Rules of Engagement

shadow talk

Have you noticed that disagreements with your child quickly get out of control as they seem to masterfully use your words to make their point and pull in all other unrelated issues like a giant magnet? You become exhausted as you parry and thrust to get your point across and win the argument as you rightfully should as the grown up.


Lay some ground rules. Really. If you know you are about to have a discussion and you have very different opinions on the matter, stop and give the rules. It will keep you both focused on what the goal of the discussion and hopefully keep you both focused on problem solving.


I’m not a boxing fan, but I’ve watched enough old movies where I’ve seen them go over the rules of a fair fight before beginning the match.


Rule #1: We both only get to say how “I” feel. We can say,

“I feel like you don’t trust me,”


“ I feel frustrated”


We are not allowed to say what the other person is feeling or thinking, because we don’t know.  We shouldn’t say:

“You don’t trust me!”

“You hate me!”


Rule #2: No Yelling. This is not about domination; this should be about communication and you each getting to say how you feel. When there is yelling involved, it’s a power struggle and you ae both going to be less interested in what the other has to say.


Rule #3: You are both only allowed to say what you will do to contribute to the solution. This is the key. The criticizing, blaming and shaming will not solve any problems and will make the problem worse. Instead, offer what you can do to solve the problem- even if the problem is something your child is or is not doing. Show that you care and you are willing to help. This may take a lot of self-reflection ahead of time as you try to sort out your needs or expectations, and how you can cooperate with your child to get there. It may be that your expectations need to change. You can even tell them that- that would be a conversation starter that will get your child’s attention! Is it a chore? How important is it that the child needs to do the chore, or it just needs to be done? Could you offer to do it with them? Spend some quality time, and maybe show your child some skills to make the task less overwhelming?


Rule #4: Boundaries. If either of you need to walk away, say so and do so. I don’t mean storm off when tension is high, I mean before one of you lose it and regulating yourself isn’t working, say that you need to take a break and talk about this later when you can calm yourself. Make an appointment. Say, “can we try this again in 10 minutes, (or an hour, whatever you need.)” Stop yourself before you say something you will regret.


Everyone has needs, when there is conflict, you need to slow down and talk and find out what each other’s needs are, and how can you both meet those needs.


Remember, discipline is helping a child solve a problem, punishment is causing a child to suffer because he has a problem.

Finger Breathing


One of the most powerful things you can do to regulate your system is to use mindfulness to be aware of the moment and take some deep breaths. If you can recognize that you are in a red zone of negative feelings or better yet, you can recognize that you are approaching a red zone, that is the time to do something to regulate your system. If you are in a red zone, you have a much harder time thinking clearly and putting an event in perspective. You may have negative feelings, but if you are regulated, you can think clearly about what actions are going to best meet your needs.


My kids know all about deep breaths, but I usually have to be a bit creative about helping them take the deep breath. This is a great technique for breathing that I got from author and play therapist, Tracy Turner-Bumberry.


Touch the tips of your index finger and your thumb together and take breath in. Breath out slowly. Move your thumb to your middle finger and take another breath in and breath out slowly. Move to the next finger and the next finger doing the same thing. Then move back through the fingers doing slow mindful breathing. If you or your kids like a formula, this will well for you.


Also note, if you can make the exhale longer than the inhale and drop your shoulders (relaxed muscles) on the exhale it is going to be more effective in facilitating calm and regulation. When we are excited or agitated, we tend to take short breaths that are longer on the inhale. Your body does that to take in oxygen to prepare you to fight or run. So, to relax, you need to do the opposite, let out more breath, to relax your body.


Try it out and then teach it to your kids. If you have a family time where the family talks together, share with them what you learned, and tell them it is a tool to help them calm when they need it.


References:  Turner-Bumberry, Tracy. (2019), 2 4,6, 8 This is How We Regulate! 75 Play Therapy Activities to Increase Mindfulness in Children. PESI Publishing & Media, Eau Claire, WI.

Know Thyself

buddha perspective

I recently did an activity with the parent support group I run. I told the parents to close their eyes and mill around the room. We bumped into each other and laughed and apologized as we blundered around. I then asked them to keep milling around the room with their eyes closed but to imagine that everyone they touch is toxic and the longer they come into contact with someone else the sicker they will become. The milling became filled with tension as we all jerked back at the slightest touch, one person felt his way to another room and stayed there! And then one more time I asked them to imagine that touch was good, warm, connecting and healing. Within a few moments, the whole unseeing group found each other, and we were all connected, holding on and not letting go.

What changed? The circumstance was the same, we were milling around a room with our eyes closed, but we underwent a vast array of emotions in a few minutes. It was how we thought about the situation. When we assigned a thought to the situation, our feelings and actions quickly followed.


Your body also reacts to the feelings and thoughts. If you have good feelings, your body relaxes and releases endorphins and serotonin. Bad feelings are translated as potential danger in your body and your muscles tense, your breathing becomes short. Your body will prepare to fight or run or whatever it needs to do to meet a crisis.


You can only consciously choose your thoughts and actions. But your total behavior of thoughts/feelings/actions and body response is an unconscious choice and your attempt to make the best decision to meet your needs from a circumstance.


If you don’t think you have choices about your thoughts and feelings, there would be no market for counselors or self-help books.


To get your needs met you can either change what you are doing, change what you want or both.


How to change?

First be aware of the different categories in your mind. Get used to categorizing circumstances, thoughts, feelings and actions. Just observe. Don’t try to change them, be aware and gain an understanding of how your mind works.


If you are noticing that you predominately have negative thoughts and feelings with all or certain circumstances, write it down. When do you have positive thoughts and feelings? What is different? Write it down.


When you have been keeping track and journaling about your circumstances, thoughts, feelings and actions for a while, you can start to change what you would like to change to get your needs met better. Is anger and effective way of dealing with whatever circumstance you found your child in? What do you need to stay connected with your child and regulated?  Again, you have direct control over your thoughts and actions. The feelings and body response follow. Often your make a choice of anger because the more vulnerable feeling of loss of control or maybe even culpability are far too uncomfortable, so anger feels like a better choice.


What do you need right now? Safety? Fun? Belonging? Love? Survival? What thoughts, feelings and actions are best going to meet those needs?




The activity was not my own it is from Leonard Scheff.


Further reading on Circumstance/Thoughts/Feelings/Actions can be found here:

Calming Your Child with Body Language

!body language

Take note of your body right now. You know how you are feeling, how does your body show the way you are feeling? Look at someone else in the room, can you tell what their mood is by what their body is doing?


While you are having a conversation or an argument with your words, there is a whole other conversation going on with your bodies. Our thoughts have a whole-body response. We don’t just say we are mad, we stomp and tighten our muscles. If our thoughts are sad, we hunch our shoulders, hang our head and walk slow. If we are excited, we may jump up and down.  Even if we are not in a conversation with someone, or even know the person, our own bodies have a reaction to other people’s body language and mirror without us consciously doing so. Think about watching people in an airport, we smile when we see a family embrace, we glare at someone who is shouting at an employee. We feel our heart tug and wish we could help someone who looks sad.

We all crave to belong and to attune to others, it is one of our basic needs. Our bodies are programmed to attune to others by picking up on body signals and mirroring those signals- mostly without our awareness. This is particularly true of a parent child relationship. A child attunes to a parent’s signals and subconsciously knows when a parent feels safe and not safe.


When your child gets angry, our body mirrors the anger and if we don’t check ourselves, we get angry and louder, and it becomes a power struggle and the only winner will be the one who can dominate.


It is difficult to think when we are angry, so it is hard to rationalize and calm ourselves by thinking our way out of it. That’s called a top down approach, where you try to control your thoughts to change your behaviors. What we can do is use a bottom up approach where we deconstruct the thought, by controlling our body.


By calming your body, you brain will respond and calm as well. Your child’s body will pick up on the signals and deescalate as well as she attunes to the “safe” body language you are portraying. Your goal is to connect with your child, so you can talk about your differences. That cannot be done in a screaming match.



Typically one or both of you will have your legs splayed apart, hands on your hips, firsts clenched or arms crossed. When you spread your legs apart  your body is trying to gain territory and show power. To deescalate the situation, bring your legs in closer together, physically take up less room. Open your arms if they are crossed, this suggests openness instead of being closed off. If your hands are on your hips, that is also a body language that conveys power and intimidation. A curious thing about this stance is that it depends on where your thumbs are. If your thumps are forward, it is a power position. If your thumps are backwards, it conveys curiosity and pondering. Try it. Do you feel different with your hands on your hips with your thumbs forwards and then back? It puts your brain in a different gear without even trying to change your thoughts!


When you are angry your body prepares to meet a crisis, you take short breaths, your muscles tighten, and your blood leaves your extremities as it prepares for whatever it is about to face. You drop into your instinct brain and it is harder to think clearly. You can stop this visceral reaction by taking a slow deep breath, dropping your shoulders and opening your palms facing up. It is actually physically impossible to feel stressed or angry in a relaxed body. So, if nothing else, just remember to drop your shoulders or open your hands when you feel tension rising. Your brain cannot prepare for battle if the body won’t participate and you will be able to stay calm and in your thinking brain and your child will respond.


I’ve actually asked my kids to open their palms when they are talking to me and they are upset and I do likewise. They stop and suspiciously ask why, and I say, “Oh it’s just an experiment, now what were you telling me?” And it works! We mirror each other with the open palms and have a conversation about whatever is bothering them.


Try it

When the Brain isn’t Listening

girl in glass

Remember that old teen rebellion quip- “talk to the hand because the ears aren’t  listening”? Truth.

The brain isn’t listening. It can’t. Not when it is in a threat response.

Let’s have a little science talk about what happens in your body when you are reacting to something that is stressful. Everyone has a range of tolerance of things that go wrong in a normal day. Traffic, misunderstandings, mistakes and conflict cause us to react and bring us to the brink of our tolerance. If something is bad enough that a person has difficulty handling the event, the brain survival mechanisms take over and the body reacts as if it is in danger.


In assessing our behaviors, Psychologist divide the brain into two parts, one that runs on instinct and the other that has higher reasoning skills and problem solving. Each expert has their own name for the two parts of the brain: Dan Siegel calls them the upstairs brain and the downstairs brain. Dr. Bob Rhoton calls them the Hulk brain and the Bruce Banner brain, which I think explains it pretty well. Others call them the lizard brain vs. the wizard brain. When stress levels reach beyond a person’s tolerance, the brain shifts into the “downstairs” brain. The higher reasoning skills are actually shut off and the person does not have access to it. The survival brain is in control and the only thought on the person’s mind is to survive. This is done through fight, flight or freeze- whichever one is going to mean safety. The body responds in kind, muscles tense up, the person takes shallow breathes, the pulse quickens, and blood flow decreases from the extremities so that the vital organs get the blood flow. Normal body functioning is put on hold to deal with the crisis.

The person is fearful, anxious and has extreme emotions. Do you ever feel like your child isn’t listening to you when she is upset? The middle ear muscles literally constrict when the instinct functions of the brain are in control, so you are right, she can’t hear you!


This person is not reasoning, not thinking, and probably isn’t making very good arguments. The survival brain has shut out the thinking brain as the person prioritizes a perceived threat. Now you know that your child is in no real danger when you are arguing with her about her chores, but her brain isn’t logical right now, and she has picked up on something, especially if she has a traumatic past where something has triggered her response where this argument feels like danger.


If you can tell that your child is in an instinct survival brain here are some things you can do. Stop talking, she isn’t listening anyway. Make your voice low and soothing so the constricted middle ear can pick up the tones. Keep your palms open, and your body relaxed. This will deescalate your child’s threat response. She is looking for danger signs but is only seeing you with quiet and peaceable movements. Her body will attune to your body that everything is safe right now. If your child reacts negatively to a soothing touch, do not touch her, back up and give space. Make the environment safe. When she is able to relax physically, her thinking brain will come back online.


Have a talk with your child later about how the brain works and how you both can recognize when the instinct brain is starting to take over so you can take steps to regulate and keep the thinking brain in control.