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.
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.
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.
Charlie came stomping in the back door from outside, grumbling to himself. His brother, Pete, followed him and mumbled, “Sore loser.” Charlie turned on his heel and started yelling at his brother. Their mom heard the commotion from the kitchen, sighed, wiped her hands on the dish towel and turned toward them at the back door.
“Charlie, that’s enough,” she started. “We don’t talk like that around here.” “But…but, he broke the rules,” he pleaded with his mom. “I said, enough,” mom barked. She then sighed and directed, “Go to your room to calm down.” Charlie stomped off and complained under his breath, “Sure. Take his side, again.” Pete smiled to himself as he found his iPad and cued up a game.
Mom went back to the kitchen thinking, “Well, that didn’t go well.” As she went back to drying dishes, she made a decision, “I need to go to Pete, apologize for snapping at him, and let him talk it out. I need to pull out my active listening.”
This is a snapshot of the journey parents travel from surviving to thriving in a healthy family. For all of us, stuff happens. It’s what you do with the stuff that makes for teachable moments. The journey has 4 parts. First, we tend to do what’s familiar, even if it’s not working. Then, when we learn something and decide it’s a better path, we try it. With repeated effort, and lots of missteps, we get used to the new path. Finally, the new path becomes second nature to us.
For Charlie’s mom, she caught herself on a familiar path, using her power to solve the immediate problem. That works well…for the moment. However, Charlie has lots of unexpressed feelings and sees Pete as her mom’s favorite. That makes for longer term issues.
How cool was it for mom to catch herself in old, unhealthy habits that were familiar, and then to venture out on a new path, active listening? She started with an apology to her son. With her apology, and then active listening, Charlie’s feelings went from angry and frustrated, to confused, to heard, to hopeful. She could see his emotional fever come down. He’s not off the hook for his behavior, but the process has gone from power to relationship.
After her conversation with Charlie in his bedroom, mom asked how he felt and then what he thought about how his mom handled the situation. Afterward, she told him that she was trying out active listening as a way to understand him and his needs and feelings better. Charlie said he liked it and told her to keep doing it. Such is a parent’s journey to thriving, and to many more teachable moments.
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.
Your child is looking downcast and more quiet than usual. Do you continue to focus in on the TV, hoping his phase will go away, or do you address the problem? What to do?
When my daughter was 3 years old, a long time ago, I was talking to a friend in the back yard. She came up to me and pulled on my pant leg. “Daddy, I need some attention.” Not your typical 3 year old, and not the kind of attention-getting behavior our children give us. However your child acts, pay attention to the cues.
Rachel gave me a verbal cue. Most children her age will go with a nonverbal cue, like the downcast look and quiet funk. “Hey, Punkin. What’s going on in that noodle of yours?” This is a good lead-in and gives your child opportunity to make her nonverbal behavior verbal. If they don’t respond, accept that and offer to be available to talk when they are ready. If they do respond, hear them out, use active listening and be empathetic. “So, what I hear you saying is…” “Let me get this straight. You feel…?” When you see their emotional fever drop, suggest, “I have some thoughts about what’s up. Do you want to hear them?”
It’s so powerful when you ask your child’s permission to counsel, regardless of their age. Children feel empowered and are more likely to act on what you have to offer. If you offer wise counsel and they don’t want it right then, it falls on deaf ears. Asking their permission opens up their ears to what you have to say.
Be creative in your problem-solving and active listening. Children love to be outside the box. The core feelings for kids are mad, bad, sad, and glad. That’s all you will get and that’s not much. “You feel put upon, vulnerable, excluded.” Take the core feelings a little further. “You sound thrilled, beside yourself, joyful.” These more expressive feelings may be both on target and also will help your child be more creative in expressing what they feel. Helping your child through a problem? Pay attention and be creative.