Archive for March 27, 2011

Recognizing the Benefit of Emotions in Parenting

What would you think if I told you I knew of a simple way to help your child grow while improving your relationship with him? Well, I do…accept their emotions.  Emotions propel us toward maturity. They “integrate” our thinking, social interactions, motor ability, and language as we mature, especially in children (S. Greenspan workshop, 2009). For instance, children learn best when they find the lessons enjoyable and pleasing. They explore objects that arouse their interest, offer a delightful surprise, or bring them joy. Children try to change situations that make them angry, irritated, or frustrated. They interact most with people who make them “feel” good. But, children and adolescents have not developed the skills necessary to independently manage emotions. They need other people to help them “co-regulate” their emotions–to calm their anger, soothe their frustration, contain their excitement, express their love. They need parents to help them learn to manage their emotions.
In everyday interactions, parents teach their children to manage emotions. Consider a frustrated toddler reaching for a toy that sits on a shelf just out of reach. His mother, recognizing his frustration, asks in a loving tone, “Do you want that red car?” The toddler hears the loving tone of his mother’s voice and angrily points at the car while saying, “Cah!” “How frustrating to see your big, red car and not be able to get it,” his mother replies. “Can I help you?” she asks as she “drives” the car within her toddler reach. “Vroom, here it comes.” Her toddler reaches out and grabs the car, smiling at his mother. This simple interaction holds a wealth of learning and growth for parent and child. Consider just a few of the things they gained through this experience:
·         They experienced a closer connection with one another.
·         The toddler learned to recognize his frustration and anger.
·         The toddler learned to manage his feelings through expression.
·         The toddler learned to problem solve with his mother.
·         The toddler gained a sense of competency as he obtained his toy with his mother’s assistance.
The same situation could easily have ended on a different note. His mother could have become irritated at her child’s frustration and yelled, “What are you whining about? Quit fussing!” as she snatched the car off the shelf. She could have tossed the car onto his lap. “Here. Now quit crying before I throw it away!” What would the toddler gain in this experience?
·         The knowledge that it is not safe to express emotions and needs.
·         That “I must be bad because Mommy was mad.”
·         With expression and achievement inhibited, the child will feel incompetent and powerless.
·         They both will have lost an opportunity for closer connection with one another.
Imagine how the repetition of these experiences will impact that child’s ability to manage his emotions as he grows. Repetition of the patient, empathetic response will lead to a calmer child, who can more easily communicate emotions and control the expression of emotions. The second scenario will more likely lead to an impulsive child who is quickly agitated and out-of-control. What makes the difference? The parent’s response!
When parents accept their child’s emotions, they set the stage for healthy growth in toddlers, children, adolescents, and even young adults. The key is accepting your child’s emotions; and, accepting a child’s emotion is not always easy. Sometimes they become upset over little things, things we know as adults are not a big deal. Parents must accept that these “little things” are “big things” in their child’s young life. Sometimes children’s emotional expression is immature. They throw tantrums, they whine, they laugh uncontrollably at the wrong time and in the wrong place. But, what would we expect. Our children are children, not adults. They have not matured. That’s why we are there to help them learn to manage those emotions in a mature way. 
Accepting our child’s emotions gives us several gifts.
     1.      The opportunity to learn about our child. We learn their interests and  their limitations. 
     2.      The opportunity to increase intimacy with our child by empathizing with them.
     3.      The opportunity to teach our child how to manage emotions in a healthy way.
     4.      The opportunity to teach our child about our family values.
Help your child grow. Help improve your relationship with your child. Accept their emotions.

Family: Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

Recently I have read and heard several discussions about prioritizing love for spouse or love for children. Should we prioritize spouse or children? Is family focused around marriage or parenting? Do we create a “kid-centered family” or a “marriage-centered family?” Those siding with the parenting-focused, “kid-centered family” emphasize that we only have our children at home for a short time and they need to know how much we love them. Knowing we love them will make them more secure and confident, not only as children but as adults. Those focusing on a “marriage-centered family” stood on the principle that a strong marriage is the greatest gift you can give your children. A strong marriage creates a sense of security and stability for the children. Family is built upon a strong marital relationship.
Ultimately, both sides make good points. However, I believe the whole debate focuses on the wrong questions. We live in a world of specialization. Doctors specialize, engineers specialize, dentists specialize, ministers specialize, and teachers specialize. Our children go to college to specialize in their career. That works out great in society. I don’t want my dentist prescribing my glasses or a psychologist teaching my children accounting. This idea of specialization has crept into the family. However, specialization does not work well in the family. The family is greater than the mere sum of its parts. God did not create us to specialize within the family, to focus on various parts of family. He created the family to reflect His character. When you think of God, what “parts of family” comes to mind? What specialized role does He play? He is the Father (Romans 8:15, 1 John 3:1-2) who adopts us, makes us His children, and disciplines us to help us grow. But, He comforts us like a mother comforting her child (Isaiah 66:12-13). In Jesus Christ, God becomes our Husband or Bridegroom (Ephesians 5:25-33) yet we are also “fellow heirs” with Him as our Sibling, a “fellow child” of God (Romans 8:16-17). Within the Trinity, God is Spouse, Parent, Child, and Sibling. He does not specialize in a single role within the family–He focuses on the whole family. In every role He fills, He encourages and lifts up other members of the “family.” As the Father, He glorifies the Son…as a Child, He glorifies the Father…as a Spouse, He sacrifices His very life for His Bride…as a Sibling, He raises us up to fellow heirs with Him.
If we want to carry out the image of God within our families, we will strive to become the same type of “renaissance-family-member” He portrays. Like God, men will become good fathers, husbands, sons, and brothers. Women will become comforting mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters. We will no longer ask whether the role of spouse or parent takes highest priority. Instead, we will ask, “How we can become a family in which each member honors, encourages, and comforts the other members?” As we answer that question, we will discover that we become better parents as our marital relationship grows stronger and our marriages become stronger as we parent together. Women will become more confident in themselves and their parenting as their husband becomes more supportive and involved. Husbands will become more involved with children in relation to the support of a loving wife. Spouses will compliment one another and bring out the best in one another when parenting from within a loving relationship. Our marital relationship will grow as we parent together. Many experts focus on the drift and strain that can occur in a marriage as children are born. However, marriages can become stronger as spouses negotiate and work together for the common goal of raising healthy, mature children. Partners grow more appreciative of one another as they observe the sacrifices made in order to help in the parenting process. Women, in particular, grow more attracted to their husband when he remains actively involved with her children. Men become more admiring of their wife as she manages the multiple tasks involved in parenting.
Marriage grows stronger through parenting. Parenting becomes more effective as we parent within the bounds of a growing marriage. Parenting and marriage are not specializations we assume during different times of our life, but merely parts of a whole that we call family. And, family is greater than the sum of parenting and marriage. Both remain important, but neither rises above the priority of family. Let’s take the family back from the culture of specialization and focus on the family as a whole, not a collection of parts.  

Super Heroic Dad Moments Gone Awry

I always wanted to be my family’s hero. You know, Mr. Incredible…able to hear their slightest cry for help and fly with the speed of light to save them from injustice and unnecessary pain…to break unbendable bars of iron and release them from the prison cells that limit their dreams…to stop speeding bullets aimed at crippling their efforts to grow. Then, the reality of family life kicked in. I experienced a few Super Hero Dad moments gone awry and realized my dreams were a bit grandiose.
One of the first hints of my grandiosity came when my oldest daughter was a toddler. She could run, but she had not learned the dangers of running off a ledge at any height. So, when I sat her on our bed, she immediately stood up and started running for the edge of the bed farthest away from me. I knew she would fall off the edge of the bed; no, I knew she would dive off the bed, laughing until she crashed, face first, onto the floor. Super Dad had to save her from sure disaster. I dove across the bed with the speed of Flash. Like Mr. Fantastic, I reached over the bed. With a final heroic effort, I stretched out my arm and, with the strength of ten men, caught her in mid-air just as she dove off the bed. With a sigh of relief and great agility, I began to lift her to safety…only to watch her flip over my arm and crash onto the floor…thud, flat on her back. As I ran around the bed to pick up my crying daughter, I realized that I had not become the superhero I had hoped for.
On another occasion, I held my barely 2-year-old daughter (youngest daughter) tenderly in my arms, carefully guarding her as prepared to take her downstairs. Like Captain America I kept her safe from any harm that might befall her. With great confidence, I stepped onto the first step…and missed. As I began to fall, I called forth an invisible force field to protect her; and, with the genius of Professor X, I calculated the angle of my descent and the movement needed to save my daughter from the fate of falling with me. Calculations complete, I twisted around like Elastigirl and placed her gently on the top step before continuing my own descent down the stairs. Thump, thump, thump…my hip and right side bounce off each step. Unfortunately (but not surprisingly), my calculations were slightly off kilter and my daughter missed the top step as well. Thump, thump, thump…she followed me down the stairs, her “gluteus maximus” bouncing off each step with only my hand serving as a cushion between her and the step. When we reached the bottom, she smiled and looked at me as though she wanted to go for another ride. I was not hurt, except for my superhero pride. Another failed attempt for Superhero Dad status.
One last example of my superhero abilities… I could not find the peanut butter. Every super hero needs their equivalent to Popeye’s spinach and I couldn’t find mine. I called for my wife, telling her we were out of peanut butter. She didn’t believe me and told me where to look. Using my x-ray vision, I scanned the cupboards…nope, no peanut butter. I called to my wife again, accusing her of using a lead shield to hide my treasured peanut butter from my x-ray vision. Slowly, she sauntered into the room. Doesn’t she know I have heroic actions to take, no time for sauntering? Calmly, she moved a can of soup aside to reveal (tu-dah) peanut butter. Oh, the dastardly plans of those villains. How does she do it? (Really, she is an amazingly gracious woman. I don’t know how she puts up with my “temporary” blindness.) Once again, my superhero status takes a nose dive and I’m just a regular guy, more like Clark Kent than Superman.
Alas, I have to accept the fact that I will never be the superhero I dream of. I cannot leap tall buildings, run at the speed of light, deflect bullets with my hand, or bend iron bars. I’m just a regular guy who loves my family. Although…a couple months ago, I asked my family what they think I find most important. “In your perception,” I asked, “what do I value most?” Their answer…”God and family.” They knew. My highest priority, the “things” I value most are not things at all, but people. They knew that they were more important to me than anything else in this world, second only to God. At that moment, I felt like a superhero once again.

Go Ahead and Argue…With Honor

If you live with your family longer than a day, you’ll probably have an argument or two. You may, like me, work hard to “make” the other person understand your “point of view” (which of course is the right point of view-LOL) during this argument. This approach leads to anger, frustration, unresolved differences, and strained relationships. On the other hand, you may recall arguments that left you with positive feelings of intimacy. What makes the difference? I suggest that how we argue makes all the difference in the world. That’s right, when we honor one another in the midst of an argument, we often grow closer. So, go ahead and argue…with honor. As you do, you will discover that arguments resolve more quickly; and, relationships are not only restored but strengthened. How do you argue with honor? I’m glad you asked.
First, step back. Take a “time out.” Allow yourself to calm down and regain control of your emotions. It is common for people to recall the intense emotion and harsh words spoken during an argument but forget what started the argument and the topic of the argument. We can move away from the escalating tension and help maintain an atmosphere of honor by simply taking a “step back,” a “time out” to regain control of our emotions and thoughts. This may involve thinking about something other than the source of the argument, doing some physical exercise, taking a shower, or working in the garden. Do any constructive activity that will help you regain control of your emotions and calmly return to the discussion at hand. This honors your family member and sets the stage to resolve the disagreement in honor.
While you “step back” and calm down, “take the log out of your own eye.” In other words, take a look at yourself. Before we can honorable resolve conflicts and disagreements, we need to assess our individual contribution to the conflict. Before you try to explain, justify, or defend your actions, make a private and brutally honest assessment of your motives, goals, and expressions. Consider your contribution to the current argument. Take time to think about why this particular topic evokes such strong emotion in you. Reflect on what you can learn about yourself from this situation. Our anger in conflict often hides a deeper fear and insecurity.
Second, listen. Be quick to hear during an argument. Listen intently, without interrupting. Listen with a genuine desire to understand. You may feel the urge to defend yourself. Don’t…listen instead. When we listen instead of becoming defensive, we find that the argument opens a book into the other person’s heart and soul, revealing their perspective, goals, fears and priorities. The actual words and pattern of the argument merely show us the cover of the book. No need to argue about the cover, delve into the content instead. As you genuinely listen with your eyes, ears, and heart, you open the book to understand the depth and complexity of your family member’s feelings, sensitivities, priorities, and perspective. Take the opportunity of conflict to listen carefully, to read the open book, and discover the other person’s intimate feelings, sensitivities, and priorities.
Third, speak carefully…speak thoughtfully. Words spoken in the heat of conflict carry extra power. They burn into the heart and mind of your family members. Like quick drying cement, they form rigid patterns of thought, good or bad. So, do not jump into the conversation prematurely. Listen intently to completely understand the other person’s perspective, goals, feelings, and sensitivities; then, speak carefully. Careful speaking demands that we speak gently, not harshly. In the midst of an argument, speak carefully by remaining appreciative, polite, and clear. Describe what you see happening rather than evaluating or judging your family members character or purpose. Keep your speech kind. Instead of name calling, express love. Rather than criticize and ridicule, proclaim your belief in your family member’s integrity and desire for resolution. If you don’t have this belief, recall all that your family member does to show their love for family. Rather than defend yourself, empathize and restate your partner’s perspective. 
Three ways to honor one another in the midst of an argument: step back, listen, and speak carefully. Following these three steps will help turn an argument into an opportunity to understand one another and grow closer. So, don’t avoid the argument. Go ahead and argue…with honor.

Taking Verbal Snapshots of Your Children

My wife loves to capture our family events in pictures…and, rightfully so. Those pictures allow us to relive every joyful experience with our extended family and friends. Family shepherds not only take visual photos of family; they take verbal snapshots as well. When Sam falls down and begins to pout, his mother gives a comforting verbal snapshot, “Oh, you fell down. That hurt, didn’t it?” When Daddy leaves for work, Mom empathizes with a verbal snapshot, “Oh, you’re sad that Daddy has to leave. He’ll be back after work.” When Sue points at the fridge, her father gives a verbal snapshot of her gesture—”You want a snack, don’t you.” Little Johnny points at a dog and a click…his parents offer a descriptive verbal snapshot, “Look at that big, brown dog.” Describing behavior, labeling emotions, reporting emotion back in an empathic manner, and describing what our children see are all examples of verbal snapshots. Verbal snapshots help our children learn about their environment. They teach them the vocabulary necessary to talk about their world, manage their emotions, and show empathy toward others. Verbal snapshots also validate our children, showing them that we find them valuable enough to notice and accept. As a result, they learn to value themselves. So, click away. Take verbal snapshots every chance you get. Here are some verbal snapshots you won’t want to miss.
·         When your child behaves well, take a verbal snapshot. A verbal snapshot of good behavior can be as simple as saying “great job” or “thanks.” When we give a verbal snapshot of good behavior, our children see a snapshot of our pride and gratitude. The attention they receive from the verbal snapshot also makes the good behavior more likely to continue. Give this verbal snapshot directly to your child as often as possible. Start with “Thank you…” or “I appreciate …” or “Good job…” and finish with a specific behavior you notice. You can also take a verbal snapshot of your child’s behavior for other people to see. For instance, you might tell a friend how well your child handled a difficult situation, express pride in their talent, or explain something positive you have learned from your child in the last week. 
·         When your child makes a strong effort or shows courage, take a verbal snapshot. Going through childhood and adolescence takes courage. There are constant changes in schools and teachers, “drama” among peers, and new experiences that test their abilities. Each time they try out for a sport or music program, they run the risk of “rejection.” Every time they ask a girl out on a date, they become vulnerable to rejection. Each test comes back with red marks of failure, even if they only miss one. So, take every opportunity to acknowledge your child’s courage and effort. When they stand strong in the face of peer pressure, take a verbal snapshot of that courage. When they try something new, take a verbal snapshot of their effort and courage. When they attempt to make a change and struggle with that change, take a verbal snapshot of their effort.
·         When your child shows an interest in something, take a verbal snapshot. Whether they show an interest in music, cooking, reading, anatomy, or sports, take a verbal snapshot. Admire their interest. Join in their interest. Converse with them about their interest.
·         When your child is frustrated, upset, or angry, take a verbal snapshot. Doing so validates them and their emotions. If they look hesitant on the first day of high school, let them know that you “can tell they seem a little nervous about starting a new school” and that you “remember feeling nervous on your first day as well.” Give a verbal snapshot when they break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend-“You really liked them, didn’t you? It’s disappointing when relationships don’t work out the way we want.” When you take a verbal snapshot of your child’s “troubling” emotions, don’t try to fix the situation or remedy the problem. Simply offer support. Empathize with them. In doing so, you validate their feelings. We all tend to feel a little better when someone validates our feelings and lets us know they understand our pain.
·         When your child is happy or proud, take a verbal snapshot. Don’t limit verbal snapshots to those moments of pain or hardship. It’s easy to give a lot of attention to the negative behaviors, hard experiences, and painful moments. However, we don’t want our verbal photo album fill with those pictures alone. Take as many verbal snapshots of happy times as well. Give verbal snapshots that say, “I am proud of you.” “Good effort; you must be proud of yourself.” “I bet you’re pretty happy about that.” “I really enjoyed what you just did.”