Posted in sqt

{sqt} – reclaiming joy

I noticed this week that my children never want to go to bed, because they are just having so much fun and don’t want the day to end, and they wake up each morning full of excitement about the day ahead.

My husband and I, on the other hand, have entered that exhausted parent state where we spend all day waiting for night to come so we can have some quiet space and rest. It makes sense that we end up there, but constantly looking forward to the evening has a tendency to rob the day of its joy.

How can I reclaim some of that joy I had as a child about the new day ahead of me, full of potential for discovery and adventure, for beauty and love?

I’m not entirely sure, but today’s seven quick takes are going to be some ideas I want to implement in my own life this upcoming week. Head over to This Ain’t the Lyceum for the rest of the {sqt} link-up!

  1. Reframe the moment: when something is irritating or inconveniencing me, is there a way to look at the situation through different eyes? For example, when one of my children is whining and flopping around about something, I tend to be instantly triggered into frustration. I want to yell at them to pick themselves up and show some independence! At the very least I want to ignore them until they stop whining. But though that is my automatic response, a change in perspective can help me build a more compassionate and helpful response. If I can hear the whining and think, “here is an opportunity for me to love and serve this child like God loves and serves me,” then I can help them with their needs and wants with more gentleness and joy (although I will still ask them to try using a different tone of voice!)
  2. Pause: this goes along with the first point, since a pause can be a good time to try to reframe a situation. But it is good and useful all on its own, also. Instead of coasting through my day on autopilot, pausing for all sorts of reasons can help me see the beauty and feel the joy of everyday life. I can pause to watch with pride as my children take turns with their favorite water bottle; I can pause and count to ten when I hear angry voices coming from the play room to prepare my heart before they come running out to me; I can pause; I can pause when the baby has made yet another awful mess and make the cleanup something we can do together rather than something to make her feel ashamed about. I can pause to breathe out a prayer and breathe in grace when life is overwhelming.
  3. Put the phone away: except for when I’m reading a good book or listening to a good podcast (things I can mostly only do when I’m alone anyways), phone time tends to be an escape from reality and as such hinders any attempt to find joy in my current reality. It distracts me from the good and happy moments of the day especially, since those are the times when the kids are least demanding of my attention – and so it blinds me to the everyday beauty of their growing relationships and maturing character.
  4. Have a plan: if I know at the start of the day something fun that we’re going to do later, the anticipation and enjoyment of that event can easily spread throughout the rest of the day. And if we don’t follow through with the plan because we’re having too much fun doing other things, that is also a source of joy ūüôā It also eliminates some of the tension of looking forward through 12 empty hours not knowing what to expect and thus how to mentally prepare, and it breaks up the cabin fever the kids sometimes get when we’ve been in the house hiding from the heat all day. This could be some sort of outing (like the park or the library or even the grocery store), but it could also just be an activity or craft that we don’t do as often because it requires more set-up (like water balloons or finger-painting).
  5. Go to bed on time: because if I’m tired, it’s going to be a lot harder to feel happy. It’s going to be a lot harder to make the mental effort to reframe each moment. It’s going to be a lot harder to pause instead of reacting emotionally. And it’s going to be a lot harder to be present and engaged instead of sinking away into the virtual reality of my phone.
  6. Play with the kids: play is where they are finding their happiness, joy, and intellectual fulfillment right now, at this age. And they still want me to play with them a lot of the time! Essentially, they are inviting me into their happiness. All too often, being a boring (and tired) adult, I turn them down and find other “more important” tasks I need to do. But if I could let myself go – relax my body, forget the to-do list, ignore the “should’s”, suspend my disbelief – and play with them, even for a little while, I could in those moments have the presence and the joy that they have, and connect with them through it.
  7. Sing!: and dance! Move my body, stretch out of my comfortable shell, and make music! Music is so good for all emotional states – it expresses sorrow and anger, passion and despair, joy and silliness, peace and contentment, and in the expression elicits and draws out those same feelings in us, helping us experience them more deeply and process them more fully. So going back to point 4, I’m¬†planning on having a dance party to silly kids’ songs at least one day this week, and I’m not going to care if my kids think I’m crazy!

What about you? How do you find joy when life is monotonous or stressful?

Posted in sqt

{sqt} – emotional self-regulation

In our house, we have big emotions.

It’s not too surprising, all things considered. Paul likes to attribute my temper to my “Cuban spice” (which is always highly embarrassing), and I tend to believe it is related to my autism (see an amazing article here which could have been written by me if only I were that insightful and eloquent), but wherever it originates from it comes on quickly and lasts indefinitely (forever really, unless I put in a lot of mental and emotional effort). Rondel is similar – flaring up like a match at an unexpected change or a trivial argument or finding out he was wrong about something he thought was a fact – although I’m not yet sure if he will be a grudge-holder like I was as a child. Limerick is constantly pushing himself, and will break down in frustration if he can’t accomplish something he feels he should be able to do. Aubade still uses shrieks and screams to communicate most of her (very strong) opinions and feelings, since she’s only just starting to take off verbally.

So right now, while academics are important and interesting and fun, I feel that emotional intelligence and self-regulation are also a very important area of emphasis for us. It may not come naturally for most of us in this household, but as I have learned over the years it is very helpful in life overall, so it’s something we’re consciously working on together: and these are some of the ways we’re doing that.

  1. Affectionate Physical Touch (e.g., hugs, snuggles, and read-alouds): Little kids are very physical creatures, and so making sure we have lots of time snuggled up together reading books, or letting them lounge on top of me while we’re playing with toys, or making a comforting hug the priority in a meltdown situation, is helpful in a number of ways. It acts as a preventative, helping keep emotional systems running smoothly so that crises are less likely to occur; and it acts as a balm, soothing and quieting the overwhelmed nervous system so that the rational brain can regain control and come up with a solution to the triggering problem. All three kids will come to me throughout the day for a hug when they are feeling sad, overwhelmed, or disconnected.
  2. Physical Play¬†(e.g., running, wrestling, jumping on the trampoline): Going back to the physicality of children – but also appealing to research on the value of exercise for emotional health – wild, active physical play is also very helpful for learning to handle big emotions. Especially on days when everyone is struggling with irritability, and small triggers are escalating into large events, running and wrestling together seems to help us all shake off the mood fog and reconnect with each other in a positive way. So far this has been something I’ve had to initiate, as the kids seem to forget how good it feels to be active when they are grumpy and quarrelsome, but I’m hoping that as they grow they’ll be able to choose it on their own more often, as their bodies let them know they need it.
  3. Bodily Needs (sleep, food, water, sensory peace): This is kind of a broad one, but basically it is hard for a brain, especially a young developing one, to focus on managing emotional responses when a more urgent physical need is unmet. So meltdowns tend to happen more frequently when people are tired or hungry, or in overstimulating environments (crowds, loud noises, unpredictability, flashing lights, information overload, uncomfortable clothes, etc.). There are some easy physical ways to reduce the burden on your brain in these situations, such as never leaving home without snacks and water bottles, and never forcing yourself or your children to stay in an environment that is stressful and uncomfortable. For example, I let Rondel wear T-shirts and athletic shorts to church and take off his shoes in class, and the church has noise-reducing headphones that he can wear if the noise is bothering him. These accommodations reduce the amount of negative input his brain is dealing with, which in turn enables him to use more energy on social and emotional functions.
  4. Mindfulness: Ok, but sometimes you can’t prevent the emotions or avoid the triggering situation, and you still have to learn how to control your own reaction to the event. This can be¬†so hard when your emotional reactions tend to hit you like a punch in the stomach with no prior warning… but what I have found to be very helpful for me is simple mindfulness practice. When I am present in the current moment and aware of my body, I can begin to detect clues that my negative emotions are building up, and try to take steps to defuse them before they explode. I can choose to close my eyes, breath deeply, and focus on the breathing for a few seconds, letting my diaphragm trigger my vagus nerve to calm my body, mentally stepping away from the situation I can’t truly leave in the moment, giving myself a space to think and decide how I want to react before the words leave my mouth. I don’t think my kids have quite figured out how to take deep breaths yet, but we’ve worked on taking that space before reacting (in real time with conflict situations) and it was helpful for them as well.
  5. Mediation and Modeling: Since my kids are still so young, I find myself stepping in when arguments begin to escalate into more emotional conflicts. My goal in these moments is not to solve their conflict but to walk them through the process of resolving it themselves. I hug them, I listen to each one of them tell me what is going on from their perspective, and I attempt to rephrase the situation so that they can both agree that I understand (my initial understanding is often incomplete, and they will correct my phrasing until they are satisfied I understand). Then I will ask each of them in turn what idea they might have for moving on from the conflict, and help them come up with ideas if necessary until they can both agree on one. Sometimes they are able to go through this process independently, and I am so, so proud of them when they do!
  6. Peacemakers Cards/Time-in Toolkit from Generation Mindful: This tool for emotional development has been more than worth the cost for us. Currently, we primarily use the peacemakers cards and the accompanying poster and stickers. I will hold out the deck of cards and let the boys take turns choosing ones, and we’ll spend time talking together about what the cards say: phrases such as “I am kind,” or “I stick with things and get things done,” or “I am adaptable – let’s move and dance!”
    peacemakers_dolphin_cards_amazon_photo_2017_1024x1024
    The “Peace Dolphin” overview card, with the five individual cards from the poster. We recently did Peacemakers after a big fight and randomly pulled three dolphin cards in a row… they were extremely helpful in processing the event, handling the emotions, and planning for the future.

    We talk about ways the boys have recently lived out those phrases, or times when we saw examples of it in a book we love, or situations where it might be challenging to embody them. For card with an action, like the last one in the list above, we’ll get up and act it out (it’s always fun to start silly dancing around the bedroom, after all!). I realize this may sound dull but the boys ask me if we can do Peacemakers cards on a regular basis, and it has led to some great conversations.¬†he other poster in the toolkit has a lot of suggested strategies for calming down in emotional crisis, as well as a few charts representing different feelings in comparison to each other, and those have been helpful as well. Sometimes it’s hard to think of a coping strategy in the moment, so having the visualization on hand can be useful.

  7. Prayer: Of course prayer. Always prayer. Prayer for the fruits of the Spirit in my life each day. Prayers for peace, almost as a mantra, over and over again in the worst times. I remember when Limerick was little and I’d be hit by a wave of anxiety or stress that I would pray “Father, give me peace. Jesus, give me peace. Holy Spirit, give me peace.” Simple enough to repeat when I had no head space for words or complex thoughts, powerful in its reminder to me of the Trinity in all His love and presence. Prayer for connection with my Father, just as important for me emotionally and spiritually as is my young children’s connection to me and Paul is for them. Prayer to the saints,to have their community and support with me when things are too overwhelming for me on my own. Prayer to Mary, the mother of the church, who loves me and my children and helps me to be a better mother to them. Scripted prayers when I’m feeling disconnected and my own words won’t flow; spontaneous prayers when my heart is crying or rejoicing. Emotional regulation is¬†hard for me, and probably always will be – I can never seem to find the middle ground between keeping everything in and letting everything out! But as in every other area of life, God in His grace is sufficient in my weakness: loving me as I am and helping me to grow.

This doesn’t even go into things like self-care and quiet time and community, which are all so helpful for lowering one’s negative emotional baseline and raising one’s trigger threshold – there are so many ways to help develop these skills and create a protective buffer around areas of weakness to keep them from causing damage and regrets. But these seven are some that I found particularly valuable for our family in this season of life, and I hope that they are helpful for you as well!

I’m linking up with¬†This Ain’t the Lyceum today, so head over and read some of the other Quick Takes!

What are some strategies you use for keeping your emotions from getting out of control? What helps you the most in moments of overload or anger?

Posted in musings

bike thefts and mindfulness

Remember how excited I was about biking in my {SQT} post on Friday? Well… it’s a good thing I’d written that post the night before, because when I went out to the garage that morning both my bike and my husband’s bike were gone. Beautiful brand-new bike (first new bike I’d bought since I was in junior high), stolen. I took the car instead that morning, and worked on cognitive-behavioral techniques about it all day (because sadness triggers a lot of unhelpful thought patterns for me), and prayed about the best way to move forward, and just generally felt sad and disappointed and hurt all day long. It wasn’t just a bike that was stolen: it was my quiet time with God, my exercise time, my outdoor alone time, my time of refreshment and empowerment, that was taken away. And I didn’t know if it would be financially wise to buy another bike when we apparently live in a high-risk area.

But what I did know was that I didn’t want my (very legitimate) sadness to prevent me from experiencing the happiness of all the good things that were just as much a part of my life as the bike theft. Driving home, I thought about how the kids were waiting for me, how they would be excited to see me, and want me to play with them, and fill the house with silly games and wild stories and sweet cuddles – and how my sadness could interfere with my ability to connect with and cherish them, or keep me from feeling the joy of their laughter and craziness. Was I going to let this unknown thief steal the¬†happiness I have with my children? No I was not! It is ok to be sad, I told myself, but right now, in this moment, I am going to seize the joy and beauty and love that presents itself, and let the sadness wait until a time when I can listen to it and determine how to address the practical issues the theft created. The bike was stolen in the past; the commuting will take place in the future; but my children are with me¬†now, offering up their little happinesses, desiring my love and happiness in return. And I can choose what I am going to open my heart up to in this now, this present moment. (Oho! Look at that! It’s my 2017 word of the year!)

One of the things I’ve learned from my therapist is that it’s extremely¬†pointless to try to make a thought or emotion go away. The more one fights it, the bigger and stronger it gets. Choosing to open oneself up to a new thought or emotion, however (a more helpful alternative), allows the unhelpful thought or emotion to slip away, or at least shrink into the back reaches of the mind. So that’s what I tried to do with my sadness and disappointment, by fully living in the present moment so characterized by the happiness (and neediness ūüėõ ) of my children.

(And in the end, we found two cheap old bikes on Craigslist that will work for now and not be quite as appealing to thieves – or quite as much of a loss if they are stolen! I still miss my bike, but at least I don’t also have to miss biking itself.)