to leave the other feeling sad because of hurtful words and actions.

As a whole, the day had its ups and downs, however, I was encouraged to see how a change in my tone transformed the overall tone of the day. I was especially excited to see my sons learning from my example in how they were able to self-quiet, then repair after realizing they messed up. If the times I mess up and repair better equip my children to repair when they make a relational mess, I will be one happy mother! This is good news for all of us. Our blunders can be redemptive as we quiet ourselves and work on repairing ruptures and returning to joy where joy is needed.

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My Mad Mommy Moment

The other day Andrew was not doing what I asked him to do. He was repeatedly getting distracted from his task. I felt my frustration intensify with each reminder. By the fourth reminder I yelled, “Andrew – DO IT NOW!” As soon as the words flew out of my mouth I observed his little face crumple. His eyes teared up. I felt horrible.

My heart sank. My irritation took a back seat to sadness and shame as I realized my intense reaction hurt my son. He usually listens well. He regularly follows through when I ask him to do something. Andrew has a sweet and tender spirit. Usually a little correction goes a long way with him. I just overwhelmed and scared him. Ugh; I felt so bad.

Once I noticed his reaction, I sat down on the floor next to him. Looking into his eyes, I invited him onto my lap. He tearfully agreed. I held him and apologized for yelling at him. I validated his big feelings and after a few moments he calmed down. We started smiling together. After returning to joy I pointed out that we both had some things to work on for better interactions in the future. I mentioned how I needed to calm myself before talking to him when I feel angry and upset. I should not yell in my frustration. His job in all of this is to use his listening ears and obey the first time I ask him to do something. We agreed we could both do better with practice.

I look back on this interaction and I can see my relational brain had taken a hiatus during my mounting upset. I did not use Skill 2 to self-quiet or Skill 12 to remain my relational self during upset. As parents, we are not going to do things perfectly. We can’t expect to get it right every time. The good news is we have the opportunity to repair with our children once we realize the areas we could do things better. It is good to acknowledge we were wrong and it is helpful to tell our sons and daughters how we would like to handle things differently next time. This time of connection is both healing and redemptive.

In this instance I caught my mistake right away. Thankfully, I was able to attune with Andrew in his distress – that I had caused. Admittedly, there are times when seeing my child’s response to my over-the-top reaction doesn’t stop me in my tracks. There are times when my son’s reaction increases my anger. Those are the times there is a delay before I recognize the need for repair and we can return to joy together. Thankfully those repairs still count!

There are many days I have parenting fails and wish I was doing a better job. Even though I am working on the 19 skills and using relational skills in my parenting, I still mess up. I am so thankful that the goal is not to be the “perfect parent” since that goal is unattainable. The more manageable goal is to get really good at repairing when things go wrong.

I hope you give yourself grace this week when, not if, you make mistakes. May God guide your focus and energy to repair when things go wrong. I am now convinced we parents should be the best repairers in the entire world because we get so much practice each day.

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The Appreciation Tree

This morning Andrew woke up in a sour mood. I noticed his brain’s relational circuits (RCs) were off and after several attempts to help him turn them on again, none of the normal solutions worked. His whining continued, even after I took some time to attune with his feelings and comfort him in his upset. Under normal circumstances these two steps would help him shift into a relational mode again. These signs told me a rough morning was looming on the horizon – unless something quickly changed.

My husband and I have a “No-Whining” policy in our house. This means that any question asked in a whiny voice is an automatic “No” answer. When this happens, we remind the boys they still have the opportunity to change their tone of voice and try again. In most cases this “Do-Over” works. However, on this particular morning, Andrew just could not get rid of the whiny voice.

I pointed out that in these moments of difficulty his brain’s relational circuits are off, and it’s hard to find his “strong voice” if he doesn’t get them back on. I offered to help by practicing appreciation or by doing one of the Shalom My Body exercises, but he refused. In this case, because my son is 5 years-old and growing in Child Maturity, we have practiced these steps before so I decided to let him sit in his discomfort until he was motivated enough to have me join him in one of RC restoration exercises. (The strategy can be adjusted with younger children but Andrew is learning to do hard things and ask for what he needs.) After 30 minutes of waiting he was frustrated enough with the lack of response to his whining that he requested my help. Andrew asked if I would practice some appreciation with him, and I agreed.

We sat on the couch together and he snuggled next to me. We took turns talking about things that make us smile. I like to paint, so last year we painted a large tree with leaves to hang in his bedroom. On each leaf we wrote something that makes him smile. We call this his “Appreciation Tree.” This morning we talked about some of the things he had written on the leaves such as throwing snowballs, listening to Daddy’s stories, playing on the playground, snuggling with Mommy, and more. After 5 minutes of talking about what makes him smile, we were both laughing, giggling and enjoying the benefits of returning to relational mode.

After an afternoon nap later in the day, Andrew woke up in non-relational mode. After just a few moments of talking about some of the appreciation leaves on his tree, he quickly returned to his relational self again. These moments of connection are a tremendous help for Andrew and I have observed that laughter is the key to help my 7 year-old son return to relational mode when his RCs are off. I find it helpful to know the preferred solutions for each child.

Whenever our children lose access to their relational circuits, everything in life is harder, both for them and for us as parents. We can help younger children return to relational mode when their RCs are off through attunement, sharing stories of appreciation or finding ways to giggle together. As children grow older, we can then teach them to identify and recognize the moments their RC’s are off and show them how to get relational again. This is a wonderful gift we can give children that they will use throughout life. For children as well as adults, our relational circuits are more likely to go off when we are hungry, tired, or even angry, so there are times some food or rest is needed.

What sorts of things cause you to go non-relational? What helps you shift back into relational mode again? These are topics worthy of much discussion with our families and friends. Share this blog with anyone you think will benefit!

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The Brain’s Relational Real Estate

My husband and I had a wonderful time seeing old friends and making new friends at the recent Life Model Works Annual Gathering this past week. This conference was a success and each day was filled with joy and special moments from beginning to end.

Chris was busily training attendees on the 19 relational brain skills as well as emceeing the event while I worked on troubleshooting problems and overseeing volunteers and speakers. The days were long which means this past week was not a time of rest and relaxation. To top it off, I ended up catching a cold so the combination of busyness and sickness left me feeling worn down. By the time I returned home I noticed my energy levels were low.

Things came to a head this morning when it was time to get out of bed but my body refused to move. Chris was out of the house early for a doctor appointment and my blaring alarm clock felt like an intrusive annoyance preventing me from the sleep I craved. Well, in truth it was not an option to stay in bed because I needed to drive my son Matthew to school. Feeling sick as well as tired, I was in a sour mood from the moment I opened my eyes. Things quickly culminated by the end of breakfast as I was encouraging my boys to put on their shoes so we could get out the door. They were not responding to me so my frustration along with my diminished relational capacity led to some scowling and snapping on my part. By the time we all climbed into the van the thought occurred to me: “My relational circuits (RC’s) are way off!”

I knew I did not want to send my boys out for the day on a grumpy note, so I decided to try and wake up my relational brain. Because I am usually the one reminding my boys to activate their relational circuits, I thought they would enjoy the opportunity to coach me this time around. I said, “Boys, Mommy’s RC’s are off. What do you think I should do to get them back on again?”

In case you are wondering what relational circuits are, I refer to this topic in previous blogs but I have not spent much time explaining them. Relational circuits are a specific part of our physical brain that, when functioning and working, help us feel connected with people. We have the desire to connect. When our relational circuits are dimmed or off, we lose our desire for connection and we no longer experience joy with the people around us. We no longer value or care about what others around us are thinking or feeling. We no longer correctly gauge our impact on others. Everything in life and relationships runs better when our relational circuits are on because we can be our best relational self to navigate the smooth or bumpy terrain of relationships. Thankfully, we all can learn how to recognize the moments our relational circuits are off then take the necessary steps to restore our RC’s.

During the events Chris and I run, we spend a good portion of time training people to recognize the status of their relational circuits and keep them on. Thanks to the work and resources of Dr. Karl Lehman. Dr. Jim Wilder, and Ed Khouri, we have lists available to help people identify the status of their relational circuits. Below is a condensed list with questions you can ask yourself. If you answer “Yes” it is likely your relational circuits are off.

  •      I just want to make a problem, person or feeling go away.
  •      I don’t want to listen to what others feel or say.
  •      My mind is “locked onto” something upsetting.
  •      I don’t want to be connected to __? (someone I usually like)
  •      I just want to get away, or fight or I freeze.
  •      I more aggressively interrogate, judge and fix others.

If you answer “Yes” to any of these questions, the next step is to restore your relational circuits by 1. practicing appreciation and gratitude or 2. utilizing the Shalom My Body exercises. You can watch the Shalom my Body sequence here on YouTube. With practice, you can quickly distinguish the moments your relational brain is on from the moments your relational brain is off. The contrast between the two is remarkable.

Now back to my morning. The boys enjoyed giving me suggestions how to get my RC’s back on. Before we pulled out of the driveway, all of us were giggling and laughing. My relational circuits were brightly shining. I felt deeply satisfied sending my sons out for the day on a high and joyful note!

I recommend you pursue resources by Dr. Karl Lehman at www.kclehman.com and Dr. Jim Wilder at joystartshere.com for more information on the brain’s relational circuits. Specifically the Connexus for a thriving community is a great resource on relational circuits.  Chris and I wrote 30 Days of Joy for Busy Married Couples to give marriages a relational, joyful boost

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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)

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