Posts Tagged ‘parenting’

You’re making an effort to be clear about family expectations, set some routines and boundaries. You’re trying to do it calmly. Is that going to lower stress levels?

Not immediately! Family systems theory (FST) talks about an initial reaction in the system when someone self-defines in this way. People are not used to it, they don’t know how to understand what you’re doing, it’s new and they don’t like new. It’s true for your kids. Initially they will react. There may be an increase in conflict.

That’s the bad news. The good news is it won’t last. No system can keep reacting to a stable non-anxious presence. Take a look at this graph:

Screen Shot 2013-07-10 at 8.57.11 PM

FST is very interested in stress levels. It makes the point that they normally go up and down a lot, as conflict moments come and go. But the average stays stable. When someone in the system (say, the parent) articulates clearly their expectations, and becomes a self-defined presence, there is a reaction. Even the average stress level goes up. But not for long. The whole system soon adjusts, and becomes more stable: less ups and downs, less conflict moments. And best of all, the new stable level is lower than the old average. Average stress levels have fallen.

So here’s the challenge. According to FST, if you can find the strength to self-define, articulate expectations, stick to them, and weather the initial storm, you can improve the health of the family.

Interestingly, this is also the story of the gospel of Jesus. God announces that new conditions are in place: he has appointed his Son Jesus as lord of all, heir of the creation. Jesus is being placed in charge. This announcement leads to a crisis reaction, strong opposition from both the demonic and from human rulers. The couple of years of this reaction are recorded in the Gospel accounts. This crisis comes to a head when Jesus has to put up with the pain and shame of crucifixion. But God our Father persists in his purpose. He places Jesus on the throne through resurrection. He has defined the family system of his creation, made his intentions clear. The world is going to have to come to terms with it. And the new system is much better than the old!

So how about you? Feeling ready for some (brief) stormy weather?

Low-stress parenting 3: Routine

Posted: July 10, 2013 by J in General, Pastoral issues

So you’re getting good at noticing stress in your family, and you’re having a go at defining your expectations. How can you make this self-definition easier and more effective, so that the family stress-levels keep coming down?

Consider this principle:

The more predictable the expectations are, the more powerfully they function to lower family stress levels.

The weakest expectations are the ones you just mentioned today. Who knows – maybe you’ll change them tomorrow. That’s a fairly stressful situation for the family. But the expectations that are well-worn, that rarely need to be discussed because everyone is so used to them: those ones are truly powerful and comforting.

We can call those super-stable expectations routines.

Do you have any routines in your family? I’ll bet you do.

God treats his children in this way, and it is a great kindness to us. Israel’s law was supposed to guide national life long-term. Now we connect with God through the ministry of Jesus his son, and the arrangements are similarly stable:

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever          Hebrew 13:8

That’s good news for us. No worries about the deal changing on us, we can trust in Jesus and relax. How about with your kids?

Kids love routines. They love knowing the rules, knowing what to do; being able to check if others have done their bit! Routines lower stress because they empower everybody in the family. They are egalitarian: once established, everyone must submit to them equally. They create expectations in all directions. There are no secrets, everyone knows the same things, knows what is going on. An unknown future is stressful, but a predictable one is reassuring.

(Routines also help kids learn to self-regulate. I.e. manage their own behaviour. Instead of needing to be told what to do every time, kids can refer to the routine, and know what to do for themselves. Self-regulating is the holy grail of child-rearing.)

You can use routines to lower the stress in your family. They are powerful tools to help you ‘self-define’ as a parental presence (see previous post). They create clarity and minimise conflict.

In our family we have lots of routines. Our kids are fairly young so the routines reflect that. Here are some of them:

  • Each child has an assigned task to help prepare for breakfast. Takes about 30 seconds each.
  • At breakfast we will thank God and say the Lord’s prayer together. We hold hands.
  • Our children go to school five days/week whether they feel like it or not (this one’s not as obvious as you might think)
  • Mum or Dad has to get dinner
  • If our daughter eats her meal without assistance, she gets a sticker on her chart
  • Kids have a bath if they didn’t have one the night before
  • Before bed, we have lots of routine. After dinner it goes like this:
-clean hands (messy from messy eating!)
-read story together on the lounge – kids take turns choosing book
-bible story and prayer together as family
-children tidy a set number of items from bedroom floor, varies depending on age.
-children visit toilet before bed.
-bedtimes: 7.30 for younger ones, 8.30 for older one.
-Mum and Dad are required to tuck kids in bed and kiss them, and probably to hear about the favourite event from the day.

That’s not all our routines, but you get the idea!

Pretty mundane stuff, most of it. But here’s the thing worth knowing about these routines: we rarely have conflict about any of them. Everyone accepts them, everyone normally complies. (Occasionally I fall asleep and fail to tuck kids in!) I don’t think the kids see them as ‘mum and dad’s expecations’, I think they feel them as ‘the way our family operates’. It’s just the rules. We all have to follow them! We kind of like them.

We still have to remind the kids to do lots of these things. Compliance is not always automatic! But the point is that once it’s been said, there’s generally no argument, no conflict, because everyone knows that those are our family patterns.

Over the years we have added routines, some short term, others permanent. Nearly always this has been a blessing to the family. In fact, I think we need to add a couple more. Like teeth brushing! (shame)

So, how could you use routines to lower the stress in your family? You already do this, but could you benefit from a few more? It’s actually quite simple (not easy, simple!). You just need to

1. articulate the expectation clearly and regularly

2. stick to it like glue regardless of complaints

At first there will be complaints. They won’t last long. Kids are very quick to learn the routines. They’ll feel like it’s a natural law long before you do. Within ten repetitions you’ll have a new routine.

The best area to establish a new routine is probably the area where you have the most conflict at the moment. That’s the point where you need a powerful stress-reducing tool like this one.

Here are some examples of routines, that might spark your imagination:

You can have half an hour screen time each day. When you want it to start, come tell me, and we’ll start this timer. When the alarm goes off, you stop. (possible addition, If you don’t stop at the alarm, you will not have screen time tomorrow.)

After you have done these three morning jobs, you can have your phone. Until then it will sit here. It will be the same every school morning.

If you call me from another room I will not answer. If you come to where I am I will talk to you.

Eight o’clock is piano practice time.

Friday and Saturday are the nights available for going out.

You get $10 pocket money each week, for your social life etc. That is all. You manage the details.

(simulblogging with canterburychurchplant’s blog)

So you’re getting better at noticing stress in your family system. What can you do about it? I want to explore a few general stress issues, and then look at some specific areas or moments in family life, to try to see how they could be different.

Today let’s talk about parental presence. The sort of presence encouraged by family systems theory (FST) is engaged, self-defined presence. What does it mean to be a self-defined presence? And how does this help reduce stress at home?

FST sees humans groups as networks of individual identities or persons, each of which is more or less clearly defined. The group is not a blend of persons, or an amalgamation: each person has their own boundaries. One of the main ways a person defines herself in the network is by establishing expectations for behaviour, making clear what behaviours she will accept from others. “I am happy to help you with that, but not if you bring it to me at the last minute.” “I can accept that you’re angry, but not that you’re insulting.” That sort of thing. These personal boundaries define your presence in the ‘family system’. This is what we mean by ‘self-definition’.

A parent’s relationship to his young child is a special: children are not clearly defined or differentiated from their family yet. That self-defining is in process, but meanwhile the personality of the parents must extend a bit and kind of ‘cover’ the whole family. The expectation-setting thing is pretty unequal while the child is a child. The parent does the bulk of the boundary-setting, and the child learns the boundaries. (Of course it still goes both ways, but the thing is weighted). Self-defining in parenting means a fair bit of family-defining: setting the expectations for the whole household.  A lot of “here is how we do things in our family”, and “Here is what I/we expect of you.”

I am going to do a lot of things for you, but I will not do everything and leave you to be idle.

We accept that you will talk to your brother in strange and unpredictable ways, but we will not accept you being mean to him

You need to brush your teeth at night

Where necessary these boundaries will be enforced with action.

(This extension of the parents’ personality and boundaries would gradually withdraw as the child grows and self-defines.)

All this means that parents have an important role in communicating expectations to their children.

(Interestingly, you can see Jesus taking this approach in a different context, in the sermon on the mount. ‘Here are the behaviours expected of those who want to participate in the kingdom of God.’ Jesus calmly and clearly outlines the expectations in the new family system he is building. Jesus is a very self-defined presence.)

Now here’s the thing to notice: your parental communication, in almost every case, comes with a massive amount of authority. Plenty of authority. More than enough for the normal child to be able to learn to comply. All self-defining is powerful, but yours as a parent is overwhelmingly powerful.

It doesn’t matter whether the expectation is nice or nasty, wise or unwise. As long as it’s bearable, and effectively communicated, the child will almost certainly learn to comply. Because she is in a position of little power and great trust towards her parents. In fact, children are very interested and keen to learn ‘how things are done around here.’ Healthy children have a natural instinct to fit in.

This is worth emphasising because so many parents feel that the big problem in their home is about authority. “They don’t respect my authority. They don’t do what they’re told.” This is a big source of stress in some households. Many parents I know feel powerless. But it’s unrealistic: if you are the parent, even with a teenager, nearly all the power rests with you.

Have you ever heard a parent yelling at their kids? Or threatening them? Most likely there is a parent who’s feeling insecure about their authority. They’re trying to beef it up with scary volume, or scary ultimatums. And this parental insecurity routinely leads to stress-injecting behaviours from parents. Like yelling.

But authority is not the issue. If you are a parent you probably have heaps of authority.

Self-definition is the issue.

I have found, both in parenting and in school teaching, that children often did not do what I wanted them to. And my natural reaction was to feel that my authority was being flouted. However, I have noticed that 9 times out of 10, if I take the trouble to explain my expectations more clearly, the child will comply.

In other words, what I thought was an authority issue, a problem of rebellion, was actually a problem of communication. I had not done a good job at establishing expectations, in that situation. I was the teacher, or the parent, it was my job to define those boundaries. I was supposed to be a self-defined presence. But I hadn’t done a good job. The problem wasn’t with the kids: it was with me.

Kids respond well to effective, clear communication. They like to know the expectations, the rules. They like routine. They like to know what to expect, and what the contingencies are. They especially take this well from their parents, because they trust and love you so much. They want to feel they are part of your family system.

You can test this out. Here’s how:

Next time your child’s behaviour is a problem, and you’re getting hot under the collar, try this: stop for a moment, before you react. Work out a form of words to explain to your child what your expectations are of them at that point. Deliberately avoid any ‘beefing up authority’ techniques like raised voice or threats. Get your child’s attention (good luck!) Say the words to your child. Tell them what you expect of them here. Say it more quietly and gently than usual, make it sound friendly and casual, just to prove the point to yourself: you have the authority already. 

Try this experiment ten times. See how many times it helps. You may be surprised.

There is more to parenting than this, and this may not always work with your hyperactive two year old. But according to family systems theory, it should be an important step towards low-stress parenting: becoming confident in the power of your self-defined presence.

Low-stress parenting

Posted: July 8, 2013 by J in Pastoral issues

I’ve been quite influenced by family systems theory (FST), I’ve found it a helpful tool for understanding social situations and for knowing how to achieve positive change in relationships and groups. Lately I’ve been thinking about how it  applies to families themselves.

One of the most powerful insights FST offers into social networks is that stress is an important factor to be considered. Stress is a negative commodity that can be shared around, amplified, guarded against, etc in relational networks such as families. Pumping up the stress levels in a group is generally destructive. But FST encourages what it calls non-anxious presence: where a person stays engaged in the relational set, has clearly defined boundaries, and stays calm about it all. This calm is a big factor in achieving change in the network. When the others in the group realise that you are not going to apologise for who you are, that you are willing to put up with temporary conflict or disagreement and not be intimidated or manipulated into backing down – when that becomes clear, the whole network will readjust itself around you until it reaches a new equilibrium. Non-anxious presence is a powerful agent for change in family systems.

I think you find an awareness of these issues in Scripture, just using different terminology. In particular the important biblical idea of ‘peace’ (Hebrew shalom), while a complex concept, certainly includes the sense of ‘low stress situation’. And Scripture repeatedly encourages us to aim for peace in relationships:

Seek peace, and pursue it.

The effect of righteousness will be peace,
and the result of righteousness, quietness
A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger. 

Blessed are the peacemakers

So far as it depends on you, live at peace with all people

These passages are teaching us to conduct ourselves in a way that lowers the emotional temperature in heated situations. In other words, to think about issues relating to stress.

So I want to think about how the above insights from FST about stress might help in parenting. No doubt this has been done better elsewhere, but I haven’t seen it, so let me know if so, and meanwhile I’ll have a go here.

Here’s a proposition for you:

if parents can identify key areas of heightened stress in their family life, and practice being a non-anxious presence at those points in particular, they should achieve maximum change in the family with minimal effort.

Sound simple? Yes, simple, but maybe not easy! Let’s make a start.

Step one would be to become sensitised to the issue of stressNot everyone is! Sometimes we can be yelling at our family and still not notice that we are stressed, or that we are injecting stress into the system. In fact, some people live with such constant stress in the home, that they have trouble noticing it at all. But it still has its destructive effects! And all the more because it is allowed to do its work unchecked.

So we need to start looking out for this. When are my children stressed in the home? When is my husband/wife stressed? What are the signs? What do they do when they are stressed? And the hardest one to notice: When am stressed? What are the signs of that? What do I do at those times?

Don’t worry for the moment about causes. It’s enough to start by noticing the presence of the thing: of stress in your family system.

Before too long you should be able to come up with a top five of stress situations in your family life. Here are some for my family:

  • Leaving for school in the mornings – last 15 minutes
  • Meal times
  • Bedtimes
  • Before guests arrive – last 30 minutes
  • Transitions in general
  • Administering discipline

Ok I got six. We have plenty to choose from around here!