HOLDING: The Day My Son Thought He Had Died

Psalm 18:16 He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters.  He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me.

I have recently begun to view HOLDING my children as so much more than just physically carrying them.  Holding has become something that is physical, emotional, and psychological.

Two summers ago for about 2 hours my son thought that he was dead!  It was a beautiful day.  My wife and I took our family to a community swimming area, we were able to relax and watch our kids swim with their older cousins.  Near the end of our time at the lake two of our sons approached us in the water.  The older one appeared completely calm and said, “Dad I was freaking out!” The other was literally freaking out; he was yelling, screaming, and crying.  Apparently one of his siblings had taken a water toy from him and he was very upset.  My wife and I both gravitated to the screaming child.  We acknowledged the older one but picked up, consoled, and helped to manage the screaming one.  Both children moved on and we left the lake a short time later.  As we arrived home my wife and I remarked to each other how enjoyable the day had been and what a fun time we had had.

The older cousins joined us at our house and we settled the children downstairs to watch a movie.  As my wife and I discussed the enjoyable afternoon, our older son came upstairs noticeably upset.  He was in tears and could hardly speak through his emotions.  He climbed into my lap and I attempted to understand what was going on.  He explained in short tearful phrases that he was afraid he had died.  Slowly the story of his “freaking out” emerged.  He explained that he was playing on the floatilla of fun in the deep end of the lake.  He saw an older kid with no life-jacket on swim underneath an inflatable “bridge” that was about 3 feet wide.  We had told him previously to never swim under this bridge.  As he saw the older kid do it with such ease however, he decided to give it a try.  In his attempt to swim under the bridge he plunged his head under the water and swam with all his might expecting to resurface on the other side.  His life jacket forced him to the surface earlier than anticipated and became caught on a seam of the rubber floatilla.  In realizing he was not going to make it he freaked out and attempted to return from where he had come.  He said that he had to swim as hard as he could to release himself from the bridge before he popped up above the surface gasping for air.

I was shocked by his story and confused by his concern about being dead.  It seemed that although he had escaped drowning he was afraid that what he was now experiencing was death.  I was freaking out and feeling overwhelmed at the outcome that could have devastated this beautiful day.  I had failed at this moment to physically protect him and it was now time to emotionally and psychologically HOLD him.

I stumbled about attempting to elicit his entire story while simultaneously working to maintain my composure.  Praise the Lord he was safe! But what is a parent to do?

After two years of on and off again reflection regarding this very scary experience I have deciphered what has become my way of HOLDING to protect from harm.

Physically Holding:

            My son climbed up into my lap to tell his story, he desired physical closeness as well as strength to contain the convulsions and shakes of his emotionally charged body.  Physical proximity during times of fear and pain can be very comforting to children.  The natural rhythms of a parents breathing, heartbeat and voice serves to calm and regulate.  I have learned to become more open to physical contact.  Whether it’s holding hands, scratching a back, or applying sunscreen holding touch is a crucial ingredient in protecting a child from present and future harm.

Emotionally Holding:

            My son was overwhelmed with emotion.  He could not contain his feelings of fear, and uncertainty.  He needed a parent to be a container for these overflowing emotions.  As emotion pours out of a child and into the parent he needs to feel that the parent can handle it.  The parent can manage his own emotions in the face of the child’s very powerful emotions.  My son was also confused about what had happened.  Emotional holding helps a child to make sense of confusing emotions and circumstances.  Emotional holding seeks to fully understand the experience of the child without judgment.  For the child telling the story enables him to make sense of the experience.

Psychologically Holding:

            In the weeks following this incident I began to wonder if it might impact him long term.  He loved to swim, but would he refuse to get back in the water?  Would he have nightmares, irrational fears, or ongoing questions about death?  I continued to talk about the situation hoping to communicate that it was ‘ok’ to talk about and that recurring thoughts were normal.  At one point he stated that he thought about it often, so I wondered about his thoughts and even consulted a therapist.  Psychological holding is being your child’s therapist.  It is knowing when to talk and when to listen.  It is knowing when to seek outside help for your child and possibly for yourself.  Psychological holding is a parent’s ability to know a child in their mind, and heart.  It is the ability to mentalize the child’s inner experience and respond appropriately.

My son is OK, we talk about this day every once in a while but mostly it is just part of his story.  As his parent I am reminded that I cannot protect him from every danger, but that HOLDING him can help him to get through the scary things he encounters in life.  I can be his secure base to which to return when times get rough and life is difficult.

What scary/painful things have your kids experienced and how did you help them through it?  What was the hardest part about helping them through this difficult time?

Where Does it Hurt?

“Who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap.” Psalm 113:6-7

Before I had children I thought I knew a lot about being a parent.  I had been working with teens for years, read many parenting books, and observed (judged) parents for countless hours.  In my arrogance I thought that I was well prepared to raise the “perfect” child.

When my first child was born I was halfway through my graduate program studying marriage and family therapy.   I had so much to learn.  At this point in my life I thought it important to raise a son who did not over-react when he got hurt.  So, I set about under-reacting to my son’s needs.  I thought that if I was calm and collected and acted like nothing was wrong he would learn to respond the same way.  When he falls down he will get up and dust himself off.  When we drop him at the baby sitter he won’t shed a tear.  He will be strong and he will be independent.

What a mess!  I was parenting from my own needs rather than my son’s.  I needed a son who did not bother me, did not whine, and allowed me to stay disconnected from others.  What my son needed was a father who was attuned to his needs.  He needed a father that responded with compassion and grace.  He needed a father that said, “Where does it hurt?”

I am so thankful for the difficult and challenging lessons that followed those first nine months of parenting.  As I gained experience as a counselor and parent, the Lord was busy refining me into the father my son needed.  I learned that my parenting approach was actually starving my child of compassion, nurture, and love.  The more I closed my heart to his hurt the harder he cried out for me.  The more I said, “suck it up, boys don’t cry” the more abandoned he felt.  Paradoxically my plan to make him tough was actually making him emotionally fragile.

 I was privileged to attend a professional training as a counselor that revolutionized my approach as a parent.  I found in this training that compassion and nurture are vital to a child’s normal development.  I discovered that children who are not touched, held, or cuddled would actually die.  I learned that if a parent is attuned to their child’s needs and provides the appropriate level of nurture and compassion, their child would not have to ask for it.  This child is then free to grow, play, explore, and laugh rather than having to worry about being nurtured, loved, and protected.

It was a slow process, but I found that when I asked, “where does it hurt?” my heart began to soften and my son began to relax.  He finally knew, “my dad will protect me, I am safe from being harmed”

I strongly believe that our sons need fathers that will respond with compassion rather than dismissal.  Ignoring a child’s hurts and saying “boys don’t cry” does not make them stronger, it makes them emotionally fragile.  It is when fathers (and mothers) respond with empathy, compassion, and care that boys learn to manage their hurts and control their changing emotions.  I challenge fathers to  “stoop down to look upon your boys and girls, raise your poor son from the dust and lift his bloody knee from the ash heap.” Paraphrase Psalm 113:6-7

How do you show compassion to your child?
What valuable lessons have you learned as a parent?

How have you witnessed the harm of a “boys don’t cry” culture?

"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!!

Face Time

“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”  Numbers 6:24-26

My favorite part of the worship service at the church of my youth was the end.  Not because it was over, but because every single week the pastor would raise his hands and pronounce a powerful blessing over the congregation.  Most of the time he would use the words of the Aaronic benediction found in Numbers 6:24-26.  By the time I was a teenager I could recite this passage from memory.  It was after college that I began to wonder what these words meant and why they are said at the end of almost every service.

I began to study and discovered something more than I had ever expected.  God commanded Aaron to bless the Israelites using words they would all recognize from just after they had fled Egypt.  God was giving Moses instructions to bring His people to the promised land and Moses wanted reassurance that God was leading the way.  The Lord’s response to his request was “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Ex. 33:14  The phrase “My Presence” can literally be translated as “My Face”.  So, when God commanded Aaron to bless the Israelites using the words “face shine upon you” and “turn his face towards you” He was reminding His people that He was “present”.  He was saying, “you are OK my children, I am here, I will keep you safe, I am present, you do not have to worry, have peace.”

Whenever I hear or read this passage from Numbers I substitute “My Presence” for “face”.  I love the idea of the Lord’s face representing His presence.  As He turns His face towards me I sense that He is present and that we are connected in relationship.  I recently made a link between the power of the Lord’s presence or face to bring His children peace, and the power of a parent’s presence or face, to bring their child peace.

The “still face” experiment (see video above) is a demonstration of the power of presence to bring peace.  When the mother is fully engaged and responsive to the child, the child is calm, playful, and feels safe.  As the mother literally turns her face from the child, she becomes scared, confused, and upset.  I can’t help but draw the parallels between how the Lord relates to us, and how we relate to our children.  The Father promises, “My Presence” will go with you, and I will give you rest.”  I can be confident that the Father is always with me protecting, loving, and connecting.

I am struck by the importance of my being present with my children when I am home.  It is so tempting to check out after an exhausting day at work.  To prop them in front of a tv show or video game, to read the paper, surf the net, or watch the game.  It is important as parents to bless our children with our true, undivided presence.  It is important to shut out all distractions whether external or internal to focus powerfully on our children.  When we turn our faces towards them connecting our heart with theirs we have the power to bring them peace.   

Angry Parents

 

Why does a person get angry?  What is it about a child’s behavior that can cause a parent to lose control?  Parents get angry and lose control with their children when they experience stress or anxiety above their levels of tolerance.  Typically, when parents experience this level of stress, one of their four core fears—danger, failure, loss of love, and loss of control— has been triggered by their children’s behavior.  Often, the end result of this fear is the parent’s extreme emotional response to the situation.  Learning to identify and better understand the impact of these fears in our parenting helps us learn to maintain better personal control with our children.

Danger:

The fear of their child being seriously hurt, emotionally or physically.  Parents who experience this core fear feel anxious when their child takes risks or is out of their sight.  The most common way of relieving this anxiety is to protect.  These parents have a hard time maintaining personal control when their efforts to protect are being avoided by the child.

Failure:

The fear of failing as a parent, or their child failing as an adult.  Parents who experience this core fear work hard to make their child a success and have a hard time maintaining personal control when their child’s behavior seems to work against them

Loss of love:

The fear of losing their child’s love.  Parents who experience this core fear may rely on their child for feelings of affirmation and value.  In times of trial they feel abandoned, alone, and betrayed by their child and may struggle to maintain personal control.

Loss of control:

The fear of losing control of their child or the situation.  Parents who experience this core fear see misbehavior as a sign of things to come.  They are afraid that if they don’t get things under control, their child will grow up to be a hardened criminal or worse.

We all lose our cool from time to time.  Being aware of our buttons, and what underlying fears trigger us to lose control can be very helpful.  spend some time reflecting on the last time that you lost your cool.  What was your child doing?  What were you doing?  Which one of the four core parenting fears triggered you?  Spending a few minutes in self reflection can help you to maintain control the next time your core fear is triggered.

Portions of this post are excerpts from my parenting workbook entitled “Parenting Peace”.

Read Angry Art

Read The Angry Growl

 

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.