Part One: Don’t Worry: There’s Hidden Treasure in Sibling Battles

My oldest went off to college in the Fall, leaving his two younger siblings behind.

I wondered how his leaving would impact our family dynamic. And now, seven months in, I have an idea (hint: it’s not pretty).

What’s emerged is a fierceness between the remaining two. It’s like a cushion has been removed and now there’s the raw friction of two hard stones, one sharp (older one needing to be boss) and one holding firm (younger showing resolve to hold her own).

Side note: when I spoke to the kids about how I’d be depicting them for this article, they argued that they were each the one standing firm while the other was the nudger and antagonizer — confirming that there’s never “one true story” of what’s going on….

It reminds me of what Ken Kesey wrote in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, “It’s the truth even if it never happened.”

Because I’ve parented for a while now, I know this dynamic, whatever it is, will change. It always does. But sometimes a simple dinner with the two of them is akin to nails running down the chalkboard. I’d love to run screaming from room and it makes me wonder, HOW IN THE WORLD DID I CREATE THESE MONSTERS?!

The other night at dinner we talked about what we could do to help improve the situation. My daughter (the younger one) decided that she’d make signs reminding us all of important relationship behavior.

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IMG_0978I love how her drawings show different perspectives.

Once she’d created them she didn’t care to hash it out any further….

This is often the case with kids — it’s the DOING that’s important — not the processing.

Since she made these reminders, I’ve actually noticed more harmony – crazy magic.

The good the bad and the ugly news is that sibling issues, while highly irritating and button pressing, are normal and to be expected.

If you had brothers and sisters, think back to your own childhood… what did you learn from them?

Here’s a list from parents in my Parenting with Positive Discipline series:

  • how to tease
  • how to manipulate
  • how to negotiate
  • how to take turns/share
  • how to stand up for someone
  • how to keep company
  • how to eat fast
  • how to hate intensely
  • how to love intensely
  • how to be loyal
  • how to fight
  • how to defend
  • how to ask for what you want or need

Sound familiar?

My sister recently shared Jeffery Kluger’s Ted talk, “The sibling bond,” with me and my brother. Mr. Kluger tells stories illustrating the powerful influence siblings have on each other.

Here’s what stood out for me:.

There may be no relationship that affects us more profoundly than that of our siblings– none closer, harder, sweeter, happier, sadder, more filled with joy or fraught with woe than the relationship we have with our brothers and sisters. The sibling bond can be a thing of abiding love, our parents leave us too early, our spouses come along too late, our siblings are the only ones who are with us for the entire ride – over the arch of decades – there may be nothing that defines us and forms us more powerfully than our relationship with our brothers and sisters.

Siblings learn when to stand up for themselves, when to stand down – love, loyalty, honesty, sharing, caring, compromise, the disclosure of secrets and the keeping of confidences.

Siblings may be among the richest harvests of the time we have here.

And finally (I’ve paraphrased),

Will it impact how we respond to sibling fighting if view it through this lens? I think so. Relationships are messy — we’re all learning all of the time.

When nails scratch their way down the chalkboard, take heart. Know you’re in good company. Breath, remove yourself if you can, and remember that tremendous learning is happening.

This week view sibling battles as opportunities to learn life lessons. Notice what’s being learned in your house? Notice what lessons you’d like to see more and less of and share in the comments below.

Stay tuned for Part Two: Your Surprising Role in Sibling Fights (and How to Change it)

Here’s the index for the Sibling Series.

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

Wanna talk? It’s easy to schedule a time here.

2

Mean Voice? What Mean Voice? Are you as Oblivious as I was? How to Ensure Your Parenting Style Doesn’t Negatively Impact Your Child’s Self-Esteem

Recently I received an email (with this photo) from Eric, a dad in my parenting class.

Thank you for taking classes to be nice. I heart YOU

Thank you for taking classes to be nice. I heart YOU

There have been so many changes for the better that have come up over the last 8 weeks since we started taking your class.

The screaming and yelling in our house is now filled with laughter and smiles. Everyday I tell my wife how proud I am of the way she handled a specific situation and I compare it to how we would have handled it before attending your class.

We have a new story every day and find ourselves constantly turning things into games or putting our children in the same boat.

I never realized how firm my discipline style was and the potential negative results that can come of that parenting style.

The fact that my daughter has noticed a difference and that she’s happier to be around me is really a life-changing event for me.

Thank you again!

My heart jumped for joy when I got this for two reasons:

  1. This sort of transformation is WHY I do what I do(!!!);
  2. I know exactly how he feels.

I, too, had been unaware of how my style impacted my son until the day he brought it to my attention.

I thought I’d made a simple request that day, many years ago. My 7-year old, Sunny, came in from playing outside and I told him to go wash his hands.

After I’d said the words and he’d gone into the bathroom, I was aware of a shift in energy — it felt like something dark and heavy came in the room.

When he came out, I could see hurt in his eyes, tears squeezing out of them as he said, “Why do you have to talk to me in that mean voice?”

My heart hit the floor.  This bright, cooperative, sunny child never complained.

I took a breath. The look on his face along with his words woke me to the harshness of my tone that while unconscious, was undoubtedly powerful. I’d been oblivious.

I can’t quite remember what happened next.

Likely I asked him a question or two, put my arm around him, said “I’m sorry” and proceeded to feel “I am a horrible mother.”

My tone could have been caused by not knowing what to cook for dinner, exhaustion, an annoyance I felt about who knows what. What matters is I am clear it wasn’t about him.

His hurt shone a spotlight on my lack of awareness. Like the brave dad in my class, I never realized how my style negatively impacted my son until that day when he directly told me.

I felt shocked and grateful at the same time. Sunny directly told me that my words hurt him. This I considered a mini victory — a sign that maybe I wasn’t such a bad mom after all.

My young son trusted me. In our relationship he could be vulnerable and tell me how he really felt.

Children are sensitive.

Alfred Adler, whose work lays the foundation for Positive Discipline said that children are tremendous perceivers. Children soak up the energy and feelings around them. He went on to explain that children make meaning of their perceptions and not always in ways that make sense to parents.

For example, children can make very different meaning from the same event. Siblings can perceive the same event in very different way.

Here are some examples ….

Parent Action → Child perception and meaning making

  • Mommy’s voice is mean → Mommy doesn’t like me/I’m bad
  • Mommy’s voice is mean → This hurts and I’m going to tell her her voice is mean
  • Mom & Dad are fighting → I must have been really bad
  • Mom & Dad are fighting → They had a hard day, I’m going to leave the room
  • Mom & Dad are moving to Maine → I wonder where I will go?
  • We’re all moving to Maine → I’m excited
  • Baby sister cries and gets noticed → I need to cry to get noticed
  • Baby sister cries and gets noticed → I’m going to be a big helper

You may not be able to control how your child perceives reality (especially as it applies to you and your interactions with them). You CAN influence it by consciously softening your tone, acting with care, and choosing more positive words.

When my son came in that day, I could have said, “Sunny, let’s take a look at those paws of yours. They could use a good scrub before dinner.”

A helpful catchphrase to bring kind and firm to life is CONNECT BEFORE CORRECT!

I didn’t connect with him before sending him off.  As a result my son woke me up to the power of my tone and energy.

I continue to be imperfect — at times unwittingly putting unwarranted anger on my kids. However, I do this far less than I used to.

The wake up call my son gave me is one of many I’ve received since becoming a parent. They all work together to move me in the direction I want to go as a human being:

  • Being more conscious of my energy and tone;
  • Connecting before I correct (kind and firm);
  • And when all else fails, separating myself from my kids when I know I’m on the edge.

Eric got this same wake up call by attending my Parenting with Positive Discipline series. Once he starting being kind AND firm he realized his former style had a negative impact on his relationship with his daughter. He’s been amazed that such simple changes like asking for a hug or making a problem into a game, can be so life altering.

CONSIDER⇔SHARE⇔ACT

In what circumstances have you been surprised by your child’s interpretation of your behavior?

Does being conscious of your impact help you? If so, how?

By sharing your experiences in the comments below, you add to this conversation and support many parents by showing them they’re not alone.

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

Wanna talk? Schedule a time here.

2

How to Cope When Your Kid Feels Miserable

We want our kids to be happy and feel good about themselves — knowing they’re struggling can feel unbearable.

Today’s post is about how to deal with your emotions around your child’s disappointment — a question that Michelle so eloquently asked last time. Here’s my own poignant parenting story….

Years ago when my son, I’ll call him Sunny, was 11 or 12, baseball season had ended and he wanted, with all his heart, to make the all-star team so that he could continue to play. He’d been chosen in years past but knew it was competitive. Being Sunny, he was optimistic and it was clear that playing more baseball was the most important thing in the world to him — hands down. A perfect recipe for parental anxiety.

Each day he’d come home and ask, mom, did the coach call? A look of hopeful anticipation in his eyes.

My heart broke as I had to tell him, 3 or 4 days in a row that no one had called. Silence. Are you sure? Ouch.

Sunny was the kid who went through life, like a duck, letting harsh things that happened to him roll right off. So when he uncharacteristically invested himself in this outcome, it was all the more painful to witness.

At the time I knew that a rescue attempt was ill advised. I felt helpless and didn’t know what to do. While it sounds like a minor letdown now, this disappointment was HUGE in his life, and I was at a loss for how to support him.

Looking back I think his dad or I could have shared our own painful experience if only to join him in that dark space.

I doubt it would have made him feel better but company always helps.

As the parent, I needed to also take a stance that would help me better cope with the urge to jump in and make things better.

As a coach, I often help clients find alternate points of view on an area of their life where they feel stuck.

Below is an example of different perspectives you can step into to shift YOUR experience when your child goes through their inevitable disappointments.

GRITTY VIEW:  The research is clear that children who’re able to persevere through trials and tribulations have an essential characteristic for success – grit.

While they’ll remember epic disappointments, if they’re able to weather them with a sense of grounded security, your kids will more likely learn to forge ahead, a quality that will undoubtedly serve them well in life.

Parental fixing (or on the flip-side, shaming) blocks your child from learning this valuable lesson. Fixing and shaming, while they look different, convey the same message to your kid — I don’t believe in you.

I don’t remember where I heard this but I love its clear wisdom.

POETIC VIEW:  “For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.”  ―Henry W. Longfellow  

Broadening your perspective through poetry and philosophy can be just the tonic you need to pull you out of the painful, cramped feeling of “not enough” that tends to overwhelm you when your
child feels badly.

Andrew.Khalil.GibranMINDFUL VIEW: Practicing mindfulness strengthens your ability to have boundaries.

The Quick Calm Technique created by Andy Smithson of truparenting.net is a tool that when practiced can move you from heated to less heated 🙂

Here it is in a nutshell:

Click to learn about the entire Quick Calm Toolkit

Click above to learn more about the entire Quick Calm Toolkit

Use this technique to bring yourself down from anger, anxiety, sadness… these steps enable you to respond more proactively — more mindfully — to any situation you find yourself caught up in. You have power over how you feel.

PASSIONATE VIEW:  When you take time to nurture your own passions, you get less tied up in knots about the minutiae of your child’s life. This helps you avoid the unwitting substitution of your child’s experiences for your own.

Here are some examples of activities (outside of work and parenting) that parents have shared with me that bring meaning and passion to their lives:

  • join an adult sports team
  • volunteer in an underserved school
  • write a blog or novel
  • coach a team (outside of your child’s)
  • volunteer at a hospital
  • train for a triathlon

If you don’t want to do it for yourself, then you’ve got to do it for the sake of your kid. Only when you nourish yourself and cultivate your own interests will your child see a way to do this for herself.

MY VIEW: One of the gifts I’ve found through using Positive Discipline is a path to keep things simple.

If I’m bending over backward to make something happen for my kid, I hear that voice inside warning me something’s off or as Michelle put it — “THAT’s INSANITY — DON’T DO IT!”

Still the impulse and overwhelming sadness remains.

Don’t push it away. Rather, let yourself feel sad and have a chance to heal from your own old wound. When you get triggered by your child’s disappointments — take that step back from your kid and look inside — work on your own or with a therapist to experience your not so buried feelings so that you can move on rather than continuing to stuff it down or overreact to events in your child’s life. Be real and feel your feelings.

When you feel stuck in your own or your child’s disappointment, try one of these perspectives or cultivate a view of your own. Standing in a different place could be just the reset you need to reorient yourself and move forward in the direction you want to go.

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

Wanna talk? Schedule a time here.

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Q & A: Where Do You Draw the Line Between Empathy and Helicopter Parenting?

Empathy v. Enmeshment ImageQ: As the mother of a middle school girl, I struggle to be empathetic without jumping on the roller coaster of her ever-changing moods, emotions and dramas. And, as a woman in her late 40s, my emotions are often a 6 Flags of hormonally-induced thrills, so staying detached feels nearly impossible at times

Recently my seventh grader tried out for the school musical. After a series of micro disappointments this Fall (not making the “A” soccer team, getting put into an advisory group without any good friends, being just slightly outside of the ‘cool’ group, etc.), she was serious about getting a good part for the show. She practiced her song with a singing teacher several times and felt good about it.

Several days went by while she waited for the cast list to be posted. I worked on shifting her language away from ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parts in the show, to some limited success. I wanted to support her enthusiasm but it was draining to stay positive given my fear of the potential bad news ahead.  

This daughter can be fairly stoic, but when she saw the cast list, she ran up to her room and sobbed so loudly I was afraid she would choke.

After a few minutes of trying to let her release her disappointment on her own, I went in to check on her. With your thoughts of empathy fresh in my mind, I resisted the temptation to tell her the emotions would pass or it didn’t matter or that the part was probably better than she thought, blah, blah, blah.

Instead, I let her cry, supporting the wildly strong feelings raging through her. Unfortunately, it was just a matter of time before I was crying too, and then we were both sobbing at the injustice of the world (did I mention I am a pre-menopausal woman with raging emotions?)

I managed to get myself together and put her to sleep, but then I could not stop crying. I just felt so sad for her and could not put it away. It took all the strength I had not to email the drama teacher and ask her if there was any way to revisit the cast list. Which is just a simply INSANE thing to even think, let alone seriously consider!  

So here’s my question: how can we support our children with their dreams, projects, efforts and goals (especially our daughters) without getting enmeshed in the outcome? How can we let our older children navigate the disappointments and challenges of life without getting sucked into the emotional turmoil that goes along with the journey? Where do you draw the line between empathy and over involvement/attachment?

A: First, Michelle, congratulations on your success in avoiding many of the common barriers to empathy. What you did was no small feat — staying out of judgement, taking her perspective and touching a place in yourself (maybe a bit too deeply) that understood her feelings.

Simply defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another,” empathy is nuanced. While you were able share your daughter’s feelings, it proved difficult to pull yourself out.

To answer your question, here are my ideas to strengthen your empathetic response even more while simultaneously moving you out of the helicopter parenting zone altogether.

From Helicopter Parenting to Empathy

  • Validate her feelings. In your story Michelle, you give nice examples of how you did this — letting her cry and stay in her feelings, etc.
  • Resist the urge to fix. You write, I resisted the temptation Shift fromDisappointment =-3to tell her the emotions would pass or it didn’t matter or that the part was probably better than she thought, blah, blah, blah. This is cause for celebration! When you’re done partying let’s look at what you describe your fear of the potential bad news that she didn’t get a “good” part. Your feeling of fear fuels your underlying belief that something needs to be fixed. You can do one of two things here, keep your fear AND bite your tongue, which
    you did, or, with the help of a friend, coach or therapist, internally shift your perspective from disappointment = bad to disappointment = opportunity for growth. (I’ll go into this more in my next post). What I’m suggesting is more than a surface shift — that’s why it requires support.
  • Share your own story of disappointment. By sharing a simple one sentence story of a time you didn’t make the team or you weren’t invited to the party, you let your daughter know that she’s not alone and most importantly, that she belongs. (A sense of belonging in family is profoundly impactful to a child’s sense of well-being.) For example, I remember when I longed to be chosen to play the role of Mary in the church nativity, yet I wasn’t picked and I felt terribly sad. One sentence that’s it. I can hear parents ask “Isn’t there more to say than that?!” No — children are self focused, your goal here is to simply let them know you’ve been there — voila.
  • Be present. It’s not what you say that will make a difference, but simply your presence, your ability to be with your child. Ground yourself in what’s most important to you, tuck your phone and other distractions away and like the Beatles so beautifully sang, let it be.
  • Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness strengthens our ability to have boundaries which according to Brené Brown’s research is key to empathy. If we get stuck in the other’s emotion, we don’t actually support that person – boundaries are key to empathy.

One of the many gifts in your story is how fully engaged you are in your daughter’s life.

Thank you Michelle for sharing your story and question, deepening our understanding of empathy. I appreciate and honor your willingness to be vulnerable — it can feel scary to divulge our struggles when we’re “supposed to be” the all-knowing parent!

Are you wanting someone to walk you through a parenting challenge like the one that Michelle shared? If so, visit my schedule to find a time for us to meet via phone or Skype.

I know that parenting is important to you — it’s worth taking time for yourself, so that you can be the parent you want to be, even in your most challenging circumstances.

Take a moment to share in the comment section below how you relate to Michelle’s story and what you want to remember from today’s post.

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

Wanna talk? Schedule a time here.

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So your toddler wants to run your baby over with his tricycle… how to protect your children from each other!

During a parent education evening last week, I rattled on about the importance of encouragement in parenting and shared my favorite slogan, “Children Do Better When They FEEL Better.” Then an arm shot up.

One of the parents, Sarah, looked sincerely puzzled and asked a simple question that got every head in the room nodding:

“Encouragement and Positive Discipline are great when it’s a low stakes situation, but what about when safety is involved? How should I respond to a threat of physical harm from one of my children to the other in a positive way?”

When I asked her to explain her situation, Sarah told the following story (which may be very familiar to anyone with children close in age and remembers, or is going through, the baby/toddler sibling combination):

It was the end of the day, about an hour before my husband got home… typically my roughest time. Gus (3) was zipping around the house on his tricycle when he headed straight for his little brother (6 months), stopping just a hair from Fisher’s little fingers.  I told him not to do that, that he could hurt Fisher and it didn’t feel safe to me.  A minute later, he did the exact same thing and I basically flipped my lid.  I yelled, “STOP,” stormed over to Gus, pried him from the tricycle, and let him cry on the ground as I put the trike outside.  I felt really protective of Fisher and that I needed to stop Gus. I felt awful for yelling and reacting in a physical way because he was so sad afterwards. But how else could I show him that I was in charge?

Sarah’s story highlights the primal nature of being a parent. We’re hard-wired to protect our children from a perceived threat, even if that threat is their sibling. Keeping your children safe is your first priority as a parent and if a quick intervention — sometimes ungraceful or inflated — is urgently needed to protect a baby or younger sibling from harm, you need to do that, and quickly.

But I encouraged Sarah (as I would any parent) to turn from the immediate danger to look for connection and encouragement with the older child instead of punishment. I know this sounds crazy and counter intuitive but here’s what Positive Discipline teaches us:

The most fundamental encouragement you can give your child is letting him or her know they’re significant even when things are not going well.

(Significance here means has value, has meaning, matters to you and to the broader community, etc.)

What does encouragement look like in this situation? How can Sarah communicate that Gus has significance?

Sarah could physically block the trike from Fisher’s path (as it does not appear that Gus intended to stop on his own) and take a deep breath (essential in such a case).

Rather than lifting him off the trike right away, she could gently and firmly lift just Gus’ hands off the handlebars, look into his eyes and say:

Gus, wow, my heFundamental Encouragement Matterart is beating really fast because you really scared me by coming that close to Fisher’s hands. (Pause and breathe.)  I could use a hug right now – could you give me a hug? Let’s bring your brother in, I bet we could all use a hug to feel better.

If this feels impossibly warm and fuzzy in such a potentially dangerous situation, consider this story from Gus’ point of view.

Rather than feel punished and sad (as he clearly did when the trike was chucked outside and he was left crying), Gus might think, “I did something wrong that really scared my mommy. What I do has an impact. I’m important to mommy and I can even help her feel better.”

The most fundamental encouragement you can give your child is letting them know that they have significance, even when they’re misbehaving.

In this scenario, asking for a hug is encouraging – very different than offering a hug because you’re engaging your child in being part of the resolution in an active way.

CHILDREN DO BETTER WHEN THEY FEEL BETTER!  (we all do!)

Even when our children misbehave – if we can take steps to help them feel better, rather than making them feel worse, we are much more likely to encourage the kind of behavior we want to see from them in the future.

4 Steps for changing our response from punishment to encouragement:

  1. Shift your assumptions: Work on moving from my child will learn to behave by being punished to my child will learn to behave by getting the message that he or she matters.

For an example Sarah also shared a story of how she “felt a shift from the tricycle incident” just the day after my presentation. She wrote:

Gus was standing on his stool near the stove where I was getting ready to cook an egg.  He tossed the hot pad that was on the counter onto the hot pan.  I exclaimed surprise and got the pad out.  I told him that was really scary and we absolutely do not throw things on the pan. He didn’t seem to be doing it out of defiance, which probably helped my reaction just be scared and then clear. But it was like we were scared together, learned something, and then moved on. No tears, no drama…so much better. It just gave me a taste of what you were talking about.

  1.    Plan ahead:  We’ve all yelled at and lost it with our kids, but by thinking through possible responses to common challenges ahead of time, we have a greater chance of pausing and consciously responding rather than giving our knee jerk reaction.

For example, I have a son who leaves what I call anonymous messes quite regularly around the house. This is a common challenge that I’ve planned ahead for by deciding on a few ways to respond when I’m next faced with his mess. Just yesterday, I found what looked like spilled detergent on the floor near the washing machine, covered with pillow cases. I suspected he left this mess and rather than simply accuse him and rant AT him for not taking the time to clean up, when I saw him I’d calmly asked a few clarifying questions, had he been doing laundry (yes), did he know about a spill, (why yes he did — this fessing up is progress), what could he do about it now? (This is a challenge for me but staying calm and building cooperation — progress, not perfection — is a huge victory for me and the only way I can do it is by planning for it).

  1.   Assemble your parenting toolkit: Know your game plan by having tools at the front of your mind (Such as, “I need a hug,” asking WHAT & HOW questions like “what’s your idea to solve this problem?”). Sort through the Positive Discipline Tool Cards and pick three you’d like to try.
  1.    Get support: Reach out for professional support. Even if it’s not with me, find someone who can help you weather the shift and put this new approach into action over time. It’s about progress — not perfection!

Regardless of the age of your child, encouragement through connection, in place of punishment is life changing — for both parent and child!

Please share in the comments below simple ways that you can remind your child of their significance (that they matter) today. In doing so, you’re giving us ideas that will encourage us to plan ahead – step 2 above! We’re all in this together 🙂

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

Wanna talk? Schedule a time here.

1

How to Bite Your Tongue all the Way to True Empathy

In my last post, I shared how I missed an opportunity to practice empathy. Today’s story is the unexpected follow-up:

Songbird, my eight year old daughter, was at her cousin’s house.  I texted my mom who was in charge, “When’s a good time for pick up?”

Mom texted back, “one hour.”

Five minutes later I receive another text, “Make that 30 minutes.”  Then another message shot back “NOW.”

I head over to find Songbird curled up on the couch weeping – big sad boo hoo tears rolling down her cheeks.  Mom starts to explain that cousin doesn’t want to share her new modeling clay – I hear a well-known refrain from across the room –

“It’s too special.”

Meanwhile, steady crying from Songbird.

Now comes the tongue biting as I work to keep these thoughts from tumbling out my mouth:

  •      It’s okay, you can put that on your Christmas list.
  •      I’m sure she’ll let you play with it, once she’s had it for a while.
  •      You’re really tired – it’s not a big deal.  Now stop crying.
  •      Now don’t be that way Songbird, you know you can’t get everything you want.

Instead, having recently steeped myself in what empathy is and is not  I wait, refrain from the above garden variety of knee jerk reactions.

Screen Shot Animated Empathy1Then, consciously I say, you look sad.

Songbird:  Yes, I’m really sad!

Me:  It seems like your heart hurts.

Songbird:  Yes, (boo hooo) it hurts a lot.

Me:  I’m sorry sweetie.  Let’s say goodbye and go home.

Songbird:  (Weep weep)  Okay.

Wailing and sobbing continue as we head out to the car – they continue as we drive.

When we arrive home, 10 minutes later, Songbird gets out of the car, singing (makes sense), she skips her way to the door.

All of the usual responses we might use (those I listed above) diminish trust. When we use empathy — in this case, simply acknowledging and naming Songbird’s sadness — we build trust.

Expressing empathy in this situation was simple but not necessarily natural or easy – my bloody tongue is proof!  

Simple, how? – all I did was genuinely acknowledge her emotion – naming it and finding a soft place in myself that has known that feeling too.

Not easy, how?  I’ll put myself out there and say that although I’ve been teaching Positive Discipline classes for 10 years, empathy is a conscious practice, one that I only feel I’ve recently come to more fully understand.

So, today I’ve made a commitment to myself to practice deliberate empathy – and to expect I’ll make mistakes along the way. I’ll comeback around when I’ve missed the mark and attempt connection through empathy again and again.

According to the work of Theresa Wiseman and Kristin Neff, these five attributes of empathy are key.  (You can see the animated video depicting these attributes, narrated by Brené Brown, by clicking the photo above.)

In this list, I’ve included examples of:

1.  How I practiced this attribute in my story and

2.  Common responses that act as barriers to empathy.

  • Staying out of judgment:

    1. Keeping my mouth closed about any internal evaluation I’m making as opposed to saying,
    2. “I don’t know why your cousin hasn’t learned how to share yet – at least you’re a good girl.”
  •   Taking the other person’s perspective.  What’s that experience like for you?

    1.   “You look like your heart hurts.” instead of…
    2.    “Why are you making it such a big deal?  Buck up and move on!”
  •    Understanding the emotion you’re hearing.  How can I touch within myself something that feels like what my child may be feeling? Check in for clarity by asking questions.

    1.    “You seem really sad.” as opposed to…
    2.    “You really shouldn’t feel that way – you can put modeling clay on your Christmas list.”
  • Communicating our understanding about the emotion. (This seems like overkill for this example, but you might say…

    1. “Oh I know I feel sad when I don’t get to explore something I’m really curious about” as opposed to…
    2. Not understanding that emotion… “It’s really aggravating when people don’t share.”
  •    Practicing mindfulness.:  Rather than pushing away an emotion because it’s uncomfortable, feel it and move through it.  If we get stuck in the emotion we don’t actually support the other person– boundaries are key to empathy.

    1.    “Your heart really hurts.”
    2.    “It’s very upsetting that your cousin won’t share with you.  I’m pissed about it and will talk to her mom as soon as I can.”

Can you feel how the #2 responses edge out the space needed for empathy?  Kids need a safe space to have their feelings so they can move through them and eventually let them go.

Thank you for joining me in exploring the complex nature of empathy.

The two big takeaways:

  1. Empathy takes conscious awareness – it isn’t natural, especially with your loved one.

  2. Empathy is not about perfection but rather a practice that you can come back to again and again – it takes being open to being vulnerable to do it.

Take a moment to share your empathy hit or miss in the comments below.

Wanna dig deep into empathy and other powerful tools?  Contact me for one on one coaching!

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

 

 

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When Empathy Goes Out The Window

IMG_0312Until recently I thought I was really good at empathy. This was something I didn’t need to work at – heck, it came naturally! If someone was feeling pain, I was right there with them. My challenge as a young woman working in social work was to turn down my empathy so that I could be of use and make it through the day.

What I’ve become aware of through understanding and playing around with Brené Browns explanation of empathy, is that for me to be genuinely empathetic, particularly with those I’m closest to, I need to be conscious and act against my “natural” reaction to their pain.

Here’s a story from last week to illustrate. My daughter – singing bird – has been through a rough patch this fall which began with her breaking her arm. She got a cast and after two days of the weepies, was up and running. Then a week or so later I got a call from her school informing me she’d taken a bad fall, her body colliding with the concrete playground. Singing bird doesn’t cry easily so when I arrived at the school office to find her in a wimpering ball, I knew it was bad.

What I’d advise a client or friend to do in this situation:  When you get your daughter home, ice pack in hand, find a quiet comfortable place where you can simply be together. Create a nest of coziness. Give your child a chance to feel all that she’s been holding in at school, her fear, her pain, her embarrassment…. Without expectations simply spend time with her. By giving her a chance to experience her emotions you’re allowing an important opportunity for her to heal, emotionally and physically. What you’ll be providing is a gift because so often we aren’t permitted our feelings. We’re told, through words and/or actions, to act appropriately. Translation:  don’t express feelings of sadness, anger, disappointment, jealousy and even pain.

What I did: When we got home, I helped her out of the car and made her comfy on the couch. I got an ice pack for her head, band aides for her hip, some pain medication and a tasty melt in your mouth homeopathic remedy too. To make sure all of her senses were “soothed”, I found a television show for her to watch to further distract her from her feelings – I mean to make her feel better – heck isn’t it the same thing?

Even as I write this I’m cringing. I missed a rich opportunity to connect with her and more importantly to simply be with her – keep her company through a hard and healing time. Empathy. I avoided it. No doubt, it felt instinctual to go into fix it mode – to make her all better – to put the pain behind her.

Later that afternoon it dawned on me what I’d done. I called my sister and described the incident and how I’d missed a real opportunity for empathy. She thanked me because she was taking her daughter to the dentist for multiple tooth extraction the next day and was encouraged by the reminder.

We don’t have to fix pain or make it go away and it’s actually better if we can find a place within ourselves that allows us to be present.

(If you haven’t seen it, this short animated piece, narrated by Brené Brown is worth watching!)

What does it take for YOU to BE WITH your child when they’re in discomfort – physical or emotional? Please share in the comment section below!

For me, I know that sharing my story with you will help raise my awareness so that when my next empathy opportunity comes, and I know it will, I’ll BE there.  Thanks for reading!

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

Wanna talk? Schedule a time here.

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Your Child Doesn’t Need a Standing Ovation: How to use encouragement to instill true confidence in your child

Encouragement SucculentMy neighbor planted identical shrubs on either side of the walk up to her front door.

The one on the left looked perky while the one on the right was drooping and beginning to wither, turning from deep purple to brown.

I’m not a green thumb but when she told me her watering strategy, I had some idea of what was going on.

Here’s what had just gone down at our house. My 8 year old Sweet Pea and I planted lettuce, carrots and parsley seeds in our kitchen window box. With the water on very low, we moistened the soil consistently for 5 minutes everyday for 3 weeks. Then we stopped.

Although we continued to admire our now growing seedlings, we didn’t water them for almost two weeks.

Once we started watering again the liquid pooled on top of the now crusty soil. It collected and ran down the sides of the box, away from the target to the ground below. Water wasn’t moistening our precious seedlings.

What I learned from this experience is that water absorbs into moist soil MUCH more readily then in does in dry.

If you’re a gardener you’re probably saying duh!

Rudolf Dreikurs, one of the founders of Positive Discipline wrote, “Each child needs continuous encouragement just as a plant needs water.”

The quality of effective encouragement is like effective watering – the regular trickle seeps in with steady nourishment. In contrast, the blast of a fire hose makes everything look and feel wet in a burst, but doesn’t penetrate the soil to reach the roots.

Like the freshly planted withering shrub, children who are given the standing ovation, bask in momentary glory, but don’t get the benefit of the deep root watering.

On the other hand, the child who’s given small doses of water on a consistent basis, may not feel the big swells of pride, or show the glistening drops on their leaves. The encouragement they receive may be quiet and not even perceived by anyone other than the child.

Living in moist soil, the child continually feels it’s steady condition as part of her foundation. No run-off effect.

Here are some real life parenting examples:

Phrases that spray the surface (Praise)

  • You are SO smart – I’m so proud that you got an A!
  • You’re teacher just doesn’t get how smart you are – you really need a more challenging environment.
  • Wow – you played so much better than all the other kids out there on the field – way to go!
  • Everything you make is so beautiful – you are a true artist!

Results of Praise:

  1. A child may look for continual praise and approval as their source of motivation. The approval junkie syndrome – “What do you think of my picture?”
  2. A child may be quick to give up if they don’t think they’ll succeed easily.
  3. Sibling relationships are difficult because praise breeds better than/worse than feelings.

Phrases that offer a slow trickle (Encouragement)

  • You studied long and hard for that test. You must feel proud of yourself. (Effort is acknowledged and seen as positive).*
  • I have a strong feeling that you’ll be able to figure this out for yourself. (Having faith in)
  • You spent so much time on your painting. What do you like best about it? (Asking a question looking for self reflection and acknowledging effort)
  • I can see you’re disappointed that your team lost. (Energetic encouragement – keeping company through hard feelings)

Results of Encouragement:

  1. A child is more likely to focus on internally driven tasks.
  2. A child is more likely to persist at difficult tasks because the risk of failure is not an issue.
  3. Sibling relationships potentially more harmonious.

To get a visceral sense of the distinction between these lists put yourself on the receiving end of the statements below.

You’re amazingly smart – I’m so proud that you got an A!

Margie, you’re teacher just doesn’t get how smart you are – you really need a more challenging environment.

Wow John, you played so much better than all the other kids out there on the field – way to go!

Everything you make is so beautiful Stacy – you are a true artist!

What’s it feel like for you? For me it feels good – really good. And when I sit for a minute, I feel a bit uneasy, nervous even.

Now do the same for the encouragement.

You studied long and hard for that test Victoria. You must feel proud of yourself. (Effort is acknowledged and seen as positive).

I have a strong feeling that you’ll be able to figure this out for yourself. (Having faith in)

You spent so much time on your painting. What do you like best about it Justin? (Asking a question encouraging self reflection)

Kerry, I can see you’re disappointed that your team lost. (Energetic encouragement – keeping company through hard feelings)

How do you feel now?

If you’re like me, there’s no jolt this time around but you feel deep down good. Solid. Connected.

Here are 4 steps to help you change from praise to encouragement:

  1. Notice what words you commonly use to acknowledge your child
  2. Place sticky notes in key places (bathroom mirror, car dash) with encouragement phrases you like (Questions beginning with what and how, “I notice…”, “I have faith…,” eye contact, etc.
  3. Be gentle with yourself as you integrate new language, know that it will take time and will make a difference.
  4. Explore your own water source. Where is it and how do you tap into it? Do you need to find more sources? Email me with what you discover and let me know if you would like more support from me.

Sure, I slip back into praise sometimes but I keep in mind Jane Nelsen’s wise words – Praise is like junk food, too much of it will make you sick so dole is out sparingly.

To see more examples, check out this article in the New York Times Magazine.

Much of this post is based on research by Carol Dweck and published in Mindset.

My neighbors’ shrub is doing much better. Is there an area in your garden that needs a steady trickle?

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

Wanna talk? Schedule a time here.

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Why Susan Sarandon has a Hold on Me

Years ago I read an interview with Susan Sarandon.

When asked if she missed the thrill of working in between jobs she said no, there’s nothing I’d rather do than spend time with my childrenThey’re the most fascinating people I know.

Smile

Photo credit: Incase

Can’t you just hear her saying that?

Although I read them years ago, her words (how I remember them) continue to cycle through my memory and with them comes more than a pang of inadequacy. She’s clearly an attentive, interested mother who’s produced spellbinding people to boot!

Don’t get me wrong. I couldn’t love my children more than I do – they are kind, cool, quirky, creative… downright good people.

Nonetheless, the image of the hip, engaged Sarandon mama has stuck with me. I don’t measure up. I’m not good enough.

When my second son was six, a friend he affectionately called his “God Brother,” invited him to camp on the beach in Hawaii for 10 days!

Sure we hesitated, it seemed dicey to have our child a stones’ throw from the ocean and so far away from us. But we trusted the parents, he was eager to go and we wanted to encourage his openness.

I was thrilled.

When we spoke with him on the phone he enthusiastically cheered that he was having the time of his life (his exact words).

Am I a good mother? How is it that I enjoy my little one being so far away – for so long?

Susan Sarandon has become a symbol for me – beyond Bull Durham and Thelma and Louise – she’s the uber interested mama who prefers the company of her children over her friends and her cool tribe of actor homies.

My fantasy continues… when Susan goes out to dinner with her kids, there’s no scuffle over devices because each family member is wrapped in titillating conversation or simply basking in each other’s company. Her kids prefer the company of their mom to friends (okay, Lisa now you’re just being silly).

Who’s your version of Susan Sarandon?

Is there someone you measure yourself against? Someone you use to judge yourself?

Maybe it’s your neighbor Jane whose kids always say thank you, their pearly whites shining through their gorgeous smiles.

Maybe it’s your cousin, the preschool teacher whose children abhor television and sugar and spend their days tending animals and making toys from scraps they find in the woods.

If you’re like me, you hold tightly to an idealized version of someone else as evidence to support an underlying angst that you’re not a good enough parent.

That sense of not enough pulls you away from the present moment.

I’ve no doubt that the mere act of becoming aware of your version of Susan Sarandon will go a long way to tame it. But what else can you do?

Remember my New Year’s invitation back in January? Some of you took me up on it and MANY of you wrote to say you thought it was a good idea.

Good ideas need action.

What’s one thing you LOVE about yourself as a parent?

What’s your specialty – reading bedtime stories? Being there for the neighborhood kids? Lightening up a tense moment with a perfectly timed joke?

Imagine if you spent a fraction of the time you do berating yourself for not living up to your Susan Sarandon, in taking stock of your positive qualities.

How would you feel? What might change?

Share right here and now: One thing, big or tiny that you do well as a parent. You deserve to take a moment to celebrate what works.

For kicks, share what it is about your ideal that “gets” you. That should provide some fun reading in the comments!

(If the website is getting in your way – send me an email – it can be one sentence or even one word!)

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

Wanna talk? Schedule a time here.

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Mom survives serious teen slob years and lives to tell the tale!

Amy Walker's messy teenDoes your pushing, coaxing and forcing your teen to clean up after herself fall on deaf ears?

When my son leaves a slue messes in his wake it can be downright maddening!

When you spill milk, wipe up after yourself, who do you thinks going to do it? What’s the dirty laundry doing on the floor? It’s no wonder you can’t find any clean socks, your dirty ones are scattered throughout the house!

Unfortunately these “helpful reminders” do little to change his behavior.

My nagging is driven by two fears…

  1. the fear that this kid will grow into an unemployed, slovenly 40 year old,
  2. the fear that I’m raising an entitled kid who thinks, “why should I look for my socks when magically another pair will appear in my drawer?

In today’s story, Tammy, school principal, parenting educator, and parent, shares what she learned as a result of her battles with her perennially messy daughter.

MessyTeenRoomTammy’s story:

My daughter Natasha has no issue with living in a messy room.

However, I do, so we made an agreement, years ago, that Sunday would be her cleanup day.

I found myself getting upset and refusing to enter her untidy room to say goodnight or even hangout with her.

She’d say, Mom, I’m internally organized so it doesn’t bother me to be a mess externally.

I told her it bothers me, and the rest of the family, so we need a plan to address the group’s desire for organization.

For the past four years, I’d go into Natasha’s room on Sunday mornings and ask her, what’s your plan for cleaning your room today?

Her response was usually, I’ll get to it eventually, or I’m on it. But there’d be no signs of movement.

On a good day I’d say something like, would you like me to help you get started? or I have faith in you to get it done.

She’d respond, I like doing it myself, or thanks for believing in me Mom. Five hours later she’d still be cleaning her room – looking pretty miserable.

On these so called “good” days while I wasn’t effective at motivating her, I wasn’t pushing her away.

On other days – let’s call them the bad days – I’d go into my mommy tirade and say things like, “how can you live in this pigsty?” “It’s disgusting in here!”

Here’s why her messy room was painful for our entire family.

My negative energy put the entire family on edge – they’d slink away into their own worlds for fear of crossing paths with my anger.

The unspoken truth was that my tornado of frustration and anger was far worse then her the physical mess.

One day it struck me that I was the one who needed to change.  I couldn’t MAKE her do anything so I backed off as best I could.

Then it happened – one Sunday morning was different. She woke up, had breakfast, cleaned and organized her room in an hour and had the rest of the day to read, play, do homework, paint pumpkins, go with me to the market, etc. I hadn’t said a word to her because by the time I peeked into her room, she was already in motion.

It dawned on me that this is how growth happens – for me it was a slow process – for her it seemed to happen overnight!

First what changed was me and what followed was a chance for Natasha to grow, at her own pace. I would like to think that our positive communication, over the years, those good days, helped to motivate her to finally clean her room on her own but I’ll never know for sure.

Whatever clicked for Natasha wasn’t as important as what clicked for me: I can’t “make her” do anything, but I can certainly encourage her and maintain a respectful way of communicating while she learns. It’s the process in which she learned how to care for her own things that mattered not the urgency for her to learn on my time line.

Back on that day when I saw her room was clean, I was shocked to say the least but tried to play it cool. I looked at her with a knowing, loving smile and said, “I notice you got your room clean today…how’s it feel?”

She looked so proud of herself and said simply, “If feels great!”


When you find yourself freaking out that your teen is a slob and fear they’ll still be one at 64, remember Tammy’s story. Being human, Tammy reacted in anger sometimes AND sometimes she was able, through self-awareness, to step back.

To me, it’s a testament to having faith in our kids.

There’s no magic fairy dust to MAKE them adopt your priorities. Your most powerful tool is CONNECTION.

Recommendations to foster and maintain your connection with your teen:

  1. Treat her with respect and when you don’t feel respected – as calmly as you can let her know you will speak with her at another time when she can be respectful – leave the room to give yourself breathing room.
  2. Apologize when you’re off your game, modeling that even you make mistakes so she can more readily admit and take responsibility for her mistakes.
  3. Take opportunities to connect – even when it feels inconvenient.
  4. Use light humor to keep power struggles at bay.

Recommendations to survive teen slob years:

  1. Create boundaries so that the mess is confined to your teens room.
  2. Allow nature to take it’s course – don’t rescue her when items are lost, dirty, etc.
  3. Take time to train your adolescent to do her own laundry – this way her entire clothing cycle is her responsibility and even better, you can have empathy when her favorite shirt is dirty.
  4. Remember that your child has different priorities than you do and that that is a good thing!

When you do your best to model what you value; respect, connection, and in this case, tidiness and communication – you’ll more likely see these qualities bloom, in their own way and time, in your developing adolescent.

What power struggle are you currently having? Share in the comment section below what you learned here that will support you.

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

Wanna talk? Schedule a time here.

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