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.
As we all know, kids come in all shapes and sizes. You know what else? So do parents. Some parents choose to be the power-oriented, in control kind of guy. These folks parent by fear and have only a fear-based relationship with their children. “My way or the highway” is their theme.
Others go to the opposite extreme and become a doormat to their children. “Yes, dear. Whatever you want” They fear that confronting their child or setting healthy boundaries will stunt their emotional growth and lower their self-esteem. Such well-intentioned parents will put their child in T-Ball, where runs scored are not kept because “we want them all to be winners.”
Fortunately, Jesus gave us another option, providing a third role model for effective parenting. Before the Last Supper, He removed his outer robe, got a bowl and washcloth, and washed the feet of his disciples. This lowly but loving act of service is our example of being a servant parent. What???
Let’s be clear. This was not submission. It was servanthood. Jesus followed with His teachings about the first being last and the greatest being the least. Being a servant parent involves understanding your child’s needs and feelings, and being supportive while helping tend to them.
Fifteen year old Chip stomped into his dad’s den early one morning, where dad was paying bills. “Dad, this shirt’s dirty and I want to wear it today.” Dad stopped his work, and, while getting up, responded, “Okay, Son, let me wash it for you right away.” While thinking he was being helpful, dad was being a doormat, with no teachable moment in sight.
Eight year old Tommy is doing his homework in his room. His mom checks on him and offers, “I’ve got some time, Son. If you put your vocabulary words on flash cards, I’ll quiz you when you’re finished.” Classic servant parenting. Being helpful and available, sharing the load. And ripe for a teachable moment. Which are you? Power dude, doormat or servant parent?
There’s a cute video clip I saw recently on the TV show America’ Funniest Videos. A toddler is sitting within reach of a tumbler glass that is too big for him to hold. As he reaches for it, off camera his mother tells him “no.” He stops and then looks at his mom. He reaches again and is told no again. He stops, and looks at his mom again, this time as he tries again to reach out for the object. This dance occurs between mom and toddler multiple times, with each effort increasingly exaggerated, much to the delight of the audience. I think it won first place that night on the show.
This clip is so funny because all of us parents have been there, done that. We caution our kids and they try things anyway. In fact, I believe kids are hard-wired to test limits. In Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, one of my imperatives is, Kids Will Always Test the Limits. Why is that, especially if it almost always leads to trouble?
The answer is that kids always test the limits to be sure that they are there. Limits are about having/setting healthy boundaries. Permissive parenting leads to wide exploration of boundaries. This is a good thing because it encourages exploration, creativity, and problem-solving. However, it can also encourage worry and anxiety. In addition to the fun stuff, the unknown is also out there and might be dangerous. As parents, we want to encourage our children’s exploration of their world, but within healthy limits. We want to have their backs.
Mom brought her 5 year old Andy to my office and told me that she just can’t control him and that he runs wild all the time. Andy proceeded to demonstrate his mom’s concerns by opening doors, touching things, and generally misbehaving, all the while having a smirk on his face, while mom’s words of restraint fell on deaf ears. I gathered Andy up in my arms, gave him gentle words of calm in his ear, and firmly explained the rules of my office. He calmed down a little bit, but still looked to mom to see if I meant what I said.
Our kids are doing great? Fantastic. Celebrate and enjoy a teachable moment. Will they also test the limits? You betcha. Be ready with firm boundaries, and don’t threaten if you are not going to follow through. By confronting, setting firm boundaries, and being in charge, you are easing their worry and anxiety, while also freeing them up to safely explore and have more fun.
There is no end to the opportunities and ways in which we can positively influence our children. Those opportunities are at the heart of teachable moments.
“Daddy, why do turtles have shells?” Answering such questions softly, directly, and with emotional intensity creates a teachable moment. “Well, sweetheart, that’s a good question. The turtle’s body is under that thick shell. It would be sad for turtles body’s to be exposed to the dangers of their world. Now, you don’t have a turtle’s shell (and then I playfully poke my daughter’s tummy), but how your mama and I loving and protecting you and keeping you safe is kinda like having your own turtle shell.”
When you notice your child having an emotional fever, however, start with active listening to help get the fever down before launching into a teachable moment.
“This stinks!! (my son slams his math book down and throws his pencil at the wall) I’m never going to get these stupid math problems.” Now, you have a choice. You can correct the behavior and miss connecting with your son and not have a teachable moment. “You stop that right now, young man. Get back to work. Math will be important to you one day.”
OR, you active listen to help lower his emotional fever and reframe the event to help him get perspective.
“Wow, that math’s kicking your butt!”
“I hate it! I’ll never get it.”
“It’s frustrating for it to not come to you easily, like playing baseball does, huh. But tell me something. Why are you so good at baseball?”
“I’m a natural.” My son smiles broadly.
“I see. Hmmm. Got all that talent without a lick of practice, huh?”
“Well, no. I’m in the batting cage every day. I eat well. I get my sleep. I chill out. I listen to my coach.”
“Hmmm. So, if I’m hearing you correctly, there’s a lot of hard work and effort to becoming a natural athlete. Hmmm.”
“Okay, Dad, I see what you are doing here.”
“Oh? What’s that?”
“Well, my math teacher’s my coach, and this stupid homework is my practice. And if I don’t keep at it, math will kick my butt.”
“Wow! I don’t think I could have said it better myself. I’ve got some suggestions about that stupid math. Do you want to hear them?
Teachable moments come in all shapes and sizes. They happen playfully, out of fun times. They also happen seriously, out of emotional storms. The key is to be ready for the opportunity and to make the most of it. Teachable moments create fun, responsibility, creativity, problem-solving, emotional intimacy, and positive childhood memories. Teachable moments are your gift to your children.
We've talked about eustress, the good kind of stress, and distress, the bad kind, but, regardless of the kind of stress, what do we DO with it? Even eustress can get your heart a-thumpin' Got a terrific grade? Got into the school you wanted? Won the game? All good stuff, but it can take its toll. Some people cry with good news. Others can't sleep for all the good possibilities at hand.
On the other hand, distress, the bad stuff, takes a more exacting emotional toll. Got fired? Victim of a crime? Didn't get what you expected? Going to the dentist? These and other distresses can leave you with a racing heart, jumbled nerves, sleeplessness, nausea, and other gastrointestinal difficulties.
When stressed, stay in the moment. This is called mindfulness. Take longer and slower breaths. Notice the hum of the air conditioner, smell what's cooking, notice how your back is supported by the chair you are sitting in. At the least, being mindful distracts you from the stress symptoms you're feeling. Think about smiling inwardly and with your eyes. What?? How's that work? Well, instead of focusing "out there," where your stress is, turn your focus inwardly. Notice your lungs filling with that deeper breath.
All stress and anxiety start in your brain with the thought, "What if?" What if my next grade is bad? What if my dental work is too painful? As you worry or stress, your breathing shallows, muscles tense, and heart rate and blood pressure go up.
While continuing deeper breathing, turn your "What ifs?" into "I wonders." Add a positive outcome to your wonder. In doing so, your stress and anxiety turn into curiosity, a much better feeling that prepares you for what's next. "What if my next grade is bad?" becomes, "I wonder how I well I'll prepare to get my next good grade. The message is, "I know I'll get a good grade and I will work to make it so."
Finally, as you are preparing to master your stress, enjoy a positive image, something that represents the best thing ever! Some people imagine soaking in a bubble bath. Others imagine a brisk walk in the woods, or sitting on the beach watching the sunset over the ocean waves. Use your creativity to enrich your imagination with sights, sounds, smells, touch, and taste. You are breathing deeply, taking your stress and turning it into wonder, preparing for a positive outcome, and rewarding yourself with a terrific positive image.
Aahh ! Life is stressful. Turn it to your advantage.
Count on equal measure of eustress and distress when you or your child is going through a transition. Normal transitions for kids during a school day include asleep to awake, home to school, between classes, lunch, recess, school to home, and awake to asleep. During these and other transitions in life, we tend to find trouble. Much heartache and difficulty can be avoided by simply giving your child a heads-up. Tell him five or ten minutes before the anticipated transition that he needs to wrap up what he’s doing and get ready.
If you get attitude for your efforts, recognize it as evidence of your child having an emotional fever. Bring the fever down by active listening, that is, trying to play back to him what you think he is feeling at the moment. After the fever is down, noticed by lower tension and calmer voice, go back to giving him another heads-up. The transition will occur, but you can lower the stress levels associated with transition.