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.
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.
Settle Down Time
Is there any time during the day more important for kids than bedtime? I don’t think so. Actually, it’s not a time, but a process. It’s a one-on-one with a parent and parents can take turns. It’s a special time, with each child in the family having a separate, designated bed time. In family life, it’s a settle down time.
“Okay, sweetheart, at the end of this show, turn off the television and let’s get started going to bed.” Mom prompted 8 year old Bethany, giving her lead time to make the transition.
“But, mama, what about…?” Bethany began to protest, but her mom cut her off. “Uh, uh, uh. Don’t do this, darlin’. You know the rules.”
“Yes, Mama.” Bethany turned her attention back to the t.v. to squeeze every ounce out of her day before going to bed.
Well intentioned parents teach their children early to put themselves to bed. What??? And give up such quality time with your child?
Other parents let their child play, irritate their brother, watch t.v., or game on their iPad or computer until the very last minute. Why allow a child to ramp up right before trying to go to sleep?
Other parents tolerate an abundance of stall tactics from children who don’t want to go to sleep.
Settle down time with your child is a precious gift, both from you to her, but also from her to you. With both my kids as they grew up and now with my grandkids when I’m called to duty, I try to allow up to 30 minutes of settle down time with each child. That’s time for talking about our days, active listening, telling or reading stories, being playful and funny.
As settle down time is closing, especially if I notice my child stalling, I shift to a more proactive focus. With preschoolers, I talk about the snuggle bunny who helps children be still and be silent. Even hyperactive kids will fall asleep within 3 minutes if they are still and silent. My snuggle bunny is a glistening white bunny who likes to snuggle next to the small of your back. However, he will only stay there if you are completely still and silent. You can feel a warmth there that tells you he is there, but if you try to look, he will scoot away and you will never see him. What is settle down time? It’ time for T L C – talking, listening, and cuddling.
Uh Oh, Here We Go Again
Crash! Mom heard to sound coming from her 13 year old daughter’s room. “Now what,” she muttered as she dried her hands before leaving the dishes to make yet another kid rescue.
“Chad, look what you’ve done,” Jenny screamed at her 10 year old little brother. “Get out of my room, you jerk!” Mom hurried her pace, sensing her children coming to blows.
Sibling rivalry is only one of many daily challenges for parents of strong-willed children. It would be common for mom to storm into Jenny’s room and begin barking orders. “Jenny, don’t talk to your brother like that.” “Chad, pick up that mess. What are you doing in your sister’s room anyway?”
Unfortunately, such common occurrences will likely lead to hurt feelings, emotional distance, and continued power struggles. When you are able to trade in divisive “me against you” talk for “we and us” talk, you are on the right track.
First, without comment or criticism, separate your children in the moment. Take time to find out what happened, from each of their perspectives, using your active listening to understand the feelings behind the actions.
Second, when you sense your child’s emotional fever is going down after active listening, ask what they might have said or done differently to have achieved positive outcome.
Third, identify what each child did to add to the difficulty between them, and give each a time-out to formulate an apology to the other. Behaviorally and developmentally, the rule of thumb is to give times-out that are no longer than 2 minutes for every year of your child’s age. For Chad, at age 10, that would be 20 minutes. For Jenny, at age 13, that would be 26 minutes. In reality, such a brief time-out may serve its purpose, but also is an opportunity for you to step away, settle down, and bring reason to the conversation.
Finally, after these times-out, talk to your children together both to structure the apology/forgiveness piece and to jointly address specifics that could help avoid such encounters in the future. For example, Chad could knock before entering his sister’s room, and Jenny could make some time for her brother doing something he likes, like competing on a video game.
I don’t know any parent who can avoid those moments where they say “Uh oh. Here we go again.” However, taking these steps will turn those uh oh moments into teachable moments for your children.
Do you do more talking? or listening?
“You know, Joe and I have a great relationship,” started Marilyn in the first counseling session. “We do things together,” she continued, “and our love life is good. We share common interests. The problem is, though, we never talk. You know, just sit down and talk. So that’s why I thought marital counseling might be helpful. You know, just to learn to talk more with each other.”
As their therapist, I let Marilyn continue for a while. Joe sat on his end of the couch, staring at his hands. Occasionally, he sighed, or nodded in agreement with his wife. Once, he started to say something, but Marilyn shushed him and directed him to let her finish.
Finally, I put my hand up in a stop motion to Marilyn and, after she stopped talking, then I turned to Joe. “So, Joe,” I started, “why do you think that you and your wife don’t, just, you know, ever talk much?”
“Well, I,” Joe started to respond, but Marilyn tried to cut him off and answer for him. “He just…” I stopped her again, gently put my index finger to my lips, and took a deep breath. Marilyn hushed and looked expectantly to her husband.
“You see, Doc, I can’t get a word in edgewise,” he said, continuing, “She talks for the both of us, so I just nod in agreement and go about my business.”
A lot of parents also feel shut out of their children’s lives. Especially teens tend to keep their own company, until given time and space to talk. The cure for such family dynamics is for parents to listen in general and to active listen in particular. Listening to hear your child’s feelings will open them up to want to share more with you.
Also, when time and circumstances allow, ask about their day, their schoolwork, their activities, their friends. These things are their world and you can enter it with permission when you ask. Don’t settle for one-word responses from your child. Be playful but persistent in drawing them into a conversation with you. And remember, the conversation is about them, not about you. So, keep in mind that you will get farther doing more listening than talking.
Ugh! Sibling rivalry sounds like such a bad term. What good can come from sibling rivalry? Well, actually, lots. While there are some famous accounts of bad sibling rivalry, think Cain and Abel from the Bible, siblings are the second most influential and important people in our lives.
At 12 months, Joey was enjoying being breast-fed by mama. While feeding, however, he noticed older brother Andy scampering across the room toward them. Andy came over and tickled his younger brother, who interrupted his lunch to squeal in delight. Later, while scooting on his hands and knees in pursuit of Andy, Joey stopped next to the couch, pulled himself up, and tentatively let go of the couch. With wobbly legs, he fought to balance himself and took several steps toward his brother before lowering himself back to the ground. Both his brother and mother clapped and gave him words of encouragement. Joey beamed after taking his first tentative steps, with much more to come.
Every parent revels with delight as their child takes their first steps. Those steps, however, might have been delayed for a while had Joey not felt a certain jealousy and sibling rivalry toward older brother Andy. Andy was his role model and both Andy and mama were his cheerleaders. The combination of role model and encouragement led to Joey’s momentous first steps. Of course, children without older siblings learn to walk as well, but usually a little bit later without the peer role model.
Sibling relationships have a “me-you-us” quality to them. As parents, we want to encourage our children’s individuality, parenting them accordingly. Developmental differences come into play as well. Usually, when parents have children who are less than 2 years apart, they are parented jointly and grow up as playmates. When the children are over 3 years apart, they often have different developmental needs. To avoid negative sibling rivalry, it’s important to encourage the older child to be helpful with the younger one. Children born in the no-man’s land of 2-3 years apart can have more contentious sibling rivalry. Because of sibling rivalry, younger children tend to reach milestones sooner than their older sibs did. Active listening, encouragement, and presenting options can promote positive sibling rivalry.
In 2016, a parenting researcher, Maria Goeveia and her colleagues, introduced us to the concept of mindful parenting. This is the best mindset within which to find teachable moments in your parenting journey. In short, being a mindful parent involves savoring every moment.
Mandy was baking cookies one Tuesday morning. Her 3 yr old daughter, Cindy, was helping. Mandy got the milk, eggs and flour into the mixing bowl and showed Cindy how to mix them together. She carefully helped her get started. Mandy then turned to get something out of the fridge and left Cindy a few feet away mixing up the ingredients. She turned back when she heard a squeal of delight from her little one, just as Cindy was flicking mixed ingredients from the whisking wand in all directions. Some of the gooey mess struck Mandy right on the cheek.
Mandy has a choice here. She could focus on the mess, scold Cindy, and banish her to her room. She would then grumble to herself while straightening the kitchen. This is all too often the response.
Or, she could wipe the batter off her cheek and quickly get to Cindy’s side before more mess is made. Then Mandy could fold Cindy into her arms and squeal in delight with her daughter, as they spin around together. Was Cindy too young to help mom with baking cookies in the kitchen? Maybe, but she was having the time of her life. Was a big mess made? Definitely, but messes are temporary, laughter and playfulness is forever.
After being playful with her daughter for a while, Mandy found a teachable moment and directed Cindy in helping her clean up the mess and get back to baking cookies, with Mandy’s more attentive supervision.
As a mindful parent, you active listen with full attention to your child. You are non-judgmental and accepting of your child in the moment. You have keen emotional awareness within yourself and for your child. You encourage self-regulation through your teaching and sharing. And you have compassion for yourself and for your child. Mindful parenting is indeed savoring and learning from the moment.
A favorite book of mine “back in the day” was titled, The Hurried Child. The notion was that our children have so much stress because they are always on the go. And I’m not just talking about hyperactive kids. With internet technology, all kinds of communication tools, plus encouraged activities such as recreational sports, scouting, church, and clubs, when can they take a breath? And, when can we catch up with them? Because of all the options on and pressure for their time and attention, we will want to grab every teachable moment we can with our kids, making the most of opportunities with them.
Dad was taking son Joey to his Little League baseball practice one late Spring afternoon. Joey was eating his snack dinner in the car as they traveled there. “So, my man, excited about your game tomorrow night against the Pirates?” Between mouthfuls, Joey shrugged his shoulder and offered, “Whatever, yeah, I guess.” Noticing his son’s mood, Dad joked, “Well, now, don’t be so enthusiastic, big guy.” Again Joey shrugged, “It’s just that, I mean, Robbie’s pitching and I haven’t hit him yet all season.” In his best active listening form, Dad looked for a feeling. “So, you’re afraid he’ll get the best of you again?” “What do you think?” Joey conceded, with dejection in his voice.
“I’ll tell you what I think, son, can I tell you?” “Whatever, yeah,” Joey mumbled from a full mouth. “I think that, what you pay attention to grows.” “Huh?” Joey questioned. “You know, focus on the positive and it will grow. Focus on the negative and it will grow.” “Well, I’m positive Robbie’s gonna get the best of me again.” “But you don’t know that, because it hasn’t happened yet, son. You can turn this around. Get your licks in with batting practice tonight and face Robbie in the batter’s box tomorrow night, just daring him to try and throw one by you. Focus on the positive and it will grow.” After taking his dad’s wise counsel in, Joey conceded, “Yeah. I’ll try it. We’ll see what happens.”
Your teachable moments with your children do not have to be weekend camping trips, although don’t rule them out. Use a 5-minute car ride to connect. Make the most of all the available opportunities.
Doormat or Servant Parent?
As we all know, kids come in all shapes and sizes. You know what else? So do parents. Some parents choose to be the power-oriented, in control kind of guy. These folks parent by fear and have only a fear-based relationship with their children. “My way or the highway” is their theme.
Others go to the opposite extreme and become a doormat to their children. “Yes, dear. Whatever you want” They fear that confronting their child or setting healthy boundaries will stunt their emotional growth and lower their self-esteem. Such well-intentioned parents will put their child in T-Ball, where runs scored are not kept because “we want them all to be winners.”
Fortunately, Jesus gave us another option, providing a third role model for effective parenting. Before the Last Supper, He removed his outer robe, got a bowl and washcloth, and washed the feet of his disciples. This lowly but loving act of service is our example of being a servant parent. What???
Let’s be clear. This was not submission. It was servanthood. Jesus followed with His teachings about the first being last and the greatest being the least. Being a servant parent involves understanding your child’s needs and feelings, and being supportive while helping tend to them.
Fifteen year old Chip stomped into his dad’s den early one morning, where dad was paying bills. “Dad, this shirt’s dirty and I want to wear it today.” Dad stopped his work, and, while getting up, responded, “Okay, Son, let me wash it for you right away.” While thinking he was being helpful, dad was being a doormat, with no teachable moment in sight.
Eight year old Tommy is doing his homework in his room. His mom checks on him and offers, “I’ve got some time, Son. If you put your vocabulary words on flash cards, I’ll quiz you when you’re finished.” Classic servant parenting. Being helpful and available, sharing the load. And ripe for a teachable moment. Which are you? Power dude, doormat or servant parent?
Dare to be different
I’ve talked with you at length about how active listening is the go-to response when your child has an emotional fever. Emotional fevers come in all shapes and sizes. A verbal outburst, defiance, silence, being mean to siblings, exclamations like “not fair!” and the like all indicate feelings that are going on inside your child. If they are not expressed in helpful words, then they will continue to come out in unhelpful behavior. In your active listening response, be creative with your words and dare to be different.
Ten year old Emily comes in from outside and slams the door behind her. Recognizing an active listening moment, you comment, “You feel angry.” “You won’t believe what Alice just said to me.” “You feel surprised.” “Whatever, she’s so mean.” “You feel rejected.” With exasperation, Emily huffs, “Mama, will you get off the ‘you feel’ kick.”
Going through the motions of active listening, with repeatedly leading in with “you feel,” will shortly fall on deaf ears. Emily just knows that mama is trying re-state her feelings, but not trying to be with her in her emotional pain.
Emily comes in from outside and slams the door. “Wow! That was loud. Everything okay dear?” “No, it’s not okay. Alice just called me a freak because I got my hair cut short.” “It sounds like Alice hurt your feelings by calling you names.” Raising her voice, Emily clenches her fists and sobs, “She’s so mean.” Mama gathers her into her arms, stroking her hair, and adds, “Alice and you are best friends. It really makes you sad when she says thoughtless things, and you don’t know what to do.”
By words and actions, mama is being with Emily in her emotional pain. The words are varied responses to what mama sees and hears from Emily. Emily may cry for a short while in her mama’s arm, and then mama will notice her emotional fever going down. Crisis calmed more quickly, and then they can think about problem-solving. Because mama was creative in her words and actions, and she dared to be different, Emily is more willing and able to find a good solution.