Tag Archives: fear

Connecting with a Child’s Negative Self-Talk
Sad child sitting on windowsill

Q. My son will make a negative statement about anything and then immediately follow it by a more extreme version, e.g. “I want to die…I have wanted to die since I was born!” OR “No, I don’t know that you love me…I have NEVER known that you love me.” I don’t know how to react to these statements – they take me by surprise. Is it just his way of expressing the magnitude of his feelings?

A. Yes—and his words are also telling you that you are not listening to him.

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Don’t Take It Personally

What happens to you when your child behaves less than perfectly? When he ignores you or she screams, “I don’t have to listen to you.” Some of you can respond effectively by changing your behavior and addressing whatever the situation is from a different or calmer place, with a different attitude, tone or posture. But probably many of you get your button pushed, think your child is out to get you and yell back behaving just the way you don’t want your child to behave.

The difference is the parent who takes it personally and the parent who doesn’t. So what makes the difference?

When I’m working with parents on this, I often describe the cartoon in my book “When Your Kids Push Your Buttons” on p.86. The mother is trying her hardest to deflect those oncoming critical remarks with a shield, but the onslaught catches her off guard, and she doesn’t get her shield up in time, so the remarks hit her hard. This perfectly illustrates taking it personally. Once those remarks, attitudes, behaviors are allowed to get past your shield (your boundary), it’s next to impossible to respond neutrally and effectively.

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Talking to Your Kids About Gun Violence

Every parent in the US has justified fear for their children’s safety—as well as their own. Even though mass shootings are sparse, when two happen in one weekend, it feels like an everyday occurrence. As we enter the new school year, we wonder—could it happen here? Walking into a big box store or fast food restaurant can trigger the same fear. What is a parent to do or say to a child in this climate of gun violence? I don’t presume to have answers, but I share my thoughts on how to help ourselves and then our children manage horrible situations beyond our control.

We must remind ourselves that “normal” life is more prevalent than mass killings. Although they are on the rise, mass shootings account for less than 2% of annual gun deaths according to gun violence research. Fear and worry about shootings happening in their safe little town would not have helped the victims of these tragedies. Easy to say, I know, but if we are full of fear, that fear communicates to our kids. They become anxious. Our goal is to transmit messages of confidence and to maintain an open and honest family environment where all feelings are heard and conversation accepted.

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Making Peace with Fears and Doubts

How can we be so presumptuous as to think we know what is best for our children, what is the right thing for them to do, what are the right decisions for them to make? Plain and simple – we don’t know. We simply do not know, and to think we do, to believe we should know because it’s our job, not only puts us on a very fragile pedestal but truly hinders our relationship with our children.

We are so attached to being right when it comes to telling our children what to do, we overlook what might actually be right for them — and we don’t ask what they think.

Letting go means coming to terms with the fact that so much of their lives is theirs to figure out.

And yes, parenting is the hardest damn job on the planet, but it’s so much harder when you think it’s your responsibility to fix their problems or that their problems are your fault. Either you know you’re right — and who wants to live with that — or you are exhausted under the shroud of this job that you fear you are miserably failing at.

Our kids don’t belong to us. We have the privilege of being in their lives, learning from them, and watching them blossom. Our job is to raise these children with love and acceptance, not to mold them into the adults we want them to become.

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Opening up Communication so Sadness and Stress Doesn’t Turn to Depression

 

Q. I’m concerned about my almost 15 year-old boy. He is depressed and with good reason.  He is slightly on the spectrum and has A.D.D. (no hyperactivity). We’ve moved twice in 14 months and we’re currently renting. He is a creature of habit and our lives have been very unpredictable for almost three years. He lost his baby brother when he was 6 and had to deal with Mom and Dad’s grief. He is totally quiet and therefore doesn’t make friends. Being stuck at home doesn’t help. He has never really talked much, especially about emotions. How can I help him open up?

A. Everything you have described is life events that have been out of your or your son’s control. Very hard but this is life happening. These are situations that people have to deal with. Depression has all to do with how those events are perceived and dealt with. If your son’s emotions are swept under the carpet, ignored or criticized, then he will be left feeling unheard, alone, misunderstood, etc. – fertile ground for depression. But if his feelings are acknowledged, even if your son doesn’t do much talking, then he is left with the sadness, grief, or anger about the situations, but everything is out in the open and feelings usually do not fester to cause depression.

We want and often expect our kids to be open with us emotionally – mothers especially. But not all kids, especially boys, are open with their thoughts and feelings. That doesn’t mean they feel unheard. How we communicate with them has all to do with how they feel about themselves.

When you have a non-talker, you want to make sure you don’t use the excuse that he doesn’t open up or share to ignore the situation and not talk about it. You can use what I call connective communication (best communication with anyone actually), which does not ask questions. When you ask questions – What’s wrong? How do you feel about…? Why don’t you…? – you put him on the spot, and he feels forced to come up with something. He may lie, tell you what he thinks you want to hear or what he knows you don’t want to hear to get you off his back. Rarely do questions, unless and until you have a very open connective relationship, get you the information you want.

Making statements goes a lot further:

Moving as many times as we have done lately must be quite discombobulating for you. I know how difficult change can be, and we’ve forced you into a lot of it. Changing schools is tough. I’m actually amazed at how well you have taken it. But I imagine that it has taken its toll on you. It’s really hard, right now. Period.

I wonder sometimes about how you are with not having many friends. I’m curious to know if that’s hard on you or if that is your choice. Sometimes kids your age can be tough to be around. Period.

Sometimes I think about how hard it must have been for you when Dad and I were grieving the loss of your little brother. We weren’t there for you as much as I would have liked. I feel so sad about that time – for all of us. Period.

That must have been hard to hear. I bet if I were you, I would have felt angry and confused. Period.

It’s so hard not to ask questions when you are hoping to find out answers. When there are no questions, the other person feels more inclined to listen, doesn’t feel obligated to talk, and connection gets better. Ironically, talking is more likely – but don’t expect it.

Here is an article of mine explaining this further  –
Communication 101: How to get your child to listen

What your son needs is to know he can talk with you WHEN and IF he wants to. Especially kids on the spectrum have a harder time organizing their thoughts and making sense of them enough to formulate a conversation. Talking about emotions is hard for most people, males especially, and for an ADD kid on the spectrum, it’s especially tough.

Also, boys tend to talk more when they are active, which may be why he talks to your husband more. Shoot hoops, take a bike ride or a walk. In the car, at bedtime if you are around him then (maybe not at 15), and perhaps mealtimes may be times to share yourself and how you are feeling. Your job is to model for him what it looks like to talk about emotions and values and what you think about people and events. Don’t expect it from him. If you don’t talk to him because there’s not much coming back, you are not being honest with yourself; you’re actually fearful of him.

But the important thing to know is that traumatic life events only negatively affect us long-term when they are shoved down inside and not dealt with. His ability to talk about things will come from your openness and freedom to share how you feel and think. And just naming what happened in his life to cause upset is validating for him. Eventually he will be able to talk about it himself but maybe not with you.

I would hesitate to identify him as depressed. Once you feel connection through making statements, then you can ask questions. Then you might ask, “Do you think you’re depressed?” If he responds with a yes, then ask, “Don’t you think getting help would be a good thing? Once you have made connection, he may feel differently about getting help because you can freely talk about it and help him see that this is not about him being a problem. If he still doesn’t want to, don’t force it. Hopefully he will come to it on his own.

But then again, maybe he’s not depressed! Maybe he just looks it from your point of view. It is so easy for us to project our way of seeing things onto our kids. We have to consciously be aware that what is a problem for me might not be for my child.

Quietness can easily be interpreted as depression – unfairly. Introverts are looked on with concern or pity in our society – completely the opposite in other societies. Nothing wrong with being quiet and introverted. He is likely a deeply perceptive person who works things out internally long before he expresses himself. Extraverts are the opposite. They have to talk it through to know what they think!

Often deep thinkers are not drawn to the more popular high school kids. They have nothing in common with them. It often takes years before many kids find their tribe — others who share their interests and values.

To submit a question, email me at bh@bonnieharris.com with your short question and I will answer you within a few days. It may appear in the newsletter at a later date.

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The Power of Acceptance

All parents struggle with fears and worries about their children and many end up just getting in their own way. When you take your children’s behavior personally and use your authority to control them to do what you want, you may wind up creating the scenario you most fear.

The problem comes when we think it’s our children who need to change when indeed it is us. Whatever you need to do to get to acceptance is the answer.

The following is a story from one of my clients that I find truly inspiring. Her struggles to understand her son and ultimately herself have led to a wonderful relationship. I hope it motivates you to trust your children and let go of a small bit of your fears. You will always have fears and doubts — you wouldn’t be a conscientious parent without them. But in the moment, when your child needs your connection, you must be able to at least temporarily put those fears aside.

 

Reflections on my journey with my son – Mother of three

I am enjoying a playful moment in the kitchen with my 6’6, 17 year old son. He likes to get in my space and see if he can startle me with his big teenage energy. I get flustered and cry out, “You make me feel anxious when you do that!” He smiles with this gentle warmth and looking right in my eyes​ ​he says lovingly​, “​Mum, it’s not what I do​ that makes you feel anxious. It’s what you ​think​ about what I do.”

The wisdom of his insight seems far beyond his years and the truth of it shimmers in the moment. It has been a lot of inner and outer work for me to get here. I remember hearing years ago that I couldn’t worry and love at the same time. Given that choice I wanted to choose love as the energy that I was offering my children — also to myself as the worry felt utterly agonizing to live with. However, so often things happening on the outside seemed to justify worry and that “thought slide” became easy to glide down with ever repeated use.

We found Bonnie Harris when our child was in middle school. My husband and I consulted her, driven by our deep concerns that our son was developing a gaming addiction. Having been an incredibly active, outdoor-loving child, all of a sudden, he seemed willing to forego what we thought of as his “healthy” choices for spending hours on end in his room in front of a screen. We had entered into a pattern of trying to curb his screen time followed by endless arguing. We had majorly lost connection with our son.

I will not forget that late afternoon meeting in Bonnie’s office, me tearful, my husband and I feeling distant from each other because of our own fighting over how to parent our son, and both of us worried about him. After hearing what we had to say and a long, thoughtful pause, Bonnie gestured to the empty chair in our circle and asked gently, “What do you imagine your son would say if he were sitting here with us and could speak for himself?” Immediately I was drawn to my heart space that felt full of compassion and love for him and I said, “I think he would say, “You don’t understand me.’”

It was an instant, dramatic and powerful paradigm shift. I got out of my head which was very much about me and into my heart where I could truly be with ​him without my thoughts. And he really had spoken to me. At the end of that meeting, Bonnie suggested we make the shift to tell our son we trusted his inner guidance that would help him regulate his gaming. She prepared us that he might really go wild with this freedom for a time, but she suspected things would work out.

I wrote him a letter to express what we had learned and how we were shifting to a place of trust in him. It was greeted with a huge smile and relief. It was so clear that he wanted connection with us too and to feel that we had faith in him to make his own choices.

What a journey it has been in the last 7 years. I cannot count the number of times I have gotten buried in worry while my son smiled at me and said with his eyes, “Trust me.” The title of one of Bonnie’s books is, “When Your Kids Push Your Buttons”. I always used to focus on “When Your Kids Push…” but I had an Aha! moment recently and saw “​Your ​Buttons​” ​seemingly for the first time​.​ These are not our kids buttons, they are ours. And we can certainly do something about our own buttons.

Here is an example of how I have come to discover my own issue and address it. I have often fretted about seeing my son have an interest and then not have the discipline to develop it. He loved playing basketball in middle school, and I imagined he would play in high school but to my surprise he didn’t play any sports for the first three years. To get into a place of trust, I took a good hard look at the button that was being pushed. Where did I have an interest and no discipline? My contemplation led me to start taking voice lessons and practicing daily. It took enormous effort at first, but I felt so fulfilled when I honored my commitment! I saw how it also took my attention away from worrying about my son and it set an example of discipline that he could notice… or not!

To my absolute utter surprise, my son is now on the Varsity Basketball team in his senior year because he said he realized he missed it and wanted to play with his friends. When he tried out, the coach said, “Well son, this is unusual to be trying out in your senior year, but you don’t know what you can do if you don’t try!” He mostly doesn’t play in games but loves practicing, being on a great team and is often getting his teammates cups of water during a timeout. He’s happy and he did it his way. He also has even said that he can see how far he could have come if he had kept playing. And he feels comfortable saying that to us because he feels his parent’s detachment. I know I didn’t cause any of this but because I focused on myself, I feel so fulfilled with my own pursuits and I bring a more joyful, independent me to enjoy going to the team’s games.

In short, I’ve learned when someone pushes my buttons, the only thing I have control over is what I do with the opportunity to see and address my own stuff. That’s so empowering.

I have gotten very creative about my buttons too! I’ve looked for many ways to bring my attention back to myself and not wandering around into my son’s business. When my son got his license and I saw my mind going wild about the potential scenarios that might result from my thrill-seeking teen, I created an imaginary warm, loving and burly bodyguard that I would mentally see by my son’s side to look out for him. I would send them off in my mind with love. It puts my mind at rest in an outer situation where I had no control. It lessons my stress. The button was my own tendency toward anxiety.

After our first meeting with Bonnie, my husband and I jumped fully on the same page to make connection with our son the priority. Over the years we’ve consulted Bonnie when we felt we were parenting in a way that seemed so outside the “norm” of a “top down” approach that is so advocated in our culture. We were checking in with our intuition and having discussions with our son and arriving at solutions and compromises. It was so helpful to have a third party look at all of it and confirm that we were on the right track for our family because our connection and open communication was there. I remember during one of our discussions with our son, he said, “Mum, I know you really care about me, but I think what you don’t understand is that ​I ​really care about me too!”

I heard years ago that something so important to a human being is the ability to make choices. That a teen, when confronted with control from parents will do everything in their power to demonstrate that they have choice, even if it means that the way to do it is by doing something that may appear self-destructive. Whatever we resist persists, especially with regards to teens.

I have witnessed parents fighting to control their teenagers, and it appears that what they are really doing is teaching their teens to cultivate a habit of being really good at lying. What else are the children going to do when faced with a punishment if they tell the truth? And I have seen the heartache of a parent feeling disconnected from their child and at a loss for how to ever get that back with sincerely no understanding that perhaps the way to do it is to let go of their expectations of how things should be and sink into acceptance of what ​is​ with an open heart.

Byron Katie, in her book “A Thousand Names for Joy”, page 186, says it so exquisitely:

“It’s painful to think you know what’s best for your children. It’s hopeless. When you think that you need to protect them, you’re teaching anxiety and dependence. But when you question your mind and learn how not to be mentally in your children’s business, finally there’s an example in the house: someone who knows how to live a happy life. They notice that you have your act together and that you’re happy, so they start to follow. You have taught them everything they know about anxiety and dependence, and now they begin to learn something else, something about what freedom looks like…. If your happiness depends on your children being happy, that makes them your hostages. I think I’ll just skip them and be happy from here. That’s a lot saner. It’s called unconditional love…. If what they do brings them happiness, that’s what I want; if it brings them unhappiness, that’s what I want, because they learn from that what I could never teach them.”

So here I find myself, a woman and a mother who is continually growing and learning and living into new subtleties that are revealed on this journey with my son. There is part of me that wishes I could go back and tell my younger self that all that energy of worrying was for naught, but I had to learn it for myself just as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz couldn’t know about her ruby red slippers and their power from the very beginning.

My son is in a wonderful place in his life, applying to colleges on his own terms, exploring all sorts of new hobbies, one of them being a passion for wall climbing. This young man who I wondered years ago if he would ever even stick it out through high school scored in the 98th percentile of the SAT. When I asked him how he got such a high verbal score he told me about how he is usually reading articles when he is on his phone. I never thought of that! He never had a book in his hand, so I thought…​

And all those hours of gaming? He still loves to game with his friends, and I imagine it will always be a hobby, but it doesn’t dominate his life. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that he has a real knack for computer programming and plans to major in Computer Science. When I watch him program, I see that all those skills he was learning with his fingers in gaming are what he puts to use in programming.

I so look forward to having more of my assumptions dismantled. In fact, I find he has taught me that making assumptions about him, or anyone else for that matter, and judgement of any kind is a huge waste of energy and time. He has been and continues to be my greatest teacher and I am so grateful for it. After all, it is my immense love for my son that has been the force to guide me to continually choose connection with him and set aside my ego when required — to settle into the place of simply not knowing the answer of what is “right”. As I see it, that’s a win-win!      

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Mar. ’19 Q&A – Being Your Child’s Friend and Parent, Angry Behavior and When the Coach is a Bully

Being Your Child’s Friend and Parent

Q. I do welcome your advice and think you speak a lot of sense, but I am not sure about your advice to be your child’s friend in one of your articles. What is wrong with being a mum? I am the only person who can officially be regarded as mum in my daughter’s life and I feel very proud to be so. I am not sure being a friend is possible as the friendship is automatically unbalanced. I have a number of very good friends, some long term and we have quite balanced relationships, involving give and take. I do not regard my relationship with my daughter as balanced, and she does not seem to understand give and take. I would also say she is a very high maintenance friend, and therefore I would go out of my way not to be her friend if she wasn’t my daughter. I don’t think she is like that with her peers though – I think their relationship is balanced. When choosing activities, we try to pick nice things to do and see, and we get a lot of resistance from her until we get her there and then she loves it. We also get resistance around food and most things at the moment – she is quite selfish and does not seem to understand the notion of helping out, and she wants things from shops all the time, which is wearing.

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Feb. ’19 Q&A – Food Demands, Imagination and Fear, and Religious Doubt

Stop Catering to Food Demands

Q. My kids, 5 and 3, have had catered food of their choice their whole lives, and we can’t figure out how to switch without enduring weeks and months of misery at the table. When we tried a year ago, we gave up after about a week and a half of screaming and crying at every dinner. After a long hiatus, I tried again, thinking the kids would help plan the menu and cook. They agreed to try a homemade mac and cheese. They took a few bites, declared it disgusting, and started crying for their usual (pbj for my son, pizza for my daughter). We also had other items they like on offer—pineapple and bread—but they wouldn’t eat. After 30 minutes of crying, my husband and I agreed to give in but to get advice on how else we might do this more effectively, and less painfully.

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Hugs Reduce Stress

Toxic stress in early childhood can harm children for life, warns the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Don’t think your children have experienced toxic stress? All children do to differing degrees. Whoever said childhood is bliss didn’t know what he was talking about. Children experience stress just by being a child. From nightmares, worry about transitions, being afraid of the dark or thunder storms, social fears, children have a hard lot. And that doesn’t cover huge emotions and dysregulation that they cannot possibly understand when asked, “What’s wrong?” Then being punished, criticized, or threatened for behavior they can’t control…. You name it, a day rarely goes by when a child doesn’t experience stress.

Stress arises for a child when sensing a threat with no one to protect him from that threat. Children who experience this kind of stress in the early years, even prenatally through mother’s hormones, “…are more likely to suffer heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other physical ailments…also more likely to struggle in school, have short tempers and tangle with the law.”

A now more than two decade long scientific study by the Academy and the CDC shows the long term, harmful effects on society when we turn a blind eye on the problems faced by young children. From the stress children experience when their parents abuse alcohol or drugs, emotional or physical abuse or neglect, emotional or physical treatment between parents, mental illness, separation or divorce, to a child crying out and not being comforted and feeling unloved — stress comes in all shapes and sizes.

The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, originally conducted from 1995-1997, is one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect and later-life health and well-being. We now have research showing the connection between disrupted neurodevelopment, social, emotional and cognitive impairment, risky behaviors, disease, disability and even early death to Adverse Childhood Experiences.

Now that I have thoroughly depressed you, let’s look at what we can do about it.

The Academy has issued a policy statement that includes, “Protecting young children from adversity is a promising, science-based strategy to address many of the most persistent and costly problems facing contemporary society, including limited educational achievement, diminished economic productivity, criminality, and disparities in health.”

 

Prevention Strategies

The study outlines extensive strategies to turn the horrendous statistics around — strengthening economic supports to families, changing social norms to promote positive parenting, quality care and education, better parenting skills training, and intervention methods.

We can’t always control the environment for our children. Death and loss, natural disasters, accidents, an ex-spouse’s choices, disciplinary measures at school, hurtful remarks and bullying are all beyond our control. Nor should we hover and protect our children from growing up and experiencing the world we live in. Many circumstances children find themselves in can be toxic and traumatic, but when they have a protective factor to turn to safely, namely a parent or caring adult who understands, listens, accepts, and connects, a child can deal with and learn to make sense of most experiences. Ignoring, sweeping problems or sensitive issues under the carpet, screaming at and punishing big emotions that parents don’t want or know how to deal with undermine the protection you can provide.

Your connection to your children is the protective factor they need most. But connection is harder than we think, as most parents know. It often requires a mindset shift away from traditional parenting methods.

 

How you can provide that protective factor:

Stop threatening and punishing — the #1 tactic used by parents to coerce children’s behavior. In order to be the grounding force your children feel safe to come to no matter what, they must trust that you will never pose a threat to them. If they have nowhere to turn for an understanding ear, they will turn exactly where you fear most. This usually means

When we remain stuck in the mindset that punishments and consequences for inappropriate behavior are the way to get appropriate behavior, we forfeit our child’s trust. Mostly what the child learns is “you don’t understand me”, because behavior is provoked by emotions that parents typically pay no attention to. It is the emotional state that needs connection. When that is ignored and parents focus on behavior, the primary link to the protective factors parents provide is broken.

Habitual tactics are easy to fall back on when a child’s behavior gets tough. It is so tempting to pull computer time and cell phones, put kids in time out or send them to their rooms. These tactics miss the mark and only make kids mad. And if they “work”, it is only to get that cell phone back. Sneaky, conniving strategies result, and that all-important connection is risked.

 

What to do instead – Problem Solving promotes connection:

  • Do nothing in the heat of the moment. When emotions are calm and the prefrontal cortex is back online, work on the situation. This is where parents stumble. We want to forget about it and move on.
  • Resist the temptation to blame. Own and acknowledge your feelings.
  • Look to your child’s need or emotions that provoked the behavior and connect with that need. “You must have been furious with your sister to hit her. Tell me what got you so angry.”
  • Discuss the problem without blame. Own what part of it is yours, “I’m really concerned that you don’t consider my feelings. It is not okay with me when you call me names.”
  • Acknowledge that your child was having a problem that provoked the behavior. It was a mistake, not a crime. Trust your child’s desire to be successful. We all say and do things we don’t mean.
  • Engage your child to come up with a solution that all can agree on.
  • Don’t expect the agreement to work. It’s a process. Keep refining until the behavior stops.
  • Do focus on acceptance, listening, predictability, playtime.
  • Take your focus off behavior and onto what could be going on with your child to get back to compassion. All connection requires compassion.
  • Hug a lot.
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    Dec. ’18 Q&A – Big Emotions, Angry Outbursts and a Must Read

    Handling Big Emotions and Understanding the Behavior

    Q. We had an episode with our 5 1/2 yr. old son. For the past 2 years, we have tried every approach. Our son is smart but immature. We feel he lacks confidence and tends to hold things in rather than talk. I tried to get to the root cause but he still won’t budge (one might say stubborn). Tonight he was off the wall jumping on chairs, interrupting when I had someone over and had to help them work. No matter how many times my husband or I ask him to stop jumping on chairs, he would say “no never”. He has a temper – will hit, throw, slam doors, spit and call us “stupid” or say “never” when we’re explaining how we want him to stop hitting and start listening. However, his tantrums have become less frequent and recovering has become quicker except tonight. Usually he’ll go through the tantrum and then start crying. If we try to challenge him and he’s in the mood, he’ll do it.  But most of the time, he’ll say, no let’s do something totally different or I can’t or don’t know how. If I say I’ll show you, then he’ll whine and say he’s a baby. He always has a comeback. What do you think?

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