Tag: Relational Circuits

Remaining Relational with Flattened Flapjacks

Last night my family enjoyed our weekly tradition of breakfast for dinner. As my boys were devouring their pancakes, I remembered the item I found under the living room rug last week. Pancakes. Yes, that’s correct. Pancakes.

A few weeks ago my sons thought it would be funny to sneak a few pancakes, and hide them under the large rug in the living room. I discovered this a couple of weeks later after the pancakes were ground into the rug and smashed, then hardened onto the wood floor beneath the rug. As you can imagine, I was not pleased to find this hidden treasure!

I felt anger rise in me. My relational brain began to short circuit. I knew I was too angry to stay relational when I talked with them about this, so I asked them to go play in their rooms. I said, “We will talk about this problem after I calm down.”

To be honest, taking a pause to calm myself before I interact with the kids over a misbehavior is not something that comes naturally to me. I have to be very intentional to remain relational in these moments. This is one of the elements of a RARE leader. For the next 4 weeks I will share something about each element needed to be a RARE leader as described by Dr. Marcus Warner and Dr. Jim Wilder in the book RARE Leadership. It may be strange to think of yourself as a leader, but if you are a parent, you are leading your children and your family. RARE stands for Remain Relational, Act Like Yourself, Return to Joy, and Endure Hardship. This week I want to focus on remaining relational, which includes how to keep relationships bigger than problems.

One big challenge parents face is how to affirm to their children they are more important than the messes they create. In the moment when a child disobeys, hurts a sibling, breaks something, acts disrespectfully, lies or colors on the wall, it is hard to remember that the child is more important than the problem. As parents we have to stay relational and calm ourselves in order to effectively convey that the child is more important than the issue they have created. This is true for all of us, parents or not. This skill can be especially hard when the child’s behavior “pushes our buttons” and triggers our own unprocessed pain. Sometimes the simple act of disobedience makes us feel out of control. We say things like, “They should know better!”

I often catch myself feeling like an “infraction of the rules” is an emergency to be dealt with RIGHT NOW and there is no time to slow down and calm myself. Mind you, this is not my conscious thought. This is what my emotional reaction tells me. Sometimes I also catch myself feeling embarrassed by their behavior. I may notice that I suddenly feel like a failure as a mother and, after years of teaching and guidance, they would still act this way. It is in these low-joy moments when I need to ask Immanuel how He sees me, the situation, and my children so that my actions will line up with my love for them.

In the case of the pancakes smashed beneath the rug, it also meant waiting to give the consequence to my boys until I calmed myself, prayed about it and talked to Chris. Most of the time I may not need all of these steps, but sometimes I do, especially for the big infractions that really push my buttons.

After calming myself and praying about an appropriate response, I talked with Matthew and Andrew. I told them that, unfortunately, what they thought was silly and fun was damaging. I expressed that I understood they were not trying to damage the rug. However, because they were not thinking about the consequences of their actions they created a big problem. I told them they would have to pay me all of their allowance money they had been saving for a Lego toy to pay for a new rug.

My boys were distressed about this consequence and I was glad I had calmed myself so I could synchronize with their big feelings then help them calm down. Once the stormy sea of emotions had settled, I helped them interpret how, in the real world, there are consequences when we destroy property that belongs to other people. Over the next few days I gave the boys opportunities to earn extra money around the house.

Looking back on this ordeal, I am thankful I was able to recognize that I was too upset to interact with the boys about their behavior. I knew I was not going to stay relational because my brain’s relational circuits were off, and I needed a bit of self-care. Everything in relationship goes more smoothly when I can keep my relational circuits on and remain relational. My sons learned a valuable lesson about the consequences of their actions – opposed to simply learning that putting pancakes under the rug will make Mommy mad.

Next time you find yourself upset by your children, a spouse or a coworker, take a deep breath and ask yourself, “Do I feel ready to handle this situation relationally, or do I need to calm myself first?” I hope you will read the wonderful book, RARE Leadership.

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When Brotherly Love Heads South

I just walked out of the shower this morning when I heard my son sobbing in his room. I was surprised by this sound so I quickly ran into his room and scooped him in my arms. I asked, “Andrew, tell me what happened!”

Between sobs and slobber, Andrew managed to utter, “Matthew says he hates me!” I pulled my son closer and stroked his hair. I replied, “I am so sorry buddy. Those are mean words, and words can really hurt!”

At this point I noticed my anger starting to build towards Matthew. He broke a cardinal rule in our home. We do not say the word “hate” in our house – not even about our least favorite vegetable, let alone a person!

I felt the need to jump into action and make this situation right. I started contemplating what consequence would be enough to help Matthew avoid using these mean words again. It was this moment when I realized I shifted into “Fix It” mode. I felt like I had to right this wrong immediately and I knew my relational circuits were off. At this point my brain’s problem solver had taken over, focusing on results instead of hearts. I took some deep breaths and reminded myself this is not an emergency. I recognized the most important thing I could do was help Andrew calm down and get back to joy from his big feelings. I continued to hold him and stroke his back while he cried.

After a bit of time Andrew was back to his calm (but sad) self, so I left his room. I walked into Matthew’s bedroom and noticed he was lying on his bed. I asked him if I could talk with him about something important. He said “Yes, Mommy” then I questioned him about the reasons he said he hated Andrew. Matthew responded by telling me Andrew hit him hard in the face “on purpose” and it really hurt, so Matthew told Andrew he hated him. After more interviewing I was able to glean additional details about the interaction. Apparently both boys were having a fun, playful battle with “weapons” and Andrew accidentally hit Matthew in the face with the belt to his bathrobe. I synchronized with Matthew’s sadness about getting hit in the face. I then pointed out that whenever they play fighting games, the odds are very high that one or the other will end up getting injured. I suggested playful fighting is probably not a good idea if Matthew is uncomfortable with the occasional injury.

We continued the conversation by discussing the house rule about saying the “hate” word. I asked Matthew if he realized his speech caused Andrew to spend the last 30 minutes crying in his room. I said, “Matthew, is this the effect you want to have on your brother?” He looked at me with big eyes and nodded “No.” I clarified, “Matthew, hate is not simply a mean word, but it is a very cruel word. For this reason we do not say this word to a person. Using this word with a person can create a deep pain and sadness.” I could see Matthew was attentively listening and learning.

A while ago my husband and I created a useful rule in our house. Any time one of our sons says something unkind, the offender has to share 3 things he appreciates about the other person. While I was helping Andrew calm down, the thought occurred to me that I should use this new rule, but take it a step farther. In this case, I told Matthew that because his words were beyond simply mean, he needed to come up with 10 things he appreciated about Andrew. Yes, I said 10!

Matthew needed to give this some thought until he came up with 10. When he had his list, he could join the rest of us downstairs to share his appreciation with brother.

It took a while, but eventually Matthew joined us at the breakfast table armed with his list. Before Matthew even started sharing his list, the tone in the room was filled with hurt and sadness. Andrew still had not fully recovered from his hurt feelings with big brother. Once Matthew began expressing his appreciation toward Andrew, I noticed a change. Andrew’s face and countenance appeared lighter. The frown slowly melted away. By the end of the 10 appreciations, Andrew and Matthew were smiling and giggling. Joy was restored.

I was feeling thankful myself, particularly because I had insisted Matthew come up with 10 appreciations for Andrew instead of 3. I noticed during the time Matthew was sharing, by number 3, Andrew had not yet fully recovered from the relational rupture. He needed the extra boost from the list.

While sharing appreciation qualities with someone after a relational rupture will not always bring the relationship back to joy, I find that most of the time it does thaw the ice and activate relational circuits. It is here where both sides begin to find some traction and get the relationship back where it needs to be. Go on, share some appreciation with someone today!

Next week I will be starting a four week series on the four elements of RARE Leadership as it applies to parenting. I hope you tune in to check it out!

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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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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 Brain’s Relational Real Estate

My husband and I had a wonderful time seeing old friends and making new friends at the recent Life Model Works Annual Gathering this past week. This conference was a success and each day was filled with joy and special moments from beginning to end.

Chris was busily training attendees on the 19 relational brain skills as well as emceeing the event while I worked on troubleshooting problems and overseeing volunteers and speakers. The days were long which means this past week was not a time of rest and relaxation. To top it off, I ended up catching a cold so the combination of busyness and sickness left me feeling worn down. By the time I returned home I noticed my energy levels were low.

Things came to a head this morning when it was time to get out of bed but my body refused to move. Chris was out of the house early for a doctor appointment and my blaring alarm clock felt like an intrusive annoyance preventing me from the sleep I craved. Well, in truth it was not an option to stay in bed because I needed to drive my son Matthew to school. Feeling sick as well as tired, I was in a sour mood from the moment I opened my eyes. Things quickly culminated by the end of breakfast as I was encouraging my boys to put on their shoes so we could get out the door. They were not responding to me so my frustration along with my diminished relational capacity led to some scowling and snapping on my part. By the time we all climbed into the van the thought occurred to me: “My relational circuits (RC’s) are way off!”

I knew I did not want to send my boys out for the day on a grumpy note, so I decided to try and wake up my relational brain. Because I am usually the one reminding my boys to activate their relational circuits, I thought they would enjoy the opportunity to coach me this time around. I said, “Boys, Mommy’s RC’s are off. What do you think I should do to get them back on again?”

In case you are wondering what relational circuits are, I refer to this topic in previous blogs but I have not spent much time explaining them. Relational circuits are a specific part of our physical brain that, when functioning and working, help us feel connected with people. We have the desire to connect. When our relational circuits are dimmed or off, we lose our desire for connection and we no longer experience joy with the people around us. We no longer value or care about what others around us are thinking or feeling. We no longer correctly gauge our impact on others. Everything in life and relationships runs better when our relational circuits are on because we can be our best relational self to navigate the smooth or bumpy terrain of relationships. Thankfully, we all can learn how to recognize the moments our relational circuits are off then take the necessary steps to restore our RC’s.

During the events Chris and I run, we spend a good portion of time training people to recognize the status of their relational circuits and keep them on. Thanks to the work and resources of Dr. Karl Lehman. Dr. Jim Wilder, and Ed Khouri, we have lists available to help people identify the status of their relational circuits. Below is a condensed list with questions you can ask yourself. If you answer “Yes” it is likely your relational circuits are off.

  •      I just want to make a problem, person or feeling go away.
  •      I don’t want to listen to what others feel or say.
  •      My mind is “locked onto” something upsetting.
  •      I don’t want to be connected to __? (someone I usually like)
  •      I just want to get away, or fight or I freeze.
  •      I more aggressively interrogate, judge and fix others.

If you answer “Yes” to any of these questions, the next step is to restore your relational circuits by 1. practicing appreciation and gratitude or 2. utilizing the Shalom My Body exercises. You can watch the Shalom my Body sequence here on YouTube. With practice, you can quickly distinguish the moments your relational brain is on from the moments your relational brain is off. The contrast between the two is remarkable.

Now back to my morning. The boys enjoyed giving me suggestions how to get my RC’s back on. Before we pulled out of the driveway, all of us were giggling and laughing. My relational circuits were brightly shining. I felt deeply satisfied sending my sons out for the day on a high and joyful note!

I recommend you pursue resources by Dr. Karl Lehman at www.kclehman.com and Dr. Jim Wilder at joystartshere.com for more information on the brain’s relational circuits. Specifically the Connexus for a thriving community is a great resource on relational circuits.  Chris and I wrote 30 Days of Joy for Busy Married Couples to give marriages a relational, joyful boost

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