Tag: Anger

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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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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When Things Turn Ugly

One evening after the boys were in bed I walked into the kitchen to hear Chris muttering under his breath. When he spotted me he proclaimed in frustration, “If you don’t clear out this cabinet I am going to throw all this junk away!” Wow! Where did this come from? I was caught off guard by my usually mellow husband’s intensity.

I immediately became defensive and angry. I met and raised his intensity with, “You cannot throw away my stuff! And if you do, then I will throw away your junk from the garage!” Wow! Where did that come from? I was quick and pointed in return.

We went back and forth a couple more times with short gunfire bursts of snappiness then we decided it was time to catch our breath. As you can see, this interaction was escalating and going nowhere fast.

I found a quiet place and turned to Jesus feeling very frustrated and angry. I poured out my upset to Jesus and told Him how miserable I was feeling. As I focused on talking with Jesus about how I was feeling (rather than expressing all the things I wanted Him to fix in Chris in that moment) I started to feel peaceful. I also realized I was feeling powerless in my interaction with Chris. My response to feeling powerless had been to make myself feel powerful by threatening to recycle Chris’ stuff in the garage. In truth, this was not an effective technique. Our upset had quickly escalated our misunderstanding which then widened the relational rupture between us. Our emotional brain was amplifying anger back and forth at six cycles per second – which is pretty fast. This means our emotional reactions were driving a Lamborghini sports car while our will power was driving a horse and buggy. We react first, we think second.

Jesus also showed me that Chris’ angry moment was actually a moment of weakness for him. I felt reminded that my goal whenever weakness arises is to stay tender. This thought really caught me off guard because I didn’t feel tender! “You mean, my husband was having a moment of weakness? But he was angry. He seemed powerful – not weak!” I exclaimed to Immanuel.

As I thought about this more, I began to understand that it is not like Chris’ heart to react towards me in anger or with threats. My shepherd husband was having a moment of weakness because he was not living from his heart. He forgot who he was. This realization provoked compassion towards him. My frustration melted.

After calming down we came back together to repair and connect. I apologized for my reaction. Chris also apologized to me. I shared with him the insight Jesus gave me about feeling powerless and I my reactionary attempt to be powerful. Chris also explained that the travel mug had fallen out of the cupboard on top of his head for the third time this week right before I walked into the kitchen. His frustration was a vain attempt to solve that problem.

We both acknowledged we could have handled this interaction so much better. We agreed to work on staying tender toward each other’s weaknesses.

What do you do when you feel powerless and out of control? Have you ever thought of someone’s anger as a moment of weakness? These may be new thoughts for you and I want to encourage you to read more about this in the book, Joy Starts Here. I suspect you, like Chris and I, will have a lot of practice learning how to be tender toward others.

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