Friday, December 27, 2013

Keeping Your Cool When Kids Lose Theirs

When kids are upset it’s easy for us to get upset as well.   Yet, it is exactly in these moments that we most need to be in charge so we can offer balance and calm.   It’s not an easy task.   In fact, it’s very hard.   It requires shifting our own upset state so we help our kids get back in control.  This is probably one of the most important things we do for our kids.   They rely on us to be in control when they’re out of control.  I heard someone mention a saying that goes something like this: “kids need our love when they’re the most unlovable.”   It seems so true.   Yet it’s also when we might feel less like helping them.   It taxes our patience and requires us to not act out in anger or frustration.  In fact, it asks us to be at our best, i.e., to stay grounded and calm.  

Think of a time when you’ve been overwrought.  Then remember who helped you, and how comforting it was to have them stay supportive and ride out your emotional storm with you.    Being that loving supportive person is the best way for us to help our children restore their sense of balance.  It requires, though, a special watchfulness over our own levels of upset and  to be able to move into a more positive space.   To facilitate this shift you’ll need to be conscious of what’s happening to you in your body, your emotions and your thoughts.  Here are some techniques I’ve used in my EMDR ( Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) practice that you might find helpful.   

Notice your body

How do you know you’re getting ramped up?   What happens in your body?   Do you feel a knot in your stomach?   Do you feel tightness in your neck and shoulders? Does your voice get shrill?   Learn your body’s unique signs of growing tension.    Take a moment to breathe deeply and slow down.   Consider using the Lightstream Technique to restore calm to your body.  Imagine a healing light seeping through the top of your head.   This light can be whatever color you associate with healing.  Let the light slowly move through your body, starting at your head and going down to your toes.   Imagine this light melting all your tension and relaxing your muscles.  Let the light direct itself to wherever you still have tightness. Imagine this light continuing to expand and calm your entire body.   Continue to breathe in calm, healing light, and to exhale tension.  Stay with this image until you are comfortable and your body is at ease.  

Notice your emotions

What emotions are you feeling?   Are you angry?   Is your authority being challenged?   Are you about to engage in a power struggle?   Are you sad and feeling defeated?   Are you feeling unloved and taken advantage of?   Just give yourself a moment to realize what you’re feeling.   Whatever the emotion, it’s okay; we all get pushed to the edge sometimes, which can cause us to feel negative emotions.   Maybe the Spiral Technique can help you shift the emotion.   Imagine the emotion you’re feeling as energy.   If this emotion were a spiral of energy, which direction would it be going, clockwise or counterclockwise?   In your mind’s eye watch this energy moving; then see if you can gently change the direction of the spiral.  Notice if you feel the negative energy dissipating.  If one direction doesn’t work, try the other one.

Notice your thinking

Are you thinking your children are doing this on purpose to annoy you?   Are you blaming them?  Do you think they should be able to handle this on their own?  Do you think they’re being childish, overly emotional, or defiant?   Being able to notice your negative thoughts will help you see that something’s out of balance.   Try guided imagery to gain perspective.   Use the Safe Place Technique.  Think of a calm scene where you are happy and peaceful.   Visualize the scene in as much detail as you can remember.   Bring up the sensations that go with that place.   Notice any colors, smells, and anything else that’s pleasant.  Notice how you’re feeling and identify a single word that would go along with this feeling.   Repeat the word while you imagine the scene and allow yourself to merge with the scene.   

Notice when you start to feel calmer and there’s a shift in your energy.

Being able to be the adult in charge means finding a way to calm your body, shift to more compassionate feelings and engage in more positive thoughts.   Children do push the limits; but it’s important to remember that they are also developmentally driven to explore and test their power.   They also have less control over their emotions, and a less developed brain to think things through.  They need you to help them manage their emotions, keep perspective and restore calm.  Most importantly they need your loving presence and calm authority.  

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Help Kids Manage Frustrations

When we’re young we have no patience; we are governed by our impulses. How, then, do we learn to tame our impulses and develop self control? When a small child reaches his hand toward fire, an adult yells and prevents it. When he wants to poke a stick into an electric socket, someone stops him. A toddler sees his friend’s shinny red truck and grabs it. It’s appealing and he wants it. His friend yells no or an adult stops him, but his natural exploring instinct pushes him. He doesn’t like being denied. Yet, it is these small incidents of being stopped by external forces that help us learn to stop ourselves.  

We slowly learn ways to tolerate this disruption of our desire.  In his book Emotional Intelligence, Dan Goleman, says, “There is perhaps no psychological skill more fundamental, than resisting impulse.  It is the root of all emotional self control, since all emotions, by their very nature lead to one or another impulse to act.  The root meaning of the word emotion, remember is “to move …” Goleman then talks about a study done at Stanford University in the 60’s: the marshmallow challenge. In the challenge, a group of four year olds are given two choices.  If they can wait while the experimenter runs an errand they can have two marshmallows; if they can’t wait they can only have one, which they can have immediately. Some four year olds were able to wait the 15 to 20 minutes the experimenter was out of the room.  They chose a variety of strategies to calm and distract themselves.  They turned their chairs around or covered their eyes to avoid seeing the tempting marshmallow; they sang, played games with their hands and feet and even tried to sleep.  The other more impulsive four year olds grabbed the marshmallow within seconds of the experimenter’s departure.   

The amount of impulse control a child exhibited during this marshmallow challenge turned out to predict how well these kids were doing 14 years later. The kids who exercised strategies to successfully distract themselves were more popular with their peers, had less trouble delaying gratification and scored far higher on achievement tests than the “grabbers.” Since there are so many benefits to learning to not be “grabbers” how do we help our children learn this skill? 

Name the Emotion

Sometimes when children are stressed, they won’t know what emotion they’re feeling. Often children have vague categories of good, bad, or so-so.  You can help them to be more discriminating and able to name what they’re feeling. You can say: “I see you’re angry about having to share some of your toys,” or “ I see you’re sad because you don’t think I’ve understood you.  Can we try again?   I’d really like to know what you’re feeling right now.”  Expressing feelings is one way to dissipate stress.  Research has shown that just naming a feeling helps us feel calmer.  

Offer Encouragement

It is helpful for parents to notice their children’s attempts at managing frustrations and offer encouraging words. When a child is about to give up on something, you can say: “It’s hard, but you can do it.”   Or, when you know an unpleasant chore is being done without a lot of fuss you can say, “You really didn’t want to do that, but you did it anyway.  Way to go!” It helps children to believe in themselves and in their ability to persevere when we see their effort.  
Allow Manageable Experiences of Frustration

Don’t try to protect your children from all frustration. It is the experience of small doses of frustration that build character and inner strength. The old rule of  “not too much and not too little” applies here.  When we protect children from all frustration we rob them of the challenge to become more competent in managing their own stress. We also don’t want them to manage frustrations that are truly beyond their developmental ability. This leads not only to frustrations, but to an internal belief system that they are not competent. 

Life is full of frustrations like the marshmallow test. We need to help our children face these ordinary life disappointments and help them develop emotional flexibility. This fundamental ability to tolerate frustration once learned will help them move from upset to calm with increased ease, self control and self awareness.