Archive for January 17, 2022

Shouting Into a Void & Staring Into an Abyss

It wasn’t the only time I saw it, but it was definitely one of the most blatant and extreme examples. It happened while I was visiting the home of a single mother and her two sons. She complained that her sons “did not listen” to her. On my first visit she provided a hint about why they were “not listening.” One of her sons had neglected to complete a chore. His mother asked why he had not done it. He simply said, “I forgot.” His mother then began to expound upon his irresponsibility, how he always forgot, and was never to be trusted. Thirty seconds… forty-five seconds…a minute…and she was still lecturing. I watched her son respond to her barrage of instruction & anger. He quit listening after her first one or two sentences. He looked away. Then he checked his watch. His eyes drifted to the ceiling and then to the window. Finally, he simply stared into the abyss as his mother shouted into the void.

This exchange offered several examples of the wrong thing to do, things that resulted in her son not listening. Consider the alternatives we suggested to her.

  1. Address behavior not character. This mother labeled her son irresponsible, forgetful, and untrustworthy. Our children internalize the labels we use of them, especially the ones we shout at them in anger or frustration. Eventually, they will believe those labels true and begin to live them out. Their expectations of themselves will match the self-concept based on the labels we’ve used to describe them. So, no name-calling. Beware your assumptions. Do not label your children’s character. Instead, address their behavior, their actions. Objectively describes the behavior you do not like rather than make a subjective judgment about their person. Explain the consequences of the behavior. Talk about how the behavior impacts those around them. Address the behavior, not their character.
  2. Avoid permanent markers of frequency like “always” and “never.”  For one thing, they are not true. There are often (dare I say, “always”) exceptions. Additionally, permanent markers of frequency limit the possibility of change. After all, if it “always” happens, it will “never” change. Instead, use temporary markers of frequency like “sometimes,” “this time,” “at this moment,” “occasionally,” maybe even “often.” Your child will more readily listen to you when you stop using permanent markers of frequency. And you indirectly acknowledge that there are exceptions to the problem behavior as well. Finally, and most importantly, you leave the possibility of change open.
  3. Keep it clear and concise. Don’t lecture or nag. Your child will stop listening. Say what you have to say in a clear, understandable way. Keep it short. Say it concisely and with brevity. Then stop. Your child can hear and understand. The more you talk, the less they listen. The more you lecture, the more likely they go away talking about your behavior rather than thinking about their own behavior.

These three simple communication actions can change the way your child hears and responds to you. They will put an end to you shouting into the void and your child staring into the abyss. Instead, you will speak to your child and your child will more likely listen.

Clues Learned During the Pandemic for Future Parenting

I remember when the pandemic started. I thought it would last 6-12 months. Boy was I wrong. The longer it drags on, the greater impact it seems to have on our mental health and the mental health of our children. A study published in PLOS ONE, 2021, however, offers some wonderful wisdom for promoting our children’s resilience and mental health during this time. This study recruited 224 participants between the ages of 7 and 15 years from two longitudinal studies of children and adolescents in the Greater Seattle area. They gave these youth and their parents a battery of questionnaires assessing social behaviors, psychopathology, and pandemic-related stresses in November of 2020. They gave them a follow-up battery of questionnaires in January or 2021. Because the youth were participants in a larger longitudinal study, the researchers also had access to their social behaviors, psychopathology, and related stresses prior to the pandemic.

In short, the research suggested:

  • The number of pandemic-related stresses they experienced (serious illness or death of a friend or family as well as quarantine, exposures, significant financial changes, social isolation, changes in community involvement, etc.) was positively associated with mental health symptoms and behavioral difficulties.
  • Youth who spent less time on digital devices and consumed less than two hours of news per day exhibited fewer mental health symptoms. In fact, “the strong association between pandemic-related stressors and psychopathology was absent among children with lower amounts of screen time and news media consumption.”
  • Youth who got the recommended amount of sleep and those who had a more structured daily routine during stay-at-home orders had lower levels of behavioral symptoms.
  • Those youth who spent greater amounts of time in nature exhibited a somewhat lower level of mental health symptoms.

This offers parents some excellent advice about how to help our children navigate the unpredictability created by the pandemic. First, develop a positive daily routine for your family and children. This routine might include a family meal, homework time, play time, various community activities, a regular bedtime and bedtime routine.

Second, limit screen time. Our children (and many of us) can easily find themselves sucked into video games, social media interactions, simply scrolling social media platforms, or binging Netflix. Unfortunately, social media platforms become stressful when we do not limit our involvement. Video games can rob us of other stress reducing activities like face-to-face interactions with family and friends. In fact, studies suggest the more screen time a teen engages in the less happy they become.

Third, limit your children’s exposure to news media about the pandemic. It’s good to get some news about the pandemic, other “world happenings,” and politics. However, it can easily become overwhelming, and our children may not have developed the emotional resources to manage the stress of the overwhelming, nonstop, 24-hour a day barrage of news. Really, how many of us have chosen to limit news intake for the same reason? Teach your children to be wise consumers of news and social media just as you teach them to be a wise consumer of food.

Fourth, get outside. Spend some time in nature. Nature promotes health. It helps to reduce stress and increases happiness.

Finally, establish healthy sleep hygiene. Sleep is crucial to our mental health, especially during times of increased stress.

These five suggestions will help you and your children navigate the times of this pandemic while maintaining emotional health and further developing resilience. Ironically, these five suggestions will also serve to nurture healthy children when the pandemic ends. So, start practicing them now and keep them up when we finally navigate our way to the other side of this troubled time. Even then, you will be pleasantly surprised at how well these five suggestions help your children live happier, healthier lives.

The Attitude Needed for Communication in Marriage

Communication is crucial to a healthy marriage. Everyone knows that, right? We teach couples to communicate—to listen well and take turns explaining their point of view when a conflict arises. All well and good…until you have a real disagreement and give in to the temptation of making your goal to convince your spouse of the superiority of your point of view. With that goal in mind, you practice repeating what your spouse says so they know you “understand” their point of view (at least well enough to blow it out of the water). You “wait” (however impatiently) for your turn to talk. You maintain eye contact and stay calm (most likely with an air of condescension). You word your point of view in a way that your spouse will understand (or are they just stupid?). But something is missing. You never reach resolution. You both grow more frustrated and even angry. Why is it not working? Because you started with the wrong goal and, as a result, you are missing at least three important ingredients.

  1. Humility. Effective communication is undergirded by humble listening. Good listeners humble themselves by setting aside their own agendas and listening to their spouse with the sole purpose of understanding their point of view. They do not have to prove the superiority of their own opinion. They do not listen for flaws in their spouse’s reasoning or ammunition to bolster their own argument. They listen to understand. They listen until they can appreciate their spouse’s perspective based on their knowledge and perception. In humility they acknowledge the sense of their spouse’s perspective. Humility is an essential ingredient for effective communication in marriage.
  2. Respect. Effective communication is premised upon mutual respect. Both spouses respectfully believe the other has a valid viewpoint. They trust their spouse’s intelligence and ability to develop and grow. They respect their spouse’s knowledge and intelligence. They model that respect by listening intently, speaking politely, and disagreeing with love.
  3. Curiosity. Effective communication assumes curiosity. To learn demands curiosity. To learn about your spouse’s perspectives and ideas starts with being curious. Remember, communication is an opportunity to “grow” something new—a new relationship, a new level of intimacy, a new knowledge. “Growing” something new assumes a curiosity about what will grow from this interaction, a curiosity that nurtures the growth of something new. Effective communication means each spouse is more invested in learning about their spouse than in making themselves known. They are more curious to know their spouse than they are demanding to be known.

If you want a really healthy marriage, add these three ingredients into your life and communication. Get curious about your spouse and humbly listen to learn more about them…and do it respectfully. When you do, you’ll discover a greater goal of communication as well. The goal is not to pass on information or convince someone of “my” ideas. The goal is to connect and grow together.

Parenting: Power or Love?

Parenting has become a confusing adventure these days. The advice we find on-line or in the parenting section of the bookstore only adds to the confusion. In developmental psychology classes we learn that parenting styles fall along two continuums. One continuum represents rules or control. The other continuum represents relationship, warmth, and acceptance. You can review the excellent “Parenting Style Infographic” in this excellent article and learn everything you want to know about the four parenting styles represented along these two continuums. It’s great information.

I often see parents falling into one of the three less effective parenting style in this model because they believe they need to exert power and control to “shape their children” into mature adults. (Unfortunately, these children often don’t know how to act mature without their parent’s control.) Some parents exert power to build their children “according to the blueprints” provided them by parents, churches, or peers. (These children often rebel to exert their own independence.) Still other parents respond to their own fear by adding more control, exerting more power in an effort to keep their children safe. (These children often take extra risks to escape the powerful control their parents exert.)  In all this, they miss the most important aspect of being a parent, nurturing the love and relationship their children crave and need. So, when I ran across these few quotes on power and love, I had to share them with you. Read them over slowly and take time to consider what they might mean for our styles of parenting.

  • “The opposite of Love is not hate, but power.” –C.S. Lewis
  • “They fear love because it creates a world they can’t control.” –George Orwell
  • “When love rules power disappears. When power rules love disappears.” –Paulo Coelho
  • “Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.” –Carl Jung
  • “Love is the opposite of power. That’s why we fear it so much.” –Gregory David Roberts
  • “When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.” –Jimi Hendrix
  • “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins.” –1 Peter 4:8
  • “Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” –1 Corinthians 13:4-7

I know we often want to exert power in our effort to shape children into “responsible adults” or “make them listen” or teach them how to “get by in the world.” But power leads to rebellion. And really, isn’t love where the true power to transform resides? Doesn’t love actually nurture the growth we desire in our children? Some would go as far as to say that “All bad behavior is really a request for love, attention, or validation” (Kimberly Giles). I agree.

Let me summarize by saying that the job of a parent is the job of a miracle-worker. It is a miracle to take a newborn baby and nurture them until they become a mature, independent, responsible adult…a miracle. As Marianne Williamson said, “The way of the miracle-worker is to see all human behavior as one of two things: either love, or a call for love.”

Teach Your Child the Dance of Effective Venting

Venting can be a beneficial way to manage feelings…sometimes. After all, not all venting is the same. In fact, some venting will simply escalate your negative emotion. For instance, physically releasing anger or other dark emotions will escalate that emotion. So will acting the negative emotion out verbally. And escalating the emotion without moving toward a resolution can actually destroy your family. In fact, studies suggest that anxiety and grief increase when all we do is release the emotion verbally or over social media. In other words, not all venting is helpful. For venting to be beneficial, we need to do the “two-step.”

  1. The first step involves finding a trusted person who will listen and validate our experience. However, if this is all we have, venting will produce the negative results noted above.
  2. We also need the second step. We need the listener to help us clarify the situation, provide a new or objective perspective, and offer sound advice. This will require that we do more than simply vent, we must listen and accept input as well.

How can we teach our children this delicate dance of effective venting?

  • First, model effective venting. That will require you doing the next steps in your own life as well as teaching them to your child.
  • Teach your child multiple ways to deal with emotions. The more tools we have, the better prepared we are to deal with whatever emotion arises. Teach your child a variety of tools for managing emotions. For instance, you might encourage them to write about their thoughts and feelings, journaling to gain clarity. Teach them to breathe through difficult emotions. They may also utilize other creative ways to express their emotion, such as drawing the emotion, writing a song about the emotion, or thinking of a metaphor for their emotion. Teach your child how to think about the situation in ways that will allow for greater emotional control. For instance, encourage them to consider the evidence, keep a mole hill a mole hill, or considering what they might tell a friend in a similar situation. Having multiple ways of managing emotions can also help make your child’s emotions your friend.
  • Help your child learn a broad emotional vocabulary. Taking time to label an emotion puts space between the emotion and our response. It gives us time to think about the situation and emotion so we can act thoughtfully. We become more objective in our reasoning rather than emotional. Overall, that means we have more power in managing our emotion.
  • Teach your children to choose wisely when considering who they want to vent to. It is not wise to vent to “just anyone.” Teach your child that the person to whom you vent needs to listen well AND have the ability to offer positive insights that broaden your perspective, insights that help you move toward a positive resolution.
  • Teach your child to prompt the listener to offer their perspective. Teach them to recognize when they are simply rehashing an emotional situation so they can stop and ask the person listening for their perspective, a way to think differently about the situation, or a positive way to respond. Teach them to take the initiative in seeking their input and then humbling themselves to listen.

These four tips can help your child learn the dance of effective venting. Of course, you need to practice these steps so you can model the dance yourself. Before long, you’ll all practice the dance well and enjoy the music.

New Year’s Resolutions to Strengthen Your Family

The time has arrived to reflect on the year gone by and our hopes for the coming year. If you’re like me, you might decide upon some goals for the coming year. This year, I would like to suggest 12 goals that, though challenging, will strengthen your family and fill your life with greater joy. You can pick one or pick them all. The most important aspect of choosing is to enjoy the reward of a more intimate family.

  • Resolve to listen intently and deeply to your spouse and children.
  • Resolve to go on a date night with your spouse at least one time a month. (You don’t even have to leave the house for these date nights.)
  • Resolve to set aside 20 minutes a day to talk with your spouse about your lives and the life of your family—not the controversial things of politics or the drudgery of daily “to-do’s” and planning, but of your hopes and dreams, things you’d like to do together, or fun things that happened during the day.
  • Resolve to tell your spouse and each child “thank you” at least one time a day.
  • Resolve to play, laugh, and smile every day with your family.
  • Resolve to write each child and your spouse a letter of gratitude and appreciation this year.
  • Resolve to read a marriage or parenting book with your spouse and put the ideas into practice.
  • Resolve to attend a marriage workshop.
  • Resolve to learn the stats for your children and your spouse.
  • Resolve to learn about a topic or activity that interests your spouse or one of your children so you can discover ways to support them in their passions.
  • Resolve to look for daily opportunities to serve your spouse and children. This could be as simple as getting them a glass of water when they’re thirsty or something as complex as completing a chore they normally do.
  • Resolve to say “no” more often to things of lesser importance (surfing the web, video games, a TV show) so you can prioritize spending time conversing with your family or engaging in activities with your family.
  • Pick a hobby or activity that your child enjoys and engage in that activity with your child at least one time a week.

That’s actually a “baker’s dozen” resolutions from which you can choose. Each one will strengthen your marriage and/or your family. Pick one. Pick two. Pick them all. Whichever you choose, resolve to strengthen your family this year.