In his book “Hardwiring Happiness”, author Rick Hanson said for every intimate relationship to thrive, there should be at least five positive interactions over a negative one. As a parent, I used to find this ratio hard to achieve with my children. The number of daily little crises like tantrum, sibling arguing and fighting,… surely beats the number of family vacations every year, picnics at the park or birthday parties every other weekend, and beautiful moments we have together now and then.
I then realized turning such daily situations into opportunities to bond with my kids is therefore important in hardwiring our mutual happiness and strengthening our relationship for the years to come. But what is the way?
So over a year ago, I decided to break the cycle of either being helpless or yelling and forcing when facing with parenting challenges. And I applied brain-based conversations from my profession as a career happiness coach with my then 2-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son. I find myself love my children more and I know they also love me “so much up to the moon and back” as my daughter often says indeed. Moreover, I believe they also develop better the much needed human skills nowadays including EQ as well as thinking ability.
Into my day or well, your day in some way…
Yesterday morning, my three-year-old daughter, Tutti, and I woke up to a bright blue sky, twinkle sunlight and warm spring air outside our window. After her favorite ritual of touching my belly button, Tutti wore a big smile and whispered to my ear, “Now, I am the Mummy and you are the Baby. OK?” The “Mummy” then told the “Baby” story after story, and we giggled.
Besides, my son, Wiki, was still half asleep till Tutti pointed to my belly and announced, “Now you are Mummy and inside your belly, there’s a baby!” Wiki rose up and laughed out loud. My husband followed and we rolled over each other. The next fifteen minutes was non-stop kids’ sliding up and down my husband legs stretched from the bed to the floor. The bedroom was filled with as much laugh and excitement as the sunshine it was bathed in.
Tutti suddenly went to the living room to take her toys. Wiki then told us the grown-ups to cover ourselves with the blanket, his hand holding the door handle so Tutti could only come in when we were totally hidden. Tutti managed to go inside, opening the blanket, seeing my still back and started to cry loudly. She ran straight to her brother’s room and jumped on the bed, weeping in streams of tears. “My brother locked me out and my mom and dad ignored me. How could they do it to me?” She must have thought. I followed her just to be shoved away by her little but powerful hands.
The afternoon before, I picked Tutti up from school. As we strolled back home, she chirped with many short stories about her day, pointing at a helicopter above us or a train passing by in between. I joyfully merged into her world. She was too cute, I thought and kissed her on her two pinky cheeks.
When we were near our place, Tutti wanted to get off the stroller and walked. Once being on the ground, she ran on her ballet shoes and stumbled. With her knees in pain, she cried loudly. I scooped her up and chatted with her till she felt calm again. It was not over, however. When we reached our apartment building, she wanted to press the lift button, but habitually I had pressed it. She was angry and burst crying again, her feet jumping up and down, and her hands beating me on my thighs.
Today morning, Tutti woke up earlier than Wiki and played by herself. She found two balloons and asked me to pump them up for her. I did. And she and I had so much fun playing with the balloons together.
Till fifteen minutes later, a furious roar stopped us. Wiki had arisen from his sleep. “Tutti, give them back to me!” His voice was in full volume, his face red, and he raised his fists, “Those were my balloons! Give them to me!” Tutti shouted back, “No!” And they kept ping-ponging between yes and no for a while racing for louder and louder volumes.
As I chronical my day as a parent, every day is different but the mixture of flavor is more or less the same. My daughter who is super cute, super adorable and super lovely a minute earlier suddenly turns into a furious alien. My caring son who tells me things that melt my heart within moments becomes a wild dinosaur. Our beautiful bonding moments can any time become a choir of arguing, crying and shouting.
Into the brain-based conversations that strenthen the bonding between my children and me
With the powerful tool of brain-based conversations, I enjoy happier relationship with my daughter and son. Here are the principles I often use with my children.
1. Clearing the space first
When I start a coaching session with my clients, we often have a so-called “clearing the space” exercise. The purpose is to help us to be worry free of any other topics and stay focused on the coaching matter. Each side shares the three things in the background of our minds, our feelings towards them and whether we could put them aside for the duration of the session.
The scienctific foundation here, simply explained, is that each of us has Emotion brain and Logic brain. As the amount of energy in our brain is limited, when the Emotion brain is hijacked and hence consumes more energy, the Logic brain has less energy and as a result, cannot do its functions including listening, understanding, seeing options, cooperation, etc.
With children, “clearing the space” means putting them in the right emotional state. Once their emotion is regulated, they will be willing to collaborate. For both of my children, what works is to acknowledge their feelings, go into their “head” and speak what they think. What is often used but never works is to try to explain the situation right away and cover up the problem they see. Often, with my 3-year-old daughter, it’s much more effective. With my 9-year-old son, he wants to be alone some times so he could calm down by himself (well, we have a few coaching conversations about this topic and this is among the solutions he came up with).
In the above situations, here are what I talked to my children:
“Oh, you went into the room. You wanted to see mum and dad. But we covered up and didn’t talk to you. So you feel sad right?”
“You were running and you fell off. The ground is so hard that your leg is painful, right? You fell right here, right? Now the leg hurts huh?”
“You wanted to press the lift. You told mummy so, but mummy has pressed it. Mummy didn’t let you press it and you feel angry right?”
“Oh I am so sorry. Tutti took your balloons and I pumped them up when both of us didn’t ask for your permission while you were sleeping. And you find we don’t respect you and you feel angry right?”
2. Setting the vision and letting them know I’m always by their side
Once the kids feel better as their feelings are acknowledged and their thoughts are understood, their Logic brain will work again and they will start to listen. This is often a good time to set a vision so they see the big picture or the good stuff. And often, the vision for us as a family is love and a happy family.
In the above situations, here are what I talked to my children next:
“I am sorry, honey. I love you and dad loves you. Your brother loves you. Next time, we would keep the door opened and see you OK?”
Well, Tutti still turned away. So I told her, “Do you love mummy?” And she softly said yes. But she didn’t want me to cuddle her. “Now mummy will go outside and when you want mummy to come in, you call mummy ok?” She nodded her head and I knew she was already fine.
“Tutti and I should have asked for your permission. But you were sleeping so we didn’t want to wake up you. But anyway, that should not be the excuse. And you still love your sister and me, don’t you?” I asked.
Well, Wiki was still in frustration. So I told him, “I will leave you alone so you could calm down. Whenever you feel better, I’m just at my desk if you want to talk ok?” Five minutes later, when I was in my room, I heard my husband told Tutti, “Oh, your brother pumps the balloon for you. He loves you so much huh?” And I knew my son was more than OK.
3. Asking the coaching questions
This is the part where the conversation could go into any direction depending on how the child responds. Just like in coaching, I “dance” with my clients. Having said that, there are a few typical question that I often use with my 9-year-old.
First, if the matter is about problem-solving, once he has a clear vision or goal, I would ask him how he would get there. Sometimes, if he says he doesn’t know then I would give some suggestions to trigger his thinking while letting him know such intention.
With the above situation, here is what I would ask my son:
“If you could travel back on a time machine to when you woke up and saw Tutti playing with your balloons, what would you do and say differently so that you still get what you want and show your love to both your sister and me?” or,
“What would a loving, caring and calm brother do?”
Second, if something bad happens, I would ask him reframing questions such as “What are the five worst things that could happen but didn’t happen?”, and “What are the five great things you have that you are not aware of?” or learning questions like “What would you do differently next time?”
Throughout the past 1.5 years, as I gradually master my brain-based conversations with my kids, I find myself have a lot more opportunities to bond with them. I don’t have to look far. As life unfolds, I see every crisis a chance to “happify” us and help my children build inner strengths.
It’s still a journey but now I know that parent-child relationship ratio is not only achievable but also “uplevellable”.
Visit my A Mother 4.0’s Diary for weekly real-life stories of my brain-based conversations with my children, my husband, and others, and how I train my own brain for happiness and positivity through daily situations to better bond with myself, my family and the world.