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Wallow with them!

It's a Tough Life for a Pig
I love the word wallow.  It’s fun to say, plus it reminds me of two totally separate things: self-pity, and pigs in mud.  I don’t know that I’ve ever heard the phrase used without one of those two things attached!

Except, I often use the phrase at work in a way that is counter to its usual definition and negative connotation.

Something that we parents don’t generally do often or well is to connect with our children when they are having upset or uncomfortable emotions.  Instead, we try to distract or minimize or rationalize or joke or extinguish those emotions.  We do it for many different reasons, perhaps because the expression is ill-timed or inappropriate in size, or because their upset is about us and we feel defensive, or because it’s about something we can’t control and we feel helpless.  But for whatever reason, we often entirely skip the step where we reflect and validate our children’s emotions.  Emotionally healthy parenting requires that we give our children permission to feel their feelings, even tough feelings.  Furthermore, our children need to feel connected to us even when they are feeling angry or resentful or worried or freaked out.  (*)

So I use the word wallow.  I don’t actually want parents to wallow in their children’s emotional states, but because we tend to err on the side of minimizing those emotions, I use a word that guides us towards the other side of the continuum.

When your child is upset or angry or worried, take a deep breath.  Mentally remind yourself that you want them to know that they have your permission to feel those feelings.  (This will help them internalize, for life, the important lesson that they have a right to their feelings.)  Reflect to your child that you see how they are feeling.  That can be done simply by saying something like: “wow, I can tell you are really feeling ___ .”   Take it a step further (and borrow a page from Imago couples therapists) and validate their feelings: “It makes sense to me that you would feel upset about that.  If I were in your position, I’d probably feel the same way.”

And then maybe take another deep breath.  Let a little space come in to the room and in to your interaction.  This is where the ‘wallowing’ happens.  Just stay in that space for a moment: stay in the space of having given your child permission to feel those feelings.  Let your child soak that in.  Don’t rush too quickly to distract or redirect.  Offering a hug, caring eye contact, or a loving touch might feel good to them right now.  This all serves to help them feel less agitated, less out of control, less overwhelmed by those feelings, and often has the very appealing effect of reducing the upset.  When your child has felt “heard” and even validated, it will be much easier to get them to ‘hear’ you and your perspective.

Important note: saying “I can tell that you feel mad that I am making you unload the dishwasher, and it makes perfect sense to me that you would really rather play than do chores” does NOT mean that my daughter can go back to playing and skip the chore.  The limits/requests/expectations remain the same.  All that’s different is that I am giving her permission to feel whatever she feels about those expectations.  But, it’s an amazing, healthy, effective, loving difference.  And, by the way, one of the long term payoffs is a much higher-quality relationship when your child is an adult.

Experiment with it if you are so inclined: see if you can find a place this week to give your child permission to feel their upset, angry, jealous, agitated, or anxious feelings.  See what happens and how it feels to both you and your child.  Good things can happen!

(*) I can’t find a citation for it, but I was taught once that the Talaris Institute studied this and found that responding in an emotionally responsive/healthy way just 30% of the time is enough to get the benefit.  Yay for not needing to be perfect!

How to deal with a puberty-crazed teen

A reader asks:  “How do you deal with a tween or teen that you know is acting badly because of puberty mood-swings? For that matter, how do you even talk to a puberty-crazed teen? They usually don’t make any sense.”

So how do you deal with a puberty-crazed teen?  Very, very carefully.  ;^)  Well, I’m joking there, but it’s a good serious answer, too.  Here are some thoughts to keep in mind when thinking about or interacting with your teenager or pre-teen:

  1. Teenagers do NOT have a fully developed brain yet!  I’m specifically talking about the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that has the best abilities to control impulses, make wise decisions, predict consequences/outcomes, etc.  You are NOT dealing with a little adult.  They may be big and smart, but their brains simply don’t have the abilities that yours do, yet. Try to remember, then, to be more patient and forgiving of their mistakes and missteps.
  2. Do more listening than talking.  It’s pretty common that we as parents talk too much, anyway.  There’s a famous saying about how we have 2 ears and 1 mouth for a reason…  Teens are sensitive to criticism and control, so saying 10% less than you usually would will likely make a significant difference to them.  You’ll still make your opinions known, of course, but just try to listen more than talk.
  3. When teens get upset, they need a parent who doesn’t get upset right along with them.  The more peaceful you are, the better things are going to turn out.
  4. Is your teen being rude to you?  Consider making your response be less about punishment, and more about how it makes you feel when they are rude.  “Honey, it hurts my feelings a little when you roll your eyes when I talk to you.”  It’s an honest response, and is supportive of the parent-child relationship.
  5. Sometimes taking a time-out allows both parent and child to physiologically calm down.  Just agree to disagree for a while, if you can, and take a break.  Go for a walk, drink a glass of water, call a friend for some empathy and support.  Come back to the discussion later, when both of you are more peaceful and see if that doesn’t help things go more smoothly.
  6. Take care of your body, and try to help your teens take care of theirs.  Sleep, sleep, and more sleep, plus healthy nutrition and daily exercise will all go a very long way towards moderating those crazy teen mood swings (and in helping you to deal with them better yourself.)

Finally, remember that the developmental job of a teenager is to gain independence, and the path they take to that independence is often full of mistakes, and executed in a messy way.  Try not to get distracted by the missteps, and instead focus on the healthy process of becoming more independent.  They won’t be crazy forever.  ;^)

Take a Deep Breath and Ask for What You Want

File this one under ‘simple techniques, that, when taught & role modeled 1000 times, will produce a life-long benefit for your child.’

The scene: your 4 year old is upset because you have brought her the pink shoes instead of the purple ones.  (How could you?!)  Whining, crying, yelling and more fun stuff are starting to rear their heads.  

Try this next time:

  • Take a deep breath yourself
  • Tell your daughter to take her own deep breath and then to use her words to ask for what she wants. 
  • The (deep) breath is important, don’t let either of you skip that part
  • Say something like: “We can use our words to solve this problem.”  (or, “YOU can use your words to get what you want here.”)
  • When she does take a deep breath and ask for what she wants (even if it’s not perfectly done), praise her for using her words SO WELL! and immediately bring her the purple shoes.
  • Talk about it afterwords with her, in order to review the experience & strengthen the teachable moment… this might sound something like “You were so upset when I brought the pink shoes.  I was so proud of you that you took a deep breath and used your words to ask for what you really wanted.  And it worked!  You got exactly what you wanted and we could go back to playing right away.  I’m so proud of you!”

 

Rinse, lather, repeat x 1000, and eventually you’ll start seeing the time that lapses between (a) the beginnings of upset and (b) self-regulation and calmly talking through problems, begin to decline.  This is huge!  Give yourself and your kid a pat on the back and a lot of credit.  Huge!

Note: It’s good to start with small stuff where she really can have whatever she wants–not situations where what she wants is a pony or to skip school, etc.

Good for him!

As an MSSW first-year intern, I worked at a residential treatment facility for teenage male sex offenders. I didn’t ask for that job, and it was really-really challenging, but I definitely learned an enormous amount there. This is one of my favorite stories from that time.

I worked with a psychiatrist who was a super smart guy. He was completely dedicated to the kids, but not terribly patient with the interns. One day I made the mistake of complaining to him. One of the kids had just interacted with me in a sexually inappropriate way, and I was feeling gross and uncomfortable and just icky all over. I tried to evaluate the interaction in a professional, clinical way, but mostly just came up with the conclusion that the kid was “wrong” and not working his treatment program appropriately. So when I ran into the psychiatrist, I described the kid’s behavior, probably in such a way that I highlighted how “bad” and resistant to treatment the kid was. (“Bad kid, bad!”)

The Dr looked at me, and immediately said: “Good for him!”

What!?

Oh my goodness. I was just a wee bit offended and righteous. But, thankfully the doctor didn’t care, and his desire to educate me prevailed. Here’s what he taught me that day:

We really must view a child’s behavior as communication, and communication is good. That doctor wanted me to be able to recognize that a child in a treatment center for a sexual offense, who hits on a staff member, is sending a message loud and clear. And the doctor wanted me to get the correct message. The message wasn’t: “I’m a bad kid.” Rather, the message I needed to get was: “I’m not done learning and growing. I need more help with healthy relationships.” (*)

To be clear: I’m not saying that the behavior itself is good-or even okay. Rather, I’m saying that if we look at it as a communication, then we can find the good behind the behavior. There IS good behind the behavior, and our kids NEED us to choose this perspective. So, we can look at the kid as though they are intrinsically “good,” and that their “bad” behavior is a communication of need. Compare this with assuming that a “bad” behavior is a reflection of a “bad” child. Which of these perspectives will allow us to be more loving and helpful to the child as they grow? Which perspective discourages growth?!

Our kids need us to look behind their behavior. They need us to assume the best, and help them grow and learn.

So, parents, when could you say “Good for him/her!” about your child?

(*) It’s also possible that the child’s message included either (a) “Are you safe? Can I trust that you won’t be unhealthy with me even if I try to be unhealthy with you?” or (b) “I know that you are safe, and that’s why I can trust you with this communication-that I am still not safe.”

Oh, Good Question!

Earlier this week I had an initial appointment with a physical therapist. Towards the end of our visit, he gave me some instructions for things to do at home. I sortof understood, but wanted clarification, so I asked a question. This is where things went downhill.

Apparently, my question was a dumb one. I know this because the PT told me so. He tilted his head, raised his eyebrows, smirked a bit, and then repeated what he’d just said, with extra emphasis. The overwhelming message was “You should not have asked that-you should have been able to figure it out. Something must be wrong with you if you had to ask that question.”

Really? Really?

In the Beyond Birds and Bees workshop, I tell parents to first respond to their kid’s questions about sex by saying “oh, good question!” While there are many reasons to do this, the primary reason is that it reinforces to your child that you are an askable parent. I think I want this PT to take my class. ;^)

From the perspective of the well-informed, basic questions can seem a little funny. But let’s remember 2 things-1, to be “ignorant” simply means that the person hasn’t learned it yet. And 2, each of us also started out with small steps, teasing out nuance and learning how to make our own inferences. If 1 + 2 = 3, does 2 + 1
also equal 3? …that sort of thing. That equation looks laughably simple now, but it was a lot harder when you were 5.

As parents, we know that learning is a life-long process, and that no one is an expert in everything. Children who are encouraged to ask questions, who see their parents acknowledging that they don’t know everything but will work to find answers-those kids are better prepared for a successful adulthood. Kids who don’t get that-the ones
who are made fun of for asking “dumb” questions-will stop asking questions. It’s sad, too, because as the questions stop, the learning slows. At the end of the day, the people who asked questions are the people who will know more.

So this week, in whatever you do, consider responding to every question with: “oh, good question.” Because, really, they are all good questions.