The term, “family” by definition indicates a group of people who are special to each other, make time for each other, and support each other. In a traditional nuclear family, there is an adult couple, mom and dad, and their children, who are siblings to each other. Typically, the adults have authority and are responsible for the care of the family. Such families live together and interact with each other daily, with direction from the adults, helping out, engaging in all kinds of interaction.
Beyond a traditional nuclear family, there are blended families and there is extended family. Lots of combinations with the common factor of “blood relations” and “related by marriage.” In our emerging culture, there are also groups of people who bond together by circumstance and preference and function as a family unit. Typically, these groups are not blood related, and often are all similar in age, with a common bond of identity.
Whether traditional or emerging, it seems unlikely, or even impossible to be alone in a family, but is it?
“Lucas Thomas Johnson,” Mom shouted up the stairs at noon. Luke knew from experience that he was in trouble when his mom called her 15 year old by his full name. “Do you know what time it is? You’ve slept the whole morning away. Come on, boy, get up and get moving.”
Luke grumbled and rolled over in bed. Never a morning person, now that it was summer and school was out, he reveled in staying up late and sleeping late.
Mom climbed the stairs, strode to her son’s bedroom door and rapped on it urgently.
“Maaa, it’s too early,” her son bemoaned. “Leave me alone.”
If Luke believes that he has nothing to get up for, mom has a tough sell to get him up just to keep her company, or because she says so. People, usually teens, are alone in a family either because they want to be, don’t want to face the world, or because they are allowed to be. Such aloneness can, however, be a mood or a symptom. In my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, I encourage folks to consider their child’s behavior to be a result of a mood if it lingers less than 6 weeks. More than 6 weeks? It might be a symptom.
Choosing to be alone in your family can be a symptom of stress, anxiety, or depression. When a child has completed a huge task, such as a major chore or an assigned school task, paper, or test, he may just want to chill out for a while. When you see this happening, be curious. Use “check-in” communication to touch base. “Hey, bud, everything okay?” If your curiosity is satisfied, give him a reasonable time frame to re-join the family.
If your check-in leads to substantive concern, use your active listening to draw your child out. When his emotional fever subsides, ask permission to share some thoughts with him. It’s then that you can help him manage his stress without holing up.
With depression, activity is an antidote. Help him choose things to do with the family or with his friends. When he says he doesn’t feel like participating, encourage his using what I call “the as-if principle.” That is, when you don’t feel like doing something that, in your heart, you know is helpful for you to do, then act as if you feel like doing it. After you’ve started the activity, it becomes self-reinforcing and you end up doing it, to your benefit.
With anxiety, help him see what is beyond his control and that over which he has control. Help him find strategies to exercise that control. Being alone happens, but in your family, use your bonds to help your child feel supported, loved, and not alone.
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.
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.
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.
Your phone is ringing. The baby is crying. Your toddler just spilled his juice all over the floor. The clothes dryer is buzzing and you haven’t even put up the clean clothes from last night. Is your head exploding yet? Mine is.
Feeling overwhelmed can be a normal, common state for well-intentioned parents. My parents were never there for me, so I’m gonna put my all into being the best…parent…ever. My mom and dad sacrificed everything for us kids. That’s just what parents do. The Bible teaches me to be submissive to my husband and a servant to my kids, so that’s what I’m doing.
Wow! I’ve actually heard parents say these kinds of things to me. Again, well-intentioned, but a set-up for feeling perpetually overwhelmed. So, mom and dad, how can you get back on steady course for the right reasons?
First, recognize and use the pyramid of family relations. You are at the top of your relational pyramid. Above your pyramid is God. If you are not right with God, your relations with your spouse and family will be full of issues. Some parents build a prayer closet, literally, for time with the Lord. Others set aside 15 minutes per day for personal devotions. Jesus said, “I will never leave you, nor forsake you.” Take Him at His word.
Second, as you take time for yourself, you make time for your spouse. Jesus also said, “Love one another as you love yourself.” Self-care makes quality other-care possible. Healthy diet, sufficient sleep, exercise all facilitate healthy interaction with your spouse. Setting aside couple devotional time as well sets the tone. Further down the pyramid are your children, extended family, and friends.
The keys to multi-tasking and balancing self-care with other-care are prioritizing, delegating and setting healthy boundaries. In assessing the tasks, hand your toddler paper towels to clean up his mess, as you go to the baby to soothe her tears. These are the immediate priorities. You don’t have to answer your phone until you have the time. Your phone stores the call and it will be there when you are not so frantic. If the buzzer on your dryer loops to recur intermittently, take a moment to shut it off after you settle the baby. Help your toddler clean up his mess, telling him what a big boy he is to get started without you.
With immediate crises averted, sit and take a breath. Life will go on. Got is good, and so are you. Later, with your spouse, in a family meeting, you can set healthy boundaries by compiling lists of house rules and individual chores. Delegate chores to children consistent with their ages, but everybody pitches in. Build “me” time into your schedule. If you wait for a good time to take care of yourself, it will never happen.
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.
My daughter was 4 years old a long time ago. I was talking to my neighbor over the fence in our yard. Rachel came up to me, tugged on my pant leg, and announced, “I need some attention.” Whoa! I stopped my conversation with my neighbor and gave Rachel the attention she asked for.
Now, wouldn’t it be nice if our children asked for our attention in that manner all of the time. Alas, not so.
Molly was on her cell phone with the mother of one of 9 yr. old Alexa’s friends. They were just gossiping. Alexa guessed who her mom was talking to and decided that she wanted to talk to her friend as well. She proceeded to paw at her mom, dramatically her to give her the cell phone so she could say “hi.” Molly got mad.
She asked her neighbor to hold on a sec and turned to her daughter. “If you don’t stop bugging me while I’m on the phone, I will pop you so hard you won’t be able to sit for a week,” she threatened, wagging her finger in Alexa’s face. Alexa stopped, turned dejectedly and shuffled away, whimpering about how mama just doesn’t understand.
In Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, I note that the concept of attention has an absolute quality about it. That is, either positive attention or negative attention will fill the bill. Sadly, positive attention seems to be much harder, longer getting, and less frequent than negative attention. So, kids naturally find negative ways to fill their attentional needs.
Another visual image I share with readers in chapter four, Children Never Mean What They Say, is this. Imagine that children have 100 parts to them. Whatever type of attention they seek, it will always add up to 100. So, if a child has 12 parts positive attention, by definition she has 88 parts negative attention.
Now, here’s where you come in as the parent. Whatever part you pay attention to grows. So, if you talk to your daughter about the good choices she is making, the positive parts grow from 12 to 14. By definition, her negative parts shrink from 88 to 86. Conversely, your yelling, discounting, ignoring causes the negative to grow and the positive to shrink.
Mom and dad, pay attention. Focus on what your child is doing and saying right while ignoring as much as possible what they are saying and doing wrong. Where correction is called for, talk to your child after all has settled down with a prompting comment such as, “Golly, sweetheart, that wasn’t like you. What else is going on? How do you think this might have turned out better? Such questions get your child’s brain moving back in a positive direction. Paying attention to these details will lead to many teachable moments.
Are chores a sticking point in your home? Do you get that “Ma, do I hafta?” refrain every time you bring chores up? Well, everybody who loves chores raise your hand. Nope. I didn’t think so.
Charlie was the wild child of the Miller’s 3 daughters, ages 2, 8, and 10. Her little sister was Miss Prissy and her older sister was all that, so Charlie got to do her own thing. She was a rough-house tomboy who would prefer tackle to touch football. It landed her in the principal’s office more than once for being too rough during gym class.
Mom Charlene, after whom Charlie was named, was firm to her daughter that Saturday morning, as the Miller family arose.
“Yes, sweetheart, you hafta.” She explained. “Saturday mornings around here are family clean-up, and, well, you’re part of the family.”
“Then…I want a divorce, you know, from the family. That way I don’t have to do stupid chores on Saturday mornings. Tommy and I are building a tree house today and we’ve got to get started, like, right now.”
Charlene chuckled to herself and then sighed, “Baby, you know it doesn’t work that way. Besides, we would all miss you terribly,” she added, as she moved in to tickle her daughter’s sides. Charlie squealed and then she got out of her bed.
Chores should not only be a part of the fabric of family life, they also help to form lasting bonds, build responsibility, and are a source of accountability, consistency, and pride.
As soon as your children are able to walk, they are able to help with house clean-up. At first, with a 2 year old, you pick up her stuffed animals with her and show her where to store them. With practice, you step away and she picks up more of the load. Not only does this activity have family benefits, it reinforces her worth, improves her eye-hand coordination, and gives her bragging rights on a job well done. With older children, use a targeted family meeting to outline Saturday morning chores and then divvy them up. Parents determine the quality of chore completion and can require a re-do if necessary.
Chore completion is outside of allowance or other pay. We don’t get paid for doing our part of family clean-up. Also, chores are outside of daily straightening, organizing, and order. Chore completion can be a part of the “yuck” factor in your family, or it can be a bonding factor. Regardless, yeah, ya hafta.
No surprise here. We live in the age of cyber-kids. Our kids have, or have access to, all kinds of electronic devices. Sometimes I ask my 6 year old granddaughter to help me out on my computer. You know what? She does. Not sure if that says more about her or me.
Also, no surprise that advanced technology is a two-edged sword. It can greatly benefit our lives and our parenting. It also can be a distraction that erodes family relationships over time. When my wife and I go out to eat, often I casually check iPhone use among families in the restaurant. I have seen a family of 5 people all separately on their phones, either texting or gaming, while waiting for their order to arrive. Wow!
One morning years ago, my then 2 year old granddaughter had awakened. She played in her crib for almost 45 minutes before looking up into the corner of her bedroom ceiling, at the camera, and declared, “Ok, mommy. I’m ready to get up now.” The age of cyber-kids.
Technology is a must for today’s school kids. Many teachers use the internet to supplement their lessons. This is one of the blessings of cyber-technology. However, folks are also considering computer gaming addiction as a real thing now. When technology has control over you, rather than you having control over it, there is something wrong.
Cell phones and other technologies have been known to contribute to sleep loss, cyber-bullying, lower school grades, obesity, and lack of exercise. What’s a parent to do?
First, take charge of home technology. Use the available computer and smart phone controls to determine where your kids can go in cyber-space and where they cannot go. Second, use timing apps to determine when your kids can turn their devices on and when they will go off, even if your child is smack in the middle of gaming. Third, declare electronics-free zones, especially around family meal time and bedtime. In fact, create a storage bin for all portable electronics, where devices are left before lights out each night. They can be picked back up in the morning.
These kinds of changes will be met with outrage by your children, if you haven’t implemented them from the get-go. Use a family meeting to address your concerns. Active listen your children’s outrage. Set a length of time as a trial period, after which the new rules will be reviewed. However, if these changes have positive benefit, such as more rest, less fighting, more fun times, more relationship-building, then stick to your guns. Rules over technology use will benefit your children in the long run.
Amy glared at her mom and announced, “Leave me alone!” Her mom stopped in her tracks, at the edge of the door to Amy’s bedroom. As she looked, stunned, at her 12 year old daughter, she pondered, “Where has my little girl gone?”
Well, mom, your daughter Amy has begun her journey into adolescence. You know, that’s a foreign land where grown-ups are the enemy. German developmental psychologists identify Sturm Und Drang as the hallmark of adolescence. Storm and stress! As parents, we see this storm and stress and ask, “Is that my teen?”
Up until about age 10, parents are mostly the best thing ever. Our children love us and show that love in many ways. In healthy, loving families, they want to grow up to be just like mommy and daddy. Developmentally, ages 10 to 12 are the latency ages. That is, not children, but not teens. A newer term is “tweenager.” However you name it, for the parents, the jury’s out. Like others her age, Amy is beginning to find herself. The first place teens go is to not mom or dad. As children, they want to be just like mom and dad. As teens, they want to be just opposite mom and dad.
All I can encourage parents of teens to do is to just hang on. The ride will be bumpy, but the journey worth it. Be good role models and hold on to your values. Set healthy limits, stick to them, and catch your teen being good. The Sturm Und Drang of adolescence is the furnace of events within which their personal identity is forged.
Amy’s mom was just going to tell her that dinner was ready and to come to the table to eat. With Amy’s abrupt words, mom now has a choice. She could look at her daughter with sadness or anger and just silently turn around and leave her in her room. She could throw her hands up in a time-out gesture and confront her with, “Whoa! Time-out, young lady. You don’t talk to your mother that way. Get your butt downstairs for dinner.” While both of these options are warranted, neither will get to the heart of the matter. Both will just put more distance in the relationship.
Give Amy time to realize her harshness by starting with, “Excuse me?” If that prompt doesn’t generate a recognition of the line crossed, then follow with observation and active listening, such as, “Wow, Amy, this isn’t like you. What’s going on?” If you get silence or a short, curt answer to your essay question, make it a multiple choice question. You know your daughter well enough to come up with some options. She will then likely come to the table with you, even if in silent protest.
Is that my teen? Well, yes, it is, but just for now. Hang on. Keep the communication channels open, and your prickly caterpillar will one day be a beautiful, engaging butterfly.