Tag: Joy

What I Like About You!

Sometimes my sons say hurtful words to each other. As we all know, words can hurt. Because my husband and I have little patience for unkind speech, we are highly motivated to put a stop to this behavior. We have tried a number of methods to instill change. All too often we end up correcting an instigator and calming an injured party. Recently my husband and I tried something new.

Guess what? It works! In fact, our new plan works really well. We are relieved to have something life-giving to utilize and teach our sons. Today, I want to share it with you.

When one child says something mean, the initiator of irritation must share 3 things he appreciates about his brother. For example, when Matthew says something mean to Andrew, Matthew then goes back to Andrew and expresses 3 things he appreciates/likes/enjoys about his brother. This sounds all too easy because it is. Sort of. But it works.

Just the other day Matthew said something mean to Andrew who then started crying. In his upset, Andrew said, “Matthew is ALWAYS mean!” I found Matthew and told him to go quiet himself while I comforted Andrew in his distress. It is normal for Matthew to appear relatively unconcerned when I question him about this behavior. In most cases he will justify his words and responses and show little remorse. This time, after comforting Andrew, I pulled Matthew aside and asked him if his words brought Andrew joy. He said, “No” then I reminded him who he is and who he is not. “Matthew, you are the kind of boy who brings people joy and it’s not like you to be mean. Your behavior does not match the kind of boy I know you to be.” At this point I would usually send him to repair with his brother but in a short amount of time there would be playing then fighting then we are back to square one.

This time I added a crucial step. Instead of simply repairing, I told Matthew he must return to Andrew and share 3 three things he appreciates about his little brother. Matthew went to Andrew and told him “I appreciate that you share with me. I appreciate building with legos with you and I appreciate riding our scooters together. You are fun to play with!” Moments later they decided to start a Lego project together and ran off to play together.

This is the piece that has transformed the tone of my house. Here is why it works.

First, Matthew must think of the things he appreciates about his brother. Usually these are the fun ways he enjoys playing with Andrew. Remembering moments of fun restores the relational part of Matthew’s brain. Remembering the fun moments also helps Matthew reflect on why he actually enjoys his brother and reminds him how much fun it is when he plays with his brother. When Matthew verbalizes his appreciation to Andrew, it transforms Andrew’s face and voice as he goes from grumpy and non-relational to peaceful and engaged. Andrew is reminded of how good it feels when he is getting along with his big brother and it brings the realization that, ok, Matthew is not always mean. Andrew feels appreciation as he hears Matthew’s words and hearing appreciation wakes up the relational circuit in Andrew’s brain as well so at this point both boys are glad to be together and feeling calm and connected.

This exercise has been a remarkable turnaround for the boys. After one of them shares 3 things he appreciates, both boys will decide to do a fun activity together, such as building Legos or playing tag in the yard. The fun can last a good long while without additional ruptures.

I am pleased with the progress I see in the boys as they express what they enjoy about each other whenever there is a fallout. I’m beginning to think this exercise not only helps young children but couples, coworkers, friends and families could also benefit from the effects this exercise brings. I’m pretty sure all of us would be touched and transformed if we regularly expressed the qualities we appreciate in other people. Just imagine what church, school, government and, more importantly, our families would look like! A little joy can go a long way.

Check out the book Transforming Fellowship: 19 Brain Skills that Build Joyful Community to read more about these skills.

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Facing Frightening Fears

Matthew has not learned to swim. Over the last several years my 7 year-old son has participated in a number of swimming lessons – to no avail. He refuses to put his face into the water. When he is part of a group lesson, the teacher simply does not have the time to coax or calm his fears because children are waiting in line. One well-intentioned instructor actually increased his fear by dunking him under the water – to prove there is nothing to fear. Yeah, that’s going to work! His approach sounded good in theory but did not calm an already anxious brain that needed a specialized solution during a highly anxious moment.

I have been excited this summer to help my son learn the basic skill of swimming. It is my desire for him to know how to swim so he will not drown in case he ever falls or is pushed into a pool without his “swimmies” on. I decided to pursue private lessons in order for him to have an experienced teacher take the time to help him learn this new skill and overcome his fears.

Thankfully, I found a wonderful girl in town who agreed to give both of my sons swimming lessons. Last week we went to her pool for the first lesson. It started out well. Matthew enjoyed his time in the water – up to the point she asked him to “bob” under the water and submerge his head. He quickly resisted her request, and expressed his fear about getting water up his nose. At this point she gently taught him the trick of blowing air out his nose when he dips under the water. After some practice he lowered his face under the water and blew air out of his nose. With a big smile he was delighted to report no water seeped into his nose!

I thought this was the end of our water struggles. Once he practiced putting his face in the water and blowing bubbles, she then asked him to try “bobbing” under the water by keeping his face under for a moment. With some energy he said “NO!” then started crying saying he was going to sink if he went under the water. I felt my stomach drop and tried to calm him down – to no avail. He then climbed out of the pool, curled into a ball and cried. He then begged to stay out of the water. I knew he was having big feelings at this point and his brain’s relational circuits were offline.

I took a breath and tried helping him calm down some more. In desperation, I next tried to bribe him with ice cream if he followed the teacher’s instructions. I tried reasoning with him and pointed out that he was not going to sink. After all, the teacher was right next to him and could help him if he needed a hand! Nope. Nothing. No words helped as his brain’s survival circuit at this point was kicked into full gear so it was time to feel safe – outside of the pool. We finished the lesson with Andrew, my 5-year old, paddling around and going under the water like a fish, begging to jump in again and again.

On our drive home Matthew was still visibly upset. He looked at me and said, “I wish I was like Andrew, because he is not afraid of the water!” I felt my heart sink. He genuinely wanted to follow the teacher’s instructions. He really wanted to swim. There was only one problem. His will power was no match for his big fears. You see, he was feeling terror in the brain’s emotional control center, what we call Level 2. You can read this article for more on this part of the brain but the fear responses at this level are big, bad and scary. This is not a relational part of the brain so we simply react and try to survive a scary encounter.

I knew that words and information would not fix this problem – nor would bribes or pleas. This part of the brain is subcortical (below the brain’s cortex so it’s deep) and is not subject to will power or coercion. This is the area of the brain where phobias, fears and post traumatic stress strikes so the reactions are intense, unmanageable and overwhelming. I knew my son needed a better intervention if he was going to put his head under the water.

When we arrived home, I pulled him aside and talked about his fear. I said, “Matthew, I also feel really afraid of things, like being too high off the ground.” He was now curious to hear how I handle my fear. I knew this was the perfect time to tell some good stories demonstrating how I faced my fear of heights. I pointed out how his water fear is similar to the fear he used to have with bees, only now he has learned to calm himself instead of panicking when a bee approaches. We reviewed how he calms down when bees buzz around him. He starts by taking deep breaths. He notices how he feels in his body, which helps to activate the captain in the brain’s control center, what we call Level 4. This is the brain region God has given us to calm our strong Level 2 reactions. Now Matthew was eager to try the same “trick” to see if it would help his swimming fears.

When it was time for the next lesson, we reviewed what to do if he was afraid. We practiced deep belly breaths. We noticed how how his body felt. I assured him that if he was too afraid, he did not have to put his head in the water. This was his choice. I am glad to say, the lesson was a success! Yes, he was nervous. Instead of amplifying his fear he calmed  himself by taking deep breaths like we practiced. He put his head under the water. With the help of an incredibly patient teacher, Matthew was improving his ability to “dip” and “bob” in the water. At the end of the lesson he said, “Mommy! I am not afraid of the water anymore!” We celebrated.

In this case Matthew was able to override his strong fears. It is important to say that not every fear will resolve this quickly and cleanly. In fact, Matthew’s fears will likely arise again, so we will need to practice his quieting skills over and over. There is the glorious hope that each of us no longer have to miss out on the things we want to do in life because of our fear. Once we learn how to activate the captain in our brain (Level 4) we can greatly improve our ability to handle the situations where we feel the intense Level 2 fear. We can also learn how to process pain and disarm the landmines that rob our joy.

You can learn more about the power of stories here.

Read how Jesus disarmed fear and conquered a scary snow monster here.

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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.

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The Appreciation Tree

This morning Andrew woke up in a sour mood. I noticed his brain’s relational circuits (RCs) were off and after several attempts to help him turn them on again, none of the normal solutions worked. His whining continued, even after I took some time to attune with his feelings and comfort him in his upset. Under normal circumstances these two steps would help him shift into a relational mode again. These signs told me a rough morning was looming on the horizon – unless something quickly changed.

My husband and I have a “No-Whining” policy in our house. This means that any question asked in a whiny voice is an automatic “No” answer. When this happens, we remind the boys they still have the opportunity to change their tone of voice and try again. In most cases this “Do-Over” works. However, on this particular morning, Andrew just could not get rid of the whiny voice.

I pointed out that in these moments of difficulty his brain’s relational circuits are off, and it’s hard to find his “strong voice” if he doesn’t get them back on. I offered to help by practicing appreciation or by doing one of the Shalom My Body exercises, but he refused. In this case, because my son is 5 years-old and growing in Child Maturity, we have practiced these steps before so I decided to let him sit in his discomfort until he was motivated enough to have me join him in one of RC restoration exercises. (The strategy can be adjusted with younger children but Andrew is learning to do hard things and ask for what he needs.) After 30 minutes of waiting he was frustrated enough with the lack of response to his whining that he requested my help. Andrew asked if I would practice some appreciation with him, and I agreed.

We sat on the couch together and he snuggled next to me. We took turns talking about things that make us smile. I like to paint, so last year we painted a large tree with leaves to hang in his bedroom. On each leaf we wrote something that makes him smile. We call this his “Appreciation Tree.” This morning we talked about some of the things he had written on the leaves such as throwing snowballs, listening to Daddy’s stories, playing on the playground, snuggling with Mommy, and more. After 5 minutes of talking about what makes him smile, we were both laughing, giggling and enjoying the benefits of returning to relational mode.

After an afternoon nap later in the day, Andrew woke up in non-relational mode. After just a few moments of talking about some of the appreciation leaves on his tree, he quickly returned to his relational self again. These moments of connection are a tremendous help for Andrew and I have observed that laughter is the key to help my 7 year-old son return to relational mode when his RCs are off. I find it helpful to know the preferred solutions for each child.

Whenever our children lose access to their relational circuits, everything in life is harder, both for them and for us as parents. We can help younger children return to relational mode when their RCs are off through attunement, sharing stories of appreciation or finding ways to giggle together. As children grow older, we can then teach them to identify and recognize the moments their RC’s are off and show them how to get relational again. This is a wonderful gift we can give children that they will use throughout life. For children as well as adults, our relational circuits are more likely to go off when we are hungry, tired, or even angry, so there are times some food or rest is needed.

What sorts of things cause you to go non-relational? What helps you shift back into relational mode again? These are topics worthy of much discussion with our families and friends. Share this blog with anyone you think will benefit!

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The Big Bad Buzzing Bees

Last summer Matthew, my 7 year-old son, was stung two times. One time a bee got him while a wasp stung him the second time. These moments made a BIG impression on him. He quickly formed a strong opinion that bees and wasps are BAD and SCARY. It was clear his brain’s fight or flight circuit created an opinion and filed these fears for the future.

Because the second sting happened towards the end of summer, we did not see much of a change in his behavior. The bugs simply disappeared for the year so the threat was gone. Now that the warm weather is back and the flowers are starting to bloom, the bees are out in full force. I have noticed Matthew is showing signs of fear whenever he goes outdoors and spots a bee. He watches the bees closely then runs away at the slightest movement. His brain’s alarm bell is ringing loudly.

I recently took my two sons to a trail near my house so they could ride their bikes. It was a beautiful, sunny day. The yellow dandelions adorned the grass all around our path. As you can imagine, Matthew quickly noticed a bee along the path. He instantly swerved his bike to avoid the bee and get as far away as possible. He rode his bike off the trail, into the grass. A few minutes later he again ran his bike off the path trying to avoid an insect he thought could be a bee. He repeated this behavior several more times as we tried to enjoy our ride in the lovely sunshine. He panicked anytime he spotted something floating in the air that could possibly be a bee buzzing around.

The threat of a bee sting took over his desire to ride his bike and enjoy the outdoors. He was functioning in a constant “fight or flight” mode. While I encouraged him to take some deep breaths whenever he saw a possible bee, he couldn’t calm down. We shortened our bike ride and returned home. It was clear we were not going to enjoy the outdoors as long as my son’s fears were intensely activated.

Once safe in our home I began talking with my son about his fear. I told him how Mommy used to be terrified of bees. Using my body and voice, I acted out how I used to panic and run screaming whenever I saw a bee. My son started laughing and we laughed together. At this point I noticed a bee flying near our patio door so I walked over and pointed out to Matthew that the bee no longer scared me. Trying to inspire his curiosity, I asked him if he wanted to learn my “secret” how I learned to calm myself. He was intrigued.

I said, “Usually bees will leave you alone unless they feel threatened. Because bees can react to someone who is afraid and moves in a way that is threatening to them, they are more likely to sting if you react when you are afraid.” I told him when I learned my fear could increase the chances I would be stung, I was motivated to learn how to calm my fear.

The part of our brain that is responsible for the fight or flight response is also the root of phobias (in our training we call this Level 2 of the brain’s emotional control center). It is the area of the brain in charge once our fears increase and become strong. This brain region is non-relational, often irrational, and we can’t be talked out of being afraid. The best way to calm this region is to activate the area of our right frontal lobe called the prefrontal cortex (PFC – what we call Level 4). Level 4 is the Captain of the emotional brain and is the only region of the brain that can calm Level 2, the fear center. One of the best ways to activate Level 4 is to pay attention to how your body feels, so we can scan our body as we breathe deeply to calm ourselves.

I shared with Matthew that I learned to calm myself by taking deep breaths and pay attention to how my belly feels as I breathe deeply. I said, “Does my belly still feel tight and in knots, or do I feel calm? If my belly isn’t calm, then I need to keep taking more breaths and notice when my belly begins to feel calm again.”

Later that day we went outside. Whenever Matthew noticed something flying around, we practiced taking deep breaths and noticed how our bellies were doing. After several days of practice, he ran over to me one afternoon from the playground. With a big grin he shared, “Mommy, there was a bee right next to me and I didn’t even run away!” We both rejoiced that he had worked so hard to calm his fears and he was already seeing some results.

Sometimes the fears children have seem irrational and we may be tempted to discount or disregard our children’s fears. There may be times our own fears are irrational so we try to dismiss them. We can deal with fears that spring up by learning to calm these fears so they don’t paralyze us. This is an important brain skill and there can be times we need to share our fears with someone who is really good at calming down from intense fears so they can help us. Sometimes we need to improve our ability to notice how our body is feeling and practice breathing in order to calm ourselves. Sometimes we focus on the things that bring us joy. As always, it is a good rule of thumb to interact with Immanuel about our fears until we reach peace. We can train our brain to quiet fears so we learn, as a Psalmist once wrote, “I will not die but live!” (118:17)

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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.

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