By Jill Woolworth, LMFT

So are business, sports, the arts and every other arena in which we are taught to compete, excel and be cool under pressure.  Why?  Because we carry the skill set we learn there into our homes and it wreaks havoc in moments of stress.  How does this happen?

From the day we enter school, we learn to compare, evaluate, grade, assess, fix, problem solve, critically analyze and improve our performance and that of others, be they ancient authors, works of art, modern day athletes or business propositions.   We learn to minimize emotional expression so that it doesn’t interfere with the “business” at hand.   We receive good grades, good jobs, pay raises and promotions according to how well we do so.   We value these skills for good reason.  We want our firemen, surgeons, concert pianists, CEOs and quarterbacks, etc. to calmly assess and “fix the problem.”

The difficulty is that this isn’t what we want when we’re upset about something.  We don’t want to be fixed.  We don’t want advice.  We don’t want the toolkit of skills our educated, capable family members have been taught to use in every other part of their lives.

An upset person wants someone to “be there,” to listen, to empathize, to be a sounding board in a non-judgmental way.  (We’re hard enough on ourselves.)  Giving advice may be the privilege we earn after we’ve provided a safe place to share the hurt, fear, frustration, anger, or sadness our loved one is experiencing.

How do we switch from being “unemotional fixers” to “empathetic listeners” when it’s counter to a lifetime of training?  Realizing it’s a challenge is part of the solution.

I like the acronym CARE.  C is for curiosity.  It keeps us engaged in a concerned and compassionate way with a hurting person without having to provide all the answers.   Asking questions is key.  A is for affirming.  It could also stand for available, accepting, accessible, and appreciative.  Affirmation is particularly important because it communicates to the upset person that s/he has what is needed to handle the situation or to corral the help to do so.  It also keeps our own fear in check.  R is for responsive.  Nothing is more important than to know that someone is taking the time to listen and respond.  E is for empathetic.  The beauty of empathizing with the emotion expressed is that the emotion doesn’t have to make sense to you.  It’s helpful to the other just to know that you hurt because s/he hurts.

We fear that we may fuel the fire of emotion by empathizing when, in fact, strong emotion attenuates with acceptance.  We’ve been schooled to “not be so emotional” or “not to feel angry,” in professional arenas where it is necessary, but in the safety of our homes, we need a safe place to express our true feelings.

God designed our feelings (joy, excitement, sadness, shame, fear and anger) to let us know when something is good or not good.  We would do well to put our training aside, pay attention and give our loved ones the gift of acknowledging what is real for each one in a time of stress.  This way we can become closer to one another and to God Himself.

How to Connect with Your Child by Nancy Sadock

Your 8-year-old son just ruined another one of his younger brother’s play dates by grabbing and throwing their Yugioh cards all over the room. Your 4-year-old is throwing a temper tantrum. Your 14-year-old daughter, whose cell phone you just took away for having people over while you were out, screams, “You will never understand me!” Your 16-year-old son has shut down completely and will not respond to you. Your 12-year-old daughter is failing out of school even though she has always been an A student. You are trying so hard to be a good parent. Nothing seems to help. You feel frustrated, angry, sad, hopeless, and incompetent. You can’t seem to connect with them.

There is a common thread with all of the above scenarios. Whether a child becomes angry, passive-aggressive, shuts down, acts out, or exhibits any other misbehavior, it can almost always be attributed to a perceived loss of connection with a primary caregiver, usually a parent … you! The misbehavior is a protest against that loss, and an indication of how desperately that child craves the connection. Unable to feel that connection, a child typically becomes anxious-resistant or anxious-avoidant, but in either case, distressed. To be calmed, children need to feel that you are always there for them. That you will respond to them. That you want to engage with them. And most importantly, that they are valued in all circumstances not because of what they do or don’t do, but because of who they are. This type of connection occurs when we are able to give unconditional love. When a secure connection is in place, most misbehavior will disappear and you will experience a new closeness with your children.

I once asked my 10th grade son to ask a few of his buddies from the high school what they needed most from their parents to feel connected to them. Ten of the thirteen answered in what I call the “love category”, citing approval, support, care, empathy, nurture, compassion, and love. The other three hoped for food, space, and a car or a boat. We know who the cool ones are. But if asked in a private setting, my guess is the cool ones would have chosen from the love category as well. Children know instinctively what they need, just not how to ask for it. Unfortunately they often ask by misbehaving.

By now you are probably thinking, but I DO LOVE MY CHILD and I still feel don’t feel connected. Dr. Ross Campbell, a psychiatrist who has worked with children and parents for decades, explains the problem: “Although most parents truly love their children, they don’t know how to convey that love in ways that make that child feel loved and accepted.” The good news is that we can learn how. There are solutions when connection seems lost:

  1.  Know what kind of love language your child responds to best. The Five Love Languages of Children by Gary Chapman and Dr. Ross Campbell discusses five things you can give your children to foster great connection: words of affirmation, physical touch, gifts, focused attention, and acts of service. Though most children respond to all five, there will be certain ones that speak volumes of love to your child.

  2.  Get behind the eyes of your child to try to understand what it is they need in the moment. Examine what happened right before the connection was lost. Usually there is an underlying problem beneath the surface that you can address. Remember, to stay connected you do not need to fix the problem, but it is important to understand the problem and be with your child in it.

  3.  Make sure you parent with a healthy balance of nurture and discipline.

  4. Be careful about balancing responsibility and freedom, especially in the teenaged years.

Counselors can assist you in understanding and implementing the above. When problems of disconnection seem resistant to change, Emotionally Focused Therapy has been shown to be highly effective.

Finally, we cannot give what we do not have. It is important for parents to receive unconditional love and know secure connection, too! This is best obtained through a marital connection or partnership. When that is not ideal, secure connection should still be a priority. A counselor may be required to help you. The ultimate goal in connecting with our children can be realized from learning how to give and receive unconditional love. It is within your grasp!