When People Around You are Hurting – Coping with Others Pain in 2020

Last week we talked about tips for managing our own ongoing mental load from COVID-19. This week we are going to address a different part of the experience — ways we can cope with continually witnessing the pain, loss or challenge of others.

To frame this, I will share that I recently had an odd experience. On Monday, just before bed, I received several messages in a row about the impact of COVID on people and a community I love. It was hard, and sad, to hear about even closer impact from this virus. Several hours later I woke up, teetering on the edge of a panic attack. I recognized it because I have felt that way exactly one other time in my life, when my infant daughter was gravely ill. That comparison alone was enough to encourage me share this information with you.

For reference, I am not typically an anxious person. I offer that for two reasons: 1) Don’t discount the impact of repeated exposure to loss, trauma and/or pain just because you happen to be a chill person. Everyone has a limit. And, 2) if you are someone who does struggle with anxiety, please know that this year you are dealing with more than usual. Please don’t be hard on yourself if you are having more difficulty. You’re not living in the same world you were.

There is a lot of pain around us, both on a global scale and in our own back yards. Even if everything in your immediate experience is going fairly well, many of us who are empaths can feel overwhelmed by the pain of others. Feeling overwhelmed, or even secondary trauma (typically associated with healthcare professionals) is not out of the realm of possibility in the weirdness that is 2020. If you are having difficulty staying centered in this particularly painful year, here are some tips for managing the pain of others’ experiences.

Ground Yourself: Part of why we have difficulty witnessing other people’s pain is, at our core, it feels threatening to us. Even if we don’t recognize it explicitly, our brains are considering, “What if this happens to me?” If you begin to feel overwhelmed by another’s story or pain, sensory and situational grounding can be really helpful. Saying things like, “I am in a safe place” “I know how to get help if I need it” and keying into your five senses can reorient you to your current, safe experience.

Recognize & Set Your Limits: If you are someone who is particularly sensitive to others’ pain, you will need to limit what you take in. I cannot safely read, watch or witness what lots of other people can. I evaluate carefully what I have coming up or what time of day it is (i.e. not before bedtime) if I am going to do or see something that is harsh. Obviously, we cannot avoid knowing or hearing about other’s pain (nor should we, see below) but there’s no medal for taking on every article, news report, or friend’s need. You are not a limitless vessel of giving, so don’t try to be.

Reframe Your Response/Responsibility: I actually wrote about this one in last week’s Instagram post. As people of faith, we must remember that we do not bear witness to pain alone. Rather than shouldering the experience on our own, we share it with Jesus. It is our chance to share in His heart for His people — and remember that we are not in charge of fixing it alone. It’s way less intense when we encounter pain with support, rather than on our own. “A burden shared is a burden halved.” ~ T.A. Webb

Ride the Fear Wave: In last week’s post, I offered “ride the grief wave” as a way to manage your own losses. This concept is similar, but associated with the fear that can come from the many threats and destruction we are watching others encounter time and again. Whether it’s just a little wave of anxiety or a full-fledged panic attack, it’s going to feel awful. And, that recognition is probably the most important place to start. “This feels awful — and, I won’t always feel this way.” Fear and panic attacks typically resolve faster when you don’t fight them. Rather, tune into your breath, close your eyes, and ride the thing out. Exactly as I had to do in the middle of the night this week.

My dear readers, this time we are living through is so unique. Unlike the usual pattern of life where individuals have hard seasons, we are encountering one collectively. That requires us to not only manage our own pain, but also possibly cope with our ongoing witness to one another’s difficulties. Be kind to yourselves, and forthright about how hard this is. God is close to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18), so I imagine He is hugging every one of us now. Thank goodness. We are able to love each other better when we aren’t trying to do it alone.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash, used with permission

Managing the Ongoing Mental Load of COVID-19

Way back in the spring when we first began experiencing some mental distress from this pandemic, we talked about some tips. Now that this experience is creeping in on some of our most sacred spaces (school year, holidays) I figured it might be helpful to swing back for some reminders and adjustments to help manage the long-haul we are facing. Here are five tips for managing some of the mental load associated with COVID-19.

Anne Rulo Managing the Ongoing Mental Load of COVID-19

5 Tips for Managing the Ongoing Mental Load of COVID-19

Control Your Controllables: There’s a lot of things happening right now that we can’t control. Everyday, you or someone you know might end up with this virus or get quarantined. We’ve got elections coming that are probably going to be a virtual poo-storm of negativity. And, (enter my own tears) it’s becoming ever clearer that our usual holiday traditions may not happen. So, when I say control your controllables, think about things that are close to you. Increase your creature comforts. Enjoy your tea. Savor your warm shower. Try to make your workspace comfy. Get some sleep. Those things may sound unimportant in light of what we are facing, but we have to give our bodies a chance to say “ahhhh” in order to combat the hyperarousal of our current situation. Even feeling in control of a few things can help you cope with a bunch of stuff that’s not.

Don’t Be a Hero: Say it louder for the people in the back, “You don’t have to operate at the same level during a pandemic as you did before.” If you want to accomplish some goals, add some activities or make an improvement, have at it. But, if you are being driven by some idealistic notion of what you “should” be doing? Let that nonsense go. If I were counseling someone who was going through grief/difficulty/trauma, I would never encourage them to up their game. Instead, I would encourage them to take care of themselves and figure out what their current emotional bandwidth can handle. Just making it each day is fine folks.

Ride Each Grief Wave: The holiday you didn’t think would get messed with? The sport or conference you didn’t think would get cancelled? The birthday, celebration, or significant moment you thought was going to clear this pandemic? It might not. You are not supposed to get “used” to this. You are not winning if loss doesn’t affect you. Your job is to honor your heart and mind by acknowledging the pain of losing something and grieve it. It’s okay to let some tears fall. You will find a way forward, again and again. Remember, ignored grief doesn’t go away. Far better to deal with it than let it pile up.

Speak Strength: I’m going to get serious for a minute. We lost another one. Another precious, teenage soul in the middle of our country who took his life. I don’t know if it was related to the stress of COVID. But, I do know this report from the CDC says that youth suicide rates have increased by over 50% in the last decade. We have to be speaking a narrative of strength and resilience folks, pandemic or no. I am not suggesting to be Susie Sunshine when things are hard. But, we have to remind ourselves this will end. There is hope to live for and we are capable of figuring out difficult challenges. The narrative so many people are hearing says the world is a dumpster fire not worth staying in. Tell them, and tell yourself, that we can do this and they are worth it.

Shrink Your Mental Bubble: Okay, last one, super practical. If thinking about the future (next year, next week, uh, tomorrow) is stressing you out, try being present. Anxiety often develops from trying to control stuff that is either out of our control or in the future. Even doing more than one thing at a time can increase the stress of our mental load. If we can stay present doing one thing at a time and only think as far as is comfortable (like, I should go get my kids from school in the next hour) it can be very calming and centering. Trust your lists and your calendars to help you as the day goes on. You don’t need to be constantly mentally running through everything that is coming. It’s going to come anyway, just meet it when it arrives.

Alrighty folks, 2020 is a trip. It’s super hard in so many ways but it is also life-giving when I see the way humanity rises up, survives, and loves each other. Be kind to yourself, give hope to others, and be the light that will eventually help illuminate the end of this very weird tunnel. Much love to you all.

Photo by Luis Galvez on Unsplash, used with permission

Embrace Your Gifts

Writing over at The Glorious Table today on the internal and external ways God equips us for our work. See preview below or go to The Glorious Table here.

I want to take this opportunity to admit something I am jealous of: skills. Specifically, handyman skills. The kind of skills that enable you to fix things—when your toilet breaks or you need a picture hung, want a new fan or your oil changed, you just do it. All by yourself! You see something on HGTV and create it. The sink stops up, so you bust out the wrench and a bucket, and voilà! You’ve saved yourself $100! It all just seems so darn efficient to me.

Alas, I am not a handy person, although I make a valiant effort. In my garage I have my own drill, an assortment of tools and fasteners, and a stud finder that’s pretty cool. But that’s about where it ends. I have the tools, but I just don’t have the mindset for it. Behind each of the pictures I hung with my fancy drill, there are no less than three to four “practice” holes. I repainted my kitchen cabinets, but I definitely cut corners on the whole sanding thing. I may or may not have scared my husband a few years ago when I threw a proper fit on our back porch because I couldn’t figure out how to attach a gate to the top of our steps. No matter how much I want to be, or try to be, a skilled handywoman, I’m missing some of the necessary tools― and I don’t mean the physical ones. Some people just have the “gift” for this kind of work.

What Are Spiritual Gifts?

When we talk about “gifting” in the faith, we usually are taught from a couple lists found in the new Testament, namely 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. By definition, spiritual gifts are given to us by God to use in the service of others and to glorify him. A quick search for “spiritual gifts” give us words like hospitalityhealingleadershipprophecyservicewisdom, and administration. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to use surveys and studies to help discern my own spiritual gifts. It is by studying and understanding these Scriptures and their application that we learn how to best serve in the ways we are designed.

Today, I want to take us one step further in our study of giftings. It’s a step into the past. Have you ever looked at the way God equipped people with gifts in the Old Testament? He did it quite a bit when he was calling people to use their gifts for the building of the tabernacle. It’s such a cool lesson.

To read the full post go to The Glorious Table here.

Permission to “Pester” God

I have a niece named Rose. She is three. And she recently taught me a wonderful lesson about persistent prayer.

You see, Rose is what you might call a chatterbox. More accurately, she is a laser-focused chatterbox. I have never met a child who knows more clearly what she wants and advocates incessantly to get it. As an example, this past summer Rose came to visit while we put on a youth football camp. At the end of each session, each camper got a popsicle. And Miss Rose wanted a popsicle. Specifically, she wanted a blue popsicle.

“Aunt Anne? May I have a blue popsicle?”
“Aunt Anne? I want a blue popsicle.”
“Aunt Anne? Is it time for popsicles? I want a blue one.”

The problem with the popsicle situation was that I had to make sure each camper had one before I could get one to her. It was never a question of if I was going to provide for her, it was simply a matter of when. And so it continued…

“Aunt Anne? Did everybody get their popsicles?”
“Aunt Anne? You promised me a popsicle.”
“Aunt Anne? I’m ready for my blue popsicle.”

As I tell the story, it feels like the kind of situation where you could get really irritated with little Rose. But that day, something was different about how she was asking. Rather than panicking about what she wanted (which I have certainly seen her do), this time she was calm. She was not asking out of fear. Instead, she seemed to be asking from a position of trust. She knew I was the holder of the popsicle and had the power to give it to her. And, she knew she could not get it herself. Although the promise had not yet arrived, she kept asking, confidently believing it was coming.

Rose’s approach that day challenged how I think about approaching God with requests. Her persistence was high. Her inhibitions were low. And her confidence? It was absolutely unshakable. That, I thought, is what it looks like to pray with “faith like a child.”

My dear friends, my invitation today is to resist the urge to “adult” so much in our prayer lives. Frankly, sometimes we just think too much. Rather than worrying about whether we are asking too much or too often, may we instead throw off our inhibitions and “approach the throne of grace with confidence” as often as we need (Hebrews 4:16, NIV). Remember, asking of God is not pestering Him, it is honoring Him. Admitting that which we cannot do on our own is worship.

So, keep coming to Him. No matter how many times you make a request, it is never too many. In fact, sometimes our greatest act of faith is continuing to ask, having “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1, NIV).

Remember, child of God, He loves to hear from you.

“Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.'” Matthew 19:14, NIV

“Be persistent in prayer, and keep alert as you pray, giving thanks to God.” Colossians 4:2, GNT

Photo by Camylla Battani on Unsplash

When (Not If) Mental Health & Sports Collide

It is my privilege to continue to write for Friday Night Wives. I appreciate their willingness to acknowledge the importance of mental health and sport.

We are entering such an interesting time in sports.

In a country that thrives on the yearly routine of sport seasons, instead we are facing starts and stops, and even the full elimination of seasons at the high school and college level.

As a coach’s wife who has lived this rhythm for almost two decades, facing this change is unsettling.

However, as a therapist who has had a front row seat to the stressors of players and coaches, the impact this could have feels potentially even more threatening.

In nearly 20 years as a coaching family, we have seen up close the mental health challenges that face many athletes and coaches. The grit and resilience athletes learn sometimes bleed over, becoming more of the mental and emotional narrative than is healthy.

And coaches (who may frankly need to win to keep their jobs) feel the pressure, too.

The pressure to keep going, never quit, sacrifice for the team, the game, the mission, and the family.

The sport becomes the identity. And, for some, it gets to be too much.

These are stories we hear every year —

Coaches developing chronic panic attacks.

Players suffering from depression or anxiety.

Coaches becoming physically ill due to mental distress.

Coaches and players struggling to navigate online criticism.

Players who cut.

Players who take their lives.

This may sound intense but they are not isolated instances and they are not once-in-a-career situations. This is reality. Mental health issues are not something that only happens to “other” people and “other” programs. It happens for all of us.

To read this article in full go to Friday Night Wives here.

So, Laugh

This month I had the privilege of writing for our church women’s ministry. I love these women. I am grateful I get to write for them. I was glad for the opportunity to encourage them to laugh in the weirdness that is 2020. Read a preview below or link here for the full article.

This LP Women’s blog is coming to you in the month when we start school. In 2020. During a global pandemic. I know, we are all tired of thinking about it. We are all tired of hearing about it. We are all super tired of not knowing how to discern truth and wisdom from all the noise. And sometimes, we just want to throw our hands up and say, “Whatever! I’m not in control anyway!” And then, give a great big hearty laugh in the face of it all.

Turns out, I’m gonna permit you to do just that. Straight. From. Scripture.

As I prayed about what to share with you girls this month, nothing was surfacing. I just kept thinking through the distress I have heard from friends. The worry from teachers. The desire to do the right thing but having little to no way of knowing exactly what that is. The daunting approach of the school year and all that it may mean for us and our kiddos. I thought about how the rabbit hole of 2020 is deep, and it doesn’t take much to lose ourselves in it — because we have no idea what is coming. And that’s when it surfaced:

“…she can laugh at the days to come.” Proverbs 31:25, NIV

Really, Lord? The Proverbs 31 woman? That’s what you’re giving me? The lady who has it all together and makes her clothes? The super-productive lady who has a great marriage, children who praise her, and well-toned arms on top of it? Oh no. I don’t think she’s quite what we need right now. We are in a mess!

No, my child. I don’t need you to compare yourself to her. I need you to hear her laugh.

Laugh. My dear sisters, in this blog we have promised to share with you what can happen in our lives when we put Jesus first. There are so many things we could focus on but today, we are going to focus on the idea that when we put Jesus first, we put ourselves in a position to think happily about the future even when things are a mess. Like they are right now.

To read this complete article go to LP Women’s Ministry here.

A Practice for Ending Well, From a Mom Who Didn’t

When I was pregnant with my second child, I didn’t know she was going to be my last child. I don’t know why, I just assumed we would have three. Or four. So, when the doctor saw my blood pressure two weeks before her due date and said, “Um, you’re gonna’ have a baby today” I immediately went into planning mode. Call the husband. Alert the grandparents. Drive swiftly and safely from the doctor’s office to the hospital because, we have a task to get done here people! We need to produce a human, stat!

Cue several weeks later as I held that baby girl and started to get the first inkling that maybe this was the last time. The last time I would be pregnant. The last time we would plan for a new person into our lives. And particularly, the last time I would know what it feels like to be just me and her — and I got so sad.

I wasn’t especially sad about not having more kids. And, I wasn’t sad about this being my last baby. (I am SO not a baby person.) But, I was sad about how it all ended. Because I didn’t end it intentionally. That’s what really broke me.

For weeks to come, I kept thinking about driving so quickly to that hospital parking lot. How I rushed about, grabbing my wallet, phone, and hopping out of the car. How I hustled into my gown, efficiently offering all my insurance cards and medical information. I mean, I got the job done. But, I totally and completely forgot to be present in what was happening.

“Thirty seconds” I kept telling myself as I rocked her. If I had just taken thirty seconds in that parking lot to pause, breathe, place my hands on my belly and say, “Here we go, baby girl. I love you. And, I have loved our time together.” That’s all it would have taken.

Anne Rulo A Practice for Ending Well from a Mom Who Didn't

Fast-forward five years and I’m facing that old temptation again. That baby girl is now headed to kindergarten and I see it coming. The getting dressed. The fixing hair. The making sure we have all the supplies and the 8:00am arrival time. And me, having efficiently checked all the boxes and driving away in tears, “Thirty seconds.” If I had just taken thirty seconds.

Well, this is the beauty of life my friends. We are adaptable, blessed with the ability to allow our past behavior to inform, and improve, our future behavior. The way I rushed through my baby girl’s birth is not a loss. Instead, it is the “gift of sadness” that teaches me not to rush like that again. It is this sadness that has taught me how to end things better.

This is my message to all of you who are coming up on the end of a thing. (Which is, of course, always the beginning of another thing.) Whether your baby is going off to kindergarten, starting their senior year, or you are simply transitioning out of corona-summer-weirdness, do it intentionally.

Pause.

It doesn’t need to take long. It doesn’t have to be a ceremony or party. Ending well is simply a space you create to offer homage to the thing that was, and give permission to the thing that will be. As you wake. In the car. In the parking lot before the tasks of the day begin. A practice that honors each season of life so we don’t get stuck in one, and gives us the gift of moving into the next.

My baby girl. My last that I did not know would be my last. This time we are going to pause, together. I will hold you like I should have all those years ago and we will say thank you for these five years together. We will close this chapter intentionally, and we will open the next together. It has been my privilege and honor to be your Mom. On to the next.

*If this post about intentional transitions has resonated with you, please know that I have recently published a free back-to-school devotional that is available for download right here on my website. Please share this post and/or this offer with anyone you think may be blessed by this way to enter the 2020 school year. Click here for your free copy.

The “Worried Hustle”

This month, I have two major life changes looming. The first comes every year as my husband begins football season. It is bittersweet because we love football but, it is also hard because we know we won’t see him much. And the other? It’s my baby. My youngest child that I didn’t know was going to be my youngest child is going to kindergarten and that is bittersweet too — like, with a great big capital B.

However, the other thing we are facing is that this year’s transitions are happening in the swirling vortex of coronavirus weirdness. Rather than the normal hustle of getting ready for the school year, we are planning for multiple school years. The one that happens, the part-time version, the one that doesn’t happen. And frankly, football might be the same. We just simply don’t know. So, in order to “be prepared” I’ve been hustling around mentally and physically, trying to responsibly anticipate all the eventualities.

Oops. Nope. Reality check. I’ve been hustling around because it lets me avoid difficult feelings and appear like I’m in control. Ah, yes. There’s the truth. (Sigh.)

Anne Rulo The "Worried Hustle"

You see, worry is a funny little motivator. Nobody likes to feel anxious, so we tend to approach worry in a couple different ways. One is to simply avoid whatever it is we are worried about. Project you don’t want at work? Take a sick day. Challenging relationship? Avoid the family gathering. Laundry piling up? Close the door. I-don’t-see-you-laundry.

But the other option? It’s sneakier. It’s what I call “the worried hustle”. The worried hustle is when we transfer all of our difficult feelings about upcoming challenges and transitions and push them into preparing so we feel better. If I’m busy preparing then I must be very responsible and very on top of things. Good job self. You are prepared for all that might come. You are not sad or worried, you are in control. You are fine. Everything is fine. It’s all fine.

Let me be clear here. Preparation is not a bad thing. It is appropriate and responsible to do the best we can with the information we have. What is a problem is when we put all of our energy into that preparation and bypass how we are feeling. It is a disservice to ourselves if we don’t stop and use some of our time to prepare our hearts as well. Remember, our feelings don’t like to be ignored and will just pop up some other way if we don’t pay attention to them.

So, to that end, here are some very practical suggestions for remaining present with your feelings in the middle of seasons of preparation and busyness:

  • When you are running errands (either out and about or between websites), stop for 5-10 seconds and be still. Acknowledge how you are feeling. Breathe. Stay put until the adrenaline slows and remind yourself that you are as important as the task.
  • When busyness and preparation start to feel overwhelming, ground yourself through your senses. It might sound cheesy but I stop and smell candles at stores, feel fun fabrics, or look at something pretty. I invest in my enjoyment and then move on.
  • Know your “buried emotion” cues. I have three big ones. Eye twitches, forgetting words and (cue embarrassment) cursing in my head. If I can’t think of a word I need while my eye is twitching at the *$%&^ cart in my way, I know I need to check on something other than my to-do list.
  • Put words like “grieve” “journal” “cry” “feel” and “pray” on your list. Some of us are so deeply programmed as responsible preparation people that we have to remind ourselves in this way. Of course we should engage with our feelings if they come organically, but sometimes they don’t, especially if we are busy. Scheduled grieving/feeling/internal processing can be just as valuable.
  • Tell someone. I have several people in my life who I tell when I’m avoiding feelings. It will be something like, “I know I need to grieve my daughter going to kindergarten” or “I really need to be present with you this last weekend before football”. Just acknowledging what’s needed helps me get there. It’s a form of accountability and it helps you love yourself well and helps others love you too.

Okay, here’s to you fellow responsible preparers and avoiders of emotion. I am proud of you. If you’ve read this far you’ve invested in your heart today and that is so very valuable. As you prepare for whatever may lie ahead, remember that attending to your heart and emotions is just as important as your tasks and physical preparation. We want to go forward whole and self-aware, responsible not only in our work but also for the vessel we’ve been given. May you be blessed by attending to it all.

Photo by Andy Beales on Unsplash used with permission

Mental Health & Chicken Pot Pie

One of the handful of meals I make is chicken pot pie. On Wednesdays. Always. So, thus it was, on December 12th, 2018 I was making just such a pie, pulling it out of the oven to feed my children — when this happened.

In a move I’ve executed countless times (because for real, always chicken pot pie on Wednesdays) I grabbed that dish with its bubbling golden crust — and missed. Or more accurately, hit. I caught the edge of the dish on the edge of the stove top causing the entire thing to flip violently out of my hand where it came to rest upside down, half on the inside of the oven, half on the open door.

Anne Rulo Mental Health & Chicken Pot Pie

It was AWFUL. Chicken pot pie goo went everywhere. Inside the (still 400° oven), on the door seeping into the viewing window, dripping through the crack into the broiler drawer and onto the floor below. I stared at the decimated pie, my children stared at me. Now what?

The only option I had was to clean, obviously. But this was such a complicated and invasive mess that I had to disassemble the oven. It’s amazing how many pieces, crevices and screws there are to an oven, particularly an oven as old as this one. It took a long time, a lot of elbow grease, a few tears and a LOT of patience but eventually, it all finally got clean and reassembled.

I’ve thought a lot about that experience since 2018. At least once a week on Wednesdays for sure. In fact, it has become somewhat of a parable in my life for what to do when things get messy or need some attention. And, it is a beautiful analogy for mental wellness practices or even attending therapy. So, to that end (and because I love to make meaning out of disasters) here is how chicken pot pie and therapy go together. Enjoy.

  • If there is a mess in your life you can ignore it, but it will not clean itself. Fair warning, if left for too long, it may start to stink up the place.
  • It doesn’t matter if you do the work yourself, YouTube some help or hire a professional. Just start the work.
  • Attending to messes is hard. Often harder than we think. It usually requires more strength and time than we anticipate. You may need chemicals.
  • You are welcome to just clean up the obvious surface issues. That will help. However, you will ultimately feel better if you are willing to take a few things apart and see how far the mess really goes.
  • If you do take things apart, you will probably find more goo than you thought was there. This is okay. It doesn’t mean you are extra messed up. It means you are brave. Be willing to clean that stuff up too.
  • When you are disassembling, you will probably reach a point where things feel so torn up that you don’t know how they will ever come back together again. Stay the course. They will come back together. It just takes time.
  • Once you have done the hard work, reassembled and recovered, you will probably find yourself plus or minus a screw or two. No one knows why or where these go. It will make you realize that everyone is a few screws off. Realizing this will let you love yourself and others better, and with more grace.
  • Facing the challenge of working through one mess does not exempt you from future messes. The next one might be a pizza or a casserole, but rest assured, as long as we keep living messes will happen. The point is to keep cooking, enjoy the dishes that come out well and clean up the ones that don’t.

Be brave fellow soldiers. This life is a messy, delicious, crazy experiment and occasionally we are going to have some spills. Remember, no oven is too old or too messy to work on as long as it still functions. You’re so, so worth it.

Parenting Hack: Why vs. When

Every once in a while I come across a simple adjustment in my parenting that makes a big difference. The last one I shared with you was “The Knowledge Question” way back in February. So, it appears as though these epiphanies are few and far between. But you know what? Parenting is hard and I’ll take it when it comes. Here’s the latest one I discovered.

I’ll give you a scenario to help frame the strategy. Your four-year-old has decided he can pour his own milk into the cereal bowl. On a counter level with his eyeballs. From the full gallon of milk you just purchased from the store. You arrive just as the laws of physics make the gallon too heavy, the reach too high, and the over-full bowl of cereal soaked in milk go crashing to the floor. Little mister looks up at you. What do you do?

Anne Rulo Parenting Hack: Why vs. When

I’ll be candid. In this scenario, or any other that involves childhood disaster, I have both exceled and failed many times over. Handling it well is usually tied to whether I am tired or not, which is a dicey thing to rely on when you are parenting. When I am doing well I parent well, offer comfort, encourage learning through mistakes, etc. When I am wrung out I get frustrated, shame, and ask “why” they did what they did. Obviously, one strategy empowers my kid and makes me feel like a hero. The other shames/shuts down my kid and makes me feel like junk. I recognized that I needed a simple cue that would help me respond appropriately even if I was totally worn out or emotionally heightened.

Like many learning opportunities, it was from studying my “failures” that a clue for the solution popped out. When I handled the situation poorly, I noticed that my sentences started with “why”. I mean, I said why a lot. But, when I handled them well, I started sentences with “when”. So, what’s going on there?

“Why did you put the cereal bowl up so high?” “Why didn’t you ask for Mommy’s help?” “Why did you fill it up so much?” “Why didn’t you wait?”

Why. When we start with why, what we are actually starting with is judgment. We’re not really asking for information. Instead, we are offering an assessment that what the other person chose to do was not just wrong, it was…well, dumb. Using why in this way activates the emotional part of our brains where we scramble for control and are much more likely to bypass kindness to make ourselves feel better.

“When you put the cereal bowl up high, it is hard to reach. Let’s try the table next time.”
“When you are little it’s hard to do some things. Let’s ask Mommy for help next time.”
“When the cereal is so high, it is easier to overflow the bowl. Can you put less in next time?”

When. Now, I am sure there are ways to mess up this up too, but it is much harder. The reason for this is starting with “when” activates the logical part of our brain. The calmer part of our brain. It is harder to stay emotionally keyed up when we have to think through what comes after “when” because what comes after “when” is more likely to be instruction or education. Starting with “when” is a way to focus on a sequence of events rather than the judgment of why and thus space ourselves out from the emotion of the moment.

Okay. I know we talked about parenting today, and I hope it is helpful. But just as an aside, I suspect why vs. when may also be helpful in our grown up lives as well. It is hard to be kind when we are judging. I guess that’s probably a good part of why God asks us not to do it.

Let’s be when people over why people to be kind people. Learning is always a better option than shame. Much love to you all.

Photo by Andriyko Podilnyk on Unsplash used with permission