Tag Archive for emotions

What Our Children Really Need

One goal all parents share is the goal of raising healthy children. But that goal includes more than just physical health. We also want to raise emotionally healthy children. A large study out of Johns Hopkins University (published in 2019) found positive childhood experiences promoted the development of emotionally healthy adults…just like we want. Best of all, you can provide these positive childhood experiences in your family. You can also help bring other adults into your child’s life to provide even more. Here are the positive experiences the researchers found fundamental to our children and some ways you can provide them in your home.

  1. Children need the opportunity and ability to talk to family members about feelings. Learn to accept your children’s feelings, their emotions. Label their emotions so they can build a strong vocabulary for emotions. Value your children enough to listen to their emotions and respond to them with empathy and understanding before problem-solving. Use emotions as a starting point to learn about your child’s priorities and sensitivities.
  2. Children need to feel safe and protected by the adults in their home. Creating an environment in which the healthy expression of emotions is acceptable will go a long way in creating this safe environment. Obviously, assuring our children’s basic needs for food and shelter are met will also help them feel safe and protected. Similarly, forbidding verbal and physical violence while encouraging loving communication and politeness promotes safety. Your children will also feel safe and protected when you allow them to witness and experience healthy, positive physical affection. (Learn the Heartbeat of a Hug.) Make sure they witness the resolution of disagreements as well. All this will help them feel safe and protected by the adults in your home.
  3. Children need adults who take a genuine interest in their lives. Show your children their importance to you by learning about their interests. Talk about their interests. Invest in their interests. Ask about their activities and their plans. Learn about their dreams and invest in their dreams. Help them with projects and homework. Join them in an activity of their choosing. Show them through your words and your actions that you are interested in them, that you delight in them.
  4. Children need someone in their corner. We all want someone who is in our corner, someone who has our back. Advocate for your child. Help them face and overcome obstacles. Stand by them in the midst of stress or conflict. Support them in resolving conflicts they can resolve on their own and step in to help them resolve those conflicts that become to intense for them to manage at their developmental level. Believe them when they tell you something…and, even more, believe IN them.
  5. Children need to participate in community traditions. Get involved with your child in community. Community may include your neighborhood, your church, and scouting organizations as well as clubs, athletics, or special interest organizations. Each of these groups will have activities and traditions in which you and your child can become involved. Get involved.
  6. Children need to feel connected at school and supported by friends. Our children will feel more connected at school when we have a good relationship with school. So, attend parent-teacher conferences. Go to the concerts and the plays, volunteer to help at school events. Get to know the teachers. The more connected you are to the school, the more connected your child will become as well…and the more likely they will succeed.

In all these ways, you and your home can provide positive childhood experiences to your children. But there is one more way to provide your children with an abundance of positive childhood experiences. Involve other positive caring adults in the fabric and life of your child and family. This may include parents of your children’s friends, ministers, coaches, teachers, or community and club leaders. The more caring adults sharing a healthy involvement in your child’s life, the better. It will allow your child multiple positive childhood experiences to shape their lives in resilience and opportunity. So, build a village of caring adults around your child.

Giving Thanks or Giving Lament

This has been quite a year. On a personal and familial level as well as on a global community level, it has been a hard year. And now it is Thanksgiving. I have to say, I often feel more like giving lament than giving thanks this year. This year we have experienced multiple deaths among friends, family, and family of friends in addition to a friend’s miscarriage, a broken engagement, painful separations, stressful transitions, a near-death experience, and a suicide…all within our family and circle of friends. Others have their personal stories to tell as well. I know. It has been a hard year.

On top of our personal stories we all live the story of a global pandemic that has resulted in “lock downs,” economic hardships, and a devastating number of lives lost to illness, loneliness, and neglect.

We have witnessed the struggle of racial disparity and the related loss of life as well as the hatred, pride, and greed that perpetuates that struggle. And, let us not forget a presidential election filled with vitriol, division, and name-calling that has increased fears and anxieties, some legit but many needless, among so many people.

It has been a hard year. And yes, I lament.

I bow my head and weep for the pain my family and I experience as well as the pain I see around me.

I weep for the division and hatred that has robbed us of friendship and, in too many cases, even family.

I weep for those who have lost family members and loved ones to death.

I weep for those who continue to struggle financially through the pandemic.

I weep for those who struggle with increased loneliness, depression, and anxiety as we “socially isolate” and “shelter-at-home.”

I weep for marriage vows broken and engagements promises lost.

I weep. I lament…even though it is Thanksgiving.

But, deep under the pain of lament I harbor a light…a seed of hope. Some call it naïve, but I disagree.

This seed of hope is planted in the soil of things I am grateful for…the resources to help a friend pay a bill, the opportunity to provide respite and a place to grow for a talented “twenty-something” filled with passion for a better tomorrow, the chance to stand in mourning with friends and family (that I am fortunate enough to have) as we share in a loss together.

My hope sprouts as I witness those working for a better tomorrow, those sharing resources with others in need. I look on with gratitude as I witness people breaking out of the boxes of prejudice to give support and care for those who are profiled as “the enemy” (See We Saved A Life Today & We Love Our Neighbors for just two examples).

My hope is nurtured when I witness small acts of kindness in my community—a man picking up trash and putting it in the garbage just to make the parking lot look nicer, cars stopping to allow a pedestrian to cross the street, or waitresses coming back to thank a customer for a generous tip—and large acts of kindness in the world at large, such as Chuck Feeney’s intentionally giving away his great wealth, a community coming together to help an older woman in the community (Gloria’s Gladiators), a 7-year-old spreading love, and many more.

There are many other stories of kindness and love that fill me with hope. I witness these stories in the lives of the people around me. I receive them in my email from the Good News Network. I hear friends and family tell me about these stories of kindness and hope. So yes, in spite of the pain and sorrow this year, in spite of the need to cry out in lament, I will also give thanks…for there are so many things for which I am thankful. It has been a hard year.

Yes. I will lament this Thanksgiving…AND I will give thanks.

Family Happiness -Tips From Norway

Winter approaches quickly as the days get shorter and the nights longer. Many people suffer from more sadness and even depression as we move through winter. (Click here for more information on SAD.) We may find an even greater struggle this year as the number of COVID cases increase our levels of anxiety and force many to stay inside even more than usual. In the midst of this dark winter, a light of hope appears. An article in the Good News Network suggests this light of hope may come to us by way of the “Norwegians’ unique cultural mindset.” Norway experiences as little as 30 hours of sunlight in December. Their winter nights are long; their days are short. However, they have small numbers of people who suffer from SAD. Perhaps their “unique cultural mindset” protects them…and perhaps we can adopt their “unique cultural mindset” to help us survive our winter days and the current pandemic. What does this mindset involve? Good question.

People like those in Norway choose to view the dark days of the sun-deprived winters as an opportunity. Yes, an opportunity. Their use their internal and external dialogues to speak of the opportunities that winter presents. Rather than saying “Winter is boring,” they focus on “the many things to enjoy about winter,” the “coziness of winter months,” and the “activities only available in winter.” You may think this simple “positive thinking” is a waste of time. But how we frame our outlook on the current situation and the future has an impact on our overall mental health. Martin Seligman calls this healthy framing “learned optimism.” Studies suggest that this “optimistic frame” not only leads to improved mental health but improved physical health and higher motivation as well. So, rather than look at the ways winter “brings you down,” begin to explore the possibilities winter brings. It brings the possibility of learning a new craft, of snuggling on the couch, of learning to ski or play hockey. Winter brings the possibility of games and get-togethers as well as the opportunity to witness a different beauty outside…which brings me to another “hint from Norway.”

The Norway people apparently enjoy “friluftsliv,” or “free air life.” Friluftsliv involves enjoying outdoor, physical activities at your own pace. It can include activities as simple as taking a family walk to fishing to skiing, whatever activity you and your family might enjoy in the “great outdoors.”  

So, rather than let your family get bogged down by the cold, short days, and long nights of winter, do like they do in Norway. Reframe your inner dialogue and your conversation to talk about the opportunities of winter. Then get outside and enjoy the great outdoors. It might just give your family a little more “hygge” (Oh wait, wrong country. That’s Danish and another way to help avoid the winter blues. Learn more in Make a Little Christmas Hygge anytime of the year.) Enjoy!

“Stop Trying to Fix Me!”

“Stop trying to fix me!” Has your partner or child ever said that to you? Have you ever said it yourself? “Stop trying to fix me!” When people in our lives experience struggles or problems, they generally do not want us to fix it for them. They want connection…and connection involves empathy. Unfortunately, empathy does not always come naturally. The desire to “fix it” and “make them feel better” is often what comes naturally to us. We hate to see our loved ones hurt. We want to “make them feel better,” to “fix the problem.” So, rather than show empathy, we unknowingly say things that minimize and invalidate their feelings, things like…

  • “It could be worse….” During their painful situation, your loved one will find it hard to imagine anything worse. Besides, they do not want to think about something worse. They want someone to listen. They want someone to accept their feelings. They want you to hear their pain and validate their emotions.
  • “This could turn out well if you just….” No one really wants to take the moment of pain or sorrow to learn. There will be opportunities to learn after they navigate the current pain. Instead, your family member desires you to “be with them” in the moment, to “sit with them” in their struggle and support them through the pain.
  • “When one door closes, another door opens.” Many people have described the pain of this statement to me. It invalidates their current pain and implies that a person can only have one positive experience in their life at a time, one open door at a time. Instead, your family member simply needs to mourn the door that closed before moving to another door.
  • “It’s not that bad. I remember when….” This statement comes across as a “one-up” statement. It comes across as though you are minimizing the current pain by saying, “You want to know pain. I have felt pain. Your pain is nothing compared to mine.”

Statements like those above (and there are many others) are generally made with good intentions. They represent an effort to “make the other person feel better” and ease their pain. Unfortunately, they have the opposite effect. They make the other person feel unheard, devalued, and even more upset. Why? Because at the root of our emotions, we want connection and empathy, not “fixed.” We want to know we are understood and that our emotions are accepted. After we understand our emotions and know another person has accepted our emotions, we can work at resolving those emotions and finding a solution. 

So, instead of “trying to fix” your spouse, your children, or your parent, use these four skills to empathize.

  • Listen without judging. Hear more than just the words. Listen for the emotions underlying the words. Knowing that another person hears us deeply and has the strength to witness our struggle, gives us more strength to manage the struggle effectively. (Remember, the art of listening is more than responding.)
  • Identify and label emotions. Labeling an emotion puts a buffer between our emotion and our actions. It helps us avoid impulsive reactions and empowers us to respond appropriately instead. (Check out these 6 tips to make your children’s emotions your friend.)
  • Sit with them in the emotion. Walk a mile in their shoes. Allow yourself to experience their emotion to some degree. Maybe you have not had the exact experience yourself, but you have endured the human experience. You have experienced the joys, triumphs, pains, and struggles of humanity. Be vulnerable and sit with your family member in their emotion.
  • Summarize and validate their perspective and emotions. This will facilitate organizing their emotions as well as the opportunity to develop a potential response to the emotions.

When we “stop trying to fix” our family we are free to listen deeply and lovingly “be with them” in their struggle, to empathize and validate. By doing so, we open a door to future solutions. Perhaps more importantly, we open the door for deeper intimacy and love.

Be Your Child’s Social Coach

Our teens have all kinds of coaches: sporting coaches, academic coaches (tutors), reading coaches, driving coaches (we call them instructors), and music coaches (private teachers) to name a few. The most important coach, however, is their social coach. Do you know the best person to fill the role of your teen’s social coach? You. Their parent. Parents are the most readily available person to offer social coaching. Parents know their adolescent best. Parents have years of experience in managing social situations. But, as always, there is a caveat.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology explored how parents (mothers in particular) guide (AKA, coach) their children during the transition into middle school and adolescence.  As part of the study, they measured the transitioning children’s level of arousal in response to social stressors like being bullied or teased, experienced rude peers, being harassed by peers, or having problems with a friend. The amount of social stress aroused in response to the social stress determined what type of parental “coaching” was most helpful. 

Specifically, teens who experienced minimal arousal in response to social stress benefitted most from specific advice on how to manage the situation and the challenging peer. These teens benefitted from active, engaged coping ideas specific to the situation.

On the other hand, those who experienced a high arousal in response to the social stresses inherent in peer interactions responded best to a more “hands-off” coaching style. In this style, the parent is less actively engaged and encourages more autonomy and self-reliant problem-solving. They do not offer specific advice. Instead, they ask their teen what they think about the situation. In fact, specific advice seemed to increase the teens level of stress. So, the parental coach helped their teen think about the situation and what they thought offered the best way to work through the stressor without giving direct advice.

Taken together, this study offers great advice about effectively coaching our children and teens in social situation. It starts with paying attention to how much the social situation impacts your child. Specifically, here are two pieces of advice for coaching your teen in response to social stresses.

  1. If they are just a little stressed by the situation, listen and offer specific advice. Actively participate in problem-solving. Reframe the situation. Help broaden their perspective to understand the other person’s perspective. Offer specific advice on ways to communicate and maintain boundaries that encourage respect and appropriate interactions.
  2. But if they are highly stressed by the situation, listen. Then ask about their feelings and thoughts in relation to the stressor. Validate their concern. Strive to understand their perspective. Listening and validating will help your teen calm their emotions. Ask them what they think might be the best way to respond to such situations and trust their abilities in responding.

Coaching our children through the social stresses inherent in moving toward middle school is a challenging task. However, these coaching tips can help. As you remain present and available for your children—offering a listening ear, seeking their input, and offering counsel—your teen will grow and mature into an adult who knows how to manage any social stress that arises.   

The Two Become One

Parents operate best as a couple rather than two individuals. In fact, researchers from Nanyan Technological University (Presence of spouse alters how parents’ brains react to children stimuli) found that husbands and wives who are in the same location show greater brain synchrony in response to their children crying or laughing. In other words, when their children cry or laugh the two parents become one as far as brain activity goes.

Interestingly, the synching of brain activity did not occur between random couples, only with the other parent of the children.

It did not occur in response to static noise either. Only in response to their children’s emotional expression.

And, it only happened when the parents were physically present with one another—in the same room at the same time.

What does all this mean? It makes me think of a couple of things.

  • When couples raise their children together, they become more united. Their brains synch, especially in their “attentional and cognitive control mechanisms.” In other words, they become more attentive together and they begin to “mesh” how they respond to their children. Similarity in the brain translates to greater similarity in parenting. This will help them parent more effectively and lovingly as a “united front.”
  • As parents’ brain sync up, they will also grow more intimate with one another, more united in their love. They will gain understanding of one another as they work together on the common goals of raising healthy children. Seeing their parents’ love grow will also strengthen a child’s sense of security. Greater security translates to greater confidence and less misbehavior.     
  • As parents respond to their children together, they will experience greater success and growing confidence in their parenting. Who doesn’t want to feel confident in their parenting?

There may be more benefits for this growing synchrony between parents’ brains as they parent. What benefits can you think of? I just found it interesting that when two people who have developed their own lives work together to raise a child, the two become one…literally.

Parents as Emotional Containment Pods

A teen’s life is full of emotions. They can be happy one moment and angry the next…down in the dumps one moment, then turn around, and be on top of the world.  I’m sure you’ve seen it. School and community do not provide a safe place for them to unload these emotions. Instead, our teens endure the tedious demands of teachers, authority figures, and other teens while they go through their day at school or wander through the community. They put up with annoying peers with whom they need to interact as they navigate the teen challenges of becoming their own person and learn to differentiate from their family. Amazingly, they do this all with a great deal of grace.

Then, they come home. The frustrations, angers, annoyances, hurts, sorrows, and tears of the day remain bottled up until they release them, pour them out right onto us, their emotional containment pods. Yes, as a parent we get the privilege of serving as emotional containment pods for our teens. I say privilege because they come to us, a person they consider safe and who lives with them in a place they consider safe, to let it all out. They are comfortable enough with us to let all the uncomfortable feelings roll right out of their mouth and onto us. We help them contain the mess. We help them manage the emotions and navigate the frustrations. They have given us an opportunity to support them because they trust us! Unfortunately, knowing this does not make it easier for us to manage the frustration of experiencing their emotions wash over us and fill us.  But here are some tips that might help.

  • Remind yourself that you are providing them a way to unload stress so they can “keep it together” while at school and in the community. In addition, this provides an opportunity to teach problem-solving. But, before you move into any problem solving, listen.
  • Listen. Listening will teach your children that you value them.  It also informs them that their emotions are not overwhelming to you, you can handle them. You can help them manage the emotions, contain them in a healthy way.
  • Confirm whether your child wants to vent or complain. Venting simply expresses frustration and allows the “venter” to feel better because they have been listened to and heard. If your child simply wants to vent, listen, empathize, and listen some more.  Complaining, on the other hand, conveys the message that someone else needs to fix the problem. It takes no time to look at the areas of the difficulty “I” can influence. It leaves the complainer helpless. The complainer never feels better. Complaining does not accomplish anything. If your child wants to complain, move to the next bullet.
  • Help your child learn the difference between problems over which they have influence and those they cannot solve. Help them learn where their responsibility begins and ends. Help them determine what aspects of the problem they have influence over. When they have discovered those areas of influence, help them think through a plan of response. For those areas over which they have no influence, encourage them to learn to “accept the things they cannot change.”
  • Set limits. We want to have more relationship with our children than just listening to them vent. Encourage them to tell you positive events of the day as well. Also, sometimes our teens have bad days. They are irritable and snap out at family. They punish their family for their own bad mood with cutting remarks and snarky comments. It is a fair limit to say, “You can vent, I’ll listen. You can come to me and we can problem solve. But, we will not allow you to mistreat us.”

Teen years are filled with stress and emotion. Fortunately, these emotions provide a wonderful opportunity to grow closer with your teen and guide them toward greater maturity.

Spread an Emotional Contagion that Builds Relationship

Emotional contagion describes when one person’s emotions and related behaviors trigger similar emotions in another person. Our emotions can trigger other people’s emotions and vice versa because People mimic the facial expressions and body language of other people during social interactions and “catch” their emotions. You have probably experienced the impact of emotional contagion in your family. Someone (mom, dad, teen) comes home in a bad mood and suddenly everyone’s mood takes a turn for the worse. On the other hand, the same person comes home with a smile on their face and a bounce in their step and everyone feels better.

A smile on their face…that reminds me. Ka-shing Woo and Bobbie Chan conducted a study (2019) focusing on the impact of different types of smiles and nodding on warmth and friendliness between people. They found that a fake smile did NOT pass along good feelings. However, a genuine smile did pass along good feelings. They also found that slow, vertical head nodding communicates supportiveness and indicates the listener is paying attention. When the study participants combined a genuine smile with a slow, vertical head nod, they found a “potent emotional contagion” expressing warmth and friendliness that also served as a catalyst for reciprocal feelings of warmth and friendliness. In other words, genuine smiling and attentive nodding spreads warmth and friendliness, it draws people together in positive emotions, it builds intimacy…it is an emotional contagion of warmth and friendliness.

Interesting, isn’t it? A genuine smile combined with a nod of interest conveys a warmth and friendliness that is “catchy.”  Now that is a contagion I would like to spread through my family. That is a contagion I would like to see spread through my family to the community as well. So, let’s start spreading that contagion today. Pass along a genuine smile and a nod of interest every chance you get.

Don’t Let Your Marriage Buckle Under “Social Distancing”

The corona virus pandemic has led to a call for “social distancing.”  But, don’t let the current pandemic or the call for “social distancing” exacerbate any marital issues that might already exist in your home. In fact, if you already experience “social” or “emotional distance” in your marriage, you’re probably struggling even more to navigate these stressful times. Fortunately, there is no better time than now to correct any emotional distance in your marriage and start to practice emotional connection. Here are six great ways to start building emotional connection in your marriage.

  • Talk with one another. Take time every day to sit down over a cup of coffee and have a conversation. Talk about your experiences of the current crisis, fears of anxieties you might be experiencing. Talk about how you will work together to navigate the current crisis. Enjoy simple small talk as well. Talk like you did when you were dating. Joke a little. Read a book together and talk about it. Talk about your plans for the coming years. Talk your hopes and dreams for the future. Each of these will move you toward a deeper emotional connection with your spouse. (This might be a great time to take A 30-Day Marriage Challenge.)
  • Listen to your spouse. While you converse with your spouse, intentionally and sincerely listen. Listen to hear the intent of their message, the meaning beneath the words.  Listen to understand their perspective and emotions. Ask questions to clarify what they mean. In so doing, you will learn more about your spouse and their emotions. (Learn more about The Art of Listening here.)
  • As you listen and talk, look at your spouse. I don’t mean glance at their face now and again. Really look at them. Notice their eye color and the twinkle in their eye. Notice the shape and features of their face. Pay attention to their facial expressions and their gestures. Look deeply into their eyes to notice the emotions they feel as they talk. There is power in seeing and being seen by one another.
  • Tell your spouse “I love you.” Tell them with words and actions. Whisper it in their ear. Let them see it in your eyes when you look at them. Say it by remembering what they like and don’t like. Show it in your actions by doing a chore they dislike. Love them by expressing gratitude and remaining polite.
  • Give one another a good night hug and kiss (as long as neither is sick, of course).  Don’t just give a quick hug. Dwell in the hug. Make it an “oxytocin hug.”  Give a generous kiss goodnight, not just a simple peck on the cheek.
  • Recall your story. Talk about the time you first met, your favorite dates, and your vacations. Remember the struggles you have overcome together—whether they be as simple as putting up a tent in the rain or dealing with the death of a loved one. The “story of us” is a great emotional connection. (And your children will love it, too.)

These six practices will help you build emotional connection. No matter what is going on in the world around you, keep practicing them and enjoy a growing emotional connection in your marriage.

PS–may we can begin talking about “physical distancing” instead of “social distancing.” Then we can focus on maintaining “social connection” while keeping a safe “physical distance.”

To Live the Dream of Emotional Closeness

It’s like a dream, isn’t it? A family in which your spouse and your children come to you to talk about their joys and their sorrows, their accomplishments and their failures, their courageous moments and their greatest fears. But this doesn’t come easy; it doesn’t happen in our sleep. It takes work. It begins with our own willingness to risk the vulnerability of talking to our spouse and children in the same open way we hope they talk to us. That, in itself, represents a significant challenge for me. As we learn to take that risk ourselves, there are other things we can do to promote the emotional safety in our family that will encourage open communication and emotional closeness.

  • First, welcome the expression of emotion. When your child comes to you crying, accept their sorrow. When your spouse comes to you in anger about a coworker, accept their anger. Don’t try to minimize their emotion. Don’t tell them to “calm down.” Simply welcome their emotion. Accept it. Acknowledge it.
  • Second, join them in their emotion. “Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” in your family. If you spouse is angry about the way a coworker was treated, be angry in the moment with them. When your child is brokenhearted after breaking up with their boyfriend of 2 months, be brokenhearted with them. They are likely overwhelmed by those emotions. They need you to share that emotion with them, to share the burden of the emotion and so make it more manageable.
  • Third, hold their emotion. This involves empathizing and “sitting” with them in the emotion, whether it be joy or pain, happiness or sadness. Join them and hold their pain with them. Let them know that you are strong enough to sit with them and their emotions. Their emotions do not overwhelm you. Instead, you can feel those emotions with them, share the pain, and so share the burden of that emotion as you manage it together.

There is a scene in the movie Shadowlands (watch it here) in which CS Lewis sits with a young boy in front of the wardrobe of the boy’s recently deceased mother and CS Lewis’s wife.  Together they talk about their doubts and their overwhelming sorrow. CS Lewis welcomes the young boy’s sorrow and doubt. He joins the young boy in his pain. He shares the burden of that emotion. Then, CS Lewis starts to cry. The young boy also starts to cry. They sit together hugging one another as they cry and grieve their loss together. They hold this emotion together. They share the pain.

It is in sharing emotion that we overcome. And, it is in sharing emotion that we grow more intimate with one another. It is in the vulnerability of sharing emotion that we draw nearer to the dream of a home in which emotional safety allows us to stand before one another to reveal our deepest selves and know we have found unconditional love and acceptance.

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