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.
Why is it that our kids tend to see us as either the good parent or the bad parent? And what does that mean anyway? You know, all kids at one time or another, ask each parent separately, “Which one of us do you like the best?” Or, “Do you love me more than Joey?” Most parents respond some variation of, “I love you all the same.” Really? How does that effect your parenting? Are you the good parent or the bad parent?
Five year old Mandy sulked in her time-out chair in the corner of the kitchen. Mama had put her there after she had thrown a tantrum, stomping her foot and declaring with attitude, “you don’t love me anymore.” All of this because she had gone into the pantry for cookies even though Mama had told her no and was busy making supper.
Mandy’s daddy came into the kitchen, having just gotten home from a hard day at work. Mandy squealed in delight, from her time-out chair, as her daddy pecked her mama on the cheek. Before the parents could talk about the day’s events, Mandy bounded out of her chair toward her daddy, who scooped her up and whirled her around as she giggled.
“Oh no you don’t,” cautioned her mama to her daddy. “Mandy’s in time out for now. She hasn’t talked to me yet about why she’s there, and she can’t get up until she has settled down and we talk about it.”
“But I just got home and haven’t seen my baby girl all day,” her daddy protested. “Can’t Mandy just go back to time-out after we play a bit?”
This scenario is a set-up for daddy to come off as the good parent and mama to be the bad parent. When these roles are consistent and secured, there’s trouble both for the marriage and for the family. As parents, you need to back each other up on matters of discipline. This avoids kids manipulating one parent against the other. You also need to find one-on-one fun time with each of your children, when there is no impending problem. You may connect with one child more than with another, but your time with each needs to be approximately equal. Good or bad parent? Each of you needs to embrace both roles at given times. It’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and. Then the marriage is secure and the children grow up “in the ways of the Lord…” (Proverbs 22:6).
Sometimes we all need a little “me time.” You know, time when you get to yourself and just think, or be, or do something by yourself. I have a little coffee table book that I’ve started using as a part of my morning devotional. Its title is Pausitivity (Compendium Inc, 2011). Pausitivity is “the feeling of joy and optimism that comes when you stop and take a moment to restore and nurture yourself.” There is a quote per page, intended to inspire thought and perspective. For example, “Be still for a moment. The world will wait.” “Lean into the unknown with faith. Make room for new miracles.” In our hectic lives, how important is that?!!
Seventeen year old Casey spends what seems to be all of his time in his bedroom with the door closed. His mom and dad sometimes joke with him about it, occasionally knock and open the door to check on him, but generally leave him alone. Is Casey getting teen “me time?” Should his mom and dad be concerned about how much time he seems to be in his room? Let me give you a resounding, “that depends…”
As in most things, context is essential. First, Casey is 17. That puts him squarely in the space of finding himself, in clinical terms, establishing an individual identity. He’s not going to be just like mom or dad. He’s not going to be just opposite mom or dad. He’s looking for who Casey is, and he needs time and circumstances to take that introspective journey. All teens take this journey. As parents, your concerns are tempered according to your teen’s priorities and activities.
Is Casey is struggling in school, has few friends, or is mixed up with the wrong crowd, and is he making a point of shutting you out of his life? This could be trouble waiting to happen and you have a right to be concerned. Is he gaming online, texting nonstop, shopping, you tubing, or otherwise preoccupied with the internet and social media? This could indicate stalling, hiding, or otherwise nonproductive activity that stunts his personal development.
On the other hand, is he getting good grades in school, is socially engaged, and includes you in his activities or at least does family things together occasionally? You’ve got a keeper there, worthy of your pride, praise, and reinforcement. Is he reading, researching, getting homework done, or tending to a personal hobby or interest? This would indicate personal growth, expansion, exploration and discovery, all of which are kindred to establishing an individual identity.
Teen “me time” can be either part of the problem or part of the solution. In any case, touch base frequently by knocking on his door and entering his room (with permission). If you get a rude or dismissive response, note “Wow. Where did that come from? What’s going on, son?” Then switch to active listening and/or follow up later, when he is more receptive. Also, establish regular family time, like meals together, vacations, and other certain joint interest events. Even though your teen is on a personal journey to establish his individual identity, he is still and will always be part of your family. You still serve an essential advice and consult function on his journey to adulthood. Teachable moments abound.
In this age of social media and much too much screen time, did you know that increased screen time:
Gracie had a dilemma. She was really good at baseball, but, at 8 years old, her options to play were limited. She could play softball with the girls, but she wanted to play baseball with the boys. She wanted the challenge, but…
“What if they tease me because I’m a girl? What if I’m not good enough to make the team? What if I goof up and can’t do it right?” Gracie was so worried about all this stuff that her tummy was in knots.
“Wow!” her daddy exclaimed, “That’s a lot of ‘what ifs’” he took a breath and thought for a moment. “You know, we won’t be able to answer all of these questions until next year if you pass on the tryouts today. I would hate for you to spend all that time without knowing.”
Gracie’s dad chose a teachable moment for his daughter. He could have simply said, “Enough! I paid good money to register you for these tryouts and you’re going.” Yeah, that would have worked. I can just imagine the knots getting bigger in Gracie’s tummy.
Instead, her dad active listened his daughter’s feelings, to help her calm down. When he saw that Gracie’s emotional fever had gone down, he said, “I have some thoughts about how we can handle this situation. Do you want to hear them?” When a parent asks a child for permission to speak, most children are awestruck and gladly agree. In Gracie’s case, she and her dad practiced baseball in the back yard before going to the tryout. Her dad praised her efforts and outcome. He pumped her up for the opportunity to “show her stuff.” Her confidence grew and she took on the challenge.
Generally, when stressed or worried, it’s helpful to start taking slow, deep breaths to help you stay in the moment. When the “what ifs” invade your thinking, convert each one to an “I wonder” statement, followed by a probable positive outcome. Generally, “what if” creates anxiety and worry, while “I wonder” creates curiosity and resolve.
So, in Gracie’s case, “what if I strike out?” becomes, “I wonder how well I will hit the ball.” The embedded positive outcome is, I will hit the ball well. Finally, imagine the outcome you want to happen, in all of its rich and full detail. Write it down or share it with a confidante to make it more real. This picture becomes your reference point as you pursue your goal.
While “what if” equals worry and problems, “I wonder” creates a pathway to helpful activity and success. Helping your child through a difficult situation with active listening and creative, joint problem-solving is the pathway to teachable moments.
Setting healthy boundaries and encouraging good choices help children feel more secure, less anxious, and relieved to not be in charge. In Chapter Three of my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, I affirm that children will test the limits. This is a developmental imperative. Why do they do this? To be sure that the limits are there.
Lauren sat down with her daughter, Grace, to have breakfast. She fixed herself a bowl of fruit and some eggs for her daughter. As they were chatting about their coming days, Grace pushed her eggs back toward her mom, wrinkled her nose, and concluded, “Yuck. I don’t like these eggs. They’re squishy inside. Can I have cereal instead?”
Her mom dutifully put her eggs in the sink and then got Grace a bowl of cereal. She pushed the cereal around as she talked about the kids at school. “Come on, Gracie,” mom urged, “Your time is running short now. Eat.”
Grace looked at her cereal, and then at her mom’s fruit bowl. “Nah. I think I want your fruit bowl.” She switched her bowl with her mom’s and began devouring the fruit. Lauren rolled her eyes, sighed, and thought, and to think that I went to all that schooling just to do shift work and become a short order cook.
Not much limit-setting here for Lauren, and Grace took advantage of it. Now, mom may be thinking, at least I found what she wanted to eat and she’s having a good breakfast before a long school day. However, the longer goal is also important. Mom needs to work on setting healthy boundaries for Grace and helping her make good choices. If mom is feeling taken advantage of or ignored, then she needs a sit-down with her daughter.
Set a time with relatively few distractions, where you can talk with your daughter. Perhaps after homework and before bedtime. Review the scenario in question and share your feelings with her. Encourage her to help you think of solutions to the problem of Gracie getting a nutritious breakfast without mom feeling taken advantage of.
After discussion, mom and Gracie settled on their going shopping for groceries weekly, or Gracie adding to the shopping list the kinds of breakfasts she would like. Then, each night before bedtime, mom and Grace decide on the next day’s breakfast items. Each goes to bed looking forward to the morning, rather than dreading the back and forth hassle.
Here, the boundary has been set for a good morning routine. The limit is defined as, “no takebacks.” That is, mom serves what Gracie decides the night before and finishes her breakfast before heading out to school. Mom gives Gracie a week of the new routine before reviewing to see how it is working. They could add some rewards and consequences, depending on how Gracie respects the boundaries and accepts the limits.
Most children will start such a discussion with, “No fair. You’re being so mean.” Active listen her feelings, but stay the course. With the limits firm, and boundaries secure, children with go with the flow and feel more secure, less anxious, and involved in a mutual problem-solving relationship and teachable moments with their parents.
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.
The Flip Side of Teachable Moments
In my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, I spend a lot of time encouraging parents to create teachable moments for your kids. Such moments are generally an “aha” moment for your child, you know, when they get it. It’s new information they acquire from you or from the circumstances, a life lesson, if you will.
There are three kinds of teachable moments. The most fun ones come when there is no problem. You are sharing a magic moment with your child and both of you are the better for it.
Jim and Jason are riding in the car and it begins to snow. Six year old Jason is fascinated by the snowflakes hitting the windshield. “Wow! There are like a million of them, Dad.”
Jim glances over to his transfixed son. “That’s right, son, and each is different from the others. Each is a unique creation from God.”
Jason cocks his head as he looks back at his dad. Dad continues, “That’s what snowflakes and humans have in common. Each is created individually. Each is unique. Each is from God.” Jason paused for just a moment, and then turned again to look at the snowflakes outside. A spontaneous teachable moment.
After getting back from the store, Jim gets Jason started on his homework. While getting supper ready, he hears Jason erupt, “Arrgh. This math is stupid,” and Jason swipes his book and math problem sheet off his desk.
Jim turns the heat down on the frying pan and finds Jason in his bedroom. “Homework kicking your butt?” He walks to his son’s side and puts a comforting arm around him.
“I can’t do it,” Jason screams, “and you can’t make me.” If his dad chooses power, he might be offended by Jason’s show of disrespect and lose a teachable moment. Instead, he chooses empathy and active listens Jason’s feelings.
“Wow! You’re really upset. It’s hard when you are learning something new and it doesn’t come to you naturally.” Jason noticeably calms down and slumps his shoulders. Dad continues, “I’ve got some ideas for you. Do you want to hear them?” Another teachable moment evolves from his calming his son down and getting back to task.
The third kind of teachable moment is rarely acknowledged. These occur not from circumstances and not from when your child has a problem. These occur when you have a problem with your child.
After Jason and his dad figure out his homework and he finishes it, his 4 year old sister comes into his room. “Get out, Emily. I don’t want you here in my room,” he shouts, and then pushes her down. Emily’s cries bring Jim running. Her dad scoops her up and stares down his son.
While comforting his daughter, Jim asks Jason, “Care to explain?”
“She was bothering me,” Jason countered. Jim paused to collect his thoughts and chose this to be another teachable moment for Jason.
“So, Emily was bothering you and you chose to shout at her and push her down.” Jim let Emily down and directed her to go play in her room and that he would be there shortly.
“Son, this isn’t like you. What else is going on?” Jason expected to be yelled at but puzzled instead. He began to explain his actions, while his dad active listened. When Jason was finished, dad asked, “Could there be other ways you could have handled your feelings better?”
Jason fell silent. Dad added, “Tell you what. Just climb on your bed for a while and lay there. No toys, no books, no electronics. I want you to think about other ways you could have handled your feelings and how you could have avoided hurting your sister. I’m going to tend to Emily and I’ll be back in a while to hear what you’ve come up with.”
While magic times and calming times are two sources of teachable moments with your child, confronting times is the flip side of teachable moments. All promote healthy relationship and creative problem-solving.
Seven year old Julie doesn’t run as fast as her best friend, Ava. She never wins a race, even though she tries really hard. Because she’s a bit pudgy, she is always picked last during recess when they choose up for kickball. Mom mentioned the weight concerns when she last took Julie for her annual checkup. The physician seemed to not make a big deal out of the extra weight, indicating that the scales show Julie to still be within the average range for her age. So, is there a problem here?
Well, yes. If Julie is self-conscious about her weight and sees herself as losing out on stuff because of it, then that makes it a problem. As the parent, your go-to response is to active listen Julie’s feelings and concerns. It will be hard not to dismiss or diminish Julie’s feelings, because the physician did not have concern and she still is in the average range of weight.
Really, really try to avoid judging, criticizing, and giving solutions. These are the three cautions to active listening. Most parents see it as their right and that their children actually want to be criticized, judged, and given solutions. This is what I call exercising your power at the expense of your relationship with your child.
In our country, childhood obesity is a national epidemic. Obesity is clinically defined as carrying a weight which is at least 20% over the average range for your age and bone structure. Being “pudgy” is not necessarily being obese. Had Julie been obese, her pediatrician would have noted that. Throughout the total population of the US, 35% are overweight.
After active listening Julie and noticing her emotional fever coming down, switch to problem-solving with her, giving her the lead.
“Okay, sweetheart, I can see how really upset you are about your weight. Now that you are calmer, do you want to look at ways we can work together to help you lose that pudginess?”
With Julie’s permission, begin listing options on a paper. Healthy-only snacks, family exercise time, affirmation post-it’s like, “I’m doing great!” “No more pudgy.” “Being me is okay.” Help her make her plan, and get her permission to help her stick to it. Weigh her after wakening and before breakfast every morning and have her chart her weight daily. Praise and brag on her with every pound she loses, no matter how long it takes.
Now, with all this being said, keep in mind that Julie is still developing. Children tend to grow out before they grow up. Extra weight often precedes a growth spurt. So, help her be patient and not be so hard on herself. The human body is not fully formed for most people until they hit 18-25 years old.
Is your child a little pudgy? Address her feelings before helping her tackle her weight concerns and you will find yourself in a teachable moment.