being alone in your family
The term, “family” by definition indicates a group of people who are special to each other, make time for each other, and support each other. In a traditional nuclear family, there is an adult couple, mom and dad, and their children, who are siblings to each other. Typically, the adults have authority and are responsible for the care of the family. Such families live together and interact with each other daily, with direction from the adults, helping out, engaging in all kinds of interaction.
Beyond a traditional nuclear family, there are blended families and there is extended family. Lots of combinations with the common factor of “blood relations” and “related by marriage.” In our emerging culture, there are also groups of people who bond together by circumstance and preference and function as a family unit. Typically, these groups are not blood related, and often are all similar in age, with a common bond of identity.
Whether traditional or emerging, it seems unlikely, or even impossible to be alone in a family, but is it?
“Lucas Thomas Johnson,” Mom shouted up the stairs at noon. Luke knew from experience that he was in trouble when his mom called her 15 year old by his full name. “Do you know what time it is? You’ve slept the whole morning away. Come on, boy, get up and get moving.”
Luke grumbled and rolled over in bed. Never a morning person, now that it was summer and school was out, he reveled in staying up late and sleeping late.
Mom climbed the stairs, strode to her son’s bedroom door and rapped on it urgently.
“Maaa, it’s too early,” her son bemoaned. “Leave me alone.”
If Luke believes that he has nothing to get up for, mom has a tough sell to get him up just to keep her company, or because she says so. People, usually teens, are alone in a family either because they want to be, don’t want to face the world, or because they are allowed to be. Such aloneness can, however, be a mood or a symptom. In my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, I encourage folks to consider their child’s behavior to be a result of a mood if it lingers less than 6 weeks. More than 6 weeks? It might be a symptom.
Choosing to be alone in your family can be a symptom of stress, anxiety, or depression. When a child has completed a huge task, such as a major chore or an assigned school task, paper, or test, he may just want to chill out for a while. When you see this happening, be curious. Use “check-in” communication to touch base. “Hey, bud, everything okay?” If your curiosity is satisfied, give him a reasonable time frame to re-join the family.
If your check-in leads to substantive concern, use your active listening to draw your child out. When his emotional fever subsides, ask permission to share some thoughts with him. It’s then that you can help him manage his stress without holing up.
With depression, activity is an antidote. Help him choose things to do with the family or with his friends. When he says he doesn’t feel like participating, encourage his using what I call “the as-if principle.” That is, when you don’t feel like doing something that, in your heart, you know is helpful for you to do, then act as if you feel like doing it. After you’ve started the activity, it becomes self-reinforcing and you end up doing it, to your benefit.
With anxiety, help him see what is beyond his control and that over which he has control. Help him find strategies to exercise that control. Being alone happens, but in your family, use your bonds to help your child feel supported, loved, and not alone.
Every school-aged child’s worst nightmare is that of being bullied. Not only are the physical and emotional impacts horrific, but the humiliation and powerlessness are profound. How can you be there for your child who may be a victim of bullying?
“Hey Sweetheart,” Lauren cheerfully greeted her 10 year old daughter as she came in from school, “How was school today?”
“Leave me alone. Nobody cares,” Grace huffed as she stomped by her mom and ran upstairs to her bedroom. Putting her dish towel down, Lauren thought, uh oh, here we go. She trailed her daughter up the stairs.
“Aw, honey, what happened?” Grace burst into tears. Through her sobs she told her mom how Joey cornered her on the playground at recess. When she told him to leave her alone, he pushed her and called her a cuss word and a baby. Lauren active listened Grace’s feelings, hugged her, and helped her calm down.
“Did you tell your teacher about this?”
“Yes, right after recess. She ignored me and told me to get in my seat, that class was about to start.”
I hope you haven’t experienced this scenario with your child. Unfortunately, such is all too common. Even with schools adopting anti-bullying policies, they are often not followed nor enforced. What to do.
First, good for Lauren for giving Grace time to talk it out, to active listen her feelings, without adding her two cents. Calming your child and being there for her are your first priorities.
Second, what’s with the teacher’s response? Clearly she did not take Grace’s words seriously. She was more focused on getting the class back to schoolwork---at Grace’s expense.
Generally, bullies feel bigger and stronger than their victims. They tend to isolate victims from the group and intimidate by words and actions outside of earshot of others. In extreme examples, there might be extortion of lunch money or demanded servitude, like doing the bully’s homework for him.
Male bullies are more often physical, while female bullies are more emotional in their antagonism, although either can be both. And so, more female bullies use the internet to harass and demean others. Such cyberbullying is a negative outcome of our age of technology.
Male or female, physical, emotional, or cyber, all bullies have low self-esteem, feelings of inferiority, and are often victims of bullying themselves in an abusive family setting and feel left out of peer groups. Gang bullies, almost always male, have a primary, a sidekick, and 2-3 hangers on.
As the parents, we are all prone to jump into action to defend our child. Please…take a breath and get all the details, while active listening and helping your child calm down. Children under 10 will probably be relieved that you take them seriously and are going to take care of it for them. Children older than 10 may see your involvement as intruding, potentially further embarrassing for them, and leading to more difficulty for them at school.
Whatever your child’s age, when they are talked out and calmed, simply comment, “You know, sweetheart, I have some ideas about how we can nip this in the bud. Do you want to hear them?” With their consent, add, “If I were to get involved and come to your defense, this is what I would do.” Explain and get feedback, “What do you think?”
When your child is a victim of bullying, brainstorm how they can keep it from happening again. Set boundaries. Stay within your group of friends. Change the context by becoming a positive influence on the bully. Tell teachers and authorities in private settings with a set of commitments from them and subsequent feedback.
With older children, help them develop an effective plan. Note, fighting the bully is probably not a good option because of joint, multiple consequences. When your pre-teen/teen feels empowered and committed to following through on the plan, set a review meeting to de-brief and reinforce positive outcomes. Make sure he knows you have his back if he wants your direct help.
Sometimes dealing with bullying is as hard for you as it is for your child. Use your active listening, joint problem-solving, and relational parenting to help him through his trauma/crisis.
When you feel distant, disconnected from your spouse, partner, or child, consider practicing emotional intimacy. It’s the glue of healthy relationships.
“Go away! Leave me alone,” Brad shouted at his mom, as he slammed his bedroom door. At 14, he was moody, rebellious, distant, and disconnected from the family, mom in particular.
Ellen, Brad’s mom, was a great mom. She made time for her three kids. She was Little League team mom for Andy, her 10 year old. Little Gracie, age 5, was Ellen’s little princess who followed her everywhere. The oldest in her growing up family, she babysat her siblings, got great grades in school, and was recruited to college on a softball scholarship.
Mom made her way to Brad’s door and gently rapped on it. “Sweetheart, it’s your mom,” she softly cooed.
“Duh. Who else would it be?” Brad rebuked.
Mom swallowed and breathed out her urge to nail her son for being disrespectful. “May I please come in?”
Brad’s silence seemed deafening. After waiting patiently for what felt forever, Ellen exhaled with relief when she noticed the bedroom door hesitatingly open.
“Just talk, or listen. Nothing else,” Ellen hesitated before being invited into her son’s bedroom.
Using her best active listening skills, Ellen noticed her son’s emotional fever coming down. She concluded, “Wow. That’s a lot on your plate. Been there, done that.”
Brad perked up, curious as to what his mom meant. Ellen shared with her son that people see her as the star student/athlete from high school and college and the got-it-together mom and community activist now. What her son didn’t know was just how hard middle school had been for her back in the day.
Having his full attention now, Mom launched into her middle school experiences of being bullied, having few friends, and gravitating toward the “emo/grunge” crowd just to fit in by not fitting in. She pulled up a photo that she had transferred to her phone as a reminder, showing her with shoulder length blue/purple/pink hair and flashing a “peace” sign.
Brad’s jaw dropped in response. Having gotten his full attention, Ellen then suggested, “I’ve got some thoughts about your current train wreck of a life. Want to hear them?”
Ellen’s share with her son describes the connect of emotional intimacy. It was deep, personal, and unexpected. I’ve developed a formula to describe the concept of emotional intimacy:
EI = R + V Emotional Intimacy develops by taking Risks and allowing
T yourself to be Vulnerable with another, over Time.
Following this formula allows you to be closer, more credible, and more complete and real with your spouse, partner, or child. Where you see a disconnect in your relationships, share something relevant that you would not ordinarily share. Open up your understanding, with feeling. It will bring you closer together. Emotional intimacy is the glue of healthy relationships.
Are You the Good Parent?
Why is it that our kids tend to see us as either the good parent or the bad parent? And what does that mean anyway? You know, all kids at one time or another, ask each parent separately, “Which one of us do you like the best?” Or, “Do you love me more than Joey?” Most parents respond some variation of, “I love you all the same.” Really? How does that effect your parenting? Are you the good parent or the bad parent?
Five year old Mandy sulked in her time-out chair in the corner of the kitchen. Mama had put her there after she had thrown a tantrum, stomping her foot and declaring with attitude, “you don’t love me anymore.” All of this because she had gone into the pantry for cookies even though Mama had told her no and was busy making supper.
Mandy’s daddy came into the kitchen, having just gotten home from a hard day at work. Mandy squealed in delight, from her time-out chair, as her daddy pecked her mama on the cheek. Before the parents could talk about the day’s events, Mandy bounded out of her chair toward her daddy, who scooped her up and whirled her around as she giggled.
“Oh no you don’t,” cautioned her mama to her daddy. “Mandy’s in time out for now. She hasn’t talked to me yet about why she’s there, and she can’t get up until she has settled down and we talk about it.”
“But I just got home and haven’t seen my baby girl all day,” her daddy protested. “Can’t Mandy just go back to time-out after we play a bit?”
This scenario is a set-up for daddy to come off as the good parent and mama to be the bad parent. When these roles are consistent and secured, there’s trouble both for the marriage and for the family. As parents, you need to back each other up on matters of discipline. This avoids kids manipulating one parent against the other. You also need to find one-on-one fun time with each of your children, when there is no impending problem. You may connect with one child more than with another, but your time with each needs to be approximately equal. Good or bad parent? Each of you needs to embrace both roles at given times. It’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and. Then the marriage is secure and the children grow up “in the ways of the Lord…” (Proverbs 22:6).
Robert came crashing through the kitchen door and ran through to the family room, where his mom was watching TV while folding laundry.
“Mama, can I go with Adam to the skateboard park? A bunch of us are meeting up there.”
Jodie stopped her folding, paused, and said, “Nope.”
“What? Why not? We won’t be gone long. Adam’s mom can take us. Pleeease,” he begged.
“Robert, I don’t like Adam, and his mom has a sketchy past before she was married. Find someone else to play with.”
“Aww, man, you never let me do anything,” Robert groused before turning on his heel and slamming the door as he stomped outside.
Good parenting is about making good choices. Jodie’s choice was hers to make, but was it a good one? an informed one? Likely not. Had she met Adam? Had she talked to his mom recently? Robert was basically a good kid, good grades, no outstanding warrants (lol). So why did she shut his request down?
Obviously, Jodie was trying to protect her son from possible harm, but at what cost? She’ll likely get the silent treatment from her son for a while. Jodie chose power over relationship with Robert, at least this time.
Kids often try to unconsciously manipulate their parents by coming up with urgent requests at the last moment. Jodie’s first bad choice was responding directly to her son’s request at all. She would have promoted a teachable moment and gotten more information on which to respond by saying something like, “Hold on, son. Take a breath. Give me some details so I can make a good decision.”
She then could have guided Adam through rational decision-making, where he might change his behavior or at least be more informed about the request he was making. Jodie’s not liking Adam at all is really not a part of the equation. Friendships are a human right, not a parental right. Choosing your child’s friends can lead to emotional distance from your child and subterfuge, where he ends up going behind your back. Helping your child make wise decisions, and then being there to catch him if/when he falls, is effective parenting.
My daughter had such a friendship dilemma when she was a teen. After our talking through her needs and feelings about this girl, I told her that she could have a positive influence over her friend, but, the friend could have a negative influence over her. Rachel tested the waters, but the friendship was short-lived.
Can you choose your child’s friends? No, not without risk you your relationship with your child. You can influence his choices by active listening and giving him wise counsel. The end result is a teachable moment from which you both benefit.
Space---The Teen Frontier
Okay, I admit it. I’m a Star Trek nut. Never had the series theme song as my ringtone, but I do like the lead-in…Space, the final frontier. For teens, having space and learning how to navigate it well, is their final frontier, on the boundary between adolescence and adulthood.
At 16, Alan was, well, Alan. He is tall, lanky, not particularly social nor athletic. He’s a computer gamer and he spends a lot of time in his bedroom watching YouTube videos and playing RPG’s with his friends. His role-playing friends are on-line. Each has the others back in the war games they play. Alan has only one friend in real life, his next door neighbor, Tommy, and they’ve known each other since they moved into the neighborhood when Tommy was 3 years old.
Alan is a B/C student, doing well in computer, math, and technology classes at school, not so well in English and history classes. His thumbs fly when he is texting, of course using the obligatory texting, emoji-laden short hand, but it is hard for him to turn in essay questions, book reports, or even stories that capture his imagination and gaming expertise. His teachers have tried everything to help motivate Alan to succeed in school.
So, the million dollar question. Is Alan’s story normal? Typical for his age group? As his parent, how do you check this out? How do you help him navigate to adulthood and successful, responsible, independent living?
Alan certainly wants his space, his own cocoon in his room. That, in and of itself is normal. Teens do these kinds of things on their journey of finding themselves. Establishing an individual identity is the developmental goal of adolescence. However, we all, also by nature, are social animals. Most folks have 1 or 2 best friends, with whom each is the other’s confidante, and a social network of 6 to 8 people, 2 or 4 couples as adults, with whom they frequently hang out.
To help the Alans of the world navigate adolescence to adulthood, several points come to mind. First, respect his need for space, but with some conditions. He must make an effort to emerge from his room for meals with the family, for school, and for other required appointments. Second, he must attend to responsibilities, such as homework, chores, errands and the like, before melting into his “space.”
Third, he must be willing to share his feelings with you at some level. Remember, kids don’t answer essay questions very well. So, when you get a shoulder shrug, look away, or silence in response, make your essay question a multiple choice question. You know your teen well enough to likely come up with a topic or area that’s troubling him. Use your active listening to help him flesh out his feelings and be available, on his request, to troubleshoot and advise.
Wanting space is not the teen problem. That’s normal. If they use that space to hole up, withdraw from social/family interaction, and push people away, then it’s a problem. With your kind assurance, healthy confrontation, and loving active listening, such problems can become teachable moments.
Do you have a round tuit?
Early in our marriage, my wife received a unique, stocking stuffer, Christmas gift. It was a circular pot holder. On it was this message. “This is a Round Tuit. Did you ever think about something you had to do, but failed to get around to it? Well, now you have one, so, stop making excuses and do it.”
Often parents think about doing things differently with their children, but seem to be stuck in the same ol’ behavior patterns. If what you are doing isn’t working, then change it. The standard definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Now in middle school, 12 year old Anthony continued to get up late, miss breakfast, and run out the door, often missing his school bus. He rang up the tardys at school and was getting extra assignments because of them. He wanted to change his morning habits, but he didn’t seem to ever get around to it.
With yet another tardy slip in hand, he slumped in the chair at the kitchen table. His mom sat down next to him and heard his tale of woe. She used her best active listening, without judging, without her own solutions. Seeing that he was more settled, she added, “I have some thoughts about your frustrations. Do you want to hear them?”
Mom went to the family events calendar on the corkboard and retrieved the family “round tuit” potholder. “Here,” she gave the potholder to her son, “I think you need to hold onto this for a while.” Both laughed, as the round tuit potholder had been passed from one family member to another over many years.
Mom and Anthony then talked over a plan that involved collecting his stuff and setting his clothes out at night, an earlier bedtime, two alarm clocks set a distance from his bed, post-it prompts around his room and the kitchen, and cash incentive for daily and weekly compliance to his new morning routine and reaching his goal of being on-time for school each day. The round tuit potholder stayed in his room as a reminder, until his new routine was set in stone.
Do you need to get a round tuit? This cute little reminder will help you move from planning helpful changes to actually doing them.
P.T. Barnum, the great circus entrepreneur, was right when he suggested that you can please some of the people some of the time, but never all of the people all of the time. That bit of wisdom can help families plan for vacation. Whether it’s a weekend trip to grandma’s or a week or two at the beach, vacations go better with full family planning.
“Okay, guys,” barked dad, “I called this family meeting to jointly plan the best…vacation…ever for our family. I told you about this a couple weeks ago and asked all of us to come up with realistic fun ideas for a vacation that all of us can enjoy.”
With this opening, the Clarks gathered in comfy chairs in the family room. Nine year old Emily was enthusiastic, while teens Donnie and Alex tolerated her and the meeting. Mom had baked fresh cookies for the event and dad had asked all to allow for no more than an hour to come up with something.
“Alex, Donnie, put your electronics up. No distractions, just good ideas,” chimed in mom, “Who wants to suggest something?”
This would be a great beginning to a productive meeting. If you’ve never had a family meeting before, use this as a template, but expect a bumpy ride until you get a rhythm.
Mom and dad are in charge. They active listen the griping, confront the off-task behavior, and encourage helpful ideas. First, they tackle brainstorming all ideas. Be ready for someone to suggest something totally off the wall. Even so, write all ideas down without comment. After compiling a list, the parents encourage the kids to look at each item carefully within the restrictions of time and money. Some will feel constrained, even defeated. Active listen again and help them get back on track. Make sure each family member’s needs and feelings are addressed and that the list has at least one activity geared special for each family member. Also, everybody does their part in getting ready for, packing, unpacking, and sharing in the chores needed for all to have a great time. Finally, a parent or older child is directed to write down the outcomes of the family meeting and everybody gets a copy of it. This curtails the “yeah, but’s” and “you said’s” that can sabotage the outcome.
If the process bogs down, don’t go longer than an hour. Just schedule a follow-up time to pick up where you left off. There will be foot-dragging when you try something new like this in your vacation planning. However, the rewards of sharing, fun, and letting loose will be the result of keeping at it and getting it done. The process of planning vacation time as a family can, in itself, be a teachable moment for all.
Space Launch to Adulthood
Let me take you on a ride. A space launch to be exact. Ever been on one? I didn’t think so, as there have only been about a hundred or so American astronauts. This space launch is a metaphor for how your teens become adults.
As shown in the recent movie, Hidden Figures, and more fully in the past movie, Apollo 13, it takes a team for any space launch to be successful. There are a whole bunch of people at ground control. For the US, that’s Houston, TX. Remember the famous line from Apollo 13? “Houston, we have a problem.” Also, these launches take years, decades of preparation, with new technology always adding to the mix. And astronauts are groomed, prepared, and meet certain criteria of stamina and expertise even to get into the astronaut training program. No space launch is exactly perfect, so the spaceship trajectory is adjusted, mid-course corrections, by the ship’s pilot, in consultation with ground control.
I know you see where I’m going with this. As we prepare to launch our teens from adolescence to adulthood, we see the parallels to manned space flights. We, the parents, are their primary ground control, although we ask extended family and experts to give us help and counsel. When did ground control start its work? When your son or daughter was born. Their entire life is a preparation for launch.
Finally, the day arrives. Your child fills their car with their stuff and is off to college or work, with a different place to live. Suppose he gets lost? He talks to Siri or consults his GPS app on his phone. Suppose he runs short of funds? He goes to his local ATM or, more likely, he calls you for a “loan.” These are the mid-course corrections of his space flight, for which he is primarily responsible, but not without your wise counsel.
As he continues his space journey of exploration, are you hawking over him, ready to advise and protect? No, advice-based parenting was appropriate in his teen years. When he becomes an adult you switch to consultative parenting. “I have some thoughts about what you are going through, son. Do you want to hear them?” And then wait for him to give you permission. What about Sunday dinners back home with you? Mission to ground control, we have successful space launch to adulthood.
Help Your Kids Keep Their Cool
Many years ago, a delightful woman who was a patient in one of my groups looked at an anguished man as he was talking and commented, “Ya know, sometimes we have more on our mind than we have a mind for.” Wow! How memorable, simple, yet elegantly put. To this day I still refer to this phrase as my Alice-ism. So, how do we help our kids keep their cool when they have more on their mind?
Of course, whenever you notice an emotional fever spike, your go-to response is to active listen. When your empathy helps his emotional fever drop, and he is ready to listen, then you ask permission. “Son, I have some thoughts about what you are saying. Do you want to hear them? All kids are impressed by being asked permission and much more receptive to your wise counsel.
Also, if you are noticing a pattern over time, bring that to his attention. “Son, you’ve been freaking out about upcoming tests all semester. Is all that worry a problem? Rule of thumb, if what you are noticing has occurred for 6-8 weeks or less, it’s probably a mood. More than 6-8 weeks, it might be a symptom.
To help your child keep his cool, offer two tips. First, worry comes in only two forms, constructive worry and destructive worry. The first form is worry about things over which you have control. If I want to do well on my vocabulary test tomorrow, that constructive worry will encourage me to study my words until I know the definitions cold.
The second form, destructive worry, is worry about things over which you have no control. If I’m hearing the news on my iPod and the world is heating up toward thermonuclear war, I have no control over that. I also have no control over my teacher’s mood, or whether my girlfriend is thinking of dumping me or not.
Research shows that about 80% of our worry is destructive. Only 20% of our worry is constructive. What to do? When you find yourself in the lock of constructive worry, do something about it. Get busy and calm yourself through productive activity to ease your worry. When you find yourself in the lock of destructive worry, give it up. Take it to the Lord in prayer and be calmed by His assurance that He has it all in hand. Constructive worry is something they have enough mind for. Helping your child figure out what kind of worry is upsetting him will help him keep his cool.