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Hal Runkel and his family went to the Waffle House for breakfast one Saturday morning. Upon arrival they received coloring books and paper hats just like the cook wears.

“Shortly after ordering, Brandon, our 2-year-old, became restless,” says Runkel, marriage and family therapist and author of ScreamFree Parenting. “Nothing made him happy. The waitress brought him a waffle which ended up on the guy’s leg who was sitting at the next table. At that point I picked Brandon up to go outside and in the process hit the same guy in the head with Brandon’s leg. By this time everybody in the restaurant was watching. As I went out the door, it slammed behind me, shaking the glass.

“I stood outside shaking my fist and yelling at my son. When we came back inside I sat down and looked across the table at my wife who was trying to contain the smirk on her face. At that moment I realized I still had the Waffle House hat on my head. Clearly, I looked pretty silly, but the truth is I didn’t need that hat to make me look foolish.”

Runkel contends that in many instances it isn’t the children acting foolish; it’s the parents.

Becoming a ScreamFree parent isn’t about becoming a perfect parent with the perfect techniques to raising perfect kids.

You don’t have to have all the right answers at all the right times in order to be the parent you want to be. Instead, you just have to learn to calm down.

“I am convinced that good parenting is about parents learning how to take back their own emotional remote control,” Runkel says. “Parents have to make sure they are being the grown up in every situation… no matter what the children do.

“When a parent is screaming what they are really saying is, ‘Calm me down, I can’t handle what you are doing right now.’ At that moment the parent has lost control and handed the emotional remote control to the least mature person in the household.”

According to Runkel, when parents focus on calming their own emotional reactivity, they begin to make parenting decisions out of their highest principles instead of reacting out of their deepest fears.

There are six keys to being a ScreamFree parent:

  • Give your child physical and emotional space. See children as individuals in their own right, with their own lives, decisions and futures.
  • Don’t preach or threaten. Let the consequences of a child’s choice do the screaming.
  • Be an advocate for your child’s development.
  • Change your vocabulary. Don’t label children or pigeonhole how they see themselves. Labels can be very destructive and should be avoided at all costs.
  • See yourself as being responsible to your children – not for them. For example, when your child throws a temper tantrum in WalMart, you’re not responsible for it, but you are responsible for how you handle it.
  • Know that the greatest thing you as a parent can do for your kids is learn to focus on yourself.

“What every child wants are parents who can keep their cool, even when things get heated,” Runkel says. “Children want parents who are less anxious and prone to knee-jerk reactions and far more level-headed. Your children want you to remain unflappable, even when they flip out. Most parents’ biggest struggle is dealing with their own emotional reactivity. That is why the greatest thing we can do for our children is learn to focus on us, not them.”

Looking for more? Check out this JulieB TV episode on this topic!

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Steps to Help Your Kids Handle Conflict

You need these tips in your parenting toolbox!

ConflictJust saying the word makes some people break out in a sweat while others want to run for the hills. Surprisingly, some people enjoy engaging in conflict, although most people prefer to avoid it at all costs. While many think that conflict is bad, it’s actually neither good nor bad; it’s what you do with it that can create either a negative or positive experience. The reality is, conflict is part of life. And your kids need to know how to handle conflict, too. The good news is, engaging conflict properly can lead to some really powerful outcomes.

Life can be stressful for sure. We often face complicated situations that require navigating differences of opinion, problem-solving and sometimes, agreeing to disagree. One of the greatest things parents can teach their children is the art of managing and/or resolving conflict at home, at school, in the community or on the job.

If you are a parent, consider how you and your kids currently handle conflict.

You’ve probably heard that it’s always best if your kids don’t witness an argument, but taking your disagreements behind closed doors all the time isn’t necessarily helpful. It’s a learning experience when young people see their parents disagree, work it through and make up. That’s the first step in helping children prepare for dealing with conflict in their own life, especially in those moments when you aren’t around.

It’s also helpful if you don’t step in every time your child disagrees with someone.

Instead, ask your child about the issue at hand so they learn to identify what they are irritated or angry about. Then ask what they think their next best step might be. This will help them learn how to think critically and brainstorm potential next steps. It may be tempting to just point things out to them, especially if you are in a hurry, but it’s far more helpful in the long run to teach them how to do this for themselves.

Ask your child about their role in the conflict.

It’s easy to assume it is totally the other person’s fault when both parties may have contributed to the situation at hand. Helping your young person understand how they may have contributed to the issue could give them some insight into their own behavior and how they might want to handle things differently in the future.

Before deciding what happens next, it is wise to address the feelings connected to the offense.

Stuffing those feelings doesn’t help, but neither is physically attacking someone or doing something else to get back at them. Teaching children how to constructively handle their emotions will serve them well for the rest of their lives. Sometimes the best lesson is experiencing how it feels to be treated a certain way. As a result, they will know how not to treat people in the future.

Finally, it’s time for your young person to decide their best next move and take action. 

They might want to rehearse a conversation with you before facing the other party. Writing out their plan might be beneficial. If you’re hoping for a constructive outcome, perhaps both parties could respectfully share their perspective of the situation. Even if nothing gets resolved at this point, they are making progress. 

Throughout this process, your child learns how to handle conflict themselves, which is a major confidence-builder. They will also learn how to slow down long enough to identify their feelings, brainstorm the possibilities when it comes to managing or resolving the conflict, and come up with a constructive way to move forward. These tools can’t be purchased at the hardware store, but they are certainly valuable ones to have in their toolbox.

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Thousands of children will soon make the transition from preschool or home to kindergarten. Some children will look forward to this moment with great anticipation, but others may experience some anxiety about leaving familiar surroundings. Regardless of how your child is feeling, parents play a powerful role in helping make the transition a smooth one.

Timing Is Everything

Now is the time to begin emotionally preparing your child (and yourself) for this new phase in life. Your attitude makes a big difference. Even if you are struggling with the idea of your little one going off to kindergarten, your goal is to deal with your emotions appropriately and prepare your child to make the most of this rite of passage.

Tips to Help You Prepare Your Child for Kindergarten

  • Visit the school where your child will be attending kindergarten.
  • If your child has not been in the care of someone other than Mom and Dad, allow your child to stay with other trusted adults prior to kindergarten to help them get used to another adult being in charge.
  • Plan activities with other children where your child has to learn to take turns and share.
  • Point out colors and shapes at the grocery store and count apples, bananas or cereal boxes.
  • Encourage active play, especially pretend play, with other children.
  • Read, read, read.
  • Limit TV, computer, tablet or smartphone screen time.
  • Encourage independence in managing daily tasks. For example, teach your child how to tie their shoes, let them set the table, make their bed, dress themselves, etc.
  • Start your school routine early to help your child adjust to the change in schedule.

Dealing with Your Emotions

If this is your first child or your youngest child headed off to kindergarten, the transition may be more emotional than expected. Guard against behaviors that might upset your child. If you are anxious about being away from your child, talk with other parents who have already experienced it. Instead of going home to an empty house on the first day of school, plan to have coffee with a supportive friend.

While it can be scary to leave your child at school, remember this: Most teachers love children dearly. They care about their social and emotional development as much as they care about their academic growth.

Helping Your Child Through the First Week

The first week can be especially hard for your child. Here are some ways to make it easier:

  • Be supportive. Adjusting to school may take time. Ask, “What was the most fun thing you did in school today?” Then ask, “What was the hardest thing for you?” Only ask this after you have discussed what was fun. Don’t expect your child to tell you every detail.
  • Instill a sense of confidence in your child. Celebrate your child’s successes. It takes time to adjust to new people, new activities and a new environment. Don’t expect perfection.
  • Set aside a time each evening to share your child’s day. See if your child has brought home any drawings, paintings or scribbling. After a few weeks have passed and your child has gotten used to school, ask about play in the classroom, stories the teacher read, recess, etc.
  • Read everything the school sends home. During the first weeks of school, children bring home a wealth of information about routines, important dates and meetings that you will need to know about. Make sure to check your child’s backpack daily.
  • You may want to go over with your child — in a positive, calm way — the information you have supplied to the school on the emergency card. This includes who may pick your child up other than you, where she can go if you’re ever not home, etc.

For more insight on parenting, download our E-book “4 Ways to Stay Connected After Baby.” Download Here

Looking for more? Check out this episode of JulieB TV on this topic!

Secrets of Long-Term Marital Bliss

Committing to lifelong learning may be the key.

In this culture of throw-away everything, many young people are shocked to meet a couple who has been married for more than 20 years. They often claim to have never met someone who has been married that long. Then they ask, “How did you do that, and why?”

What helps couples experience long-term marriage?

Lead researcher Dr. Robert Levenson at the University of California, Berkeley, along with Drs. John Gottman and Laura Carstensen, launched a longitudinal study of 156 middle-aged and older couples to gain a better understanding of the emotional quality of long-term marriages. Every five years, the couples came to the Berkeley campus to talk about their marriage. They specifically focused on areas of conflict in their relationship.

Twenty-five years later, Levenson believes the research shows some significant findings.

  • The first 15 years of marriage can be challenging. But, the next stage of marriage gets better. Couples stop trying to do extreme makeovers on each other. They take pride in each other’s accomplishments. And, they learn to value and genuinely respect each other.
  • Many couples believe the absence of conflict is a positive thing for marriage. However, the research showed the best indicator of enjoying a long marriage isn’t the absence of conflict, but the way couples handle it.
  • Believe it or not, the wife’s ability to calm down quickly after an intense argument positively impacted long-term happiness in the marriage. Interestingly, the husband calming down quickly did not have the same impact. The research revealed that couples who say “we” stand a greater chance of resolving conflict.

What about the major sources of conflict in marriage?

The research demonstrated that communication or lack thereof often is the culprit. Husbands believe their wives don’t think they can do anything right and wives often feel emotionally alone. The other big bone of contention is children.

Couples typically spend a lot of time taking childbirth classes and preparing the nursery. But, they usually spend little time preparing their marriage for parenthood. Issues arise concerning how to raise the child, division of the home workload and the husband feeling neglected.

Here’s another interesting find: Some portion of a happy, long-term marriage has to do with our DNA.

A gene that helps to regulate serotonin can predict how much our emotions affect our relationships. All humans inherit a copy of this gene variant. Some have a long version and others have a short version. Those with the short variant were more prone to unhappiness in marriage when negativity was present and happier when more positive emotions were present. Conversely, the marital satisfaction of those with the long variant was less impacted by the emotional state of their marriage.

The findings of this study give great information for couples. It’s useful whether you’re preparing for marriage, already in the midst of the first 15 or leaping into the second half of marriage. Even though people can’t change their DNA, everyone can learn communication and conflict management skills. With that said, the key to building a healthy long-term marriage is committing to be a lifelong learner.

***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.***

Imagine walking out of your bedroom on the second floor and seeing your two-year-old climbing the outside of the staircase. That’s exactly what happened to Hal Runkel, marriage and family therapist and bestselling author of ScreamFree Parenting.

“My son looked up at me with a smile on his face and said, ‘Hi Daddy!’” says Runkel. “He was over five feet off the ground. My anxiety level was off the charts, but I knew if I gave in to that anxiety, if I yelled or lunged for him, it would increase his chances of falling.”

From biting or refusing to eat, to asking about sex or learning to drive, our kids are constantly testing our anxiety. Runkel contends that more often than not, parents fail those tests by “screaming.” Anxiety says we need to control our kids.

“If you’re like me, the more you try to control your kids, the more out of control they become, and the more out of control I become,” Runkel says. “If you are yelling at your kids, you are saying, ‘Calm me down. I need you to change your behavior so I can change mine.’ When parents learn to manage their anxiety and teach children tools to manage their own behavior, there will be more young people prepared to launch into the real world. We have to remember, the goal is not to protect our kids in order to calm our anxiety; our goal as parents is to prepare our kids to live a productive life without us.”

Who Is In Control?

Runkel believes that good parenting is about parents learning how to take back their own emotional remote control. When a parent screams, they have lost control of the situation and handed the emotional remote control to the least mature person in the household.

“When parents focus on becoming ‘ScreamFree,’ calming their own emotional reactivity, they begin to make parenting decisions out of their highest principles instead of reacting out of their deepest fears,” Runkel says. “There are specific ways parents can do this such as:

  • See children as individuals in their own right, with their own lives, decisions and futures.
  • Don’t preach or threaten. Let the consequences of a child’s choices do the screaming.
  • Change your vocabulary. Avoid labeling children or pigeonholing how they see themselves. Labels can be very destructive.
  • See yourself as being responsible to your children – not for them. For example, when your child throws a temper tantrum in Walmart, you’re not responsible for it. But you are responsible for how you handle it.

According to Runkel, every child wants parents who can keep their cool, even when things get heated. They want parents who are less prone to knee-jerk reactions and more level-headed.

Runkel’s message is making a difference. For example, when Runkel and his family were eating out once, a young waitress recognized him from an appearance on The Today Show. She tearfully told him, “Thank you for giving me my parents back. They heard you on television, bought your book, and now we just don’t fight as much. They respect me, and I respect them.”

For more information on how to stop yelling at your kids, visit screamfree.com.

How do you feel when your child has a meltdown? You probably do everything you can think of to help them, but absolutely nothing works. It could be in the store checkout line, at bedtime, the second you walk in your friend’s house or at a birthday party. You may find yourself at wits’ end and literally on the verge of having your own meltdown.

There probably isn’t a parent on the planet who can’t relate to this experience. Your blood pressure goes up and you can feel everyone watching you. So, you reach into the recesses of all you know about good parenting in an attempt to use something you’ve learned, but absolutely nothing will console your child.

What now?

Before you judge yourself too harshly, know that you are not alone. There’s nothing worse than feeling out of control. Children have meltdowns. But guess what? Sometimes adults do, too.

Christie Burnett, editor of Childhood 101, encourages parents to consider developing a “Calm Down Plan” to help children handle their emotions. These steps can help them when they are upset or feel out of control.

5 Steps to Managing Big Emotions

  1. Remember that it’s never OK to hurt others. Set clear guidelines about what is acceptable and what isn’t. For example, physically hurting others or destroying things is not acceptable, nor is it OK to say hurtful things.
  2. Take three deep breaths or count slowly to 10. Breathing deeply or slowly counting to 10 gives your child time to recognize their body’s warning signs, such as a tense body, clenched teeth or a racing heart. Talk with your child about how their body feels when they are angry or frustrated. Then introduce the idea of taking a few breaths to compose themselves and choose a better course of action than striking out at another person.
  3. Use words to express feelings and hopes. Acknowledging their feelings gives them legitimacy. Saying what they wish would take place helps to open a problem-solving conversation. Sometimes what they wish would happen is not acceptable, but this is part of the learning process. It’s also a great opportunity to help them think of other options.
  4. Ask for help to solve the problem. Talking through a problem helps to process the situation, even for adults. Let your child know it is OK to ask for help solving a problem, and keep channels of communication open so they feel they can always come to you for help. One day, they’ll be working on much bigger problems than a spat with a sibling or frustration with a friend.
  5. Take the time needed to calm down. Teach your child that sometimes the proposed solution may not seem to be enough. They may still feel angry or upset after working through each of the steps. In these situations, it’s often better to walk away or find another safe way to defuse those feelings.

Whether you’re younger or older, it isn’t easy when you feel out of control. These steps can provide a sense of security and help you develop a plan of attack for those moments when big emotions try to take over.

When Sara left home on the first day of sixth grade, she was super-excited about starting middle school. She was anything but excited when she got in the car at the the end of the day.

Sara told her mom that her friends since kindergarten had decided to end their friendship. The leader of group had told them, “We don’t like her anymore,” a statement that launched Sara and her family into a year of chaos.

Every impulse in Sara’s mom wanted to hunt down those girls, but she knew better than to do that. In conversations with other moms, she asked, “Why all the meanness?” Many of the women had not only experienced this with their children, they had gone through it themselves. In fact, they could still recall the interactions in painstaking detail.

“Peer pressure and rejection hurts so much because it hits a youngster’s self-esteem, which is still wobbly at best during the preteen and early teen years,” says psychologist Dr. Susan Hickman from the Mental Fitness Institute in Chattanooga.

“To make it worse, children at this age have not yet developed good filters to distinguish that this type of experience may be more about the other person than about them. They immediately translate the bad behavior of others into seeing themselves as unworthy. In reality, these two are not connected at all.”

Whether young or old, everyone has the need to belong. So the feeling of rejection hits a person right in the gut.

“If children can’t get a good sense of belonging from a peer group at school, parents have to help them work a little harder to develop a sense of belonging elsewhere, such as through team sports, extracurricular hobbies, neighborhood peers or community groups,” Hickman says. “Once they establish a group with which they can identify, it’s much easier to teach them how to dismiss their peers’ bad behavior and grasp the fact that it is really not about them.”

Hickman believes teaching children mental-fitness skills is the key to navigating these tough situations and evaluating their own feelings. Learning how to challenge and confront false ideas can keep them steady for the rest of their lives. Fortunately, you can help your child with these steps:

  • Develop healthy self-esteem that is not affected by hurtful people’s negative opinions. Help them solidify an appropriate sense of self-approval – regardless of others’ bad behavior.

  • Learn healthy coping skills in the midst of negative circumstances. Self-talk is a key component to this. It’s important for them to positively cope with emotional upheaval instead of harming themselves or flocking to unsavory peers. Walk them through identifying healthy ways they can cope.

  • Keep perspective. Teach them to assess how much the situation has to do with themselves versus the bully. Get them to ask: Why might this person act this way? This teaches them to identify with the other person and separate themselves from the event. It also helps them look at their own behavior and make necessary changes.

  • Find alternative strategies and resources for fitting in. Trying a new hobby, joining a sports team or even finding another friend group may help. A busy mind is far less likely to think negative thoughts.

So, how exactly do you teach them these crucial skills?

“Think of it as you would any other skill, such as tying your shoes,” Hickman says. “Know what you want to teach them and show them the steps to reach their goal. Gently correct any missteps and model the next step for them. Then, have them practice the behavior until it comes naturally.”

This will take some time and probably patience. But in the end, you will have taught them how to handle life situations and their own emotions with dignity.

This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on January 15, 2017.

Give Kids Hope After Tragedy

You can help them process what's going on and guide them along the way.

When tragedy strikes, it seems to bring out the best and the worst in people. One tragedy after another has left people reeling in pain and raw with emotion.

While some experience personal loss and/or injury, traumatic events can impact everyone in some way. In most cases, adults have words and the mental ability to process what just happened, but it is a different story for children.

“Children watch their parents’ or caregivers’ response,” says psychologist Dr. Gary Oliver with the Center for Healthy Relationships. “Even if their parents didn’t say a word about the anxiety they felt, their children could feel it. Anxiety and fear are contagious. Children are very good at reading facial expressions and noticing a change in the tone of voice used by their parents.”

Situations like this are an opportunity for parents to teach their children how to handle tragedy. 

What do you do in the midst of crisis? How do you practice good self-care? How do you move forward even when it’s painful?

“In many instances adults can make a difficult situation worse by our own lack of self-awareness,” Oliver says. “Thinking about your own fears is important. Listening to your children and what they are thinking can be very helpful.  Tragedies like the bus accident, a death in the family or the loss of a home can become a great opportunity to build trust and communication, and to increase a child’s sense of security, continuity and stability.”

Oliver has these suggestions for walking through tragedy with your children:

  • Listen to your kids. Let them talk. Don’t feel like you have to have all the answers. Extroverted children will usually tell you what they are thinking.  Introverted children probably won’t, so it is important for you to understand the nuances of your child’s personality. Help them to share their thoughts by sharing your own thoughts and feelings appropriately. Comfort them and remind them that they are safe, secure and loved.
  • Be honest. For example, it is okay to say something like, “I’m not sure where we are going to live for a while.” Or, “Our lifestyle is going to change a bit.” Being honest can be very healing and therapeutic.
  • Seek to respond with patience instead of react. Children may ask lots of questions and become clingy. Model the steps that will move them toward hope and recovery. Reacting creates panic, often results in poor decision-making and tends to make things worse over time. Responding is more of a process where you acknowledge that what is happening is awful. In other words, you feel the loss, but have hope for tomorrow.
  • Focus on what you can do. In the midst of the greatest tragedy, we always have choices. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are a part of the grieving and rebuilding process, but remember that the process is unique for everyone. Don’t be afraid to seek help for you and/or your children when you feel it is necessary.

In demonstrating these steps for your children, you will give them skills for the future. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed in the midst of tragedy, chaos or uncertainty, your example can guide them to keep perspective and continue to put one foot in front of the other with hope for the future.