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?
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.
Eleven year old Cindy lays sideways across her bed, doodling on a large, blank pad. She starts with a dot in the middle of the page and then swirls outward until she is making big, sweeping marker strokes. She presses so hard at the end that she rips the paper. She balls it up and throws it at her bedroom door before falling back on the bed in a heap of tears. Shortly thereafter, her mom knocks on her bedroom door.
“Go away. Nobody’s home,” she fusses at the sound. Mama quietly opens the door and peeks in.
“Well, Nobody’s just the person I was looking for.” Her attempt at humor falls on deaf ears.
“What do you want, Mom? I’m busy.”
“Well…I can see that,” she replies as she reaches down to retrieve the balled up paper at her feet. She unballs it and flattens it out. “Honey, what’s going on?” She slips onto the bed beside Cindy.
“Nothing. Leave me alone. Everything,” Cindy spits out in rapid fire. Mom let the silence between them linger. “Why did she have to ruin everything, Mama?”
When Cindy called her mom “Mama,” she knew her heart was heavy. They stayed in the room and talked for a half hour. Mom used her best active listening and, as she saw Cindy’s emotional fever come down, she offered some adult perspective and wise counsel.
At Cindy’s tender age, Mom wants to consider several factors. First, where is Cindy in her dawning menstrual cycle? Moods often magnify as a woman’s body begins her monthlies. Second, where is Cindy in her development? Erik Erikson tracks psychosocial development. At age 11, Cindy should be struggling with doing well and getting things done, called industry, or developing a sense of not-good-enough, called inferiority. Arnold Gesell tracked developmental, cyclical moods and found most 11 yr. olds loving but defiant. Third, how long has her daughter been in a funk? I follow what I call “the six-week rule.” If a difficult behavior occurs for less than 6 weeks, then it’s likely just a mood. If it occurs for more than 6 weeks, it might be a symptom.
With her tenderness, compassion, and active listening, mom is on the right track. But she needs to monitor whether Cindy’s behavior identifies a mood or a symptom.
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.
When we go on vacation each summer, we buy a new jigsaw puzzle and lay it out on a table smack in the middle of our rental. At one time or another, each of us has put at least one piece of the puzzle in place. Some of us spend more time than others, but all contribute and the puzzle is complete before we pack up to head home.
The cover of my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, has a picture of a home with the puzzle almost all together. As Christian parents, we are all daily picking up random pieces of our family, looking at them from all angles, measuring, trying them out in a place, removing them, trying them out in another place. We look for clues by examining the picture on the box. That would be our ideal picture of how our family should look to the world.
But in our real world, we can't depend on what our family "should" look like. We are who we are. Our jigsaw pieces are three-dimensional, fluid, ever changing shapes. We are left to capture each piece in time and find a fit. We mold our shape to the shape of others in our family. Each of us is ever changing shape and yet fitting together as family in a unique, engaging, loving way.
Oh, for sure, there are times when individual pieces just don't seem to fit the puzzle. Think teens with hormones just trying to figure themselves out. Think terrible twos who are just figuring out how to say "no." Good luck trying to fit them into your concept of your family puzzle. The best we can do is change only that over which we have control. As Christian parents, we make every effort to be healthy, godly role models for our children. We can do that, and what we do and how we are has an enormous influence over our children, but they'll never tell you that.
The second thing we can do is be there for each of our children. Be there with time, with activity, and with heart. When little Tommy is out of sorts, set healthy boundaries, hold and nurture him, and use your go-to active listening to help him sort out his own feelings. Share your wisdom and find teachable moments.
As we go through life, individual puzzle pieces frequently fit together, occasionally . Savor those times. When all the family puzzle pieces align, even just for a moment, praise God, for He is at work in your home. Families are a puzzle.
Me and roller coasters don’t get along. I’m closing my eyes and white-knuckling all the way. Once, when our daughter was 14, we had all gone to a theme park and I wanted us to get a charcoal caricature of our family. Rachel got an attitude and refused. We negotiated that I would ride the Rebel Yell roller coaster with her if she would sit for the family picture. “Twice!” she grumbled. Overcoming my terror because the outcome was worth it to me, I agreed.
Is your son or daughter entering the teen years? Hang on. You’re in for an emotional roller coaster ride.
Angst and attitude are part and parcel of teen life. While it seems personal, take heart. It’s not only you, but most everybody who catches teenage heat. For a response, you have several options. “Hold on, buster. This is my house and you will can the attitude!” While this response is in every parent’s mind, keep it there. Don’t let it come out of your mouth. With such a response, you are just trying to match your teen’s power play with your own. You might get compliance, but it would be out of fear and at the expense of relationship.
“What? Is that attitude I hear? Where is that coming from?” is heartfelt and a step in the right direction, but at the risk of your teen feeling shamed. Don’t be surprised if the response is a verbal shut-down or a flippant, “Whatever.”
“Wow! This isn’t like you, son. What else is going on?” is more on track. You are calling attention to his attitude but also recognizing his angst. He may still not want to talk, because of his mistrust and unspoken recognition that he crossed a line. “Why are you trying to be nice to me?” sometimes is the response. Hang in there. He’s slowly cracking the emotional door to see if he wants to let you in.
When teens, and children as well, are given an essay question like “What else is going on here?” they may not have the words or want to answer it. If you get a blank stare or “Leave me alone.” To the essay question, make it a multiple choice question. You know their lives well enough to come up with 3 or 4 options as to what might be fueling his angst. When you get some acknowledgement, shift to active listening. Trying to understand his feelings is at the heart of helping him get through his angst. The good news is that from the angst and attitude of teen life comes the development of an individual identity, your goal for your teen as he prepares for adulthood.
We all have moods. Good moods, bad moods, in between moods. We all have symptoms. Fever? Chills? Achy? Thankfully, symptoms are rare in our lives. Moods, however? They come and go with greater frequency. While the symptoms of physical ailment are rather obvious, not so much for emotional upset.
When your child becomes whiny, fearful, clingy, withdrawn, these may be signs of a mood, or they may be signs of anxiety, depression, relational issues, or other emotional malady. What to do? How to tell the difference?
In over 45 years of clinical practice with children, teens, and their families, I've come to develop the 6-8 week rule. That is, if you notice these signs for less than 6-8 weeks, they probably are evidence of a mood. If they persist for longer than 6-8 weeks, they might be symptoms.
The keys, of course, are relationship and vigilance. "Hey, Son, I notice that you've been kinda edgy lately. Wanna talk?" With healthy relationship, he will want to talk with you. If not, make sure he knows that you're available when he does want to. Active listening is your go to response when you notice your child's emotional fever spike.
Vigilance might involve tracking your child's feelings and behaviors over time, to notice if they persist. With persistent worry, you could guide them through changing thoughts from "what if" to "I wonder" and attaching a positive outcome to the "I wonder." With persistent sadness or withdrawal, you could guide them with check-ins daily and help them rank their days from 1-10, with the higher numbers being better days.
If the signs persist longer than 8 weeks, talk to each other and with your child about getting professional counseling. Just as with persistent physical symptoms that impact your child's quality of life, and you would take her to her pediatrician, so too with persistent emotional symptoms, you would take her to her family counselor. Mood or symptom? You have the tools to help your child handle it.