How to parent boys with high energy

how to parent boys with high energy

“Do you feed your kids crack?”  The Sunday school teacher asked.  “Oh… no, they are pretty energetic though aren’t they” I laughed.  I entered the room to gather my three boys while one of them was sliding head first down the plastic slide, the second was leaning off the edge of the fort as though it was a ship at sea, and the third was chasing a girl around the room.  I quickly gathered my clan rushed them off to the car and buckled them in their seats.  My main thought on that day was, “my boys require a lot of structure.”  We headed home and I chalked it up to another day in the life of a high-energy family.

A few weeks later I started to think about the question that this teacher posed to me.  Like many things the more I thought about it the more frustrated I became.  Don’t get me wrong I am the first to admit that my boys are active.  They love to run, jump, wrestle, and get dirty.  I am also the first to state however that I have great children and this is where the frustration came in.  I started to wonder what this teacher thinks of my boys.  My guess based on her question is that she views them as out-of-control, untamed, crazy, or scary.

I know that ultimately it does not matter what this person thinks about my children.  I believe strongly however, that the way we experience children is the way they experience themselves.  So, if this teacher experiences my children as crazy, out-of-control, or scary then that may be the way that they feel in her presence.  I begin to wonder if she is overwhelmed by their energy.  I sense that maybe she does not know how to contain them or is unsure of how to discipline them.  If I were honest with myself I would admit that at times I feel these things.  I feel overwhelmed, out-of-control, and scared of someone getting hurt.

Unfortunately when I feel these ways I tend to rely on my more primal parenting skills.  Sometimes this includes yelling, sometimes annoyed tones of voice, other times checking out.  Of course these skills do not work very well and actually communicate even more firmly to my children that I cannot handle them.  I wonder what it feels like to my children when I am out of control?  How do they feel when I am yelling, using my annoyed voice, or checked out?

At times I can see the answers on my sons face.  The feeling seems to be either hurt or humiliation, whatever it is I know it when I see it.  In my best moments I slow down, apologize, and acknowledge my mistake.  In my worse moments I move on without giving it a second thought feeling justified in my frustration.

My sons truly do require a lot of structure.  I find that things go better when I provide simple activities to help provide this structure.  It might be playdoh, drawing, coloring, a task, or a walk.  No matter what it is when I take action and help to structure the time they respond well.  The best part is that in most cases when I start the activity and engage with them for a short time I can leave the activity and they will remain engaged beyond the time of my involvement.  The hard part is staying calm, remembering that they need the structure and providing it before I become overwhelmed and out of control.

One thing that I have learned to do when things get tense at my house is to ask myself, “What do they need from me right now?”  Many times the answer is structure and when I provide it things seem to calm down, and so do I.

What activities do you use to provide structure for your children?

Oh, Let’s Try That Again

“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.”
Psalm 103:13

Do you ever find yourself correcting your children for the same thing over and over again?  Sometimes I think, “I put you in a timeout for that yesterday, and the day before, how many times do we have to do this?”  At times I get frustrated, why are they not learning this lesson?  Do they not understand what is being taught? When will they learn?

Unfortunately the answers to those questions are: no they do not understand right now and it will be a long time before they do.  I have learned that many times we parents misunderstand how discipline works.  We seem to think that our children are like piggy banks.  They come to us empty of knowledge and it is our job to fill them up with the lessons of life so they know how to act.  Each time we discipline is viewed as dropping a coin in the bank.  Once that “coin” has been deposited the lesson is learned.  One deposit equals one lesson right?

It has been helpful for me to think of children as wheat fields, rather than piggy banks. A wheat field is spread out as far as the eyes can see with stalks about waist high.  If you were to walk across the field and then look behind you, it would be possible to see a slightly worn path where you had been.  If you walk that path one time it will eventually go back to its original state.  If you walked over that path hundreds or thousands of times however, it would be well worn and very clearly visible.

Think of these paths as experiences in your child’s life.  Each time they have a similar experience, it is as though they had walked down the same path.  Imagine the “throwing a ball” path.  The more they throw a ball the more worn that path becomes and the better they get at throwing the ball.  Athletic trainers call this muscle memory neuroscientists call it a neuropathway.  The more they experience a certain behavior the more likely they are to repeat it.

Applying this analogy to how children learn from discipline can be helpful in understanding why we find ourselves correcting the same behavior over and over again.  Sometimes those behaviors have become well-worn paths and in order to change the behavior we need to create different paths using different experiences.

I recall speaking with a mom whose son had a habit of taking things that did not belong to him.  She had decided that instead of the normal punishment she would begin to practice picking things up and putting them back down.  Her plan was to create a new neuropathway.  She wanted to create the experience of seeing something that is not his, wanting it, looking at it, and leaving it be.  I was blown away by her wisdom she was not sitting back and waiting for her son to steal so that she could react with a consequence.  She was proactively creating new experiences, and neuropathways.

I believe that viewing our children as wheat fields rather than piggy banks can be extremely helpful for parents and children.  For parents it can help to reduce anger.  When I am trying to fill a piggy bank and it seems that the lessons are never learned eventually anger is the result.  When parents are angry they are less able to parent effectively.  When we view discipline as creating healthier pathways and experiences I am more able to remain calm and view an incident as yet another opportunity to wear a desirable path.

In our house we love redo’s when our oldest hits his brother, we say “Oh, let’s try that again.”  And we repeat the situation in a more appropriate manner.  When our youngest throws a fit, “let’s try that again.” Prescribing the words to use telling us how angry and upset he is about what happened.  As we repeat over and over again these experiences of positive behavior the paths become worn and behaviors more common.

We don’t do this perfectly, but we are working to create new pathways for ourselves, of patience, compassion, and joy.  I am hopeful that you will as well.

Please start a conversation and leave your thoughts and comments below. 

Parenting Peace

I truly believe that parenting is the most difficult job in the world.  The wonderful part is that many times when we encounter challenges personal growth follows.  In my personal experience I have found parenting to be one of the most powerful character-building factors in my life. I’m not even done with the process yet.   The most difficult part of parenting is to balance all the different skills that need to be used on a daily basis.  How much freedom is appropriate for my teenager?  How emotionally involved should I be in my child’s daily life.  What level of responsibility is necessary for my child’s age?  How do I encourage my child’s growth in identity?

I have struggled with these questions since I became a parent and am so thankful for the lessons learned a long the way.  I have come to believe that the four most important areas of parenting are Encouraging Challenges, Modeling Care, Giving up Control, and Being Present.  I believe that if parents can find the balance in these four principles they will also find “Parenting Peace.”

One night over three years ago, I could not sleep; my head was filled with ideas for a parenting workbook.  I could not shut my thoughts off so I got up and began to write what has become my newly released E-workbook “Parenting Peace.”  The book has taken several different forms in this time.  It began as a parenting seminar that I presented to groups of parents; I then developed it into a parenting class that I taught while in private practice.  It has now become what I never imagined, an E-workbook to be downloaded and used by individuals or groups.

I am very excited to share this resource with parents and those that serve them.  I am hopeful that the parenting instruction and self-reflection exercises contained in the book will help those who read it.  Please follow the links below to find out more information about the E-workbook.   Contact me if you have questions, and especially if you have any form of feedback.  If you know of a friend, therapist, or pastor who might be interested in using it feel free to share the link.


Let’s Go On An Adventure

Over my years as a therapist I have spent many hours talking with teenage boys.  One of the phrases that I have heard over and over again is, “this is boring.”  I have heard parents complain about children who have bins full of toys, yet describe themselves as bored.  How is it possible that in our society of 24/7 entertainment anyone would be bored?

I recently listened to the White Horse Inn podcast that argued boredom in our culture stems from the over abundance of entertainment.  They argued that our desire to have every experience be “THE” experience cheapens the value of all experiences.   Even in churches and youth ministries we are constantly searching for the next big thing.  The next exciting program or activity that will draw in more kids or parents so they can know how exciting Jesus is.  We take high school students to camps and mission trips filled with emotional worship, funny speakers, and really gross games.

The problem is, this is not real life.  Real life is mundane, it is getting up to go to work or school everyday, it is doing the dishes, laundry, and homework.  Faith is hard, church can be normal, and even Jesus was not exciting all of the time.  In my opinion the problem with the “bored” children is that they have never learned to imagine.  Toys don’t require imagination these days.  Computer graphics create vast worlds in infinite detail, none of it imagined by the players.  It is nearly impossible to find a plain lego set that can be formed into whatever a child imagines.  They are all movie themed and designed to be built into some specific object.  Even infant toys are full of bells, whistles, lights, and buttons.

I was pleased to sit and observe some kids developing their imaginations the other day.  I felt like one of those nature photographers catching the final footage of an endangered species.  I sat very quietly hoping they would not notice me, so as not to disrupt their play.  They played for about an hour with nothing more than a bucket tied to a rope and water.  I am not sure what they were doing but they were all fully engaged and involved.  Somehow they all had a role to play but no one told them what it was.  There was yelling, laughing, jumping, and running; it was great fun.  They were having a true adventure.

A true adventure is not some overhyped, artificially produced experience of which we are spectators.  A true adventure is something we are actively involved in.  It is a path that unfolds before us based on the shared experience of family and friends.

This was not the latest and flashiest toy.  It was a white bucket tied to a rope, but it lead them on a wild adventure full of excitement and joy.  I hope parents will say, “let’s go on an adventure” by giving their families the time and space to imagine.  Let’s cut down on some of the adult organized “exciting” activities, and begin to create our own adventures in the backyard.

How does your family find true adventure?

What toys helped you to imagine as a child?

"The Talk" — In Kindergarten?

I was surprised this week by how quickly the influence I have in my child’s life is challenged by outside forces.  My wife and I have worked pretty hard to shelter our boys from things that we believe are inappropriate for their age.  We do our best to limit them to G rate movies, they typically watch only pre-viewed dvds or Netflix shows, and we quickly turn the channel if an “inappropriate commercial” appears on TV.  I have even gone so far as to tear the “batwoman” pages out of a coloring book because of its voluptuous nature.

Like most parents we noticed right from the first day of kindergarten that our bubble of protection had been shattered.  Our son came home talking of video games, and super heroes that we had never exposed him to.  All of a sudden he knows who Darth Vader is and is telling me the plot line to the Star Wars movies.  He starts to do things like “made you look” and “eenie meenie miny moe.”  He tells me that Benji Molina is his favorite Cardinals player.  All of these previously unknown tidbits were a bit of a shock to our naïve belief that we could filter all possible influences.  These tidbits were perfectly tame however, in comparison to what he came home talking about this week.

My wife received a call from a classmate’s mother describing what her son had heard at school.  Apparently another boy had said something about “sexy kissing” and told my son and his friend that this occurs when you take all your clothes off and touch your “P-Ps” together.  Mom calls teacher, teacher tells principal, boys are called to the office, the culprit apologizes, and my son receives his first lesson about the birds and the bees.  Ugh! We felt sick.  I know many would consider this incident minor; but again our belief system had been shaken.  The beliefs that we could protect our son, that school is a safe place, that the kids in his class are OK, and that we can wait to give “the talk” for several more years are false.

As the dust settled, I was processing through this incident with a fellow therapist, father to four boys, and Christian leader.  He was telling me about how he spoke to his boys regarding sex and at what ages he had “the talk” with them.  He told me how he had not yet talked with his 7 year old.  He stated that he had probably waited too long and has been meaning to sit down with him.  What? My son is 6; are you telling me that I need to have “the talk” with him now?  As I continue to think through this incident I am more convinced that the sooner I talk with my son the better.  I have realized that the negative influences that I am protecting against will fill any vacuum that I have left open.  If I, as a Christian father, am silent regarding this very important topic, the not so silent fathers and older brothers of my sons classmates, will influence him with out my knowing.  I am convinced, that no matter what the topic, I must make my influence and voice more powerful than the voices of the world.   At this point in his young life he listens to me and believes that I know everything.  In a few short years I will know nothing and have less ability to present a powerful voice of influence.

So, I am struck by the importance of teaching the lessons of values, morals, and decision making today rather than tomorrow.  I am convicted that if I desire to raise men of character then I must start today.  I must read the bible with them, I must pray with them, I must have the hard conversations, I must teach them to make choices, I must teach them to stand up to wrongs and champion rights.  I am convicted that I must be a man of character myself and allow my life to speak powerfully into the hearts of my boys.  Oh what a challenging task!!

Control Issues 2

The most important aspect to remember when offering choices to your child is that you must be comfortable with all the choices given.  As a parent, you have to be willing to follow through on your child’s choice, so offer these choices carefully.  For example, giving a three year old the choice between riding his tricycle in the driveway and riding his tricycle around the block unsupervised is not acceptable.  Once you begin to offer choices to your child, it will become second nature.  You will begin to see everything as a choice and will learn how to phrase things as opportunities for choices rather than commands.

            So, what good does offering all these choices do?  Children who have been raised with appropriate levels of control in their own life grow to be teens who are intrinsically motivated.  All the millions of choices that they have been allowed to make over their lives have taught them that they have the power and ability to make their life what they want it to be.  These children have what is referred to as an internal locus of control.  They believe that the outcomes of their actions are the function of their effort, skill, and personality.  They are confident in their abilities to succeed, and motivation for that success comes from within.  In fact, “allowing children the freedom to pursue their interests without interference is paramount for intrinsic motivation” (Mercogliano, pg 10).  However, a controlling parenting style leads towards children who have an external locus of control.  These children have been so controlled from the outside that they do not know how to make decisions without outside help.  They believe that they have very little power to make life what they want it to be.  They are waiting for someone to come along and do “it” for them, or are hoping for a miracle to make their dreams come true.  Those with an external locus feel as though they are not responsible for the outcome of their actions.

            Giving up control also allows our children to internalize their values.  Parents desire to see their children make decisions that are based on their value system.  It is sad to see a child who makes decisions based on the desires of his peer group or cultural influences.  A responsible child is one that makes right decisions because he is confident in his values and view them as more important than the applause of peers.  Internalized values are a very important part of identity development, as what we value contributes greatly to our thinking.  And when our thinking is deeply rooted in our values, our behavior usually lines up.  The positive result is an integrated identity.

Finding a healthy balance in the amount of control we give to our children is difficult, but so important.  Remember, a child with too much control is no better off than one with not enough control.  I encourage parents to start small.  Give your child control over as many things as possible while maintaining appropriate limits.  Having clear limits for your child will help to balance the temptation to over-control.  As long as the child is within the clear limits, he is free to behave and choose as he wishes.  When he wanders outside the limits, make sure he experiences a consequence that reinforces the limit.

            In summary, a gradual release of control to your child will help him to grow into a teen that believes that the outcome of his actions is a function of effort, skill, and personality.  Giving up control will also foster the internalization of a child’s values, which is a key component to the development of an integrated identity.  Over-control by parents will leave teens with a sense that they are not responsible for the outcome of their actions.  They will also be susceptible to the influence of peers and culture in regards to decisions about values and conduct.

Control Issues 1

I have many discussions with parents that center around the issue of control.  The surprising part for many of them is that I emphasize giving up control rather than maintaining control.  It seems to me that parenting is a life-long exercise in gradually giving over more and more control to our very precious children.  This process can be a very scary, or even painful, endeavor for many parents, especially when it is done either too quickly or too slowly.  Many parents wonder, “If I give up control to my child, then how will he learn what is right?” or “Won’t they end up being wild children who are continually in trouble?”

Though it is tempting for some parents to believe that gradually giving control over to their children will result in ineffective or poor behavior, the truth is that giving age-appropriate control to our children is actually in their best interest.  In reality, giving more control to your children as they mature will help develop a confident, internal moral compass from which they will make better decisions on their own.

            Let’s make the distinction between being “in control” and being “controlling.”  In his book, “In Defense of Childhood Protecting Kid’s Inner Wildness Chris Mercogliano, describes being “in control” as “establishing age appropriate limits, while at the same time supporting children’s growing sense of autonomy by allowing them to make choices and learn from their mistakes” (pg. 9).  Being “in control” is setting very clear limits for children and enforcing those limits consistently.  However, if a child is moving within those limits, he is free to be in control of his decisions and behavior.  The approach of the “in control” parent allows children to practice making choices that meet their needs or desires, but provides appropriate limitations to that freedom.   Alternatively, Mercogliano describes “controlling” as  “placing high value on obedience, shepherding children toward specific outcomes, and discouraging verbal give and take” (pg. 9).  A controlling parent is not only setting limits, but is active within those limits, making choices and decisions for a child that he could have easily made on his own.  A controlling parent who is focused “toward specified outcomes” has his own ideas for the child and is out to make them happen.  This parent does not consider the child’s desires, interests, or skills.  Instead, this parent’s focus is on meeting his or her own needs.

            The key is to gradually give age-appropriate control to our children, which is given in the form of choices.  For example, you may ask your young child, “Would you like to wear shorts or blue jeans today?” or “Would you like to drink milk or water?” or “Do you want to read books or play outside?”  All of these choices are opportunities for parents to give children control over the moments of their lives without allowing them to be in control of the household.  We have all seen the three year old who is clearly in control of the parent-child relationship.  Instead of being given choices chosen by the parent, this child is dictating the agenda for the entire household.  Giving a young child too much control is not only unhealthy, but is also harmful for future development.  On the other hand, giving age-appropriate choices to our children boosts their healthy development.

Let’s hear it for the boys Part 2: Self-Control

“Encourage the young men to be self-controlled.  In everything set them an example by doing what is good.” Titus 2:6

My last post focused on meekness; defined as “constrained power”.    I proposed that the characteristics of boys that are sometimes viewed as weaknesses could be harnessed as strengths.  I continue to explore the topic in this post with a practical example of turning “out of control into self-control.”


A mom I know told me the story of a recent day in her household.   It was a day that all parents of boys experience periodically.  They seemed to wake-up with more energy than normal, from the moment the day began all three of her boys were moving at break neck speed.  She ushered them through breakfast, clothes, brushing teeth, combing hair, packing bags, and off to school.  As she ran her daily errands she thought, “The afternoon would be better”.  This being the first frigidly cold day of the year, the normal afternoon spent outside running off energy was not an option.  So, as the boys returned home from school and finished their snack, things were not looking up.  There continued to be a sense of craziness in their behavior.  Kids were running and screaming, toys were being thrown, doors slammed, and mom was getting frazzled.  Mom, and the boys, were getting out of control.

Mom took a few deep breaths, put aside the things she “needed to get done” and created a game.  “Come here boys, and stand in a line” she said.  “Run up the stairs!”  “Slide down the stairs!” “Skip through the kitchen!” “5 jumping jacks!” “Crab walk around the table!”  “5 sit-ups!”  “Up the stairs again!”  All three boys eagerly completed each set of instructions, laughing and giggling their way back to the living room for the next plan of action.  Finally, mom lined the boys up in front of her.  Bringing her voice to a calm whisper she said, “Now, go down stairs and play, while I get dinner started.” The boys played alone for 30 minutes and for another hour with mom close by and involved.

I was inspired by this mother’s creativity.  Rather than being overwhelmed with the emotion and stress of the situation, she was able to create an experience of self-control.  I was struck by 4 things that enabled her to move her boys from being out of control to self-control.

Stay Calm:

            This mom fought the urge to become angry, overwhelmed, or frustrated.  She was able to maintain her self-control and acted as an excellent example to her boys by “doing what was good.”  As she put aside the things she “needed to get done” she was able to reduce the stress caused by daily concerns.  She gave herself a time-out, taking a few calming breaths before deciding how to handle the situation.

Provide Structure:

            When boys are experiencing high levels of energy, their behavior can become chaotic.  This mother recognized that the problem was not the level of energy but its focus.  She provided a focus for their energy at a time when they were struggling to do it on their own.  Her focus, helped the boys experience their high energy as a positive rather than a negative.

Matched Energy Level:

            This mom was attuned to what her boys needed.  They needed a chance to burn off some energy.  It would take more than a “no” to harness these horses.  She met their high level of energy with an equally high-energy alternative.  The need of the parent is to have the children play quietly while dinner is prepared.  She was wise in realizing that they needed help getting prepared for that quieter play.

Be Playful:

            Being playful may be the most difficult part of what this mom did.  Sometimes the first response of a parent is to shut down this type of play.  It is too loud, makes a mess, or someone may get hurt.  She spoke firm instructions in a playful tone.  She took an unwanted behavior and made a wonderfully enjoyable game out of it.  Sometimes when a parent joins the chaos setting playful and engaging structure, high-energy play can be a lot of fun.

Now, here is the tough part.  If this mom tried this same thing the next day it may not work.  The point in my opinion is to remember the 4 principles.  Stay calm, Provide structure, Match energy level, and Be playful.  Keeping these things in mind could be helpful for parents in managing any type of behavior.  They can be especially helpful when bringing boys from out of control to self-control.

Please leave comments below sharing the best ways you have found to help your children move from out of control to self-control.  

You Hem Me In

You are all around me on every side; You protect me with your power.  Psalm 139:5 (GNT)

Several weeks ago I arrived home from work and my wife told me about an experience she had that reminded us both of the importance of Limits.  The day had been a long one, as many stay at home mom’s experience.  She decided to take the boys to a favorite park that had a replica Noah’s Ark included in its play area.  The boys love this park because they like to pretend the Ark is a pirate ship.  What can be more fun than a pirate ship?  She looked forward to the boys playing well together and running off some energy.

As the boys imagined firing cannons, and battling rival pirates they encountered, to their surprise, a real life problem.  There was a boy at the park, who my wife guessed was in about 4th grade, that was sticking his tongue out and spitting at our two year old.  She let it go at first, as it didn’t seem to be bothering the boys so much. The longer they were at the park however the worse it got.  She was not pleased, as we have no desire for our mimicking two year old to pick up a new unwanted behavior.  So, as things got even worse and in a bit of frustration, she looked at the boy and said, “Your behavior is totally unacceptable for a boy of your age, and we are leaving because we do not want to be spit on.”  The boy said, “oh, I am sorry” and immediately stopped the behavior.  Not only did he stop the behavior, but he would not leave her side.  For the next half hour the boy sat next to her talking all about his family, friends, and experiences at school.  She would get up to move across the playground and he would follow, she would walk over to talk to our boys and he would follow, he had become attached to her.

As my wife told me this story the thought that immediately came to mind was SAFETY.  It appeared to me that my wife had proven herself to be the safest person in this boys’ life at that moment. I guessed that in his experience anyone who is willing to set firm limits is a person who can be trusted.

Limits are so important in helping a child experience safety.  When parents set firm and consistent limits, children experience them as predictable, reliable and trustworthy.   I am thankful for the reminder that even though my kids push against and regularly “forget” the established limits I must continue to enforce them.  Each time I enforce a limit in a loving way I am proving myself to be reliable, trustworthy, and most importantly safe.

I am also reminded of how often I push against and “forget” the limits set forth by our Heavenly Father.  I am thankful for His predictability and the knowledge that He can forever be trusted.  I only hope that the limits that I set may point my boys to the Heavenly Father.   The one who is all around and on every side protecting them with His power.