Emotions and Kids

     Parenting is hard! It was hard before the days of quarantine and online learning, work from home, and social distancing. We are all talking about and longing for the day when things will “get back to normal.” The pressures of working from home while suddenly taking charge of distance learning stretched our coping mechanisms to the limit. As comedian and professional shut-in Jim Gaffigan pined: “distance learning, how do I say this without cursing.”

     Focusing on the future gives us hope and can relieve the pent up stress. As adults we have experiences with the concepts of “in a little while,” “it will take some time,” and “It’s for the best.” Kids, especially younger kids, do not have the ability to think abstractly about the day sometime in the future when they can see their friends and return to school. A lot of kids are trapped in a stuck place, where the loneliness and fear present during the past months of shelter at home filters their current reality. We all get upset and, at times, express our emotions in unhelpful ways. Do you notice your kids are more upset and having breakdowns or tantrums a little more often? As Meghan Owenz writing for Parent.co reminds us, emotions are not an inconvenient occurrence. Emotions serve a purpose, and each of our primary emotions serves a purpose to motivate our behavior. Owenz cites the work of Dr. John Gottman who found the four possible ways parents respond to their child’s emotions: dismissing, disapproving, laissez-faire, and emotion coaching. According to Ellie Lisitsa, contributor to the Gottman Institute Blog, it is the Emotional Coach Parent that use negative emotions as an opportunity for child/parent bonding, and by teaching the child about their emotions.

Emotional coaching will help both you and your kids better understand each other and the impact emotions have on each one in the family and the family itself. Meghan Owenz offers the following suggestions:

Step 1: Be aware of your child’s emotions.
Parents who emotion coach are aware of their own feelings and sensitive to the emotions present in their children. They do not require their child to amp up their emotional expression for their feelings to be acknowledged.

Step 2: See emotions as an opportunity for connection and teaching.
Children’s emotions are not an inconvenience or a challenge. They are an opportunity to connect with your child and coach them through a challenging feeling.

Step 3: Listen and validate the feelings.
Give your child your full attention while you listen to their emotional expression. Reflect back what you hear, thus telling your child you understand what they’re seeing and experiencing.

Step 4: Label their emotions.
After you have fully listened, help your child develop an awareness of and vocabulary for their emotional expression.

Step 5: Help your child problem-solve with limits.
All emotions are acceptable but all behaviors are not. Help your child cope with his or her emotions by developing problem-solving skills. Limit the expression to appropriate behaviors. This involves helping your child set goals and generating solutions to reach those goals.

Owenz encourages parents to be patient. It takes time to understand these five steps. Sometimes results will happen quickly and sometimes not so quickly. Make a start to become your child’s emotion coach and enjoy the journey!

Listening Well Says “I Love You”

Remember the days before we were all staying at home. You asked your partner to swing by the office supply store to pick up ink for the printer, and the dog ended up spending the day with a very confused groomer. “No worries” you tell your confused mate who left the note detailing what you had asked lying on the counter.  “I’ll swing by the office supply place next to the groomers. Just don’t let dinner burn. The timer will go off in 45 minutes…” Later as you try to swallow the blackened lasagna, you can’t tell if the bitter taste is the burned food or the resentment from having to spend an extra hour in rush hour traffic retrieving the freshly shampooed dog who had been groomed a week ago, and picking up the ink you needed. As the scorched mess makes it third trip around the plate at the end of your fork you hear. “Are my two suits still in the car? I leave for the airport at 5:00 am and so I need to get packing.” What suits? What trip? 

While the above scenario may be a bit far-fetched, we all experience those moments when we feel like we are living in a parallel universe with our loved ones. Partners, spouses, parents, and kids often leave us wondering “did I just dream that I told them to (fill in the blank)?” Missed cues, distracted listening, and our pressing need to disconnect from the stress of our daily lives often leads to having no idea of what is going on in the lives of those we hold most dear. We often blame others for not knowing what we need just as we can be constantly out of step about the needs of our partners.  The old refrain “you never listen to me” is not even close to the real issue. You have to decide whether or not what your partner and loved ones have to say is important, and then find a way to make the space to hear them.

Fear not! Help is on the way. In fact, according to William R. Miller in his Book Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Listening, the capacity to listen and understand empathetically is hardwired into our brains. We desire to know our valued others and to also be known by our valued others. Our brains are not only hardwired for empathetic understanding they are hardwired for secure connection. The need for secure connection is with us, as John Bowlby who researched the need for secure attachment said, the need for secure attachment is with us “from the cradle to the grave.” Our basic need to be securely attached cannot be realized if we cannot listen with empathy and understanding to our partners, friends, and our families.

Many of us have read or heard the rules of empathic listening before:

  1. Be non-judgmental
  2. Give the person your undivided attention
  3. Listen carefully to feelings and facts
  4. Show that you are listening carefully
  5. Don’t be afraid of silence
  6. Restate and paraphrase
  7. Follow-up

How do we put these 7 tips into action? Dennis Rivers, MA, a communications skills teacher has put together excellent communications skill resources at his website. Check out his website and do the Empathy-Listening in Action exercise. This exercise starts with brief video by Brene Brown where is describes what empathy actually is and then leads the participate through the exercise. 

Navigating Hope in Uncertainty

Lost tourists were a common childhood occurrence. Folks in big vehicles towing campers and boats hopelessly attempting to navigate a community that had no addresses and the “town” on the map consisted of one rambling log building that housed the post office, the store, the bar, and the café. Miles from where they needed to be, confused tourists on dead-end dirt roads would enquire of kids on horseback. “Where is the lake?” or “How do I find Mason’s resort”. Faced with visitors who had no cellphones, no GPS, no compass, and no sense of direction, we would patiently recite the directions that had become part of our DNA. “Go back to the highway, turn left, go 11 miles till you see a big sign that says Van’s Corner. Turn left, go 3 miles to the dead-end T and turn right. Go 2 miles and Mason’s will be on the left. You can’t miss it.”

We lived in complete confidence in our current location, our destination, and unwavering trust that if we could not get there on our own, we had an army of moms and dads organized and ready to drive us where we needed to go. Our ten-year-old selves lack driver’s licenses and eighth-grade diplomas, yet we stood in the security of knowing where we were, we where we wanted to go, and how we would get there.

In the language of researcher and psychologist C.R. Snyder, we had hope. How can we tell what hope is and whether or not we have hope? Sometimes we can confuse hope with optimism. With hope, according to Adam Kadlac, comes realism, courage, and solidarity. A hopeful person is not so much convinced the future will be good or bad but instead focuses on the probabilities of good things ahead. This is where courage comes in. A courageous person embraces their longings and desires, yet lives with the knowledge that those longings and desires may go unfulfilled. Solidarity comes with a commitment to realism. Realism requires that we acknowledge both the possibility of our successes as well as the possibility of disappointments. Vulnerability in the face of contingencies beyond our control is what makes solidarity of vital importance. Hope, which acknowledges an uncertain future, has an important connection to solidarity and requires community. Moving into an uncertain future becomes possible when we join with valued others working towards a common goal. In the early 1990’s Snyder identified three main components of the hope as a learned skill: 1. goal setting, 2. developing strategies or achieve those goals, and 3. the freedom build and sustain actions to execute those strategies known as the agency to act on your own behalf.

We all navigate our lives with a shared experience of landmarks and signposts that tell us when to go back, when start again, and when we have reached a new beginning. Today, at least for a little while, we have lost our landmarks and signposts that tell us where we have been and where we should be going. Graduations, proms, weddings, reunions, first full- time jobs, and going off to college are the landmarks and signposts that announce where we have been and where we should be going are lost to us, at least for now. We are no different than those visitors lost on the backroads near my childhood home. We grieve the loss of shared celebrations and the excitement of preparing for the next step. We feel confused because we don’t know how to prepare for the next step because we simply don’t know when we will be able to take it. We can still have hope.

Where do we start to find our way to hope in our future? How about knowing how hopeful we are? The University of Pennsylvania’s  Positive Psychology Center offers the a description and access to a downloadable copy of Snyder’s Adult Hope Scale. The scale consists of 12 items and can be completed in just a few minutes. With an idea of our own level of hopefulness we can begin to examine where we are, where we want to go and create our own map of how we can get there and, in the process, creating new signposts and markers to guide us forward.

Breaking the Circle of Conflict

    The moment the sign announcing a traffic circle or roundabout is just ahead panic rises and the brain shuts down. I have to figure out what lane to be in to continue going straight and GPS does not help. It serves only to add to the choices my brain cannot process. The solution is to just keep circling until the all roads leading into and out of the roundabout are completely empty and then I make my escape. This is not an elegant or practical solution. Neither is avoiding all roads with all traffic roundabouts.

     Cycles of conflict in our relationships with partners, family, friends, and co-workers operate just like a traffic circle. We see the signs; we cannot avoid the road ahead and we enter the conflict. Our partner enters the room and slams the door. We either stand our ground and prepare for the heated argument to begin or you withdraw completely and refuse to even acknowledge the tension. The things leading to the tension and disagreements may differ. Last week it was the dishwasher not being emptied and this week it is conflict about how to manage a child’s struggle in school. The content is different, but the signs are all the same. Someone says “here we go again” and the other rolls their eyes. The next step is someone leaves the room or just refuses to talk and the other shouts “you never listen to me!” You find yourself angry and frustrated caught in cycle and there seems to be know escape.

     Most couples find themselves caught in these cycles of conflict that are, unfortunately, all to common. There is hope! These cycles can change. The first step is to identify what Dr. Sue Johnson calls your demon dialogues.

  1. Find the Bad Guy also known as Mutual Attack
  2. The Protest Polka also known as Demand and Withdraw
  3. Flight and Freeze also known as Tension and Avoidance

     Find the Bad Guy is when both partners stand their ground and hurl emotionally wounding missiles at each other that cause the rupture in the relationship to deepen. Both partners feel rejected and see the source of their emotional pain as their partner’s fault.

     The Protest Polka is when one partner lodges a complaint and the other partner does not respond. The protesting partners ups their game by escalating the criticism as the other partner shuts down and withdraws. The result is partners drive each other further into rejection and loneliness with no one feeling safe.

     Flight and Freeze sometimes follows Find the Bad Guy. Partners give up and retreat into hopelessness. Each one is afraid and alone and have no way back to safety and connection.

     Ongoing patterns of conflict block safe re-connection leaving partners feeling lost and abandoned. Hope comes when we learn new patterns and find safety with our partners. The first step in experiencing block empathy, understanding, and connection with your partner is to understand your conflict cycle. Dr. Sue Johnson has created a simple exercise to help you Name and Tame the Demon Dialogues. Secure, safe, loving connection is possible and you can begin your journey to a better relationship today.

Couples Counseling http://www.stoneycreekcounseling.com

Love in Quarantine

A recent social media post by a dear friend caught my attention. She and her partner are engaged in a quarantine courtship and proclaim they are falling in love all over again. What brought this new blush to a decades-long marriage? Her response; “All we’ve left to do is fall in love all over again!” They both realize they have not had this much time to talk to each other in years. Our comfortable routines of daily living ended in an instant when the Shelter in Place order went into effect. We grieve our routines! Meeting friend for lunch, stopping by the hardware store or the office supply store whenever we need that one small thing that will make our day complete. Many couples are spending more time together now than they ever did even while they were dating. The novelty of binge-watching Netflix while consuming cookies and pizza wears thin quickly. And the comfort and connection  of friendships beyond our partners may be on hold for a while. We are all struggling  to build a new normal around telecommuting, distance learning, and having only our partners for human connection. Maybe it’s time to build a new normal around how we connect with our most treasured others.

Maintaining and reclaiming intimacy is never easy even when the rest of life is going smoothly. In our current struggle to understand and manage the uncertainty of the Coronavirus Pandemic makes it even easier to put our partners at the bottom of our priorities. Maybe it’s time to go on daily 10-minute dates. The way this works is each partner schedules, plans and takes responsibility for implementing a 10 minutes interlude in which the focus is entirely on your partner. This means, as a couple, you will go on two 10-minute dates each day. Just make sure the date location is not in the same physical space as you or your partner’s work from home space. The location can be fun and creative or as simple as spending 10 minutes together on the front porch. The only rule is the subject and focus of the date is completely on what is joyful and life-giving to your partner. Here are a few suggests:

  1. Recreate a memory from your first date. Recall a song, a place, a particular food from your first date and surprise your partner. If your first was a live concert find a YouTube video of your favorite song and play the video on the patio or in the back yard. Then, and here is the important part, let you partner share the memories the video brings up.
  2. Rediscover your partner. Repurpose the 36 Questions developed by Arthur Aron and his research partners designed to foster vulnerability and intimacy. Divide the list and ask a few questions each day.
  3. Surprise your partner. Send notes of encouragement by text or email. The stress of executing all the activities of living, (work, school, family time) takes a toll on everyone. A text or email letting your partner know how much there are appreciated. Often, especially in times of stress, we focus on what we are not getting from our partner. Focus your notes of encouragement on what you are receiving from your partner and let them know how much they are loved.
  4. Know your partner’s love language. Expressing love comes in a variety of  forms. We all know what makes our hearts sing! But what about our partners? What is a better gift? A bottle of wine or a hand-written note expressing your appreciation? A good way to know how your partner loves to be loved is to find out. Start by each of you taking this simple quiz from 5lovelanguages.com. Share the results with each other and then make your next 10-minute date something tailored made for you mate. Happy dating!