How to Parent When You’re Losing It (…Or Your Kids Are)
How do you relate to your child when you don't know what to do? On FamilyLife Today, authors Marcus Warner and Chris Coursey teach parents how to go from reactive to relational.
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Wondering how to parent when you’re losing your mind–or your child is blowing their top? Authors Marcus Warner and Chris Coursey show how to move from reactive parenting to relational connection.
How to Parent When You’re Losing It (…Or Your Kids Are)
Chris: Teenaged years are very hard; so we encourage parents: “Stay relational. The best thing you could do is self-care and stay relational; that will go a long way: ‘How do we stay anchored in the storms?’ and ‘How do we remember who we are so we can remind our teenagers who they are?’”
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: Okay, let’s talk teenage years—
Ann: Let’s do!
Dave: —as a parent.
Ann: Oh, no.
Dave: Do you remember those years?
Ann: I sure do!
Dave: That was like 15 years ago.
Ann: They were some of my favorite years.
Dave: Oh, I loved the teenage years.
Ann: And yet, they were some of my most dreaded mistakes.
Dave: Yes, our listeners have heard/if they read our book, they know about you and the snow bank.
Dave: You don’t need to tell the whole story, but it was a frustrating time.
Ann: Okay; we are with a bunch of our friends, and we are all at this big potluck. Somebody says, “Hey, somebody’s going to pray.” So this entire room is silent. There’s probably 30 people; there’s probably 20 kids.
Dave: —all from our church.
Ann: Suddenly, you hear someone say, “This food looks like poop.” [Laughter] And that’s our son. [Laughter] I give him the eye, like, “Oh, you are in so much trouble.” That goes on; I’m totally humiliated.
Later, we’re leaving. I say, “Hey, hon, could you walk your brother/put your brother on your back”—because he didn’t bring his shoes for some reason—“and take him out to the car?” Then, again, the room’s silent; but our son says, “I have to do everything in thisfamily!”
So now, I am following him out. He’s carrying this son. Now, we’re out of all the ears; so I say, “You are in so much trouble! That was so disrespectful; that was embarrassing!” We get to the car. There’s a snow bank. He’s putting his little brother into the car, and I see this snow bank. This son is off balance, so I take my shoulder and I just nudge him; and he falls into the snow bank. I get into the car and I lock all the car doors.
Now, the son is pounding on the door. My husband, the pastor, is coming into the car. He says, “What’s happening right now?” So he finally gets in the car because I unlock it. I start crying, saying, “I am the worst mom ever, and I will never talk about parenting ever again.”
Dave: And here we are, talking about parenting with two dads who wrote a book about it; but also have studied brain science as it relates to marriage, and life, and faith, and now parenting.
Welcome back to FamilyLife Today. We’ve got Marcus Warner and Chris Coursey with us. Thank you for being here.
Marcus: It’s our pleasure.
Dave: We’ve already talked about—
Ann: We need you guys so much.
Dave: We do—not just us—every parent needs you. This latest book, The 4 Habits of Raising Joy-Filled Kids—remind us what the four habits are and then let’s talk about: “How do you apply them to adult aged/teenage-aged kids?”
Marcus: Absolutely; the four habits are “A,” “B,” “C,” “D.” You can think: “A,” “B” with the right side of the brain; “C,” “D” with the left side of the brain, dominantly. But it is:
- “Attune to their emotions”: read their body language.
- “B” is help them “Bounce back from their emotion.”
- “C” is “Correct with care.”
- “D” is “Develop discipline relationally.”
Ann: See, I did that perfectly with the snow bank.
Dave: Yes, you did. [Laughter] Tell us what went wrong there.
Marcus: Honestly, I’m listening to the story, going, “Every parent”—right?—“has a story like this; because what it means is my emotional capacity got overwhelmed, and the switch in my brain, that controls whether or not I stay myself and act like myself, had gone off. You turned into a different person momentarily.”
Ann: I did turn into a different person.
Marcus: Right; as soon as your switch came back on line, you were mortified; right?
Marcus: Because you’re like, “That’s not like me to do that.” Now, your true self is having an argument with the false self that was up there a minute ago, going, “Will the real me please stand up?” It’s confusing and it’s shaming, and we’ve all been there; right? We’ve all had—
Ann: —which is interesting, too, because the enemy of our souls is saying, “That’s your true self—that person you just became—that’s who you are.” And then God is saying, “No, it’s not! That’s not who I created you to be.”
Marcus: Exactly; too many of us identify ourselves by our malfunctions and not by who we are when we’re living with joy. The identity center of the brain is the highest level of brain function; it’s on the right side of the brain. Really, what we’re talking about is: “How do I parent with my relational circuitry on, as opposed to parenting with my relational circuitry off? Because when my relational circuitry goes off, I do turn into a different person.”
That’s what our kids sense in us, like: “Which Dad am I talking to right now?”—
Dave: Yes; right.
Ann: That’s so true.
Marcus: —“Which Mom am I talking to?” What they’re saying is: “You change,”—right?—“If you’re feeling this emotion, you don’t act like you do when you’re feeling that emotion,” and “I get scared of you when you’re feeling this emotion, but I love being around you when you’re in this one.”
We all have those holes. That’s part of what we’re trying to do in growing our own maturity: is filling out those holes of the emotions that cause us to turn into somebody else.
Dave: Chris, how do we get the switch on?
Chris: Yes; you know, there’s a couple of things that we can do to get the switch back on. Marcus and I have an acrostic called “CAKE.”
Dave: I love all your acrostics: “A, B, C, D,” and then “CAKE.”
Ann: Dave is a total acrostic guy.
Chris: We try to keep it easy here. The “C” is just for “Curiosity.” We can notice: “Am I relational right now? Am I curious about what you’re thinking?” So curiosity is a very quick way to go: “You know, I’m not curious right now; because I’m really mad at you.” That’s a good sign I’m not relational.
The “A” is just for “Appreciation.” “Can I feel appreciation?” Appreciation is just what we call “packaged joy.” Can you think of something from your day that was good, and can you feel that? When our relational circuit is off, we can’t feel appreciation; we’re like, “No, I’m just really mad.” If you can take a moment, and just pause and catch your breath, and think about something that was good—one of God’s gifts to you—that can actually help to get this relational circuit back on.
The “K” in “CAKE” is just “Kindness.” “Do I feel like being kind?”
The “E” is “Eye contact.” “Do you have eye contact with your child or not?” Okay, do you feel like looking your child in the eye right now? Again, when we’re in non-relational mode—what we call “enemy mode”—the people I love feel like enemies instead of my son that I love.
Marcus: Let me say one thing about “CAKE” here; which is that, it’s both a way to assess where I am: if I am fit to be having this conversation.
Ann: Oh, that’s good.
Marcus: Right? The point here is that, if I am walking out to the car, and I am feeling about my son—no curiosity, no appreciation, no kindness, and the only eye contact I want to make with him is to stare him down—then what it tells me is I have a problem. My problem is not my son; my problem is that half of my brain has shut down.
Ann: Just knowing that is so good.
Marcus: Just knowing that is helpful; right? I’m going, “My problem that I need to fix right now is I need to get the right side of my brain back online so that, whatever I say to my child, I act like myself when I do it.”
Ann: So say nothing if you’re at that—
Marcus: Yes; it’s better at that point to say nothing—and work on finding some curiosity, and finding some appreciation, and thinking of a way to do this with kindness—and then engaging; right?
Marcus: We’ve all got these moments, where, “Yes; that was not a joyful moment in my child.” But the goal here is that: “I knew”—and this is where kids know—“I know that my dad was happy to have me around,”—that’s a joy bond. That means that you’re going to have joy-filled kids when they know, instinctively, “My dad loves having me around.”
But then they also learn: “My dad doesn’t like having me around if I have this emotion,” or “…this emotion,” or “…this emotion,” or “…this emotion.”
Ann: Oh, interesting.
Marcus: What happens is they form a fear bond with you when they have certain emotions and a joy bond with you when they don’t.
When I don’t know what to do, my default setting is: “Validate”: “I don’t know what to do with you right now, so I need to attune—try to read your body language—and see if I can’t validate your emotion”; which means I don’t have to agree that you should be feeling this way. I just have to recognize my son or my daughter, right now, is feeling a Level 10 sadness, and I don’t know why. I don’t think they should be feeling that sad, but they are.
What I don’t want to do is minimize it and go, “It’s not that bad. You shouldn’t be…”
Ann: “You have a lot to be thankful for.”
Marcus: Yes; right; exactly. “Stop being sad and start being thankful. Aren’t you a good Christian?” That’s not going to be helpful there. What we need to do is meet them in their big sadness, like, “You are really sad right now; aren’t you? Something is really, really bothering you.” With the tone of my voice—with the expression on my face/with my words—I want to let them know that I see them.
If I am accurate, then their reaction should be nodding: “Yes, that’s right. That’s what’s going on.” I can mess it up, too; I can say, “Why are you so angry?” and they’re not actually angry—that’s not going to work—so validating has to be accurate. You are validating their right-brain emotion. What you are not validating is any narrative they are expressing or any beliefs that they are stating. In other words, you don’t say [in response to], “I feel like I’m the biggest loser in the world.” Well, you don’t validate that by saying, “Well, you know, you are the biggest loser in the world.” [Laughter]
Marcus: You’re reading: “What’s the emotion behind that?” It’s like, “Oh, you’re feeling a tremendous amount of shame right now; aren’t you? That’s what this is.” So you’re walking them through that, and you validate their emotion.
Then once you’ve done a good job of validating, then you can move to comforting. With most parents, the mistake we make is we try to comfort kids, of all ages, without validating the emotion first. It sends an unmeant message—we don’t mean to send the message that—“I don’t care about you; I just want you to get fixed.”
Ann: —“for my sake.”
Marcus: —“for my sake.” Right; it feels like selfish parenting to the kid.
Chris: It’s helpful to know: for teenagers, the teenage brain is going through a house cleaning. What that means is there’s a whole rewiring going on around puberty. So whatever skills were there, they will still be there after this house-cleaning process; but if they weren’t there, they’re going to be really harder to learn after the house cleaning.
That’s why parents want to pull out their hair sometimes with teenagers, because there’s hormones; there’s emotions; everything is big; everything is loud; and it feels like everything is difficult. That’s because the brain is very irritable during this house cleaning. Basically, the brain is saying, “What we use, we’ll keep; whatever we don’t use, we’re going to start getting rid of.”
Teenaged years are very hard. We encourage parents: “Stay relational. The best thing you could do is self-care and stay relational; that will go a long way: ‘How do we stay anchored in the storms?’ and ‘How do we remember who we are so we can remind our teenagers who they are?”
Marcus: I found, too, that the biggest challenges we face in the teen years are emotions that they didn’t learn how to bounce back from as children. In other words, when they get to be teenagers, they are now feeling really big emotions. As kids, we weren’t able to remain relational with them and comfort them, and they didn’t get that really solid foundation. Now, as teens, they feel doubly alone with this emotion.
When I feel alone with an emotion, it’s traumatizing to me—when I feel like—“I feel so much shame right now, and I can’t tell anybody. I’m just going to hide; I’m not going to let anybody know,” or “I’m so mad at the world and I’m so angry, but my parents don’t care.” What happens is teenage years get especially hard because they’re having really big emotions, with no expectations that those emotions are going to get validated, and that there’s going to be any kind of connection to them other than a correction, like, “Stop having such big emotions. You’re ruining my day.”
Ann: Listeners right now of teenagers are saying, “Yes, yes, yes!”
I think what’s hard, too, is because as parents are trying to build relationship, many times, the teen will push them away; and the parent will leave.
Dave: In our parenting book, we said that, in the teenage years it’s all about relationship. But a lot of parents are like: “What’s that look like?—because they’re pushing me away. They’re actually flipping me sarcastic remarks, and acting like I’m an idiot, and getting in their car—because they now can—and driving away. Yet, I’m supposed to be pursuing having a relationship; but they don’t want it.” But do they?
Marcus: Pursuing a relationship out of fear makes you a doormat; right?
Ann: What do you mean by that?
Marcus: It’s like if I’m like: “Please don’t run away from me. Please; we have to be in relationship. Please; I couldn’t handle it emotionally if you don’t like me.” That turns me into a doormat. They perceive that; they pick up on it. They know they can walk all over us and get away with anything.
We haven’t talked a whole lot about the “C” and the “D”; right?—the “Correcting with care”; the “Developing discipline relationally”—but there is a: “I have to be stubborn, as a parent, on things.” I may lead with this—I am meeting them in their emotion—but it doesn’t mean I’m not going to correct. Especially with teens, what I would tell my kids a lot is: “My goal for you is I want you to be successful. What I mean by that is I want you to be a high achiever; I want you to have lots of friends,”—because friendship is really big in the teen years.
Marcus: “I want you to have a lot of friends; I want you to be the sort of person that people like hanging out with. I want you to have a family of your own someday.” I’m casting this picture for them/this vision of: “I want you to have a successful life. The path you’re on right now is not going to get you there.”
It’s like: “We’ve got to make a correction here so there have to be some consequences right now for what you’ve done,” “…what you’re doing,” “…the attitude you’re displaying and that you’ve displayed. They’re not going to be tolerated in this house; okay? We are putting down some boundaries.”
But I have done the validating and the other things first. I have met them where they are in their emotions first; but now, I am correcting them, saying, “This is not going to keep happening this way.” If you only have “Attuning” and “Building bounce”—and you never get to “Correcting”—you just spoil your kids.
Ann: Yes; is that true for the toddler too?—or the child up to four years old or even later?
Chris: We always tell parents: “You can’t spoil babies or toddlers. They’re in receiving mode.” Ultimately, this is about the parent fear: “Well, I’m afraid, if I do this, my child is going to get spoiled.”
In the book, Marcus and I really try to bring this home in bold letters as “YOU CANNOT SPOIL AN INFANT.” They are receiving. But you can be an example to help them better learn how to better manage what they feel; because they’re going to take that training, and they’ll use that every day of their life, especially when they get into the teenage years, where their brain is going through the big house cleaning. Ultimately: “How do we help people manage what they feel?” and “How do I, as a parent, not be fearful?”
I help parents: “What are your fears here with your teenager? What are you afraid is going to happen?”
- “I’m afraid my child is not going to like me.”
- “I’m afraid they’re going to be mad at me.”
“Okay, those are valid fears. Now, how do you stay your relational self? How would you navigate this without that fear?” It really helps to identify: “What are the fears that are driving this bus? Let’s acknowledge them; let’s give them to Jesus.”
Ann: Let’s give an example: “My son or daughter is depressed. I feel like they’re suicidal. My fear is they’re going to take their life.”
Marcus: Yes, that’s a very big/it doesn’t get much more extreme than that.
Marcus: There are a lot of steps to get there first. But secondly, once you are there, what you want to let them know is: “I’m here for you all the way: whatever is going on; no matter how dark this gets.”
One of the mistakes, especially Christians tend to make when it comes to hopelessness, is that we want to cut it off and inject hope instead of allowing people to fully express the level of hopelessness they’re in.
I’ll tell you a story to illustrate: Dr. Wilder was telling me he often gets asked to sit in on the hardest client. He’s in, as a guest, and somebody is like, “This person is really depressed. They could really use some hope; please inject some hope into them.”
The person says, “Well, you know, sometimes at night I just wish I wasn’t here.” He looked at them and said, “You know, I bet it even gets worse than that; doesn’t it?”
The person looked around, like, “Um, yes; it does. Its gets darker than that.” They went on to express that: “Sometimes, I think about killing myself and doing this stuff.” He said, “You know what? And sometimes, it gets even darker than that; doesn’t it?”
They’re like, “Yes, sometimes, I’ve even thought about this…” But nobody has ever let them fully get into the darkest place—
Chris: —to feel what they need to feel.
Marcus: —to feel what they need to feel and know that “Somebody is still happy to be with me in my darkness.”
Chris: It’s kind of like Job’s friends. They did a really good job sitting with him for those days when they just sat there. But the moment they started to try to explain it or justify it—
Ann: —or fix him.
Chris: “What miserable comforters you are!” Job said [Job 16:2]. If only they could have stayed silent.
In a sense, sometimes, people just need to feel seen, heard, and understood. I need to be able to feel my hopelessness. If I am sitting with my friend, who is hopeless—if my brain knows how to get back to relational, glad-to-be-together joy—I am not afraid to go to that level of hopelessness, because I’ve been there before; I know how to get back.
If I don’t, then I will try to stop it—I’ll minimize it; I’ll try to put the fire out—and then the person is going to feel misunderstood, because I’m trying to fix it or I’m trying to short change it.
It’s very good, especially for parents, to know your children, ultimately, have to learn how to manage what they feel; which means, as parents, we have to learn how to manage what we feel.
Marcus: There’s a time to getting professionals involved; so we’re not trying to say, “This is a replacement for that.”
Marcus: But it’s like, if you’re getting professional help in there—your job, as a parent: “What is it I’m supposed to be doing?”—part of this is to let them know: “I am happy to be with you no matter how dark things get for you; that you’re not alone.”
Ann: What I’m hearing you say, too, is that feeling that our kids, or even our spouse, gets that: “They want to be with me. They are excited that I’m here,”—no matter what age, or even a spouse—that is really key.
Chris: You know, at the end of the day, our children need to know they’re not alone. Whatever we can do, as parents—to remind and show our children: “You’re not alone,”—that will go a long way. Because a lot of times, as parents, we feel like we have to have all the answers; we have to fix this; we have to put the fire out. As we learn to manage what we feel, we’re showing our children and demonstrating: “This is the kind of people we are.”
I love how Jesus wept when He came upon the grieving community for Lazarus. Jesus knew what He was going to do, but He wept; He shared. He didn’t tell them, “Hey, there’s no need to be sad! You don’t have to…” He actually entered in and shared the communal grief.
That’s just so helpful for parents to hold onto. Look, you don’t have to have every right answer; but just get good at just being with your children and letting them know they are loved: “I’m glad to be with you. Even in this mess, I’m glad I can be with you and walk you through that.” That is life-changing.
Dave: That is such a great word for parents of any age child. You said, “Your child is longing to look at your face and see that you are happy that they are your child.” I think that doesn’t change when they’re a teenager—
Ann: —or adults.
Chris: That’s right.
Dave: It just doesn’t change. They want to know: “Are you still pleased that I’m your child?” When they feel and sense that from us, even when we’re disciplining them, they feel secure.
Marcus: That’s it.
Chris: They’ll use that for the rest of their lives, that: “No matter what happens here, I am loved. I belong; I’m going to be alright, no matter what.”
Marcus: That’s what we mean by joy-filled.
Marcus: And the goal here is to start a joy revolution; right? We live in a very low-joy culture. We live in a very low-joy church, for the most part. A lot of us were raised in low-joy families. What we’re really after here is: “If we’re going to start a joy revolution in the culture, it’s got to start with the families; and where better than the Christian families?”; right?
Dave: We know the answer.
Dave: We know the end of the story.
Marcus: I find that, so often, Christian families have been so focused on behavior: that they’ve been focusing on making sure their kids behave like Christians. I look back—God created us to be part of His family—what does He want for His family? He wants us all to love each other, to love Him, and for there to be joy—to be fulfilled—for our joy to be complete. It’s all going back to that: “How do we fulfill God’s original intention for creating humans in the first place?” “You want a joy-filled family.”
Dave: When He sees us, there’s a smile. Our sons and daughters should feel the same thing from us.
Thank you guys; this has been awesome.
Ann: —so good.
Chris: Thank you; it’s been so good.
Bob: What do you think your kids would say if, at dinner tonight, you asked the question: “Do you think we’re a joy-filled family? I mean, for the most part—not all the time—nobody is all the time. But do you think that, for the most part, our family is joy-filled?”
- If they said, “Yes.” It would be a good follow-up to say, “What is it that produces joy in our family? What makes us joy-filled?”
- If they said, “No,” then ask the question: “What do you think it would take for us to be a joy-filled family?” And get ready for those answers.
Maybe get a copy of the book we’ve been talking about this week that Marcus Warner and Chris Coursey have written called The 4 Habits of Joy-Filled Kids. It’s a book we’ve got in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. In fact, we’ve been sending this book out all week to those of you who can help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today.
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Now, Dave and Ann Wilson had the opportunity to continue their conversation with Marcus Warner and Chris Coursey, talking about whether it’s really impossible to spoil a toddler. It’s one of the things that came up this week. They also talked about the difference between empathy and sympathy, just lots more about how we create joy-filled kids. That conversation is available on the FamilyLife Today app. If you’ve not already downloaded the FamilyLife app, go to the app store for your device and just type in “FamilyLife” as one word; download the app, and you’ll have access to this additional bonus content with Chris Coursey and Marcus Warner. If you’ve already got the app, it should be right there, available to you; and you can listen to more on this subject with Dave and Ann Wilson.
Now, tomorrow, we want to talk about the importance/the value of boundaries. A lot of times, we think boundaries constrain us or constrict us. Well, Ashley Hales joins us tomorrow to talk about how appropriate boundaries can actually open things up for you in life. We’re going to talk about what it looks like to lead a spacious life tomorrow. I hope you can join us for that.
On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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