Archive for October 29, 2013

RSVP for Intimacy in Your Family

According to John Gottman’s research, happily married couples make about 100 invitations (he calls them bids) to connect with one another in a 10 minutes time span. If couples make this many invitations to connect, imagine how many invitations your toddler or preschooler is offering up! That is a huge number of invitations…a lot of opportunities to connect and to nurture an intimate relationship each family member.

When our spouse or children throw out an invitation, they are communicating the desire to connect with us, to receive our attention, affection, interest, support, understanding, warmth, and conversation. We see invitation for connection expressed in a number of ways. For instance, asking questions, making comments, gentle touches, simple gestures, or even facial expressions are all invitations to enjoy connection. So, when your son follows you from room to room, he is inviting you to connect. When your wife looks up from dinner and smiles, she is inviting you to connect. When your daughter says, “I love Justin Beiber” she is inviting you to connect. Unfortunately, invitations to connect can also come across with angry or bitter overtones at times. For instance, your husband comes home from work tired and irritable, walks through the door and snaps “Are we eating or what?” This angry sounding question is most likely an invitation to connect, a request for understanding and affection.

With this many invitations to connect, you have a great opportunity to build intimacy in your family. You can build that intimacy by simply “RSVP-ing” to the invitation. I realize we won’t respond to every invitation. However, responding to invitations on a regular basis will build intimacy. Dr. Gottman has identified 3 ways to RSVP to an invitation for connection…only one will build intimacy. 

·   We can respond with the “turning-against-RSVP-style” by becoming argumentative or critical. Making a sarcastic remark or expressing contempt for the other person also turns us against the invitation to connect. As you can imagine, this kind of RSVP will increase the fear of future angry responses and result in fewer invitations and greater avoidance of conflict. Ultimately, turning against invitations to connect will destroy your relationship.

·   We can also respond with the “turning-away-from-RSVP-style.”  People use this RSVP style when they are preoccupied. It sends the message that my activities are more important than my relationship with you. The turning away RSVP may disregard the person, ignore the person, interrupt the person, or answer mindlessly while engaging in some other activity (like watching TV). Once again, turning away results in fewer invitations to connect. It also results in hurt feelings, increased conflict, and, ultimately, the destruction of the relationship.

·   The best way to respond to invitations for connection is the “turning-toward-RSVP-style.” When we turn toward the invitation to connect, we give attention to the person making the invitation. This attention may range from passive, low-energy responses to focused, high-energy responses. By turning toward the person making the invitation, we welcome more invitations in the future and set the stage for them to respond to our invitations to connect. Happiness for the inviter and the responder will increase. The relationship will grow stronger and healthier. Intimacy will increase!

I bet your family will send you an invitation to connect within the first minute you are with them. Expect it, watch for it, and actively respond to it…your whole family will benefit and grow as a result!

Open the Door for Change

I had the opportunity to attend a conference focused on attachment relationships this weekend. One workshop reviewed how we encourage growth and change in other people. I realized how much this information applied to our parental role of promoting growth and maturity in our children. So, I wanted to share this process for opening the doors to change for our children. It is not a simple “3-step-plan” to reach 100% compliance from your children. In fact, maturing children do not always comply with their parents. However, this process will open the door for our children to grow and mature, sometimes in unexpected and surprising ways.


Opening the door for our children to change begins with looking at them. Yes, look at them…look at their appearance, their intellect, their humor, their world, their fears, their interests…. I know it sounds strange, but how often do we truly look at our children? I know I have had the experience of suddenly seeing my children and thinking, “Man, they are so grown up…when did that happen?” or hearing a comment come out of their mouth and thinking, “Wow, they are getting smart!” If we do not look at our children on a consistent basis, we will miss their growing maturity. We will think of them as that bright-eyed, adoring child we had so much fun with. So, take a look at your children. Notice how much they have grown. Recognize their interests and how those interests have changed and developed over time. Observe their changing friendships as well as their social interactions with peers in general, teachers, and other adults.


Make eye contact with your children as often as you can. Value them, and your relationship with them, enough to stop what you are doing and look into their eyes when they talk to you. Turn off the TV, put down the IPhone, forget about work, and focus on your interaction with your children. Watch for the sparkle of excitement in their eyes when they tell you about an exciting experience. Notice the tears of frustration that well up in their eyes when they talk about a fight with a friend. Recognize the fire in their eyes when they report an injustice done to a friend. Give them the gift of being valued enough to have your total attention…and eye to eye contact.


Finally, make sure your responses and interactions with your children remain contingent on their need. If they come to you looking for someone to listen, listen rather than teach. If they want to joke around, joke around rather than expounding on the virtues of taking life seriously. When they express sorrow, anger, or fear, accept their emotion. Respond to their emotion rather than trying to talk them out of it or minimize it. In other words, remain aware of their emotions, needs, and desires so you can respond sensitively to your children.


When parents practice these skills and make them their habits, they will develop a stronger alliance with their children. Their relationship with their children will becomes stronger and more intimate. Trust will grow. Children will feel more secure. And, experiencing a trusting, secure relationship will empowers your children to grow. Knowing they have a secure relationship with their parent will open the door for them to explore options, make wise choices, and learn from their experiences. But, it all begins with establishing that trusting, secure relationship built by looking at our children, making good eye contact when they interact with us, and intentionally responding to their needs, not our own.

5 Tips to Improve Your Child’s Behavior

I loved working with John (name changed for privacy reasons), a seven-year-old boy who had a seizure disorder and was very active. I learned so much spending time with him and his family. Part of my job was to take John to the neurologist for his check-ups. One day, John and I sat in the patient room waiting for the neurologist to see us. John was bored and started to explore…well, explore may be an understatement. He began to spin around in the chair, climb onto the sink and then the shelves. He climbed onto the bed to see how high he could jump. He climbed into the window sill. He started to touch various medical instruments in the room. I tried to stop him but I was young, inexperienced…and obviously had no idea. I just followed him around asking him to stop, trying to redirect him. He simply moved to the next object and touched, climbed, jumped, threw, pushed buttons, flipped switches, and anything else he could. Then the doctor walked in. He looked around the room and realized I had nothing to offer. He smiled at me and quietly walked to the exam table and pulled out a little wind-up toy. He wound it up and set it down. It banged tiny cymbals and then did a backward flip before starting the process all over again. John immediately stopped running around the room and watched the toy. When it stopped, the doctor showed him how to wind it up. John wound it up and watched it go. The doctor left to continue his work, returning several minutes later to see John. I learned an important lesson that day. If you want to change a child’s behavior, change their environment. Here are some simple ways Thomas Gordon identified to change a child’s environment in order to improve behavior:

Enrich the environment. Provide lots of stimulating and interesting things for your children to do. Children do best when they have interesting, challenging activities to hold their attention. Pick an area in which your children can play safely and fill it with age appropriate activities that will attract their attention.

Impoverish the environment.  When we impoverish an environment, we reduce the stimulating, challenging activities available. I know it seems contradictory, but we can easily enrich some environments for our children and impoverish others. For instance, we may enrich the family room of your house but impoverish the bedroom. Impoverish the bedroom environment so your children have fewer stimuli to attract their attention when it is time to go to sleep. This may mean no TV, no video games, and no phones in the bedroom.

Simplify the environment. Modify the environment so your children can do more things independently. For instance, put clothes where your children can get them and put them away independently. Keep a stool by the sink so they can wash their hands without your help. Put unbreakable cups within easy reach. Make the environment conducive for independent, age-appropriate activities.

Prepare your children for changes in the environment. Children like consistency and predictability. When things happen unexpectedly, or when you have to do something that the children cannot predict, they become upset and act up in their stress. And, as you know, changes happen. Families encounter new or unexpected experiences. When this occurs, do your best to let your children know ahead of time. Discuss with them what will happen. Let them know what is expected from them. Encourage them and acknowledge their cooperation.

Plan the environment for increasing responsibility and independence. As your children mature, they can become more independent. Plan ahead for this growing maturity. For instance, create a space for teen privacy. Purchase an alarm clock so children can start getting themselves up in the morning for school. Knock before entering your children’s room. Create a message center for sharing information when the schedules get busy. Discuss appropriate curfews and make sure family members have house keys.

You can change your children’s behavior by changing their environment in any of the ways mentioned above. Of course this won’t fix everything, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure…why wait until the misbehavior occurs when you can change the environment ahead of time and maybe even prevent it?  

The Special Ingredient of Intimate Families

I was talking with a young man (middle school age) about what he liked and didn’t like about his family. Interestingly, he liked the family dinners they used to have and he disliked that they no longer had those family dinners. Even as a middle school boy, he missed family dinners. Family dinners provided him the time he desired to reconnect with his family…to slow down, talk, and connect with his whole family. I have to admit, I was somewhat surprised to hear a middle-school-aged child talking about missing family dinners because of the family connection he desired. Nonetheless, he made an excellent observation. Family dinners provide a great time to reconnect and bond with our families. They are a time to relax, tell stories, and talk about our daily lives, laugh, and even make some future plans. Research also indicates that having regular family meals help to reduce the rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy and depression in adolescents. Families that enjoy regular family meals see their children attain higher grade-point averages than children whose families do not have regular family meals. Studies also suggest that “dinner conversation” boosts vocabulary more than reading does! The stories of personal victories, perseverance, fun moments, and family times help build a child’s resilience and confidence. As you can see, family meals offer a smorgasbord of benefits for families and their children. So, if you want your family to grow more intimate…if you want your children to grow up happy…if you want your children to grow up physically and emotionally healthy…if you want your children to have a higher grade-point average, set aside the time to enjoy regular family meals.  Here are a few tips to help you plan your family meal time: 

       ·         Include your whole family in the meal process. The family meal process includes making the menu, preparing the meal, setting the table, and cleaning up afterwards. Include the whole family in these activities. Make the menu together. One day a week, allow a different family member to pick their favorite food items for a meal. Encourage the whole family to help clear the table, load the dishwasher, wash the dishes…and make it fun with conversation and laughter. Come up with your own creative ways to include the whole family in the family meal process.

Enjoy conversation during the meal. Save topics that you know lead to arguments for another time and focus on conversation that will build relationships. You can talk about the day’s activities, each person’s dreams, memories of fun family times, and things you’d like to do in the future. Really, the topics available for conversation are limited only by our imagination. If you have trouble thinking of topics, check out these conversation starters from The Dinner Project.

Make dinner a surprise now and again. I just ate breakfast with a friend today…he ordered a double burger for breakfast and I ordered an omelet. We both enjoyed our meal and his burger was a great meal conversation starter. Your family might enjoy dinner for breakfast or breakfast for dinner. Plan one “ethnic meal night” per week and travel the globe with culinary surprises. Eat your meal backwards, starting with dessert.  Plan an “Iron Chef” night and let each family members cook one dish…the family can vote on best taste, presentation, and creativity after the meal. You get the idea. Do something different now and again. Make it a surprise…and have fun.

Turn off TV’s, video games, phones, and any other technology that has the potential to interfere with the moment’s face-to-face interaction and family interaction. Learn to enjoy each other in the moment with no interruption.

A great resource to get your family started with family meals is The Family Dinner Project. You can sign up for their “4 Weeks to Better Family Dinners” for free helps. They also provide ideas for recipes, conversation starters, meal activities, addressing various challenges, and meal preparation. This is a wonderful resource to bookmark and use on a regular basis. 

I love the family meal plan to better family bonding, enhanced educational attainment, and better emotional health. It combines two of my favorite ingredients in life–eating and family–in attaining several of the goals I desire for my family and children. With that kind of recipe, why not give a try?!

The #1 Ingredient for Building Friendships With Your Children

I remember coming home from the park with my preschool daughters. One would say, “I made a friend today.” Her face glowing and her voice bubbling with excitement.

“Really,” I would ask. “What’s her name?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where does she live?”

“I don’t know.” (Both times the “I don’t know” reply was said in a nonchalant manner, as though the question held no real relevance at all.)

“How do you know she’s your friend?”

“We played on the slide together,” she answered excitedly

“Will you see her again?”

“Yes, Daddy, she comes to the park too,” was the confident reply. 


This brief conversation, which occurred time and again, taught me an important lesson. Preschoolers build friendships based on shared activities. They don’t need to know a lot of information about the other person. They just want to play together. So, my preschool daughter could go to the park for an hour and walk away with a “new best friend” simply because they engaged in a fun activity together. That realization started me thinking (always a dangerous pastime)…if any little kid can become my daughter’s “new best friend” by playing together at the park for less than an hour, I could really build my relationship with her by enjoying a fun activity with her each day! We could play hide-n-seek, swing on the swings, make chocolate chip cookies, play catch, kick a ball, read a book…the possibilities are limitless. The activity itself is less important than the outcome. What is the outcome? Having a shared activity with my daughter.  In her eyes, that makes us “best friends.” And from those foundational preschool “best friend” activities, I begin to develop a lifelong relationship!  When she begins to base friendships more on who is a part of her life and world (which she will do in the elementary school years), I will have already laid the foundation of spending time with her. I can continue to spend time with her and become an integral part of her every day world. When she enters her teen years and begins to base her friendships on shared interests and trust, I will have laid the foundation of trust by spending consistent time with her through the preschool and elementary years. I will have laid the foundation of having shared interests with her by involving myself in her world throughout the elementary school years. Building on that foundation, I can remain available throughout her teen years, faithful in my presence and trusted with information. Simply by sharing activities with my daughter during her preschool years, I will have built a relationship that will sustain us into young adult and throughout the rest of our lives. A simple step during preschool will have set us on a trajectory leading to a constantly growing relationship. So, start building relationships early in your children’s lives…and enjoy a lifetime relationship. If you missed the beginning, don’t worry. You can always start spending time with them now…you can begin to share activities today…you become present in their world today…you can prove yourself trustworthy today. The important thing is to start. Let the relationship begin!

Improve Your Family With This One Honest Change

“You have no idea what you’re doing.”
“You are so lazy.”
“You have nothing to cry about.”
“You always want the last word, don’t you?”
“You just need to listen better.”
“You should give your friend a chance.”
“You better stop that now or else…”

These statements all have something in common. Can you see it? That’s right—they are all about the infamous “you,” the other guy. Most likely, we have all sent “you-messages.” “You-messages” are other-oriented. They tend to focus on the other person’s shortcomings or cast the blame on them for whatever went wrong. “You-messages” impugn the other person’s character and minimize the other person’s ability to solve a problem. As you can imagine (and probably have experienced), “you-messages” also shatter the other guy’s positive self-image.  These consequences become even more devastating when we consider how many “you-messages” we have sent to our own family members! Look back over the “you-messages” above and think of others “you-messages” you may have heard or said. They can all have the negative consequence of hurting whoever the “you” is. “You-messages” don’t resolve conflict; they escalate conflict. They do not result in deeper intimacy; they create distance. If you want to resolve conflict and create intimacy, replace the “you-messages” with “I-messages.”

“I-messages” have three parts…let’s make that four. 

     1.   An effective “I-message” includes a simple and objective description of the behavior that is bothering you. Keep this description free of labels and judgments.

2.   An effective “I-message” includes the speaker giving an honest appraisal of his feelings about the behavior.

3.   An effective “I-message” explains the tangible, concrete way in which the behavior impacts the speaker. Providing you have a positive relationship with the other family member, this brief explanation will provide some motivation for the listener to change her behavior. 

4.   An effective “I-message” offers the listener a concrete way to help the speaker, a solution to the problem.

As you can see, an “I-message” will be longer than the “you-message.” It will take a little more thought; but, it will also accomplish much more. For instance,

      ·     The “I-message” will prove more effective in influencing your spouse, child, or parent. While still giving an objective description of what bothers you, the “I-message” avoids blaming or putting your family members down. As a result, the other person does not feel the need to defend themselves. Instead, they can listen…and consider.

·     The “I-message” is more honest about my true feelings. When I use an “I-message,” I make myself more vulnerable as I express my feelings about a particular behavior. This models honesty. It also opens the door for intimacy. We connect with our family members through honesty and at points of vulnerability.

·     An “I-message is less likely to provoke resistance or rebellion from your spouse, child, or parent. When we communicate objective facts and open up to express personal feelings, there is less “arguable material.”

·     An “I-message” also communicates trust in your spouse, child, or parent…a trust that they care enough about you to change a concrete behavior that has a negative effect on you.

Most people have to practice to really learn how to drop “you-messages” and use “I-messages” effectively; so, go ahead and practice…make a few mistakes and learn from them. Before long, you’ll be using “I-messages” like a pro…and believe me, the results are well worth the effort.

Turn Your Argument Into the Best Part of the Day…Make It Bearable Anyway

When you find yourself in an argument or disagreement (notice how I say “find myself” in an argument; I never start one…well, maybe once in a while…alright, alright, so even when I start an argument) with another family member, how can you make it bearable? Who is responsible to make it “go well”—the ones who starts it or the ones who finds themselves in the midst of it? Dr. Gottman suggests that both people in the argument (the speaker and the listener) hold responsibility for the outcome; both are responsible to make the argument end well. Here are the 9 ways to help an argument end well, 4 tips for the speaker and 5 tips for the listener.

 First, the Speaker’s responsibility includes:

·     State your feelings in as neutral a manner as possible. Remain objective and state your feelings in a “soft manner” rather than an intense emotional manner. Intense emotion may overwhelm your spouse and make it difficult for them to hear what you are saying.

·     Avoid making “you statements.” “You statements” tend to blame, accuse, and attack your spouse. “You statements” will more often result in defensiveness from your spouse, escalating the argument. Avoid them as much as possible.  

·     Instead, use “I” statements to state how you feel in this specific situation. Really, the only person you can honestly report on is yourself. So, stick with “I statements” about yourself, not “you statements” about your spouse. Also, stick to one specific situation at a time.  No need to throw in the kitchen sink. Stay specific and deal with one situation at a time.

·     Convert your complaint about the other person into a positive need (or what your spouse can do to help). This offers your spouse a plan of action, a way to help remedy the situation. It reveals something about you to your spouse, increasing intimacy with your spouse.

         When the Speaker follows these four tips, it will change the whole feel of the argument.  Instead of saying, “Here’s what’s wrong with you” and “This is what you need to stop” you  will be saying, “Here’s what I feel” and “Here is a positive thing I need from you.”

 Second, the Listener’s responsibility includes:

      ·     Remember your spouse’s “enduring vulnerabilities”—their triggers, buttons, troubling memories, etc. Remembering your spouse’s “enduring vulnerabilities” will help shape your response to them. You can honor your spouse by avoiding the sarcastic or implied statements that push buttons and flip triggers. You can show love by responding with comments that calm their “enduring vulnerabilities.” 

·     Turn toward your partner by postponing your own agenda. You will still get to talk about your concerns, but postpone talking for the moment so you can listen. Have the grace to be quick to listen and slow to speak. This will endear you to your spouse and reduce the conflict.

·     Make understanding your spouse the goal. Instead of working to make sure your spouse understands your point of view, be gracious and work to understand their point of view. Let them have the first and last word!

·     Listen non-defensively by postponing your response and getting in touch with your partner’s pain or emotion. Listen to understand how this situation has made them feel. Underneath all the anger, do they feel unloved, devalued, unworthy, abandoned, inadequate?

·     Empathize—respond to their underlying feeling with compassion and empathy. Assure them of your love and respect. Reaffirm your commitment and respond to their feelings with reassurance. You will find it helps everyone remain calm when you can summarize your partner’s view and validate it with a sentence like…“I understand why you feel… because …”

 As an added bonus, here are 3 tips for both the Listener and Speaker:

1.    If you identify a negative quality in your partner, look for that same quality in yourself.

2.    If you identify a positive quality in yourself, look for that same quality in your partner.

3.    Look for the similar desires and intents throughout the argument.

Follow these tips and you will find your arguments become the best part of the day…alright, so I exaggerate…a lot. But, honestly, follow these tips and you will find the arguments resolve more quickly and more productively. They become opportunities for growing intimacy…and making up will be a whole lot more fun!

Bridge the Communication Gap with Your Teen (& Just About Anyone Else)

Sometimes teens are hard to talk to. Let’s be real…sometimes spouses, children, and even parents are hard to talk to. If I’m honest, I have to admit that sometimes I am hard to talk to. I have discovered a tool to improve communications—a tool to help bridge the communication gap, slow the communication roller coaster, and create better communications with our teens (and any other family member really). We accomplish this amazing feat through validation. That’s right…validation. Recognizing and accepting our teen’s experience as valid, even if we disagree with it, can build better communication. When we accept our teen’s feelings as reasonable, given their understanding and perspective of the situation, we will build more intimate communication with them. Validation builds a bridge to better communication on the pillars of:

·     Acceptance. We all desire acceptance. When we validate our teen’s emotional experiences, we communicate acceptance of them, even in the midst of emotional pain or physical changes. This acceptance informs them that they belong…we accept them, differences and all.    

·     Value. Validation not only expresses acceptance, it communicates how much we value our teen, their perspective, their thoughts, and their feelings.

·     Respect. Accepting and valuing our teen’s perspective expresses respect. We all desire respect. We all respond better to those who treat us with respect.

·     Honesty. Acceptance, value, and respect open the door for honest communication. Honest communication, premised on acceptance and respect, allows for more open discussion of differences and an earnest seeking for a healthy, respectful solution. 

·     Calming one another. When we know a person recognizes, understands, and accepts our emotions and struggles, we feel calmer. The same is true for our teens. The feeling of being understood will help calm them and help them learn to manage their emotions. It also opens the door for more communication and problem-solving.

·     Identity.
 Acknowledging and accepting our teens’ emotions allows them the freedom to explore their identity based on the values of acceptance, respect, and honesty. Validation means your teen will not have to argue to prove their point, put up defenses to save face, or disagree to assert their independence. Instead, they can use that same energy to explore their values and identity.

  By validating your teen you build a secure bridge to better communication on the secure pillars noted above. That’s all well and good…but how do I validate my teen?

·     First, listen. Let your teen complete their story. Let them finish so you have all the information. Listen so you can understand their perspective.

·     Second, let them know you get it…you understand what happened from their perspective (even if you disagree). Strive to understand so well that their actions make sense based on their level of maturity, the knowledge they have acquired, and the perspective they have.

·     Third, let them know you understand how they feel. Combine the second and third step into a statement of your understanding of what happened and how it made them feel…from their perspective. Keep listening until you can make that statement and they respond with something like “Finally, you understand.”

·     Fourth, based on their perspective and what they told you, let them know that their emotions make sense. This means really working to see things through their eyes.

·     Fifth, empathize with their emotions.

·     Finally, problem-solve with them if they want help with a solution.

Validation will build a strong bridge of communication built on honesty, respect, and acceptance. It will bridge the communication gap with your teen…and just about anyone else in the family as well.