Tag: Family Bonds

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.


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.


A Vacation From My Vacation

Have you ever felt like you needed a vacation from your vacation? This is how I felt after a recent trip to Michigan during my sons’ spring break. Admittedly, this trip was not a real vacation. You see, my family is in the throes of moving, so Chris and I spent the week searching for potential homes and plugging the boys into a new school they will attend when we make the transition. While we managed to squeeze in some family fun time, the trip was to be a productive week more than a restful time away. It is safe to say we felt sapped and zapped by the time we returned home.

Everyone was worn out from the early mornings, shared beds, missing naps and busy pace. Once home, the boys began back-biting and bickering with each other. I was on my last nerve. Have you ever felt like you have nothing left to offer? Well I sure did. At one point we loaded up for a grocery store run. I heard the boys volume increase and escalate. I quickly pointed out that our brain’s relational circuits were obviously OFF and we needed to take a breather.

First, we took a couple of minutes to breathe deeply and quiet ourselves. Deep breathing from your belly not only allows more oxygen molecules to travel to your brain but the brain has specific neurons that link our breathing to our state of mind here. I then announced it was time to practice appreciation. The boys were still offline and not very excited about this step so I offered an incentive. I said, “Whoever participates in the appreciation exercise can play at the playground once we leave the store.” As expected, this bonus grabbed their attention and they quickly volunteered to do the appreciation exercise.

We took turns sharing something we appreciated about each person in the car. As we were talking I started to feel lighter and I noticed the scowls on the boys faces were disappearing. Next, we took turns sharing about something that makes us smile. I asked questions to help the boys expand on the memory they were sharing in how the moment made them smile, and how the joy felt in their bodies. By the end of the discussion we were all smiling and giggling. The exercise turned around our sour moods and activated our brain’s relational circuits. Appreciation dramatically transformed the tone of our day. We enjoyed our time together at the grocery store. The boys were getting along. The teasing disappeared. We ended our fun with joy and play at the playground.

What could have been a painful, non-relational time of bickering, teasing and crying turned into a fun and engaging outing. Quiet and appreciation are skills that can go a long way to shift our moods and turn our dimmed relational circuits back on. When the brain’s relational circuits are on, our ability to navigate life and relationship dramatically increases. We better handle the moments fatigue and busyness threaten to rob our joy. Spend some time today reviewing moments of joy and appreciation then notice how you feel.

You can learn more about relational circuits with Outsmarting Yourself, Joy Starts Here and the Belonging module of Connexus.


The Fun of Joy and Rest

My oldest son Matthew is now in school full days, so I try to find meaningful ways to connect with Andrew when he is home. Because Andrew is the youngest behind a big brother who happens to have a very big, out-going personality, Andrew tends to take a backseat to Matthew’s antics during interactions. Andrew is much more reserved, and he simply does not get as much attention or one-on-one time with Chris and I. Because of this we try to connect with him in special, fun ways. One of my favorite ways to connect with Andrew is cuddling during nap-time. My goal is to protect at least one nap each week so I can lie down with him. We can both nap together, which is a nice reprieve for me as well! Yesterday was one of those fun nap afternoons, and this time we enjoyed a delightful twist to the interaction.

As we were lying next to each other, Andrew started a little game. He would make silly noises to grab my attention, then I would look at him. Our eyes would catch each other and our faces would break into smiles. He wanted to keep looking at each other, but I suggested we look away then look back to start over again. The interaction turned into an interactive dance of joy glances where we have each other’s attention and our eyes light up in response to the other. Our faces quickly stretch into wide smiles, then we look away to rest. After a pause, we would start the fun all over again. The smiles, laughter and giggles were contagious.

This “game” that Andrew came up with was especially fun because this interaction is the unplanned version of an intentional exercise I lead during the THRIVE Training each year. The exercise goes something like this: We position partners to sit facing each other, knee-to-knee. We direct them to build joy with their partner using their eyes, then, as the joy starts to peak, they look away for a moment of rest, then engage again. While we do different variations on this exercise, the mutual dance of joy and rest is something all of us would normally learn during infancy. A number of important things happen in your brain during the mutual sharing of gaze and rest cycles, but that is a topic for another day.

Because of the brain’s visual cortex development that increases after 2-3 months of life (due to the process of myelination where proteins accumulate around neurons to increase the speed of signals in the brain), a baby’s vision becomes clear enough to begin building and amplifying joy by looking into mommy’s eyes. If you have ever watched a mother and infant caught up in a wonderful exchange of joy, the sequence probably went like this. Baby looks up at mommy. Mommy notices baby’s gaze, then lights up in response to baby’s invitation for connection. Baby responds to mommy’s big, bright smile, then the joy builds and increases on their faces. In a matter of seconds, baby reaches her limits and looks away to rest. It is time to recharge for more joy. At this point mommy, if she is attuned with baby, will look away, quiet herself, then patiently wait for baby to return for more fun. Once baby looks at mommy, the dance continues.

This joy and rest sequence is crucial for building a joyful brain. One of the best windows for the developing brain to build joy occurs at 9 months of life (from 8 to 9 months). This time frame provides the greatest opportunity for baby to build joy that she will ever have in her lifetime! During her ninth month, baby can spend up to 8 hours a day building joy with mommy. Guess what this means? The mother or father who wants to download a lot of joy might have a difficult time getting much else done during this 30-day period. In an ideal world, this is where family and community would step in and support the couple.

Because Andrew was our second child and Matthew was extremely hyperactive during his early years, Andrew did not get as much one-on-one time nor did he receive as much attention as his older brother. Unfortunately, he also did not have as much joy building time as we would have liked. (Yes, even those of us who understand brain development and use the skills are not perfect parents!) When Andrew was about 2 years old I noticed he avoided looking me in the eye. This was happening during an overwhelming season of life when I was low on joy and high on stress. At this point Chris and I realized we needed to be intentional about building joy with Andrew. During interactions I started working to catch his eye in joyful ways. I turned “Peek-a-boo” games into a high-energy joy and a low-energy rest dance where we would lock eyes, smile, then quickly disconnect. Within one week of deliberate joy practice, Andrew was more engaged and more attentive during our interactions. He started making eye contact more frequently. We felt like our son was back!

While joy is crucial to the well-being of our children, joy is also highly beneficial for us parents. With more joy we develop greater capacity for the difficult things in life. While there are ideal seasons of development for the brain to grow joy, it is never too late to increase our capacity for joy by purposefully practicing exercises to build joy. If children are older, we may require more creativity in order to keep them engaged while we build joy, but it is well worth the effort. Watch what happens when your face lights up to see someone you love today!

I highly recommend Joy Starts Here: The Transformation Zone here and 30 Days of Joy for Busy Married Couples here to jumpstart your joy today.


My Joy This Week

My sons are very blessed to grow up in a home where they are learning relational skills. These skills are the foundation my boys will need to navigate life and relationships. Many of us were not so lucky to learn relational skills early in life.

Just this last week I enjoyed the privilege of leading a group of motivated people who earnestly wanted transformation in their lives and relationships. I led what we call Track One of THRIVE Training. This is one of four training tracks we offer through our 5-day interactive training events. What a blessing it was to watch people change in the same week! It makes me think of a butterfly bursting forth from a cocoon!

Monday the group arrived eager to learn but trepidatious and unsure what to expect. Some people came in feeling low on energy, low on joy and a bit frazzled. In spite of this these courageous people were in pursuit of the 19 brain-based relational skills that are practiced at THRIVE and each person was intent to bring the skills home to pass on to their families and communities.

You see, ideally these skills would have been passed on to us by our family and community members early in our formative years. Once learned, we would have used these skills throughout our lives without even thinking about it. By adulthood we would be experts using the skills and we would be ready to pass them onto the next generation of young minds. Unfortunately, for many of us, we are simply trying to survive life, navigate relationships the best we can and fumble our way through parenting – without the necessary tools. We know there must be more.

One simple skill that many of us are either weak in or not utilizing to its full potential is Skill 2, Quieting. Calming and quieting help us get through the emotional roller coaster of daily life and the intense overwhelm of hard times. When we do not have this skill we may push ourselves to the point of exhaustion and burnout. We may run ourselves ragged each day without moments to recharge, much like using our phone all day without plugging it in. We end up with a depleted, drained battery.

One simple test to see how effectively you can use this skill is to take 5 minutes of silence. Set a timer, breathe deeply and notice how you feel when you finish.  Are your muscles relaxed? Did your thoughts and busy mind slow and settle down? Is your breathing deep and calm? (Mothers and fathers with little ones, you may have to try this when your littles are napping in order to find some quiet.) If you answered No to any of the above, it is likely you could use more practice. Don’t worry; most of us can use more practice with this essential skill.

For me, when I first tried this exercise my mind would busily race with a To Do list. My muscles tightened and tensed as though I was preparing for a marathon. I held my breath as the long list of items swirled through my mind. It took a lot of practice quieting in the calm moments in order to improve my ability to use this skill. Thankfully, I can now quiet myself very quickly – even in the midst of chaos. Once you are effective at using this skill you will be able to take a few deep breaths in the midst of screaming children full of demands and feel your body relax – even when nothing changes in your circumstances. As parents, the skill of quieting can really be a sanity saver!

My THRIVE group this week spent a lot of time practicing skills such as quiet, joy, appreciation, engaging stories, interacting with God, disconnecting to rest and fun exercises designed to build emotional resiliency. By Friday I saw joy breaking out regularly on their faces. There was a deep sense of peace in the room each session and I noticed attendees were spreading appreciation to those around them. This group appeared fully alive and one person even commented that this training week was the most amazing experience of her life. These are skills that have changed my life, my marriage, my family and my parenting, so it is extremely rewarding to see how people are learning and passing on the skills so that more families and communities will receive the blessing of joyful transformation.

These skills are so valuable to us as parents. Not only can they make the difference between barely surviving parenting and thriving despite our circumstances, they are also crucial to our children and preparing them with the tools they will need to navigate life as they grow. If you would like to join me at one of our in-person training events, learn more by visiting THRIVE Training as well as our weekend Joy Rekindled marriage retreats. To start practicing these skills in small groups or with a friend, check out Transforming Fellowship, Joy Starts Here, Connexus and 30 Days of Joy for Busy Married Couples.


BIG upset and BIG joy

Like many of us, Matthew, my six year-old son, continues to learn how to handle BIG feelings. Just today he was having trouble listening and obeying my instructions so I took away a privilege. At this point the little guy became very upset with BIG reactions. Once my little negotiator realized he couldn’t talk me into restoring his privilege, his upset escalated. This interaction was heading south while negative emotions intensified.

At this point we were driving home and he started saying he wished he was never made. Talk about painful and intense! When I heard this, I synchronized with him. I validated his BIG feelings and affirmed that he must be very mad and super sad to wish he was never made. I shared how his absence would make Mommy, Daddy and little brother very sad since we love him and are glad he is in our family. Next, I mentioned that because Jesus is the One who made him, we should ask Jesus if there is anything He would want us to know about this. After a few moments of listening, Matthew said he didn’t hear anything because he wasn’t listening. It was clear to me this was not the right time to force an interaction with Jesus but some mutual quieting was needed.

My husband Chris and I make a purposeful effort to interact with Jesus on a daily basis, during good and hard times. This daily pursuit of interaction with the Living God is what we and our colleagues call an Immanuel Lifestyle. We desire to pass on this example and teach our boys the same purposeful skill. Because of this goal, we have given the boys practice since they were young. This process works best if the boys begin from a place of appreciation and gratitude, so we start out by inviting the boys to talk about something that, “makes them smile.” Next, we encourage them to ask Jesus what He wants each of them to know, then we suggest they pause and pay attention to thoughts or images that come to mind. After several seconds we follow up with the question, “Did Jesus give you any ideas or pictures?” and we wait for a response. We help the boys sort through the responses in their heads in order to figure out whether a thought brings them peace and if it lines up with what Jesus might say to them. As parents, it is important that we maintain our connection with Jesus as we walk with our children through this process and help them discern their thoughts. We have had success with the boys since they were 3 years old, although their responses are more consistent as they grow older.

Now back to Matthew’s BIG feelings. So, after some quieting and a bit of time passed, I entered his room, sat on the floor and started playing with him and his Legos. While we were playing, I asked him to tell me about something that brings a smile to his face. Matthew quickly shared about his favorite swing set from our summer vacation. After a few minutes of reminiscing, I mentioned how sad I felt earlier in the day when he was sad and mad, and he wished he wasn’t made. He looked down for a moment then I suggested we ask Jesus what we should know about those BIG feelings. After asking and listening, Matthew shared that he had a picture of Jesus standing in front of him with a BIG smile on His face. This made me smile. I affirmed that this picture sounded like a gift from Jesus since Jesus is glad to see him. I then suggested Matthew ask Jesus what he should know about the image in his mind. After a few moments Matthew said with a smile, “Jesus said He is glad that He made me because He loves me.” This thought gave both of us BIG grins! I suggested Matthew follow up once more to see if there is anything else Jesus wanted him to know. Now Matthew answered that he had a funny movie in his head, so I suggested he check in and ask Jesus what Matthew should know about the funny movie. Matthew replied, “Jesus likes to be silly with me because He loves me”. We ended the interaction with giggles and big smiles.

While I have no doubt there will be more moments where BIG feelings arise, and possibly other times Matthew wishes he wasn’t made, at least now we have a foundation we can build on. Now I can refer him back to this so that Matthew can reconnect with Jesus.

I share this because all of us can model what it looks like to talk with Jesus about anything and everything. Our children, grandchildren, friends and community can learn that Jesus is a good place to turn to during moments of joy or when painful emotions and problems strike. We do not have to be perfect parents but skill practice goes a long way. One of the best gifts we can give our children is the opportunity to discover that Jesus is always present and available. In this way God’s patient and gentle presence becomes a never-ending resource to carry them through the ups and downs of life.