Tag: Joy

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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Raising Resilient Children

I want to have a heart to heart with you about raising resilient children. These are children who bounce back and recover when things go wrong. Children who respond to the curve balls of life and relationships with flexibility and fortitude. Children who can quiet and calm themselves on the good and bad days. I think it’s safe to say that every loving parent wants to raise a resilient child, but the million-dollar question is, “How, exactly, do we do this?”

Should we hurry our kiddos through their tears? Do we tell them to “get over it” and “put on a strong face” so that nothing hurts them? Do we toughen them up by minimizing their feelings? I hate to say it, but the best way to ensure we do not raise a resilient child is to let our fears dictate our parenting style. I’m not going to lie. This is a tough one.

Last week we looked at how we can help ourselves navigate hardship well. Now the question is, “How do we help our children learn this difficult, but valuable skill?” How do we teach young, formative brains to be resilient?

It may shock you to know that those who are the most resilient are the most comfortable with their feelings. These are children who have learned from mom, dad, grandparents, teachers and coaches how to feel big feelings and stay relationally connected as they learn to calm down. Oftentimes we have to face our own fears of our child looking weak in order to help them become strong. Think about that. We have to accept our child looking weak so they can be strong. In order to do this we have to be comfortable with our own weaknesses. Are you still with me? We have to learn that, in spite of our own failures and follies, God is still God. God can work with our mess ups and grow good things from the garden of our weaknesses.

It takes a ton of practice to learn how to manage what we feel. Even in my adult body, with so much more capacity than my sons, I still have days when my big feelings get the best of me. Ouch! I hate it when this happens. So, how exactly can we help our children learn this valuable skill when they have significantly less emotional capacity and maturity than we do?

As adults, it is our job to stay relationally connected to others while we feel our big feelings. Whether we like it or not, our children learn to endure hardship by our example, not our words. Depending on their age and level of maturity, our children need us to first attune and synchronize with them so they learn to navigate and calm the stormy sea of feelings and fears. In this way, children learn to stay relationally connected in the midst of their distress.

The daily practice of skills during the “easy” times provide us with the tools we need during the tough times. As we discussed in previous weeks, Remaining Relational, Acting Like Ourselves and Returning to Joy are vital to practice so we have these skills available when we need them. The relational brain skills of joy, quieting, appreciation, four-plus stories and joy bonds with our children all increase emotional capacity to endure hardship with style and grace. Some of these may be skills we are painfully aware that we are missing. Here is the good news. We can proactively learn these skills and we can find others in our family and community who have these skills to be resources. Just think about the people you know. Who lights up to see you and your children? Who recovers well when things go wrong? Who stays flexible during the hard times?

Chris and I recognize the reality that our boys need more than we can give them. Because of this realization, we work extra hard to surround them with people who bring out the best in them. In this way, my sons experience a diversity of skills. For example, my babysitters don’t know it, but when I first met them, I was actually interviewing them to see if they would be a source of joy, play, quieting and other skills for my sons. You see, play is not something that comes naturally to me. This is something I have to work very hard on day in and day out. It has been extremely rewarding to watch my boys play with their babysitters, knowing that, in spite of my deficits, they are still getting a lot of opportunities to play.

In order to train our children in the skills needed to endure hardship, we must first practice them. Please do not expect something from your children that you are not willing to do yourself. Every one of us can strengthen our own skills and prayerfully find and surround our children with safe people who are strong where we are weak. You are worth the effort. Your children are worth the effort. Let’s start by asking God to meet us right where we are and find the resources and opportunities to grow. Read RARE Leadership and learn more about these essentials for your most treasured relationships.

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Returning to Joy

At my son’s final swim lesson of the season, the instructor led my 7-year old to the deep end of the pool to practice freestyle swimming. This step removes the temptation to stand on the bottom of the pool and, instead, turn to the side in order to take a breath. When Matthew initially tried this new step, he successfully navigated the process – until it was time to breathe. He tried to put his feet down and, as you can imagine, when he could not reach the bottom his survival circuit kicked in. He freaked out, bobbed under the surface, then swallowed some water. This startled him. He lost it and started screaming.

I jumped into action and grabbed him from the pool. I quickly wrapped him in a towel then helped him calm down by rubbing his back. As he quieted I affirmed how scary it was to end up with water in his mouth instead of air. He quickly agreed with my assessment. He then said, “I don’t want to get back into the pool…EVER!”

I again validated how scary it is to feel like we cannot breathe. Next, I comforted and assured him that he was going to be ok. When he appeared calm I reminded him that he knows how to paddle as well as float on his back in the water. I said, “Matthew, whenever you need to catch your breath all you have to do is practice one of these options that you already know.” He now looked intrigued. I could tell he was processing this and, after doing the math, he decided it was time to return to the pool. Remembering he had skills at his disposal allowed him to successfully complete his swimming lesson. Thankfully, he ended the pool training adventure on a positive note.

In this case I could help Matthew return to joy from his fear. Every one of us has big feelings and it is wonderful when we can help our children learn how to navigate their big feelings so they do not get stuck or develop unhelpful strategies to avoid certain emotions. The goal of returning to joy is to discover we can survive big emotions by feeling, sharing and quieting the emotions. We learn to use validation and comfort as the one-two punch whenever big feelings arise, but the validation must come first.

When we validate, “Oh my! This was really scary for you!” before we comfort, “I am glad to be with you in this. You are going to be alright!” it helps our children to better receive our comfort. When we put the cart before the horse and try to offer comfort before the validation with, “You are fine” children will not feel as seen and understood. At this point it is difficult for them to receive our comfort and they are left feeling alone and misunderstood.

Let’s look at another return to joy example, this time from anger. Matthew hit his little brother with a toy the other day. As a consequence, I took the toy away. Matthew was very sad to lose his new toy. I acknowledged how sad he was feeling. I affirmed how sad it can be to miss out on the fun a special toy provides. “I sure would feel upset if I lost my new toy as well!” I told him. By validating his feelings, I can then enter in and share his experience with him, even though I am the source of his displeasure in this situation. After validating him I can offer comfort and help him quiet his feelings. I say, “There are other toys you can play with tonight and tomorrow you can have your toy back if you are kind to your brother.”

In order to train your children in these important relational skills, you have to be able to return to joy yourself. If you are unable to return to joy from the emotion your child is feeling, you may end up minimizing their feelings or you may feel inadequate to join them in their feelings. Even though our intentions may be good, we can shut our children down when they experience emotions we cannot manage ourselves. This does not make us a bad parent but it does explain why the emotions we parents struggle with are the very same emotions our children struggle with as well. The six negative emotions are sadness, anger, disgust, shame, fear and hopeless despair. Which of these emotions do you find difficult?

Learn more about return to joy in the RARE Leadership book and Skill 11 in Transforming Fellowship. If you want to practice the brain skill, I hope you will join us for one of our hands-on THRIVE Training events. If you missed the previous posts in the series on RARE Leadership in the home check out Remaining Relational here or Acting Like Myself here.

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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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