Moving it Forward: When moments get tough, from a place of co-regulation and calm, you can parent your child and yourself, through almost anything.
I read something recently that described the end of summer as a “down elevator,” an event to dread, or to grieve. The sentiment was that we were losing a valuable opportunity and that we needed to make the most of it before it went away. Sometimes, however, endings are a relief, not filled with nostalgia. Because metaphors can resonate differently for each of us, they often lead to personal reflection.
This got me thinking about one of my own metaphors, a phrase I use in parent coaching: “keep it moving forward." Not long ago, a preschool director colleague reminded me about how my metaphor touched him when I used it in a presentation to his staff. I suggested that this metaphor could be used to help move children out of messy moments. When we get stuck in a confrontational parenting moment, we often find ourselves in a power struggle. The easiest way out is to move the child and yourself forward.
For example, a child’s emotional level might rise because they are frustrated. A desired goal is to calm the child. Rather than over-verbalizing the issue or over reacting to the child’s stress, an adult can calm the child by co-regulation. Co-regulation can be done with a child of any age. The adult models calm, by slowing their own breathing, thus reassuring the child nonverbally that they can relax. In doing this co-regulation, slowing the moment, breathing together slowly, an adult helps a child transition from their "downstairs" brain's emotional amygdala reaction to engaging the "upstairs" brain, the frontal cortex, which is capable of understanding language, communicating a need and planning how to move forward.
Summer is a transition too, and whether or not yours has been enjoyable or mixed or difficult, the forward movement of time is something to embrace, for many reasons. But before embracing this transition to a new season, maybe there is something in your parenting experience, from the summer, that you want to reflect on, rewind or fast forward through?
What are your highs and lows, any parenting wins or lessons? How about for your children? Asking them, "What's been memorable for you this summer?" What have you learned and what are you most proud of? It's a great question for the dinner table or the next car ride, with your loved ones. When your child shares, listen with curiosity.
Children experience time at a much slower pace than we adults do. Remember when summer lasted “forever?” When we ran into our neighbor’s daughter last weekend, she shared that she was returning to college the next day. She commented that a month ago, it felt like forever before school was scheduled to restart. Now, she finds it hard to believe that the car is packed.
Parenting is a lot like summer. We anticipate it, we prepare and plan for it and yet, so many experiences are totally spontaneous or an unknown adventure. Days with newborns can seem excruciatingly slow on difficult days and wonderfully memorable on connected and smooth days.
Watching children grow and go, is something parents do with mindfulness and with mindlessness. So, as summer moves forward, and you are thinking about buying school supplies, re-starting routines, letting go of older children little by little in middle and high school or seeing your adult children off to college, take a moment to savor your summer moments, as a very important part of the transition to welcome the fall and say goodbye to the summer of 2022. "Move it forward" for yourself and your children when moments get tough. From a place of co-regulation and calm, you can parent your child and yourself, through almost anything.
Maryellen P. Mullin, LMFT
"We never go anywhere, I don't feel special."
"What's wrong with us, we used to have so much fun."
"We don't know how to get along."
"We can make time for ourselves later, work and the kids are all I can manage."
Sound familiar? As a Certified Gottman Therapist for couples, I hear this on a weekly basis. Does your relationship seem like it is in a rut? Would you like to learn how to uplift each other, together? Join us at our monthly workshop (register here), and read on for tips to improve your relationship.
1. Talk to your partner about how you feel about the rut. Try to avoid blame, and focus on how you feel and a positive need. For example, instead of saying, "You don't take me out anymore." Say instead, "I miss having time with you alone, and feel lonely. I need a date night, how can we make that happen?"
2. Respond to any "bid" your partner makes. If you are in a rut, and your partner is trying to express this, be responsive! Even if you hear a criticism, such as, "We don't go out," be curious! Ask your partner how they feel and what they need. Then, respond with an idea of how to connect.
3. Plan for regular time to connect to get out of the rut and stay out of it! Weekly dates, walks or time just for the two of you, makes space to maintain an emotional and physical connection with each other. Like a bank account, you have an emotional bank account with your partner. Making frequent "deposits" keeps a high balance, to counter those challenges life and relationships may present.
4. Partners can fall into ruts by mistake, usually by circumstances or obligations, and a lack of understanding of why and how to prioritize regular times to connect. Partners who parent, often prioritize children's needs. But, if a relationship is not nurtured between a couple, then there is no "nest" for the child. Plan for time to connect as a couple instead of relying on spontaneous opportunities. Couples who make it long-term, have habits to keep intimacy alive, by taking time together daily and weekly.
5. Keep moving forward through the rut. Meaning, you may be facing something as a couple that will take time to recover from or get through. Talk about it. Plan small ways to connect, and be supportive with mottos you create with each other, such as "even though it is hard right now, we'll get through it together." Be a team. Getting through a rut together is a lot easier than trying to pull you both out on your own.
6. Give appreciation to each other, on a regular basis! It's important to take a few minutes daily or weekly, and be intentional about the small things to express gratitude. Make sure you say how it makes you feel. For example, "I appreciate you taking out the trash, it made me feel supported." Or, "I appreciate you texted me during my crazy day; it made me feel loved." Appreciations minimize contempt and resentment, increasing feelings of love for each other.
7. Check in with a couples therapist. If if you cannot think your way out of a rut alone or together, get some help! A couples therapist can teach you ways to connect, compromise and bounce back, together. Expect homework. You two need to make the effort outside of counseling; showing up to the appointment is only part of the work. Ask for ways to connect in-between appointments or read articles like this, and try out strategies
Remember, while ruts are normal, getting out of them takes some effort, but is worth it! - Maryellen P. Mullin, LMFT
Join our monthly ONLINE couples skills workshop, 75 minutes, once a month, make it a date! (register here).
Because I am Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, owner of Messy Parenting: Progress Not Perfection ®, many of my clients are parents who want to gain better social emotional skills. Their motivation is to use those skills to improve their parenting. Here are a few tips which I teach parents to start on this process.
Build Empathy and Be Positive
Few people seek counseling because they have difficulty managing positive feelings. It is a humbling insight for parents to acknowledge when they need help to control negative feelings. Some parents feel shame, embarrassment or guilt when anger or frustration are not in check. Awareness of those experiences are a first step in learning to relate to their children. Building empathy for a child requires building empathy for one's own challenges. To build empathy and positive perspective back into the parenting relationship, a parent can focus on pointing out everything your kid does right, for at least two weeks. Build your own positive behavior habit; you will feel better when you practice your own positive behavior. That’s right, ignore the negatives with your kid, unless it is unsafe. This is a hard challenge, but you will see outcomes if you commit to it as best you can, then move on to the next step of learning to teach positive behavior habits.
Use a Mind Trick Reframe
To help parents gain perspective, and manage their own negative reaction when teaching positive behavior changes, I ask them to change the narrative. Frame the situation as a mind trick reframe; to slow down personal reaction time. This is best used when you are upset with a kid. Instant reframe works like this: when triggered, pretend that the kid is not
your own; it's your best friend's kid. What would you say then? All parents respond the same way when asked this questions: "Well, I wouldn't yell." Instead of verbalizing immediately, parents often respond that they would take a step back to think, "What can I say to this kid that would help them understand what is going on?" In this mindset, parents are able to stay connected in order to correct a behavior or address a situation.
Learn to Talk In Start Behaviors
If parents can stay connected, they can up the odds of working through a problem. If parents want to control their emotions, they need to be like detectives and observe. Think: What is actually going on? What needs to change? What needs to stop? What needs to start? The goal is to reshape a kid's challenging behavior. If you point out what "not to do," you will likely get a negative reaction. However, if you stop to think about what you want that kid to start doing, and say that specifically as a direction, you will help that child start doing the behavior needed.
What does that look like? Let's say a kid is running in the house and you yell, "Stop running!" Most kids ignore the command because they are used to yelling and are not listening to the instruction. However, if you lower your voice and use a serious tone such as, "Please start walking," there is a good chance that you will see the behavior change.
Think in two types of behavior: stop and start. When you focus on stop behaviors, you tend to be annoyed and frustrated, and so does your kid. When you focus on start behaviors, you tend to have to stop, think about the action that should be happening and give a direction, rather than a reprimand. Both kids and parents feel better when start behaviors are the focus of the instruction or conversation, it's a positive parenting move that can foster better connection and outcomes.
Maryellen P. Mullin, is an LMFT in California, and founder of San Francisco Family Therapy and Messy Parenting: Progress Not Perfection ®, working with families, couples and individuals.
Knowing that I am both a Gottman Certified Therapist (GCT) and a Prepare
Enrich Facilitator, both clients in the therapy room and fellow guests at a party often voice this question. The answer is not too complicated.
A couple will know if they are ready for marriage by understanding several things about the relationship and about themselves. Couples, who love each other, have taken off the rose-colored glasses. They have worked on building trust and commitment. They have a strong friendship base and have a willingness to work on the relationship. When these elements are present in their relationship, they are ready. Couples, who have worked though conflict and have some basic skills to manage disagreements, are ready.
Not all couples, or individuals, come to the table with inherent conflict management or communication skills. Research has shown, however, that if both are wiling to do the work, these skills can be learned. Couples, who struggle and want to be successful, will need to invest in the work together.
If a couple is unsure of their readiness for marriage, finding a a professional who specializes in pre-marital preparation, is a great place to start. Two assessment programs, which are based on actual research about what makes relationships work, are Prepare-Enrich and the Gottman Relationship Check-up. These couple assessments provide personalized feedback. This quicker type of assessment saves a couple from weeks of meeting with a professional trying to be known; or explain their relationship. These assessments are efficient and outcome oriented;
they provide structured frameworks and identify skills for the couple to learn in order for them to improve in growth areas.
Couples who do pre-marital preparation in a more formalized way, gain even better tools and understandings of their strengths and challenges in a relationship. It's important to recognize that like any habit, the more you practice and maintain positive relationship behaviors, the more happy your ever-after will be.
Maryellen Mullin, is an LMFT in California, and founder of San Francisco Family Therapy and Messy Parenting: Progress Not Perfection ®, working with families, couples and individuals.
"Do you sometimes freak out about whether private practice can really work for you? Maryellen P. Mullin, founder of San Francisco Family Therapy, has important advice for you: collaborate and ask for help. She’s leaned into her superpowers and created a business she enjoys running. Rather than focusing on just one thing, Maryellen’s business allows her to do many things she loves. Listen as she dives into her journey - http://coachingwithannie.com/podcast/53"
We sat down with Maryellen P. Mullin, Founder of San Francisco Family Therapy who has a demonstrated history of working in the mental health care industry, to talk about raising kids in the digital age. Below are her top 5 parent tips to keep kids safe and smart.
To watch the webinar, click here: https://safesmartsocial.com/parent-tips/
1. Be Curious
So, how many parents actually know the ins and outs of smartphones, secret apps and social media sites? Not many. How many parents know when and how kids go online? And, where do your kids go when they are online? If you dropped them off at a mall, you’d have a basic idea of what is in the mall. It’s no difference with going online…except you would never knowingly drop your kids off at a sex club. So, be the student – be willing to learn and put in some time to understand the world your kids experience.
2. Eat Dinner Together
Watch family screen habits. Watch your habits with television/screens, time devoted to work or other things that absorb time that could be spent to connect with each other at home. Make sure you model “together time.” The easiest way – sit down for a meal, without any distractions.
Invest in spending time with your kid and engage them in the meal process, which includes conversation, even it if is only a few times a week.
3. Be the Driver
Want to know what is really going on with your kids? Put them in the backseat and offer to drive…drive to practice, drive your kid with her/his friends and provide pick ups. Always offer when you can…be the parent that drives…and listen.
Listen and don’t intrude, even when you want to ask a question. Later, when your kid is not with peers, gently ask about something then or bring it up in a neutral way. Earn their trust by not passing judgement, but reflecting what you hear and asking how they feel about it. “I wonder how you felt when your friend said xxx.”
4. Parent in a “pack,” with a “pact”
Stick together with other parents. Find at least one, if not more, parents who support staying in touch, talking, driving each others’ kids and who also set reasonable limits. I know of a few parents who in middle school made a pact, an agreement, with each other to support the kids together. These kids, now in high school, benefit from parents who wanted them to gain more independence, with support and limits.
For example: they will not drop off the kids at a party if the situation is questionable. They will text the parent group when they do the drop off or pick up.
If one parent can’t reach their kid, they text the parent of a kid in the group. That parent texts their kid to get the friend to call home.
They share information with each other – and they don’t use it against their kids. They ask when friends are having problems; they listen to the kids who come for dinner. They all give rides. They stay in the background, supporting the growth of increased independence by providing a safety net of adult background support…so it’s there when needed.
5. Use tech together.
Talk. Plan. Don’t expect a kid without self-control to manage screen usage on his or her own yet…you wouldn’t hand a kid 10 candy bars and say, “Eat just one,” would you?
Learn tech, talk about it, observe it in play and use it together. Talk with your kids and let others talk for you. Guess what, the parents I see who are NOT struggling, all have one thing in common: they talk to their kids, and they hold fast to a plan, enforcing agreed upon and reasonable rules about devices use in the home. You can, too!
Published by Psyched Magazine: By Maryellen Mullin | June 13, 2017
For four years in college and four years after, everything I owned fit into a small space. Because I moved yearly, I lived simply. If I was tired of schlepping something between apartments, it was discarded. Like most people, once I stopped moving and settled in one place, I began to accumulate. Balancing my decisions of what to hold onto and a need for simplicity has been part of an ongoing process of sorting and letting go.
What’s the emotional tie between you and your stuff? For many, it is an existential dilemma. To be or not to be: A saver, a nostalgic preserver, a frugal spender, a frequent donor to Goodwill.
As a therapist, I have observed that both children and adults find letting go of their “stuff” challenging. This is one reason why clients seek help. Anxiety is a common obstacle in the quest to let go; and for many, emotional healing needs to happen first.
While a majority of children can let go of outgrown toys, clothes and books in a way that’s appropriate to their developmental stage; for some, anxiety makes it a bigger challenge. These kids need adult support in letting go.
How do you parent a kid who accumulates? To read more, click here:
By Maryellen P. Mullin, LMFT
Power struggles with kids are a losing battle. Want to make it a win-win for you and your kid?
Parents tend to focus on responding to the words going on in a power struggle, not to the actual issue. Everyone can relate to falling into the trap of getting caught up in a dialogue that has nothing to do with an underlying issue.
I coach parents to “Respond to the issue, not to the dialogue,” whenever they sense a power struggle is about to ensue with a child or teen.
Most parents can relate to the following scenarios. The reluctant child refuses to get ready for bed. The whining child in the grocery store pleads for a box of sugary cereal. The teen wants to use the car, but won’t get off a smart phone and come to the dinner table. The child or teen attempts to coerce, badger or butter up the parent, so that the parent will give in to their request.
Parental reactions to these challenges vary, but in general, many parents feel their frustration level or other negative emotions rise. Sometimes your parental response may spark additional retorts from your kid, escalating the situation into a fast-burning and raging power struggle.
What can you do to change the cycle? A primary goal in family therapy is to help families improve communication.
A simple piece of advice: Do not respond to the dialogue; respond to the issue. When I was growing up, my mom taught me the acronym HALT – hungry, angry, lonely, tired. We are all bound to behave differently (and sometimes negatively) if we are experiencing hunger, anger, loneliness or fatigue. Our behavior changes and is reflected in our communication with self and others.
For example, the child says, “I don’t want to go to bed.” The parent can think, “What is the issue?” Some children are just tired and give refusals when they are tired. Some children may feel lonely in the evening, as their time with a beloved parent is ending for the day.
So, to keep the calm and resist the power struggle, follow these simple steps.
What is the dialogue vs. the issue? For example, your child protests, “I don’t want to go to bed.” Catch yourself, take a moment and allow yourself to think. This dialogue is about bed, but that is not the issue.
Reduce your own tension. Breath deeply and pause before you respond. Think HALT. Where is your child physically or emotionally right now? Observe with curiosity. There is no urgency in responding right away. Slow yourself down.
Coach with reflective listening. Say calmly, “Ok, you don’t want to go to bed. ” Then connect to the emotion and the issue. Say kindly to your child, “It’s hard when you are so tired. I understand. It’s okay that you are tired; sleep will help you feel better.” Reflective listening can help move many difficult parenting moments forward. When children feel heard, they feel validated. Reflective listening is a way to validate their emotional experience.
Practice these new skills. Your child says, “I want the pink marshmallow cereal.” The dialogue is about pink marshmallows, but is that the issue? Your response might be, “Oh, you want pink marshmallow cereal?” Your kid nods. Then ask, with curiosity, “Are you hungry?” Your child may say no, just that they like pink. The response may be yes, that he is hungry. You can relate to both of those ideas.
Your teen wants the car. Perhaps you say, “Tell me more about your plans.” Invite a conversation before you respond in the negative, or before you set boundaries regarding use of the car.
If your child is fussing or your teen talks with contempt, you can assume a neutral tone and repeat what the issue is for them. Stay calm. Remind yourself that their cranky behavior is fueled by feelings. A child's or teen’s cranky behavior does not equate with total disrespect for you as a person or parent.
It’s not about you; so don’t make it about you with an initial negative reaction. Regardless of how you respond, first think about the actual issue and reflect it to your child or teen, thereby validating them. Relate to your child or teen:
“Yes, pink makes the marshmallows look fun. I know how much you like marshmallows when we camp.”
“Hey, I know you want the car, but if there is drinking involved at the party, no car.”
This will help you keep your cool. Move your child/teen forward by moving beyond their words or behavior. Take the time to go deeper, to understand what the child is really trying to say.
Remember, responding to the issue and using reflective listening takes practice. It may not work initially, but if you can stick to the issue, acknowledge your kid’s feelings and move forward, messy moments may not always turn into the dreaded power struggle.
Photo courtesy of August de Richelieu from Pexels.
As a family therapist, I often hear parents complain of a child who cannot move beyond an interaction, incident or situation, even when it has been addressed. In fact, the parent may have already listened, empathized with the emotion, and talked the issue out.
An apology happened.
Reassurance was provided.
However, the child just cannot let it go, looping round and round, like a hula-hoop stuck in motion.
To read more: psychedinsanfrancisco.com/kid-looping-negative-thought
As parents and those who work with or care for children, we can agree that children should not be exposed to all adult conversations. Most adults try not to swear in front of kids or discuss parenting topics that could alarm or cause misunderstanding. The developing brain is not cognitively mature. Therefore, kids cannot understand…to read more visit http://www.psychedinsanfrancisco.com/psyched-magazine/