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Before you had children, you may have seen the TV show, Kids Say the Darndest Things. If so, you might have thought your child would NEVER say anything like that. Then it happened. Perhaps you were horrified as you watched your sweet baby snatch a toy from a friend and scream, “MINE!” Or while pushing them in the cart at the grocery store, your toddler asked in their loudest voice, “Why does that man have BIG ears?” Embarrassed that everyone around might think you raised a little monster, you were probably wishing the floor would open up and swallow you whole. 

So how do you teach your young child to be empathetic? 

These 5 building blocks of empathy can set you both up for success.

1. Model empathy for them.

Empathy is the ability to imagine how someone else feels in a particular situation and respond with care. This is a tricky skill to develop, even for adults. Your child learns empathy from how they watch you model it to those around you. How you respond is often the most powerful teaching method because empathy is more caught than taught. One of the best places to start is by showing empathy for your child. Instead of seeing their behavior as being difficult, empathize with what they are feeling. (Even in the middle of a meltdown!)

2. Be realistic in your expectations. (It’s just a phase.)

Don’t worry; this is a normal phase. Laying a foundation for your child to be empathetic towards people is a good thing. However, it can be challenging during this particular developmental stage. Your 3 to 5-year-old is in the middle of what Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget called the preoperational stage. This stage’s hallmark is selfish thinking, meaning it’s not easy for them to see things from anyone else’s perspective.

Additionally, you may notice their favorite words are Me, Mine, or “I can do it MYSELF.” All of these behaviors are developmentally appropriate. At this stage, children are like reporters who report on what they see and experience without filters.

Since they like to report, ask questions to help them identify their own feelings and others’ feelings in the process.

3. Celebrate them when they show empathy.

When you see your child correctly identifying emotions, praise them. They may even ask, “Are you sad?” If you are, it’s ok to acknowledge your sadness. You can use that as a teachable moment to help them recognize and name emotions correctly. They’ll learn that expressing a variety of emotions is ok. (Here’s a great list of feeling words to get you started.)

4. Do things to nurture empathy.

It may be difficult to actively volunteer together at this age, but it’s easy to make treats or care bags (or something else) to show people they matter. Hand them out with your child to the homeless or someone who needs a pick-me-up as you drive through your community. The bag can include various items such as gift cards to restaurants, hand sanitizer, band-aids, snack bar, a small bottle of water, etc. 

5. Take time to develop empathy. It’s a process.

Empathy is developed over time, but everyday moments are teachable ones. Remember, this skill grows and expands as your child grows. They won’t be perfect at showing empathy, especially at this age. Honestly, it may be difficult to be empathetic all the time. This is a learning process that goes with your child into their teen years and beyond.

It’s hard for parents not to feel overwhelmed with the responsibility of teaching your little one so many things to help them become a productive member of society. Those things may include how to walk, how to talk, and ways to expand their vocabulary. And that’s in the first year!

Ok, stop and take a deep breath. 

Raising an empathetic child is a process that starts with your example; it’s the primary way you teach them how to understand others and treat them with kindness. They’re watching you. Just remember: more things are caught by our kids than are taught by us. You can do this.

Read other blogs to help you on your journey here:

Help! Our Intimacy is Gone

Rekindling the passion may be easier than you think.

You expect a campfire to burn hot and then turn into ashes. But you didn’t expect the fire to die down in your marriage, did you? Love… sex… connection… You expected them to go through ruts, maybe. Highs and lows? Sure. But nobody expects to wake up one day and realize the intimacy is gone.

And we’re not just talking about sex. Intimacy is way more than sex. It happens when you and your spouse fully know and experience each other—sexually, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. 

If your intimacy is gone, there are some things you can do to understand why—and find ways to reignite the flames. These questions and “fire starters” may heat things up a bit.

Has your marriage become child-centered? 

Before kids, the backseat was for… you know. (Oh, don’t act like I’m the only one!) But maybe now the backseat is full of car seats. Does your marriage feel like it’s taken a backseat to the kids?

Children can be exhausting. (I know. I’ve got seven of them!) They keep you awake, and they require a lot of energy. It’s hard for parents to be intimate. It can be different, though!

Fire Starter Tips:

  1. Schedule kid-free time.
  2. Give kids a bedtime that allows you to be friends and lovers.
  3. Schedule a good babysitter for date nights.
  4. Teach your kids to do some things on their own.
  5. Intentionally put the married back in married parents.

Where’s your focus? 

It may seem logical to you that if intimacy is gone, more sex will help—but it doesn’t work that way. I said this earlier, but it’s worth repeating: Intimacy is about so much more than sex! In fact, there are 6 different types of intimacy in marriage. (If you want to learn what they are and how you can grow them, check out this toolkit.) When intimacy is gone in your marriage, focusing on emotional intimacy is a great place to start rekindling the flame.

Fire Starter Tip: 

Schedule 15-20 minutes daily to learn about each other’s thoughts, dreams, hopes, fears, emotions, etc. 

No technology. No kids. And no interruptions. 

This consistency will reignite and deepen your intimacy. If you’re too busy, cutting something out of your schedule to focus on each other will help. (Try these marriage conversation starters.) 

Are you holding back? 

Being vulnerable is hard. I get it. Especially if there’s been hurt, distrust, or betrayal. But hiding parts of yourself from your spouse (or feeling unsafe) can smother the fire of intimacy. Without transparency and vulnerability, the disconnection grows and blocks the airflow.

Fire Starter Tips:

  1. Breathe life into your relationship by identifying why you may be holding back.
  2. Discuss why it’s hard to open up. A good marriage counselor can help.

Are you both at your best? 

I feel like I’m a better husband when I’m:

Esther Perel, author and marital intimacy expert, says we can offer our best when we are most connected. Different seasons of marriage—having a new baby, caring for a loved one, or working an intense schedule—call for different responses. Being sensitive to extra stress your spouse may be experiencing can increase intimacy.

Fire Starter Tips:

  1. Look at your schedule together and prioritize your marriage. 
  2. Talk about how you can help each other.

What do you expect? 

The early stages of marriage can make you think intimacy is natural. There’s a 2-year honeymoon phase when your body naturally produces chemicals that drive your passion. After that, your body stops producing those chemicals, so it may feel like the natural intimacy is gone. It can hit you unexpectedly. You wonder if you married the right person or if you’re just not in love anymore. More than likely, you’re just moving to a different season of marriage. Perel tells us that our desire for our spouse increases as we see them in their element. It reminds us why we fell in love and increases our curiosity about them. 

Fire Starter Tips:

  1. Don’t look at what you’ve lost; look at who you’re missing. 
  2. Acknowledge and appreciate what your spouse does well. 
  3. Stay curious. 
  4. Do something different.

Intimacy dies when we stop exploring each other (in all the ways) or put up walls. But sometimes, fresh eyes or fresh adventures can get that flame burning high and hot once again. Don’t give up!

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear that someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

READY TO HAVE AMAZING, MIND-BLOWING SEX?

A better sex life is totally possible.

Your marriage goes through ups and downs, highs and lows, crazy passion and mundane routine-filled days. But sometimes you can get stuck in that monotony. Not only does your sex life go out the window, you may find conversations are lacking and that you’re both just generally not connecting with each other.

Discover Deeper Intimacy in Your Marriage offers simple, practical strategies to help you reignite the passion and connection with your spouse in 5 intimacy-building modules.

What Is Emotional Intimacy in Marriage? (And Why Does It Matter?)

Being close with the one you love has major benefits.

Many things don’t really matter (or at least shouldn’t matter) in marriage. If a dinner gets burned every now and then, it doesn’t matter. One person likes the beach and the other likes the mountains? I can speak from personal experience: doesn’t matter. 

One cheers for the Yankees and the other for the Red Sox…well, some conflict resolution may be necessary. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter

But emotional intimacy… boy, does it ever matter. And here’s why. 

Intimacy in marriage is the ongoing, intentional process of fully knowing your spouse and being fully known by your spouse. There’s a lot packed in this definition, but what you need to know right now is that emotional intimacy is an ongoing pursuit. Why? Because there’s always more to learn and understand about the person you love the most—plus they are constantly growing and life throws different circumstances at them. (And you, too.)

Emotional intimacy is understanding what’s going on inside your spouse (and being understood in the same way). It’s knowing all their feelings, hopes, dreams, vulnerabilities, fears, motivations, and desires. It’s gaining a better sense of what drives your spouse, what moves your spouse, what interests and intrigues, enthralls and enchants that person you’ve committed yourself to. Emotional intimacy is simply growing deeper in your understanding of your spouse.

Unfortunately, many couples get stuck in a cycle of operating with a severe lack of emotional intimacy. 

That’s what happened to Jack and Diane, two American kids growing up in the heartland. The first two years of their marriage were utter bliss. Intimacy seemed to come naturally: staying up at all hours of the night talking, being in each other’s presence as much as possible, and of course, lots of newly-married sex. 

However, real life started to creep in as the busyness of work, the drama of in-laws, the stacking of bills, and the arrival of children took center stage. Emotional intimacy was no longer so natural. There were fewer opportunities to spend time with each other; they no longer spent the weekends enjoying chili dogs at the Tastee Freez like they used to. When Jack and Diane did talk, it was either about their schedule or finances or shuffling the kiddos from one place to another, but never anything deeper. Disagreements quickly grew into all-out fights. It was difficult for Jack or Diane to feel safe in the relationship, and there was often the feeling of walking on eggshells when they were in the same room. 

Fortunately, Jack and Diane started reading wonderfully helpful marriage tips from First Things First (shameless plug…) and learned that emotional intimacy can be built up again, but it takes being intentional. Emotional intimacy requires couples to take on the role of a compassionate detective—an invested student of each other. Emotional intimacy is a continual process of learning, understanding, and empathizing with who your spouse is on the inside. 

And they figured out, by golly, emotional intimacy matters. Why? 

Couples with emotional intimacy experience a greater connection and enhanced communication. 

Here’s what people in marriages with strong emotional intimacy may say: 

  • Whenever we talk, it feels like I’m heard, even if we don’t agree. 
  • When we’re together, we’re not just two people in the same room; we really connect. 
  • He doesn’t try to fix things when I’m explaining a problem, unless I ask for it; he simply listens to try and understand what I’m feeling. 
  • When we have a disagreement, it doesn’t feel like we’re on opposing sides necessarily; it feels like we’re on the same side trying to solve the same problem. 
  • We’re busy, but we do find time to carve into our schedule to just spend time with each other. That’s important to us. 

Couples with emotional intimacy

  • Have a stronger sense of trust and security. Knowing and being known chips away at the need to wonder how much you can really rely on your partner to be on your team. You can feel safe, secure, and accepted just being yourself.
  • Are more accepting of each other’s faults. Understanding what goes on on the inside (and why it goes on) gives you a better appreciation and compassion for your spouse, warts and all. When that’s a two-way street in a relationship, it’s a beautiful thing. 
  • Have a stronger physical intimacy. If you were to look up the research, you’d find that emotional intimacy and sexual intimacy have a strong effect on each other. I like to think of it like pedaling a bicycle. One pedal is emotional intimacy and the other physical intimacy. When you push one pedal forward, it will bring the other around to be pushed. Repeat the cycle (see what I did there?) and you quickly gain momentum and acceleration.

The great thing about understanding more about emotional intimacy in your marriage is you come to understand it’s never too late to make it matter and take it deeper. It’s within your power. And with some work (such as these exercises), you can begin to build a strong emotional intimacy with the one you love the most. 

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear that someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

READY TO HAVE AMAZING, MIND-BLOWING SEX?

A better sex life is totally possible.

Your marriage goes through ups and downs, highs and lows, crazy passion and mundane routine-filled days. But sometimes you can get stuck in that monotony. Not only does your sex life go out the window, you may find conversations are lacking and that you’re both just generally not connecting with each other.

Discover Deeper Intimacy in Your Marriage offers simple, practical strategies to help you reignite the passion and connection with your spouse in 5 intimacy-building modules.

How To Handle Public Toddler Temper Tantrums

How you parent your child matters more than what others may think about how you parent your child.

Has your toddler ever had a meltdown or temper tantrum?

Does your child cry uncontrollably to get something they want?

Have you ever wished the floor would open up in the store and swallow you because of how your child was behaving?

If any of these things have happened to you, then you probably are the parent of a toddler who is in the middle of a tantrum. Inevitably, these behaviors are on full display in large public spaces like the line at the grocery store or in the middle of the aisle at a big box store. As a parent, you feel the weight of the stares and glares from the other customers and employees. Your heart rate rises. Your hands get sweaty. You may feel embarrassed or that you are the worst parent ever. All you want is for your child to please, please, please BEHAVE.

What do you do? How do you parent your toddler through a temper tantrum?

Here are a few strategies that can help you:

1. The best tantrum is the one that never happens.

Prepare your toddler before you go out. Remind them before you leave, that you aren’t buying them anything, that you have a few things to get, and incentivize their good behavior beforehand. (“If you behave, we’ll make some cookies when we get home,” or “I’ll read your favorite book to you,” or “We’ll watch some PBS Kids.”) This will help them to defer gratification and hopefully make your shopping easier.

2. Remain calm. 

This may be easier said than done. When your child is losing it, as a parent you have to remain calm. Often we contribute to the intensity of the tantrum by escalating it because of our feelings of anger and embarrassment. Now is not the time to be concerned about what those people around you are thinking. It doesn’t matter what they think about your parenting. It matters how you parent your child. Keep your focus on your child and not on a bunch of people that you may never see again. Remember, you can handle this and it is normal and natural for a toddler to have a temper tantrum. 

3. Assess the situation. (Create a mental game plan.)

Now that you have taken a couple of deep breaths and are calm, do a quick mental checklist: 

  • Are they hungry? 
  • Did they miss their naptime? 
  • Are they not feeling good? 
  • Did you make changes to your normal routine? 
  • Are YOU stressed and overwhelmed? 
  • Maybe there is no reason at all except they are toddlers

However, if you can pinpoint the triggering factor, such as your toddler being hungry, bringing or getting them a small snack can allow them to calm down at least until you finish this errand. If they are tired, it may be in your best interest to get them home as soon as possible. If they are angry because you said “no” to something they wanted—be the parent

4. Focus on your child.

With your game plan in mind, focus on your child. Find a quiet space in the store, if possible—if not, offer to go to the car to calm down. (Leave your cart with an employee and tell them you will hopefully be right back.) When you get to the car—look your child in the eye, speak softly and calmly, and empathize with them. (Ahh, you really are tired; I know, you are hungry.) Then give them directions. This may be the time to throw in an incentive. (When we go back to the store, if you behave, when we get home we’ll have a snack before naptime.) You are laying the groundwork for important child development pieces like learning to control their emotions, learning to defer gratification, and learning mom means business.

5. If you have a very sensitive child…

It may seem more difficult to deal with tantrums when you have a “sensitive child.” No matter the temperament of your child, it is fine to have appropriate behavioral expectations of them. It is important to remember that children respond differently to correction. For some, it only takes “that look”—others require more. The goal of discipline is to teach. A slight deviation from the normal routine could really send a sensitive child into orbit. Being keenly aware of your child’s temperament (and your own emotional state) is vital for effectively dealing with a tantrum.

You have made it through your toddler’s public tantrum.

Was it hard? Maybe. Will it happen again? Probably. I love the saying, “Once you have gone through something, you know how to go through something.” 

Become a student of your child. Now is the time to think about ways to prepare for the next toddler temper tantrum. Keep snacks in your bag. Either go alone or wait until after naptime. Go to the store when it’s not really crowded. 

Parenting is a HARD job, especially with toddlers. You may feel frustrated, anxious, distressed, positive, satisfied, and overwhelmed all in the SAME DAY, even on the SAME TRIP. There is no parenting handbook that has all the answers for every situation, contrary to what those judgy people in the store believe. As parents, we are not perfect, and neither are our kids.  Our children don’t need Perfect Parents. They need Present Parents. Parenting a toddler is just one stage in your parenting journey. All you can do is try to do your best to meet the needs of your children for where they are developmentally.

Constantly putting yourself down is of no benefit to anyone. Practice self-care. Be careful what you say to yourself because you will believe it. Make time for yourself. Take a bath. Go for a walk. Talk to friends. In the words of  flight attendants, “Put your mask on first, then help others.” We are so busy making sure everyone around us is okay, we often neglect to care for ourselves. This has a huge impact on our children—they can pick up on our stress and frustration. Be your best self so you can be at your best for your child, wherever and whenever.

Image from Unsplash.com

How To Build Empathy In Marriage

These 5 steps can get you started in no time.

Have you ever whipped up your favorite batch of homemade cookies to find out in the first bite that you left out that one key ingredient that makes all the difference? Empathy is that key ingredient to a great recipe for a healthy marriage that you don’t want to forget. 

A large body of research tells us the practice of empathy is essential to a thriving, happy, healthy marriage. However, many people reduce the idea of empathy to it being just “touchy-feely” or something that some people are born having, but others not so much. 

What exactly is empathy, and can you have it for your spouse if you’ve never experienced what they have experienced? 

There are many definitions out there for empathy; some have described it as the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. I like the definition that U.C. Berkeley researchers Levenson and Ruef give: empathy is the ability to detect accurately the emotional information being transmitted by another person. The keywords here (in my humble opinion) are detect accurately. The goal of empathy in marriage is to understand as closely as possible what is going on in your spouse’s mind and heart at the moment. And keep in mind this is a skill that you can learn, not an inherent trait that you’re born with. 

But real marital empathy doesn’t stop with simply understanding. Empathy is an action. We find this reflected in an explanation of empathy given by Dr. Paul Ekman, who separates empathy into three parts. Cognitive empathy is what we just talked about; it allows us to imagine how someone is feeling and say Wow, that must be really tough.

Emotional empathy goes a little further to allow ourselves to actually feel what our spouse is feeling (even though we don’t have the same experiences).  It’s the same mental processes at work as when you shed tears watching a romcom or feel sadness when you witness someone who’s down and out. The thing is, you can control whether you attempt to feel what the other person is feeling. Which is good news for spouses (like you) who want to build more empathy in their marriage. 

But the third part of Ekman’s empathy triad is compassionate empathy. It balances the first two parts so that we can take empathetic action. This empathy triad, according to Ekman, keeps the whole person in mind, making empathy a work of both mind, heart, and behavior.

So here’s what this may look like in marriage. Your spouse comes home from a stressful day at work to find the kids still haven’t taken care of the dirty dishes in their rooms that they were told a thousand times to put in the dishwasher. You listen to them and try to non-judgmentally understand how they’re feeling (even though the thought of lingering dirty dishes doesn’t particularly bother you). You allow yourself to feel at least a little bit of the frustration they feel. And out of compassionate empathy, you extend a hug, thank them for all the hard work they do. Then you go upstairs to goad the ankle-biters into gathering up the fungus-laden dishes so your spouse doesn’t have to for the 1,001st time. 

Considering this trilogy-approach to empathy, how do you build empathy in your marriage? Here are some steps for couples to take: 

  • Listen. Not to judge. Not to fix. And not even to retort. Listen simply to grasp what your spouse is feeling with as much accuracy as possible. Listen closely to your spouse to understand their feelings in the same way you’d listen to a teacher to understand how to do calculus. 
  • Validate. You may listen and think, Gee, I’d never get so riled up (or excited, or sad) over this. Avoid judging your spouse’s feelings based on how you would respond in the same situation. Instead, acknowledge to yourself that these are their feelings (and not yours). Respond verbally to your spouse with legitimizing replies like, “Wow, that must be frustrating,” or “I can see how you’d be excited about that.”
  • Share. Namely, your spouse’s emotional response. This may take some conscious effort on your part, especially if they are emotionally responsive to a situation in a way you wouldn’t. Truly put yourself in their shoes. See the world from their eyes. Allow yourself to experience any part of the anger, frustration, excitement, happiness, or whatever feeling they are expressing to you. (Even for the most stoic person, the more you put this into practice, the easier it becomes over time.) 
  • Act. Take what you’ve come to understand from the previous steps and respond in compassion. When you come to understand accurately the mind and heart of your spouse in a given situation, it’s easier to be in tune with what they need at that moment. Keep in mind that this very well may not be the time to “fix” their problem. A helpful trick I’ve learned is to ask my spouse, “Is this a time you want me to listen and help you figure out a solution, or would it be more helpful to listen and simply try to understand?” More often than not, she simply needs an empathetic ear and a compassionate response. 
  • Practice vulnerability. Here’s the thing: empathy begets empathy. What I mean is, it’s a two-way street. Empathy is best built when both people in the marriage open up about situations, feelings, and thoughts they simply want the other to better understand. That’s the beauty of it: the practice of empathy helps you to know that you can open up to your spouse and they’ll be non-judgmental and supportive. And they can be open with you and you’ll respond in the same way. Trust is reinforced. The marriage is strengthened. And all because empathy is that one ingredient that makes the difference in the recipe. 

Empathy is an all-important ingredient for a healthy marriage, but building it takes time. Empathy grows with momentum, especially if it hasn’t been expressed very much previously. However, you might find that if you pay close attention to the above steps, it doesn’t take long for the momentum to get rolling pretty quickly. 

Read other blogs to learn more about empathy here:

What to Do When Your Spouse Lacks Empathy

3 Ways Empathy Can Strengthen Your Marriage

How to Stop Resentment

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear that someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

Image from Unsplash.com

Do you find it hard to see things from your spouse’s perspective?

Do you think your spouse should see things exactly the way you do?

Is it easier for you to try to fix things for your spouse rather than listen to them? 

If this is true about you or your spouse, you may have a lack of empathy. Situations where you fail to empathize with your spouse can lead to misunderstandings and disconnection. To truly understand empathy, we must define it. Brené Brown defines empathy as “feeling with people.” In its simplest form, empathy means to care as much about your spouse’s likes, dislikes, interests, issues, dreams, goals, and problems, as you care about your own. 

It can become difficult in marriage when you recognize that your spouse is so very different from you. According to psychotherapist Cindy Sigal, AMFT,  “Empathy bridges the divide between being separate individuals with different backgrounds, feelings, and perspectives.

How do we build and/or maintain the bridge of empathy between spouses?

1. Listen, Listen, Listen

The greatest need your spouse has is to be seen, heard, valued, and understood by you. This begins with listening to understand them—not to fix a problem. Additionally, give your spouse your full attention within the conversation. Asking questions allows you to become a “compassionate detective” of your spouse. Resist the urge to tell them what to do or how to fix the issue. In doing so, you validate your spouse’s feelings and capacity to solve the problem while utilizing empathy to fuel your connection.

2. It’s Not About YOU

The key to empathy is seeing things from your spouse’s perspective—literally, putting your feet in their shoes. Think about: What do they like to do? How did they grow up? What brings them happiness and what causes them to get upset? What is their favorite activity, food, etc.? How would they see this situation? Practice putting aside your views and thoughts to focus on those of your spouse. 

3. Respect Your Spouse’s Differences

At the beginning of your marriage, you may have thought, “It’s so GREAT how different we are.” Now reality has set in and you’re probably thinking, “OMG, WE ARE different.” YES, you are. However, there is strength in your differences. Having different views can give you the opportunity to see the picture/issue from a variety of ways. Allowing each spouse their own perspective provides opportunity for out-of-the-box decision-making as well as increasing mutual respect. 

Empathy so often is considered to be the “secret sauce” in relationships. It encourages us to see past ourselves and take our spouse into consideration. It bonds couples together. Building your capacity for empathy builds your relationship.

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

Image from Unsplash.com

Why are you fighting?” That’s the question one little girl posed to her parents at the dinner table as they were in the midst of a heated discussion about what needed to happen after dinner. How do you talk with your children about why parents fight? 

It’s pretty much a given that parents will get sideways with each other in front of the kids. Sometimes it’s about something ridiculous and other times it’s something of a more adult nature. Here’s the thing: whether it is something small or something that really matters, how you fight impacts your children. Children do not like conflict. 

Witnessing your parents have an argument can be very scary and unsettling for children of any age. Here are some tips for talking with your children about why parents fight.

  • Check your own emotional temperature. It’s very important to be emotionally-aware for yourself and for your child. Before you talk with your child about the reasons parents might fight, you’ll probably want to make sure you’re emotionally ready for it. For instance, right after a fight might not be the best time to have the discussion. When you take the time to cool down before approaching your child, you are practicing emotional regulation, which is a very important skill for both you and your child. When you talk with your child, be specific about the emotions they might be feeling right now. They could be experiencing fear, sadness or worry, among other things. Helping them to put names to what they are feeling will help build their emotional intelligence. It also helps them learn how to process through an experience.  
  • Keep it age appropriate. Everyone experiences conflict from time to time. Remind them about the time they didn’t want to share their toy with their sibling or when they were angry with one of you for not letting them do something. That’s a disagreement, too. Sometimes parents fight when they have different opinions about things, they are upset about something from work or they are tired, have a lot going on, or aren’t feeling well. Help them see that healthy disagreements are normal in families.
  • Discuss feelings and tone of voice. There are times when parents argue that their tone of voice sounds mean, angry and loud. These moments can be very stressful for children. Literally, researchers have measured cortisol (the stress hormone) in children’s bodies and have found that even infants respond to their parents’ fighting. This could be a time when you apologize for the way you expressed your emotions and use it as a teachable moment to talk about how what we say and do when we are angry or upset with each other impacts everyone in the family. We all make mistakes. The goal is to learn how to do things differently the next time you have a disagreement.
  • Reassure your child that you love them and that your desire is to work things out. If possible, let them see you resolve the issue together. If you are fighting about an ongoing issue that is creating significant angst in your marriage, be careful what you share with your children as you do not want to say things that are untrue or will paint your spouse in a bad light. You might tell them that you are asking for help to solve your problem if you cannot resolve it on your own.

Fighting scares children. As a parent, helping them to see that disagreements are part of being in a relationship and letting them know that just because parents are fighting, it doesn’t mean they are going to get divorced can help settle their anxiety. Teaching and modeling what healthy conflict looks like decreases drama in your home. It also prepares children for healthy relationships in the future.

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

How to Parent an Extremely Sensitive Child

When little kids have big feelings, it may require a different approach.

If you’re the parent of a young child or toddler, you know the joys (and consequently devastation) of a helium balloon. My 4-year-old, Jackie, held tightly to the string of a balloon that had been floating around the house, left over from a surprise “just because” package from work. Her face lit up with pure delight as she ran around the house with it. I warned her not to let go of the string, because if she did, it would float to the top of the high ceilings in the living room, making it unreachable. She dismissed me with a “Yeah, yeah mom,” as kids do, and continued to play as I made lunch in the kitchen. 

One minute later, there was a terrible shriek. Bone-chilling. And the weeping and wailing began. Jackie had accidentally let go of the balloon and, sure enough, it had floated up to the high ceiling, out of reach. And now the world was ending. (TBH, I may or may not have rolled my eyes.) As I stopped preparing food and prepared to go comfort Jackie, I heard her younger 2-year-old sister, Maddie, attempt to comfort her. “I’m here! I’m sorry, sissy! I’m sorry!

Jackie’s response through screams and sobs? “No Maddie, it’s not your fault. You don’t need to apologize. THE BALLOON NEEDS TO APOLOGIZE!

If you’re the parent of a young child or toddler, this scenario seems pretty typical, right? But what do you do when this is a daily occurrence? Or even multiple daily occurrences? What if your child cries easily and often? They have multiple meltdowns a day because they are so highly sensitive. How do you handle the crying, outbursts and tantrums and still discipline a sensitive child, without crushing their spirit? 

Recognize That Emotions Are OKAY.

Many of us were taught at a young age to suppress our emotions, whether it was our parents’ intentions or not. Telling a child, “You’re fine… don’t cry…” when they’re upset minimizes their feelings. Instead of building a connection and safe space for them to process through, it actually tells them that their emotions make you feel uncomfortable, angry or annoyed and can slowly chip away at the sense of security they feel with you. We are often triggered by our children’s behavior, taking us back to how we were parented. So be intentional about allowing their big emotions and responding with connection instead of reacting as if they are wrong. Make space for them to feel, no matter if you see their emotions as logical or ludicrous. Try switching up, “You’re fine… don’t cry…” to “I can tell you are feeling ____. It’s okay to feel that way. I’m here.” 

Help Them Learn Emotional Intelligence.

ABCs and 123s are great for our children to learn, but what about emotional intelligence? Children are not born knowing how to regulate their own emotions. It’s absolutely a skill that needs to be taught! So help your child learn to recognize what they are feeling by giving them the vocabulary of emotions. Talk about your own feelings, read books about naming and dealing with emotions, and above all, be there for them without judgment of their emotions. Then, help them find effective calming strategies like: Count to 10, Take Deep Breaths, Read a Book, etc.  Often if your child is acting out, or “misbehaving,” it is most likely due to an underlying unmet need like being hungry, tired, or feeling disconnected. Grabbing a snack solves 97% of our household meltdowns. (Because yes, kids get HANGRY, just like Mama!)

Practice A WHOLE LOTTA Patience With Your “Orchid Child.”

Human development specialists W. Thomas Boyce and Bruce J. Ellis explained the opposite ends of the human temperament continuum using two Swedish words, Orkidebarn, which translates to “Orchid Child” and Maskrosbarn, which translates to “Dandelion Child.” Where Dandelions are known for surviving the most challenging circumstances and still thriving, Orchids require “just right” conditions to flourish and grow. Children who show more of an “Orchid child” temperament are just the same. They need more time, patience and help at learning to self-regulate their emotions. So hang in there! Be the calm in their chaos, and show empathy and compassion for their big feelings. It’ll take time, but they will learn how to process through their emotions more quickly and effectively as they mature.

Have Confidence In Disciplining Without Damage.

For many parents, the term discipline has been confused with punishment. We want to discipline (aka teach) our children in order to prepare them for the real world. However, neuroscience shows us that children’s brains are naturally impulsive and lack the self-control of adults. Many times children simply cannot (as opposed to will not) follow through with our demands because their brain doesn’t yet have a fully-developed frontal and prefrontal cortex, both of which are crucial to regulating self-control. However, parents often try to force their children to learn to obey through consequences, time outs and other methods that serve to control the behavior. And these types of discipline can absolutely get our children to conform, but that may not necessarily teach them what they truly need to be successful in life: self-control. 

In order to teach self-control to our sensitive child, we need to:

  • First focus on responding with connection. Get down on their level, or try to make eye contact with them. Acknowledge, name, empathize and validate the emotion they are feeling. For example: “I can see you are upset because you don’t want to stop playing. That is very difficult. I understand.”
  • Then, stay calm and caring while still maintaining control of the situation. Avoid raising your voice, pointing fingers or threats. Make space for them to feel angry, upset, frustrated, sad, etc., without trying to “fix it.”
  • Next, provide a simple directive on what needs to happen. The fewer words you use the better. An example may be: “It’s time to leave,” or “We are leaving now.”
  • Then, firmly hold the limit you’ve set. Avoid trying to explain your reasoning or rationale at this moment. For instance, don’t say, “We have to leave right now or we’ll be late and then we’ll miss the whole appointment! Hurry up!”
  • Finally, once the emotion has been regulated (through the help of naming the emotion and working through it using calming strategies), we can come back full circle to discuss step-by-step what happened, without blame or shame, and provide ways to handle a similar situation better next time. (Ask your child what they could do differently next time. If they aren’t sure, provide some options such as using a specific calming strategy and talking about what they are feeling. Be sure to end the conversation with encouragement for next time and remind them that you love them, no matter what!) 

★Bottom Line: You’re NOT Doing It Wrong… It’s Just That Hard

No one has this parenting thing down to a “T.” You know, there’s no such thing as a perfect parent. A sensitive child can be extremely draining… but rest assured, you are not alone. Connection is the key to handling a highly sensitive child, or any child for that matter. You’ll just need to cultivate a bit more patience with your Orchid child. Helping your sensitive child learn how to self-regulate their big feelings will take longer, since their brain needs to be more developed (i.e., older). But give it time and you will see tremendous growth! Meanwhile, keep those tissues handy.

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