Helping Kids Regulate Emotions: Guiding instead of Stopping

Guiding instead of Stopping

My husband has gotten most of my family into watching Duck Dynasty and now the Robertson’s are quoted frequently around our house. The favorite quote has to be Phil saying “happy, happy, happy”. Inadvertently, people have the expectations that they and their children should be happy, happy, happy all the time. People know this isn’t true when you say it aloud but unconsciously it drives how we react. 

When kids are sad, we try to cheer them up or if all else fails use “if you keep crying, I’ll give you something to cry about.” When they are angry, we expect them to calm down by sitting in a chair and being quiet. When they are frustrated, we reason with them about why they should be more patient. It is easy to fall into a pattern of only permitting kids to be happy. I think part of what drives this is not knowing how to let kids show emotions. 

A place to start is to think of your job as guiding rather than stopping how they express emotions. As a guide, you can place boundaries on what is acceptable and not acceptable, i.e. if your are mad you can hit and punch your pillow in your room but you can not hit and punch your sister. You can offer suggestions of how to cope with the feelings, i.e. would you like to talk to me about what those kids said at recess or do you want to be alone for a while

Perhaps, the least used but most helpful is you can listen and show that you hear how they are feeling.  As adults we often need someone just to listen to us as we are complaining about something that happened. Knowing that someone cares and is listening helps us feel supported, helps us calm down, and helps us think through what happened. For young kids, it might just look like reflecting that someone made you mad. For older kids, it might be listening and asking what they think about should happen next.

There will be happy, happy, happy days but not every day. For the days that aren’t, think about how you can guide children through it instead of trying to prevent negative feelings from happening. 


Helping Kids Regulate Emotions: Call it as you see it

Call it as you see it

I wanted to do a series on helping children handle emotions because it is one of the most frequent topics for children in counseling.
 Usually, the concern centers around anger. 

I think it is helpful to look at the issue as a development task. People do not know innately how to express their feelings or how to calm down when upset. Think about infant. When a baby cries, we pick  her up and soothe her because she does not know how to calm down on her own. We continue to learn how to handle our emotions into adulthood.  As parents, our job is to help children learn how to handle their feelings.

A good first step is to help your child learn what different emotions they have. Until children know what they are feeling, it is hard to deal with it appropriately. Labeling their feelings through daily events can help children develop a concept for different emotions. Initially, it can be the basic labeling of the feeling: Example: You are angry that your brother took your toy. Then, you can advance to describing their facial expression, actions, or internal experience when they have different emotions. Examples: I see that you are playing by yourself. I wonder if you are sad?  I saw you throw your coat down. It must have frustrated you that you couldn’t zip it. I saw all your muscle get tight when you got angry and started yelling. 

Just as you point out pictures in a book to a toddler and say what it is, labeling emotions will help children be able to identify the feeling for themselves. The other benefit to labeling emotions is you create an environment where we can talk about feelings outside of the context of being in trouble for their behavior. Often the only emotion we end up talking about with children is anger and this is when they are in trouble for something they did when they were angry. So children develop a vivid picture of what it is to be angry and in trouble. The hope is that with some proactive effort, we can paint a more complete picture of emotions. 


Traditions: The Tie that Binds

Traditions: The Tie that Binds

Holidays are approaching and I always enjoy hearing how people celebrate these special days. Traditions are a photograph of who we are. One of my pictures would be of my mom reading Oh, the places you will go on Christmas Eve and inevitably crying at some point. For others, traditions help people get to know and understand us, what we hold important and why. For ourselves, traditions connect us and symbolize that we are part of something unique and important. 

The connecting and identifying element of traditions are a special element to families that I believe we often overlook in a progressive society that is always trying to do something new. Think about how children look forward to special things all year like putting out cookies for Santa, pulling the turkey’s wishbone or choosing their birthday dinner. Children look forward to these events with anticipation in part because they know they can count on it happening and they know when they do this activity are a part of something special. What security and comfort! 

As the holiday season approaches, give a little thought to what you looked forward to as a child, what photo comes to mind to define the season, and what things might bring back the memories of feeling connected, secure, and loved? It might be time to explain to your children why your family has a certain custom or maybe its time to start a tradition that recognizes your family in a new way. 

 In the end, it doesn’t matter as much what it is you do as long as you do it


Sliding vs. Deciding

Sliding vs. Deciding

Another relationship concept I really like is sliding vs. deciding. Scott Stanley coined this term and I just found he has a blog by the same name: If you are in Oklahoma, you hopefully have heard of the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative. The curriculum used by the OMI, PREP, was created by Scott Stanley. 

Sliding vs. Deciding refers to how relationship decisions and commitment happens in modern relationships. Instead of making active decisions to chose the next step of a relationship, couples are often sliding into the next step. Sliding bypasses critically evaluating a relationship to decide if one should move forward and it gives the allusion that both people are more committed to the relationship because they have moved on the next step. 

The great example of this idea is shown in living together. Most couples often start living together out of convenience then gradually more and more your things accumulate at your partner’s house until you decide not to renew your lease. Now the couple is definitely more committed physically (its harder to break up when you have to find a new place to live) but their internal commitment  may or may not have increased. Often females are more likely to see the relationship as more committed and moving forward but the male’s commitment is often unchanged. 

What’s the risk to sliding? The more you slide through your relationship, you are less likely to evaluate how the relationship is working and more likely to have a different outlook on where the relationship is going than your partner does. Often people find themselves in a relationship that is not working but now has a lot of constraints keep them in the relationship. 

Not every choice demands a carefully thought out decision but when it comes to our relationships, the stakes are too high just to slide. If you found that you have been sliding through some major milestones in your relationship, it might be helpful to have a good conversation with your partner about where you each see the relationship now and in the future. 


What is Love?

What is Love?

The scenario is not uncommon to the counseling room: teenage girl who has found her first true love and her parents are less than impressed by the guy which she writes off as they just don’t understand their love. 

One of my favorite things to talk about with adolescents is what is love. I have asked many teens and parents to give me a definition of love. At first, I get the that’s a silly question look and then people get a little stumped as they try to construct a definition. The best answer I’ve gotten (not kidding) is love is a feeling that two people share. Mostly people just say you can’t define love; you just know it when you are in it. 

I believe that most people think of love in this way – just having that feeling, just knowing. However, this creates some problems for relationships in the future. It is shown in divorcing couple who says we just feel out of love. Now love is an undefinable feeling that can come and go without warning. From this perspective, it would be hard to love one person for a life time. 

Romantic movies are giving teens and young adults a slim picture of what love and being and staying in love takes. We will give Hollywood a break because its much more fun to watch the Bachelorette on a date in a sailboat in the middle of a sparkling bay than to watch a couple with small kids sitting slumped over besides each other watching the Bachelorette (she is watching, he is sleeping). 

I love to talk to teenagers about thinking through relationships, evaluating a partner, and what makes a relationship work in the longer run. Of course, that exciting feeling is great but they often don’t know the spark isn’t all that a relationship needs. 

Some things we talk about are:

  • What is love?
  • How should a partner act towards you and those you love (i.e. family, friends)?
  • How do our values, beliefs and goals align? Do I even what mine are?
  • What are we doing? Are we dating? Do I want to date? Do they want a future together?
  • When should things happen like saying I love you? meeting close friends and family? having sex? getting married? moving in together?
  • How would you know they are not the right person for you?
  • Are you different around them than when you are around your friends and family?
I could keep listing areas but the goal is to get people thinking and working more on their love than just floating with the feeling. If you just rolling on the river on love, it will eventually dry up and usually not in a place you would chose. 


Your Best Friend

Your Best Friend

I’ve recently been reading John Gottman’s 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work. (book review coming soon). I’ve read a lot his professional writings and have been wanting to read his self help book. Unlike the vast majority of self help books, Gottman’s book is born out of research about marriages.  I wanted to share one thought from his book so far. 

Gottman talks about one of the biggest factors that make marriages happy and satisfying is when spouses are truly friends. This idea could easy be discounted as cliche — how many wedding songs and cards talk about marrying your best friend. He outlines why friendship is so important to marriage. 

You truly know your best friend — what makes him happy, how to tell when she is in a bad mood, what helps after he had a long day, what are her pet peeves
You give your best friend the benefit of doubt — He says something rude, you take it as what happened at work. When she forgets to call you back, you assume that she got distracted and nothing more. 
You use your manners with your best friend — When you are upset, you typically restrain yourself from yelling at her, calling her names, assassinating her character and talking about all of the her wrongs from the past. 
You want to be with your best friend — This is the person who you have the most fun with, who you share great memories and stories, and who makes you the most comfortable. 

Gottman talks about how a foundation of friendship can carry couples through the difficulties of marriage because their friend continues to connect them.  All friendship can get stretched thin and have to be nurtured to continue to be strong. As a side note, I would add that often we would tell our friends more directly what we want or need but often expect our spouse to just know. So at risk of sounding cliche, maybe your marriage can get stronger if you focus on reclaiming your friendship a little today. 


Being Where You Are.

Being Where You Are.

I often come across the misconception that as a therapist I give a lot of advice. I do a lot of listening. Usually in my sessions I talk far less than my clients.  Even though I do have and use different interventions and strategies, I am still a little surprised when people end our time together and say that it was just being here, just talking, that helped. I’d like to think it was something fancier that I did. It reminds me that usually people don’t need to be told what to do, how to get better, or what is wrong with their situation. Often they already know this. What people don’t have is someone that fully listens to them, that meets them where they are, that is just there with them.

In social settings lately I have been involved in several conversations about helping people who are facing severe trials and hardships. I  think our Midwestern, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality takes over and we try to think about what we can do, what we should say, or how we should help. Yet when the hard side of life comes to the door of a loved one, we come to the humbling realization that there is not a lot you can do to change it in the short run. So what we can do is just be with them, to sit and listen, or just to sit. To allow them to be where they are. 

I think we might be more helpful if we resist to urge to help by doing something and help by just being with someone. 


Just Good Enough

Just Good Enough

One of the concepts I love from social science is “good enough” – specifically good enough parents. In an information-saturated society, hearing all the things that parents need to do for and with their children can be overwhelming. It doesn’t take long to come to the conclusion that no human can do it all. Striving for perfection is exhausting and unattainable.  

Good-enough parenting in a nutshell is understanding and meeting the child’s needs. A good enough parent can sense what their child needs at a certain time and their parenting will change and adapt as their child’s needs change. So from this mind set there isn’t a list of conversations to have at each age or a supreme way to discipline. It focuses on your relationship with each child and being tuned into them. 

Trying to be a good-enough parent frees us trying to do everything by everyone else’s rules. It allows you to be the expert about your family. Today, I’m trying to be good enough and believing that will be enough. 


The Problem with Problems

The Problem with Problems

  • Money —-> there’s none left or you see the receipt from a shopping trip
  • Going on Dates —–> its Saturday night and you still at home
  • Division of Work —–> Wife’s had a hard day with the kids and husband comes home and needs to work after dinner
  • Kids doing things when they are told —–> its 9:30pm and he just started his homework.

One of the biggest problems with problems is when they happen. Timing. We start talking after the problem has already happened. You’re mad. You’re being blamed. Likely you’re busy and tired. In these circumstances, its easy to see how conversations quickly lead to arguments that don’t turn out well. 

And then when you’re not dealing with a problem, why rock the boat by bringing it up? Just deal with it when it comes up again. Right? Then you will be talking about what happened this time and the last 5 times and you’re upset. 

For problems that keep coming up, often a helpful strategy is to talk about when it isn’t happening right in front of you. This will help start your conversation off as best as possible. Research has shown how a conversation starts is one of the most predictive factors of how successful it will be. 

So for the problems that keep coming up, here are some ideas to tweak your approach…
  • Give a preview —> give each other some notice about what you want to talk about instead of just launching into the conversation
  • Put the weapons down —-> Start off with neutral or positive statements like “I want us to get better at….” instead of “we have to talk about how you never….”
  • Know your limits —> For issues that you’ve been dealing with for a while, there is likely a backlog of unresolved situations and feelings but know what you are going to focus on and stay there. It isn’t possible to work through everything in one conversation. 

Presidential Politics and Couples Quarrels

Presidential Politics and Couples Quarrels

When you hear a news clip of the Presidential candidates, mostly likely they are talking how the other guy has it wrong, did it wrong in the past, is being dishonest, doesn’t know what he is talking about or what the American people want, etc. Listening to a lot of that is draining and frustrating. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear a politician say “here are my steps to improving this issue”, “I respect what my rival has done in this area”, “I made the wrong decision” or “I would have done that differently now”. 

Often couples find themselves making similar statements.  Arguments are about proving the other person wrong, assaulting their character, questioning their motives, and getting your point across at any cost. It reminds me of a line from a country song “nobody wins, we both lose, we’ve both lost this fight before”. Couples don’t want to continue to argue like this and it is hard to pull yourself out of this pattern once it starts. 

Just as it would be refreshing to hear Obama or Romney talk about their plan, their actions, their thought process and even their failures, a couple can make some crucial steps to restoring peace and connection by talking about themselves. Statements like “I hope we can improve…”, “I would like to try…,” “I feel better when….”, and “I should do better at…” are much more likely to get a positive response and make it easier for your partner to do the same in return. 

Typically we argue so passionately because we have been hurt and our needs haven’t been met but to move forward together it takes finding a way to deal the hurt without injuring our loved one. Talking about yourself instead of what the other person hasn’t done is a good place to start.