Tag: Repair

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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Behavior Tells A Story

The last month has been incredibly chaotic. On top of an exceptionally busy time with my ministry responsibilites, we have also been in the midst of a major transition. The distribution center I started years ago has now moved out of our garage to a new location. I feel excited for this new adventure, however, this process added to an already overly full plate. I am sad to say my work stress spilled into my family time which was costly for our joy levels.

About a week ago I noticed a pattern in my youngest son’s behavior as it veered in a direction that concerned me. Andrew had become clingy. His usually joyful demeanor shifted to despondency and sadness. Frequent outbursts erupted when he failed to get his way. A few months ago Chris and I noticed an increase in whining and, with some focus on optimizing his joy levels, we overcame this pattern. This time, however, the whining had emerged with added intensity. His “listening ears” began to malfunction and stopped working. Andrew had been much more sensitive, especially when big brother teased or caused him trouble. Initially I thought my son was fighting a bug. After some time, when no sickness developed, I began to question what else could be going on. Andrew’s behavior was telling me a story, and I needed to pay attention.

After some prayerful reflection, I realized my emotional absence was taking a toll. I had been distracted. I had felt more rushed. My responses had been short instead of patient and tender. In my stressful state I had focused on keeping the household running by meeting physical needs and somehow I lost track of my sons’ emotional needs. With my relational circuits dim, I hadn’t given my children the attention and connection they deserve – and need. This painful absence created attachment pain, which is what children feel when mom and dad are unavailable and inattentive to their needs. Attachment pain leaves children feeling alone and creates anxiety, misery and restlessness. This is the last thing I want my children to feel!

Andrew has always been a caring, sensitive child. I like this about him. God has given my son a tender heart. I realized the change in my voice and infrequency of smiles on my face has instigated a downward spiral in his behavior and attitude. My normally secure child was shifting into a distracted attachment due to my overwhelm and lack of availability. His behavior was a warning signal saying, “Houston, we have a problem!”

If you are unfamiliar with attachment styles, there are two categories of patterns that develop in response to our closest relationships. These are known as secure and insecure styles. Secure attachments are the ideal attachment style for our children. These are established when mom and dad consistently meet the physical and emotional needs of their children in a timely, predictable manner. Children feel loved and secure. Children learn the world is a safe place because someone is available to meet their needs.

Next, there are three expressions of an insecure bonding pattern. These are called distracted, dismissive and disorganized attachment styles. Each of these insecure styles are based on fear where the child’s needs are not consistently met in a timely manner. Children learn their needs are unimportant, therefore the world is a scary place. These insecure styles take a toll on a child’s wellbeing and disrupt the child’s sense that having needs is a good thing. Insecure styles leave children feeling alone and overwhelmed. I am giving you a simple overview with the hope you will read more about these important bonding patterns with the chapter on Skill 17 in Chris’ book, Transforming Fellowship.

Once I realized my son’s behavioral changes were most likely the result of some attachment pain, I knew I needed to alter my behavior, quicken my responses and increase my availability. I needed to stay intentional about connecting with Andrew on his terms and in his timing. As much as possible, I made myself available whenever he wanted my attention. Yes, life is still incredibly busy and full, but the intentional effort made a drastic difference. In the span of one week I noticed more smiles, more laughter and less discontentment. Fiercely protecting times to build joy, play and rest together significantly turned around my son’s distressing reactions.

This is the second time in Andrew’s life where I needed to increase my intentionality because an insecure attachment threatened to rear its ugly head. While the first time took more effort, it paid off by forming the foundation for a faster recovery this time around.

If you notice your child’s behavior and bonding pattern is not what you want it to be, there is always hope. Like me, you can correct your pattern of connection with your child which can restore joy and increase security. At one point, Jesus’ disciples were feeling dread and attachment pain hearing about his impending absence. Jesus comforts them with His presence, saying, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”[1] At the end of the day, God’s peace anchors us in the hard times and, as parents, our attentive presence is the best gift we can give our children.

[1] John 16:33

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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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When The Going Gets Tough…

Recently I walked into my sons’ bathroom to hang a towel. While placing the towel on a rack, I stepped into a puddle. Since this pool on the floor was close to the toilet, it was safe to assume what it was. “Really?” I uttered. Then I let out a loud, “YUCK!” I cringed and quickly stepped away. At this point I was feeling a combination of disgust and anger. I belted out, “Matthew and Andrew – Come Here, NOW!”

Once my sons arrived on the scene I asked about the puddle. My youngest son informed me he accidentally peed on the floor…by mistake. I raised my voice in frustration and asked, “Andrew, why didn’t you tell me, so that I could clean this up for you?” Andrew broke eye contact and his face quickly dropped.

Trying to solve the problem at hand, I turned my sights to busily cleaning the floor as well as my foot. As I calmed down I realized I was intense with Andrew over this situation. I did not act like my relational self with my son and he was feeling some shame.

I searched for Andrew to repair. Once I found him, I apologized for the way I handled the interaction and explained that I did not reflect my heart to him, which made me sad. I explained that IF I had been acting like myself, I would have first calmed myself then spoken with him in order to protect him from my anger.

Thankfully, even though I failed to stay my relational self in the moment, this was a good opportunity to paint a picture of what it would have looked like if I had acted like myself. I helped my sons understand what I would have preferred to do and say, compared to how I actually handled myself.

In last week’s example with the pancakes, I knew that I was too upset in the moment to interact with my sons when I discovered pancakes smashed into our living room rug. In this scenario, I stayed my relational self by protecting them from my anger because I took the time to calm myself and ask God for His perspective.

Sharing stories about the times we act like ourselves provides a framework for our children to discover what it could look like for them to remain their relational selves during big emotions and difficult circumstances. Of course, the “live” version is always ideal because our “in-the-moment” example goes a long way to demonstrate (and download) this important brain skill. Stories tend to be useful because we can practice and improve our ability to highlight what is important about the scenario.

I try to draw attention to the times I act like myself so my children have an example and language for this useful skill. I say, “Mommy handled this much better than last time. I was feeling angry that you ruined the rug, but I took a deep breath to calm down then I talked with Jesus and, once I felt better, I could talk with you about the problem in a calm voice.” Also, I highlight the moments I mess up so the boys can learn what it looks like to repair. In these cases, I explain how I wish I would have handled the situation, and we go on to discuss what it would have looked like if I remained my relational self. I say, “Boys, I am sorry Mommy yelled. I was upset that you knocked over the lamp after I just reminded you not to stand on the table. I now see that I overwhelmed you, and I should have calmed myself down before talking to you. It is important for me to notice when my big feelings are overwhelming so that I can protect you from my anger.”

Regardless of whether we act like ourselves in a situation, it is a good teaching opportunity if we use the lens of acting like ourselves so that our children interpret our actions through this lens. We remind our children who they are and how it is like them to act. This step reinforces their identity and character is more important than their mistakes. I do this when I say, “Matthew, you are a kind boy. When you are mean to your brother you are not behaving like the kind person Jesus made you to be.” Also, I may tell him, “Matthew, when your friend was hurt today at church you brought the teacher over to help her. You then stayed with her to be sure she was alright. Good job acting out of the kind, protective heart Jesus gave you!” Ideally, we draw attention to the times they act like themselves as well as the times they failed to reflect the heart Jesus gave them.

Our children will learn how to act like themselves from our example as well as the examples within our families and communities. Ideally, there is a diverse skill set within our networks so children have plenty of examples to choose from. It is fairly common for people to misunderstand the acting like myself skill to mean that this refers to how I usually act, most of the time. Rather, acting like myself refers to acting in a way that reflects the person God created me to be. We rely on others to affirm, correct and see us as God sees us to gauge what this looks like under varying emotions and circumstances.

I hope you will pause and reflect on your day to notice if are moments you stayed yourself in a difficult situation – or if there was a moment you tried to but it did not go well. What does it look like for you to act like your true self? What would it look like if you live from the heart Jesus gave you while feeling anger, sadness, joy, fear, hopeless despair, disgust and shame?

When the going gets tough, we do well to stay ourselves in the midst of the distress instead of losing ourselves. You can read more on Acting Like Myself, the “A” in RARE Leadership, with the book, RARE Leadership. You can also review Skill 12 of the 19 skills in the book, Transforming Fellowship.

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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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