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Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

When Your Children Have Mental Illness

SOURCE:  Diane Ramirez/Today’s Christian Woman

Keeping your stressed marriage healthy

After 35 years of marriage, serious thoughts of divorcing my husband took me by surprise.

I never thought I would ever consider leaving James, as divorce is contrary to our Christian values. But when our contention over difficulties with our adult children escalated, I started to entertain thoughts of separation, and so did he.

Let me be real with you. I suffer with depression; it runs through my genes. Our son is diagnosed with mixed bipolar disorder, and our adopted daughter suffers with severe separation anxiety. Throw in a spouse who is an A-type personality, and you have a recipe for conflict.

The crisis peaked when our youngest daughter moved back home with an infant and a 5-year-old. Her husband was deployed overseas. Not only was she experiencing debilitating separation anxiety, she was making unhealthy choices and spending much of her time with old friends. Her checking out caused a lot of clashes. My mental and physical health disintegrated. Many times I had to leave our home for days just to get rest, as she expected me to pick up the slack of caring for her kids.

I felt alone, fatigued, and mad that my husband was not there for me. I discovered, through our many “talks,” that he didn’t like the way I was acting. He wondered why I couldn’t rise above the madness. He didn’t grasp the emotional and physical strain of day-to-day life at home because he escaped by going to work, school, or other activities away from us.

Differences Can Create Wedges

In a crisis, it’s typical to want to escape. The mayhem created by constant appeals for help from both of our adult children created a vacuum in our relationship. This is how my husband described it on our blog, “Not Losing Heart”:

“[My wife] seemed to have a different understanding than I at first. Our beliefs were at odds and it was putting a wedge between us. I believed that if our children would do this or that, or do things my way, they would get it right. When my wife challenged my thinking, I became angrier inside. I felt she was coddling them.”

A wedge is a good way to describe what can happen to a marriage when mental illness raises its ugly head. Parents tend to think a change in a child’s behavior is due to the normal developmental challenges of adolescence. Disagreements on what causes these behaviors or what should be done can create a wedge. These differences are even more apparent when dealing with an adult child who should be living independently.

A wedge creates a gap and a gap can create a chasm if a couple will not stop and assess what is happening. It is so easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of chaos that mental illness causes.

In our marriage, these factors created our wedge:

  • We had different perspectives on solutions. My husband wanted our children to be more independent. He wanted a “quick fix”; I wanted to nurture and stay engaged with them. Both of us felt we were supporting them, but with totally different styles.
  • Our communication broke down. A difference of opinions is expected, but when those opinions keep a couple from reaching a solution, anger, anxiousness, frustration, and loneliness set in. It’s like a tug-of-war over who is right. Each is working against the other, and it’s exhausting.
  • We neglected our marriage. When we were caught up in our separate whirlwinds of emotion, focusing on our marriage was impossible. Resentment, snapping at each other, and being easily annoyed were a few indicators that we had lost touch with each other. Our relationship suffered.
  • Our emotional responses were different. My husband withdrew to escape the chaos and stuffed his emotions. I resented him for his lack of involvement and became overcome with sorrow and depression, which affected my physical health.

What happened to our desire to live as one in Christ? To allow the Lord to live through us, to be a godly wife and husband? The unexpected super-storm sucked away our purpose as a Christian couple, because we let down our guard. We prayed, but we each had choices to make about where we were going.

As you contend with the difficulties surrounding a child with a brain disorder, there is no “easy button” to push. The truth is, it will feel like pushing a 10-ton boulder up a slippery slope. Perseverance is a key. And awareness of what is happening can be a catalyst in the meeting of the minds.

“Should Haves” to Do Now

My husband and I are healing now, thank God. In looking back, we discovered our “should haves”—a little late, perhaps, but still in time to save our marriage and to shrink the gaps developed by our ever-increasing differences. I’m including them here for you, to help your marriage stay healthy while you weather the storm of your adult or young child’s life with mental illness.

  • Acknowledge you and your spouse are on different wavelengths. You might find more clarity if you write down what you think are the points of disagreement concerning your child.
  • Seek help. Find a trusted counselor to help mediate your differences.
  • Be honest with how you feel. Feelings are neither right nor wrong.
  • Respect how your spouse feels, even though it may upset you. (This is not easy.) And don’t make assumptions about the ways he/she is reacting.
  • Make up your minds that your relationship is a priority no matter what is happening around you. Set boundaries, which can guide you in which crises really demand your time.
  • Talk and listen. Don’t assume your partner is wrong in his or her assessment of the situation.
  • Get a diagnosis for your child, or if he or she is an adult, encourage the adult child to get a diagnosis. Knowledge is power.
  • Most important, educate yourselves on what that diagnosis means for your child (adult or not) and for your family.
  • Don’t forget humor; it really helps.
  • Above all, give each other grace to work through the crisis. God has a separate timetable for each of us. He makes all things beautiful in his time.

Again I’ll quote my husband: “I remember when my wife began to look for information and searched the Internet, the library, and any resource she could find, and then shared that information with me. Something clicked inside. To our relief, we eventually found NAMI (The National Alliance on Mental Illness). It was as though someone had thrown me a lifeline and given me the tools to make a difference in the life of our children, my marriage, and others. My wife and I needed to be on the same page as it came to giving compassion and finding empathy for what they were going through. She needed my support and I needed hers.”

It is my hope and prayer that if you’re in the kind of upheaval my husband and I experienced, these suggestions will aid you in getting a grip much sooner and arrive at the place where you can support each other.

Don’t forget love. Love is the ultimate ingredient to stepping outside yourself. Love and perseverance will rekindle your marriage and reestablish your bond—keeping your connection intact no matter the how fierce the raging storm mental illness can cause.

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Diane Ramirez is a freelance writer, wife, mother of three adult children, and grandmother of five. She volunteers for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), co-facilitating a support group and the NAMI Basic classes for parents, and she blogs about this topic at NotLosingHeart.com.

 

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4 Ways Emotional Neglect From Your Childhood Can Harm Your Relationships

SOURCE:   /PsychCentral

One of the most difficult things about growing up with your feelings ignored (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN) is the way it affects your relationships once you have grown up.

When you grow up in an emotionally neglectful family, your feelings are not responded to enough by your parents. From your parents’ lack of response, you learn a secret lesson that lives deeply and unseen within you for the rest of your life. You learn that your emotions are not useful, and don’t matter.

Children who grow up this way do not learn how to value, understand, or use their own emotions. Instead, they may spend their entire adult lives running from their own feelings, or trying to push them away.

Among all the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect, two pack the biggest punch when it comes to your ability to connect with others.

  1. It leaves you disconnected from your emotions.
  2. It leaves you lacking some essential skills that you need. 

Like an invisible rain cloud, your CEN hangs over your adult life, coloring your world gray, and robbing you of richness and color, energy and connection. Imagine the effect this has on your ability to be close and comfortable with the right people, in the right way.

As you read the 4 effects below, I ask you to keep two very important things in mind. First, you did not choose to grow up emotionally neglected, so none of this is your fault. Second, all 4 of these effects have to do with the wall that disconnects you from your emotions, and your skills. That wall can be taken down, and you can learn the skills. It can all be fixed!

4 Ways CEN Affects Your Relationships

  • It makes them more confusing than they should be

To successfully manage any kind of relationship, it’s very important to have enough emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence includes the ability to know what you are feeling and why, manage your feelings, and talk about them with the other person, if needed. If you have all those skills, you can use them to understand what is going on with you, and you can also use them to read what the other person is feeling, and why. Then you can respond appropriately, as needed.

How your CEN interferes: If your feelings were not validated as important when you were growing up, you likely missed the “Emotion Training” that you were supposed to receive from your parents. Now relationships, especially your own feelings and actions, as well as other people’s feelings and behaviors, can seem like a puzzle for you. It’s hard to cope with a problem in a relationship when you can’t quite see it or understand it.

  • It drives you apart from the other person

Going through your life without enough emotional intelligence has another very impactful effect: it makes you feel unequipped to handle conflicts. This naturally makes you fearful of encountering problems in your relationships, and this is a fear that you must cope with. The most common way for folks with CEN to cope is to simply avoid conflicts altogether. If you have CEN and you are reading this, you may think that’s a pretty good solution to the problem. But it’s not.

How your CEN interferes: Avoiding conflict requires you to push your own feelings underground, and also ignore any signs of hurt or anger from the other person. What happens to feelings that are pushed away or ignored? They grow. They grow and they grow, and drive a wedge between you and the other person. You will drift farther and farther away from each other, and you may not even realize it is happening.

  • It keeps them superficial

Relationships of all kinds thrive on feelings: both positive and negative, believe it or not. Talking about difficult things with someone builds trust. Working through a conflict with someone builds understanding. Giving and receiving emotional support builds warmth and care. And all of those mix together to provide any relationship its depth. 

How your CEN interferes: When emotions are not addressed or dealt with enough in a relationship, not enough richness or depth gets a chance to develop. This leaves your relationships more shallow than they should be, which makes them far less rewarding. You are experiencing your relationships in grayscale, when you should be living them in rich and stimulating colors.

  • It makes them less interesting

Emotion is the ingredient that keeps relationships interesting. To understand why, think of every movie you’ve ever enjoyed, and you’ll realize that every single one made you feel something. All feelings, both positive and negative, are stimulating. They provide us with fuel and zest and zeal. They motivate us, drive us, and move us.

How your CEN interferes: When you don’t have proper access to your emotions, you aren’t able to put them into your relationships. You likely hold back on topics that could be bonding and stimulating or upsetting to other people. For example, you may convey a deeply painful story by relaying only the events and facts. You may not be able to experience the emotional aspects of a story your friend is telling. This can make your time spent together uninteresting, or maybe even boring. Not just for you, but also for the person you are with.

What To Do

I know you may be feeling daunted after reading about the obstacles above. But I want you to know that you should actually be hopeful! All these years, you’ve been experiencing your relationships in a dulled way, without fully realizing what you were missing. But now you know what’s wrong, and that your Childhood Emotional Neglect can be addressed and healed. You can break down the wall that blocks you from your feelings, and learn the emotion skills you missed. It takes perseverance and work, yes.

But your family will thank you, your partner will thank you, and your children will grow up happier and healthier. That is a win win win on every level.

Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable, so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

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To learn how to heal the effects of Emotional Neglect in your relationships, see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

Your Family Voyage: Family Roles

SOURCE: Excerpted from the book by  P. Roger Hillerstrom/Your Family Voyage

There are two types of family roles:  formal and informal.

Formal family roles have recognizable labels of mother, father, husband, wife, student, infant, and so forth.  Our expectations for these roles are shaped by our culture and are fairly consistent.

Informal family roles are much less obvious than formal roles.  They revolve around emotional tasks that individuals carry out for the rest of the family.  These may be performed consciously, but more often they are unconscious.

The general function of all informal family roles is to regulate tension – maintain stability – within the family.  They may or may not be successful.  Tension and conflict are natural paths of any relationship.  Conflict in itself is not good or bad, right or wrong.  In many ways it may be a sign of life, growth, and progress.  Although tension is normal, how that tension is handled will determine whether it is positive or negative.  Too much conflict in a family will result in chaos; too little will result in stagnation.  Informal roles are an attempt to regulate the tension – to balance the mobile.  Through family roles each of us learns how to respond to uncomfortable emotions such as anger, hurt, and sadness.  In these roles we learn to deal with the feelings of others as well.  Long before we reach adulthood, we have learned our roles so well that they seem instinctual.

Many families cast one member as the “family hero”, or “good child” – the member the others would describe as the most successful.  The task of this member is usually to represent the family in a positive light to outsiders.  The “good child” tends to be the ultra-responsible member who does things “correctly”.  This is often one of the older siblings who take on parental responsibilities for the younger children.  The terms caring, considerate, competent, and dependable are usually good descriptions for people in this role.

While almost every family will have a member with a number of these positive traits, the characteristics will be more pronounced in families with dysfunctions.  The more profound the dysfunction, the more pronounced the role.  We see this role emerging most prominently in families where one or both parents are negligent.  Alcoholism, abuse and mental illness generally create emotional voids into which this member steps.

Family heroes grow up learning to fulfill the expectations placed on them, which for a variety of reasons have been high.  Appearances are important to them.  It is also very important for the good child to do the “right” thing in any situation.  “To be right is good and to be wrong is bad, and it’s terrible to be bad”.  This perspective on life can make an individual very controlled and very controlling.  Heroes often find it difficult to relax and be spontaneous.  Family heroes have a strong need to please authority figures and are generally pretty good at it.

The family hero is a child who is fairly independent of the family in his or her success – the athlete, scholar, or musician.  Success is measured by how he or she projects himself or herself to outsiders.  This child’s emotional bond to other family members is generally not as close as other “good children”.  Typically, this child’s closest relationships are with people outside the family.

The Lieutenant is the child who takes on some or all of the parental responsibilities for the siblings.  This role of “lieutenant” may develop out of obedience to the directives from parents or to fill a void left by irresponsible, negligent, preoccupied or otherwise unavailable parents.  This child’s success is measured primarily by how he or she interacts within the family.

The Rescuer is the child who has taken over one particular aspect of parenting, that of nurturing – encouraging, supporting, and caring for siblings – becomes the “rescuer”.  Usually this is a job taken on because no one else was doing it.  The negative side of this role is that someone else must have a problem or be in pain for the rescuer to function.

Family heroes tend to carry these traits into adulthood.  Outwardly they are productive, hardworking, motivated, and self-controlled.  They often live with a vague sense of guilt over what they cannot accomplish.  Their strong need to please everyone leads to patterns of over-commitment and unrealistic expectations for themselves, which often result in unfulfilled commitments, half-completed tasks, or exhaustion.  These in turn lead to more guilt.  Family heroes experience failure as rejection.  Their response to rejection is to work harder.  It is difficult for these over-responsible “children” to maintain a realistic assessment of their own capabilities.  Most never had the chance to learn that they could fail and still be loved.  Their sense of acceptance and belonging became dependent on good performance.  Heroes also tend to be difficult to get close to emotionally.  They don’t let their guards down very easily.  Looking good means feeling good and vice versa.  To become open and vulnerable to another person would mean admitting fears and shortcomings they hide even from themselves.

Frequently motivated by guilt and fear of self-perceived failure, they invest a great deal of energy in the approval of others, often compromising their own convictions, values and emotional needs to avoid the criticism they may receive by not fulfilling another person’s expectations.  The need for approval from authorities in childhood frequently develops into a “need to be needed” mentality in adulthood.  People who fall into this pattern generally become rescuers – over-responsible people who tend to be attracted to under-responsible individuals who need their help.  These roles tend to complement each other, fulfilling a number of emotional needs in each partner.

The Scapegoat Role – almost every dysfunctional family has a member who plays the role of family scapegoat.  The more severe the family dysfunction, the more obvious the scapegoat role will be.  It is the scapegoat’s job to bear the bulk of the blame for the family problems.  In this way the scapegoat reduces tension in the family.  Usually the scapegoat began the role by trying to succeed to please Mom and Dad, but for one reason or another was not able to do that.  Perhaps an older or more gifted sibling in the role of hero made competition impossible.  Perhaps the parents had unreasonable expectations and demands that promoted constant failure.  Whatever the initial cause, the scapegoat learned to believe that recognition could be achieved only through negative means.  Gradually this child began to believe that rejection and failure were a part of who he or she was.  The family member is emotionally sent away and feels as if he or she is on the outside looking in on family life.  These feelings of rejection are rarely verbalized.  A small child may express these feelings by hiding under the bed or in a far corner of the house.  A teen may become involved with peers who share similar frustrations and offer the affirmation he craves.  Alcohol or drug abuse is especially common if one or both parents have chosen the same route of escape from pressure or tension.

Though not conscious of the role, scapegoats have an uncanny way of directing blame toward themselves.  At time they may even create situations in which they can be blamed in order to minimize tension in the rest of the family.  Every member needs to achieve a feeling of belonging in the family.  Even a negative, painful role will give this sense of belonging, a place to “fit”.  It feels better to belong as a scapegoat than to feel totally alone.

Young Scapegoats.  Robert and Mary had been married three years with a fourteen-month-old son, Bobby.  During marriage counseling they discovered an interesting pattern, Bobby would sometimes act in direct disobedience to his parents.  While discussing Bobby’s discipline, they both realized that his misbehavior occurred inevitably when there was tension between the two of them.  They observed that as they began to disagree and their tone of voice rose, Bobby would do something “naughty”.  At that point his parents would stop arguing, turn their attention toward Bobby, and deal with his misbehavior.  At this point the tension was broken, and they seldom returned to their original conflict.  Bobby was learning an important lesson that all scapegoats learn:  “If this family is to survive, I must get into trouble.”  Recognizing this became the motivation Robert and Mary needed to work toward resolving their differences.  They also committed themselves to expressing affection and affirmation to each other, in Bobby’s presence, at the conclusion of their conflicts.

If one of the parents grew up as the family scapegoat, chances are good that he or she will continue that role as an adult.  If neither parent was a scapegoat but both grew up in families where scapegoats existed, they will probably “scapegoat” one of the children – often the firstborn.

If one child threatens the self-esteem of the family, perhaps due to a handicap of some sort, there is a good possibility that he or she may become designated as the “problem”.  If the child is retarded or overly intelligent, unattractive or especially attractive, or in any way “different” from the other family members, that unique quality may become a factor in that person’s becoming a family scapegoat.  The “differentness” may be a family member’s temperament.  If one member is too aggressive or too passive, too dependent or too autonomous, these factors may predispose one individual to be scapegoated.  Sometimes even being named after or resembling some past scapegoat may designate the role.  Though the roots of the role may vary a great deal, the results are remarkably similar.

Adult Scapegoats.  Like family heroes, scapegoats generally carry the characteristics they develop in childhood into adulthood and they continue to play their family role in other relationships.  The role of scapegoat served a purpose in the family of origin, even though it was negative – it served to reduce tension and give the child an identity within the family.  Yet once that role is carried outside the family, it often wreaks havoc in new relationships, as well as life in general.

Adult scapegoats often find it difficult to feel at ease in any situation.  The family scapegoat feels deeply guilty, lonely and helpless.  In spite of a desire to do well, he or she feels almost compelled toward self-defeating, self-destructive behavior, as if being swept along by a current he or she doesn’t understand, propelled by the responses of others who are often oblivious to the process.

The Mascot Role – a family mascot tends to be the focus of everyone else’s attention.  The nurturing the mascot receives is not necessarily earned or deserved.

  • Being the youngest of the siblings, especially if much younger.
  • Being the smallest or “cutest”.
  • Being more frail, disabled, or needy in some way.
  • Being the only boy in a family of girls, or vice versa.

Regardless of which attribute elicits attention, one characteristic is universal for all mascots:  less maturity and independence is expected of the mascot than of the other siblings.  The mascot can often “get away with murder.”

Adult Mascots.  Mascots learn early in life that they are likable.  They are generally talkative and sociable, often becoming “the life of the party” in groups.  They learn to use their charismatic charm advantageously.  While they may be effective in passively controlling situations, they generally do not assume leadership well and are usually uncomfortable if designated “the boss”.

As adults, mascots tend to be outgoing, spontaneous people-pleasers.  They usually reflect self-confidence and handle social situations well.  Family mascots are usually fun to be around.  Mascots have a tendency to be emotionally dependent and self-centered with a strong need for the approval of others.  They tend to relinquish responsibility easily.  They seem to assume that whatever they leave undone will somehow get done or won’t matter.  Often impulsive, their lifestyles can be chaotic and unstable.  Mascots often seem to search for partners to nurture, guide and control them.

Additional Roles.

The Lost Child – a middle childe (not first or last born), “the lost child” deals with tension by withdrawing from or avoiding the family.  This family member usually has his or her closest relationships outside the family.  The most likely to be overlooked or neglected by the family, this person finds it hard to relax in relationships because fundamental trust has never been established within the family.  In adulthood this person has difficulty drawing close to others and has few, if any, intimate relationships.  The fear of rejection tends to control a great deal of this person’s behavior.

The Mediator – the “mediator” is the family member who always seems to be in the middle of family confrontations, trying to bring the opposing sides together.  Since family members tend to rely on this person to help them resolve their own problems, his or her identity becomes very wrapped up in the needs of others.  In adulthood this person typically is well liked and has many friends.  But since most of these relationships are based on problems, he or she has few true peers and enjoys very little mutual sharing of needs.  Actually, this popular person often feels very lonely.

The Family Clown – the “family clown” deals with tension through humor.  When there is anger or conflict within the family, the family clown will crack a joke, make a snide comment, or act out some humorous antic.  Sometimes the clown will relieve family tension at his or her own expense.  When the laughter is a response to self-criticism or self-deprecation, the family is sacrificing this member to avoid its own tension.  As an adult, the family clown is very difficult to get close to emotionally because he or she has learned that emotional intensity should be avoided.  Though this person may draw many acquaintances to his or her lighthearted approach to life, intimate friendships are rare.  The family clown may be fun to be around, but you often sense that you never really know this person.

Role Changes.  Family roles are not unchangeable.  In fact, changes in formal family roles are traditionally announced and celebrated.  Weddings, graduations, baby showers, and even funerals are ways of announcing formal role changes.  Informal family roles may also change as a family grows.

Exploring informal family roles may involve more than just examining the behavior of family members.  Clues can be found in other characteristics displayed by family members.  Family nicknames can point to family roles.  An adult who still responds to a childish name may be continuing to play an old role.  This is especially true if the name is used only by the family of origin.  For example, a successful corporate vice-president whose parents and siblings continue to call him “Spanky” may have a family who wants to maintain a familiar role even though it is inconsistent with the rest of his life.

Sometimes a child will resemble an older family member who had a particular role.  Such a resemblance may be a factor in assuming or assigning that informal role.  A child who is regularly told that he looks exactly like Uncle Herman will spend time thinking about Uncle Herman.  If Uncle Herman was an alcoholic who spent twenty-five years in prison, that life scenario will affect the child’s view of himself.  If family members constantly remind the child of the resemblance, it may indicate their expectations for that child to take over the role.

A family member who has some sort of special characteristic, such as a disability or a special gift, or is known as the tallest, shortest, heaviest, strongest, angriest, or kindest person in the family may have a unique informal family role.  When you identify someone in your family with a particular role, pay attention to how various family members relate to this person – other roles may begin to emerge.

Childish Thinking – It shouldn’t surprise you that we readily accept what we are told as children.  What is amazing is that we are so slow to question these messages as we grow older.  Many of the things we learn as children are obviously untrue.  Many of them probably affect how we live, how we perceive ourselves, and how we respond to others.  Unfortunately, many of those false assumptions have never changed.

Thus it is with family roles.  We learned them in childhood, when they served a purpose.  Too often we carry them with us into adulthood and continue to play them long after their usefulness has ended.

Your Family Voyage: Birth Order

SOURCE:  Excerpted from the book by P. Roger Hillerstrom/Your Family Voyage

The Value of When – Birth Order.  The timing of your entrance into your family has a profound impact on who you become.  This is the underlying assumption of the study of sibling position or birth order.

The study of sibling position revolves around the fact that families change as they grow.  The family responds to each child differently, depending on the family’s stage of development.  Since each child is treated uniquely in the context of the whole family system, the relationship between the child and the family as a whole develops uniquely.

Your birth order impacts virtually every area of your life:  career decisions, choice of spouse, how you respond to your children, what motivates or frustrates you, and how you spend your leisure time.

As a family grows, the number of relationships and possible interactions within the system changes dramatically.  For example, before the arrival of children the marriage relationship involves three interacting units – two individual “I’s” and one couple “we” relationship, or interaction.  When the first child is born, the number of units increases to seven – three individuals, three couples and one triangle.  With the addition of child number two, there are four individuals, six couples, four triangles, and a quadrangle, for a total of fifteen units.  By the time there is a fourth child, the number of interactions exceeds fifty.

Each child is born into a family situation different from that of the preceding sibling.  The family changes in many other ways as each child is added.  Mom and Dad have changed as parents.  They have modified their expectations, added skills, and increased or decreased tolerances.  The number of formal and informal roles within the family has increased, social expectations have changed, and financial needs (and possibly income) are different.

The Firstborn.  Most firstborn kids have a fairly tough time of it.  Being new to their responsibility, parents tend to have high expectations.  By the time children number two and number three come along, Mom and Dad have faced a little reality, and child number one has taken the edge off of their idealism.  Nevertheless, since everything child number one does is a “first” for the parents, their expectations for him or her tend to remain fairly high.

Firstborns often develop into a type of “assistant parent.”  Given the responsibility of being an example to the younger children, most firstborns fall into a pattern of making decisions, giving orders, teaching, protecting and correcting behavior.  They are leaders.  Oldest siblings tend to have fairly high expectations for themselves and are frequently self-critical.

Firstborns tend to develop two sets of personality traits, being either compliant and responsible or independent, assertive, and strong willed.  Compliant and responsible firstborns may become Mom and Dad’s “appendage”, having clear authority over younger siblings and carrying out orders.

Outside of the home, these individuals are viewed as ideal students and employees.  They have a strong need for approval, especially from authority figures.  As a result, they are cooperative, reliable, conscientious, and appreciated by their leaders and mentors.  Compliant firstborns also tend to be easily manipulated.  Assertiveness doesn’t come easily and they have a natural desire to please others, so it is fairly easy for others to take advantage of them.  As children they are given responsibility for siblings; as adults they continue the pattern by taking responsibility for others.  They are “doormats” around the office or the over-committed church member.

Even when over-committed and overloaded, it is extremely difficult for these compliant firstborns to disappoint others by backing out and slowing down.  Frequently they become quietly resentful and bitter.

Some compliant firstborns are unable to please their parents, typically because of unrealistic expectations placed on them.  When positive reinforcement is consistently missing in the home, the compliant firstborn often becomes the “frustrated failure.”  When this child can’t measure up to his parents’ standards, instead of working harder to please others, he or she gives up.  As an adult this individual is passive, unmotivated and chronically self-defeating.

The second personality common to firstborns is that of the “driver”, who is independent, assertive, and strong willed. Rather than waiting for leadership to be handed over to him or her, this child has learned to take it.  Directing and controlling others seem to come naturally.

As adults these individuals tend to be high achievers, extremely productive and energetic, outperforming their peers.  They are competitive and take pride in being able to do more in less time than anyone else.

While assertive firstborns are very successful professionally, they typically neglect relationships on their way to the top.  Their need for control and focus on performance often make them difficult to become close to emotionally.

Firstborns tend to be more perfectionistic then their siblings and are more apt to view their world in terms of black and white.  Firstborn children tend to be fairly inflexible when it comes to rules.  Definitions of right and wrong, and good and bad, appear more distinct for these people, and they are often intent on having others comply with their interpretation of the rules.

In a marriage relationship, firstborns tend to have a strong need for and expectation of control.  Firstborns typically have difficulty accepting criticism from their spouses.  If you are a firstborn, you would do well to lower the expectations you have for yourself.  By performing less and relaxing more, you will find that your relationships naturally deepen.

The Lastborn.  The role most familiar to lastborns is that of follower.  The youngest child typically accustomed to being cared for, watched over, and provided for by siblings as well as parents.  Lastborns can usually be characterized as performers or tagalongs.

A performer is a child who grows up being coddled, catered to, and focused on by the rest of the family.  As the center of attention for the family, this member develops into a “performer”.  He learns to be very aware of people’s responses to him and often becomes a very effective manipulator.  This child has the tendency to be spoiled, moody, and impulsive.

A lastborn child who grows up being minimized – ignored, or not taken seriously – may become a tagalong.  Mom and Dad may be very busy at this stage in their life, with their attention divided among the other children, jobs, hobbies, and social life.  The “little tagalong” may end up with whatever energy and attention is left over.

For this child, the familiar role is that of being directed and led.  These individuals grow up with a strong emotional dependence on others.  Decision-making is often difficult.  They tend to be agreeable and conforming.  They are most comfortable in settings where someone else in charge will give them clear direction.

In either one of these scenarios, youngest children are not treated as peers by anyone in the family.  They are not given as much responsibility and less maturity is expected of them.  Parental demands are focused elsewhere.

Lastborns tend to be more carefree and less prone to worry than their siblings.  They have less need to be in control and have less concern about detail.  They tend to be more social and have a high need for the attention of others.  Because of their thirst for attention, they respond well to encouragement.  A pep talk and a few “attaboys” motivate lastborns to achieve, though their efforts may be short-lived if the praise drops off.

In a marriage relationship, lastborns tend to bring out the dominant side of their partners, who are often firstborns.  The lastborn personality seems to invite a parenting response from others, though this may not be obvious before marriage.  The spontaneous, vivacious, playful characteristics of a lastborn that are attractive in courtship are also the impulsive, temperamental, irresponsible traits that drive a firstborn spouse crazy.

If you are a lastborn, beware of your tendency toward self-centeredness.

The Middle Child.  The designation of “middle child” applies to anyone born between the first and last child.  The middle child is the one with the fewest photos in the family album, and the most hand-me-down clothes in his wardrobe.  Like a wheel that doesn’t squeak, middle children are easy to overlook.

While the parents’ responses to the oldest and youngest kids tend to be fairly predictable, responses to middle children vary.  Where middle children “fit” will tend to be influenced primarily by other factors, particularly the number, ages, and gender of their siblings.

Personality development of the middle child is probably most strongly determined by the personality of the older sibling.  Because the middle position has no inherent uniqueness, these children need to seek out a special identity within the family.  Some middle children become competitors in order to earn a place of recognition in the family, while others are invisible children, unable to gain recognition.

The competitor feels he or she has to earn a place of recognition within the family.  Generally unable to successfully take over the role occupied by the firstborn sibling, this child develops other areas around which to develop an identity.  If the firstborn has found an area in which to excel, the second child will typically develop skills in some opposite area:

  • If the firstborn is rebellious, the second born will be compliant.
  • If the firstborn is an athlete, the second born will be a scholar or musician.
  • If the firstborn is social and outgoing, the second born will be quiet and introspective.
  • If the firstborn is structured and organized, the second born will be random and spontaneous.

The invisible child cannot find a place of recognition within the family.  For a number of possible reasons, he or she is not rewarded for success in any particular area.  This is the child who eventually gives up on success, because whatever attempts he has made have met with frustration and failure.

Whatever form their personalities take, middle children are usually the members who function most independently of the family.  They tend to be more emotionally distant than other family members and their primary source of emotional support generally comes from outside the family, usually from their peers.

One experience universal to all middle children is that of having a comfortable role taken from them.  All middle children were at one point the lastborn.  The attention naturally showered on the baby of the family once belonged to them, until younger brother or sister came along.

In a marriage relationship, middle children can be hard to get close to emotionally.  Since these people naturally adapt to those around them, it may be difficult to determine what middle children actually feel.  Uncomfortable with conflict or confrontation, they may withdraw in silence rather than face these problems directly.  Middle children may passively choose to live with hurt and offense rather than “make waves”.

The Only Child.  Only children often become an interesting blend of traits common in both the firstborn and lastborn children.  Their behavior, perspectives, and reactions are typical of firstborns, but emotionally they are very similar to lastborn children.

Since their parent’s expectations are usually high, as they are for firstborn children, only children tend to be performers and high achievers.  They have a tendency toward perfectionism, and their verbal skills are usually well above average.  These are all characteristics shared with firstborn children.

The other side of the coin is that only children spend their formative years being the “main event” of their parents’ lives.  Similar to the experience of many lastborn children, being the focus of attention often becomes part of the only child’s expectations of life.

The personality of the only child may take on two general directions, that of treasured only or structured only, depending on the circumstances of birth.

The treasured only is the only child whose parents had a desire for more children but for one reason or another were able to have only one.  The focus of attention, time, and energy, often results in a child who may have difficulty sharing the spotlight with others and who is seen as being spoiled or self-centered.

The structured child is the child whose parents had only one child because they chose to have only one child.  They planned their family this way and stuck to their plan.  In any case, these parents are generally well-organized, self-disciplined planners.  The household tends to be a fairly structured, disciplined home and child develops in accord with this atmosphere.  This family often expects the child to be a miniature adult, so the child tends to behave maturely but feels uncomfortable among peers.

In either case, the only child grows up relating closely with adults rather than other children.  He or she may not learn to interact comfortably with peers, though feeling very at ease with authority figures.  Only children tend to be less spontaneous and playful than other children, and while their verbal skills are usually very good, they may be the least talkative in a group.  They often have difficulty developing close relationships and frequently describe themselves as lonely.  As these discomforts are generally kept inside, only children appear to cope fairly well in life.  As adults they frequently appear very confident and self-assured in social situations, but inwardly they feel vaguely uncomfortable, insecure and ill at ease.

In a marriage relationship, only children often struggle to cope with the idiosyncrasies of another personality.  Normal mood changes in their partners are especially frustrating and confusing for only children.  While they may deeply love, care for, and enjoy their partners, only children tend to be most comfortable when alone.

Twins.  The placement of twins in birth order is more complex than that of single birth children.  For example, in twins born to a family with an older sibling, the older twin will develop characteristics of a second-born and younger twin will take on the role of the third born sibling.  Most twins know which of them was born first.  This may indicate the family’s tendency to respond to them according to their birth order and reinforce these characteristics.  Twins as a unit generally have a very special place in the family – twins are special, and they usually know it.

When a child is born after a childless gap of six years or more, the birth order usually starts over.  Because of their age difference, they will probably never spend much time with each other.

Your Family Voyage: Family Rules

SOURCE:  Excerpted from the book by P. Roger Hillerstrom

Rules and More Rules.  No human response is absurd regardless of how ridiculous it appears.  Each person’s behavior, decisions, and reactions emerge from a context of some sort.  This frame of reference, if it is understood can shine a spotlight into a dark area that is otherwise baffling.  In essence, family rules are the way family values are passed on from one generation to another.  Through rules, a family communicates its expectations for family members as well as for those outside the family.  Rules tell us what is acceptable and unacceptable, proper and improper, good and bad.  Family rules communicate expectations about how people are to relate to one another, how the different generations are to interact, and what is expected of each individual.

In the same way that family roles give each member a place to “fit” into the family identity, family rules tell each member how to play his or her part.  Some rules are very clear and understandable; some are extremely clouded and confusing.  Since families have expectations about everything they do, they also have rules about everything they do.

“Written rules” – expectations that have been communicated directly in some way.  Written rules give structure and stability to family life.  They include things such as table manners, curfews and chores.

  • “Finish your dinner or no dessert.”
  • “Do your homework before you go out to play.”
  • “Bedtime is ten o’clock.”

Unwritten rules are quite another story.  These rules consistently influence behavior within the family but have never been directly stated.  These unspoken expectations are not open for discussion or evaluation, generally because no one is consciously aware of them.

Families have unwritten rules about all kinds of things.  The most readily visible rules are those regarding emotional tension.  If the children misbehave or cause distraction whenever the parents argue, they are communicating the rule “Parents can’t fight”.  If parents take over a task or job for a child whenever he or she complains or experiences difficulty, then the rule may be “Children can’t be frustrated”.  If family members act differently around a particular parent, treating them “with kid gloves”, the rule may be “Mom (or Dad) must not get angry.  Because unwritten rules are not verbalized, family members may often be unaware they exist.

Family rules accomplish several purposes.  For one, they serve to regulate tension within the family.  Too much tension or conflict within a home makes family life chaotic, unsettled, and insecure; too little tension results in stagnation and indifference.

Another purpose served by family rules is that of defining the family’s identity.  They give the family a sense of uniqueness.

A third purpose is that rules lend stability and predictability to family life.

The good news about family rules is that they help make family life stable and predictable.  The bad news is that family rules can keep family members from growing, maturing, and changing.  This is especially true for rules that limit communication or emotional closeness.  It is also true for rules that are arbitrary and overly rigid.

Some rules help us prepare for and live in the adult world.  Other unwritten rules apply only to life within the family, and they often distort our perspective of life.  As adults we continue to be loyal to these rules until we consciously change them.

The most influential rules in our families are the unwritten ones – those based on assumptions.  It is usually easier to identify unwritten family rules in someone else’s family than in your own.  Unwritten rules are generally enforced through rejection by parents and family members.  Controlling children through rejection can be done with direct statements:

  • “Mommy doesn’t love you when you act like that.”
  • “You are an awful child when you do that.”
  • “If you act (talk, feel) like that, you’re no child of mine.”

Rejection and control can also be expressed indirectly:

  • “I won’t talk to you when you’re crying (angry, depressed).”
  • “Go to your room if you feel that way.”
  • “I won’t be around you when you’re like that.”

The common factor in both expressions of rejection is the underlying message:  “You will be loved and considered worthy only if you perform properly.”  Behavior is not separated from the individual.  Bad behavior equals a bad person.  The result is a sense of shame and fear of abandonment.

An alternative message would be:  “I love you regardless of what you do, but there are negative consequences for your inappropriate behavior.”  In this case parental love and acceptance are not withheld and consequences for behavior are separated from the child as a person.

To a young child, the threat of rejection or abandonment is a powerful motivator.  Physically dependent on parents and authority figures, children have a strong need to please them.  Something as subtle as a facial gesture, the refusal of a hug, or silence can elicit fear and shame in a young child.  When the threat of rejection is used regularly and consistently in a child’s life, that child becomes sensitized to rejection.  He or she develops a habit of avoiding rejection at all costs, which will carry over into adulthood long after the child becomes independent and no longer needs parents for physical survival.

Expressing Emotions.  For Ken to see his wife cry was an unnerving experience. Whenever she cried he felt a strong need to stop her and smooth things out somehow.  For Catherine, crying was a soothing release of tension.  She felt minimized and patronized when Ken would try to squelch her tears, and she interpreted his lack of observable emotion as apathy.  It was hard for her to feel she was important to him when he expressed no emotion.  It wasn’t until each began to understand the other’s family rules that their reactions began to change.

Most families have unwritten rules about the expression of various emotions.  The honest expression of feelings needs to be balanced with courtesy and respect for others.  Typically, the unwritten rules regarding expression revolve around “forbidden” emotions:

  • “It is wrong to make another person uncomfortable.  We do not confront one another.”
  • “We are a positive, joyful family.  No one may express negative emotions such as anger, sadness, fear, or hurt.”
  • “The women in our family are gentle.  They may not be angry, but they may be depressed.”
  • “The men in our family are strong.  They may not be fearful or hurt, but they may be angry.”
  • “We are a loving family.  We do not have conflict or disagree with one another.”

When genuine feelings are minimized, denied, or redefined, a child’s emotional experience becomes distorted.  Believing that anger or sadness is bad does not make it less real.  The child learns to distrust the senses and becomes confused – anger isn’t really anger; hurt isn’t really hurt.  When children experience a forbidden emotion, they feel guilty and ashamed as though they themselves are somehow “bad”.  They then deny the emotion to avoid the shame.

When emotions are denied consistently, as a way of life, they tend to come out “sideways”, in some form that does not violate the family rule.  Rules suppressing emotions often produce adults who may be convinced that they harbor no anger, but their depression, ulcers, or migraine headaches tell another story.

Family members learn to develop emotional distance.  When someone cannot or will not express strong feelings, other people have a hard time getting to know that person very well.  Families with restrictive rules governing honest emotional interaction are often communicating to one another that emotional stability is valued more highly than emotional closeness.

Many families have strict unwritten rules regarding standards of performance by family members.  Examples of these may be:

  • “Whatever you do, it must be done correctly.”
  • “There’s only one way to do things – the right way!”
  • “To fail in any way is a shameful thing.”

These rules are learned clearly and quickly through regular, consistent criticism and minimal affirmation.  Criticism may be communicated directly, through complaints and condemnation of what a child does or how the child acts, or indirectly, through disapproving frowns, silence, or regularly comparing the child to someone or something “better”.

The definition of what is “correct” or “perfect” may vary widely.  One family may define “correct” as being sociable.  Having many friends and no enemies would be correct in this family.  Conflict then would be a measure of failure.  Another family may define “correct” as remaining separate from “the world”.  In this family a very small circle of social contacts would be considered appropriate and positive.

One family might measure “correctness” in financial terms.  A nice home, new cars, and many possessions would spell success.  The absence of these things may be cause for criticism or pity.  Another family may define “correct” behavior as the absence of materialism.

The values behind these rules may be positive and appropriate, but all too often these underlying motivations get lost when conformity becomes more highly valued than individuality.  The performance of family members becomes more important than the people themselves.

Whatever the specifics within the family, the definition of “right”, “correct” or “perfect” is always dependent on a comparison.  To be defined, “perfect” must be contrasted with “imperfect”.  Because there must always be a “wrong” to avoid at all costs, there is a judgmental attitude or a “better than others” aspect to this rule.

Since being “wrong” results in shame and being “right” is merely expected, avoiding being wrong becomes more important than doing what is right.  Defensiveness, blame, justification, and rationalization are typical patterns in families with perfectionistic performance rules.

The long-term effect of these rules is two-fold.  First a child develops a mental image as to what he or she “should be” and strives constantly to achieve it.  Usually this ideal standard cannot be achieved, at least consistently.  As a result of this, the child becomes self-critical, discontent, and defensive – a perfectionist.  Second, the child learns to project expectations and perfectionism onto others.  Since others cannot fulfill the expectations, the child is disappointed and critical.  This child is demanding, condemning, nagging, and rejecting.  He or she feels hurt and in turn hurts others, alienating them and damaging close relationships.

Physical Expression of Affection.  Eric can’t remember ever seeing his parents touch each other.  He certainly felt loved and cared for as a child, but that love wasn’t expressed through hugs.  In his family, affection was expressed through giving gifts and other tangible ways, such as doing special favors.  His wife, Rosa, grew up with constant physical affection from her family.  Touching among family members was a natural part of any conversation.  Early in their marriage Eric and Rosa were each offended by the other’s approach to this dissimilarity.  She felt neglected, and he felt smothered.

The communication of affection is laden with family expectations.  In some families, physical touch is comfortable and somewhat threatening.  In other families, members feel rejected when a greeting isn’t accompanied with an embrace.  Rules regarding physical expression of affection vary widely.

  • “Women may hug one another, men may only shake hands.”
  • “Adults may hug children but never other adults.”
  • “Physical affection is private, never to be shown in public.”
  • “If you care for someone, you touch that person regularly.”

Learning to Disobey.  Jesus demonstrated the result of emotionally leaving his family patterns and replacing them with mature priorities and decisions.  The process of leaving rules learned in childhood behind is difficult and calls for discernment.  Family rules that are dysfunctional and unhealthy can usually be identified by two factors:  They have little or no relationship to life outside the family, and family members are not able to discuss or evaluate them.

Some of the unwritten rules from your family of origin are undoubtedly positive and helpful to you today.  As you begin to break away from inappropriate rules from your childhood, remember that the family is a system or a mobile.  Change in one person causes changes in others.  In one way or another people around you will be forced to adjust in response to your new reactions.

Parenting: Setting Boundaries and Applying Consequences with Compassion

SOURCE:  Kim Fredrickson

It’s not easy to find the sweet spot of setting boundaries and applying consequences without accidentally shaming our kids. Setting limits with compassion is so important for our children’s self-esteem, ability to set their own boundaries and relationship with themselves.

Developmental 101

Simply put, children come out as a “blob.” They are wonderful creations made by God, but they know nothing about boundaries or right from wrong.

As far as they know everything is all good. They want what they want, and they want it now. There is no one else to consider but them. Boundaries are a rude awakening for them. This perspective is normal when they are little. Remembering these truths will help us have compassion for our kids.

As parents, we set external boundaries for them to follow so they know what’s okay, and not okay. It takes thousands of repetitions over lots of time, for them to develop their own internal conscience to guide them to do what is right in how they treat others and themselves.

We want to teach our children boundaries with love and not with shame. We don’t want them to feel shame inside when corrected. Shame says, “I am a bad person,” rather than “what I did was wrong.” When we set boundaries, we want them to come away with the idea that, “That was wrong for me to do, but I’m still a good person, and Mommy and Daddy still love me.” 

The truth is they are not bad. They’re little kids who are learning difficult lessons about right and wrong. We want them to come away with, “I was supposed to do my chores and I didn’t, so now I can’t watch my favorite show” versus “I didn’t do my chores, and now I’m a bad person.”

When we set healthy boundaries, we want the consequences to teach them about reality. We don’t want shame to cause internal self-hatred.

Three Main Ways to Teach Boundaries

We can teach them about boundaries by:

Teaching –“If you hit your brother you’ll have to sit for a timeout.” or “If you hit your brother, you’ll have to do his chores this week.”

Modeling – Kids learn from watching what we do. We are their primary models for setting boundaries and handling life. They observe how we handle frustrations, get along with others and solve problems. They watch how we take care of ourselves, the language we use, and the way we drive. They watch to see how we handle the daily responsibilities of life. It causes confusion when we tell them, “You need to follow through, clean your room, or share with your sister,” but don’t follow through ourselves.

Experience – As we follow through with consequences, they will internalize reality. They need to feel the reality that when they don’t clear their dishes, they don’t get dessert.

We Reap What We Sow

“Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” Galatians 6:7

They need us to teach them that actions have natural consequences. This is how life works. We need to give them an environment of reality. If “A” happens, then “B” happens. Without meaning to, we may jump in and rescue our kids from the natural consequences they need to experience in order to learn from their mistakes.

If we are too fuzzy with our boundaries, they will go into the world and expect other people to be lax with them too. Sometimes parents put up with behavior that no one in their future life will put up with. Teaching them reality gently will help them to be able to go out into the world, live with societal rules and be successful in life.

We Need to See the Big Picture

“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however,
 it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” Hebrews 12:11

It’s hard to discipline our children. We love them and don’t want them to be unhappy or mad at us. What helped me stay consistent was reminding myself of the big picture. I parented with my children’s long-term character development in mind. If we just look at the moment, we may not understand that the boundary we are enforcing is about developing our child’s character.

The boundary I’m setting at age two is about preparing my child for his teenage years. I want him to learn self-control over many years so that he is ready to handle peer pressure when it comes.

Making sure my daughter cleans up her room is about helping her complete unwanted responsibilities, so she can have a successful career and relationships. With every boundary, I realize I am shaping their character, which will determine the future of their lives.

When our son just turned two, he was trying out disobeying. His baby sister was six months old, and he decided he really wanted her toys, even though he knew he shouldn’t take them. I told him that I understood that he wanted her toys, but he could not take them from her. If he did, he would get a timeout.

Of course, he kept taking them. I followed through by telling him why this was wrong and put him in a short time out each time it happened. I remember thinking after the third time out, that this could really get out of hand if I didn’t keep on top of it.

I didn’t see him as a rebellious child. I saw him as a two-year-old who was developing his sense of self and realized he wanted some things. Our son learned that he couldn’t take his sister’s toys without experiencing a negative consequence himself. This was the beginning of developing self-control, delayed gratification, and being kind to others.

It may strike you as a lot of work to apply boundaries and limits in a consistent and kind way. The truth is it is. I always reminded myself that I could ‘pay now’ by consistently setting boundaries and applying consequences, or ‘pay later’ with a child a few years older who was out of control. The price tag is smaller when they are young.

Your Child’s Job

The reality is that our child’s job is to test our resolve so he/she can learn about reality. They don’t know what reality is like. It’s like they are in a maze, trying different things to see what works and what doesn’t. They aren’t usually trying to do the wrong thing. They rely on us to give them a picture of how the world works.

Your Job

Your job is to withstand the tests, and not take the pushing of your boundaries personally. This means knowing your limits, stating the boundaries and consequences clearly, and standing firm to apply logical consequences. Part of the job is to not be surprised when our precious children pout, throw a tantrum, are angry with us or turn away. We give them a gift when we endure their displeasure with us so that they will learn how to be successful, functional adults someday.

Nobody’s perfect. It’s better to shoot for being consistent overall. Nobody’s consistent every day. I’m not. It’s okay to apologize when we’re wrong because that’s how our kids will learn to do this too.

Tips for Setting Boundaries 

  • Don’t forget the love, empathy, and validation. Setting boundaries are so much easier when we have the attitude that we are teaching and guiding our children rather than punishing them.
  • Make sure the consequence fits the crime.
  • Make sure you use “logical consequences,” not shame, guilt, or anger.
  • Comment on what they did, not who they are (you did the wrong thing, not you’re a bad kid).
  • The younger the child, the more immediate the consequence.
  • With very small kids…
    • Say no firmly.
    • Use time-outs.
    • Remove them from the situation.
    • Put the toy in time-out.
  • With older kids…
    • If they’re late for dinner, they might miss dinner.
    • A story will be available at 7:30 to all who have their PJs on and teeth brushed.
    • I’m happy to get your school supplies with twenty-four-hours’ notice, otherwise, you’ll have to be creative and make do.
    • If chores are not completed by 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, some of your allowances will be used to pay your sister to do your chores.
    • Snack will be available after you put your blocks away.

It’s okay to give extra understanding when children are going through a special circumstance, such as parents’ divorce, separation, new baby, or a parent or child illness. This doesn’t mean you let things go. It means you show them compassion by acknowledging the hard time they are going through, giving them extra time and attention, and helping them follow through.

Learning to set clear boundaries with compassion is a very important part of parenting. How we establish and enforce these boundaries also makes a huge difference. It’s not too late to start setting consistent boundaries with your children…and don’t forget the compassion!

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Give Your Kids a Break: Parenting with Compassion for You and Your Children by [Fredrickson, Kim]

An Age-By-Age Guide to Helping Kids Manage Emotions

SOURCE:  Sanya Pelini/Parent Co.

We are all born with emotions, but not all those emotions are pre-wired into our brains. Kids are born with emotional reactions such as crying, frustration, hunger, and pain. But they learn about other emotions as they grow older.

There is no general consensus about the emotions that are in-built verses those learned from emotional, social, and cultural contexts. It is widely accepted, however, that the eight primary in-built emotions are anger, sadness, fear, joy, interest, surprise, disgust, and shame. These are reflected in different variations. For instance, resentment and violence often stem from anger, and anxiety is often associated with fear.

Secondary emotions are always linked to these eight primary emotions and reflect our emotional reaction to specific feelings. These emotions are learned from our experiences. For example, a child who has been punished because of a meltdown might feel anxious the next time she gets angry. A child who has been ridiculed for expressing fear might feel shame the next time he gets scared.

In other words, how we react to our kids’ emotions has an impact on the development of their emotional intelligence.

Emotional invalidation prevents kids from learning how to manage their emotions. When we teach kids to identify their emotions, we give them a framework that helps explain how they feel, which makes it easier for them to deal with those emotions in a socially appropriate way.

The emotions children experience vary depending on age:

Infants

Infants are essentially guided by emotions pre-wired into their brains. For instance, toddler cries are usually an attempt to avoid unpleasant stimuli or to move towards pleasant stimuli (food, touch, hugs).

Evidence suggests that, in the first six months, infants are capable of experiencing and responding to distress by adopting self-soothing behavior such as sucking. Other studies have found that toddlers develop self-regulation skills in infancy and are able to approach or avoid situations depending on their emotional impact.

How you can help

A recent study suggests that “listening to recordings of play songs can maintain six- to nine-month-old infants in a relatively contented or neutral state considerably longer than recordings of infant-directed or adult-directed speech.”

The study explains that multimodal singing is more effective than maternal speech for calming highly aroused 10-month-old infants. It also suggests that play songs (“The Wheels on the Bus” for instance) are more effective than lullabies at reducing distress.

Toddlers

By the time they turn one, infants gain an awareness that parents can help them regulate their emotions.

As they grow out of the infancy stage, toddlers begin to understand that certain emotions are associated with certain situations. A number of studies suggest that fear is the most difficult emotion for toddlers. At this age, parents can begin using age-appropriate approaches to talk to kids about emotions and encourage them to name those emotions.

By the time they turn two, kids are able to adopt strategies to deal with difficult emotions. For instance, they are able to distance themselves from the things that upset them.

How you can help

Situation selection, modification, and distraction are the best strategies to help kids deal with anger and fear at this age, according to one study. In other words, helping toddlers avoid distressing situations or distracting them from those situations is one of the most effective emotion-regulation strategies.

As they grow older, toddlers can be taught to handle those situations by themselves. Indeed, they are capable of understanding different emotions and of learning different self-regulation methods that can help them deal with difficult situations. Providing toddlers with an appropriate framework can help them learn how to manage those emotions by themselves.

Naming emotions also helps toddlers learn that emotions are normal. Every day opportunities provide occasions to talk to kids about emotions: “He sure looks angry.” “Why do you think he looks so sad?”

Toddlers also learn about managing their emotions by watching us.

Childhood

Kids experience many emotions during the childhood years. Many secondary emotions come into play at this age as a child’s emotions are either validated or invalidated, influencing future emotional reactions.

Children are able to understand and differentiate appropriate from inappropriate emotional expressions, but they still find it hard to express their emotions, especially if they haven’t learned to identify and name them.

How you can help

Emotion regulation is not just about expressing emotions in a socially appropriate manner. It is a three-phase process that involves teaching children to identify emotions, helping them identify what triggers those emotions, and teaching them to manage those emotions by themselves. When we teach kids that their emotions are valid, we help them view what they feel as normal and manageable.

Modeling appropriate behavior is also important during the childhood years. The best way to teach your child to react to anger appropriately is to show her how. Evidence suggests that kids pick up our emotions, and that those exposed to many negative emotions are more likely to struggle.

Ultimately, helping kids manage their emotions begins by validating those emotions and providing an environment in which they feel safe to express them. As several studies have shown, kids who feel safe are more likely to develop and use appropriate emotion regulation skills to deal with difficult feelings.

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