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.