Tag: Brain Skills

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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The Treasure is Worth the Hunt

My husband Chris shared these thoughts last week and I thought you might enjoy hearing them as well.

A few weeks back my sons enjoyed geocaching for the first time with our friend Nicole. Searching the woods for a hidden surprise was exhilarating. It took some persistence, but the wait paid off when they discovered concealed containers filled with toys and trinkets.

Each of us can pursue the hidden treasure in our identities as well. Recognizing the “treasure” is Skill 6, Identifying Heart Values, but relationally expressing this treasure is a different skill altogether.

When we remember who we are and express our heart in the good and bad times, we express the “gold” in our unique design. This process sounds easy in theory, however, in reality it takes examples, practice and training. When something hurts or upsets us, it is all too easy for our values, tenderness and filters to fly out the window. Maybe someone cut us off on the road, we encounter a rude person, or our child disobeys for the “_nth” time. Whether we are sad, mad, afraid, ashamed, disgusted or hopeless, our brain must learn how to remain our relational selves while navigating negative emotions. This ability is a gift for loved ones to observe and do likewise. When this skill is underdeveloped, we revert to non-relational strategies that are often cringeworthy and guilt-producing.

This leads me to our long-overdue Transforming Fellowship thought of the day focusing on Skill 12, Acting Like Myself In The Big Six Feelings: “Life throws us curve balls. Unexpected problems interrupt and plague our day. We live in a world where people hurt us and relationships create distress. Instead of trying to isolate ourselves from the many disappointments that can derail our relational brain, we can learn how to stay our true selves as God designed us when emotions arise. At the end of the day, we are as good as our ability to manage what we feel. How well we navigate upset largely determines the level of trust and closeness we create with other people. How well we attune and comfort others is a reflection of our ability to manage our own emotions. Do we stay relationally connected? Do we isolate? Do we attack? Our reactions tell a story. Skill 12 is what equips us to express our faith and values under increasingly difficult and everchanging circumstances.” (Page 163)

I am excited for the new interactive Bible Study coauthored with Amy Brown that is on the horizon and soon to be released. This resource will be useful to help groups learn and apply important skills while having a bit of fun. If you haven’t yet read Transforming Fellowship, check it out here.

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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Change the Course of Your Morning

It was a rough morning. My crew overslept. We woke up grumpy. From the moment our feet touched the floor we were running late. This is not how I planned to start my day. Can you relate?

While my youngest son, Andrew, has warmed up to kindergarten and he frequently reports moments of fun, there have been tears along the way. After a long, hard day at school he sometimes cries, and tells me he does not want to return to school the next morning. When morning arrives, a bit of sleep rejuvenates him so that his emotional battery is recharged for the new day and he’s ready to go.

Well, we did not get there this morning. My son woke up crying. He said, “I don’t want to go to school” and from that point on, it was a fight to get out the door. He was low energy. His was incredibly droopy and whiny. Moving as slowly as humanly possible, he then let it be known that he wanted to stay home. I responded by trying to make it a fun morning. I reminded him of the things he could look forward to about his day. In the end, my good intentions failed. He simply wanted to stay home.

When we finally made it out the door and climbed into the car, the boys began snapping at each other. I started barking at them to stop. It was clear our relational circuits were OFF, and nowhere to be found. Once I recognized this, I announced that we needed to take a few moments of quiet to turn on our relational circuits. After some quiet and calm, I shared that it was time for a bit of appreciation.

Normally my sons enjoy expressing appreciation. When we practice this exercise, all of us end up wearing big smiles. However, when we are relationally sinking and we need appreciation to stay afloat, it is these moments that the boys do not feel like practicing the exercise. I must get a little creative and this morning required serious creativity.

At this stage of life my boys believe that going first on just about any activity is the most important thing in the whole world. They do not like going last. On this particular morning, I decided to use this information to my advantage. I announced we were going to share appreciation, however, this time it was my turn to go first. Andrew jumped in and responded that I should go last because he wanted to go first. Next, Matthew quipped that he was not going to participate. Everyone was making their stance known.

I then pretended to argue with Andrew over who should go first. Using a silly tone that usually makes them smile, I pretended to argue with Andrew, pleading that I should go first. After some shared smiles with Andrew, I decided to let him start. When Andrew finished sharing his appreciation, I announced that I was glad Matthew wasn’t participating because it meant I could share next. As you can imagine, this provoked a response from Matthew. He said, “No, you have to go last! I am sharing now!” then he launched into his own appreciation. When my turn finally arrived, the tone in the car was lighter. We were all laughing and giggling. I dropped them off at school with a full bucket of joy instead of an empty bucket where they would feel depleted.

Isn’t it amazing how different our interactions go when our relational circuits are on versus off? I find much-needed quiet along with a fresh dose of appreciation are just what my family needs to turn the tide of a bad day into a better day when things are quickly heading south.

The fun thing about our relational brain is that you don’t have to wait for attitudes to be negative, or moods to turn sour before taking advantage of the benefits of appreciation and quiet. In fact, things will go much more smoothly for you when your relational circuits are off IF you are accustomed to practicing these skills in the calm and joyful times as well.

Try an exercise today and share with someone 3 things that make you smile. For a long-lasting benefit on your brain, reflect on how it feels to experience these special moments and soak in the feelings for several minutes before and after you share. Watch what happens when you use these skills!

If you are married, I recommend 30 Days of Joy for Busy Married couples for lots of additional exercises that you can practice with your partner!

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