You know what? Stuff happens, and not all of it is good stuff. But, no matter what the stuff is, changing it from bad to good always takes a certain path. Understanding the path and taking specific steps along it to reach your goal is the way to change habits from bad to good.
Chad is a sullen, moody, withdrawn 16 year old. He keeps his grades okay in school, but he doesn’t have a lot of friends that his folks know of. He mostly gets his own meals and eats in his room. When his folks invite him for dinner, he gives a curt reply, “Leave me alone.” His two younger siblings have just written him off, figuring he’s just being Chad. His folks mostly abide by his wishes and leave him alone.
One evening the police knock on their door asking to talk to Chad. He and his folks go into the living room, where the officers inquire of Chad’s whereabouts last Friday night. After getting lame excuses, the officers show Chad and his folks video footage of a shoplifting event that night at the mall. The offender is clearly Chad.
As a first offender and a juvenile, Chad is processed, tried, given a suspended sentence with first offender status after restitution. After a year of good behavior and substantive change, Chad’s conviction is expunged, just in time for him to go off to college. How did Chad make it from this bad choice and circumstance to a good outcome? The path on this journey has 4 steps.
First, all change begins from a position of unconscious ignorance. That is, you don’t know that your behavior is problematic, and you don’t know that you don’t know. Life just goes along.
Second, there is a precipitating event that creates drama and trauma. Your world is shaken. For Chad, his proverbial “oh crap” moment came when he was arrested for shoplifting. This moves you from unconscious ignorance to conscious ignorance. That is, you know that there is a problem, but you don’t know how to get past it. This second step is where you start to want to change your behavior. During this step, you find resources, a positive network, and you make effort to change.
Knowing the problem and wanting to change moves you from conscious ignorance to conscious awareness, the third step on your healing journey. People take a lot of time to embrace the change process because change is hard. As humans, we are drawn to the familiar, even if the familiar is unhealthy. It takes time to go from the familiar unhealthy to the unfamiliar healthy and then stay there long enough for healthy to become familiar.
Chad’s folks were a big part of his healing process because they saw the shoplifting as a symptom, not as a problem. They used active listening, comforting, and guidance to help Chad come to their perspective. They did not judge, criticize, or put him down. They even helped Chad find a therapist and joined him in the therapy process, loving him through all of his ups and downs.
By the time Chad went back to court a year later, with an excellent report from his probation officer, his parents, and his therapist, he had moved on to the final step in the change process. His conscious awareness had become an unconscious awareness. That is, his changes had become new habits that felt familiar to him and which he embraced. He wanted to spend time with his family. They routinely ate together. His grades went up and he found new friends who were kindred spirit. He was more open with his feelings and more responsible with his behavior. He didn’t have to think about being good any more, he just was good.
These four steps on the healing journey are universal. Active listening, emotional intimacy, and relationship are the means you can provide when someone you love needs to trade in bad habits for good.
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.
A coin has two sides, heads and tails. Neither is better than the other. They are just different. However, the coin could not be without both sides. The sides make the coin. Such is a parent’s love for their child.
“My little Joey is such a angel…when he is sleeping.” Amanda sipped her coffee before continuing with her friend, Rose. “Don’t get me wrong. I love my little boy so much, but, whew, is he a handful sometimes.” Rose commiserated with her friend.
“Sometimes I just have to jerk a knot in him, you know, give him consequences for his bad choices. I feel so guilty after he gives me those soulful, puppy dog eyes when I put him in the corner.”
Rose chimed in, “Amanda, don’t beat yourself up. You’re a great mom. You listen to Joey when he’s upset and trying to get out of his punishment. But you also help him realize that he has made a bad choice and that there are consequences for his actions.”
“I know,” Amanda sighed, “but still…”
These moms love their children. They know that the parenting coin has two sides, both empathy and confrontation. With empathy, you teach your child that they have a right to their feelings, and you empower them to make good choices. With confrontation, you teach them that there are consequences to their choices that have impact both on them and on those around them. Both empathy and confrontation are required from us parents to prepare our children for their adult world.
Many children today seem to suffer from false empowerment. That is, they have a sense of entitlement with feeling of impunity. I can do what I want, with no consequences. Parents of these children tend to be permissive, wanting their children to have full and enriching experiences, with few or no limits to their actions. Such permissive parenting can lead to selfishness, lack of empathy, insecurity, and potential bullying.
In Chapter 3 of my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, I offer that children will always test the limits. However, they do so to be sure that the limits are there. Being in charge is every child’s worst nightmare, leading to fear and anxiety.
For you, the parent, to be in charge, you need to flip a coin. Both empathy and confrontation, the two sides of your parenting coin, need to be used to help your child find their place in the world.
As parents, we are prone to do more talking than listening with our children. Now, there is a time for both talking and listening. The key is to be timely and to focus on what your child needs in the moment.
Little Chip is having trouble tying his shoes. He’s trying to be a big boy, but he’s not getting it. If mom jumps in there and starts with, “Here, let me get that for you,” the shoes will be tied but a teachable moment will be lost.
First, notice Chip’s emotional fever rising. Does his face carry a frown? Is he throwing his shoe aside? Is he looking at you and about to burst into tears? All signs of his emotional fever rising. Your response? Active listening. “Wow, buddy, you seem frustrated? Can I help?”
This simple comment on your part starts the process of Chip’s fever going down. By asking to help, you can get permission to show him again how to tie his shoes, guide him through doing it himself, or do it yourself, with running commentary to your son.
If Chip simply asks for your help, with no signs of a rising emotional fever, then you can direct him or instruct him in the process. Direction and instruction are two of three healthy forms of communication parents give children who are simply learning. The other, checking in, is a short, touching base talk, such as, “Hey, buddy, how’s that shoelace tying thing going for you?” With these forms of communication, the goal is to help out, as the parent, and not to take the task over.
When active listening, if you err on the side of talking too much, you are probably turning a teachable moment into an unwanted lecture. People can usually identify feelings in 5 words or less. Give your child time to absorb and respond.
When touching base, directing, or instructing, where there is no apparent problem for your child, remember that most children’s attention spans are about 30-60” If your child’s attention wanders, you’ve lost a teachable moment anyway. Either engage his curiosity about the topic or let it go and come back to it later.
The time for talking is when there is no emotional fever and when you’ve captured your child’s attention. The time for listening is when your child is hurting. Listening heals the hurt far more than talking.
You remember vividly when each of your children were born. For moms, there is pain in childbirth. Don’t let anyone convince you that it’s just pressure J. However, this pain of childbirth is immediately thereafter replaced by the sheer joy of holding your newborn, nestling in your arms. For dads, I remember feeling awed, thrilled, and terrified. A definite OMG moment. When my baby looked up at me, I knew she was a keeper.
What new parents don’t realize is that all babies, no matter what the circumstances, are born with an invisible sign hanging around their necks. I call it the IALAC sign, I-A-L-A-C, which is an acronym for “I am loved and cared for.” Each baby feels that love as they emerge from the womb. While lots of other emotions surround the birth, love is the predominant one. The IALAC sign remains, hidden but there, around our necks as we grow older.
And yet, life events can chip away at our IALAC sign. Little 3 year old Julie got yelled at after accidentally knocking over her mom’s favorite lamp. It shattered on the ground. Ten year old Bobby didn’t get much playing time with his rec league basketball team. When he asked his coach, he was told that the team was winning and he wasn’t good enough to beat out the starters. Amanda, a 15 year old high school freshman, tearfully showed her failing history test score to her dad. He said abruptly, “Well, sweetheart, you should have studied harder.”
At those moments, when this kind of stuff happens in our lives, a little piece of our IALAC sign gets torn away. Soon enough, the original sign can disappear all together. However, because we all must wear an IALAC sign throughout our lives, a new sign will appear. We were born with “I am loved and cared for.” Difficult events coupled with unkind words re-works our sign to now read “I am lonely and confused.” The kinds of caring, Christian parenting, communication tools I offer through my book and classes helps our children maintain their “I am loved and cared for” sign, even when our children make their way through the stress and strain of life. What message is your child getting from their IALAC sign?
“What? Oh, sure, honey. Yeah.” Her dad was peering intently at his computer screen, while 8 year old Alexa was rubbing her elbow. She didn’t think her daddy was listening, but he said he was. So, she went on.
“Why do they call it my funny bone? There’s nothing funny about knocking it on the door frame and getting all tingly.” She paused and peered at her father, as her dad’s focus continued glued to his screen.
“It hurts, Dad. I think I broke it.”
“Uh, huh.” Was the only response she got from her dad. Alexa sighed, rubbing her elbow, and concluded, “Oh, never mind.” She then walked away.
So, Alexa’s dad may have been hearing her, but he certainly was not listening. He was in his own world where Alexa didn’t exist or, at best, was an intrusion. No parent intentionally puts their child in that position of invisibility.
Hearing is a neurological phenomenon, where sound waves enter the ear, connect with the auditory nerve, convert to neurotransmission, and are sent to the brain for interpretation. It’s medically very elegant. One of God’s ways of alerting us to our surroundings. But in relationship, hearing another is only the tip of the iceberg.
In the ocean, we only see 10% of a floating iceberg. 90% is underwater. Similarly, hearing is only 10% of relationship. Listening is the other 90%. Listening generates interaction with your child.
If daddy had been interested and really wanted to hear Alexa, He would have done several things immediately after she came to him. He would have paused his computer program and turned the screen blank.
He would have turned from his desk and faced Alexa straight on at her eye level. If he was unsure of her comments, he would have asked for clarification. Seeing that she had physical pain, having bumped her elbow, he would have asked to examine the injury. Knowing by her words and actions that she had an emotional fever, he would have gathered Alexa into his arms for a hug and then used active listening to help her understand her feelings. As he saw Alexa’s emotional fever lessen, he might have turned to the funny bone comment and had a teachable moment with his daughter. Listening is much more than hearing. Are you listening to your spouse and children?
So, fancy words for a very simple tool that needs to be in every parent’s parenting toolbox. You use a cognitive reframe when you take something negative that your child says or does, and flip it to draw a positive outcome from it.
Fifteen year old Adam takes the pillow off his bed, holds it up to his face, and lets out a muffled scream into it. Mom comes charging into his room. “Adam, are you okay?” “Leave me alone, Mom,” he replies as he falls onto his bed and turns away from her.
Mom moves to his side, sits next to him, and begins rubbing his back. “Pre-algebra kicking your butt again?” She asks. “I don’t get it…and I never will,” Adam grumbles. He sits up facing his mom and continues, “Just give me the F now and be done with it.” Mom gathers her son in her arms, “Aww, baby, I’m sorry it’s going bad for you just now. Come. Sit at your study desk and show me what you’re stuck on.” After a big, dragged out, sigh, Adam joins his mom at his study desk.
This could be every parent’s journey with their child. Thankfully, mom didn’t dismiss Adam’s words and actions, or scold him. Rather, she used both verbal and nonverbal active listening to help him lower his emotional fever. After he was calmer, she offered help. With her help, Adam had a clearer path to pre-algebra success. After the crisis, Mom could then offer a cognitive reframe.
“I guess, Son, you needed to blow off steam and clear your head so you could think through that math problem. Nobody got hurt. You calmed yourself down. You got the job done. Way to go. I’m proud of you. Another thing. You know, you can ask Mr. Stevens questions when you don’t get his explanation of the class material. In the Old Testament, when Joseph confronted his brothers, after they had tried to kill him, he commented that, “what Satan intends for evil, God can turn to good.” Think about that. How can you make a problem into a blessing?
“Yeah, well,” Adam added, “Mr. Stevens is pretty satanic.” They both laughed. “I guess I’ll get this stuff eventually.”
When you can re-state the problem as part of the solution, you are using a cognitive re-frame and creating a valuable teachable moment for your child.
Teachable moments…So, what’s the big deal? How do you know when you’ve had one with your child? Here I have a radio spot encouraging them. My book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, gives you a road map to encourage them. The results of having teachable moments with your children is closer, more nurturing relationship, and emotional intimacy. Yeah, teachable moments are a big deal in healthy families.
Jenny comes bursting in the back door, sobbing and hopping around on her left foot. “Sweetheart, what happened?” mom asks as she drops everything to come to her aid. “I stepped on a bee, and he didn’t like it. Not one bit,” Jenny gasped between sobs. “He stung me, Mama.”
Her mom knelt down, folded Jenny into her arms, and let her sob into her shoulder. She softly soothed her little girl and active listened her feelings. “Aw, baby, that hurt lots, huh?” Jenny calmed and then declared angrily, “mean ol’ bee. What did I do to it?”
Mama saw a teachable moment. “You know, sweetheart, that’s a good question.” Jenny looked at her mom, puzzled. Mom continued, “If a big ol’ giant came into our neighborhood, and even accidentally stepped on our home, what do you think you would do?” Jenny thought a moment. “I’d scream and then run fast away.”
“Uh huh,” pondered mama. “And if you could, you might just take a bite out of that giant’s big toe to show him who’s boss.” Jenny’s mom tickled her little girl’s belly and they both laughed. After a pause, mama continued, “You know, sweetheart, to that bad ol’ bee, you were a giant. You didn’t mean to, but you probably stepped on Mr. Bee’s house in the ground, and he just got you good, huh?”
Jenny nodded her agreement and sniffed. “Here,” mama reached for Jenny’s right foot, “Let me kiss that bee sting all better.” And she did. Jenny then asked, “What’s for dinner? I’m hungry.”
Teachable moments are those times when you calm your child’s upset, convey wisdom to your child, and you share a time of kindred spirt. Jesus said that He came that we might have life and have it more abundantly. Teachable moments help us on that journey in our families from surviving, having life, to thriving, having life more abundantly.
Many years ago, a delightful woman who was a patient in one of my groups looked at an anguished man as he was talking and commented, “Ya know, sometimes we have more on our mind than we have a mind for.” Wow! How memorable, simple, yet elegantly put. To this day I still refer to this phrase as my Alice-ism. So, how do we help our kids keep their cool when they have more on their mind?
Of course, whenever you notice an emotional fever spike, your go-to response is to active listen. When your empathy helps his emotional fever drop, and he is ready to listen, then you ask permission. “Son, I have some thoughts about what you are saying. Do you want to hear them? All kids are impressed by being asked permission and much more receptive to your wise counsel.
Also, if you are noticing a pattern over time, bring that to his attention. “Son, you’ve been freaking out about upcoming tests all semester. Is all that worry a problem? Rule of thumb, if what you are noticing has occurred for 6-8 weeks or less, it’s probably a mood. More than 6-8 weeks, it might be a symptom.
To help your child keep his cool, offer two tips. First, worry comes in only two forms, constructive worry and destructive worry. The first form is worry about things over which you have control. If I want to do well on my vocabulary test tomorrow, that constructive worry will encourage me to study my words until I know the definitions cold.
The second form, destructive worry, is worry about things over which you have no control. If I’m hearing the news on my iPod and the world is heating up toward thermonuclear war, I have no control over that. I also have no control over my teacher’s mood, or whether my girlfriend is thinking of dumping me or not.
Research shows that about 80% of our worry is destructive. Only 20% of our worry is constructive. What to do? When you find yourself in the lock of constructive worry, do something about it. Get busy and calm yourself through productive activity to ease your worry. When you find yourself in the lock of destructive worry, give it up. Take it to the Lord in prayer and be calmed by His assurance that He has it all in hand. Constructive worry is something they have enough mind for. Helping your child figure out what kind of worry is upsetting him will help him keep his cool.
You know, some child development and parenting experts say that it’s vital for you to be there for your kids 24/7. Not me! If your emotional fever is high, and you’ve got something causing major stress in your life, it’s critical for you to take a step back and tend to your needs and feelings. Jesus gave us a commandment that covers this. In Matthew 22:38-39, he says, “The greatest commandment is to love your God with all your heart, mind, and soul. And the second greatest commandment is to love one another as you love yourself.”
So, what does that mean? God wants us to love and be there for our children in the same way in which we are there for ourselves. If you are out of gas, you’ve got nothing left to give to your children. You are, then, at risk for doing more harm than good. There’s a reason why airplane pre-flight instructions tell passengers to put the oxygen mask on themselves before putting it on their children in case of an emergency.
How can we be there for ourselves? Two resources come to mind for you. First, daily time alone, without distraction or pressure. This often takes the form of devotional time with God. Did you notice in Scripture that Jesus went off to pray before his miracles? Also, after a big day of teaching and healing, he frequently went into the mountains for respite and to pray again. Most devotional guides take about fifteen minutes of quiet time. Morning works best for me, as it centers me for the coming day. Some families extend devotions to include family devotions and couple devotions, but I would always include private time with the Lord.