Tag: Overwhelm

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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Enduring Hardship

This summer has been hard. For over 8 months Chris and I have been living in limbo as we wait for our house to sell. We have been anticipating this transition from Illinois to Michigan for some time, but living a week at a time is tricky. And, well, it gets old. Very old.

Keeping up a house in “showing condition” with 2 young boys has its challenges. We also have additional housemates with my husband’s 94-year-old grandmother as well as my mother who currently lives with us. These are blessings to me but as the joy increases so does the busyness.

To top it off, school is now in full force and I’m trying to figure out how the summer flew by so quickly. My main goal this past summer was to prioritize time with my sons. I believe I accomplished my goal but how can it be September? What happened to my friends June, July and August?

We have shifted some things to our new location but we are still harbored in Illinois. Between family needs, ministry work and my husband’s travel schedule, my plate is full! Can you relate to a full plate? I bet you can.

This season reminds me of another season a few years ago. My sons were 2 and 4 years-old when Chris injured his back. My husband could only work a few hours a day. He was miserably laid up on his back with ice packs most of the time. This situation meant I needed to hold down the fort with family needs, house maintenance, and ministry details. I remember feeling the strain. I was clearly in need of extra capacity to get through the trying time.

Extra capacity? How and where do we find extra capacity, exactly? Does it grow on trees? Does it use a battery charger? Maybe it comes in a can of spinach like Popeye used when he needed a boost.

If we are already practicing the topics from the previous 3 blogs, Remaining Relational, Acting Life Myself and Returning to Joy, these ingredients will help us immensely as we navigate the stormy waves of hardship. When I am going through a difficult season of life and I need to shore up my capacity, I utilize what’s called self-care. Self-care is simply the care of self and this crucial ingredient makes the difference between surviving and thriving.

For me, self-care means spending time listening to God, focusing on appreciation and quieting throughout the day. These additions create extra capacity with some “room to breathe” during the seasons when I feel as though the walls around me are closing in. It still amazes me the difference in how I feel after spending 5 minutes outdoors appreciating nature, 30 seconds taking some deep breaths or 10 minutes crying out to God in my prayers and journal as I wait to hear His voice and receive a fresh dose of peace. These are short little windows of time that sustain me for the day and refresh me to endure the next mountain to climb. While longer time periods are surely a blessing, short spurts tend to be what I can find during the busy seasons.

After the short time of refreshment, I notice some of the tension leaves my body. I can breathe more easily and, even if nothing changes in my circumstances, the day feels less overwhelming. One of my favorite Bible verses is 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” During seasons of hardship I often feel weak. I feel vulnerable and more dependent upon God. In these moments I feel as though God’s power works through me most clearly.

Our nation is in a difficult time where enduring hardship is vital. My prayers for each of us are that we will figure out what it means to care for ourselves so that we can better care for those we are serving.

What does self-care look like for you? I hope you will join me next week when I talk more about enduring hardship. My focus will be on helping our children endure hardship well.

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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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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.

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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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Marshmallows, Moving and Michigan

My family is in the middle of a major transition. For over a year Chris and I have sensed God is up to something. While in prayer for God’s direction and clarity, we felt like our time in Illinois was coming to a close. We had the sense Immanuel was calling our family to a new adventure in Michigan. I felt a sense of excitement along with some dread!

You see, about 11 years ago we moved to Illinois from Michigan. Since that time, we have dreamed of returning one day to the land of lakes, ice cream and cherries. My husband and I have the flexibility to continue our ministry from wherever we live, so this direction worked out well to continue doing the work we love from the place we love.

To be honest, I am not a big fan of change. The prospect of moving was scary. From the moment we felt God nudging us this direction we began working during the winter months to get our house on the market. We began praying for God’s timing with the sale of our house. The last two times we felt God guiding us to move, He worked in miraculous ways to quickly sell our house and settle us into our new place. Because our intention this time around was to keep our sons in school here in Illinois until the end of the school year, we expected this move to be different than previous transitions. Little did we know.

As soon as our home was on the market and ready to sell, I began to fearfully question whether Chris and I were doing the right thing. Keeping our home in “perfect showing condition” with 5 and 7-year old boys along with my husband’s dear 94-year-old grandmother, has been stressful. While God continues to encourage and faithfully guide us along in this new adventure, I find myself dreading the thought of starting over. Starting from scratch feels, well, it feels overwhelming to me. Can you relate?

Anyhow, now that the boys are done with school I feel restless. I am eager to sell our home. The urge to, “Get this move over with already!” becomes stronger with each passing day.

Recently, I was praying and expressing to God my desire to have our house sell. “Sooner rather than later would be GREAT God!” I desperately pleaded. I then sensed Immanuel remind me that when I feel afraid, my way of handling fear is that I simply want to get it over with. Quickly. Now.

I sensed Immanuel tell me that He knows I am scared about the process of finding new friends and getting plugged in to a new community. He understands I feel worried about getting the boys settled. Yet, I sensed Him saying, “I have everything covered. I am going before you and preparing your path. My timing is for the best possible transition.”

After hearing this from God I felt a deep, profound peace settle over me. It was at this point an odd thought popped into my mind. “Do you want one marshmallow or two?”

This thought reminded me of the study on delayed gratification a team of Stanford researchers led by Walter Mischel first performed in the 1960’s. Basically, they left a young child in a room with one marshmallow in front of them. The children were given instructions they could eat the marshmallow or wait until the adult returns and have two marshmallows instead of one. Sounds easy, right? Well it was not so easy. Those who waited for a second treat often creatively distracted themselves in some way while waiting up to 20 minutes for the adult to return. Those who gave in to their cravings would usually sit and stare at the marshmallow before gobbling up the treat.

I felt like God was showing me that waiting on His timing would bring the best possible outcome for this transition. If I push for my timing to “get this move over with” I will be settling for less than the best that He has for me and my family. I sensed Immanuel asking me to trust Him and rest in His timing. I quickly answered, “Yes!” Then I proceeded to give Him permission to help me during the inevitable moments I begin to doubt and worry. I felt comforted that God has all the timing worked out, including Chris’ travel schedule, our July THRIVE Training, the boys starting school, etc. As only God can, I sensed He is going to work everything out. At this point I took a deep breath and relaxed.

While I still check in with Immanuel for daily doses of peace, I am excited to see what the Good Shepherd has in store for my family. Where do you need some peace today?

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