The Paradox of Strength and Vulnerability

The Paradox of Strength and Vulnerability

November 2, 2020

Several years ago I read the book and watched the movie “Into the Wild”.    It is a true story about an upper middle class boy.   After graduating from college he gave away what was left of his college fund and wandered around the United States.  He told no one where he was going and ended up starving to death in the Alaskan wilderness.  My favorite quote from the movie goes like this, “It is not as important that a man be strong, as it is that he feel strong.”

I knew a boy recently who did not feel strong.  If you looked at him you would not think it. He was a football player, confident, and bigger than most.  Despite outward appearances however he believed that he was weak.  The worst part was not that his strength was being stolen, but that he was giving it away.  A recurring theme from our conversations was how he would beat up anyone who said something bad about his mom.  He was constantly talking about how tough he was.  He listed off the number of fights he had been in and the times he had been suspended from school.  I really liked this boy but was becoming frustrated with his need to portray himself as tough and “manly”.       

I began to realize that although he was strong, athletic, and likeable-he did not feel strong, athletic, or likable.  It appeared to me that he felt weak, awkward, and hated.  His fragile view of self required that he project strength and aggression.  If he were to project what he really believed, that he was weak, awkward, and hated, people might agree with him, and he could not handle that.  So, he built the most “manly” façade he could come up with.  This façade was designed to convince others and himself that he was strong and not to be messed with.     

The Facade of Strength:

1. Is a Self-protective strategy

2. Is built as the result of hurt or lack of safety

3. Does not allow a person to be truly safe or truly known

Unfortunately, it is very common for boys to build a façade of “manliness” designed to keep people from knowing who they are on the inside.  In their book, “Raising Cain”, Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson call this the fortress of solitude.  This façade begins, from a very young age, to isolate boys from emotionally connected relationships.  Boys grow up to be men who can hold long conversations about what is happening in the world of sports.  However, they have a very hard time identifying what is going on inside of themselves.   

I hope that parents will teach their boys what it means to be a man.  We can teach our boys that being a man may include physical strength.  We can teach our boys that being a man also includes emotional strength.  A man of emotional strength is able to look inside himself to acknowledge the good and the bad.  He is also willing to include those he trusts in this inner life.  It is this vulnerability that is a great marker of “constrained power”(meekness).    

Parents can help children develop strength by:

1. Strength develops when a child feels cared for and loved

2. Strength develops through physically and emotionally safe challenges

3. We are strong when we are vulnerable.

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The Power of Outdoor Child Directed Play

The Power of Outdoor Child Directed Play

October 26, 2020

I was born in a small midwestern town and lived in that town until my family moved to Southern California when I was in fourth grade.  I have very fond memories of playing outside with the neighborhood kids for hours at a time.  I remember games like ghost in the graveyard, annie annie over, and freeze tag.  I even remember walking down the road with my friend to fish in the pond that was located in the corn field adjacent to our subdivision.  I returned to visit that same small town several years ago for a friend’s wedding and drove through the old neighborhood.  I expected to see kids running through the neighbor’s back yards and to walk down to the pond in which I had caught my first fish.  I was surprised that the pond was no longer there, as the field had been developed for houses.  More disappointing was the emptiness of the street.  There were no kids outside playing with one another.  Have all the young kids grown up?  Are there no kids left in this neighborhood? 

Several years after this visit when I was working as a therapist for teenagers, I began to get a better understanding of what happened to this neighborhood.  I was talking to a young man and I asked him what he was good at.  He thought for a little while and said, “video games”.  I said, “oh cool, what are some other things you are good at?”  He thought for bit longer this time, and said, “I am only good at video games.”  I was pretty shocked by his belief that he was only good at video games.  He was well liked among his peers, intelligent, handsome, and physically fit.  Yet, the only strength he could come up with was video games.  Since those first days as a counselor I have run into many other young men with a similar view of self. 

I believe that this limited view of self is caused in part by the decrease in outdoor free play for many children today.  A 2004 study by Rhonda Clements at Hofstra University surveyed 830 mothers regarding their level of outdoor play as children and that of their children.  85 percent of the mothers agreed that children today play outside less than children did in years past.  70 percent of the mothers reported playing outside everyday as a child compared to only 31 percent of their children.  The survey found that the number of children playing games with child created rules has dropped from 85 percent of the mothers to 33 percent of their children.  The only outdoor activity that children in the survey did more than their mothers was adult organized youth sports. 

I strongly believe that children, especially boys need to be outside engaging in child created play.  The three main benefits that I see from this type of play are self-confidence, imagination, and social skills.


            There is no better place for a child to test the limits of their abilities than the outdoors.  This could be climbing the ladder to the slide for a young child, making it all the way across the monkey bars for a school aged child, or taking on the older kids in a basketball game for a middle schooler.  These activities are physical, mental, and psychological challenges that push a child just one small step past their current ability.  These small steps over a number of months or years build into a series of successes or failures that allow children to take on the challenges of the future.  


            The great outdoors is filled with opportunity to increase imagination.  This may include the hiding place under the porch stairs used to dig for treasure.  The snake habitat made from a puddle, grass clippings, and rocks, or the delicious mud pies served up to mom and dad.  These child created exercises in make believe are the classroom in which future artists, teachers, engineers, and, doctors hone their skills.  The skills necessary to create new masterpieces, work with the difficult learner, create a bridge or heal disease.

Social Skills:

            Possibly the most important benefit of child created outdoor play are the lessons of how to get a long with others.  Children will argue forever about the rules of a game before it ever begins.  They may even stop in the middle of the game to renegotiate expectations.  The temptation as parents is to stop the bickering, and make the rules for them so they can get on with the play.  Remember though, that the bickering is the point.  The most social learning is taking place during the negotiation.  This is when they are learning to communicate, take turns, and accept another’s point of view. 

Sometimes it seems like we must do more, more, and more for our kids.  I propose you do less.  Cut out a sport or two, scale down the lessons, and stay home a few nights a week while the kids create a world of play in your back yard.  


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How to NOT Talk To Your Teenager About Sex With Author Melissa Hopper

How to NOT Talk To Your Teenager About Sex With Author Melissa Hopper

October 19, 2020

Dr. Mark Vander Ley interviews Melissa Hopper author of "Can We Not Talk".  The Can We (Not) Talk? journaling study is a totally not-awkward way to have meaningful conversations with your teen about the topics that matter. As parents and teens work through the lessons in their workbooks and journal, they will be prepared to have discussions on topics like love, healthy relationships, boundaries, standards, pornography, and more.

Melissa is a homeschooling mother of four and the Director of Community Education at her local pregnancy center.  In her professional life she facilitates conservative and legally compliant sex education to over 6,000 California students per year.  She also offers resources related to parenting, public health, safety and more.  At home Melissa cares for her four children, enjoys spending time with her husband, gardening, road trips, and time in nature.

To find out more information about Melissa and her studies visit Instilled Studies

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The 4 Core Fears of Parenting

The 4 Core Fears of Parenting

October 12, 2020

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 understanding 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 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.


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6 Steps to Forgiving Your Spouse

6 Steps to Forgiving Your Spouse

October 5, 2020

Sometimes in marriage counseling we encounter couples that overcome their demon dialogues, create a new dance of intimacy, and rewrite the story of their relationship.  Yet, just when it appears they will move to a deeper level of connection one partner brings up a seminal incident that they just can’t seem to “let go”.  Susan Johnson describes these hard to let go moments as “relationship traumas” and states that many times they include one partner feeling a profound sense of abandonment.  It may include an overwhelmed husband isolating in his bedroom just after learning about his wife’s cancer diagnosis. Or maybe it involved a wife’s difficulty in showing empathy for the death of her husbands father. 

Susan Johnson offers six steps to forgiveness in these difficult situations

The hurt partner speaks his/her hurt

The hurt partner describes the wound without attacking the other.  The partner may use words like “I felt…alone, abandoned”. This communication is not about the details of the incident but the feelings and experience of the one hurt.  The pain, which in the past had been covered with anger and criticism, is now revealed in honesty and vulnerability.

The injuring partner is present and acknowledges the hurt

The injuring partner remains emotionally present as the hurt partner shares their experience.  The injuring partner now more fully understands how their actions hurt the other.  This new understanding leads to an acknowledgment of hurt and creates the safety needed to move forward.

Partners Risk Vulnerability

Both partners soften towards the other moving from the defensiveness of “you will never hurt me again” to “I think I can trust you now”.  The new position of trust and openness allows for both partners to express emotion surrounding the incident leading to deeper understanding and connection.

Injuring partners take ownership of their mistake

The injuring partner is now able to take full responsibility for how their actions impacted the hurting partner.  This probably includes a heartfelt apology.  The injuring partner is able to communicate deep regret, empathy, validation, and a commitment to “being there” in the future.

Partners discuss their needs now

The next step is for partners to communicate with one another what they need in the present. This will most likely include presence, touch, responsiveness, awareness, and connection.

The new story

The couple is now ready to create a new story surrounding the incident.  The new story describes how the incident damaged trust in the relationship.  It also highlights what led to the demon dialogues.  But, the resolution of the story is shaped by how the couple confronted the pain of the incident and was able to heal through the process of openness, vulnerability, risk, and connection. 


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3 Keys to Restoring Connection With Your Partner

3 Keys to Restoring Connection With Your Partner

September 28, 2020

Find the Bad Guy

This dance occurs when both partners are stuck using attack as a way to protect ones self from feeling vulnerable, alone, or unsafe.  Each partner blames the other for the problem because disconnection has made it unsafe to vulnerably acknowledge ones own responsibility in the problem.  John blames the family’s financial issues on Mary’s irresponsible spending habits, while Mary blames John for not working hard enough to provide for the family.  The pattern is cyclical in that the more one is blamed the more disconnected and unsafe they feel.  The lack of safety puts each partner “on guard” for the attack of the other.  A hypersensitive stance may cause the partners to see threat where there is none.  This leads to more frequent attacks and ever increasing difficulty in resolving conflict.

Protest Polka

The most common pattern encountered in marriage counseling is the pursuer-distancer dynamic or as Susan Johnson calls it the protest polka.  One of the partners protests against the growing disconnection in the marriage by pursuing the other. Many times this pursuit feels more like demanding or criticism to the partner causing them to withdraw.  The more the distancer withdraws the more the pursuer criticizes or protests.  The pursuer is looking for reassurance about questions such as “do you care about me?”, “do I matter to you?”, “am I important” while the distancer is attempting to protect ones self from feelings of inadequacy, not being good enough, and failure.

Freeze and Flee

The final dialogue is one of silence.  Both partners are hunkered down in their respective fox holes and hope is nearly gone.  The pursuer has no more energy to protest and therefore shuts down to protect ones self from hurt and loneliness.  The distancer is finally enjoying some peace but remains disconnected as a way to protect against a sneak attack.  Each partner has tried everything they know to fix the problem but nothing has worked.  They feel frozen, stuck in a dance that brings deeper and deeper hurt; therefore they flee by either leaving the marriage or resigning themselves to a lonely loveless relationship. 



An accessible partner is one that is “there” when reached for.  When feeling alone, scared, and vulnerable we reach out to our loved ones in an attempt to gain comfort and safety.  When a partner is accessible they remain present for their spouse and provide empathy, validation, and compassion.  Although this reaching may come across as anger the responsive spouse views the “reach” as a need driven by hurt and fear.  An accessible spouse sends an implied message of “you are not alone”, “I am here for you” and “we will get through this together”.


A responsive partner is one that is “moved” by the reach of the other.  Sometimes, when we are overwhelmed by someone else’s emotion we hide it, stuff it down, or deny it.  This appears as cold, unresponsive, and distant to a partner in pain.  A responsive partner is able to “feel” the other with a deep understanding of the hurt, loss, and fear.  Understanding ones partner in this way creates a sense of moving toward each other.  The reaching out has worked and the hurting partner experiences reconnection.


An engaged partner is one that has been “moved” by the emotion and pain of his/her partner and stays “in” it.  They are able to maintain the connection with the partner throughout the difficult time.  They do not run away from the powerful emotions, downplay them or seek to minimize them.  An engaged partner is able to feel the emotion while experiencing a safe connection with self and the other. 

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Johnson, S. & Sanderfer, K (2016). Created for connection: The “hold me tight” guide for Christian couples.  New York, NY: Little Brown and Company.


7 Ways To Integrate The Teenage Brain

7 Ways To Integrate The Teenage Brain

September 21, 2020

Dan Siegel (2014) writes about the amazing tumultuous wild wonderful teenage brain describing the radical changes that occur in the brain through the teenage years.  He also writes in his book “Brainstorm: the power and purpose of the teenage brain” (2013) about the four qualities present in teenage minds based on the radical changes that occur in the brain.  He describes novelty seeking, social engagement, increased emotional intensity, and creative exploration as required ingredients for the maturation of an adolescent from child to adult.  He describes an upside and downside to each ingredient. 

The Upside and the Downside of the Teenage Brain

The upside of novelty seeking is a new-found openness to change and passionate living.  The downside is an increase in risk taking and thrill seeking.  The upside to social engagement is a strong desire for connection and relationships with peers and adults. The down-side can be a teen that isolates from adult relationships and focuses solely on the influence of peer relationships.  The up-side of increased emotional intensity is more energy and zest for life, but the downside is impulsivity, moodiness, and volatility.  The upside of creative exploration is increased ability for abstract thinking and pushing against the status quo, the downside is that new forms of abstract thinking can lead to a crisis in identity and self-perception. 

I really appreciate the way that Siegel frames the adolescent developmental period as having upsides and downsides.  He characterizes all the challenges, difficulties, and changes as necessary and wonderful advancements on the road to “integration” (2013).  Integration “the linking of different parts, creates more coordination in the brain itself” (Siegel, 2013, p83) “These more precise and efficient connections in the brain make for wiser judgement and discernments based not on the small details that are without a larger context but on the overall gist that sees the big picture” (Siegel, 2013, p.83).  In the past, adults have spoken about adolescence as a stage to survive rather than a crucial part of a person’s human development.  I think if we, as parents and counselors can change our perspective on this stage of life, those adolescent’s in our care can feel more understood and respected. 

            We have the opportunity to assist teenagers by equipping them with tools and strategies for integration.  Siegel (2013) introduces seven ways to help adolescents develop increased integration.  He lists Time-in, sleep time, focus time, downtime, playtime, Physical time, and connecting time.

7 Ways to integrate the Teenage Brain

Time-In: Time-in, is an intentional period spent reflecting on your inner world.  It is paying close attention to our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, intentions, hopes, dreams, attitude, and longings (Siegel, 2013).  As we consider the amount of time that adolescents spend using social media and other forms of technology it is obvious how important it can be to encourage some time to just sit and notice the inside. 

Sleep Time: Adolescents need about 8.5-9.25 hours of sleep a night for optimal brain growth (Siegel, 2013).  The consequences of lack of sleep include weight gain, decreased memory consolidation (learning), and decreased attention and problem-solving abilities (Siegel, 2013). Helping parents and teens to understand the value of sleep can be a crucial step in helping to regulate mood, conflict and family difficulties.

Focus Time: Time spent in focused attention without distractions and interruptions also contributes to the brain’s development.  Focusing on one thing causes the brain to release the chemicals needed to create new neuro-networks and to “cement” those networks into the brain.  This process is active in learning and therefore, Siegel encourages a movement away from “multi-tasking” and distractions. 

Downtime: Time spent with no mental plan and nothing to accomplish gives the brain a break to recharge.  Setting aside time on a daily basis can assist an adolescent by recharging the brain for the next period of intense focus.

Playtime:  Although often considered only for children, play time both mentally and physically is also important for adolescents.  This time free from outwardly imposed structure and full of spontaneity and creativity allows for exploration of new ideas and experiences (Siegel, 2013).

Physical Time: Siegel (2013) suggests 30-45 minutes of movement and argues that physical activity helps build connections in the brain, improves learning, enhances mood and increases relational connections.

Connecting Time: Taking time to be with friends and family is also crucially important.  Siegel (2013) and many others (i.e. Bowlby, Ainsworth, Rogers) highlight the importance of relational connection for human flourishing.  Providing time to connect in a meaningful way enhances mood stability, and one’s sense of purpose. 


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Siegel, D. (June, 2014). The amazing tumultuous wild wonderful teenage brain. Mindful. P.43-51.

Siegel, D. (2013). Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. New York, NY: Penquin


Developing a Foster Care Community with Kathryn and Adam Adrian

Developing a Foster Care Community with Kathryn and Adam Adrian

September 14, 2020

On this episode of The Connected Family Podcast Dr. Mark Vander Ley talks with Kathryn and Adam Adrian, the founders of Connect Child and Family Solutions.  Adam and Kathryn are foster parents that have developed a passion for the foster community.  After becoming foster parents the couple learned about the number or teams needed to provide excellent care to children, foster families, and biological families.  They also discovered that the existing resources and agencies were doing this excellent work, without adequate resources themselves.  So, they decided to help build the foster care community by filling the gap between foster care families and much needed resources.

Connect Child and Family Solutions partners with existing foster care agencies to prioritize the hearts and minds of children, along with their foster and biological families.  They provide a resource closet to help provide for the basic needs of children as they transition into a foster care placement.  They also provide a foster-friendly space for family visits, classes, support groups, and play dates.


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The Five Empathy Skills that Create Connection

The Five Empathy Skills that Create Connection

September 6, 2020

I have been reading Brene Brown’s leadership book entitled “Dare to Lead”.   If you are familiar with Brene’s work you know that this book is full of talk about vulnerability, empathy, connection, and relationship. So, since we at Connections Family Counseling are passionate about building a community of connected families it makes sense that we would want to share it with you.  “You are going to share a leadership book in hopes of connecting families?”, you ask. Yes, this leadership book outlines in a really understandable way how to create connection using five basic skills of empathy.  It is so powerful it can be used in business leadership and in leading your family. 

What is Empathy?

First of all, we need to know what empathy is. Brene defines it as such, “Empathy is not connecting to an experience, it’s connecting to the emotions that underpin an experience.” (pg 140). Thankfully, we do not have to have the exact same experience as someone else to give empathy, we just have to feel what they are feeling.  Not only that, Brene argues that empathy is an infinite and renewable resource.  The more empathy we give the more we have and as long as we continue to give it we will never run out of it.  

Empathy Skill # 1: To see the world as others see it, or perspective taking.

We all see the world from our own unique perspective.  Our family of origin, nationality, race, gender, knowledge, and experience all influence our view of any given event.  However, empathy begins by seeing the world from another person’s perspective.  Brene Brown says we cannot do this perfectly but we can, “Honor people’s perspectives as truth even when they’re different from ours.” (pg. 143). When we honor the perspective of our partner or child as valid and important no matter how different than ours we are honoring them as people and laying the groundwork for deep meaningful connection. 

Empathy Skill # 2: To be nonjudgmental

We tend to judge others in the areas we feel most susceptible to shame (Brown, 2018) we look for people who are weak in our weak spots and we judge them for it.  This can be extra difficult in a family because we are intimately aware of each other’s weaknesses.  Alfred Adler once observed that children tend to act out the most in correlation to their parents most strongly held values.  If I strongly value success and feel shame when I “fail” I may be easily triggered when my child does not appear motivated or seemingly puts in minimal effort.  I may have a very difficult time nonjudgmentally listening to my child’s struggle with a teacher or school assignment if it goes against my personal values and triggers.  Being aware of my values and shame triggers while enable me to be kinder to myself and my family.

Empathy Skill # 3 and # 4: To understand another person’s feelings and to communicate understanding of that person’s feelings.

In order to feel what another person is feeling we have to be able to identify and articulate feelings.  When a family member is sharing their experience listening for the feelings that underlie the experience and reflecting them back is key to empathy.  I often encourage people to imagine what they would feel in the situation, come up with a feeling word and say, “you feel…”.  When we use this approach, we risk being wrong. BUT, if we are right our family member feels heard, if we are wrong they can correct us and as long as we accept the correction we move to a place of deeper understanding and connection. 

Empathy Skill # 5: Pay attention 

Brown (2018) challenges leaders to pay close attention to their internal signals (e.g. heart rate, posture, thoughts) so as to give proper attention to feelings without getting swept up in them.  If we feel empathy and get swept away in our family members feelings we tend to lose connection with the person.  If we are overwhelmed by the feelings and move way our family member may feel abandoned and not “seen”.  Paying attention helps us to balance feeling with a family member and caring for ourselves while maintaining connection to the person. 



How to Help Your Child Develop Emotional Intelligence

How to Help Your Child Develop Emotional Intelligence

August 30, 2020

What is the most important thing you hope to teach your son before he turns 18? Many parents focus on skills like, driving a car, spending money wisely, working hard, or study habits.  But, research seems to show that teaching our sons emotional intelligence may be the most important thing we do. 

In 2003 researchers at Yale University studied a group of college age students and found that as emotional intelligence goes up so do positive relationships with others. These researchers also found that the ability for a person to manage their own emotions is closely related to positive interactions with others. 

The same group of researchers later discovered that Lower levels of EI are associated with adolescent risk taking behaviors like use of illegal drugs, consumption of alcohol, and deviant behavior.

So, what is emotional intelligence?  There is some disagreement about the exact definition but the one that I find most helpful can be summarized like this:  

Emotional Intelligence is,

  1. The ability to Perceive Emotions
  2. The ability to Utilize emotions to facilitate thought
  3. The ability to Understand emotions
  4. The ability to Regulate emotions of self and others

So, What are some ways that parents can help their son to learn emotional intelligence?  Here are my thoughts

  1. Focus on Connection

The research about how children develop emotional intelligence shows that it is passed on through connection with parents.  Those parents that use an authoritative parenting style (balance between control and empathy) have children with higher levels of emotional intelligence.  Sometimes our fast paced culture encourages parents to get their children involved in activities that will enhance their brains and build their resume.  What research shows, however, is that it is “us” that matter, the time spent connecting over low cost activities enhance our children’s lives.  So, build connection with your son by using the basic listening skills (I wrote about them here).  Play their favorite board game one evening a week.  Schedule them to cook dinner for the family one night and help them through the process.  Spend a few minutes talking about the day before shutting off their bedroom light for the night.  

  1. Focus on Perception of Emotions

Help your son to understand that other people’s behavior is a clue to all that is happening on the inside. Your son can learn about how to interpret facial expression, body language, tone of voice, and other communication from you.  You can help him to accurately perceive emotions by guessing at what you think he is feeling and expressing it verbally (ex. You are angry) if you are correct he feels heard and now has a word for what he was just feeling on the inside.  If you are incorrect he can tell you and therefore clarify his feelings for himself and for you.  It is also very helpful when you verbalize what you are feeling in the moment with your child.  If you have lost your keys you might say, “I am really starting to get frustrated” when you experience a setback at work you might say, “I am disappointed that…” The bottom line is; help him to perceive his own feelings by verbalizing them for him and then discussing it, help him to perceive what others are feeling by sharing your feelings in the moment.

  1. Focus on Managing Emotions of Self

Again, the best way to help your son learn to manage his emotions is to be good at managing yours.  Modeling appropriate emotional reactions to normal and difficult situations shows him exactly how to do it.  For younger children games like red light/green light are helpful.  Older children can learn skills like belly breathing, mindfulness, and relaxation techniques. Additionally, the way you listen can be a very powerful way to co-regulate your child, which enables them to learn to regulate emotions by experiencing the process with you. (read about it here).

Emotional intelligence is one of the most important skills that a boy can learn.  You can help him to learn it by focusing on connection, perception of emotions, and managing emotions of the self. 

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