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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7 comments

  1. Brad Gustin says:

    Good stuff. I wonder if you could have replaced empathy with synchronized and had more of your audience unfamiliar with synchronization on board. The language doesn’t present some struggles so it’s hard to follow or replicate unless you are in the know. Besides how is synchronize much different from empathy. Isn’t we empathy the ability to step into your shoes, see through your eyes, feel what you might be feeling?

    I was a bit surprised that it didn’t bother you that after hurting his brother there was no desire in your son to comfort him. I’m sure you know how to help your kids better than I do. But it’s so easy to miss the chance at a tender response to weakness, hurt in another is a defining mark of Jesus character we want our kids to develop.

    I love recovering with my kids when I can handle going there with them into those feelings. The other thing is how do we move beyond making their feelings the biggest deal, how do we move them from it’s about them to it’s about others.

    Just a shot in dark. My 9 and 6 are wrestling on the bed. The six gets knocked off, I empathize pretty quick as he is in tears. Then I switch to as long as I don’t see malice, being hurtful on purpose/spite/retaliation. Looks okay by me. Maybe it is a dad difference then I say yup you got hurt, making it not about his brother, if you want to stop I get it. He dusted himself off and attacked his brother with a new energy.

    I guess not having the models available, it is guess work. I like what you are doing, I enjoy hearing about your application stuff.

    Really helpful.

    • Jen Coursey says:

      Thank you Brad, those are good suggestions. We use synchronization because it is the “locking of minds” that I am referring to, but there is a lot of overlap between synchronization and empathy.

      Andrew does usually want to comfort his brother when Matthew is hurt, although Matthew is usually so quick to respond with hurtful words Andrew often gets defensive before he gets in touch with his desire to comfort. This is one of the things we are working on.

      Good question about how to move our kids from things being all about them to also about others. A big part of that is their age and maturity level. For infants, it is all about their needs. Starting at the child stage of maturity (around 4 years old) is when they start to learn how to care for their own needs and to consider others. If children’s feelings/upsets are met with validation (I can see how upset you are) and then comfort (we are going to be ok), they will learn how to validate and comfort themselves. If we try to comfort (“you are ok”) before we validate (“that was upsetting”), it is harder for them to receive the comfort. Validation helps them feel seen and understood and when a child is validated and comforted, that is when they are able to move past it being all about their feelings. If you haven’t read it, I would encourage you to check out RARE Leadership for more on this. http://www.lifemodel.org/shopping/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=1&products_id=1

      I wasn’t present when the “injury” happened, so I wasn’t able to help Matthew realize getting hurt was a natural part of play fighting and not something his brother did intentionally. Usually I try to help them recognize this, and also point out that if they are not ok with an occasional bump, they are not ready to play fight.

      Glad I can share our journey as we work to apply these skills on our parenting journey!

  2. This is so great Jen! I saw Anna kang do the same thing. You and Anna Kang must have gained the wisdom from the same Father who values hearts over results. Thank you for sharing your ‘real life’ story. It is always helpful to hear how others with a trained brain would handle an heated moment since my brain can picture myself imitate the ‘better option’ for the next time. Thank you Jen and keep sharing your life giving stories!

    • Jen Coursey says:

      Thank you Sungshim. My initial response is to feel like the problem needs to be dealt with immediately, so it is counter-intuitive for me to slow down and I have to remind myself “this is not an emergency” so I can keep the relationship bigger than the problem.

  3. Marsha Kumar says:

    Love this. Love how you realized that your RC;s were off and went to Matthew to get the details without blowing up. I kind of think I would have been ready to blow up also. Great blog. Hmmmm 10 appreciation points. Now that’s awesome

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