A recent study led by University of Miami psychologists pointed to an important skill to teach our children. The study looked at the way we process and manage negative incidents in our lives. Although it did not deal with families and their children directly, it still revealed a skill crucial for healthy families and their children to develop.
In this study, participants completed a questionnaire about their well-being. Then they reported daily stressful events, positive emotions, and negative emotions for a week via nightly phone calls. Finally, they underwent an fMRI while viewing 60 positive images and 60 negative images interspersed with 60 neutral images. Putting all this data together, the researchers found that the sooner participants let negative images (incidents) go, the more positive emotions and the fewer negative emotions they experienced in their daily lives. Thus, the wisdom of Queen Elsa in Frozen…”Let It Go.”
Unfortunately, letting go of negative emotions and events does not seem to come naturally to many of our children (or to adults for that matter). So how can we practice letting it go and teach our children to do the same? Here are 3 ideas.
Catch the emotion and analyze it. Are there thoughts that make the emotions stronger or more intense? What thoughts perpetuate it and keep it going? Are you thinking that the situation arousing this emotion effects a specific part of your day or that it is “ruining the whole day” or everything about the day? Do you think of it as a temporary setback or permanent disruption? Do you think of areas in which you can influence the next steps or is it all the fault and responsibility of others, the surrounding circumstances, or fate? How you think about the incident or situation which aroused the emotion will impact how you feel. Analyze the thoughts under the emotion and change them when necessary.
Observe the emotion…then let it go. Recognize the emotion. Label the emotion. Observe how it feels in the body—its shape and color even. Consider if it changes or moves around in your body. Observe how the emotion differs from a thought. Observe how you know the emotion is a part of you, only a part of you but not all of you. You are more than the emotion. Then, take a deep breath and visualize the emotion floating away like a snowflake on the breeze… or rolling away like a snowball down a hill. Let it go! (For more ideas on observing & letting go read Your Child’s Toolbox for Self-Soothing.)
Melt your body and the emotion with it. Breath…inhaling for a count of 3, exhaling for a count of 6, then sit quietly for a second or two to notice the quietness in your body before repeating the process. Continue breathing as you imagine yourself in a place that makes you feel calm and happy. Perhaps you will visualize a beach, a mountain vista, a bike ride, or sitting at the pool with friends. You can also do a body relaxation exercise. Imagine your body melting into a state of relaxation. Feel the muscles relax.
By learning to let go of negative emotions and teaching our children to do the same, we give our families a precious gift. We give them the ability to enjoy more positive moments in their life. Don’t you want your children to have that gift?
Becoming a parent taught me a lot. It revealed areas of immaturity and prompted (dare I say compelled) me to grow up. Areas in which I didn’t practice what I preached made themselves known. I had to learn to “walk the talk” and live a life that modeled what I wanted my children to learn. Let me share a few examples you might relate to (at least, I hope I’m not the only one!). These examples come by way of statements parents say to their children, statements we need to practice ourselves.
“Don’t yell at me.” Have you ever said that to your child? If you have, there’s a good chance you said it in anger, with a raised voice. I remember my children arguing with one another, yelling at one another. In frustration I yelled, “We don’t yell in this house!” Yes, I’m embarrassed to say I yelled at them to stop yelling. I yelled, “We don’t yell in this house.” Fortunately, I heard myself and decided to make a change, to grow up. I decided to learn to express my frustrations in a more mature manner, not like an impetuous child yelling.
“Be patient;” or “You need to be more patient.” It’s true. Children need to learn patience. It doesn’t seem to be a skill we’re born with. But I fear many of us don’t outgrow our childhood impatience. When we sit in traffic and impatiently growl about the driver in front of us, are we modeling adult patience for our children? When we impatiently accuse our children of taking too long to get ready or of eating too slowly at a restaurant, is it them or us who need to develop a more mature level of patience? I know I need to grow in patience so that my children will have a patient parent to emulate. Perhaps I need to heed my parental statement, “Be patient.”
“You can’t always get your way” and “The world doesn’t revolve around you!” Ouch, that hurts. Children will learn this best when we model it, when we do not pout because our spouse asked us to help clean the kitchen (consider how you show The Full Extent of Love to your family)… or moan and complain as we watch a show our spouse likes… or grumble about go to a restaurant our spouse chooses. Time to grow up and model for our children how to graciously accept that the world doesn’t revolve around us either.
“Don’t you get angry with me.” That’s easy to say…but do your children ever see you get angry with your parent (their grandparent) or your spouse (their other parent)? In fact, there’s nothing wrong with your children getting angry with you. After all, effective parents place healthy limits and demands on their children and their children don’t always like them. In addition, we have all misunderstood our children at times. I know I get upset, even angry, when I feel misunderstood. What we really mean to say is, “It hurts me (and maybe even makes me angry) when you get angry with me.” So, rather than make a childish demand like, “Don’t be mean to me by being angry with me,” take the role of an adult who is not overwhelmed by a child’s anger. Respond with healthy empathy and love. Let them see that no matter how mad they get with you, you still love them enough to listen AND maintain healthy limits and expectations.
Sometimes in the midst of listening to myself parent I have to wonder, “Who am I really parenting?” Who am I encouraging to grow more mature? Sure, I want my child to grow more mature. But sometimes I think I’m talking to myself and encouraging myself to mature, to become a better parent, to become the kind of person I want my children to emulate.
You have at your disposal a powerful question that can strengthen your family relationships. It’s a simple question: “How can I help you?” Of course, there are variations:
“What can I do for you today?”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
“What can I do to help?”
‘What would you like me to do?”
We underestimate the power of this little question, power that would benefit every family. Take a moment and consider its power for your family.
“How can I help you?” honors your family. It communicates our interest in our family members. It expresses how much we value them and their work. It reveals our interest in their lives and their work.
“How can I help you?” shares grace with your family. It shows your spouse, your children, and your parents that you care enough about their daily life and work to invest your time and energy in it. It means we will give up your desire to be in charge and let them be in charge, let them direct you in how you can help them.
“How can I help you?” promotes togetherness within your family. It opens the opportunity to work together.
“How can I help you?” communicates grace by opening the door for you to serve other family members.
Are you beginning to see the power of this question to strengthen your family relationships? By asking this question we honor our family, we show grace to our family, we promote togetherness with our family, and we open the door to service within our family. In other words, we lay several of the building blocks needed for a healthy family just by asking this simple question: “How can I help you?”
To truly experience the power of this question, I suggest a 30-day challenge. Every day for the next 30 days, ask a family member “How can I help you?” You could ask the same family member every day or you could ask a different family member each day. Either way, ask a family member this question every day for the next 30 days.
After 30 days, reflect. How has this impacted your relationship with your family? How has it changed the way you think of your family? How has it changed the way your family acts toward you and you toward them?
I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the changes your family experiences because of this one simple question: “How can I help you?”
I recently asked a couple what daily acts of kindness they could share with one another. Sadly, they could not think of any. After a few minutes of silent thought, one of them said, “It’s hard to think of kind things to do when you don’t trust the other person.”
That is sad, but true. A lack of trust in our spouse locks our marriage in a prison of insecurities. It binds us behind bars of despair and shackles us with the fear that our vulnerable offers of kindness will be rejected or, worse, used to manipulate us.
Lack of trust also blinds us to any kind acts our spouse does share. It causes us to misperceive those acts of kindness as an attempt to exploit us.
If you find your marriage in a prison of mistrust, how can you begin to build trust? Try the CAPP method.
Commit to building trust in your relationship. Trust grows through small daily moments of connection with your spouse. Commit to looking for and initiating those moments. Trust grows when we follow through on our word so commit to following through. Show yourself trustworthy in making daily connections and in keeping your word.
Admire and appreciate your spouse. Resentment or anger may have blinded you to those things you admire in your spouse. In this case, you will need to expand your view of your spouse beyond your resentment by intentionally looking for those things you can admire and appreciate in them. A lack of trust may also keep you from voicing what you appreciate. It will demand courage to risk voicing your admiration and appreciation. Commit to diligently searching for those things you truly admire and appreciate about your spouse. Every day, courageously express genuine admiration and appreciation to them.
Practice small positive moments. We already noted that trust is built on small, daily moments of connection. Practice making those connections. Practice doing kind things for your spouse—things like washing their dish, getting them a drink, offering a compliment, opening a door. Practice noticing when your spouse does a kind deed for you and practice thanking them for that kindness.
Prove your devotion. Let your spouse know you “got their back.” Don’t laugh at your spouse’s expense. Encourage them instead. Take your spouse’s side. Even if you disagree, don’t disagree in public. Instead, talk in private and search for an intent or motive with which you do agree. Start with the agreement. You and your spouse are a team. Don’t let anyone or anything come between you. Prove your devotion.
These four actions will begin to build trust as you practice them over time. As trust grows, kindness will become easier to share. As kindness to shared more often, trust will grow. (For more on building trust read Building Trust in Family Relationships.)
Do you know what team your child wants to be part of the most? Team family. Yes, they desire to be part of the family team. If they feel disconnected from the family team, they may misbehave to gain your attention. They will act up so the team will notice and include them, even if it means inclusion through yelling and discipline. So, one of the best things you can do for your children is to make them part of Team Family. What does that mean? I’m glad you asked.
First, making sure children are part of Team Family means making a careful assessment of how we manage our family time. Our culture tends to shape the family around child-centered activities. But, when our lives become focused on getting our children from one activity to another, we have cut them from the varsity team and relegated them to junior varsity. We have sent them to the minors. We have taught them that they are not part of the Team Family but are an entitled individual with an entourage to manage their world and meet their needs.
Instead of getting overwhelmed as a family in child-focused activities, welcome your children into the “adult world.” Involve your children in family activities that are naturally a part of your adult life. Let them observe your daily life and participate when they desire to do so. Let them accompany you as you run errands. Let them observe you as you work around the house or in the yard. Encourage them to work alongside you when opportunities arise. Doing this teaches your children that their needs, although important, are not the only needs to consider. Their needs will be met, but they, like every other family member, may have the opportunity to sacrifice a desire to benefit the family. After all, that’s what all members of Team Family do.
It also teaches your children that they belong. It teaches them that they make a significant contribution to Team Family and are valued by Team Family. They are part of the family, a team that looks out for everyone, not just one person. They belong to a family in which everyone enjoys time and activity together.
Don’t get me wrong. You can still involve your children in organized sports and child-centered activities. But be careful not to let your family life be enslaved to those activities. When families become enslaved by child-centered activities, they have cut their children from the team and sent them to the minors, teaching them they don’t really belong on Team Family. Involve your children in the family. Let them know they belong, that they are an integral, significant member of Team Family.
Several young couples have told me about the vast number of toys in their home. They have so many toys that some even remain unopened. Their children have grown tired of other toys… now they lay in a corner collecting dust. Stuffed animals that once lined the bed are now stuffed in a closet. Broken Barbie Dolls lay under the bed forgotten. And, of course there are the boxes and wrappings that our children found more fun to play with than the expensive toys the boxes protected! It all makes me wonder: how many toys do our children need?
With this in mind, I propose an experiment. A challenging experiment that you and your child will find rewarding when it is all said and done. It’s an experiment to thin out the toys. Here are the steps involved.
Team up with your child and talk about the virtues of sharing and gratitude. You might also want to pick a nice name for the project, like Team Generosity or The Great Toy Giveaway.
As a team, pick out the toys you will give away to those who have less. You can identify the toys no longer used to give away and choose a couple more to represent an extra level of generosity and caring.
Decide where you want to give the toys to. You might choose the Salvation Army, a toy lending library, or even someone you know. You can also learn about children who might have a need through an area social service agency or church.
Pick a time in which you and your child (The Fantastic Duo of Giving) can deliver the toys to the charity the two of you agreed upon.
Deliver the toys.
Finally, talk about the experience with your child. What, if anything, was difficult? What was easy? Now that it is finished, how do you both feel?
Not only does this experiment allow you and your child to declutter the toy room, but it also allows you to spend time together as well (and isn’t that what children really want?). As a bonus, your child will likely experience the joy of generosity and gratitude as they complete this process…and that experience may just prompt more great team giveaways. (For more read One Ingredient of Happy Children.)
Can you imagine your child helping with the household tasks without even being asked? It can happen. But getting children to help without being asked is a process, a challenging process that many parents choose to forego or don’t want to accept.
This process begins when we, as parents, recognize and acknowledge our children’s desire to help. In fact, children do love to help their parents. Their desire to help may come at the most inopportune moments, like when we’re in a hurry or doing a more complex task. As a result, we are reluctant to acknowledge their desire to help and even more reluctant to invite them to participate in the task. But, if we want children who help without being asked, that is exactly what we need to do—recognize their desire to help and invite them to become involved in the task. If the task is too complex, let them work on an aspect of the task they can manage. Or, even better, do the task together, hand over hand, teaching them while giving give them a sense of involvement.
Yes, this may mean the task takes longer to accomplish. It may also mean a little more “mess” to clean up…but you can clean up together (AKA—spend more time together). Involving your child may require modifying tools and even the process of the task as well (You’ll find some great tips on modifications at How We Montessori.)
It will require some extra effort on your part, but involving your children is an investment in your children’s future and the future of your home.
They will remember the time they spent with you “getting things done,” adding to their sense of agency and their fond memories of family.
Your relationship will be strengthened by accomplishing tasks together and the conversations you share while doing so.
Moreover, as they practice the task, they will learn to do it more independently. They will master the task, giving them a sense of industry as well.
Involving your children in tasks also teaches them. It teaches them to identify themselves as a “helper” rather than an “entitled recipient.” It teaches them that they have a valued and significant role in keeping the household running smoothly. They are part of the family team.
When all is said and done, if you want your children to complete tasks around the house independently, you must answer a question and accept a challenge.
The question: Are you willing to acknowledge your children’s desire to help and even involve them in household tasks even though it will initially slow you down and make more work?
The Challenge: How will you live out the answer to that question? How you choose to live out the answer to that question on a daily basis will ultimately determine how much your children help to complete household chores without even being asked.