124: Helping Your Kids With Their Emotions
Helping your kids with their emotions is a critical life skill, yet we often don’t equip kids with these valuable skills. Ron Deal speaks with Michelle Nietert, LPC, about common feelings kids in blended families experience and how parents can help.
About the Guest
Helping your kids with their emotions is a critical life skill, yet we often don’t equip kids with these valuable skills. Ron Deal speaks with Michelle Nietert, LPC, about common feelings kids in blended families experience and how parents can help.
124: Helping Your Kids With Their Emotions
Michelle: I had a stepmom recently tell me, “You know, I'm doing a lot better because I've decided to be the concierge and these are guests in my home; and when I treat them that way, things go well, but when I tried to over parent them, things don't go well.” I really reinforced that for her because I said, “You know, some of that is because they can hear it better from their biological parent, especially corrections.” And so sometimes I encourage, whether it's a stepmom or a stepdad, to let that parent be the corrector, and for you to be the encourager, the cheerleader of that child a little bit, because your child is doing a lot of things right, no matter how difficult the relationship is.
Ron: Welcome to the FamilyLife Blended podcast. I'm Ron Deal. We help blended families, and those who love them, pursue the relationships that matter most. And we do that, by the way, through resources like this podcast, our on demand online courses, about a dozen books we've produced, multiple video series, web articles, and live and livestream events. We've got it all. Find what works for you and let us support your family journey. The show notes will get you connected to all of that.
And there's one more thing that you might not be aware of. If you're listening on the Apple podcast app, look at the top just under our name, FamilyLife Blended Podcast, you see that? There's a link there that says FamilyLife Network. Did you know that FamilyLife® produces eight different shows and podcasts? Browse through them. You might find something interesting. You might especially be interested in that little one-minute feature I do, called FamilyLife Blended Minute. That's right. It's a daily dose of encouragement for blended families one minute at a time. Who knows, maybe you'll want to subscribe to that as well.
I've been looking forward to this conversation. Michelle Nietert is a licensed professional counselor and the best-selling author of a number of books for children. That's right; for kids. One of her titles is Managing Your Emojis—love that title—God, I Feel Sad, and God, I Feel Scared. She leads a team of counselors in the Dallas area and is a popular speaker on topics regarding mental health, faith and parenting. She and her husband, Drew, have been married for 20 years and they have 2 children. Michelle, thank you so much for joining me today.
Michelle: Thanks for having me, Ron. I've been looking forward to this too.
Ron: Listen, you and your team of counselors, you guys do a lot of work with kids in co-parenting situations, single parent family situations, and blended families. What are you hearing from the kids? You know, I always say, “It's the counselors who really know what kids are thinking.” So what are you guys hearing from kids that you think parents need to know?
Michelle: I think this is true for elementary age kids, but especially when we get to middle school and high school, I think if they could say anything to their parent, especially a stepparent, is “Be patient with me;” that “This is new for me, just like it's new for you. I'm trying to figure this out too. I'm navigating a lot of relationships and a lot of emotions.” I think sometimes, especially we forget that when we look at a middle or high schooler, especially these days—I mean, I've got a 13- and 16-year-old—they look almost like adults, but their brains are about half developed. And so sometimes our expectations of that child don't match what's really possible for them.
Especially when it comes to emotional self-regulation, because the last part of the brain to develop is the frontal lobe, and that is where, you know, that fruit of the spirit of self-control, if you're thinking about a scripture like in Galatians, really comes from. And so, I think a lot of times as kids are going through grief, adjustment, learning to manage two homes, or maybe they're not even just learning. I'm dealing with a situation currently in one of our situations in our counseling center where the kids have become teenagers and parents haven't thought about an update.
You know when we make plans, when we've separated and, maybe even remarried and they're like, six to ten, everything changes when they start driving and their social lives change, and even their rooms. I have one parent where the home feels—now they feel more like a visitor in the home because their child is—still looks like a child's home and they're teenagers and the other parent has updated.
So sometimes it's just things like that; that kids even sometimes aren't aware what's going on themselves. That's another thing I would say that I think kids would say to their parents. “Sometimes I'm feeling a lot of things, and I don't know where it's coming from, and I can't even identify it. I just feel a lot.” I think parents also relate to that these days.
Ron: Yes, I think you're right. So be patient with me could also include what you just said. That whole notion of, “I don't even know what's going on with me, Mom and Dad. I really need you to slow down and let me sort of figure this stuff out.”
Michelle: Yes. I feel like a lot of times when emotions—what we want to do as parents, we want to be anchors and co regulators in emotions. And what I mean by that is that if I can turn to God and get some calm, when I have a kid that's emoting a lot, then I can become this, like, extension cord between them and God to help them get calm. But usually what we're focused on in that moment—and I feel like this happens a lot in blended families because we're trying to establish boundaries and lots of other things, that we're focused on the problem instead of the emotion.
One thing I talk about all over the country is when you start having emotion on a scale of one to ten and you're above like a seven, then let's focus on the emotion and getting the emotion down before we continue conversation. This is so well researched, Ron. If you think about it—I mean, I don't know about you, but like we joke, one of our theorists would hook you up to a microphone. [Laughter] I mean, not a microphone, like a heart rate monitor.
Michelle: And if I hooked you up to a heart rate monitor and you couldn't talk until you got your heart rate down, what would conversation be like in your home? My husband laughs, there'd be less of it. [Laughter]
Ron: There’d be less of it, right. Okay, so let me replay that for the listener because I think there's a lot to unpack there. Part of what we're doing as parents is we are helping our kids with their emotions. They don't know what those emotions are. It's hard to put words on them. They're not even sure what they're feeling and processing, all of that. By the way, this is all applicable to you and me as adults. Like, I don't think most adults—I'm 57 and I think I'm just beginning to figure out my own emotions, so the kids really are having a difficult time.
What I hear you saying is it's our job to help calm them down, calm ourselves down—there's a two-way street there—and bring the emotion down because if the emotion is high, we're not, what?—functioning well. Our brains aren't working.
Michelle: Well, our brain's not working if I hate to be in my Texas accent full on. [Laughter] It's kind of like, and sometimes I'll say it's stupid talking to stupid because when the part of your brain that's logical is not functioning when the emotional is overrunning it. We call it—this thing called dialectical behavioral therapy.
We say the goal is to do wise mind. And I believe as Christians, our goal is to involve both parts of our brains working along with the power of the Holy Spirit. And to be honest, Ron, I need all of that—
Michelle: —when emotions are high. I’ve got teenagers and sometimes they're coming in hot into the car or into the house or whatever. Or I'm coming in with an agenda and the minute they hear my agenda, whether it's, “You need to do this,” or “No,” then they're coming in hot. When they get hot, the last thing we want to do is join them in that because that's when things escalate, and nothing works right then.
What we want to do is hold on to our calm, and that's a skill I think you have to learn away from them. We work with parents and co parents sometimes to practice on each other. Because I can find a marriage trigger real fast for them to practice on. Learning to calm down first and then speak and address the issue. Even if that means somebody's going to—I laugh.
I'm doing a training for preschool teachers this weekend. And when my kids were in preschool, I spent more time in mommy time out than they ever spent on our calm down step. [Laughter] I think that's what you said. I love what you said about parents needing this too, because we can't give to our kids what we don't know how to do when we're interacting with them. That's why a lot of times they seek out a counselor because we know how to do that.
Ron: Give me an example of mommy calming down, daddy calming down. What are some ways that we need, and why do we need to calm ourselves down, and what are some practical little tools we can use?
Michelle: Because if we don't calm down, we will say and do stupid things we don't mean and it's hard to take the toothpaste back, and then we end up hurting our kids and if we do it enough and we don't get control of it, we'll end up harming our kids.
But I don't think we have to. I think we can be intentional in this area no matter where you came from.
I came from a family with a dad who was—my dad used to be the head of pastoral development for Mission Aviation Fellowship—you know high spiritual leader, elder in the church, horrible temper when we were kids. And we do not have that in our house because when I feel that fuse go off and it's too short, I leave the situation.
I tell the kid, “You need to stay on the calm down step, go to your room. Mommy's got to get her cool back before mommy can talk to you.” Because I don't want to regret what I'm going to say, and I think that's even more important than whatever behavior I'm teaching at the time. And so, when I go to my room, what do I do?
Ron: Okay, hold on, hold on. Hold on just for a second, because I really want our listener to hear what you just said. Say it again. We, if we don't calm down, there's very little that we're going to do at that point in time that's actually constructive.
I heard it said once, the best thing a parent can do for a dysregulated child—in other words, a child that's on high on emotions and just running hot on whatever the issue is—the best thing that child needs is a self-regulating parent. When we bring more heat to the heat, it just escalates and everybody's off. But when we can be in charge of ourselves in ways that are constructive and helpful. That helps a child, I think, move from an eight on a ten scale down to a six, right?
Michelle: Maybe even a four. I mean, I love the way you just said that so concisely, because that is the best parenting skill you could give.
Ron: Yes, okay, so it might look like what you just said with a toddler, “Hey, give me a minute. Mom needs a break.” And you go and breathe a little bit. What are some of those tips and tools that help people lower their heart rate, and get back in charge of themselves?
Michelle: Sometimes you can call somebody and talk it through. Sometimes I might call my sister and say, “Hey, what did you do with your teenager? Especially when you're in teenager zone. They might have some advice, but a lot of times even just venting it out. If you're a verbal processor, that might help. If you're really upset, you might first, just reset your brain. As easy as this sounds, we don't do this in our culture, but I think it's going to become a necessity. You can go in your room, or you can do this with your child, and you can help both of you reset your brains. You can breathe in God's love and out your frustration, and you need good, deep breaths, like, four seconds. You need to learn how to expand your lungs.
When we teach this to kids in the audiobook, God I Feel Scared and God I Feel Sad, we teach them as belly breaths. Where they, like, lay on a couch and they move a book or a stuffed animal up and down, so they learn to take these deep breaths themselves.
You can teach it to them with bubbles or blowing on a pinwheel from the, I laughed, the dollar store that's now a dollar and a quarter, but still, [Laughter] you know, it's a very inexpensive way and those things you might put in a calm down box for your kids.
We had a calm down box on our staff with just some tools. If they're old enough to read, there could be a scripture in there. If they're not old enough to read, there might be a picture in there. There might be some things to help them calm down, a squish ball, something like that. When I go in my room, I'm going to breathe. I'm probably going to talk to myself. I might first have to talk myself out like, “This is ridiculous. I can't believe they're doing that.” [Laughter] And then I realized, “Why am I offended? They're children. They're going to behave that way.”
And then I might process further to saying, “God, would you help me hold onto my calm so that I have a teachable moment here and I can direct them well? Or if I can't do that, help me at least get them to bed and remember to do that teachable moment later.” Because that is the thing, unless you have a very young child, you don't need immediacy. They're not like animals. In fact, you want to torture your teenager, tell them you'll discuss it in the morning and see how much sleep they get [Laughter] when they want to know what is the consequence for what they've done. That's the best way to mess with them.
I think that some other tips you can use, because we're learning a lot about, in neuroscience, hyperarousal, hypoarousal, window of tolerance. You could splash cold water on your face. You could put your hands in cold water. Changing your body temperature calms your brain down. If you don't have a preschooler, you might take a hot bath, but don't do that with a three-year-old running around, or it might not be a good scenario when you get out.
Ron: Let me just add a little commentary to this conversation. I'm thinking of the person who's listening right now, and they're going, “Yeah, I got teenagers. They're all out of the preschool; you know that stuff doesn't apply.” Well, for those of you with young ones, start now, right? Start now gaining control of your own emotions and then watch how that dynamic changes when your kids are upset. But if they're not young, you just got to start where you start and thinking about it and beginning.
By the way, one of the things I learned to do was go and read for ten minutes, read something. And that mental energy that it took to focus on something, kind of took me out of the moment, helped calm my heart, my breathing, my, all that stuff. I think there's little tricks like that—once you discover what those are for you—
The whole point of this conversation is we can't help kids with their big emotions if we're not able to help ourselves with our own big emotions, and especially when we feel challenged by a child or rejected by a child or disrespected by a child, we have big emotions. I think parents just sort of, at that moment, feel justified in doing whatever it is that they want to do and saying whatever they need to say to make their point. You're just as out of control in that moment as your kids are and so calming down, slowing it down, processing.
By the way, prayer, we haven't mentioned prayer. Hello, “God, help me calm down.” Send a bullet prayer and just keep saying it over and over again. Take that little break.
Michelle: I would even sometimes when my kids were young, and it wasn't highly escalated, I would pray for us together to calm down. And not in a preachy kind of teaching way, but just saying, “Lord, not they're bad and I'm good, but Lord, we're struggling. We're struggling right now, and we want to honor You so would You help us both to communicate with one another?”
And the reason I think that prayer component can be so important, Ron, is because one time—I'll never forget this—my child looked like I had punched her in the gut after I'd said, like, two or three phrases. I looked at her, and I said to her, and this is kind of a counselor phrase, but it's a great parenting phrase to use, “What did you hear me say?” because we have so much miscommunication. And here's what I know, the enemy will twist our words, even from my mouth to her ears.
She said, “I heard you say I never do anything right and I'm the worst kid in the world.” I just looked at her and I almost started crying. I said, “Really? Because I just said, ‘You've left your shoes down here for three days in a row. Could you take them upstairs with you?’”
And I think it goes both ways with teenagers. You need to ask them sometimes, “You know, I think you said this; is this what you said to me?” Because a lot of times I think we interpret teenage questioning, and maybe even expression of their own independence, as defiance and when we check in with their hearts, it sounds different.
Ron: You know when kids have really loud emotions, right, it's easy to misunderstand what they're saying to us. In particular, I'm thinking of a stepparent who's listening right now going, “Yeah, I don't know those kids. I don't know what they're about. I don't understand them.” And those kids, by the way, could be five or sixteen or they could be thirty and you just don't know them well enough to know how to read those words or those non-verbals and everything that comes along with it.
What you just said to me is one great way of sort of getting at the truth, not just what you think it is or what, you know, your interpretation. “What I just heard you say, sweetheart, is you hate my guts. Am I getting that right?” Is that a wise thing to do? What are your thoughts around that?
Michelle: I think instead—so one of the things I always teach in communication is assume the best. I might say it more like this, “You know somebody hearing what you just said might have interpreted it as you hate my guts, but I know that you don't hate people. So, can you explain to me what you meant by what you said in another way, so I could hear it better?”
Ron: I love that.
Michelle: Something like that, I think, is very helpful. The other thing I think we do need to realize, and this goes on in my own family and it's not blended, it's good to understand personality styles and a little bit about how people tick. I do that immediately when we have blended families come in. I want to educate parents and kids.
Because like, I've got a child who is very conflict avoidant and likes a lot of quiet. And here I am, this big personality that can fill a car in no time and have a lot of things to say and a lot of things on my agenda. And that, especially for a teenager, can be very overwhelming.
When she says, “Mom, I don't want to talk,” I may think she's being avoidant, but actually she's asking for what she needs in that moment. And that is, “Mom, I'm overwhelmed, and I need some silence to process what you've said,” or “Because right now I'm overwhelmed, and I just came out of class, and I can't think about that right now.” It's respecting the fact that no matter what the age they are, they may work very differently than you, and your style of communication may need to adapt for that child.
So before I ever pick her up—I don't do this for her brother who can handle all of me—I take a couple of extra deep breaths and I think about the fact that I need to say less because she just doesn't, she can't handle as much interaction because she is that introverted, even though she didn't seem like that when she was little. And that's the thing I think I also want to say to parents; sometimes they change with hormones, and you have to be—and I love Dr. Kathy Koch says this, so many people say this, but I've been saying this for 20 years in the office—being a student of whoever you have in front of you.
Ron: Be a student of whoever's in front of you and think about yourself in light of that, who that person is and what you're learning about them.
Michelle: Well, let's do that now. Let's just do it now. You and I have met a couple of times—you know, just different places, but like, as you and I have engaged now, what do you know is true about me? And maybe I'll tell you a couple of things I know are true about you. And this is not something you're always going to say out loud, but you might want to think about in how you interact with each other.
Ron: Hmm. Well, I know you've got some things to say. I know you feel confident in some of the things that you teach and how you communicate those things. I think you're passionate about, in the case of this conversation, kids and what's going on with them and how parents interact and how parents support children who are going through transitions, unwanted transitions in particular in their life, and stressful things in their world. But I also hear you listening to me and trying to respond and react. You're open to what I have to say.
Michelle: Yes, and what I love about that is you came at it from an assumption of the positive and you took a positive slant. If we would do that with our kids and the people we're interacting with, we just start off in such a better place and we'd be less likely to be triggered if that was the case. I mean, when my kids start melting down, the first thing I think about is not, “Oh my gosh.” I think “When's the last time they had food? How much sleep did they get last night? Do I need to cut them some slack?” [Laughter]
Or I also think about what else has gone on with us lately. One time there were some big meltdowns like weeks later, but my dad had died, and we'd had some traumatic death in the family previously and they were struggling to work through that. I think you know, especially as kids are transitioning homes, there's a lot to think about as they're moving from one house to another. You don't know what they've experienced in the other house.
But just like you, see I can make some great assumptions about you. One thing I figured out pretty quick, and I remembered this when we had dinner, but I'd forgotten, is you're a deep thinker. You're very good at taking information and really creating a theory or conciseness to it. And if I don't give you space, because I can feel it, then I won't get to hear your wisdom through that. And so, these are the kind of things, if we can figure this out about the people we're interacting with, it changes the way we interact with them if we're being a student as well as being present.
Ron: Yes. Okay, I'm going to press you just a little bit because I'm thinking about somebody who's watching or listening right now and they're saying, “Give my kid the benefit of the doubt; you don't know my kid. I've been doing hard with this kid for a really long time and oh my goodness, I know what's coming. Give him the benefit of the doubt. I just can't do that at this point.”
Michelle: Here's the first thing I would say to you, because I say this in the office all the time, Ron. What do you get out of assuming the worst? What do you gain from that?
Ron: Well, the same old stuff. [Laughter]
Michelle: You do, but here's something you gain. If you get your hopes up, and then they bust through, then you get hurt from that. And sometimes we're assuming the worst. This is deep. I'm kind of digging in here.
Ron: —to self-protect?
Michelle: Yes, to self-protect, to guard ourselves. And I tell you, I've dealt with some parents who, like, I get why they'd be like that. I had a stepmom recently tell me, “You know, I'm doing a lot better because I've decided to be the concierge, and these are guests in my home; and when I treat them that way, things go well. And this is often true, but when I try to over parent them, things don't go well.” I really reinforced that for her because I said, “You know, some of that is because, some may be because of what they're hearing in the other home, and that's a whole different group of people that I deal with.
Ron: Right, right.
Michelle: But also, sometimes that's because they can hear it better from their biological parent, especially correction. And so sometimes I encourage, whether it's a stepmom or a stepdad, to let that parent be the corrector, and especially if you're in what we call negative gridlock with a child, for you to be the encourager, the cheerleader of that child a little bit, to get you out of that negative gridlock place. And you'll surprise that child.
In fact, one of the assignments we know that works for children who are really struggling emotionally and behaviorally is to catch them doing something good. Because if we only catch them doing something bad, we're reinforcing that behavior.
Ron: This is really important, Michelle, because I know from my own parenting experience, but also working with people, is when you're in an ongoing conflict with a child, you're just always on the edge looking for that next negative thing. And so to flip that over and actually see, look for, and then comment on something that you like, or you appreciate, that can be disarming to the child, I think is your point.
Michelle: Yes, and I'll give them a phrase for this. My favorite phrase for this is, I like watching you. “I like watching you interact with your friends.” “I like watching you score a goal.” One of my parents said, “Can I say, ‘I like watching you breathe?’ because that's as good as we're getting right now.” [Laughter] And I'm like, “I promise you, if you start looking, you'll find something.” “I like watching you brush your teeth. I appreciate, I don't have to remind you of that. You handled that all on your own.” If you work with somebody to brainstorm about it, your child is doing a lot of things right no matter how difficult the relationship is.
Ron: Okay, you know I think you just hinted at something I was going to ask you about. What do you think is underneath the big emotions that kids feel? I mean, when we see anger, hurt, fear, in particular anger, isn't there something else that they're often asking for? Like, I want more time with you.
Michelle: Well, I think you're hitting to one thing, but I'm thinking of something else. It's kind of funny. I think you hit anger a lot because they're expectations.
Michelle: If I get in the car and my daughter expects to go to Taco Bell and I tell her we don't have time to do that, the higher that expectation of her thinking that's going to happen, the more emotion I'm going to get. I'll never forget one time we had to go get her brother and she was starving, even though my children eat three meals a day plus every day—
Ron: Yes, yes.
Michelle: —and I asked her, I said “On a scale of one to ten, what are you feeling right now? How mad and frustrated are you?” She's like “A nine.” I'm like, “And if really you take a look at compared to grandma dying, you know, or something big, you going to Taco Bell, what should you feel?” And she goes, “A two but I can't get there.” [Laughter] And that's reality sometimes, right? Like, it started spinning and it's hard to let go of it. And I'm like, “If you can't get there, then why don't you just not talk for a couple of minutes.”
And what can be really helpful is distraction. We haven't talked about that, but that's a great coping skill. She loves worship music, especially, so we turned on worship music and we just listened for a couple of minutes. Sometimes arguing with them escalates but if you can just say, “You know what, let's not talk about this right now. Let's listen to worship music.” And then I can come back and say, “Okay, how do we get your need met? You're hungry.” And it's hard because when they're hungry, their blood sugar's low. Some of them are very irritable in those moments.
I think expectations is a key to why kids do this. I think your why that you were looking for, because I know how deep a thinker you are, is attention. And there is a factor that sometimes kids will act out for negative attention and that's where if we'll catch them doing something good, we can give them positive attention instead.
In fact, with sibling rivalry, which can really happen a lot, especially if you have children from different families living together, because they all want to be the good one and the favored—you know my husband and his brother are 50 something and they still fight over who's mom's favorite—you know just sillily, but it can really happen when you feel like your position in the family is threatened and you wonder where you're going to fall and how much favor you're going to receive that you may push for that in an unhealthy way with a sibling.
And so I tell parents, when a sibling hurts another sibling, don't put your attention—and I learned this in a book called Siblings Without Rivalry—don't put your attention on the aggressor, put your attention on the wounded child. And then you're extinguishing the aggressor's behavior because they're not getting any attention. Give your attention and compassion to the wounded child, come back and give the aggressor a consequence later. But then they don't get any attention from that, and then they just suffer a non-emotional consequence, and that is so much better.
Now, you have to be a little careful with this or one of them may learn to play the victim [Laughter] a little bit with that, but you can work on that in a different way too. But I just want to kind of comment that a lot of times an angry child will exert that anger on another child and then your anger is going to get into play too. If you change your expectations, kids fight, kids have arguments, and you come in calm, then you can also deal with the situation better. Because what I see a lot of times with a parent is they don't hear everything first. They're mad at whoever hurt the other, and they don't hear that this child provoked it first. This victim totally provoked every single bit of it; cornered them until they gave it to them.
And so, there's just a lot of that. The more calm you are, the more you can have realistic expectations of kids and what they do when they're going through transitions. I mean, divorce involves grief, remarriage involves a new layer of grief, having to deal with people you're not used to living with, it's a lot.
Ron: Yes, and I want to hit on something you said a minute ago in light of that. In particular, I think with kids in blended families, there's the common experience of the threat you were talking about a minute ago. Life has changed so much. So much unwanted change has taken place for me and my family—mom and dad divorcing, one of my parents dying, life as a single parent and what that looks like over time financially and how that changes. We’ve got to move to a different place and different house, different church, different school, different friends.
And then there's more transition now—somebody's getting married again and you know all kinds of—so every one of those transitions is an unwanted moment in the kid's life. They're out of control in a lot of that stuff. And every little change brings this, can potentially bring this message that says, “We've forgotten about you.” “You've gotten lost in the mix.” “Mom used to spend all kinds of time with us on Saturdays when she was off work and we were out of school, and now she's spending time with my new stepsiblings and my stepdad, and I just sort of feel lost in all of this.”
I think that's when the big emotions come out. I think that's when you see that stepsibling conflict. There's a bit of jealousy and fear going on under the surface. I think the anger at the world for my life just being miserable, just that overall sense of life isn't going the way I want it to. And so, we as parents have to take a deep breath when you feel that attack coming from a child—slow down, jump into their shoes, wonder what was going on with them, wonder what's behind.
I think oftentimes—I'd love for you to comment on this because I'd love your opinion—I think a lot of times what kids are really saying is, “I feel left out,” “I feel lonely,” “I don't belong,” “I want to be loved,” but it comes in a very ugly package, right? It comes with anger and defiance, and it looks ugly from the children. But what they're really asking for is somebody to just say, “Hey, I see you. I love you. We haven't forgotten about you. You're still important.” What do you think?
Michelle: Yes, I was thinking about significant. I'm still significant is what I think of a lot of times. I also think when you talk about all those transitions too, you mentioned something really important that brings anger out in all of us, and that is when we feel powerless. And that's what I hear so many kids who are court ordered to me say when I'm trying to reunite them with a parent they don't want to see, or I'm trying to help them adjust to a home that they're tired of visiting as they get older, “I didn't ask for this. I didn't ask to have to live in two different neighborhoods.”
You know, unfortunately in our area, the metroplex is huge and we use contiguous counties, which means that parents can live two hours away and still have regular—I hate the word visitation, I call it parenting time with one another. And so when you get into that, if they ask me as an expert, I tell them to keep them within school district limits and city limits. Because when we get past that, you're asking a kid who may be a football player to play football on Friday night, miss the celebration and the debriefing on Saturday while that co-parent picks them up, takes them two hours away to a neighborhood where they know no one and they have no life. And it's realizing these dynamics that are difficult for them.
Also, I'm really challenging parents to think about, how could we make this easier? And that may mean sometimes one co-parent comes by themselves to spend a weekend with their child where they live and enter the child's world instead of always demanding that the child enter their world. It is inconvenience; it is costly.
Ron: It's all about the powerlessness issue and how powerless do we make them. And do we make everything powerless in their world or do we give them some voice, some opportunity to not be powerless? I agree with you. I think that is so very important. And when parents step back and go, “Okay, let me look at the last five years of my kid's life—all the moments that they were powerless.” I mean, honestly, it's pretty sobering when you do that sometimes. That's not to say that you go wimpy on your kids and never have any boundaries and never have consequences.
Yes, I know Michelle's not saying that; I'm not saying that. But we are saying, “Think about it,” and you might feel the weight of that just a little bit, even now as we're talking about this and you're hearing it. And if you feel some weight for your child, imagine what they feel, so look for those opportunities to give them some, a little bit of power to make a choice, to make a decision, where it does sort of go the way they'd like for it to go.
Michelle: That's exactly what I'm saying, like, don't make them the center of your world because we don't need to raise narcissists, right? And it is self-centered people if we aren't using a clinical term, but it's important that you enter their world, especially if you don't live close to them. And that can be really helpful, but we want them to enter your world too. It's mutuality, especially as they get older. I think it's so important and it so tells them, “I understand, and I love you, and I want to enter into this type of relationship,” as they age. It is life changing for the kid and it can be so small, Ron.
I'll give you a simple example I recommended. You know, weekends fall every other weekend. Well, kid's birthday has fallen the last three years with one parent. They really want to spend the birthday with the other parent this year, but you know, “That's my time. I'm not giving it up” is what I often hear. And then sometimes I say, “But what if you did give it up? What if you swapped? What if you figured out?”
In some places, we can't do that because we need to follow the rules exactly or it just blows up. But in many cooperative co-parenting relationships, we talk a lot about that in our office. There's parallel co-parenting relationships. They need to follow the rules. They cannot negotiate anything without a paid professional like me or a judge.
Then there are conflicted parents and that is just really difficult because they're going to find a problem every time they get.
But then there's these—the majority of our country and we forget this sometimes—the cooperative co-parents. They're doing a great job of, even though they're no longer married, choosing to work together for the best interests of their children. And sometimes they just need some education of what that might look like, or a little encouragement that you're not going to lose your relationship because you give up the birthday this year or you split the birthday. I mean, that's the thing of thinking out of the box with that.
Ron: Michelle, I’ve got a couple of scenarios I want to run by you.
Michelle: Uh oh. [Laughter]
Ron: Yes, so sometimes kids don't feel safe talking to their parent unless the stepparent is not in the room. Stepparents sometimes get their feelings hurt about that kind of thing, and they feel like, “Hey, this kid's manipulating. They're siding with their parent.
They're getting them to side against me.” And then the biological parent feels stuck in the middle. Do you have a suggestion or two about how to navigate that terrain?
Michelle: The person I like to work with the most in a situation like that is the biological parent because they need so much wisdom in that scenario. Because if they share everything, they're going to betray confidences, and they could stir the pot. They almost have to learn to be like a counselor and use discretion of what they hear and what they share.
Ron: And should the stepparent be, like, on edge? They shouldn't take it personally, I don't think. I mean, in other words, if you had something in your life—I want to say to stepparents, if you had something in your life you desperately needed to share with somebody you trusted but somebody else was in the room, wouldn't you want to wait until they weren't in the room?
Now, I understand sometimes kids are totally playing one side off the other. I'm not talking about that. That seems, I think that's fairly obvious to both parties. I hope it is. But I think stepparents just make too much of this sometimes.
Michelle: I will tell you this. Let me normalize this completely, okay. There are times my kids come in and whine about their father, and I am sure they whine about me to their father. We don't always tell each other everything they say because half of it's how they feel in the moment. Just like, I mean, there are times when I think about their dad, and I love him to death. We've been married 20 years, but right now we're in the middle of a bathroom renovation, and I've thought several times, when he starts talking about every white is white, [Laughter] I want to strangle him because we have to go to the paint store and get the right color white.
It's silly. I used a silly illustration, but that's what we have to realize. Some of this is just emotional venting, and they need to do it with the parent they feel safe with, or somebody they feel safe with. But let me say something else, Ron, and I do think this is important. I think for the majority of stepparents, they want what's best, and they are doing their best.
But after a while, when you have a bad personality conflict, and you get in negative gridlock, sometimes you're no longer in control, and that biological parent, I think, has a responsibility to kind of check that out. Because they have a responsibility, and these are in high conflict situations, to protect their child from anybody, including themselves.
I mean, I have a responsibility to protect my child from me if I'm out of control from them. That's why I go to my room and take a time out. We'll go back to that. I don't know if you ever did that, but there were times where I was like “You know, I just need to get away.”
I heard one preacher say that he got out of the car and walked because he was about to be totally stupid and say things he didn't mean and be ugly to his children because he wasn't in a good place. I'm hoping everybody does that but if they're not doing that and a child comes to a parent and says, “Listen, you don't know what goes on when you're not here.” Whether they're a stepparent or a biological parent, I think we’ve got to check that out to make sure somebody's not struggling with some mental health issues, somebody's not gotten to the point where they're—I mean, I've talked to some stepmoms, especially sometimes, because a lot of times they get a lot more responsibility for parenting the children, as stepmothers than maybe a stepdad would.
They've told me, “I'm worn down. I'm not even myself anymore. I don't even know who I am when I talk to these children. I have lost this sense of me.” And I'm like, “We need to get you on a retreat. We need to get you in a hotel by yourself. Holding on to yourself in the middle of all these dynamics you and I are talking about and holding on to the Holy Spirit at work in you, it's hard.
I have had that happen in the middle of grief where like my husband's sister and her husband died within two years of each other—diagnosed with cancer in two weeks of each other and died within two years of each other. That was a tough time in my life. And there was a weekend because I had their kids a lot—so we were dealing with a blended family in the weirdest way because I had kids in my house that weren't mine and their parents were dying, so you can imagine the grief.
And sometimes this is stuff we don't think about. You and I are talking about very simplistic scenarios. When I deal with these families, sometimes somebody's sick, sometimes grandpa just died. There's so much going on in these families and so when all that's going on, sometimes somebody just needs to check out.
Sometimes I told my husband, “I need a trip. I need a trip away from everybody. I need a break from cancer. I need a break from dealing with kids that aren't mine. I need to just go somewhere,” and I checked in a hotel in town for the night just to—he said, “I gotcha,” because he traveled then. “Go check yourself in a hotel like I do during the week and get yourself a break because you need one. I can tell.” And it, I mean, that's the best thing for all of us, right?
And that's true. Postpartum moms deal with that. I deal with that a lot in blended families, same thing. Haven't you ever seen, Ron, where like, you know, now we're having new children in the family, and one of the adults is struggling with something? They've either lost their job, or they've lost a parent. They've got grief going on, and that's affecting the family.
Ron: Absolutely; hey, let me—how do you know if your kid's in trouble? I mean, isolated, depressed, withdrawn. How do you know when that's just sort of typical teenagery stuff versus “Wow, we need to get this kid some help.”
Michelle: So let me start by saying this, because I can't believe how many times I have parents call me with this regret. Even ones I've treated previously for couples, and then they call me about their kid. Listen to your child. In this day and age, kids are more educated than they've ever been, and sometimes they will ask for help, and the parent will be like, “Well, let's see how it is in two weeks.” No; if you take your kid if they had a sore throat to your pediatrician, take them to one of us, and the best check you could ever write us, or copay you could ever give, is for one of us to say “They're fine. It was a bad week.”
But what you don't want to hear us say is “Man, I wish I'd gotten them earlier. They're pretty suicidal. We may be looking at a hospital now.” Because we ignored this sadness, or this anger and it built to something else. Other things you can do to help is, be open to listening to them. That's why it's so important to let the parent they feel safest with them talk to them. Because what you don't want kids to feel like is, nobody wants to hear what I have to say and they're telling their friends about their struggles. I have so many parents who are like—I mean Christian school parents, homeschool parents—“Where'd they come from?
First of all, it can come on fast. If they lose three nights of sleep, their brain's not working right, it can come on that fast. And sometimes when kids struggle with something, they'll lose sleep. I've seen great kids with no history have crazy thoughts in three nights. But also, I've seen a lot of kids simmer a little and nobody was paying a lot of attention.
I will tell you what we look at our office. I'm going to give you two words, intensity and frequency. So if they're blowing up once a month, that's called having a teenager. But if they're blowing up several times a week, and it's looking on a scale of one to ten pretty high, it's time to—I would say this too, we're systems therapists, so we believe it's not only time to get them help, if it's happening in your home, it's time to get lots of people help. Because you want to change the way that's functioning in your home.
And so, a lot of times with family therapy, we don't just want to identify a scapegoat, one kid struggling. Sometimes it is just one kid struggling. They're being bullied at school. They're feeling like a failure. They've had an injury and they're out of volleyball. I mean, I can go on and on what brings kids to our offices. But the sooner we help them, especially if you get a good Christian counselor, like, there's some lists out there you can find nationally of us that are being vetted. Don't go on a list where we just pay to be on it through a membership fee, but a real vetted list. I think you have a list, don't you, Ron? Didn’t we talk about that?
Ron: I do, I do, at SmartStepfamilies.com we have a list of people that I've trained to do blended family therapy and work with kids and adults and so that's a good place for people to go as well.
What I hear you saying is there's help. It's out there; don't ignore. Sooner rather than later is a better thing to do and don't just think fix the kid; think fix all of us and the kid. Let it be a team approach to change.
Michelle: I don't even like the word fix because we're not—we're all broken. I mean, we're all broken because we're all sinners if you want to get theological, but I think I would more say all of us need to do something different. You know, go back to Einstein and insanity doing the same thing the same way. All of us need God to come in and help us go through that process of—I'm going to say a big theological word because I went to seminary—sanctification, which means changing a little bit more and more each day to be like Him. None of us is done with that process.
Ron: That's right.
Michelle: So when I get to a family, I just say, “Let's start right now; nobody's perfect, including me, in this room. I just know some stuff that I might could help you with. We're all going to work on what is not working and try to make it a little better. We're not trying to make it hugely better in a week. We're trying to make a little baby step. So maybe we could be a little calmer.”
Ron: Yes, and just start with those little things.
Hey, Michelle, before we close, share some hope with somebody who's listening or watching right now and they're like, “We are just struggling big time with our child.” What do they need to hold on to?
Michelle: I would say first, you can always change yourself with God's help, and then don't discount the power of prayer, not only that you're doing for them, but also that your community is doing for them, and engage them in that. Get other people to pray for you, and with you, and with them, because sometimes the person they're going to listen to is not you. It's going to be the youth minister.
My child right now is at voice lessons. I don't care how good she sings. She probably wouldn't like that I say that, but her voice teacher is a very godly, 25-year-old woman who she thinks is way cooler than me. And she's better than therapy because we get voice and this. She speaks godly wisdom into my child's life, encourages her when she's down, has a lot of wisdom and that is worth the money.
I would say that too, is don't expect to get better in a bubble. One of the things that we look for in our diagnostic work that we do as clinicians is there's an axis that's called support. If you want to help your family get better, if your family is not connected—because it gets—when you only have them twice a month and it's really easy to stay home and not be involved and they don't want to go because they don't know anybody where you go, you know I hear all of this—fight to be in community and fight for them to be in community somewhere.
Let me tell you what that may mean, and this is hard for parents to hear, but I'm going to give you some hope with this. Sometimes it means right now, I'm going to a church that I—oh no, I hope the pastor doesn't listen to this—I'm going to a church that I wouldn't pick but it's where my kids are growing and flourishing. And so sometimes we, especially with blended families, we have to do this kind of thing to keep kids consistent in their own community.
I want to tell you, there's so much hope here and this is the main reason. If you're listening to me and you have a child that you're struggling with, their brain is not done [Laughter] ‘til they're 24 to 28 so you got a lot of growth left to happen. And I believe God's not finished with any of us yet. And so many kids learn to walk with the Lord, just like a lot of our testimonies at different times.
Michelle: But I want to encourage you, if you want to start somewhere, quit focusing on them, and start with what you could do different. Because if you do something different, you will force them to do something different.
Ron: And that calm me down, full circle where we started, that's a big one for a lot of us. It's a good place to start.
Michelle, thank you so much for being with me today. I appreciate it.
Michelle: Thanks so much for having me. I'm so grateful for the work you're doing and that parents have this resource to turn to all over the country because it's hard.
It's hard to parent kids in this culture, period. We're living in Babylon where they do not have our value system surrounding them. But it's even harder when they're under additional grief and change.
Ron: If you want to learn more about Michelle, you can check our show notes. We'll get you connected to all that she's doing. And if you've got little ones, check out those books that she's written about emotions and asking God for help when sadness comes to a child's life. I really recommend those.
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