Archive for Family Shepherds

The Crazy Exploration of Teens

Teens seem to have two speeds: lounging around the house or running around “who-knows-where” with their friends.  At home, they often appear “bored” and maybe even a little grumpy. With their friends, they are energetic and full of smiles, exploring new places and trying out new activities. Sometimes we may even think they are engaging in too much novelty with their friends. However, while exploring their world and interests can carry some risk, our teens’ energetic exploration of their world actually benefits them in life. In fact, they need to engage in this exploratory behavior.

A study published in 2022 shows us a couple of the benefits of this energetic exploration. The researchers in this study followed teens and young adults (13- to 27-years-old) using GPS trackers. The GPS trackers could measure how often the participants visited novel locations over a 3-month period. This provided “real-life data” of exploratory behavior and novelty seeking. Based on this data and the participating teens’ self-report, the study suggests:

  • Daily exploration peeked during the transitional years of 18 to 21.
  • All ages (13- to 27-years) reported better moods on days in which they had explored more. In other words, exploration was linked to greater psychological well-being.
  • Those with higher than average levels of exploration also reported larger social networks. In the long run, a strong social network is associated with greater emotional well-being.
  • Teens who explored more also reported more risky behavior. This was not true for adults. Perhaps adults have better learned their limits, strengths, and interests.

Taken together, these results suggest that teens and young adults are explorers. They are exploring the possibilities that will come with adulthood. As a result, our teens and young adults benefit from exploration and novelty seeking behaviors. It prepares them for adulthood. Whether it be visiting new places, trying new things, experimenting with new hobbies, or sampling new friend groups, exploratory behavior enhances our teens’ well-being and helps them establish stronger social connections.

We can help our teens explore their world and the “world beyond” by providing them with healthy opportunities to explore areas of interest. As we provide healthy opportunities, we can help assure their safety while promoting their maturity. For more ideas see Love Your Teen’s Risky Behavior and Parenting Lessons from a Washtub Bass.

Our Longest Relationship & Our Happiness

Think for a moment. With whom will you have the longest relationship during your life? No, not our parents—they pass away before becoming the ones to know us the longest. Not even your spouse—we didn’t meet them until we became adults. It’s our siblings. Our siblings know us as children, adolescents, single adults, married adults, and possibly even widowed adults. They know us, and we have known them, for a lifetime. Even more, sibling relationships, beginning in childhood, form a training ground of sorts for learning about all kinds of other relationships in our lives. Is it any wonder, then, that our sibling relationships can make us happier or sadder?

With that in mind, we want to promote positive relationships among siblings when they are children. We want to help our children establish sibling relationships as children that will provide a lifetime of support, encouragement, and guidance. As parents, how can we do that?

  1. Keep your marriage strong. A strong, healthy marriage creates a secure, loving home. When children see their parents in a healthy relationship, they feel safer. They feel greater love and less fear of loss. They can also model their relationship with their siblings after the healthy relationships they see between their parents. Keep your marriage strong.
  2. Avoid favoritism. Each child has unique strengths and interests as well as unique needs and personalities. Love each one. Spend time with each child. Discover their strengths and nurture them. Encourage and support each child in their endeavors. Of course, many children believe “my little brother/sister gets away with everything” and “my older brother/sister gets to do more than me.” I haven’t discovered a way to avoid that perception. In spite of that misperception, you can love your children equally.
  3. Promote family activities. Create opportunities for your family to have fun together. Share ideas, stories, and dreams as you share family meals together. Enjoy family vacations. Schedule fun family outings. Family activities are a wonderful time to develop sibling relationships and to let the whole family express love for one another.
  4. Encourage your children to support one another but also allow them to have their individual lives. This is a bit of a balancing act. It is important for each person to have the opportunity to pursue their individual interests and strengths, their own lives. And it is important for each person to encourage one another in their pursuit of their personal interests. Model doing both in your marriage and in your relationship with your children.
  5. Give your children time to resolve their own disagreements. Sibling disagreements and arguments teach our children important skills. Before stepping in, give them time to work things out on their own.

These four practices will lay the groundwork for sibling relationships that focus on encouraging and supporting one another for a lifetime. They will help your children develop sibling relationships that can bring joy, comfort, and happiness to one another for a lifetime.

But what if you are an adult…how can you continue to nurture a positive relationship with your sibling? And what if you do not have a positive relationship with your sibling? How can you develop a closer relationship with your sibling? Stay tuned for our next blog to get some answers to these questions and more.

A Tough Old Teddy Bear

My friend was a tough old guy, a Seabee in the Pacific during WWII. I remember when he asked me to spar with him. I was in my mid-twenties and taking martial arts training. Of course, I refused. After all, he was retired, grey haired and well…old. He persisted, but I stood my ground. Finally, to my relief, he relented and offered to simply shake hands rather than spar. Naively, I shook his hand. I really don’t know what happened next. All I know is that suddenly I was off balance, my back pressed against his chest, one of his arms around my neck, and the other in my back. My hands held tight to his arm around my neck so I wouldn’t fall.

“Now all I have to do is squeeze my arm like this.” His arm tightened slightly on my neck as he continued, “and you’d pass out in 30 seconds.” Then he gently stood me up and turned me around…still shaking my hand. He smiled and we both laughed as he gently teased me about martial arts. He was a tough old guy.

Well…he was a tough old guy until his wife or some children came around. Then, he became a teddy bear. He spoke gently and adoringly to his wife. He played games and talked with the children. They loved him. After church they all came running to give him a hug and tell him of their most recent adventures. Even as an adult I loved to talk to him and share our days. He was a tough old teddy bear who taught me important life lessons.

Perhaps one of the most important lessons I learned from him is that a “real man,” a “man’s man” so to speak, is a tough old teddy bear. A study out of Emory University agrees and offers a single explanation for the tough guy who shows the gentle affection of a teddy bear. They found that a single male hormone will produce either aggression or cuddling behavior depending on the social context. What’s the hormone? Testosterone. In this study, testosterone enhanced aggressive behaviors in the context of defending territory and important relationships. But testosterone also enhanced affectionate (cuddling) behavior in the context of children and family. In other words, my friend was a “man’s man,” both tough and affection, protective and cuddling, because of testosterone (at least in part). He could stand tough to protect those he loved but he could gently share affection with those he loved as well. And testosterone, the “male hormone,” seems to play a role in both these male traits. I mention this because it is important for us to teach our sons that a “man’s man” can be both protective and nurturing, tough and caring. In fact, men are biologically equipped to be both. Isn’t it time to give our sons and our fathers permission to be both? Our world needs more “tough old teddy bears” today.

OOPS, My Mistake VS. My Child’s Mistake

The other day I made a mistake…or should I say another mistake. It’s true. It was actually one of the many mistakes I’ve made over my lifetime. Anyway, I made a mistake. Fortunately, my life is full of gracious people who acknowledged my mistake and continued to love me. Sure, they got a little upset…and some even laugh about my mistake. But they still helped me learn to avoid the same mistake in the future. And, as a result, I did learn. I grew; and hopefully I’ll avoid repeating that mistake in the future.

All this “got me thinking.” Children, like adults, make mistakes. Sometimes they make mistakes because of a lack of knowledge. Sometimes they make mistakes trying to “get away with something.” Sometimes they simply make a mistake. I have to say, as an adult, I have made mistakes for the same three reasons. Haven’t you?

But there seems to be a difference in how people respond to the mistake I make as an adult and the mistake a child makes. Let me explain. When a child makes a mistake, adults often seem to get angry. They treat the child’s mistake as an afront to their parenthood and their authority. They yell, often making the child feel worse and as though that mistake has defined them as a person. They dismiss the child’s explanations as excuses, often not even considering any positive intent behind his mistaken actions or words. They punish the child, sometimes harshly and in anger. And many do not teach the child how to avoid the mistake in the future.

However, when I make a mistake as an adult, the people in my life trust me to learn and grow from the natural consequence of my mistake. Even if they are upset or angry, they remain respectful. No one really yells. Many even listen to the explanations I give for my mistaken behavior. They allow me to explain the intent behind my actions…even if they disagree, they accept my explanation. They accept my intent while offering me guidance on how to avoid the mistake while achieving that intent in the future. All the while, they remain respectful (even in their anger) and they speak to me in a way that can help me listen.

If my friends and my family responded to my mistake in the same manner that I often see adults respond to a child’s mistake, I would walk away. I’d feel hurt, dishonored, even abused. I wouldn’t learn. I wouldn’t grow. I’d get defensive. I might even end the friendship. What makes us think children feel differently?

This leads me to an important lesson I learned about correcting my children…our children. Our children will respond to correction and discipline more readily when we approach them with respect. They will learn and grow when we take the time to learn about the intent and motivation behind their inappropriate behavior or words before respectfully pointing out what they did wrong. They will mature as we listen carefully, not just to their words but to the message of their behavior, before we offer them loving guidance on how to behave differently in the future.

In other words, our children will learn from their mistakes more readily when we approach them with the same respect that we give our adult friends. They will grow more mature when we approach them with the expectation that they want to learn and grow. We can all learn and grow from our mistakes, adults and children alike, when we approach both with acceptance, respect, and love.  

Are You a Manipulative Parent?

I have often heard about the dangers of using manipulation when parenting. Manipulation in parenting contributes to an increased risk of rebellion, excessive guilt, and even depression in the child being manipulated. But what exactly is manipulative parenting? What practices make up manipulative parenting? We need to know the answers to these questions, so we don’t accidentally engage in manipulation. With that in mind, let me explain 5 ways in which parents might manipulate their children as they try to discipline.

  1. Withdrawing love or isolating their child. Children need their parents. They need to know their parent’s love for them is unshakable, present, and available. When we send our children to their room for an indefinite period of time or suddenly withdraw ourselves emotionally from their world, they become insecure. They question their own lovability. And they will do almost anything to regain the security of their parents’ love and attention.  When we withdraw our love or isolate our children, we have used their innate need for our loving presence and attention to manipulate them into behaviors we desire. So, rather than give your child an indefinite time out, give them a timeframe (a short timeframe). Then restore the relationship. Even better, give your child a “time-in” instead of a time-out. If you find yourself needing some emotional distance from a situation with your child, talk to them first. Explain to them that you simply need time alone and how they can provide that space without even leaving the room by quietly engaging in an activity on their own. Also, give them a time frame for your time alone. Once again, reunite with them immediately afterwards.
  2. Eliciting a “guilt trip.” We have all seen parents attempt to make their children engage in desired behavior or make a particular decision by sending them on a guilt trip. You know…phrases like, “I can’t believe you would do this to me after I…” or “I taught you better than that” or “You drive me crazy. Why don’t you just sit still and be quiet?”  Even a look of disappointment and shame can send our children on a guilt trip. Using guilt to elicit the behavior or decisions we desire in our children is manipulation…and detrimental to their emotional health. Rather than sending your child on a guilt trip, explain what behavior you desire and the reasons you desire it. Take time to teach.
  3. The “silent treatment.” “Silent treatment” is another way parents isolate their child. The still face experiment (seen in this video for both an infant and a married couple) reveals how the silent treatment negatively impacts our children. They become emotionally dysregulated and will do anything to reengage with their parent. Getting our children to do what we want by engaging in ” silent treatment” is manipulation. Learn, instead, to talk with your child. Teach them. Explain yourself. This may include becoming a bit vulnerable at times. But, when we talk, teach, and listen, our children will grow. You will grow. And their positive behavior will increase.
  4. Humiliating, shaming, or embarrassing. Of course, this is manipulative. We never want to humiliate, shame, or embarrass our children. Really, we want to model healthy ways of interaction in our own interaction with them. We want to treat our children with the same respect and love with which we want them to treat us and others in the world. They will learn through their experience with us.
  5. Social comparisons. Social comparisons manipulate by inducing guilt, embarrassing, and even humiliating our children. There is no need to compare our children with anyone else. In fact, we find our children’s best self in their uniqueness. Accept them for “who they are,” strengths and weaknesses alike. Acceptance carries great power to promote their growth and maturity. Children learn to value themselves and their capacity for growth when they find acceptance in and from us.

These five practices are signs of manipulative parents. Each one has a detrimental effect on our children. Each one backfires in the long run. Each one interferes with healthy relationships. But each once can be replaced with loving respect, kind instruction, healthy interactions, and acceptance. When we replace manipulation with respect, instruction, acceptance, and healthy relationships, we will enjoy a growing relationship with our constantly maturing children.

A New Year’s Resolution for Parents

Little girl baking christmas cookies

The new year is just around the corner and many of us are contemplating a “New Year’s Resolution” for the coming year. As parents, we might consider what kind of resolution could help us become better parents. To help us decide on a good parenting resolution, I recommend a “2-week parenting audit” to help you think of possible resolutions around parenting. Don’t worry, it’s not hard or guilt inducing. It simply helps us identify areas in which we can grow. This “audit” consists of listening to yourself as you talk to your child and counting 3 things.

  1. Listen to yourself and count how many times you say “no” compared to how many times you say “Yes.” Don’t get me wrong. “No” is an important word for a parent. “No” sets limits for our children’s health and safety. But “no” can also interfere with our children’s creativity and appropriate exploration. Learn to say “yes” as often as you can. When possible, find a way to modify a “no” into a “yes”.  Instead of “no, you can’t have a snack right now,” say “yes, after dinner you can. I don’t want you to ruin your appetite with one before dinner though.”  Learning to say “yes” can help a parent think about the “true reason” for having the rule or limit. Knowing the “true reason” for a rule can also help a parent identify a “yes” alternative that still satisfies the rule. Children will learn the “spirit” of the rule or limit when a parent learns to effectively balance “no’s” with “yes’s.”
  2. Listen to yourself and count how many times your correct negative behavior compared to how many times you acknowledge positive behavior. It’s easy to find ourselves constantly correcting our children.  Unfortunately, a constant focus on correction blinds us to the times our children engage in positive behaviors. Our children will also become discouraged believing they “never do anything right.” We need to make it a practice to look for the positive behaviors in which our children engage and to verbally acknowledge those behaviors. If we make this a daily habit, our children will surprise us with even more positive behaviors. We will also discover the “need” to correct negative behavior decreases as positive behaviors increase.
  3. Listen to yourself and count how many times you offer your child a directive compared to how many times you offer an opportunity to connect. Yes, a lot of tasks need to be completed around the house and our children often need prompts to help them remember to do their part. But when directives outweigh connection, you have a recipe for rebellion. Sometimes a directive can even be couched in an opportunity to connect. For example, “Please help me cook dinner tonight. We can talk while we cook.” Or “The living room is a mess. Help me clean it up so we have more time to do something fun together.”

After you have counted and looked at each of these comparisons, make your New Year’s Resolution. Do you need to say “yes” more often? Do you need to acknowledge positive behaviors more often? Do you want to speak words of connection more often? Or, if you’re like me, you may want to improve in all three areas. Each one will help build a more intimate relationship with your child while teaching them important life skills. I have to ask: which one will you work on next year?

Walking in a Winter Wonderland with Family

Winter has arrived. We’ve even had our first snow of the year. With the onset of cold weather, many people have turned up the heat, grabbed a book, and snuggled up on the couch with a soft blanket for the winter. Truly, a little hygge is always nice. However, I want to suggest another winter activity as well. This activity has a surprising benefit according to a study involving 87 women with an average age of 24 years. In fact, engaging in this activity for 40 minutes lead to a greater appreciation of one’s body, a better body image. Think of it, an improved body image after a simple 40-minute activity. “What is the activity?” you ask. A simple 40-minute walk in a snow-covered woodland area. A walk through the snow-covered nature… that’s all it took.

The senior author of the study reported that “natural environments help to restrict negative appearance-related thoughts and shift attention away from an aesthetic view of the body and toward greater appreciation of the body’s functionality.”

Body image is one of the struggles our teens have to resolve. In fact, many of us continue to struggle with body image throughout our adult life. Taking a walk through a snow-covered park or snow-covered woodland area is a simple way to work on a more positive body image through the winter months.

To really reap the benefits of this study for your family, you need to consider another interesting finding of the study. Specifically, those who tested high in self-compassion prior to their walk in the snow had larger improvements in body appreciation than those who tested lower in self-compassion. With that in mind, you can nurture self-compassion in your children. How?

  • Teach them an emotional vocabulary. Help them learn a large vocabulary for labeling their emotions. Help them to label the emotions they see in others as well. Teach them to look beyond simple behavior in others to see the emotions and intents behind the behavior.
  • Discipline your child’s behavior rather than labeling their character. This will involve planning ahead to avoid some behavioral issues. It will also involve teaching them how to behave differently in the future rather than simply punishing negative behaviors as they arise.
  • Model self-compassion in your own life. Rather than beat yourself up for mistakes or shortcomings, model self-compassion. Rather than modeling self-criticism, model self-compassion. This may take practice, but it will benefit you and your children in numerous ways.

You’ve set up an environment that nurtures self-compassion. Now grab your family, bundle up, and go for a walk in the snow. For the more active families, go sled-riding or skating. Have a snowball battle. Build a snowman. Whatever your style, get outside this winter. You’ll feel better about your body and so will your teen. In all honesty, you’ll just feel better all the way around.

Your Child’s Executive Functioning Needs to Go On a Diet

If you want your infant to develop healthy executive functioning (things like healthy working memory, planning abilities, organizing abilities, and behavioral inhibition) as they mature, you may want to put their executive functioning on a diet, a healthy diet. A study utilizing the data of 294 families involved in the STRONG Kids2 birth cohort study found the diet of 18-to 24-month-old infants correlated with their executive functioning. In this study, infants who ate more sugary snacks and processed foods were more likely to have problems with emotional control, behavioral inhibition, and planning and organizing—all components of executive functioning. That may not seem like a big deal for 2-year-olds. After all, “Kids will be kids.” But previous research suggests that children who had a higher consumption of sugary, processed foods also scored lower on academic tests than those who ate a healthy diet.  And another study found that a healthy diet was associated with better executive functioning than a diet high in snack foods in both children and adolescents.

What’s the takeaway for our families? If we want our children to develop optimal executive functioning skills in the present and in the future–if we want our children to exhibit their greatest abilities to plan, organize, inhibit unwanted behaviors, and effectively manage emotions–put away the donuts, chips, and cookies. Have healthy snacks and drinks on hand instead. Keep a fresh supply of fruits, nuts, and water for your children to snack on. You’ll be nurturing better executive functioning which, in the long run, means greater academic success and healthier social relationships. Go ahead…have a snack…there’s apples in the fridge.

The “Marshmallow Test” & Parenting…A New Twist

I never knew we could learn so much about raising children from a simple marshmallow. But, the classic “marshmallow test” suggested that children with greater self-control also experienced greater health and success as adults. In response we wondered: “How can we nurture self-control in our children?”

A twist on the “marshmallow study” showed that children exhibit more self-control when the adults around them followed through on their promises. In other words, when children see their parents as reliable, they practice better self-control. Reliable parents, parents who follow through on promises, nurture self-control in children.

Now, a third twist on the “marshmallow test” gives us another parenting hint. This study tested the ability of children from Japan and the United States to delay gratification for either food (a marshmallow) or a wrapped gift among children in Japan and children in the United States. The researchers hoped to discover how culture might influence self-control. Interestingly, children in Japan waited significantly longer for food (about 15 minutes) than did the U.S. children (less than a 4-minute wait); but the U.S. children waited longer before opening a gift (almost 15 minutes) than did the Japanese children (less than 5 minutes). These differences may reflect cultural training differences. Specifically, waiting to eat is emphasized more in Japan than in the U.S. and waiting to open gifts is emphasized more in the U.S. than in Japan. In other words, culturally specific habits impact delayed gratification and self-control in children.

What does this mean for our families? Families can nurture self-control in their children by…wait for it…wait…yes…building a family environment that is comfortable with waiting, even encourages waiting. You can do this by identifying opportunities to politely and appropriately allow your children (and you) to wait. In doing so, we will develop a culture (a home environment) that emphasizes habits nurturing delayed gratification and impulse control. Life is filled with opportunities to nurture the ability to wait, the ability to strengthen self-control. Here are some examples:

  • Wait until everyone sits down at the table and the family has prayed before eating the food on the table.
  • Wait your turn to open your presents. Or wait until everyone is present before opening your presents.
  • Play games that involve taking turns so each person has to wait his or her turn.
  • When you want to watch a show with your family but two people want to watch a different show, pick one and let the other show wait for another time. Make sure it’s not always the same person who has to wait.
  • Wait for dessert until the table is cleared and kitchen cleaned up.
  • Teach children how to wait by occupying themselves with another activity. Engage your child in calm waiting activities. Prepare ahead for activities you know will involve waiting, like going to a doctor’s office.
  • Save the favorite activity for the second half of the day…and enjoy the wait.

You get the idea. One other caveat, avoid pulling out your cellphone while you wait and just let your mind wander. You’ll find it rather enjoyable. Now get out there and…wait for it…wait…. enjoy strengthening self-control in your family.

Children’s Chores Do What?

Every parent knows that children benefit from doing chores to learn basic household skills as well as responsibility. Research also suggests children benefit from chores. For instance, research suggests that children who do chores have a greater sense of autonomy, improved prosocial skills, and greater life satisfaction.

A study published in the Australian Occupational Therapy Journal suggests in even more intriguing benefit for doing chores. This study, completed by a PhD candidate at La Trobe University, suggests chores may even benefit a child’s brain functioning. Wait…what? Chores might improve brain function, really? That’s right. In this study, the parents of 207 children between the ages of 5- and 13-years-old completed questionnaires assessing their children’s involvement in household chores and their children’s executive functioning—which includes their cognitive ability to plan, self-regulate, remember instructions, and similar mental tasks. Household chores included self-care chores (like making themselves a meal), family-care chores (like helping prepare the family meal or weeding a family garden), and pet-care chores. Here’s the kicker. A child’s engagement in self-care chores and family-care chores predicted their working memory and their ability to act before thinking. Specifically, children who engaged in age-appropriate chores also exhibited better working memory and a better ability to think before acting. Better working memory and a better ability to think before acting translates into better problem-solving, improved academic achievement, and even greater career success.

What does this mean for your family and your children? You guessed it. Engaging your children in age-appropriate and ability-appropriate chores can facilitate their cognitive development. It can improve their brain functioning. So let your children help you with household chores and involve them in independent household chores. Encourage them to join you in cooking meals, cleaning, or yard work. When appropriate to their age and ability, let them have the primary responsibility of sweeping, mowing, or dishwashing. Give them the responsibility of keeping their room clean. They may not know it, but you’ll be helping their brain grow and function even better.

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