Tag: Children

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 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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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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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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Watch Me, Daddy!

From Chris:

The other day I was upstairs in my house when I heard my 5 year-old son playing basketball in the driveway. I looked out the window and noticed he was working hard to throw the big basketball up to the 10ft tall basketball rim. I could see my son was working hard to make a basket.

After he threw the ball and missed the rim, I yelled out to praise his effort, “Nice try, Andrew!” I then offered a few pointers for his next attempt. Once he noticed me in the window, his face lit up. It was clear he enjoyed having my attention. As my son dribbled the ball and practiced shooting, he frequently looked up to check if I was still watching. Several times he said, “Watch me, Daddy, watch!” as he grabbed the ball and prepared for the next attempt. I smiled as I watched him play.

Eventually, I went downstairs to shoot around with him, but this moment reminded me how important it is to have people who are genuinely glad to be with us. This “glad to be together” action is what we call brain skill #1: Share Joy. This response conveys, “I am really, really glad to be here with you. I see you. I believe in you. You are the focus of my attention because you matter to me.” As far as the brain’s emotional control center is concerned, we see ourselves in the faces looking at us. The smiling face is a mirror that reflects back, “You are special, loved and cherished!” The message speaks volumes to the brain’s identity center to tell us we are cherished.

When loved ones use words, facial expressions, and a calm demeanor to cheer us on with their attentive smiles, we feel loved, valued and affirmed. Having available people who are warm and non-anxious is a key ingredient to creating strong, secure attachments, what we call Skill #17: Identify Attachment Styles. It is no exaggeration to say that secure attachments are the foundation for good mental health. Bonds that are stable, joyful, consistent and predictable are the DNA of what makes strong families and healthy communities. We cannot underestimate what has been one of the most studied topics in all of psychology. This theme of a “bond of love” expressed and shared between the Creator and creation is a thread woven through all of scripture.

The lack of secure attachments create a myriad of problems that negatively affect the health and composition of a family, a community, even a society. I recently read an article by researcher and author Charlie Hoehn, who gave an interesting viewpoint to the increase in mass shootings. This was not a politically motivated article by any means, rather, the author makes a strong case that the declining mental health of men and boys in this country is a large contributing factor to the shooting tragedies we have seen in recent years. The author boils down his points to three characteristics that are common in gunmen who have killed a large number of people.

  1. They are lonely.
  2. They experienced play deprivation as children.
  3. They experienced deep (unprocessed) shame.

This observation lines up with much of the research I have come across in the past 20 years. It is, therefore, no accident the newest training track I created is called, THRIVE True Identity which focuses on key relational brain skills to 1. help people learn brain skills to build and restore relationships, 2. train individuals and groups to learn effective play strategies and use important brain skills that keep play safe and fun, and 3. develop the necessary brain skills to rest and return to joy from shame and every one of the six negative emotions the brain is wired to feel. This brain training program is offered in 1, 2 or 5-day formats but let’s be honest: every one of us can use some extra training in these areas! But I didn’t stop there.

I took the process one step farther by adding carefully designed exercises to increase our ability to interact with Immanuel (God with us) on topics related to our character and God’s character. This type of interaction provides the deepest change to our character and identity. Specific exercises with God and interactions with people can create habits that are internalized so they become part of the fabric of how we do life and relationships. I am convinced God wants His children to enjoy a secure attachment, bond of love, with Him and each other. It is this intersection of joy with God and joy with our neighbor where we discover perfect love casts out fear. (1 John 4:18)

Was it joyful to have your mother or father’s attention growing up? Did you feel encouraged knowing they were watching you? Did you feel embarrassed, self-conscious or fearful? How does it feel thinking God is with you? Does this bring you peace, or does it leave you anxious, angry or something else? No matter your response, you can experience lasting change by updating your brain with key relational skills so your go-to response is secure love expressed with joy and peace.

I hope you read my new book to learn how the 19 relational brain skills can change your life. Join me at one of our THRIVE Training events for 5 days of carefully designed training to transform your brain for joy.

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