Tag Archive for emotional health

How Emotions Build or Destroy Trust in Your Family

We all want to have a home environment that allows us to trust one another. You know, a home in which spouses trust one another, siblings trust one another, children trust their parents, and parents trust their children. A home environment in which we can trust what someone says. We know they will not lie. They will follow through on what they have promised. We know they have the best interest of the family in mind. 

A trusting environment in our homes requires more than trustworthy individuals. It also requires our capacity to trust others. Interestingly, that’s not as simple as it sounds. For example, emotions impact our capacity to trust others. A recent study suggested that negative emotions like anger or frustration reduce our willingness to trust other people even when these negative emotions were elicited by events that did not even involve the person we struggle to trust. For instance, annoyance created by sitting in a traffic jam may reduce our capacity to trust other people in our lives.

That study aroused my curiosity, so I looked at another group of five studies. These studies revealed that:

  • Happy emotions increase our trust more than sadness or anger.
  • Only “experienced emotions” increased or decreased our trust of others. Thinking about an emotion did not impact our trust. But, dwelling on an incident that arouses happiness, sadness, or anger did. And, once again, happiness increased trust while sadness or anger decreased trust.
  • Gratitude also increased our capacity to trust others while pride, guilt, and anger reduced our capacity to trust others. And, those emotions that involve others (like anger and gratitude) had a greater impact on our levels of trust than emotions that were more personal (like pride or guilt).
  • If the cause of the negative or positive emotion is made known, it does not impact our capacity to trust the person we are currently with. For instance, if I am talking to a coworker after having experienced the annoyance of sitting in a traffic jam, I may have a reduced capacity to trust him. However, if one of us points out how annoyed I am about sitting in the traffic, the impact on my capacity to trust the other person disappears. I can now trust based solely on the current interaction.
  • Finally, the more familiar we are with a person, the less our emotions will impact our capacity to trust them. We are more likely to base our trust on past experiences with the person we know rather than any momentary emotion we might experience.

What does this have to do with families? We can apply several principles from these findings to increase levels of trust in our family.

  1. Focus on building relationships with each family member. When we have a relationship (when we are familiar with a person) our capacity to trust them is less affected by immediate emotions and based more on our long-term experience with them. Build a history of trustworthiness with your family. Follow through on your promises. Tell the truth. Act in accordance with the best interest of your family. The more our families know us, the less their immediate emotions will impact their capacity to trust us.
  2. Fill your home with positive emotions like gratitude, joy, and curiosity. Make it a practice to show gratitude daily. Become curious about each family members interests and likes. Encourage their interests and hobbies. Play. After all, positive emotions increase our capacity to trust. 
  3. When your spouse, child, or parent is upset, tired or angry, postpone any discussion and simply remain available to them. Set aside your own agenda and respond to their emotion. Offer support and encouragement. Doing so will allow them to work through the negative emotions they are feeling and preserve the trust you have in one another.
  4. When you or another family member experience a negative emotion, make it explicit. Label the emotion and identify the trigger of that emotion. By doing so you keep it from interfering with the trust in your immediate relationship and interaction.
  5. Finally, enjoy the trust you have nurtured and built in your family with the help of emotions!

The Superpower You Can Give Your Spouse

I love love…and I love reading experiments about the power of love to influence our lives. If love is powerful, then the love of a spouse is a superpower. For instance, researchers at Brigham Young University subjected 40 couples to intentionally challenging tasks on the computer while measuring their pupil diameter (a rapid and direct measure of the body’s physiological level of stress). In one group, an individual from the couple worked alone on the task. In a second group, the person’s spouse sat near them and held their hand while they worked on the task. Both groups were initially stressed BUT the group that held hands with a loving spouse calmed down much more quickly. As a result, they were able to work on the task with reduced stress levels. Just having a loving spouse nearby holding their hand reduced their stress. That’s the superpower of a loving spouse.

In her book Hold Me Tight, Dr. Sue Johnson refers to several studies that show the power of love.

  • A study by Mario Mikulincer of Bar-Ilan University in Israel monitored the heart rates of couples as they responded to scenarios of couples in conflict. Those who felt close to their partners (who knew the superpower of a spouse’s love) reported feeling less angry and attributed less malicious intent to the partner. They expressed more problem-solving initiative and made greater effort to reconnect. In other words, a partner’s love decreased feelings of anger and increased the perception of positive intent, even during arguments. That’s the superpower of a loving spouse.
  • In addition, the power of love led to a greater curiosity and willingness to try new things. That willingness to explore and have adventures with the one we love increases intimacy and personal growth. That’s the superpower of a loving spouse.
  • Jim Coyne, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania concluded from the research that the love people share with their spouse is a good a predictor of survival at four years after congestive heart failure. In fact, it’s as good of a predictor of survival as the severity of the symptoms and impairment caused by the congestive heart failure. In other words, the power of a loving spouse is at least as powerful, if not more powerful, as congestive heart failure. That’s the superpower of a loving spouse.
  • One of my favorite studies in this area shows the power love has over pain. At the University of Virginia women received MRI brain scans while under the threat of possibly receiving a small electric shock on their feet. You can imagine the stress of this threat. When a loving partner held the women’s hands, they registered less stress on the MRI. When they did receive a small shock, they experienced less pain! The happier (the more loving) the relationship, the more pronounced the effect. In other words, the power of love is stronger than shock, stress, and pain! That’s the superpower of a loving spouse.

Maybe Huey Lewis was on to something when he sang, “that’s the power of love.” Or, maybe he needed to change the lyrics to “that’s the superpower of a loving spouse.” Then again, that just doesn’t rhyme. Nonetheless, the love of a spouse is a superpower…and I’m going to share that superpower with my spouse. How about you?

Parents, Are You a Buzz-Killer or a Responsive Encourager

As parents, we want our children to learn and grow. After all, who wants to spoon-feed a child for twenty years?  No, we want them to learn and grow, to become independent and self-sufficient, responsible and mature. And do you know how children learn? They learn by exploring…and they explore everything. From the time they start putting things in their mouths they are exploring and learning about themselves, the people around them, and their environment. Unfortunately, we sometimes hinder their exploring, and their learning as a result, without even knowing it. Let me give you an example taken from an experiment completed at the University of Washington. One hundred fifty toddlers (15-months-old) sat on their parent’s lap while an experimenter sat across from them demonstrating how to use various toys. This experimenter was a “responsive encourager.” The “responsive encourager” showed the toddler the toys’ movable parts and how the toys made sounds. They rattled and buzzed and moved the toys around in response to the toddler’s excitement. The toddlers were intrigued. They leaned forward and pointed. They wanted to explore (aka—explore) the toy. But alas, a second experimenter, the “buzz-killer,” entered the room and sat nearby. The “buzz-killer” complained about the toys. The “buzz-killer” grumbled, complained, and angrily called the toys aggravating and annoying. (You can watch a variation of this experiment on video here. Notice how the child’s whole affect changes!)

The toddlers were then given the opportunity to play with the toys. One group of toddlers were allowed to play with the toys while the “buzz-killer ” sat nearby and watched them or read a magazine with a neutral facial expression. These children hesitated to play with the toys. They appeased the “buzz-killer” by limiting their exploration of the toy. They hesitated to explore the moving parts and the noises. They hesitated to engage in behaviors that would let them learn about the new toy and their environment.

A second group of toddlers had the chance to play with the toys while the buzz-killer left the room or turned her back so she couldn’t see what the children were doing. This group “eagerly grabbed the toys” and began to play with them. They imitated what the first experimenter, the “responsive encourager,” had shown them. They explored the moving parts. They explored the noises. They manipulated the toy and learned about it. They learned how it worked and they made it work. They explored and learned just as the “responsive encourager” had hoped.

Sometimes we complain about our children’s exploration. We become the “buzz-killer.” They make too much noise; we grumble. Their behaviors are aggravating and annoying; we scowl. They ask too many questions; we sigh. They get into too much stuff; we huff and puff. But when we grumble and complain, act annoyed and yell, we become the “buzz-killer” who hinders their exploration…and their learning. We hold them back from learning about their world, themselves, and the people around them. We become the “buzz-killer” in the room hindering our children’s growth.

Yes. There are times we need to set limits. There are times we will ask our children to explore more quietly, at a different time, or in a different room because we are tired or don’t feel well or just need some peace and quiet. However, we want our general response to be that of the “responsive encourager.” We want to encourage exploration, even participate and stimulate greater exploration. Because when our children explore, they learn and grow. So which are you? A “buzz-killer” who hinders learning and growth or a “responsive encourager” who promotes learning and growth?

What Bullies & Their Victims Have in Common…Really?

I know it’s a bit of a risk to say, but bullies and their victims have some similarities. At least that’s what a recent study completed by researchers from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg suggests. The researchers obtained data from the World Health Organization who had interviewed approximately 3,000 adolescents from various countries. Specifically, the researchers used data from the United States (an individualistic society), Greece (a collectivist society), and Germany (which is between individualistic and collectivistic). In each of these countries, both victims of bullying and the perpetrators of bullying had several things in common.

  1. They were both more likely to use alcohol and tobacco.
  2. They were both more likely to have somatic complaints like stomach pain, back pain, and headaches.
  3. They were both more likely to suffer from depression.
  4. They both exhibited social difficulties. For instance, they both described difficulty talking to friends or peers and they both described feeling a lack of support in their social environment.

I find it fascinating that these two groups suffer similar pain. Why do I bring this up to families? Because families can help reduce bullying by giving their children the emotional resources both groups need to live healthier, “bully-free lives.” Here are a few of those resources.

  • Develop a positive relationship with your children. Guide and discipline your children in love and grace (Do You Parent with a Club or a Staff?). Don’t bully them into obedience. Remember, relationships rule.
  • Teach your children healthy social skills. Skills like politeness and respect for others carry great power. Model and practice politeness in your family.
  • Teach your children healthy emotional management skills. Learning “emotional intelligence” is crucial for anyone’s success.  So, teach your children to label their emotions and use the energy aroused by their emotion to address healthy priorities in a healthy, respectful manner.  (Here are 6 Tips to Make Your Children’s Emotions Your Friend. )
  • Provide opportunities for your children to learn kindness If You Really Want Happy Kids, kindness is essential. Nurture kindness in your children by practicing kindness IN your family and AS a family. Volunteer together.
  • Create a home environment filled with gratitude, encouragement, and honor. Honor one another enough to verbalize gratitude and encouragement to each family member every day. Doing so will help each person develop a mindset of looking for things they are grateful for in others. As you show gratitude and encouragement, your children will follow suit.

Five things you can do to prevent bullying. It may not end bullying completely But, if enough families develop the habits described above, we might just change they world!

Your Child’s Toolbox for Self-Soothing

Children ride an emotional roller coaster. They get angry, happy, excited, bored, and so much more. You name it, they feel it. Unfortunately, they don’t know how to manage those feelings in a mature way…YET. One of our parental jobs is to teach them the skills necessary to manage emotions in a mature and effectively way.

The first step in teaching your children the skills to manage their emotions well is to make sure you manage your emotions well. (Find tips to manage your own emotion and get your teen to talk while you do in Encouraging Your Teen to Talk with You.)

The second thing you need to do is develop a strong relationship with your child, a relationship that encourages security and open communication. (Read An Amazing Parenting Insight Learned in 3 Parts and Relationships Rule for more.)

Third, develop an “Emotional Management Toolbox” with your child. Find a shoe box. Then sit down with your child to talk about ways to manage their emotions. As you talk about various methods, fill the box with items that will help them carry out the plan. Here are a few items that may prove useful in an Emotional Management Toolbox.

  • A set of emotional face cards. You can download this picture of facial expressions here or here to represent your child’s emotions. Cut them into cards, one emotion per card. Your child can use these pictures and labels to help him name the emotion he is feeling. Being able to name an emotion allows a person the time to think about the best response to that emotion. Naming an emotion is a first step in managing an emotion.
  • A straw to focus breathing. A straw can help a person learn how practice a calming breath. Put the straw in your child’s mouth and have them take a big breath in through their nose and then slowly breath out through the straw. This slow breathing exercise can help calm emotions.
  • Favorite photos. Get photos that remind them of their favorite place, a favorite person, or who they want to become…photos that remind them of their values, their desires, and their relationships.
  • Art supplies. Your child can use art supplies to express his or her emotions in positive and nonharmful ways.  So, get some crayons, markers, paints, coloring books, and paper. You can also get clay, playdough, beads, string…any art supplies your child might enjoy. Mandala coloring books can prove especially helpful with some teens.
  • Candles. Smells and aromas like lavender, sandalwood, jasmine, and vanilla are among the scents that have a calming effect on many people, including children. Scented candles and essential oils may prove a great tool in your child’s Emotional Management Toolkit.
  • Fidget toys and stress balls provide another excellent tool in the Emotional Management Toolkit. (A variety of fidget toys and stress balls can be found here or on amazon.)
  • A reminder to run or bike or do some physical activity. Sometimes a person needs to “blow off steam” to really manage their emotions. So figure out a way to put a reminder in the Emotional Management Toolkit. A picture or an action figure might do the trick…whatever serves as the best reminder for your child.
  • Self-affirmation cards. You and your child can sit down one day and create several self-affirmation cards to keep in their Emotional Management Toolkit. Statements like, “This makes me angry and I can use that anger to talk about what’s important to me.” Or, “I’ve managed this before and I can manage it again.” “I am stronger than my emotions.” “My emotions are not in charge of me; I’m in charge of my emotions.” You and your child can write down the ones that will be most helpful in your family.
  • A journal and pen. Studies have consistently shown that journaling can help us manage our emotions.  Here are four journaling exercises to help you manage your emotions. And, for another journaling help read The Good and the Bad of Journaling.

There are more things you could put in your child’s Emotional Management Toolkit, but I’ll leave that to you and your child’s creativity. Put it together and teach them to use it. In time, your child will be a master at managing emotion.

4 Tips to Help Your Children Overcome Anxiety

The number of children and teens diagnosed with anxiety and/or depression has increase from 5.4% in 2003 to 8.4% in 2011-2012. The percentage of children who experience a clinical level of anxiety has increased from 3.5% in 2007 to 4.1% in 2011-2012. Those may sound like low percentages but take a moment to consider what they mean on a more practical level. Almost one in 20 children suffer from anxiety. Just in your child’s classroom, there is probably at least one child who suffers with anxiety. And, two in 25 children suffer from anxiety, depression, or both. In your child’s classroom there are children who suffer from either anxiety, depression, or both. That’s the bad news. The good news: you can help your child overcome anxiety. You can help them learn to manage their own anxiety with these four tips.

  • Examine your own life and response to your children’s anxiety. Do you accommodate their anxiety by “bending over backwards” to comfort them when they voice anxiety? Do you help them avoid those things that make them feel anxious? If so, you send an implicit message of “I know you can’t do this on your own, so I have to help you. I have to do it for you.” You undermine their confidence. You perpetuate and strengthen their anxiety. Take a serious look at your response to your children’s anxiety and root out any way in which your behaviors may support your children’s anxiety. Then, decide to change those behaviors. You cannot change another person, but you can change your behavior. Consider how you will respond to your children’s anxiety in the future. You can use the tips below.
  • Show empathy. When you children say they are scared or nervous or anxious about something, empathize. Let them know you understand how scary it is. Give voice to their anxiety. Acknowledge it and how it makes them feel. Label the anxiety and any other feelings that may accompany it. But, don’t stop there. 
  • Encourage and empower your children after you empathize. Offer statements that support their ability and strength after you acknowledge their anxiety. “I can see how this scares you, but I know you can handle this.” Rather than give in to their anxiety and accommodate their fear by making it easier, support their ability to manage it, survive, and even accomplish. Giving your children this kind of support lets them know you believe in them. Your children’s confidence will increase as their secure base (you) voice confidence in their ability.
  • Praise your children after they finish whatever task had aroused the anxiety. You don’t have to go overboard. Simply acknowledge their courage to do the task even in the face of their anxiety. Let them know you are proud of their effort. Point out their strength.

Examine yourself. Empathize. Encourage. Praise. As you do these four things in response to those things that arouse your children’s fear and anxiety, they will grow more confident. They may still feel anxiety, but they will also act courageously in the face of their anxiety. They will manage their anxiety in creative ways and accomplish the very tasks that used to make them run in fear. They will learn and grow. (For more read Preventing Anxiety & Insecurity in Your Children and A Daily Activity to Decrease Anxiety.)

It’s Not Easy Being Green… But It Is Definitely Happier

Remember Kermit the Frog’s song:

It’s not easy being green…But green is the color of spring. …And green can be cool and friendly-like. ….And green can be big like an ocean or important like a mountain or tall like a tree….

Maybe it wasn’t easy for Kermit to be green; but green truly is cool and friendly and big. And, it can do great things for our children and teens, like reducing stress. A study conducted with 179 urban-area teens over a two-year period revealed that teens who spent more time in natural green spaces away from home had lower stress levels. Lower levels of stress…that means better moods! Interestingly, this effect held true for any season—spring, summer, fall or winter. On top of that, other research suggests that playing outside and getting dirty may actually help the immune system. Less stress, better immune system…being green may not be easy but being in the green sure sounds good.

Why do I mention all this? Well, when your children come to you this summer saying, “I’m bored…” or when you see them “stuck” inside playing video games all day, tell them to “get out of the house. Go for a walk in the woods. Climb a tree. Enjoy the green outdoors. Have a picnic. Get dirty.” It will make them happier and do them some good.

What a 10-year-old Gains Eating with Family!!

Everyone has heard about the benefits of eating together as a family (Read some of the benefits in The Lost Art of Family Meals).  However, a question remained about whether the results associated with eating together as a family reflect a healthy family or truly flow from the activity of eating together. Now, a study from the University of Montreal has attempted to settle that question. They followed children who were part of the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development from 5-months of age. At 6-years, their parents reported whether they had family meals together. Then, at 10-years-old, their parents, teachers, and even the children themselves provided information on the children’s lifestyle and well-being. The researchers accounted for factors like temperament and cognitive abilities of the child, parent’s education and psychological characteristics, and family functioning. In other words, they were able to factor out any pre-existing conditions that might influence the child’s well-being and focus solely on eating family meals together. What did they discover?

  • Children who enjoyed a positive family meal environment at 6-years of age had higher levels of general fitness and lower levels of soft-drink consumption at age 10 years…regardless of cognitive abilities, parental education, and family functioning.
  • Children who enjoyed a positive family meal environment at 6-years of age also had less physical aggressive, less oppositional behavior, and less delinquent behavior at 10-years of age…regardless of cognitive abilities, parental education, and family functioning.

Positive family meals, in and of themselves, contributed to children’s well-being at 10-years-old. They ate healthier, exhibited less aggression, and less negative behavior. Really, that is not surprising, is it? After all, children engage in social interactions with their parents and siblings during family meals. They learn how to discuss day-to-day concerns and even disagree over various topics in a civil and polite manner. They gain communication skills as they practice expressing themselves. They learn to associate eating well with positive experiences and so have eating well reinforced.  They experience the joy of acceptance at the family table and enjoy the growing bond with family that increases their sense of security (Learn how that security translates to better relationships in Hot Sauce vs. the Power of Relationship).  So, if you want to optimize your children’s communication skills, social skills, and overall maturity, make time to enjoy family meals.

My Teen Isolates…Is That Bad?

Parents often ask, “My teen comes home and goes straight to his bedroom, closes the door and isolates. Isn’t that bad?” Well…it depends. Researchers from the University of California and Wilmington College published a study showing not all solitude is the same. Some solitude was problematic. It was a red flag revealing a deeper issue. Other solitude was good, even helpful. It provided a refreshing, restorative time of self-reflection leading to personal growth and greater self-acceptance.

How can you tell the difference? By recognizing the reason your teen is choosing solitude. The motivation for choosing solitude differentiates problematic solitude from healthy solitude. If a teen chooses solitude in response to social anxiety, lack of friends, or rejection, they are at a greater risk of depression. They tend to have a lower level of autonomy and fewer positive relationships.

If solitude is imposed on a teen as punishment, they often feel like they are “missing out” on activities and opportunities. This can lead to feeling left out and lonely. It can contribute to depression and anger.

If a teen chooses solitude to help themselves “calm down” or for “peace and quiet,” it can prove helpful. In this case, solitude provides restorative time for self-reflection. These teens learn the skill of being alone and learn how solitude can enhance creativity and personal renewal.

Still, how can a parent know the difference? One way to determine if your teen is using solitude in a healthy or an unhealthy way is to ask them why they spend time alone. Allow them to explain what they are doing and why. This might be the start of a simple discussion about emotional self-care. You might also ask yourself some questions about your teen, questions you can begin to answer based on your own observations.

  • Does your teen have friends or are they a loner? If they have no friends, their isolation may raise some concerns. Why do they not have friends? Is it due to being bullied? Anxious? Fearful? Sad? This observation may lead to a discussion with your teen about their mood, their perspective on friendships, loneliness, and relationships in general.
  • Does your teen exhibit social anxiety? It’s ok to be shy and introverted. As an introvert they will likely still have a few good friends. However, if a person has social anxiety that interferes with them going places or interacting with others it may be good to seek outside help.
  • Does your teen seem energized after spending time alone? Many teens just need time alone to “re-create” their inner sense of peace after spending all day interacting in a somewhat chaotic and over-stimulating school setting. They need to unwind and enjoy a moment of “peace and quiet.” They need a time of personal restoration. If so, they will often feel energized after a period of solitude. 
  • How does your teen seem overall? Do they sleep well? Do they enjoy times with friends? Do they become tearful often? The answer to these questions can provide a great deal of information about the health of their solitude.
  • Does your teen talk negatively about themselves? Do they put themselves down? Are they excessively self-critical? If so, their isolation may raise some concerns.

These observations may help you decide if your teen’s desire to be alone is a problem or simply a healthy part of their development. If your answers raise concerns seek out some counsel from friends who have older children, a pastor, or a therapist.

Alexa, Turn On the Lights?… You Gotta Be Kidding Me

Did you see the Alexa commercial? I usually don’t say anything about commercials that bother me…but did you see that Alexa commercial? A girl comes home from a soccer game and is apparently upset about her game. Her mother “pauses” Alexa (who was reading an audio book to her when her daughter came home) and follows her daughter as though she plans to talk with her about the game. All well and good. In the next scene we see the mother in bed when she is suddenly awoken by “a noise.”  Once again, she speaks to Alexa, “What time is it?” “4:40 a.m.,” whispers Alexa. The mother looks out the bedroom window to see her daughter in the backyard “practicing” her soccer.  What does she do when she sees her daughter playing soccer in the backyard at 4:40 a.m.?  “Alexa, turn on the backyard light.”  That’s it? She turns on the lights before giving a proud nod to her daughter’s early morning practice.

Somehow that commercial really bothers me. What is the message communicated by that commercial? That Alexa, the mother’s only companion and confidante in the commercial, will helps us parent our children? I don’t think so. Alexa has no input…it only offers an obedient response to whatever “parental wisdom” we offer. Not a great parenting partner. No emotional investment. No experiential knowledge. Yeah, not a great parenting partner.

Maybe the message is one proclaiming that persistence and hard work help us achieve our goals…with the help of Alexa of course. But we never see the success…so I don’t think that’s the message. Really, I think I’m bothered more by the missing messages. For instance, where is the message about “a time and a place for everything”…a time to practice and a time to sleep? What about the message of learning to lose a game with grace and dignity? The message that our self-worth is not based on our performance…especially our performance in a single game? What does this commercial teach us about the importance of sleep for our physical and mental well-being…and even for improving performance, especially for teens?  Of course, the commercial is not trying to teach us anything. It only wants to sell us a product. But it does send a message…and I’m not sure I like the message.  Do you? At any rate, I better quit my rambling. “Alexa, turn off my computer.”

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