Little five year old Jasmine is building a tower with blocks scattered around her bedroom floor. Mom is cleaning up in the kitchen, pauses, and notices the quiet. She puts her dish towel down and makes her way down the hall to Jazz’s bedroom.
“Hey, Pooh Bear, Whatcha doing?” she inquires. Her daughter gently places another block atop her growing tower.
“See how big my tower’s getting?” Jazz gleamed with pride.
“Uh huh,” mom demurred.
“I’m gonna build it to the sky.”
Mom paused, deciding how to handle the situation. “Sweetheart, I thought I told you to get all your stuffed toys and blocks off the floor before getting to bed. We don’t want you stumping your toe when you get up tomorrow morning.”
“Yeah, but, this is waaay better, don’tcha think? I’m taking the blocks from the floor and building a tower.”
“Okay,” mom scooped Jasmine up and gathered her daughter into her arms. “Time to clean and straighten up and then get to bed.”
“Aww, Mama. Do I hafta?”
As parents, how many times have we heard those soulful words from our kids? This is an everyday household experience that defines your healthy parenting, based on the choices you make.
Some parents respond with “Yes, young lady, you hafta. And I mean right now.” This would be a power-laden, authoritative response that reinforces your ascribed parental control. You’re the parent. You’re the boss. Your child must do what you say…NOW!
Other parents respond with “Well, maybe a few more minutes. Finish your tower while I pick up your other toys in the room.” This would be a permissive, let’s-all-go-along-to-get-along. Avoid conflict or you might scar your child for life.
Between authoritative and permissive is the healthier parental response. The authoritarian parenting style focus on your earned authority with your child, because you make effort to understand her needs and feelings, while making decisions that are in her best interests. This is a relationship-building parenting model.
First, start with active listening Jasmine’s feelings. “Wow. Look at you! You’re so proud of your tower. I know it’s hard for you to put it up for now and get ready for bed.”
“It’s the bestest tower ever.”
“You know, you are right,” Mama scoops up her baby girl to put her in bed. “Let’s keep it where it is so you can continue building it after you get up tomorrow. Time for bed.”
“Aww, Mama, do I hafta?”
“Yes. You hafta.” Time for bed, Pooh Bear.” And the bedtime routine begins without further fussing.
You are always the boss. What you say goes. It’s how you say it that determines whether you are feared or loved by your kids. Use active listening, delegation, cooperation and firm boundaries to build healthy family relationships.
When you feel distant, disconnected from your spouse, partner, or child, consider practicing emotional intimacy. It’s the glue of healthy relationships.
“Go away! Leave me alone,” Brad shouted at his mom, as he slammed his bedroom door. At 14, he was moody, rebellious, distant, and disconnected from the family, mom in particular.
Ellen, Brad’s mom, was a great mom. She made time for her three kids. She was Little League team mom for Andy, her 10 year old. Little Gracie, age 5, was Ellen’s little princess who followed her everywhere. The oldest in her growing up family, she babysat her siblings, got great grades in school, and was recruited to college on a softball scholarship.
Mom made her way to Brad’s door and gently rapped on it. “Sweetheart, it’s your mom,” she softly cooed.
“Duh. Who else would it be?” Brad rebuked.
Mom swallowed and breathed out her urge to nail her son for being disrespectful. “May I please come in?”
Brad’s silence seemed deafening. After waiting patiently for what felt forever, Ellen exhaled with relief when she noticed the bedroom door hesitatingly open.
“Just talk, or listen. Nothing else,” Ellen hesitated before being invited into her son’s bedroom.
Using her best active listening skills, Ellen noticed her son’s emotional fever coming down. She concluded, “Wow. That’s a lot on your plate. Been there, done that.”
Brad perked up, curious as to what his mom meant. Ellen shared with her son that people see her as the star student/athlete from high school and college and the got-it-together mom and community activist now. What her son didn’t know was just how hard middle school had been for her back in the day.
Having his full attention now, Mom launched into her middle school experiences of being bullied, having few friends, and gravitating toward the “emo/grunge” crowd just to fit in by not fitting in. She pulled up a photo that she had transferred to her phone as a reminder, showing her with shoulder length blue/purple/pink hair and flashing a “peace” sign.
Brad’s jaw dropped in response. Having gotten his full attention, Ellen then suggested, “I’ve got some thoughts about your current train wreck of a life. Want to hear them?”
Ellen’s share with her son describes the connect of emotional intimacy. It was deep, personal, and unexpected. I’ve developed a formula to describe the concept of emotional intimacy:
EI = R + V Emotional Intimacy develops by taking Risks and allowing
T yourself to be Vulnerable with another, over Time.
Following this formula allows you to be closer, more credible, and more complete and real with your spouse, partner, or child. Where you see a disconnect in your relationships, share something relevant that you would not ordinarily share. Open up your understanding, with feeling. It will bring you closer together. Emotional intimacy is the glue of healthy relationships.
There’s an old adage that says, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” Add to this adage the benefit of practicing a new skill consistently over time, and you get effective active listening.
Mary had just read my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting. She even convinced her husband, Andy, to take the parenting class with her where this was the resource book. Eight year old Amy, their oldest daughter, was their “test subject” in practicing the parenting tool of active listening.
“Mommy, I don’t get this times table stuff. Can you help me?” she asked one night while doing her homework. Mary put up her book and went to Amy’s bedroom.
“What don’t you get, dear?” she asked. “Everything. Math is dumb,” Amy threw her homework down and sprawled across her bed, covering her head under her pillow.
Mary sat on Amy’s bed beside her distraught daughter and concluded, “Well, that’s not going to get your homework done. Let’s try again.”
Amy groused, “Leave me alone,” as she recovered her head with her pillow.
Mary sighed and paused. She reached over to gently rub Amy’s back and spoke softly, “Well, sweetheart, I guess I just blew that, huh?” Amy uncovered her head from the pillow and turned on her elbow, looking puzzled at her mom’s comment.
Mary cradled her daughter’s cheek with her palm. “You know, darling, your dad and I are taking this class to help us try to better be there for you guys.” She paused and continued, “I think I just blew a chance to active listen your feelings. Can I try again?”
Amy nodded and folded herself into her mom’s arms. Mary thought for a moment and said, “You’re really frustrated that the times table is hard to understand, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, and it’s not fair,” Amy pouted.
“You’re not sure how to go about trying to get it right?”
“No, it’s too hard.”
“Okay, I have some thoughts that might help you get it right. Do you want to hear them?”
Amy eagerly agreed and the two of them tackled the homework together, with Mary guiding her daughter’s efforts.
My dad used to always tell me, if at first you don’t succeed, try, and try again. Good counsel, especially for your efforts to active listen your children. Kids are very forgiving if you are sincere with your efforts, and if you include them in the process.
After Amy successfully finished her times table homework with mom’s guidance, Mary asked, “So, how did I do with active listening your feelings? You know, my bossing you around just pulled you further away from me. When I active listened, was it more helpful to you?”
It’s okay doing this debriefing after a conversation with your child. Their feedback will help you in your skill-building. If it doesn’t go well the first time, back up, take a breath, and try again. You are learning something new, so practice, and give it time. In doing so, you are providing a teachable moment for both you and your child.
The Flip Side of Teachable Moments
In my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, I spend a lot of time encouraging parents to create teachable moments for your kids. Such moments are generally an “aha” moment for your child, you know, when they get it. It’s new information they acquire from you or from the circumstances, a life lesson, if you will.
There are three kinds of teachable moments. The most fun ones come when there is no problem. You are sharing a magic moment with your child and both of you are the better for it.
Jim and Jason are riding in the car and it begins to snow. Six year old Jason is fascinated by the snowflakes hitting the windshield. “Wow! There are like a million of them, Dad.”
Jim glances over to his transfixed son. “That’s right, son, and each is different from the others. Each is a unique creation from God.”
Jason cocks his head as he looks back at his dad. Dad continues, “That’s what snowflakes and humans have in common. Each is created individually. Each is unique. Each is from God.” Jason paused for just a moment, and then turned again to look at the snowflakes outside. A spontaneous teachable moment.
After getting back from the store, Jim gets Jason started on his homework. While getting supper ready, he hears Jason erupt, “Arrgh. This math is stupid,” and Jason swipes his book and math problem sheet off his desk.
Jim turns the heat down on the frying pan and finds Jason in his bedroom. “Homework kicking your butt?” He walks to his son’s side and puts a comforting arm around him.
“I can’t do it,” Jason screams, “and you can’t make me.” If his dad chooses power, he might be offended by Jason’s show of disrespect and lose a teachable moment. Instead, he chooses empathy and active listens Jason’s feelings.
“Wow! You’re really upset. It’s hard when you are learning something new and it doesn’t come to you naturally.” Jason noticeably calms down and slumps his shoulders. Dad continues, “I’ve got some ideas for you. Do you want to hear them?” Another teachable moment evolves from his calming his son down and getting back to task.
The third kind of teachable moment is rarely acknowledged. These occur not from circumstances and not from when your child has a problem. These occur when you have a problem with your child.
After Jason and his dad figure out his homework and he finishes it, his 4 year old sister comes into his room. “Get out, Emily. I don’t want you here in my room,” he shouts, and then pushes her down. Emily’s cries bring Jim running. Her dad scoops her up and stares down his son.
While comforting his daughter, Jim asks Jason, “Care to explain?”
“She was bothering me,” Jason countered. Jim paused to collect his thoughts and chose this to be another teachable moment for Jason.
“So, Emily was bothering you and you chose to shout at her and push her down.” Jim let Emily down and directed her to go play in her room and that he would be there shortly.
“Son, this isn’t like you. What else is going on?” Jason expected to be yelled at but puzzled instead. He began to explain his actions, while his dad active listened. When Jason was finished, dad asked, “Could there be other ways you could have handled your feelings better?”
Jason fell silent. Dad added, “Tell you what. Just climb on your bed for a while and lay there. No toys, no books, no electronics. I want you to think about other ways you could have handled your feelings and how you could have avoided hurting your sister. I’m going to tend to Emily and I’ll be back in a while to hear what you’ve come up with.”
While magic times and calming times are two sources of teachable moments with your child, confronting times is the flip side of teachable moments. All promote healthy relationship and creative problem-solving.
Many years ago, my 8 year old daughter was acting out and I sent her to her room. I don’t remember the details. Sometime later I was doing laundry in the basement. I had not processed Rachel’s time-out with her and she had not been let out of her room. Nonetheless, she made her way down to where I was doing laundry. Silently, she floated a paper airplane from the doorway to me, and then ran quickly back upstairs. There were markings on the plane, so I unfolded it. Rachel had written, “I hate you.”
Wow! I was crestfallen, heartbroken, and stunned. I finished my load of laundry, giving me time to think about how to handle this. I went upstairs to her room. She was pretending to be asleep on her bed. I went to her side, placed the airplane on the bed and said, “You dropped this.” I started to leave her room, but Rachel bounded out of her bed, sobbing, and ran to hug me.
“Daddy, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I was mad. Please forgive me.”
I folded her into my arms for a big hug and walked her back to her bed. We talked and worked it all out.
Looking back, apparently, I had sent my little girl to her room without adequate active listening and context. She felt unheard and schemed to float her feelings to me on the paper airplane to get my attention. It worked!
As we talked afterwards in her room, she recounted her perspective. I said, “I understand your anger, but what else were you feeling?”
Anger is funny like that. About 98% of the time, anger is secondary to a more primary feeling. Because anger is the most socially accepted negative feeling we have, we use it to cover unheard, frustrated, embarrassed, guilty, worried, and a host of other feelings. Only about 2% of the time is anger the primary feeling. Another way to tag it would be “righteous indignation.” We’re mad because something is just not right. Think a young mother yelling at her toddler in the grocery story because he’s grabbing at things. Think any instance of child neglect, abuse, abandonment. Mostly, righteous indignation occurs when there is a power differential and the victim is helpless.
So, I active listened, validating Rachel’s anger, but asking also, “what else are you feeling?” During the course of our talk, I saw her emotional fever going down. She then could accept my parenting perspective in correcting her behavior, and I helped her talk about ways she could avoid future such difficulties.
For a relationship-building teachable moment with your child, acknowledge her anger, but then find the primary feelings behind the anger by asking, “What else is going on?”
Robert came crashing through the kitchen door and ran through to the family room, where his mom was watching TV while folding laundry.
“Mama, can I go with Adam to the skateboard park? A bunch of us are meeting up there.”
Jodie stopped her folding, paused, and said, “Nope.”
“What? Why not? We won’t be gone long. Adam’s mom can take us. Pleeease,” he begged.
“Robert, I don’t like Adam, and his mom has a sketchy past before she was married. Find someone else to play with.”
“Aww, man, you never let me do anything,” Robert groused before turning on his heel and slamming the door as he stomped outside.
Good parenting is about making good choices. Jodie’s choice was hers to make, but was it a good one? an informed one? Likely not. Had she met Adam? Had she talked to his mom recently? Robert was basically a good kid, good grades, no outstanding warrants (lol). So why did she shut his request down?
Obviously, Jodie was trying to protect her son from possible harm, but at what cost? She’ll likely get the silent treatment from her son for a while. Jodie chose power over relationship with Robert, at least this time.
Kids often try to unconsciously manipulate their parents by coming up with urgent requests at the last moment. Jodie’s first bad choice was responding directly to her son’s request at all. She would have promoted a teachable moment and gotten more information on which to respond by saying something like, “Hold on, son. Take a breath. Give me some details so I can make a good decision.”
She then could have guided Adam through rational decision-making, where he might change his behavior or at least be more informed about the request he was making. Jodie’s not liking Adam at all is really not a part of the equation. Friendships are a human right, not a parental right. Choosing your child’s friends can lead to emotional distance from your child and subterfuge, where he ends up going behind your back. Helping your child make wise decisions, and then being there to catch him if/when he falls, is effective parenting.
My daughter had such a friendship dilemma when she was a teen. After our talking through her needs and feelings about this girl, I told her that she could have a positive influence over her friend, but, the friend could have a negative influence over her. Rachel tested the waters, but the friendship was short-lived.
Can you choose your child’s friends? No, not without risk you your relationship with your child. You can influence his choices by active listening and giving him wise counsel. The end result is a teachable moment from which you both benefit.
Okay, I admit it. I’m a Star Trek nut. Never had the series theme song as my ringtone, but I do like the lead-in…Space, the final frontier. For teens, having space and learning how to navigate it well, is their final frontier, on the boundary between adolescence and adulthood.
At 16, Alan was, well, Alan. He is tall, lanky, not particularly social nor athletic. He’s a computer gamer and he spends a lot of time in his bedroom watching YouTube videos and playing RPG’s with his friends. His role-playing friends are on-line. Each has the others back in the war games they play. Alan has only one friend in real life, his next door neighbor, Tommy, and they’ve known each other since they moved into the neighborhood when Tommy was 3 years old.
Alan is a B/C student, doing well in computer, math, and technology classes at school, not so well in English and history classes. His thumbs fly when he is texting, of course using the obligatory texting, emoji-laden short hand, but it is hard for him to turn in essay questions, book reports, or even stories that capture his imagination and gaming expertise. His teachers have tried everything to help motivate Alan to succeed in school.
So, the million dollar question. Is Alan’s story normal? Typical for his age group? As his parent, how do you check this out? How do you help him navigate to adulthood and successful, responsible, independent living?
Alan certainly wants his space, his own cocoon in his room. That, in and of itself is normal. Teens do these kinds of things on their journey of finding themselves. Establishing an individual identity is the developmental goal of adolescence. However, we all, also by nature, are social animals. Most folks have 1 or 2 best friends, with whom each is the other’s confidante, and a social network of 6 to 8 people, 2 or 4 couples as adults, with whom they frequently hang out.
To help the Alans of the world navigate adolescence to adulthood, several points come to mind. First, respect his need for space, but with some conditions. He must make an effort to emerge from his room for meals with the family, for school, and for other required appointments. Second, he must attend to responsibilities, such as homework, chores, errands and the like, before melting into his “space.”
Third, he must be willing to share his feelings with you at some level. Remember, kids don’t answer essay questions very well. So, when you get a shoulder shrug, look away, or silence in response, make your essay question a multiple choice question. You know your teen well enough to likely come up with a topic or area that’s troubling him. Use your active listening to help him flesh out his feelings and be available, on his request, to troubleshoot and advise.
Wanting space is not the teen problem. That’s normal. If they use that space to hole up, withdraw from social/family interaction, and push people away, then it’s a problem. With your kind assurance, healthy confrontation, and loving active listening, such problems can become teachable moments.
“But I want it,” little 3 yr. old Andy demanded, stomping his feet for emphasis. “Gimme right now.”
“That’s enough, young man,” huffed his mom, with hands on hips. “What part of ‘no’ didn’t you understand?”
Andy darted past his mom in the kitchen, sweeping loose objects off the kitchen table as he went. He screamed, running through the house, catching his breath only to declare loudly, “You’re so mean.”… “You’re not my mommy.”… “I don’t love you anymore.”
Andy’s behavior is unacceptable, and he is out of control. Mom pulled the power and authority card, but this time to no avail. Now what do you do?
Even in the most stable, best of homes and environments, tantrum behavior from some children is inevitable. Sometimes it is embarrassing, especially when thrown with company around or in a public place, like the supermarket. Always, it is challenging when you child is demonstrating out-of-control behavior. When your power and authority falls flat, shift your focus from your authority to his feelings. Active listening is the go-to tool whenever your child demonstrates an emotional fever. Tantrum behavior counts.
Sometimes, thankfully rarely, some children up the ante by demonstrating safety or property issues. If they are in danger of harming themselves, you, or others, and if they start randomly throwing and breaking things, you might use what’s called a nurturing/holding procedure, or NHP.
The NHP is a physical restraint of your child against his will, with your assurance that you will only control him until he can control himself. Get ready. Kids will resist and attempt to get loose or turn on you by biting, kicking, pinching, and the like.
Hold him from behind, with your legs wrapped around his and your arms covering his. Keep your head back, to avoid his head-butting you. As calmly and with soothing voice as possible, tell him, “Sweetheart, I’m so sorry you are having such a bad time. Right now, you can’t control yourself. Ya know what? I’m going to continue controlling you so that you don’t hurt yourself, me, others, or break things. I love you so much that I’m going to do this for you as long as I need to. As soon as you show me you’ve calmed down and regained your control, I’ll let you go.
When your child realizes he can’t get loose, and you mean what you say, he will calm himself down. As you see measures of this, acknowledge them with assurances. Often, when this norm is established, all parents need to do subsequently is ask, “Now, Andy, do I need to hold you tight again?” Their memory kicks in and they calm down. After calming himself down, even a tantrum can become a teachable moment.
Is there any time during the day more important for kids than bedtime? I don’t think so. Actually, it’s not a time, but a process. It’s a one-on-one with a parent and parents can take turns. It’s a special time, with each child in the family having a separate, designated bed time. In family life, it’s a settle down time.
“Okay, sweetheart, at the end of this show, turn off the television and let’s get started going to bed.” Mom prompted 8 year old Bethany, giving her lead time to make the transition.
“But, mama, what about…?” Bethany began to protest, but her mom cut her off. “Uh, uh, uh. Don’t do this, darlin’. You know the rules.”
“Yes, Mama.” Bethany turned her attention back to the t.v. to squeeze every ounce out of her day before going to bed.
Well intentioned parents teach their children early to put themselves to bed. What??? And give up such quality time with your child?
Other parents let their child play, irritate their brother, watch t.v., or game on their iPad or computer until the very last minute. Why allow a child to ramp up right before trying to go to sleep?
Other parents tolerate an abundance of stall tactics from children who don’t want to go to sleep.
Settle down time with your child is a precious gift, both from you to her, but also from her to you. With both my kids as they grew up and now with my grandkids when I’m called to duty, I try to allow up to 30 minutes of settle down time with each child. That’s time for talking about our days, active listening, telling or reading stories, being playful and funny.
As settle down time is closing, especially if I notice my child stalling, I shift to a more proactive focus. With preschoolers, I talk about the snuggle bunny who helps children be still and be silent. Even hyperactive kids will fall asleep within 3 minutes if they are still and silent. My snuggle bunny is a glistening white bunny who likes to snuggle next to the small of your back. However, he will only stay there if you are completely still and silent. You can feel a warmth there that tells you he is there, but if you try to look, he will scoot away and you will never see him. What is settle down time? It’ time for T L C – talking, listening, and cuddling.
Crash! Mom heard to sound coming from her 13 year old daughter’s room. “Now what,” she muttered as she dried her hands before leaving the dishes to make yet another kid rescue.
“Chad, look what you’ve done,” Jenny screamed at her 10 year old little brother. “Get out of my room, you jerk!” Mom hurried her pace, sensing her children coming to blows.
Sibling rivalry is only one of many daily challenges for parents of strong-willed children. It would be common for mom to storm into Jenny’s room and begin barking orders. “Jenny, don’t talk to your brother like that.” “Chad, pick up that mess. What are you doing in your sister’s room anyway?”
Unfortunately, such common occurrences will likely lead to hurt feelings, emotional distance, and continued power struggles. When you are able to trade in divisive “me against you” talk for “we and us” talk, you are on the right track.
First, without comment or criticism, separate your children in the moment. Take time to find out what happened, from each of their perspectives, using your active listening to understand the feelings behind the actions.
Second, when you sense your child’s emotional fever is going down after active listening, ask what they might have said or done differently to have achieved positive outcome.
Third, identify what each child did to add to the difficulty between them, and give each a time-out to formulate an apology to the other. Behaviorally and developmentally, the rule of thumb is to give times-out that are no longer than 2 minutes for every year of your child’s age. For Chad, at age 10, that would be 20 minutes. For Jenny, at age 13, that would be 26 minutes. In reality, such a brief time-out may serve its purpose, but also is an opportunity for you to step away, settle down, and bring reason to the conversation.
Finally, after these times-out, talk to your children together both to structure the apology/forgiveness piece and to jointly address specifics that could help avoid such encounters in the future. For example, Chad could knock before entering his sister’s room, and Jenny could make some time for her brother doing something he likes, like competing on a video game.
I don’t know any parent who can avoid those moments where they say “Uh oh. Here we go again.” However, taking these steps will turn those uh oh moments into teachable moments for your children.