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Category Archives: Present Moment Parenting

Boys-Anger and C.A.P. Approach

Attitude

© Joshua Koepp

The sixth-grade boy standing 7 feet away from me had just blown through the cafeteria like a tornado. Now he was leaning against the wall with his eyes on the floor looking tougher than Clint Eastwood. I was used to seeing a hard shell on this guy, but today was different. Today he was very angry.

I get asked about angry boys quite a bit. When I present workshops people say things like: “He gets angry so easily.” “He’s seems like he’s ALWAYS angry.” “I don’t know how to help him when he’s angry.” “He was always such a nice kid, and now he’s angry at me and his little brother ALL the time.”

In this post, I’m going to share some of the things that are most useful for me to remember about my own anger, my sons’ anger and when I am with angry children and youth.

He has lived here, in St. Paul, Minnesota, since he was 8-years-old. Before that, he survived fear, abuse and danger that most of us can’t imagine. His family is from Karen, a small state in Burma, near Thailand where civilian villages have been massacred and burned and many people driven out. They escaped and lived in the forest in Thailand. In order to have access to minimal education he was sent to live in a refugee camp.

Anger is not a solo act. Boys and men have deep, complex emotional worlds, whether we know it or not. Sadness, fear, compassion, pain, we’ve got it all. However, many boys get the message early on that expressing emotion is a good way to get teased, bullied, and shamed…sometimes even by their parents. One emotion, however, is exempt from this treatment: Anger. Anger becomes the acceptable emotion to show, but there’s always others hiding behind it. Many others.

Once he told me about the time when he had to run through the jungle with his dad and hide under branches so Burmese soldiers wouldn’t find them. Another time in the camp he went down to the river and a guard caught him and made him stand still while his shins and calves were struck repeatedly with a bamboo cane. At the refugee camp school, for punishment, he had to hold a stick in his teeth with a weight on the end. When the ache in his jaw allowed the stick to droop, the cane left welts on his body. He was between six and seven years old.

Anger saves face. Boys learn to be stoic. Sometimes that’s necessary for survival and self-protection. We teach it to little boys: “Stop with the tears.” “Take it like a man.” Here’s the problem: Unprocessed emotional energy builds-up over time. When it starts to leak out, acting angry is a great way to mask the anxiety and fear it causes. Anger can look cool and feel powerful, which is the opposite of the way we actually feel when emotions leak out unbidden.

He was standing sideways to me, leaning on the wall. I moved a little closer to him, but not too close. I wanted him to know I was there, but also that I would respect his space. After a minute or two, he changed his posture to angle slightly toward me. I had a connection. I said, “It seems like you’re really angry. Are you mad about something?” He grunted back. It was the “affirmative” grunt.

Anger is language. Most boys and men have not practiced their emotional vocabulary. It is difficult for us to talk about feelings. Showing them comes easier. Especially for the little guys, acting out physically can be the only way they know to tell you that they are in distress. In addition, when we’re under emotional stress, our amygdala hijacks our limbic system and cuts off access to the “thinking” brain. We’re left with our “fight or flight” brain. The language of anger is sometimes all boys have available, especially if they’re still learning English.

Why are you angry?” I asked. He mumbled something I couldn’t quite understand through his heavy accent, but I thought I heard him say something about an iPod. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t understand everything you said. Did you say iPod?”

He mumbled in a voice that seemed exceptionally deep for his size, “Teacher. Take. iPod.” It all suddenly made sense to me.

He doesn’t have much and came from a place where he had even less. His parents figured out a way for him to have an iPod, the quintessential symbol of membership in modern youth culture. Now his most prized possession had been taken by a guard again. How could this not trigger all the fear, helplessness, and panic that he felt in the camps, jungles and other mini-hells he had been through.

Anger is natural. It’s a normal reaction to injustice, having our sense of power threatened, being made to feel small. For many boys, especially teenage boys, have larger amygdala, higher testosterone and lower serotonin. That makes anger hotter, faster and more immediate. That doesn’t mean we have no choice. It does means that it’s a more difficult choice, one we need to practice.

“Wow. I get it,” I said. “If someone took my iPod, I’d be very angry too. If you want, I can help you find out what your teacher’s plan is.” Almost as soon as the words were out of my mouth, he seemed to relax. A few seconds later, he shuffled slowly to the table and sat down.

Anger is sometimes the easiest way to ask for help. Instead of treating his angry outburst as a behavior problem that needed to be controlled or punished, I tried to find out what was behind it. Doing this reduces the need to act out. I like to call it C.A.P.: Connect. Acknowledge. Protect.

Connect: Non-verbally join with him using a non-threatening and respectful presence and body language. If you use words, keep them very limited and kind. If you connect with him, he doesn’t need his anger to get your attention anymore.

Acknowledge: Let him know that you see his emotional expression and know that it means something. “You seem upset. Are you angry about something?” If you acknowledge the message he’s sending with his anger, he will feel “heard.”

Protect: Validate his right to have feelings. Give him a safe place to feel. “I can see why that would make you feel angry.” If you protect his dignity, he will be more able to take off the mask of anger.

Here are a few other tips that help me:

  • Help him learn accurate words and language to describe what he’s feeling. DON’T try to do this in the middle of an angry moment. Rather wait until things have settled down. Model it for him by naming your feelings as you go through your day. Even older boys and teens will need practice at this, since experiences get more complex as they get older.
  • Help him practice basic coping tools like taking a deep breath, taking a break from stressful situations and getting help from someone he trusts. Again, this is most effectively practiced when he’s not upset and easiest to understand if he sees you doing it.
  • Allow for some kind of movement (even if it’s just squeezing something or playing with Legos), outside time, and/or food to help process emotion. Anger happens in the body, not just the mind. Many boys process physically and can talk more easily when engaged with some kind of task.

By no means does what I’ve written here cover all the complex issues that can cause anger for men and boys, nor does it offer solutions for everything. I’m always happy to listen to your story and help out in any way I can.

 

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2015 in Present Moment Parenting

 

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E. Q. for Boys: The Swim Test

Beach Brothers

Beach Brothers ©Joshua Koepp

“Thank God for your son,” the brown-haired mother said as she walked to stand next to me on the beach.

“Oh? What did he do?” I asked, trying to act oblivious. The truth was, I knew what I had told him to do. I was curious to hear from someone else what he had actually done.

It was the last day of our week at YMCA Camp du Nord, a family camp north of Ely, Minnesota near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. In a matter of minutes, one of the highlights for the kids was about to start: the counselor hunt. On the last day, all of the counselors hide around camp and the children and youth who were their “age group” during the week run around and find them. The whole adventure converges on the beach where campers and counselors attempt to wrestle each other into the water and dump each other.

You can imagine the chaos. It is very fun but also very rough and very wet. With all the pandemonium, some safety measures are prudent. All the young campers are required to take a swim test and receive a wrist-band which designates how far out into the water they can be during the melee. A wise safety measure to be sure, but one that is ready-made to trigger a crisis of status and identity for many young boys in the 7-9 year old range.

According to my son’s logic, nobody really gives a rip if you can’t swim by yourself when you’re six. Some kids can swim when they are seven, but you only feel a little embarrassed if you can’t. Once you’re eight, many of your friends have learned to swim, so it’s kind of a big deal. You’ll be thinking about the swim test and anxious about saving face if you fail. You may even come up with excuses ahead of time:

  • The waves were big.
  • It was windy.
  • I was tired.
  • Someone pushed me.
  • I don’t like swimming in lakes.
  • I’m more used to the pool where I work out with “my competitive swim team.
  • It wasn’t a fair test, etc.

If you’re nine and you can’t swim you’re likely to pick a fight with the troll under Angel Bridge in hopes that he will take a big bite out of your foot, thus making it impossible to go into the lake because of the open wound. Since most boys have done it, it’s easy to recognize a faked or manufactured injury or malady (AKA the losers limp). However, desperate times call for desperate measures, and most of the time the other guys don’t call your bluff.

To make matters even more risky for young and fragile male egos, after the swim test you are tagged with a colored wrist band that identifies you as a non-swimmer, restricted access swimmer who has to stay in the shallow “kiddie” area, or a unrestricted water-competent resident of Atlantis who has spent some time in Aquaman’s private guard.

Most adults have forgotten what it felt like to be a kid and about half of adults have never been boys. To them, it is confusing why a little guy would suddenly lash out, avoid eye contact, be rude to loved ones, retreat into their own little world, and have a complete meltdown if someone tries to pry. They don’t understand the existential crisis that will be caused when he is strapped with a wrist-band below the rank of his peers.

That’s what happened to the brown-haired mother’s little guy. For whatever reason, he didn’t pass the test. He was crushed. He was crying. There was nothing mom could do. He ran down the beach to get away, too embarrassed to even stick around.

I had seen this before. Several times, actually, only a month earlier. That was when my eight-year-old son publicly failed the swim test at Cub Scouts camp, over and over again, in front of his friend (who passed on the first try) and about 50 other scouts and dads who were swimming in the pool. Truthfully, I’m not the kind of parent who tries to rescue my kids from these situations. Failing repeatedly teaches you to keep trying and that it’s not the end of the world if you screw up and embarrass yourself. You’ll survive. Most of the time nobody cares, and if they do, that’s their problem, not yours.

Today, however, my son’s experience had been different. This time he had passed on the first try and gotten a white wrist-band. When we saw the other boy take off, I quickly said to him, “Hey, you know how that feels. Go talk to him. Tell him you failed a swim test too.” Then I left to find my younger son.

I returned a while later to the brown haired lady thanking me. “He was just an angel. He came and told Rider that he had bombed a swim test once too. Then he talked him in to trying again and even went and got the counselor to give them a retest. They took the test together and they both passed. He saved the day.”

When it comes to emotional intelligence, it’s very important for boys to learn to handle their own emotions. However, the next and equally important step is to learn how to respond to the emotions of OTHERS. Sometimes it’s appropriate to simply respect someone’s process and protect their dignity while they feel. Other times we can come alongside and be a brother in time of need. Getting outside ourselves and caring about our fellows is what psychological health is all about. I’m glad my son got a chance to see how facing his challenge gave him the tools to help someone else in the long run.

 
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Posted by on October 3, 2015 in Present Moment Parenting

 

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Camp Akela R & T

IMG_1030There was a lot of rough-and-tumble play at Camp Akela last weekend. Camp Akela is the summer Cub Scout camp for the Northwest District of the Boy Scouts of America. It was my son’s first year, and we plan to make it a tradition.

Cub Scout camp is packed with many wonderful planned activities that fit in the rough-and-tumble/big body category. I’ve provided some pictures of the obstacle course and a game called “finger fencing.” **

Of course, besides the planned activities, there was down time as well, much of which was filled with all manner of boys wresting, chasing, tackling, rolling down steep hills, running down hills until they fell and sometimes just laying in a pile together.

IMG_1024It was very cool to see the boys practicing the unwritten rules of rough-and-tumble play. They naturally stopped when it got too rough or someone wasn’t having fun. They pushed harder and tested each other’s strength in a friendly way. They assessed the risk of an activity and pulled back when it was too much.

Most of all it was wonderful to see relationships develop between boys who didn’t know each other as they joined with others in rough-and-tumble play. In this kind of play, you become friends by showing that you respect the other person enough to play empathically, up to the level of physicality that the other person is comfortable with.

At no time during the weekend did I see any boys angry or crying because other boys hurt them. There were times when it got too rough, and they boys backed off, still friends.

IMG_1043There was one exception to this. My son came up to me after leaving a large game of ultimate soccer. In this game, there are many balls, all the boys play together, and dads were playing with the boys. My son didn’t seem too upset, but I could tell he was intentionally leaving the game. When I asked him what happened he said that another dad made him fall down hard by sweeping his feet out from under him.

Intentional or not, this dad wasn’t following the rules of rough-and-tumble play. He was too big to be playing that hard. However, even situations like this highlight a benefit of rough-and-tumble play. My son got the chance to assess his feeling of personal safety, self-regulate his involvement and choose a different activity.

Thanks to all of the staff at Camp Akela this summer. Looking forward to seeing you again next year.

IMG_1052** In finger fencing, two players grasp hands with index fingers pointing out. The goal is to use your finger to touch your opponent without being touched. It doesn’t count to touch the arm that is grasping your opponent’s hand.

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2015 in Present Moment Parenting

 

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How ’bout a pre-school in a nursing home?

This trailer for the Present Perfect Film is too good not to watch. My boys’ childcare program from one-year until the start of elementary school was affiliated with a nursing home, to which they took regular walking field trips. The trailer for this video shows how powerful and important inter-generational relationships can be. I think I’ll contact one of the many nursing homes around our neighborhood to see about adding some visits into our summer activity list. You can go to Kickstarter if you want to support this film.

 
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Posted by on June 16, 2015 in Present Moment Parenting

 

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Be a Better Mirror

Red Head Sad squareRed Head Happy Background 2 squareWhat’s the difference between these two boys? Yes, this is a shameless trick question. On the surface, they have a different mouth and background. One looks happy, the other a little sad. The REAL reason I asked this question is because there’s another less obvious but more significant difference: Me.

I made these drawings when my wife was recently out of town for a week…in Hawaii. The boys and I were not in Hawaii. We were at home…in Minnesota. In January. Minnesota and Hawaii have the ability to create different moods in people, especially in January. Add in a very busy week full of long hours, solo parenting, and science fairs my stress level went up a few points.

By the end of the week, I realized that the look on my boy’s faces had changed too. Sure, they missed their mom, but I knew that wasn’t the most significant factor. I had let my stress, low energy and winter blues get the best of me. My boys were mirroring the expression they were seeing from me. No only that, they were taking on my mood as well.

When children and youth see a steady stream of adult expressions that are moody, depressed, frustrated, stressed and in general less than happy, it sends a non-verbal message. Non-verbal messages are powerful for boys, especially when they come from men. They can easily internalize the belief that it’s “manly” to be frustrated, over-concerned, controlled by circumstances and in general less than happy.

The good news is that we don’t need to leave it that way. We can be a better mirror. We can model self-awareness. We can choose our response to our circumstances. We can show with our actions that, even though life isn’t always easy, our mood is our choice. We can make a joke. Crack a smile (if it feels unnatural, you need to practice it more). Be playful. If you’ve forgotten how, just lay down on the floor in the middle of the living room. If you’ve got little boys around they’ll remind you.

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2015 in Present Moment Parenting

 

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The Mask You Live In

Here’s the video from my workshop yesterday at the MnSACA-MnAEYC conference. The film is premiering at Sundance right now, from what I understand. Looking forward to connecting with all of you again. If you like my facebook page (upper right), you can get regular updates as I post more information.

 
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Posted by on January 31, 2015 in Present Moment Parenting

 

Ninja dad wins by quitting

bo 2 Joshua KoeppLast night at karate Braden had a big win. It wasn’t against another kid, nor was it by breaking a board. For me, it was even better than that, because it reflected a parenting achievement as well. The interesting thing about this achievement was that it came from me taking myself OUT of the picture. Here’s the story.

I have posted about being a Ninja Parent and Perfectionist Dad in the past. Both of these were mistakes I made that I tried to remedy. At Braden’s karate lessons, I had been making too many comments and giving too many looks when he would make mistakes. Yes, I knew better, but sometimes we all get caught up in the moment.

I clearly saw the negative effects of my critical eye in the way Braden performed. He constantly looked over at me to see if I was happy or unsatisfied with him.

His frequent glances cost him. He lost sparring points and got punched and kicked when he looked over to see my reactions. During form practices, he missed instructions, got distracted and lost his spot.

In the Perfectionist Dad post I explained how difficult it can be for kids when nothing is ever good enough for their parents. It’s easier if we can pick one bite-sized goal to work on. I had done this with Braden and usually asked him in the car what HIS goal was for the lesson. I did not to judge or evaluate. It was his goal, not mine.

However, we still had the problem with dad distraction whenever I came to watch. His teacher commented on it one day when he performed far below his skill level: “Braden, one day you won’t need to look at your dad because you’ll already know what he thinks when you do your techniques.”

I decided to back off even more. We created a hand signal together. When he sparred or did forms, I would subtly shade my eyes with my hand like a visor. For him, this meant, “Don’t look at me.” For me, it meant, “No comments—verbal or nonverbal.” If he looked, he would see the reminder. He should focus on his moves, his targets, and the instructor. Nothing else. I even stopped asking him about his goals. I had to let it go.

Last night, I stayed at the lesson, and was amazed by his focus. He practiced a new, very complex form with the bo staff and made several mistakes. Still, he kept his eyes forward and made corrections according to Mr. Carnahan’s instructions. I didn’t say anything at the moment, but when we got home, I mentioned it.

His answer: “THAT was my goal.”

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2014 in Present Moment Parenting

 

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