How to work with a child with difficult behaviour

bigstock-angry-child-yelling-58855205-514x342I have two boys, both of which have ADHD.  My oldest son has anxiety/depression, asbergers, and has also been given a diagnosis of Oppositional Defiance Disorder, which I personally do not believe exists.  There are indeed children with a good dose of counterwill (Gordon Neufeld), but regarding ODD, what a horrible label to give a child.  What does that speak?  “You are oppositional, you are defiant, you have a disorder.” It’s interesting that if you put any child with ODD in a room by themselves they show no symptoms of it.  That’s because it’s an emotional, behavioral reaction to environment.

For years we struggled with how to work with our oldest son.  Yelling matches, frustration, hurtful words, despair, battles for control, shame… these were experienced on the daily.  It was a desperate time.  I had no idea how to parent my son, and I know that my lack of knowledge and skill only spiralled my son further down into his mental torment.  It’s humbling to reflect back.

Does this sound familiar to you?  I want to pass on some tangible, simple things I have learned that have changed my parenting.  I’m not perfect at this in the least, but I can say I’ve made significant gains.

Here it is.  Plain, simple, and strait forward.

1.Realize that underneath a child’s behaviour (or anyone’s for that matter) is an underlying emotion that is driving it.  

I’ll give you an example.  My oldest son had a friend over.  The friend introduced himself to my youngest son, who then insulted him right to his face, really hurting his feelings.  Is my youngest son mean?  No.  So why would he say something so horrible without even knowing this boy?  We had to get curious as to why so we could work with the root, rather than just go after the behavior.  Looking deeper we were reminded that our youngest son has had to deal with the rejection of his older brother and his friends.  Insulting a new friend was our child’s way of protecting himself.  He was going to reject before he could get rejected.

In the past I would respond out of my emotion: “I can’t believe you were so mean to that boy!”, would be a long the lines of my normal reaction.  This reaction, which is probably natural for most of us, doesn’t get to the root of the problem and only drives the child further into shame. He’s most likely to repeat the behavior because he hasn’t been given any tools to change, other than to likely hide his behavior from me if he can in the future.

I guarantee you that no child wakes up wanting to make mistakes or fail miserably.  No one wakes up wanting to throw fits of rage or be too stubborn to work with.  Underneath behaviour is something waiting to be discovered by us.  If we go after behavior alone, all our children learn is to hide from us.  But if we can get curious about what’s driving the behavior, our children will feel SEEN.  Who doesn’t thrive under feeling understood?  It’s an amazing foundation to build from.

2. Identify what you believe is the driving emotion behind their behavior.

To use the example of my youngest son, “Chris I can understand you’re used to Ben and his friends not wanting you around and that hurts your feelings doesn’t it?  Does that make you sad?”  Daniel Siegal calls this “name it to tame it”. By identifying with their emotion we are helping them learn to identify emotions.  This also helps them learn to manage their emotions. This attachment gives them the security to know they are safe to learn how to navigate their emotional world and that we are here to guide them along the way.  I now often identify the emotion behind the behaviour and then hold my child till I feel their anger or frustration melt.

Taking my past response of, “I can’t believe you would say something like that!”, only escalates his fight or flight emotional state and he’s left to his own wits end to calm himself down, which usually doesn’t happen easily.  He never learns to navigate his own emotional world, causing his emotional responses to grow in length and intensity as he gets older.

3. Ask your child what was happening in the moment of their behavior.

Key: do not do this in the climax of the behavior.  During these episodes, our children are not in their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain at the forehead that helps us with problem solving.  They are in the back of the brain, the fight or flight section of the brain that does not reason.  Ask this after they have calmed down.  They may not know what was happening inside them, which is ok, but sometimes they can tell us what was really happening.  This is wonderful, because they feel listened to and are learning to verbalize their internal world.

Reminder: we are our child’s navigation to work out their internal world.  This means we need to be willing to be brave with our internal worlds.  How can we help our children navigate their emotions when we’re raging and lashing out ourselves?  This has been a great challenge for me to overcome in the past few years.  I’m encouraged to see years of intentionally working on this starting to pay off.  It’s one thing to have the knowledge of what to do, it’s another thing to actually do it.  I really does take intention and focus on our part to change our habits.  Yelling for me has been a hard habit to break.

4. Don’t just say “no”, say “yes” to something else.

This is where we want to confirm our values.  “Chris, in this house we do not hurt with our words”.  But instead of just ending there, we need to give them something they can do.  Children with ADHD find this particularly hard.  They really want to follow through, but lack the wiring of the neurons to do so.  We can come alongside and help them rewire so problem solving and new patterns can arise.  For example, “Chris, what do you think we can do next time Ben has a friend over to help you feel more secure?”.  Help with the solution if needed, but the important thing is you’re talking openly about the real problem which makes your child feel secure enough to be able to grow in their mental health.

Did you notice there was no typical discipline involved in this?  Most of the time I’ve noticed with my boys that by the time I’ve gone through all these steps, I haven’t yelled once or given every consequence I can think of.

I’ll never forget when a psychologist asked me what I would do when my oldest son would throw fits of rage.  I told her I would send my son to his room, reminding him when he was ready to be a “good boy” he could come out.  This was considered a good way of parenting in my mind.  She gently shook her head and stated, “Oh no, you never send the hurting away from you; you bring them closer”.  This statement has rocked my inner world. First of all, I never realized my son was hurting.  All I saw was his raw edges and violence.  I also have seen the amazing transformation that can happen when I’m willing to be with my son in his mess.  It’s easy to say, very hard to do. I have realized how disturbed I am with emotions such as anger.  I just wanted to send him and his anger away.  To this day I am disrupted in my mind by anger.  I’ve had to learn to manage my anxiety so I can manage the anxiety in my son.

Being with my children in their distress and mess has done wonders for the amount of time it takes them to settle.  I used to battle with them for hours. Now, if I just invest 10 minutes to listen and hold them, I find it can be over that quick.  I wanted to pass this on to any parent or teacher in the struggle as it’s helped me enormously.

So friends, be brave to be with yourself in your own mess and in your children’s. We won’t get it right every time.  It’s ok, that’s not the point.  The point is to protect connection with our children and that we are vulnerable enough to try.

An ex-pastors conversation with her psychic-loving friend about peace

peace-candleThank you for joining me on my journey through advent.  I probably didn’t go in order.  I’ve always been a little unorthodox…

I had a friend call me recently asking me to pray for him.  His psychic told him he was spiritually off centre.  This left him disturbed, as he felt he was doing ok; mediating every morning, chakra’s functioning, in fact, he felt like he was in a great space.  This brought much confusion.  I prayed for him and told him what so many in our world seem to need to hear:

It is finished.  And you can’t finish it any more than it’s already finished.

What’s finished?  Let me get to that in a moment, but first another story.  Over coffee another friend shares with me that no matter how much she does for God, she never feels good enough; never secure in her faith. She is scared to death of God’s judgment and being sent strait to hell for never getting this “Jesus thing” right.  I told her the exact same thing I told my energy-loving friend:

It is finished.  And you can’t finish it any more than it’s already finished.

Both my friends responded the same: there must be something I have to do in order to make myself right.  As I would call it, some hoop to jump through.  The ultimate test of faith is to believe that when the baby in the manger died and resurrected, all was finished.  Peace was brought between God and man.  Peace for the troubled soul in torment with itself.

“I was raised by the gospel of fear”, I once heard a young man say.  From my experience being a gypsy in this world floating between a sub-culture of church and the  liberal artsy types, I see fear speaking everywhere.  Fear whispers to us of our inadequacy.  It lies to us, telling us there must be more we can do to gain that place of “enough”; more meditation, more focus on the chakra’s, more prayer, get to church more, manifest more, do more, be more…

More hoops, more and more hoops.  Dance monkey dance.

Two different belief systems, yet still struggling with the same roots of fear and shame.  Yet it is finished.  It’s already been won.  The prison doors are open and we’re still inside.

Peace has come as a person and finished it all.  There is now peace between God and man but only the awake see it.  “There is now no punishment for those who are In Christ”, I read.  Many of us view punishment through the lense of the fires of hell we heard about through the man yelling on the soap box, but I beg that God goes far beyond just that and says; you are free from the torment you put on yourself to reach me.

He speaks, “I’ve already reached you”.

No punishment.  No fear, no shame.  I am yours and you are mine.  Nothing can reverse it, it is finished, for those who are In Christ.  “What does In Christ mean?”  God gives us the gift of this life to figure that out.  “He who started a work in you will be faithful to complete it”.  He gives me a crown too big and gives me grace to grow up into it.  Do we trust Jesus to be more than just a guilt remover?

His message has been reduced to sin management when it was meant to be a loud announcement of freedom.  This peace with God has no borders.  It stretches to the transgender, the buddhist, the hindu, the atheist, the energy-loving, the Christian.  It reaches past who we think deserves it or who can grasp it and shocks us every time.

We’ve had it mixed up the whole time; we didn’t believe in God, God believed in us.  And through Christ we are made enough.   All things are made new and all we have to do is receive.  He takes fear and shame and trades them in for his abundance.

Simple faith without striving.  It is already finished for you.

Peace.

An broken woman’s issue with Joy – the ex-pastor’s advent series continues

joy-adventMost of the time I feel more broken than I do whole, more pain than joy.  My problem isn’t with suffering, my problem is with happiness.  Happiness reminds me of all that is missing, and no matter how hard I try, it always seems to be just out of reach.  I’m talking about the brokenness that feels like the dark; fear, aching, hellish dark.

How does joy fit into fear, aching, hellish dark?  When all you can think is, “I’m not enough for this”.

I know how to avoid joy.  I’m an expert. Joy requires being known, and the last thing I want when I feel the depths of despair is to be seen, let alone known.  Because to be known requires revealing.  It takes admitting my deep rooted pain and no one wants to see that.  What do we do with pain?  We hide it, we medicate it, we attach to anything that can save us from it.  I’ll never forget the days my son in the pit of his depression was threatening to kill himself.  I drank myself to sleep every night for a year.  The temptation is to put the makeup on, pretend it’s not there, and for the love of God don’t admit weakness.  We form our gods out of our coping mechanisms.

Yet to be known means your shame and guilt come into the light so you can be healed.  I find myself saying over and over: “I can’t fix my pain.  I can’t put the broken pieces back together again”.  Maybe that’s where joy finds us? In this very place of desperation?

Belonging, or the lack of, is our worst fear.  To show up in our mess only to be rejected. Is this not the deep seated root of some of our greatest suffering?

Turns out joy is actually a person; you may know him as a baby in a manger.  The same baby who showed up only to be rejected.  To see “No room” written on the doorpost.  To have the only place of welcome a lowly stable.  Yet there he is, Immanuel – God is with us.  He reaches to us in our suffering and offers up himself and says “You are welcome, in your mess, your grief, your pain – you are welcome here”.

 

You can pursue happiness or you can pursue joy.

 

The same baby in the manger grew into the one who said to a large crowd, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for they are the ones who receive the Kingdom of Heaven”.  The original word for “blessed” is actually “happy”, “to be envied”, “when God extends his benefits”. So those who are broken are the ones who are happy, to be envied in fact, and are the ones God has extended his benefits to”.  Seriously?  I fit the “broken” description but happy is far from how I feel. But maybe that is the mystery of God – to move underground, past our feelings to establish something unseen in the crevices of our soul that becomes the foundation for these God-benefits.

Happy isn’t a feeling and joy is offered to the broken.  How upside down. “Our brokenness opens the door to the Father’s heart” Paul Millar.  Why?  Because God knows a lot about brokenness.

“This is my body broken for you”, said the Christmas baby turned man.  His wounds heal our wounds. His brokenness exchanges for life.  Out of his suffering comes abundance.  What do you do with your brokenness?
Invite the abundance of God right into the middle of it.

“Brokenness happens in a soul so the power of God can happen in a soul. Shame is a bully, but grace is a shield. The miracle happens in the breaking.” Ann Voskamp

I have had it out with God on numerous occasions.  One time when I was particularly in a dark night of the soul I cried out to God in desperation pleading, “What do I get out of all this pain?!”

He replied, “Me”.

And surprisingly, that brought to me the first deep impression of what I would describe as joy.  It wasn’t a feeling, it wasn’t a decision… it was Him with me.

Immanuel.  God Is With Us.

Joy.

An ex-pastors thought on advent part 2: hope

hopeOne time I was a pastor, but now I’m a rebel; a rebel a part of a great rebellion.  “Rebellions are built on hope.” – Star Wars Rogue One.

When Jesus was born, a revolution started.  An uprising that looked much different than the people were expecting.  It was a dark day where Rome ruled a captive people desiring freedom.  They were expecting a hero from God to come save them from the clutches of the Roman’s rule.  One starry night, their Victor was born not in grandeur, but in secret, in the quiet.  Their king arrived not in a palace, but a barn, and no one knew except some shepherds who were awake.  Hope always arrives to the awake first, and reveals to those who lay down their own agenda of expectation.  The nation had an agenda – to see God show his power like he did when they were captive in Egypt, but this time God had a different plan.  Only those awake would see it.

Today, the rebellion continues, but not in the way we expect it as well.  We too, have an agenda of how we expect God to work in our world, yet we don’t see it manifest.  Where is hope?  Where is the rescue from pain and suffering?

Those “awake” today know that the Jesus of hope is not interested in merely being invited into our lives – He is inviting us into His; into his mystery, into the true rebellion.  He wants to show us what God’s underground rescue truly looks like.

For many, hope looks like the rescue of individuals rather than a master plan where a deeper story unveils.   We have heard that Jesus came for us to have a relationship with him.  This is true, but this puts us as the main character of hope’s story when it was never meant to be you and I.  What does God’s plan of hope look like when Jesus is the main character?  The true victor?

When he is placed at the centre of the story it is like a prisoner being pardoned, brokenness healed, an enemy being embraced.  “We have reduced his message to, ‘If you died tonight do you know where you would spend eternity?’ Instead of ‘If you LIVE tonight, how will you enter the kingdom of God?’  Jesus’ message has been reduced more to dying than living”. (Revangelism)  Turns out hope is a kingdom invasion, not just a rescue.

God had something much bigger in mind on the first Christmas.  A story that had been slowly unveiling over the cosmos of timeless time.  His plan’s focus was not to make people pray a special prayer to guarantee a ticket to heaven, but in actuality, bring heaven to earth.  Those awake can partake in it with no strings attached, no hoops to jump through – only see this Jesus as the King he is with a kingdom that invades earth with his glory.   Hope looks like the King coming to where we are, not us striving to reach for him.  Yes he has come, to bring hope that even though there is death, there is resurrection after.   Because he put death in it’s place and brought hope for new creation, there is now hope for the poor, the sick, the lonely, the depressed.  He binds up the brokenhearted, he sets those who have been tormented as captives free.  He releases prisoners.  He restores what has been lost and stolen and rebuilds. He gives us a new name: beloved, a new creation.  The old has gone, the new has come. Immanuel, God has arrived to be with us.  We didn’t reach him, he came to us and found us in our corner.  He doesn’t just reach out his hand to heal us, he extends to us an invitation to become a part of the rebellion of hope – to bring heaven to earth.  Those awake will hear, those awake will see, those brave will respond.

So, beloved, are you awake?

 

 

 

Advent thoughts from an ex-pastor: love

advent-loveYes I was once a pastor.  I may be a rebel, but my faith remains my foundation. I’m not Catholic, but my youngest attends a catholic school where they learn advent.  I was moved by the themes of the candles.  Christmas is a beautiful time of year, but many have questions of what it is truly about; a baby in a barn? Really? And how does Santa fit into that?

What I find most interesting about faith, especially Christian faith, is that many feel they know what it’s about without knowing a lot about it.  For example, the concept of God’s love.  We’ve heard about it enough, we think we have the low down on it, but the older I get the more I discover how mysterious God’s love is. The problem with “knowing” about God is we become obsessed with getting him right and ourselves right. Then when we feel the need to get others right.  We will never “get” him, at least not in this life.  No matter how many boxes we put him in, he breaks out of them all.  We only know God as we believe him to be, yet Jesus said, “If you’ve seen me, then you’ve seen God”.  So, what’s your perception of Jesus then?

Jesus is my favourite.  If he’s what God is like, then God is a fav of mine too.  And if this is true, then God is a whole lot different than you and I imagined.  For example, who did Jesus invite to be at his table?  It certainly wasn’t those we would expect; the elite, the well put together, the ones who looked good.  No, the those at Jesus’ table were liars, doubters, sluts, criminals, double-crossers, misfits, rebels, and loud mouthed know-it-alls.  Not one of them asked Jesus if they could follow him, he sought them. He looked past what others perceived and SAW them.  Interestingly, all religious hoops we feel we need to jump through, if we reflect on who Jesus kept as close company and the fact he chose THEM not the other way around, perhaps there’s much more to his love than what we thought?

Jesus didn’t come to make “bad” people good.  He came to make what was dead come alive.  He didn’t look down from a heavenly place as to say to us humans; “Dance monkey dance” for affection and affirmation. And any faith based on “what I can do”, or “what I manifest” will always struggle with worth.  Christmas offers us this gift; instead of earning, we receive for free.  Is it really free?  Is it that easy?

I would dare to say after all my years of study, the answer is a beautiful “yes”.  It’s when we don’t believe it’s that simple that this beauty gets distorted and the perfect love being offered becomes twisted. The brave are called to simply believe the gift of love that’s been given and receive it.  Jesus didn’t pursue glory for himself, but gave it up and then gave it away.  True love is being willing to glorify another even when you are the more worthy one.  He takes his crown and places it over me.  Then he calls me “beloved”.  In Him I become.  I belong, because the king says so.  I don’t belong to his rules, I belong to his heart.

He never wanted to tame us, he wants to liberate us. This Christmas season I pray you find not only visions of the baby, but the lion who roars with love for your freedom.  Could it be he has already been seeking you?

I believe he has.

The five barriers to courage you can overcome

JumpCourage is something everyone wants.  It’s a sacred desire we all have in common; whether we wish to be courageous to make our marriages last, raise healthy children, overcome anxiety or to step out of our comfort zone to take a risk.  But if courage is something we all desire, why don’t we see everyone experiencing it?

I remember walking into my first hip hop class at the age of twenty two. I was overweight and tired of living under the label I’d be carrying since grade 7 that my class gave me, “Connie Chunk”.  I was 22, and very insecure.  For 10 years I had been teased for my weight, pushed aside, and sometimes even physically bullied.  Walking into that hip hop class was scary, but I really wanted to try.  I struggled with knowing if I would end up feeling like a failure and not get the moves, but hip hop was always something that intrigued me to try. Week after week I showed up and battled through my insecurity of not only feeling awkward for my lack of groove, but being in a room full of beautiful, thin girls.  The first time the class formed a dance circle, I almost cried.  The last place I wanted to be was alone in the middle of a circle. What if they laughed at me?  Judged me?  I went in palms sweaty and full of fear.  I’m sure the move I did was probably the lamest move ever, but instead of ridicule I found a circle of supportive people who made me feel safe.  When I came out of the circle, someone said to me: “You are so courageous”!  It was there I found a new label because someone spoke something different over me. “Connie Chunk” was replaced by “Courageous” that day, and I’ve spent the last 20 years giving that gift of courage away to over 40,000 students in our public schools.

One thing I learned about courage when I entered that cypher is that courage does not guarantee success or failure.  Yet it turns out you and I influence courage in each other more than we knew.  Words and labels people have given us, or even the labels we’ve given ourselves can be our greatest limitation to courage.  I remember thinking, “Would Connie Chunk do this?” before venturing into something new.  It was only till someone spoke something different, and I believed it, that I saw breakthrough.

There is only one way to courage, and that is strait through our fear.  What do we do with fear?  We often attempt to avoid it at all costs, but as a wise 12 year old boy said to me when I asked him, “What would you do if you had no fear?”, he replied, “If I had no fear there would be no risk”.  Wow. Mindblown.  Looks like fear is an opportunity.

When it comes to stepping past fear into courage, there are some barriers to overcome.

  1. Self Protection: This is when we attempt to control our environment that is making us feel uncomfortable.  We may appear aloof or disinterested.  We may even put others down or find ourselves being overly critical of others and ourselves.  This is merely our self going into protection mode.  No one wants to look like a fool in front of others, yet we rob others of the gift of ourselves when we take ourselves too seriously.  I always talk about Carlton from Fresh Prince of Bel Aire when I speak because he is the perfect example of the freedom and happiness others experience when we allow ourselves to BE.  Who doesn’t love Carlton?!  And yet his dance moves arent’t half as impressive as Will Smith’s, but we buy into him because he allows his self to be seen without shame.
  2. Shame: The one thing that brings shame to most of us is the feeling of being “ordinary”.   We feel ordinary when our culture tells us to live extraordinarily, when our lives don’t seem to compare with others on social media, and when we feel our talents and gifts don’t seem to measure as good as others.  Shame is self worth that depends on what we accomplish.  Shame happens every time you hold back.  At the root of it, shame is actually the fear of being disconnected; disconnected from belonging, being understood, valued, and having the chance to be a part of something.
  3. Perfection: If we wait till we are perfect to step out in courage, then we never will.  “Perfect” doesn’t exist.  Perfectionism isn’t the same as striving to do things well.  Perfectionism guards, puts up walls, and defends what we feel is ours to keep to ourselves.  The problem with waiting to be perfect is that it’s a hustle you will never win.  In fact, perfectionism has been linked with depression and anxiety.  It’s a moving target we will never hit.
  4. Fear: Every time you step out to do something you desire, you may hear this statement whisper in your mind, “Who do you think you are?”  What gives you the right to step out?  It’s a good question. Why YOU?  You are worthy to be brave.  Yes you.  Not just the person sitting next to you, or the person who you think has all the confidence in the world.  YOU.  You have every right to step out of your fear and into courage.  When asking students to join a dance circle I always find it interesting when someone says ‘no’. “No” makes people think there’s something to be afraid of.  When one person says ‘no’, you can guarantee others who have caught the fear-vibe will be saying a BIG ‘NO’ as well.  On the other hand, when no one says ‘no’ to going in the cypher, no one gives fear a second thought.  Everyone is too busy enjoying the freedom of courage they are experiencing in themselves and others.
  5. Comparison: It squishes creativity, because when we compare, we don’t see what we have to offer is valid. Comparison steals from us.  It steals opportunities where we could have succeeded. It steals our peace of mind and lies to us to focus more on what we lack.  It steals our friendships, causing us to become jealous and to put on more armour to protect ourselves.  “Worrying happens when we’ve experienced comparison and dissatisfaction with ourselves so much that we don’t join together to heal.  Instead we get jealous of one another and isolate ourselves”. – Brene Brown.

What does a courageous person look like?

A courageous person….

Is afraid…. but steps out anyways

Lets go of their armour and invisibility cloak, allowing others to SEE them

Fails…. often but knows that growth comes from taking risks and learning from failure.

Doesn’t take failure personally

Lives honestly about their shortcomings without hating on themselves

Isn’t afraid of hard work and perseveres when things are hard

Learns from others and accepts feedback

Creates courage in others

Lets go of comparison

Knows they are enough, even when they’re not “the best”

Works for excellence but isn’t bound by the prison of perfectionism

Embraces how uncomfortable it is to put themselves out there

Surrenders the outcome

You were born to be courageous.  You have what it takes.  Where do you find courage? You find it when you step past fear.  There are no short cuts.  Courage happens in your every day, small choices.  It’s who you are when no one’s looking and the bravery to show who you truly are when everyone IS looking.  It’s letting go of needing to be in control and surrendering to whatever outcome.  It’s realizing there is enough room for every one to succeed.It’s when you show up and let yourself be seen.  It’s an ongoing process that will never end.  We need to be willing to continuously choose courage throughout our lives.  It’s reassuring to know that everyone relates; we ALL struggle with being courageous, but at the same time, we can all experience the freedom courage can bring us when we choose to live it.

When we become more courageous we see less bullying, violence, racism, depression, identify crisis, self shame and instead see more creative social change, confidence, possibility, and freedom. “Acting on courage is the first step to any kind of self development.  Once we learn to be courageous ourselves, we can spark courage within our societies”, –  Ryan DeGuzman.

The world around you needs your courageous acts.  Are you ready to live this kind of reality?  You can. I dare you.

*This blog post included content from my new “Courage Program” Mpact Movement is bringing to create cultures of courage in schools.  If you are interested in the program coming to your school, please contact me at mpactmovement@gmail.com or check out our website for more info.

Strait up HOW screens are effecting our kids (without the mommy guilt)

addicted-to-video-gamesMy family and I took two months off screens this summer.  How did that go?  Let me fill you in, but first let me answer for myself first and then tell you what my kids really thought about the experience.

After two months of being off social media I am back and refreshed from the time away. I didn’t realize what a normal part of life it has become. It was strange to not share special moments with friends. Sometimes it felt disconnected and lonely – that’s when I remembered this thing called the phone. The greatest discovery for me was how much my brain needed the downtime. It freed up my creative brain space to get some projects done, as well as I was able to be more present with those surrounding me in the moment. I can say my appreciation for spending time sharing with friends over coffee became much more appreciated. 

Before I tell you what my kids thought of the process, I would like to share with you why I did this.

I noticed my children were becoming obsessed with screens, particularly gaming.  At the same time I noticed an increase in anxiety, irritability, meltdowns, distractibility, trouble following simple directions, and little interest outside of playing video games.

When “no” became the regular answer when asked to do fun things with the family, I had a problem with that.  This is when I knew that something needed to change, but what?  HOW were screens effecting my children so much?

Here’s how screens are effecting children in general from a neurological point of view.

Immediate Gratification 

Video games keep the gamer engaged by giving them a sense of control and choices which lead to instant rewards, being gratified immediately. Instant rewards send dopamine levels, the feel good chemical in the brain, through the roof.  The problem with feeding reward systems and dopamine in the mind is that it takes more and more to appease it.  What’s interesting is that research is finding in children the same reward circuits that are being activated with video games are the same reward circuits that feed harmful addictions.

The other problem with raising dopamine levels through the fast-paced rewards that are given through video games is that it puts the body into a high state of arousal, followed by a crash.  This is where we see our children become disregulated, moody, anxious, and sometimes aggressive.  Dopamine is what makes the player want to play more.  Game designers are geniuses at creating intensity in their games to satisfy the inner reward system.  Coming down from high dopamine levels causes a child to become disorganized or anxious.

The other problem is that serotonin, important for being social, having a stable mood and coping with stress, becomes more disregulated with video game play, making games more like self medication. This hyperarousal and inability to process is where the prefrontal cortex is compromised.  The prefrontal cortex gives the ability to plan, have empathy, and problem solve.  When the prefrontal cortex is compromised it hinders attention span and the ability to handle stress.

 

Stress

The hyperarousal that video games create is caused by the constant state of being in “fight or flight brain”, making it hard to relax or think things through.  When a child lives in their fight or flight brain continually, it becomes hard to regulate calmness.  The nervous system is in a state of stress, and if that is prolonged, it can actually cause damage to the nervous system.  If you’ve ever experienced a child who normally is fairly even keel turn savage after being asked to stop playing a game, it’s because their nervous system is on overload.

 

Loss of Curiosity

To be human is to be curious, inspiring creativity.  Unfortunately, slow cooked creativity that comes from a curiosity about life can’t compete with the high levels of dopamine release a video game can provide. Normal things become boring.  Nature is too slow.  Relationships become a let-down compared to the instant gratification rewards a game offers.  There’s no comparison.

 

“Wait, I thought you said there would be no mommy guilt?”.  It’s hard to read the reality of what happens with too much game stimulation isn’t it?  However, remember these are just facts to keep in mind.  I started observing these three dangers in my boys and knew we needed a break.  Interestingly enough, when we were about one month and a half through, I noticed how much my boys actually need games for downtime.

“Wait, didn’t you just say in a round-about way that video games are bad?”

I gave the facts, yes, but also realized after couple of times when I allowed the boys to play for a limited time near the end of the summer that it actually refreshed them.  I realized at that moment that it was going to take time and great intention on my part to navigate the waters of balancing screens in our home.  Coming back into the fall and permission again for screens, my goal is to train my boys to learn how to handle them.  My youngest, for example, cannot handle the same amount of time on a screen as my older son without becoming moody and disregulated.  I’m teaching him to notice the signs and get off the screen before it gets out of control.

As for what my boys really thought about this process, they will tell you it was horrible, but deep inside it has built the awareness inside of them that screens can easily get out of control.  We all noticed the difference in our mood over the summer (but they won’t tell you that…)

There is no easy answer when it comes to screens. I wrote another blog on navigating screens which you can read about here.  I think it’s important to stay flexible, keep communication lines open and be transparent through the process.  It’s important to look for the signs mentioned above and navigate accordingly.

No mommy guilt needed.  There’s no pat answer.  Every child is different.  You CAN teach your children to be masters of the screen, rather than the other way around.

 

 

 

Why limiting screens is not the issue. The real danger is…

KNUTSFORD, UNITED KINGDOM - NOVEMBER 29: In this photograph illustration a ten-year-old boy uses an Apple Ipad tablet computer on November 29, 2011 in Knutsford, United Kingdom. Tablet computers have become the most wanted Christmas present for children between the ages of 6-11 years. Many parents are having to share their tablet computers with their children as software companies release hundredes of educational and fun applications each month. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

As a family we have decided to break from screens this summer.   Disclaimer: I don’t believe screens are the enemy.  They are not “bad”, nor am I encouraging the avoidance of them.  In fact, the way I handle screens with my boys is to be able to manage the vast freedom they require.  We cannot guard our children forever against the waves of information and sometimes sketchy material they will come across with one click of a button.  It has always been my desire to teach my son’s how to navigate through this, encouraging the value of guarding their heart above all else to be the filter in which they decide what is permissible and what should be avoided.  This is no easy task.  It would be much easier to allow children to watch and play whatever they want or take screens away all together than to teach them how to manage their freedom.  It’s all hands on deck that takes time and dedication on the part of the parent.

Why are we taking a break?  Limiting screen time is NOT the issue.  Here are the issues:

With the debut of the iPhone and iPad in the last eight years, there hasn’t been substantial research about how increased screens have effected young minds.  The good news is that research is starting to arise.  The bad news is that it’s not looking good and our job as parents helping our children navigate just got harder.   I always say to my boys that I will not limit their screen time until I see a need for limitation.  When I ask for them to get off and they argue, that’s when I have a problem with it.  When the suggestion of bike rides and walks together become “lame”, that sends a red flag.  When friends come over and all the kids come to us parents with sullen faces and proclamations of, “We’re BORED without video games”, it’s clear screens have become an issue.  In the last year these very issues have increased in our home, therefore the need to wind down, reset, and get back to reality.

Our children have become overstimulated and unable to process the delay of gratification because of screens.  The problem with video games, multi-tasking, and constant iPad use is that this type of activity releases dopamine (the feel good hormone) in the mind.  When you’re used to the high arousal state screens constantly provide, it’s hard to see something like nature as fascinating.  The dopamine needs to be fed, and at higher levels each time.  Video game creators are constantly leveling up video game stimulation by creating visuals that are faster and more complex, increasing the intensity in rewards, which then increases the adrenaline experienced.  How can a bike ride compete?  It’s pale in comparison.

Research has started to show how screen use impacts the central nervous system.  It puts the body into a state of constant arousal that is followed by a crash.  Does your child experience mood swings? Concentration problems?  Limited interests outside of wanting to stay in front of the computer?  Other side effects of overuse of screens are; depression, inability to handle frustration, poor sportsmanship, unable to handle emotion, social immaturity, trouble sleeping, and keeping eye contact.  This is what coming down from “dope” (dopamine overload) looks like.  Dopamine demands: MORE.  It becomes an addiction to arousal.  Does that sound like children today?  Curiosity dies replaced with a dependancy on screens to escape the nemesis “boredom”.  Sometimes the loss of screens can cause anxiety.  Screens to many children have become a form of self medication.  I know this became true for my oldest son.

Screen time overkill (much like what it’s like around my home in the middle of Canadian winter) puts a child in a state of chronic stress due to the part of the brain that is activated in active screen time.  Screens bypass the prefrontal cortex, where empathy and creativity is formed, and utilize the fight or flight part of the brain.  Using this part of the brain continuously puts our body in a state of chronic stress.  No wonder students are more stressed out and anxious than ever.  They never get a breather. Chronic stress leads to disregulation – the ability to modulate responses appropriate for the surroundings present.  Ever seen a child who is locked in defensive mode?  It’s survival mode, trained by constantly living in the fight or flight part of the brain.  This then increases the cortisol hormone which impacts blood sugar levels.  Children with attachment to screens often crave sweets as well.  This type of stress affects a child’s ability to sort new facts and retain new information.  You could accurately say it increases the appearance of what looks like ADHD, and if they have ADHD, like my boys do, it only makes it worse.

When my oldest started to not want to leave the house due to missing out on his Mindcraft or Growtopia game I knew we needed a change.  When I realized that my five year old had been handed over to screens for the year we were dealing with our oldest son’s depression and anxiety issues, he experienced a change for the worse.  We observed much of the effects I listed above in him.  It’s humbling to look at the the negative patterns that have been created by my permissiveness.  But there is also hope because we as parents have the power to create boundaries and paths to resilience for our children that can help them manage the world of screens.

At this point, a reset is needed. The goal of a screen – free summer is to give my boys nervous system a break and hopefully see some of the negative attachments and behaviours disappear.  My husband and I are also looking forward to this reset from screens ourselves.  Make no mistake, adults are effected as well.  I plan to document the results as well as the feedback from my children on this journey this summer.  I will be sure to update you in the fall.

In the meantime, be sure to read the blog that preceded this one, as I feel it addresses something far greater than screens in terms of what our children need today.

 

 

 

What kids need more than ever, and what we’re not giving them. You may never guess what it is

children question markI asked a group of teachers that I have worked with over the span of eight years this question, “Do you feel the way you teach kids has changed in the last ten years?”  All responded with a resounding, “YES”.  We used to be able to teach students for a consecutive 30 minutes, that window has now closed to aproximately 5 minutes – and for me that’s teaching dance, not math!  Boredom in school is rising. Children are more stressed and anxious than ever. What happened in such a short period of time?  Most teachers feel that screens have had a large part to play, with the iPad and iPhone making a huge market debut in the past eight years.

I have my theories on screens you will hear about in a further post, but for now I feel the dynamic shift in children today can be found in a deeper place than screens.  It’s something that even we as adults have neglected to give ourselves, thus preventing us from experiencing freedom from stress that we deserve, along with our children.

That one thing we are not giving ourselves and our children is downtime.

Now you may think, “I have plenty of downtime”, however, my question in response is, “What are you doing with your downtime?”  TV?  Scrolling through Facebook?  I’m sorry to say, that’s not downtime.  Although it seems like “brain-dead” activity, your brain is very much “on” during these types of activities. When children play on iPads or video games, they aren’t resting, they are almost overdosing on dopamine levels (that feel good hormone that keeps us wanting more stimulation) as well as using the fight or flight part of the brain which doesn’t add to healthy brain integration.  This isn’t necessarily wrong, but it has serious implications if consistently repeated and if it’s what we are considering “rest”.

Typical North American family day: Wake children up, rush to get dressed, eat, brush teeth and out the door for school and work. Mom or Dad may have to bark out commands like a song on repeat in order to see children out the door. Hop in the mini van only to realize someone forgot their lunch.  Rush back in the house, retrieve the lunch, and speed to recover the 5 minute commute time lost.  Drop the kids at school, parents head to work.  All have a full day of engagement of people, tasks and routine.  Hop back in the mini van only to wait in traffic to pick up children either from school or after school care.  Kids come home wiped from the day to their electronics so parents can figure out what to whip up for dinner.  Sometimes it’s drive through to get kids to soccer, dance, music, or other extra cirricular activities which involves yet more driving. iPads, iPhones help children cope with the continual commuting.  Family comes home and crashes, exhausted from the day only to press repeat the next day.

We were never meant to keep this kind of pace.  Adults find it hard, kids suffer harder.  The average amount a father talks to his children a day is 10 minutes.  Compare this to a father in early Russia where a father would spend a few hours of meaningful conversation with his children they called “soul talk” (Robert Bly, Sibling Society).  Children need language and conversation in order for their brains to develop.  They need adults to talk to them about family, God, desires, failures.  Children who don’t get rich conversation from adults never learn to distinguish emotions.  You could say today’s youth are experiencing an epidemic of empathy. They literally don’t know how to relate to others emotions.  They are numb from the withdrawal of positive adult interaction and community participation in their lives.

Both children and adults need downtime free from responsibility, screens, social media and tasks to be able to rest, explore creativity, take a walk, connect with loved ones, take a break from being “on”, having to perform and just “be”.  To come back to a place where belonging and safety create a blanket of refuge to refresh the soul from the day. To be able to play and laugh.

I ask myself on the daily: did I laugh with my children today?  Did they experience freedom of play and creativity?  Did I?  If not, then I owe it to myself and them to create space for this.  That means saying “no” to what society has said is normal, and saying “yes” to what truly is healthy.  This looks different for every child and family, but the need remains the same: downtime is key to mental and family health.  Your children do not need to run around everywhere, getting involved with everything and neither do you.  I actually had a conversation with a friend about just this where she pulled her kids out of competitive sports that was demanding sometimes up to five nights a week from her family.  I love what she said about extra-cirricular overkill, “You can’t have my family”.  Many caught in the rat race of “busy” don’t realize we actually have the option to say “no”.

Our children need more time for unstructured playtime where they have to figure out what to do.  Children today have NO IDEA how to do that.  We have scheduled them silly, exhausted ourselves giving them numerous options for entertainment, and what have we created?  Stressed out kids who only know instant gratification.  Kudos for our effort Gen X parents, but this isn’t what our kids need.  My friend shared this quote with me that I feel is fitting, “The greatest failure in life is succeeding in something that doesn’t matter.”  We’re succeeding in giving our children opportunities we never had, but now they’re stressed out.

So, how can you slow down your life and make it more simple?  How can you find more time to sit and have meaningful conversations, allowing for more breathing space to ease anxiety and bring a greater sense of wellness to your home?  These are some ideas.  I would love to have you add to the list in the comment section.

  • – Start with your personal current schedule and evaluate.  What are some things that you cannot change, such as your job?  Perhaps a change of job is possible to create more space?  Sometimes it’s not, but there may be opportunities to make work more flexible.  Just a minor adjustment can make all the difference.  How about your own personal activities outside of family and work?  Are they serving you and your family or are you serving them?  One thing I have loved about having kids is that I have had to narrow down my interests to the things that truly mean something to me, rather than involving myself everywhere.  Whatever brings me the most life hasn’t been axed, everything else has.  This kind of focus has been invigorating.
  • – Look at your family’s schedule and evaluate.  What’s one thing your children love to do?  Create space in your weekly calendar for your children to enjoy that one thing and have the rest of the evenings/weekends off.
  • – Don’t be afraid of the statement, “I’m bored”.  Gen X parents tend to jump through hoops for their kids when they hear this.  We medicate our children from the “bored virus” with screens, outings, and suggestions that kids don’t know how to figure out their own creativity.  We need to allow them to feel the tension of boredom to make room for the innovative mind to manifest.  Wait for it…
  • – Meet your neighbours.  I remember my street growing up.  There was eight children within four houses.  Our motto was, “You’re a kid, I’m a kid…. wanna play?”  Sometimes all our kids need is the spark of other kids on the street to invite playtime back.  Even my pre-teen son enjoys my kindergarten son’s friends!  He never says “no” to a game of hide and seek when initiated.
  • – Make family connection a priority.  Go on a walk, sit down and talk with your children, play a game.  Be available.  I make it a priority to not be on my own screen while my children are home.  I enjoy sitting outside listening to the birds and seeing my children come out to just sit with me.  If we are always busy even at home, it defeats the purpose.
  • – Find curiosity and creativity again.  The world is spectacular and you are creative.  You will be surprised at the life you find when you discover this, and your children will follow your lead.
  • – Always keep looking for ways to guard simplicity.  Guard it with your life.

It may not be easy at first, but I can say as a recovering “go-go-go-aholic” that it becomes the breath of fresh air you and your kids will never want to lose.

How about you?  How do you give yourself and your children downtime?

 

One way you can effectively communicate to an impulsive ADHD child

not listeningTypical scenario raising two boys with ADHD: impulsive behaviour going from zero to sixty and only looking to get worse.  Mom enters the scene, tells her boys to stop.  The word “stop” reaches their ears but doesn’t seem to register.  Mom gets closer, gets down to their level and says it again, “stop”.  The boys look at her, stop for a moment, then proceed like they didn’t hear her at all.  Hyperactivity shows no signs of simmering down.  Mom’s “STOP” starts to get louder and more intense but it doesn’t phase the boys at all.  They are on a rollercoaster ride and can’t get off.  Problem is, so is Mom, but she’s on a rollercoaster of frustration and it’s about to get LIVE up in here.  Scene ends with Mom losing it.  The boys stop, then look at their Mom then at each other like, “What’s her problem?”

Press repeat.

Does this situation sound familiar?  If you have a child with ADHD then you have probably experienced the same scenario.  ADHD is defined by poor attention skills, unable to control impulses, and hyperactivity. They may experience frequent memory lapses, lack social skills, and make jokes when it’s not appropriate.  Their emotional states go through up and down swings of emotion.  It is literally a deficit of attention, a disorder in life skills. Their attention is situational on whether their interest is peaked or not.  Here’s the thing, they are not purposefully inattentive or disobedient.  Neurologically, there are forces that inhibit them from control.  “I want to control myself but my mind won’t let me” (from Scattered Minds, Gabor Mate). “ADD is not a problem of knowing what to do, it’s a problem of doing what you know.” (Improved Delay Responding, Russell Barkley).

That’s all great to know, but how do we teach our children how to function in a world that requires them to get a grip on their impulsiveness?

The other day I was beside myself trying to communicate with my boys about how their careless behaviour was driving my frustration through the roof.  I was asking for their cooperation and didn’t know how to communicate in a way they could understand.

That’s when I grabbed a glass of water. waterfilling

I said to my boys, “Let’s pretend this glass is me and the water is my frustration level”.  When I see behaviour is getting out of control and I tell you to stop. When my words aren’t being heard my frustration starts to build.”

I poured more water in the glass wateralmostfull

“If my words continue to not be heard, my frustration only grows until finally it’s reached the top and overflows.  This is where I’ve had enough”. (you may see crazy-mom at this point)

They looked at the overflowing glass of water, seeming to understand. wateroverflow

“I don’t want to have the kind of relationship with my boys where I am always overflowing with frustration.  It’s important we listen to one another’s words and cooperate so we can enjoy one another as a family”.  I reminded them of this so they would remember that I’m not trying to “fix their behaviour” as much as I am seeking to save the connection of our family.  Frustration only separates the divide between child and parent, which then only increases bad behaviour.  It’s a vicious cycle and I was tired of being in it.

Now when my boys are out of control and my words aren’t reaching them, I grab a glass of water and show them where my frustration level is.  This visual has been effective.

What helps a child with ADHD more than anything?  Dope.  That neuro loving Dopamine we derive from loving connections.  This is what they need.  Frustration only blocks it.  Once we can communicate past frustration, connection can happen once again.  The good news is that our children want this desperately.  They want to do good, we just need to keep being creative to help them see that through.

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