It’s about PRESENCE…not presents

gingerbread houseAt this time of year it’s easy to get caught up in the busyness of the season and the frenzy of shopping sprees.  Is there any home with a little girl that doesn’t have a Frozen themed Elsa doll wrapped and ready to go?  Or a home with a little boy that doesn’t have a Lego building kit under the tree?  (I’m sure there are, but the toy companies would have us think otherwise).

Every year I say I’m going to opt out of the madness and make room for relaxing evenings, slow dinners, and hours of listening to the Elvis Christmas Album.  I envision me and the boys sitting around the den surrounded by twinkling lights, sipping our hot chocolate, laughing and sharing memories of seasons past.

Yet, as the holiday season rolls around, there are school dinners and concerts, sports banquets, plays, party invitations, and shopping for the kids and loved ones.  Not to mention, end of semester final exams, basketball tournaments, and end of year personal and business financial reporting.

What happens is I wind up surviving the holidays, rather than enjoying the holidays.  I regret to say that for many years I’ve let out a huge sigh (that I’ve been holding from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day) and thought, “I’m glad that’s over!”

 Can you relate?  Are you rushing around to get everything ready for the holidaysand missing the holy days in your life right now?  Are you sprinting from store to store buying presents for your loved ones and missing the opportunity to snuggle up at home and gift them with your presence?

What do you think your kids will remember twenty years from now?  The doll or the time you spent together making a gingerbread house?  The Lego kit or the time you spent together baking cookies, or stringing popcorn, or eating the popcorn and watching A Charlie Brown Christmas?

I recently read an article where the author was a long-time teacher and over the years she had asked the children in her classrooms what their parents did that made them feel loved or happy.  On the Top 10 List she compiled, not one thing required money.  They all required time and presence.  Examples: tuck me in and sing me a song, give me hugs and kisses, cuddle under a blanket and watch TV, tell me stories about when you were little.

So this year, I finally made some progress.  I got the tree up and the home decorated early so we had more time to enjoy the twinkling lights. I got the Elvis Christmas Album (cd) out and popped it in the player.  I made hot chocolate with little marshmallows.  We’ve sat down to a leisurely dinner (with fresh baked cookies) several times this week.  We’ve been connecting and spending time together and I’ve been saying “no” to other distractions. THIS feels like thrivingduring the holidays, rather than surviving the holidays!  I invite you to give it a try!

♥♥♥ LOVE IN ACTION ♥♥♥

Carve out a little time each day to spend with each child (one-on-one if possible). This is especially needed during hectic holiday time.  Stress is contagious….but so is calm presence.

Click here for my gift to you…a cute collection of “tickets” that your child can use for more time and connection with you.  Just print the sheet, cut out the tickets and staple them together to make your own Ticket Booklet.  Stuff it in a stocking or wrap it up and give the gift that your child will cherish all year (not just play with for a few days and toss in a corner).

“You guys are the bomb!”….btw, that’s a good thing :)

Translation:  "I think you guys are the bomb!  and the best!  When I think about you, I think about happy times. Because it meets my need for happiness."

Translation: “I think you guys are the bomb! and the best! When I think about you, I think about happy times. Because it meets my need for happiness.”

One of the homework assignments in my Respectful Parents, Respectful Kidsclass is for parents to hand out appreciation notes (we call them Giraffe Notes) to members of the family. Parents are encouraged to notice things that their kids do that contribute to them or to the family and then to write a note expressing their appreciation. They also invite their kids to write appreciation notes to family members as well. This is to be a daily practice.

After a week of writing Giraffe Notes, a mom came to class and said the kids were less than enthused about her notes and weren’t that interested in writing their own. I encouraged her to keep at it, and to realize she was planting seeds which may take a little while to bloom.

The next week I received this text message from the mom and a photo of a note she had just received from her son (above):

“My 7 year old just wrote a Giraffe Note on his own. Wow! He went and got a blank one and presented it to us at dinner! OMG…tears…. He wrote we were the bomb and when he thinks of us it is happiness. Thank you!”

You can do this in your family too. Notice the little things your kids (and partner) do that you enjoy and let them know about it. Invite them to participate as well for mutuality. We all like to hear that we are appreciated!

WTF?

little kid cryingBe honest.  What’s your first reaction when your child walks over and knocks down the Lego tower her brother has just spent the last ten minutes building? Or how about when your son is flipping like a fish in the grocery store aisle because you said no to the sugary cereal—again?

Let me guess.  Do you yell?  Do you put her in time-out?  Do you lecture, threaten, punish?  All of the above?  Do you casually push your cart past the melt-down in the cereal aisle pretending you don’t know the small creature writhing about?

Trust me, I know how difficult it is to keep yourself together when you child is “misbehaving” or “losing it.”  Not too long ago, it wasn’t uncommon, while Krogering, for the manager to open a special check-out line just for me in order to expedite getting me and my screaming banshee out of there!

But what I have found over the years is that the strategies listed above have several unintended results. Namely, (a) they tend to exacerbate the problem instead of solve it (especially with a strong-willed child), (b) they don’t help the child think about what they’ve done…or why…or how they might solve the problem differently next time, and (c) they don’t help parents feel competent and effective.

What I suggest instead is to get curious.  WTF?  What’s The Feeling being displayed through the behavior?  What emotion is your child acting out?  And then “name it to tame it” as child neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel says.

Help your child start to develop emotional literacy by guessing what he’s feeling and naming it:

“You sound very very frustrated.”
“You are so angry that you can’t have the cereal you want.”

Then validate the feeling by saying something like:

“It’s hard to really really want something and not be able to have it.”
“I know.  I hate it too when I can’t have what I want.”

WTN? Then guess What’s the Need underneath the feeling?  Often it’s a need for autonomy, for choice.  You can relate to that, right?  Don’t you also like having autonomy and choice in your life?  There’s nothing wrong with our children wanting that too.

It’s healthy to let them have as much choice as they can handle for their age.  And it’s also okay to set a loving limit when there are some choices that we decide are non-negotiable (like choices that have to do with safety, well-being, and health).

Then instead of trying to manage their behavior, spend that energy building your skill in being able to hold the limit and also hold your child’s intense feelings in response to the limit.  This can be hard to do, but it will help your child to develop insight into his own inner emotional life and, as he matures, to be able to problem-solve and find other ways to meet needs.

I invite you to develop the art of curiosityWhat’s the Feeling?  What’s the Need?   Developing honest curiosity about your child’s emotional life leads to greater understanding and a stronger connection.

I was hit with a “switch” as a child and I turned out okay

adrian-peterson-child-abuse-4Or did I?

The media is abuzz with the recent off field violence of NFL players Ray Rice and now Adrian Peterson.  As horrific as the events may be (Rice punching his wife unconscious and Peterson hitting his child with a “switch”), I’m hopeful that they will raise our consciousness around these issues that are still lingering in the shadows–the issues of domestic violence and child abuse.

When someone uses physical punishment to manage their child’s behavior (like spanking, switching, slapping, whipping) it is often rationalized or even glorified with statements like, “Harsh discipline made me the man I am today,” or “I was spanked as a child and I turned out okay.”

Except…when I look around me, I’m not sure we have turned out okay.  There seems to be a LOT of violence in the world.  There’s seems to be a LOT of people who believe that the way to solve problems is to control someone, terrify someone, or punish someone.

So I’m not at all convinced that any of us have turned out okay.  To be okay, we sure have made a mess of this civilization thing.  Collectively, we seem to treat each other with less than respect, especially when we don’t agree with someone or hold the same opinions or beliefs as they do.

Largely, the way we treat others is directly related to how we were treated as a child because that’s what got hardwired into our brains.  So when 61% – 80% (depending on the survey) of U.S. parents report using physical punishment on their children, it creates a cycle of violence that’s never-ending until someone sticks their stake in the ground and proclaims, This cycle stops with me!

But I also know how hard it is to stop these generational patterns.  I was hit with a “switch” when I was little.  Growing up in the south, my parents disciplined in thespare the rod, spoil the child fashion without realizing that the rod in the bible is a tool that shepherds used to guide their sheep, not hit them! Remember, the psalms? “Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.”

I was not comforted by my mom’s version of the rod.  “Switching” was how my mom disciplined me in the most severe cases of when I defied her rules, or when she was just tired and exhausted and didn’t know what else to do.  And to add insult to injury I had to go out back and cut my own “switch” off the tree.  I would spend a considerable amount of time trying to select the branch that looked like it would do the least harm to my legs. Do I leave the leaves on or take them off?  Do I cut it short or cut it long?

I can remember the stings, the raw welts that rose up, the heat that emanated from the wounds for several hours afterward.  But mostly I remember the anger in my mother’s voice and in her hands.  It didn’t sound or feel anything like love to me.

But I turned out okay, right?

While I’m “okay” by many standards, I wonder….  If I had been treated with moreunderstanding and compassion as a child when I “misbehaved,” might I have been spared the many years of emotional and verbal abuse I endured in a past relationship?  Might I not have spent more than a decade recovering from co-dependency?  Might I have known, deep in my core, that I didn’t deserve to be mistreated and would not allow it?  Might I have loved myself and taken care of myself more?

As for men who were “whipped” or “switched” when they were boys.  If they had been shown more understanding and compassion as a child, might they be more respectful and gentle to women?  Might they use their strength to model, for their own kids, self-control, understanding, and problem-solving that doesn’t include violence?  Wouldn’t these be great life skills to pass along to the next generation?

One day as she watched her grandkids play, my mother said, “I can’t imagine hitting either one of these boys.  I don’t know how in the world I did it to you when you were young.  That’s just what people did back then and I didn’t know any different.  I’m sorry I hit you.  I could never hit a child now.”  Those words were like healing balm for the scars on my soul.

I know my mom loved me and I’m glad she eventually became aware of how hitting hurts children–their souls even more than their bodies.  I’m also glad I learned alternate ways to discipline my children and mostly broke this generational pattern for my family.  Even though I swore not to spank my children, it happened a few times.  So I know the huge effort it takes to break these generational patterns, these reactions that are hardwired in our brains from early childhood.  If we were hit as a child, it’s very difficult NOT to pass this treatment on to our children. So I committed to do the hard work, to put my stake in the ground, and declare that this generational pattern ends here!

Ultimately, what I long for is a world where we don’t just turn out “okay.”  I want children to thrive, to flourish, to know their own worth and to feel loved, wholly loved, mistakes and all.  I want parents to be gentle guides with their children by setting loving limits, and modeling how to handle frustration and anger that arises.  Not with physical violence, but by saying, “Hey buddy, I can’t let you hit your brother or push him.  In our family, everyone is safe.  So come over here and sit by me and tell me what’s going on with you?  Why did you push him away from that video game?  How could you handle that differently next time?”  That’s how I wish my mom had responded when I “misbehaved”…with curiosity and a sense that she had my back even if she didn’t like my behavior.  That’s what I try to model for my kids.  Because I want them passing on these important peace-building and problem-solving skills to my grandchildren someday.

Research on Physical Punishment

In 2008, the “Report on Physical Punishment in the United States: What Research Tells Us About Its Effects on Children” by Elizabeth T. Gershoff, Ph.D. was published. This report was endorsed by over seventy U.S. organizations including the Academy on Violence and Abuse, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, and American Medical Association. The report synthesizes one hundred years of social science research and hundreds of published studies on physical punishment conducted by professionals in the fields of psychology, medicine, education, social work, and sociology.

The research supports several conclusions:

  • There is little research evidence that physical punishment improves children’s behavior in the long term.
  • There is substantial research evidence that physical punishment makes it more, not less, likely that children will be defiant and aggressive in the future.
  • There is clear research evidence that physical punishment puts children at risk for negative outcomes, including increased mental health problems.
  • There is consistent evidence that children who are physically punished are at greater risk of serious injury and physical abuse.

In recent years, scientists have found that even spanking–the most widely accepted and allegedly humane form of corporal punishment–has alarmingly negative consequences for childhood development. Spanking can increase a child’s risk of aggressionantisocial behavior, andmental health disorders later in life. It slows cognitive development and decreases language skills. Spanking may not leave outward signs of injury, but the mental scars it inflicts can last a lifetime.

Keeping the Focus on Relationship

This post was orginally published on August 5, 2011

Next week my kids go off to school and as always, the bittersweet nostalgia sets in.  I so enjoy the summer months and spending more time with my kids.  I so look forward to school starting again so I can regain some focus on work, some peace and quiet, and some “normalcy” to our days and schedules.

This year my older son goes to high school and I am humbled by my relative lack of influence on his choices.  Gone are the days when I could share my values with him while he sat intently listening, asking questions, and formulating his own ideas and opinions—which pretty much mimicked my own.  Now I worry that our values seem so far apart.  Our priorities so different.  Our attempts at resolving conflicts messy and requiring lots of effort and self-empathy.

At 14, he is just entering those murky waters of the teen years.  Already we’ve wrestled with some big issues that could easily shake even a sturdy foundation.  I’m often gripped by fear when I observe behavior I label “risky,” “dangerous,” “self-destructive.”  I constantly walk a fine line between honoring his needs for autonomy, expression, and freedom and my needs for trust, safety and his wellbeing.  I seem to constantly be in the mode of relationship repair.  Conscious parenting is not for the faint-hearted.

And still there is comfort in knowing that we can repair the relationship when the connection breaks.  We do know a way back and have found it many times.  I’ve worked with families where the chasm in their connection is so wide that it can seem quite hopeless to build a bridge across.  And yet I know that certain conscious parenting processes, like Parenting From Your Heart and Connection Parenting, can support families in establishing, repairing, and maintaining trust and connection.  Even in those difficult teen years.

Compared to other processes, conscious parenting may take more time and effort.  It’s often easier to use power-over, especially when the kids are young, to get the behavior and “cooperation” we want.  But just try “counting to three” with a teenager or forcing a teenager to sit in “timeout.”  I think you’ll find those behavior modification techniques are short-lived and buy you a little extra time at best. At worst, they tend to be disconnecting and alienating, the antithesis of relationship-building.

The work of conscious parenting, of building a relationship with your child based on mutual respect and trust, is harder and takes more time.  You often don’t see results right away.  It may take weeks or months or even years to build the trust.  Why would you want to put that much time and effort into it?  Because keeping the focus on relationship rather than behavior allows the process to grow as you and your child grow (not just in age, but also in consciousness and skills).  Behavior modification techniques come and go according to the latest trend or parenting guru.  A connecting relationship between you and your child transcends all ages, developmental stages, trends and “experts.”   Keeping the door open to communication and connection serves the relationship when your child is a toddler and carries over into when your child grows into an adult.  A solid relationship built of mutual respect and trust provides a strong sturdy foundation that lasts a lifetime!  I mean, way past the teen years.  Isn’t that worth the extra effort?

Are you and your partner on the same page?

couple fighting PAIDWhen it comes to something as important and intentional as raising children, it’s no wonder that there is often conflict between parents about the best way to go about it.
While it’s not necessary for both parents to have the exact same parenting style; it is better when you can work together in a way that complements each other, rather than  conflicts with each other.  So how do you work through your differences in order to share a common vision, appreciate each other’s strengths, and work together as a team?
To start with, it helps to reframe how you view conflict around parenting and any other areas of your relationship.  Conflict is inevitable, but all those extra layers of suffering we pile on it are not — the name-calling, the aggression, the anger, the shutting-down, the withdrawing.  These are all tragic expressions of unmet needs that we don’t have a clue about how to get met and so we unskillfully add salt to the wound.
Conflicts are actually wonderful opportunities to model for your children how to problem-solve and resolve differences with respect, honesty, and authenticity. These will be life-skills that your children will carry into their own relationships.
The only problem is…this is hard to model for your kids if you didn’t have it modeled for you.  And it’s not like the school system we were educated in taught these skills either.  These kinds of communication and problem-solving skills often have to be learned in adulthood.  But hey, better late than never, right?
Fortunately, I’ve found a way to help couples learn, practice, and hone these skills through a process that I call the Couples Communication Game (CCGame). There are 3 phases to the CCGame:   Phase 1 uses a unique deck of cards which supports each person getting clear on what’s important to them about the situation.  Phase 2 is a process which supports each person feeling fully heard and understood.  In Phase 3,  we problem-solve and learn how to make concrete, doable, positive requests to help each person get closer to what they identified was important in Phase 1.
I’m actually giddy with the results I’ve seen so far and the potential for this Game to be a real “game-changer” in families.
If you would like to explore if this process could help you and your partner “get on the same page,” email me at sherri (at) parentingheart (dot) com.   I’d be happy to tell you more and answer your questions.

Hear what other couples are saying about the CCGame:

“We have attended two different kinds of counseling during the last couple of years but we still continued to have some of the same stresses in our relationship.  The Couples Communication Game was a different approach.  It seemed to get to the core of the matter more easily.  Using the cards, we both felt we were being heard and it gave us a tool to express a need that we maybe would have had difficulty expressing without the cards.  After just 3 sessions with Sherri and the CCGame, we are pleased that on a few occasions we have been successful at a beginner’s level with using the strategies of the Game outside of the sessions.  We would recommend the CCGame to anyone who has a relationship that is important to them.”   — Sarah Keeling and Bob Hayes

“My husband and I did three sessions of the Couples Communication Game with Sherri.  It was a very good experience for us.  We found that working with Sherri as a coach, and using the form of the Couples Communication Game really helped us to jump start working through our differences in a more focused way.  The visual of having the game board and the cards, and having Sherri there as a coach made a huge difference for us.  We didn’t get stuck or stalled by differences of opinion.  We had a neutral, non-judging voice to help us through rough spots.  We had the cards and game to help us when we were stuck about identifying our feelings and needs.  I felt that the structure of this game helped us to zero in on where our conflicts were, and not go off track and get distracted.  Now we can do the game on our own, knowing that we have Sherri as a resource if we get stuck on something.  Thank you, Sherri!”  –Audrey , Decatur, Georgia

“A heartfelt Thank You to an amazing person, friend and coach.  We are so glad that Sherri was there for us during this difficult time and was equipped with just the right professional skills and tools. The Couples Communication Game we worked through with Sherri has made a tremendous difference in our lives. We have been married for only 4 years, but have faced many difficult situations already and were at a point of feeling stuck.  The CCG got us thinking clearer and deeper, listening better to each other’s needs and refreshing and renewing meaningful and deep communication about what truly matters.  Sherri effectively got to the root of things, that we could not have gotten to ourselves.  She guided us through issues and we were able to set realistic, clear and specific resolutions.  We are thankful to know about this great tool which we can use over and over again. We highly recommend this tool not only to people looking for support with communication, but also to anyone looking to refresh relationships and investing in what truly matters.  We could not have asked for a better coach to guide us through this process and can highly recommend Sherri.”  –Jacqueline & Andrew, Atlanta, GA

Are you seeing fireworks all year round?!

fireworksFor some of us, fireworks don’t just happen on the 4th of July.  You parents of young children know what I’m talking about!  I’m talking about the fireworks that happen when our children have their meltdowns, tantrums, upsets, you-name-it….especially in a public place!  When it seems like the screaming and flailing about is just as loud and spectacular as any fireworks show you’ve seen.
[BTW…I saw a spectacular fireworks show last night featuring my 17-year-old and a broken cellphone!]
These are the times that test our fortitude as parents and test our ability to dance in the gap of (1) our vision of how we want to parent and (2) how we actually do it during the daily grind.  Hopefully, these 3 tips will help you bridge that gap in the midst of the familial pyrotechnics:
1.  Stay calm

THE MOST HELPFUL thing you can do when your child is losing it is to stay calm yourself.  If you lose it too then all hope is lost.  Your child needs you to guide her through the emotional storm.  That’s hard to do if you’re lost in the storm yourself.  So breathe and repeat a mantra to yourself that will help you stay calm…such as “I can do this in a calm loving way” or “This too shall pass.”

(You may have to come back to this mantra over and over again).
2.  Get down close to your writhing child*
Yes, you read that correctly.  Squat down, or even sit or lie down on the floor with your child (depending on where you are).  Perhaps you just wouldn’t be comfortable lying in the grocery store aisle; but if you’re at home or the home of a friend, go for it!
Instead of isolating your child or letting the emotional tempest keep you at bay… go in, get close.  As we say in the conflict resolution field:  lean into the conflict. This will get easier the more you do it, and your calm close presence is likely to have a calming influence on your child when he starts to trust that you can be a safe container for his big emotions.  With repetition, you may find this strategy alone lessens the intensity and decreases the time of a tantrum.
3.  Offer understanding and empathy to your child
Your child is too young developmentally to be able to reason out of her intense emotions.  That’s why all the perfect reasoning and logic in the world won’t help in those moments.  Plus, we tend to use way too many words when our child is upset.  (To be honest, when you are having intense emotions, do you want someone to give you reasons why you shouldn’t be feeling that way? Or do you want someone to hear you and to understand the pain you’re in?)
Instead, offer your child two precious gifts:  understanding and empathy. 
Here are some phrases to try:

I know it’s hard when you really really want that cookie right now.  
It’s hard to want something really bad and not be able to have it. 
I know…sometimes I want things too that I just can’t have.
It’s okay to cry.  I know it hurts.  I’m here with you.  
You want to sit on my lap?
You want me to hold you while you cry?
Comments such as these give your child the message:  “I know.  I understand. There’s nothing wrong with you for feeling this way.  I’m here to help you through it.”
Understanding and empathy are not permissive parenting.  Most likely, it’s your limits that are stimulating the tantrum in the first place.  You can set boundaries and limits and still be loving and supportive when they trigger intense emotions in your child.  Just as you support your child with physical hurts, it’s just as important to support the emotional hurts.
Your capacity to stay loving and supportive during an upset helps your child to build resiliency and capacity to behave better in the future.  Studies have shown that emotional responsiveness strengthens the integrative connections in the brain, helping to bring the prefrontal cortex (the thinking brain) back on-line quicker.  As the brain integrates more and more over time, this allows your child to make better choices and to better control her body and emotions.
So there you have it.  3 tips to help you and your child get through the “other” kind of fireworks show.  I invite you to start seeing every tantrum as an opportunity to instill this message in your child:

You are loved even when you’re at your worst.  
(Don’t we all want that?!) 
We’re a team and I’ve got your back! 
*Special Note:  Some children will not let you get near them when they are upset.  (My son is this way; he really needs his space when he’s upset.)  You can sit further away or in the doorway and keep letting him know you are there for him, at a distance, until he is ready to be comforted or to re-engage.

Know Thyself: Part 3

boy on video game PAID
In Part 1 of this series I shared with you a glimpse of what is happening in your brain when you “lose it” with your child—when you yell, shame, blame, hit, or punish. The first question to ponder in order to Know Thyself better, is “Who is driving the bus in this moment?”  In Part 2 we explored the neuroscience behind our “triggers” and pondered the question of “What’s the story tape that’s playing in my head?” Let’s continue in Part 3 with another type of thinking that often disconnects us from others…

 

“Should” Thinking

There is a particular kind of thinking that goes on in our brains which often dictates whether we will experience anger and upset or compassion and curiosity.

If you consider for a moment a recent time when you got upset with your child (or with a spouse or co-worker), you will likely find that a split-second before your anger arose, there was a thought in your head of what the other person “should” or “shouldn’t” be doing.

He should get off the video game when I call him in to dinner.
She shouldn’t have taken the credit for the work I did.

The important thing to know is that it’s your “should” thinking that creates the anger, not what the other person is or isn’t doing.  Now I’m not saying you smile and pretend everything is okay when it’s clearly not.  I just want us to be clear that our emotions arise from our thinking, not what someone does or doesn’t do.  And this is encouraging, because we have a lot more control over our thinking than we have over the behavior of other people.

Here’s an example:
Let’s say you are meeting a friend for dinner and you both agreed to meet at 6:00.  It’s now 6:15 and your friend is not there.  Now it’s 6:30 and still no friend.  If your thinking is along the lines of, “She always does this.  She should be here at the time we agreed upon.  She should be more respectful of my time,” then you are likely to get upset with your friend.  If your thinking is, “I’m so glad she’s running late.  It gives me a little time to finish up this report I was working on,” then you’re likely to feel grateful for the extra time alone.  Same action, different thinking and very different emotions:  upset vs. grateful.

The facts are actually neutral:  Your friend said she would be there at 6:00.  It’s now 6:30 and she’s not there.  It’s your thinking of how things “should” be that give the situation a positive or negative flavor.  Shakespeare said it best in this line from Hamlet:  “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

So what’s the alternative?  How do you let someone know that you don’t enjoy their behavior without “shoulding” on them?  First you have to get out of your head where the “should” thinking lives and drop into your heart, where your feelings and needs reside.

Let’s take the example of:

He should get off the video game when I call him in to dinner.

Would you like to experience anger and upset or compassion and curiosity?  If you stay up in your head thinking he “should” get off the game…then you will probably experience anger and upset.  And I predict it will provoke defensiveness and resistance in your child and a conflict will ensue.

If instead you look inside to your feelings and needs, you might find something like:  “I’m feeling very frustrated and I need consideration for the time I put into cooking dinner.  I want us to eat while it’s hot and tasty.”  Just this bit of self-empathy can soothe the upset a little.  Then you can get curious and seek to understand why your son is not responding in the way you would like.  You can guess at his feelings and needs:  “Are you feeling frustrated that I’m asking you to stop the game because you’d like to keep playing until you finish this level?”  I predict getting in touch with your own feelings and needs and then guessing at your son’s feelings and needs (either out loud or silently inside) will lead to a more mutually satisfying solution.

When you express from the heart (feelings and needs) instead of the head (“should” thinking), the potential for finding strategies that work for everyone is much much higher.  Parenting is so much more enjoyable when you learn how to invite cooperation rather than force compliance.

If there’s a pattern of a particular behavior that happens frequently, I suggest you have these heart dialogues proactively, rather than wait until you’re in the middle of the situation.

You might say to your son, “I notice we have a fight almost every night when it’s dinnertime and you’re playing a video game.  I don’t enjoy fighting with you every night. Let’s brainstorm and find a way that works for both of us.”  As the trust builds over the course of many encounters of this kind, it gets easier to work through conflict.

Note of caution:  We are also very good at “shoulding” on ourselves.

 I shouldn’t have yelled at my child like that.
I should lose 20 pounds.

It’s hard to make the changes we want to make when we are in “should” thinking.  There’s something in our psyches that resists being told we “should” or we “ought to” do something.  It’s far more powerful to tune in to our feelings and needs.

I feel sad because I value (need) respect and love when relating to my child.
I feel frustrated because I value my well-being and the ease of fitting into my clothes.

With enough practice, we can transform our habitual “should” thinking into more thoughtful loving expressions of feelings and needs.  Getting in touch with what we value (our needs) creates an opening to make the changes we want to make.  As in all areas of life, an invitation always works better than a demand.  To encourage the kind of open willing change that comes from within, avoid “shoulding” on yourself, or others!

So now we have three powerful questions to ponder in order to Know Thyself better.

  1. Who is driving the bus in this moment?
  2. What’s the core belief, or “story” tape that’s playing in my head?
  3. Am I “shoulding” on others (or myself)?

I hope you have enjoyed the series.  My wish is that as you become more aware of your inner life you become more powerful and choiceful in interacting with those you love.  When you understand why you react the way you do by applying the three questions above, you can begin to transform those reactions into loving thoughtful responses instead.

“We are addicted to our thoughts.  We cannot change anything if we cannot change our thinking.”
–Santosh Kalwar

Know Thyself: Part 2

Reel-to-Reel Audio TapeIn Part 1 of this series I shared with you a glimpse of what is happening in your brain when you “lose it” with your child—when you yell, shame, blame, hit, or punish. The first question to ponder in order to Know Thyself better, is “Who is driving the bus in this moment?”  Let’s continue our exploration in Part 2 by asking another question that will help you become even more aware of what’s causing you to react the way you do.

The neuroscience behind our “triggers”

We all have life experiences from our earliest childhood (some say even from pre-birth in the womb) that are stored in our implicit memory…these are memories below the radar…in our unconsciousness. Mostly, we are not aware they are there.  Among these memories are events that happened that our young underdeveloped brains didn’t have the capacity to understand.  We cried in our crib and no one came.  We touched the stereo and had our hand smacked.  We reached for our caregiver and she turned away.  As we moved out into the world, we stored even more memories:  we expressed fear and were shamed, we expressed anger and got the message that we were bad, we were told we were too talkative, or too shy, or too wiggly, or too this, or too that.

As more and more events happened, similarities and patterns started to emerge.  Our brains started to form neural networks (get “wired up”) in response to these events and internal stories started to form around these neural patterns….stories like, “I don’t matter,”  “I’m not loveable,” “I can’t trust anyone.” “I’m not _______ enough.”  (Fill in the blank with almost anything: smart, pretty, brave, etc.)  These are some of the common stories, or core beliefs, that are buried deep down in our unconsciousness with our implicit memories.

So what does that have to do with us today?  And how does it affect our relationship with our child?

When we react to our child’s behavior in a disconnecting way, such as yelling or threatening, then you can bet that we have tapped into an unconscious core belief, such as “I don’t matter.”  It’s scary to believe that you don’t matter; it makes the world become a very unsafe place.  A child defying your request becomes much more than that.  When we tap into an underlying negative core belief, we are in reaction mode and this is when we say and do things that damage our relationships with others.  We’re like a wild animal backed into a corner; and we bare our teeth because our very survival feels threatened.

Our little child within grabs the wheel because the event that is happening now has triggered an implicit memory of an event (or pattern of events) that happened when we were little.  Since our brains were “hardwired” from these early childhood experiences, the current event travels along the same neural network, makes the same synaptic connections…and produces the same effect that we had when we were little:  we fight, flight, or freeze.

Now remember, this is all below the radar; we’re not conscious that we have tapped into our own childhood experience. We think it’s about them, our children, and what they are doing now.  But if we are not responding in a calm loving way, then we need to do some digging below the surface to find out what “story” tape is playing in our head.

One general guideline is to reflect on your childhood when you were the same age as the child who has “triggered” you.  If your child is five, then she has likely triggered the five-year-old in you.  (A 15-year-old will likely trigger the 15-year-old in you).  Reflect on your life at five years old.  What happened to you if you behaved the same way your five-year-old child is behaving now?  How were you treated?  Did you feel threatened?  Shamed? Is there leftover anger from how you were treated when you behaved this way?  Would you have wished to be heard and seen and understood in a different way?  If you really want to transform yelling into loving guidance, spend some time pondering these questions.  Come back after you have calmed down and think about how you may have internalized your childhood experiences to mean that you don’t matter.  Or some other negative belief about yourself.

Once we are aware how our early experiences shape our adult reactions, we can start to ferret out those unconscious beliefs that are far below the surface and that hold so much sway over our reactions.  This next step in getting to Know Thyself is to identify the core belief, the “story” tape, that is playing in your head. And then to realize it’s just a story.  It’s not a truth.  It’s just a story you made up because your young mind was trying to make sense of your experiences.

You can actually re-wire your brain to form new circuitry which supports new healthier beliefs.  Every time you become aware of the “story” playing in your head, you can speak to the “little child within” in a loving, nurturing, mothering voice, “I know it seemed that way.  It was scary and it seemed that you didn’t matter.  You had no voice.  But I want you to know that you do matter.  You matter a great deal to me.”  As you talk to yourself in a loving, nurturing voice you are wiring up new neural networks that will allow you to choose how you wish to respond to your child.  As you talk to your inner child in a calm loving way, you will start to talk to your outer child (the one standing in front of you saying “no!” to your request) with more calm understanding. And you will have healed two very important relationships.

So now we have two questions to ponder in order to Know Thyself better.  Part 3 will address one more powerful question to ask if we are to transform our habitual reactions into loving responses.

  1. Who is driving the bus in this moment?
  2. What’s the core belief, or “story” tape that’s playing in my head?
  3. ???  Stay tuned for Part 3

Know Thyself: Part 1

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Imagine if you will, you’re on a bus getting ready to go on a long journey.  There’s a seemingly endless winding road before you and, even though the destination is not exactly clear, you’re in good spirits and feeling an exciting sense of adventure as the bus pulls out onto the highway.

At the beginning of the journey, all is well.  The wheels hum along, there’s lots of beautiful scenery, and the bus driver seems skilled and competent as she steers the bus around the curves in the road.

But then the rain begins, and the road narrows and starts to climb a steep mountain pass.  You feel the wheels slip on the curves and when you peer over the edge, the dizzying view of the valley far below sends a shiver up your spine.  But the real horror begins when you look at the bus driver and realize she’s been replaced by a little child!  A child whose feet barely touch the pedals and she’s straining to see above the steering wheel!  Her knuckles are white as she grips the wheel fighting to keep the bus from careening into the perilously close abyss.

Not a comforting image is it?  But this is similar to what’s going on in our brains when we are in reaction mode.  I’m talking about when our buttons get pushed.  I’m talking about when we are triggered by our kid’s behavior.  These are the moments when our “adult mind” abandons the driver’s seat and the frightened “little child within” grabs the wheel in her best effort to help us survive.

When we react to our child’s behavior in a way that creates disconnection in the relationship, i.e. yelling, shaming, blaming, hitting, punishing…(you get the picture), then you can bet that our “little child within” is driving the bus.  What happens is that our rational thinking brain, the prefrontal cortex, is abandoned [our “adult” self] … and the survival part of our brain, the fight/flight/freeze zone, is activated [our “little child” self].

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll talk about the neuroscience behind our reaction mode, but for this article, I want to discuss the crucial initial steps that are necessary to coax the adult self back into the driver’s seat…so that you can at least collaborate adult-to-adult about how to proceed safely up the mountain.

Step 1.  Be aware of who is driving the bus
The first step is to recognize when the rational thinking part of your brain has been abandoned and the amygdala (the fight/flight/freeze zone) has been activated.  Often we’re not even aware that this has happened.  If you hear yourself giving outlandish consequences (“We will never go to the park again young man!”  Or “No screen time for the next two months!“), your amygdala has been hijacked.  Same thing if you are reacting like I listed above:  yelling, shaming, blaming, hitting, or punishing.  Start to grow your awareness by getting into the habit of asking yourself, “Who is driving the bus in this moment?

Step 2. Put on the brakes
Hit the pause button.  Regroup.  Get to calm.

In order to get the prefrontal cortex back online, you first have to do something to calm the nervous system.  Do whatever it is you do to calm yourself down:  remove yourself from the situation, take a walk, breathe ten deep breaths, take a bubble bath, meditate, do yoga, go for a run, or pet the dog.
Hint:  When you discover what it is that helps you  get to calm, start to do it for at least 10 minutes every day.  When you’ve built up a daily calm practice, it will help you get to calm much faster during those trigger moments.

Step 3.  Get out your broom and dustpan
Go back and clean up the mess you made before you remembered to do Steps 1 and 2.
In Connection Parenting classes, we call these the 3 R’s:  Rewind, Repair, and Replay.

It can sound like this, “I regret that I yelled at you a little while ago.  You didn’t deserve that and that’s not how I wish to speak to you.  Even though I was really upset, I wish I had expressed myself like this….” and then you replay how you would have responded if the skillful, competent adult had stayed in the driver’s seat.
Warning:  You may be tempted to skip this step after everyone has calmed down.  Why bring the subject back up and risk emotions getting high again?  But sweeping these events under the rug erodes the relationship over time.  When you get out your broom and dustpan, go for the deep clean and restore the connection.  These repairs to the relationship can make it even stronger than before!

Stay tuned for Know Thyself: Part 2

Have you ever felt those burning eyes of judgment on you?

Mother Knows Best

Once when my son was 2 years old I had to take him with me to get a fitting for a bridesmaid dress. The babysitter had cancelled on me that morning and I didn’t have the luxury of time to reschedule the fitting. My Plan B was to get in and out as quickly as possible and bring lots of fun toys to keep him entertained. When we got there the boutique was quite empty with several sales associates standing around. One of them retrieved my dress and steered us toward the fitting room.
I surrounded my son with all the fun colorful toys, but the new environment was just too enticing. He wanted to explore and quickly crawled under the dressing room door and out into the store. I followed half-dressed and stumbling over my long hemline. The staff at the store didn’t seem pleased to have him there. I apologized and explained about the babysitter cancelling but no one gave me a kind smile nor offered to help as I tried to corral him back into the dressing room area. Somehow I managed to keep him nearby while the alterations lady pinned and marked my dress, but it wasn’t easy because he was a curious active boy.

After the fitting, as I waited at the counter to go over more details, my son wandered off to inspect the shoe section. As he approached a tall display of shoe boxes in the middle of the floor I saw in slow motion what was about to happen. Before I could get to him, he pulled on one of the boxes and the entire mountain of shoes fell down. The sales associates gasped in unison and then they all turned their burning eyes of judgment on me.

If you have ever been in a situation like this, then perhaps you are familiar with the feeling of embarrassment–and even shame–when you sense that you are being judged as a parent. That hot flushed feeling that washes over you when you perceive that you have been measured as a mom and found wanting.
I can laugh about it today, but back then I wasn’t as conscious with my parenting as I am now. I grabbed him up and quickly left the store, mumbling apologies and wanting desperately to become invisible. I roughly buckled him in his car seat and then I proceeded to have my own temper tantrum on the way home, yelling questions at him that he certainly couldn’t answer, “Why can’t you listen and stay put for just 10 minutes? Why do you have to touch everything you see?” Of course, his behavior was developmentally spot on for a curious 2 year old, but I had been sucked down the vortex of parental unworthiness and failure and I became a mean and hurtful 2 year old myself.

Dr. Brené Brown, a shame researcher, calls this a shame spiral. She has spent the last two decades studying shame. She has interviewed thousands of people, listening to their stories of shame and honing in on the qualities that seem to help some people be more shame resilient than others. One of the things that has become clear in her research is that shame brings out the worst in us. As Dr. Brown says, “When we are in a shame spiral, we are not fit for human consumption.”

One of the moms she interviewed told a story about getting gas at a gas station and when she went in to pay, her credit card was declined. The store clerk began to berate her and demanded she leave her credit card and her driver’s license while she went to an ATM for cash. This exchange was witnessed by several people in line. She walked out of the store feeling very small and chastised. As she got in the car she slammed the door and it woke up her baby in the back seat who started crying. Before she knew what she was doing, she was yelling, “Shut up! Shut up! Just shut up!” This is what shame does to us—it hijacks the reasoning part of our brain and causes us to lash out in destructive ways.

Think about it, have you ever lashed out at or been harsh with your child when you sensed that you were being judged as a parent? I expect most of us know what I’m talking about here. How about when your child doesn’t want to share with others in the playgroup and all the other parents’ eyes are on you and how you will handle the situation? Or how about when your child acts out in a store or restaurant and everyone is watching? Or perhaps it’s in your own home….your husband explodes when the kids misbehave so you find yourself walking on eggshells trying to keep the children on their best behavior and losing it yourself when they aren’t? Or perhaps it’s that subtle little raising of the eyebrow from your mother-in-law when the kids get chaotic at the dinner table?

Here’s what is important to remember: The shame we feel when we perceive we are being judged can be detrimental to our children, because we will often react in stronger and harsher ways than we would if no one is watching or judging.

Sometimes just having this awareness will help us to respond more effectively and compassionately to our child. I have found it’s helpful to repeat a mantra to myself, such as “I can handle this in a loving way,” when I am faced with my child’s misbehavior in public…with an audience. Sometimes just calmly talking through the situation out loud will not only help you stay grounded, but will let the audience know that you have this under control, that you are a worthy mom: “I can see you’re very upset. Here, I’ll stay with you until you calm down.” Or, “I know you want to explore that mountain of shoes, it looks like fun. Let’s go home and make our own shoe mountain with all our shoes. I bet it will be taller than this one!” How about we start giving the audience an eyeful (or an earful) by modeling kind compassionate ways to deal with “misbehavior.”

♥♥♥ LOVE IN ACTION ♥♥♥

Here are some questions to consider about how you handle judgment and shame around parenting:
1. Do you hold your child more accountable than you hold the judging adult? Really, what business does another adult (especially a stranger) have with you and your child?
2. Are you harsh with your child to get them to conform to what another adult thinks is appropriate?
3. Where do your loyalties lie? With your child? Or with the disapproving adult?
4. Do you hold it as a reflection on you as a mom when your child doesn’t behave as others think s/he should?

According to Dr. Brené Brown, if you’re caught in a shame spiral, there are three things you can do to start to break the cycle. This will help you to return to a loving space with your child as you work on the “misbehavior.”
1. Talk to yourself like you talk to someone you love.
2. Reach out to someone you trust.
3. Tell your shame story. (Shame cannot survive being spoken)
     Rinse and repeat as often as necessary.  🙂

You can give them your love but not your thoughts

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ti0rzHq_0xU]

Before you read another word, click the link above and enjoy listening to Sweet Honey in the Rock sing Your Children Are Not Your Children, based on the poem On Children by Kahlil Gibran.  Also, here’s the full version of Gibran’s beautiful poem:

on children poem

I love this poem; it resonates deeply in my soul.  Especially the line, “You can give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts.”

I see this all the time in my parenting work and I know it’s also more true for me than I’d like to admit:  we can get caught up in coaching our children to be little mini-me’s, holding the same opinions and beliefs as we do.  Oh, the early years are simple enough; our kids generally do mimic our way of seeing the world.  But as they mature and start to think thoughts of their own, it can be discomforting and downright unraveling to hear ideas and opinions so different from our own coming from the lips of our babes.

Especially difficult are those ideas and opinions that run contrary to our deepest held values.  We often spend a lot of intention and effort in an attempt to pass down our family values through modeling and teaching.  This guidance serves our children well in early life; our shared values become a compass to navigate life.  And yet, there must come a time when our children decide for themselves what their own values are, what they believe in, and what matters most to them in life.  We hope the nut doesn’t fall too far from the tree…but sometimes it does.   Will the tree still recognize the nut as one of its own?  And can the tree still love and accept the nut and give it a sense of belonging?

As challenging as it is for me, I want my sons to find their voice and to speak it openly—even if it’s different from my own.  I want them to question ideas and beliefs that have been handed down to them (even by me!) and make sure they ring true inside.  I want them consciously seeking the values that will guide their lives because I know they have their own unique journey ahead of them, their own sorrows and joys to experience, and their own lessons to learn.

My joy is to be the steadfast tree, grounded in my own truth, with overarching branches spread wide enough to love, accept, and cherish the uniqueness of even that nut that may have fallen and sprouted a long ways off.

♥♥♥ LOVE IN ACTION ♥♥♥

  1. Notice what happens in your body when your child says or acts in a way that is contrary to a value you hold?  Do you label it “wrong”?
  2. When you engage with him, is it an energy of trying to convince him to your way of seeing things…or is it an open exploration guiding him through self-inquiry? (i.e., asking “What do you think?” “Why do you think that’s true?” “Why is that important to you?”)
  3. Reflect on your willingness to accept (dare I say “encourage”?) your maturing child to think for herself.
  4. What needs would be met by allowing and accepting your child’s differences? What needs would not be met?

How to say “I love you” without saying “I love you”

mom and daughter PAID

Studies have shown that our children learn more from what we model for them than from what we try to teach them with our words.  Think about it for a moment, does your child learn more when you lecture him about how to treat the family dog, or when he sees you gently stroking the dog’s head?  Does she learn more when you admonish her to say I’m sorry, or when she hears you expressing regret?  Like it or not, your child pays more attention to what you do than to what you say.

So even though it feels good to hear the words, “I love you,” it feels even better when someone consistently acts in a way that conveys love and caring.

Here are 7 ways that you can say “I love you” through your actions:

  1. Be present with your child.  Be fully aware and attentive to her being.  Lay aside all distractions (email, cell phone, to-do list) and just BE with your child, letting her guide all action (or inaction).  (Do this at least 10 minutes every day and see what a difference it makes in your child’s behavior).
  2. Listen with your whole being when he speaks to you. Get down to his level (whether that’s kneeling down or sitting beside him), look into his eyes, and listen with your ears and your heart.  This may not be possible every time he speaks, but do it consistently enough that he feels that his voice matters to you.
  3. Make your child feel special by letting him know what you notice and appreciate about him.  I used to play a game with my kids called “What I like best about you is …..”  and I would fill in the blank with something I noticed, liked, or enjoyed about them.  They could never get enough of this game and when the neighbors’ kids heard us playing this, they also started coming to me and asking, “What do you like best about me?”
  4. Ask them what you can do to make their lives more wonderful (that doesn’t involve spending money).  And then do more of those things.
  5. Get out the baby books and go through their birth and newborn pictures with them.  Children love to hear their birth stories and it will renew your feelings of that deep awesome wonderlove as you remember the first time you met.
  6. Let your children “accidentally overhear” you saying nice things about them to someone else.  Kids come to expect that we will say nice things about them to their face simply because we’re their parents.  So when they “overhear” you talking about them to someone else, it feels more objective and boosts their self-image and self-esteem.
  7. Stay loving and affectionate even when your child is acting out and losing it.  Let him know you’re on his side even as you hold loving limits and accept his intense feelings about those limits.  When your kid is the most unlovable…is when he needs love the most.  
♥♥♥ LOVE IN ACTION ♥♥♥ 

For the next week, act on the list above–try a different one each day.  At the end of the week, ask your child, “What makes you feel loved?”  Her answer can help you refine and keep adding to your list.

And also….keep saying “I love you.”  

Can one word transform your family in 2014?

Intention Word Cloud

I’ve had a tradition for the last 10 years or so, of posting a sheet of posterboard on my wall and having family and friends write their New Year “intentions” on it.  I’ve kept these in my hall closet over the years and it’s fun to pull them out every now and then to remember what’s important to all of us and to see how much we’ve moved forward in fulfilling our intentions over the years. The sheets are full of heartfelt intentions such as, “reconnect with old friends,” “love more, judge less,” “more fun and games,” and “stop my little brother from biting me.”

This year I was introduced to a new ritual and thought I would give it a try. The goal is to reduce your intention for the year into just one word.

That’s it. One. Word.

The more I consider it, the more I see the power that can be packed into just one word.  I see how less can be more.  Because the process of honing your intention into one word brings clarity and focus and cuts to the core of the transformation you seek for the new year.

My Word for 2014 is “play.”  I want to be more intentional about playing and having fun as a family.  This seems to require more effort as the kids get older.  Gone are the days of singing silly songs and dancing around…that just doesn’t work with most teenagers!  But I did drag out the old Monopoly game on New Year’s Eve and we had a blast.  In fact we were so engrossed in the game that we almost missed the ball drop in Times Square at midnight. (In all my years of playing Monopoly I’ve never witnessed what happened…the game ended with my younger son winning because he owned every piece of property on the board!)

I invite you to get clear on your intention for family life in 2014 by declaring your own Word of the Year…and here are some word ideas to get you started.  I made the word cloud below based on words that frequently come up as parents express their wishes and dreams to me.  Check it out and see if one of these words jumps off the page and screams, “I’m the one!”

If you don’t find your word above, then use the process below to help you get clear on your Word of the Year and to help keep it alive and doing its work to transform throughout the year.

Can just one word transform your family?  I invite you to try it and see!

♥♥♥ LOVE IN ACTION ♥♥♥

  1. Make a list of at least 8-10 words that come to mind as you consider what you would like to see happen in your family for 2014.  It may help to visualize ideal family interactions.  What words come up as you visualize?
  2. Read each word out loud and notice what happens in your body when you hear the word. Which one feels “right” in your body?  Try to let go of picking the perfect word and let the word “pick” you.
  3. If you still don’t have an “a-ha” moment where your word picks you, then narrow your list down to 3 words and just pick one.  It’s my belief that if you stay engaged, focused, and work toward transformation with any one of the words on your list, you will actually move forward with all of them.
  4. Write your Word for 2014 on a piece of paper and put it where you will see it every day.  Let it be a reminder of where you want to place your attention and your efforts.
  5. Reflect each night on specific ways you have honored your Word.