You Don’t Need Magic to Teach Good Manners

Have you ever witnessed a young child being carried out of church while having a meltdown and yelling, “No thank you! No thank you!” Or, on a more positive note, maybe you’ve been impressed by the polite behavior of the same young children during coffee and donut hospitality after Mass.

How did their parents get such polite children?

It’s not magic, Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak said on a recent CatholicHOM podcast.

The key is to recognize that manners are not essentially about social niceties or impressing other people; instead, they are grounded in the recognition that other people are children of God and deserve to be treated with kindness and respect.

“To use good manners simply means: Are we making them feel comfortable? Are we making them feel cared for and lifted up? That is the foundation of good manners,” Lisa Popcak said.

Manners, then, are an integral part of the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life.

To Get Well-Mannered Kids, Model Good Manners

The first step in teaching good manners is for parents to model them. Young children learn by observing the behavior of adults, especially their parents. So, if you want polite children, show what that looks like—starting with your own kids.

“We have a tendency to think that, well, because we’re parents and they’re kids, we don’t have to be polite to them,” Greg Popcak said. “We just tell them what to do and they should do it.”

But if we want our children to say please and thank you, for example, “they’re only going to learn it if we’re saying it to them,” Lisa Popcak said. “So, if you’re saying, ‘Get me a diaper for your baby brother’—no, we should be saying, ‘Please get me a diaper for your baby brother.’ And then when the child comes back with the diaper, ‘Thank you so much, I really appreciate that!’”

Similarly, instead of simply telling a toddler no (“No, don’t touch that”), you might say, “No, thank you!” Before long, your toddler will be using the same language when he wants to refuse something.

Lisa Popcak was initially skeptical of this approach when she saw a friend using it with her child. “Nobody talks that way to their children,” she recalled thinking. “You just tell them, no, they can’t do that.”

But as she watched her friend’s son for a while, she noticed he was able to communicate politely even during emotionally intense situations. Inspired by this, Lisa and Greg adopted the practice with their own kids, with “beautiful” results.

Habitually using polite language with children is especially helpful during periods of high emotional temperatures, because the language is a reminder that both parent and child have dignity that we want to uphold. “That brings down the emotional temperature and keeps our thinking brain engaged,” Lisa Popcak said.

The Magic of the Do-Over Technique

Another effective way to teach kids polite language is to use the “do-over” technique, Greg Popcak said.

When a child demands something rudely, parents can calmly say, “I understand you want this. Let’s try asking for it politely. Can you say, ‘May I please have…?’” It’s critical not to use an angry or scolding tone; instead, adopt a helpful tone—it’s more effective than an angry tone, and again, it models the type of behavior you want your child to use with others as he grows up.

It’s important to note that using the do-over technique doesn’t mean giving children everything they ask for, even if they ask politely.

For example, if a child says, “Give me the chainsaw!” you can guide them to rephrase it as, “May I please have the chainsaw?” Once they ask politely, you can respond with, “Thank you for being so respectful and kind in the way you asked for that, sweetheart. But no, you may not have the chainsaw; it’s not safe for you.”

The child may not get exactly what she wants, but your praise and approval is a powerful reward in itself.

Modeling Helpfulness

Finally, Greg and Lisa Popcak recommend modeling and teaching helpfulness. So, for example, if someone in the family is going to the kitchen for something, model (and teach) the practice of asking others whether they would like anything as well.

Similarly, when you’re doing chores around the house or helping someone out, when the task is completed, make it a habit to always ask, “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

Don’t, however, take advantage of this considerate question by continually adding more chores to the list, the Popcaks warn. While you might occasionally ask for more help (like when you’re preparing to have guests over), It’s only considerate to show appreciation and let the child do something else.

Again, it’s important to remember that, in a Christian household, the whole point of manners is not to follow an empty social convention.

“When we use good manners in our home…we are taking little steps to remind (one another) of their dignity and worth as children of God,” Greg Popcak said.

To hear the whole podcast and get personalized parenting help, sign up for the CatholicHOM app and look for CatholicHOM podcast episode 41, “Mind Your Manners!” You can also find Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak’s Parenting with Grace books at CatholicCounselors.com.

Help Your Children Manage Mass (and Life) with Discipleship Discipline

Heaven is no doubt filled with parents whose many virtues included taking their squirmy little kids to Mass—a comforting thought for any parent dealing with a mid-Mass meltdown.

But is it possible to avoid that meltdown in the first place?

Yes, it is, says Jacob Francisco, LMHC, a pastoral counselor at the Pastoral Solutions Institute who has many years of helping families and children as a family therapist.

“I promise you can do this even with a toddler,” Francisco said in a recent interview. “A two-year-old can learn to sit in the pew and be relatively well-behaved for the length of one Mass.”

Better yet, the same parenting skills that you use to help your kids get through Mass can be used in other settings as your kids get older.

Master Your Parenting Mindset: Connection, Not Control

Before we get down to brass tacks, take a moment to reflect on what comes to mind when you think of the word discipline. Your ideas about what that word means can profoundly shape the approach you take.

In the Discipleship Discipline approach promoted by the Pastoral Solutions Institute, the whole point of discipline is to help kids become the people God made them to be—healthy, loving, virtuous, and capable of realizing their full potential.

Most parents tend to be either too tough and rigid or much too gentle in their discipline, Francisco said. Striking a balance between these two approaches is crucial. Being overly harsh can damage the parent-child relationship, while being too lenient can lead to a lack of discipline and structure.

“We’re trying to hit that beautiful sweet spot in the middle,” he said.

And what does that “sweet spot” look like? Effective discipline isn’t about “controlling” kids, Francisco said, as much as it is about having a strong connection with kids so that they turn to you for help and guidance.

“Discipline is about building that trust and connection so they want to listen and follow you because they know you have their best interests at heart,” he said. “What you’re teaching your kid is that, really, true obedience comes from love. If we really love someone, we’re going to want to obey them. We’re going to want to follow them, which is ultimately the relationship we’re trying to have our children have with God.”

Once we understand discipline as connecting with our kids in order to teach them how to become who God made them to be, a lot of other things fall into place.

For now, though, let’s get back to the specific question of helping kids self-regulate their behavior during Mass.

Set the Conditions for Success

As you think about how to help your children self-regulate during Mass, the first step is to set them up for success. Just as a track coach might advise his team to hydrate and eat before a race, make sure young ones have a snack and use the bathroom (if they are toilet trained) before Mass to avoid hunger-related meltdowns, Francisco said.

We also want to be engaging with our children throughout the Mass, not only offering snacks or toys to “keep them quiet.” Instead we want to keep them connected. 

“They can get through an hour reading books or just being held or sitting on your lap, or you can be quietly whispering about things you see in the church,” he said.

Having a regular quiet time at home helps, too—it’s like practicing for a race before the real event.

“If the only time your kid is expected to be quiet is at Mass, it’s going to be a lot harder to get them to be quiet,” Francisco said. “But if they’re used to having to be quiet for a period of time, then Mass is going to be a piece of cake.”

Designate a period each day where your child engages in quiet activities like reading or drawing. This practice helps them learn to manage their behavior in a controlled, peaceful environment, making it easier to apply these skills in church.

Managing Mass Meltdowns

Even with all of these preparations, most parents have to deal with a loud, melting-down child sooner or later. What then?

Many parents pick up their child and head to the cry room, Francisco said—and then, when the child is all cried out, they stay there because it’s just easier.

“But if you want to teach your kid to be quiet and behave throughout the whole of the Mass, that’s not going to work,” he said. “All you’re doing is teaching them that we can go to the cry room and then I can play.”

Instead, when you remove a disruptive child from Mass, don’t put them down.

“Hold them the whole time,” Francisco said. “Once they’re calm, then you can go back to the pew. This helps them learn that Mass is not playtime.”

Francisco emphasizes that negotiating with a child during a meltdown often backfires. Instead of negotiating, empathize with their situation—while also providing clear and consistent boundaries.

For example, if a child is throwing a tantrum in the back of church, you might say, “I know you want to sit with Mom, but it’s Matthew’s turn to sit with Mom. You can sit with Mom after Matthew is done.”

An Approach for Every Age

You’ll need to adapt this approach to fit your particular circumstances, but the key elements should stay the same in almost any situation:

  • Stay connected. Show your child that you’re on her side, ready to help her get through her tough spot.
  • Set clear boundaries. Set clear and consistent boundaries and stick to them. Avoid harsh punishments while not permitting misbehavior.
  • Focus on coaching/teaching. Remember that your primary goal is to help your child learn how to be the person God made her to be.

In a way, then, helping a disruptive child at Mass is good practice for helping that same child through any number of other small crises during their childhood, adolescence, and young adult years.

Ultimately, it’s all about modeling for our kids the sort of relationship we want them to have with God, Francisco said. And there’s no better place to start than at Mass.

If you’d like more personalized help from Jacob Francisco or another Pastoral Counselor, reach out at CatholicCounselors.com. Also check out our community and resources for Discipleship Discipline while receiving personalized advice/support at CatholicHOM.com or the CatholicHOM app in the App Store or Google Play!

Boost Your Spiritual Growth: Try the Eulogy Accountability Challenge in Your Marriage or Friendship

When you go on a long trip, do you prefer to travel solo or with a friend?

Regardless of your usual travel preferences, when it comes to our spiritual journey, it’s good to have a companion who can help us find our “true north,” overcome obstacles, and get us back on track when we get lost. In fact, the Catholic Church insists that none of us comes to faith alone or is saved alone; we need one another, because our three-in-one God made us for relationship.

We can work for one another’s good in lots of different ways, of course: providing emotional support, lending a helping hand, worshiping together, and so on. But here’s a way that Christian couples (or close friends) can be more intentional about working for one another’s good—and strengthening their relationship at the same time.

This exercise from chapter 2 of Dr. Greg Popcak’s book, God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! Making Peace With Difficult People can help us do just that. Dr. Popcak didn’t give this exercise a name, but let’s call it the “Eulogy Accountability Challenge.” The name is appropriate because this exercise is anchored in your idea about who you want to be at the end of your life. To put it another way, what personal characteristics or qualities do you want to be mentioned by whoever delivers the eulogy at your funeral?

“The key to working for your own or others’ good is discovering the kind of person you want to be at the end of your life and supporting each other as you struggle to become that person­,” Dr. Popcak writes in the book.

Together with your friend or spouse, work through the following steps. You’ll each need at least one sheet of paper.

 

1. Envision Your Ideal Self

Begin by prayerfully considering the qualities you wish to be known for at the end of your life. Be specific. For example, you might aspire to be:

  •  Loving
  • Wise
  • Understanding
  • Empathetic
  • Truthful
  • Responsible

List these qualities on a sheet of paper. Invite your spouse or close friend to do the same.

This list may change over time, but it should represent your best sense right now of what it means for you to become most “fully yourself”—that is, most fully the person that God calls you to be.

 

2. Identify Challenges

Now think of a situation that causes you to act or feel toward one another in a way that doesn’t align with your desired qualities. For example:

  • Maybe you are unpleasantly snippy and curt first thing in the morning.
  • Maybe you always shoot down your friend’s or your spouse’s suggestions.
  • Maybe you lose your temper when you get into a disagreement.
  • Maybe you don’t follow through on responsibilities, leaving them for the other person to take care of.

Whatever the challenge is, write it down.

 

3. Apply Your Ideal Qualities to the Challenge

Next, reflect on how you might act differently if you were to more fully embody the positive qualities you listed in the first step.

Be specific. How might your words, tone of voice, or actions change? For instance, would you be more patient or understanding? Focus on your own behavior and how you can align it more closely with your spiritual ideals.

Don’t offer your partner suggestions about how to complete this step!

 

4. Share Your Aspirations

Share your reflections with your spouse or friend. Make a commitment to help one another practice the positive qualities that each of you listed—not just in the particular challenge you named, but in other aspects of daily life, too.

 

5. Respectful Accountability

When you notice your partner or friend acting in a way that seems inconsistent with their stated spiritual ideals, gently remind them of their goals. For example, you might say, “You mentioned wanting to be more patient. Can you help me understand how your actions help you become a more patient person?”

Obviously, the key here is to be as respectful to the other person as you would want him or her to be toward you. After all, this is a two-way street: you’re each helping the other, so at some point, your partner will be giving you a gentle nudge toward your best self, too.

Done right, this exercise should help each of you along the path to becoming the person God calls you to be—and deepen the intimacy of your relationship.

For in-depth, one-on-one help strengthening your marriage or other relationships, reach out to a Pastoral Counselor at CatholicCounselors.com.

 

How to Give Helpful Advice Without Overstepping

We’ve all been there, watching someone struggle with a problem without making any progress: the spouse who is perpetually late, the friend who won’t leave a dead-end relationship, the college graduate whose job search has stalled out.

Meanwhile, we can see exactly what they need to do to fix their problem…if only they would just listen!

It’s one thing to yell advice at the television as we watch our favorite team fall apart on the field. But when the person in question is someone close to us, our “helpful advice” will probably be ignored—or worse, met with annoyance.

There’s a better way to help the people closest to us, though, as Dr. Greg Popcak discusses in his book, God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! Making Peace With Difficult People. Here’s a summary of the process he outlines in chapter 2 of the book.

 

What’s Your Motivation?

Before offering your advice, take a moment to ask, “Why am I so eager to jump in with my two cents?”

Let’s face it: sometimes, it’s less about them and more about us looking for some kind of personal ego boost.

If we’re living a Christ-centered life, though, our main motivation should be to love the person in the way God loves them. The Christian definition of love is wanting the other’s good. Our aim, then, should be to help our friend or family member become more fully the person God intends for them to be.

Aligning our desire for the person we’re trying to help with God’s desire for them is absolutely critical. If we’re not on board with God’s plan for them, then we’re at risk of simply trying to impose our own wishes, desires, and preferences on the person we’re trying to help. Rather than helping the person become the unique and wonderful reflection of God’s image that they were made to be, we’re really trying to remake them in our own image.

The reality is, playing God is way above our pay grade.

 

Are You Invited to the Party?

Unless you’re in a formal mentoring or supervising relationship (as the parent of a child, for example), steer clear of offering advice that hasn’t been asked for.

“The rule of thumb when helping others is wait to be invited to the party before you offer to bring the potato salad,” Dr. Popcak writes.

That doesn’t mean you need to sit by biting your tongue. You can offer your help, respectfully: “I know you’re struggling with your job search. I think I might be able to help, if you want.”

Whether the person is open to hearing your advice or not, this approach strengthens your relationship because you’re showing up as a respectful ally, not a boss ready to take charge of their life.

 

Start with Listening

Listening is an act of love, the saying goes, and it’s a critical part of giving good advice.

“If you really are interested in helping a person become what God created him to be, your first step should be to ask him who he thinks that is, and then you should be quiet and listen,” Dr. Popcak says.

If “who does God want you to become?” is a little too abstract, break the question down. Ask them what qualities they want to be known for at the end of their life. Do they want to be known as a strong person? A loving person? Wise, prudent, patient, creative?

Next, ask a follow-up question: If the person were to live out those qualities in the situation that is causing the problem, how would he or she act differently? In other words, if they approached the problem in a way that lined up with their aspirations, how would the situation change?

Often, this question helps a solution to “snap into place,” Dr. Popcak says. Better yet, because the solution comes from inside the person and lines up with their own stated values, they are more likely to act on it.

 

For more ideas about how to help the people in your life, check out God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! Making Peace With Difficult People. Or, if you want more one-on-one advice, connect with one of more than a dozen Catholic counselors at CatholicCounselors.com.

Does Jesus Want Us to be ‘Nice’ to the Difficult People in Our Lives?


“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).

Jesus couldn’t have been more clear that following him means imitating the Father’s radically generous, unconditional love. He didn’t just preach this love; he embodied it through his death on the cross, and he expected his disciples to “take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

Over the centuries, those words have inspired countless Christians to heroic acts of love, sometimes to the point of sacrificing their lives.

Unfortunately, too many Christians also take Jesus’ teaching to mean that they ought to patiently put up with bad behavior from difficult—or even abusive—people.

But as Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak frequently point out to callers on their More2Life radio show, that’s a serious misunderstanding of Jesus’ call to radical love. In fact, such an approach may not be loving at all.

 

Jesus Wasn’t Always ‘Nice’

To see why Christian love sometimes calls for us to stand up for ourselves, set healthy boundaries, and in some cases, even end a relationship, we need to get a fuller picture of who Jesus really was.

Jesus dealt with “difficult” people all the time. Sometimes, those difficult people were even his closest friends! Other times, they were religious authorities who had it out for him.

Did Jesus quietly tolerate problematic behavior in the interest of “being nice”? He certainly stood up to the religious leaders who opposed him, often in forceful terms that left no question about their need for a change of heart.

Nor did he let his friends off the hook when they went astray. He famously rebuked Peter just moments after Peter confessed that Jesus was the Son of God (Matthew 16:23).

At the same time, Jesus met known sinners with tenderness and mercy: think of his encounter with Zacchaeus or the woman caught in adultery, for example.

 

Real Love Works for the Good of the Other

Each of these very different approaches had a common motivation: Jesus’ genuine love for the person, tuned to achieve the good of the person he was encountering. As St. Thomas Aquinas would later put it, Christ-like love “wills the good of the other.” Christian love cooperates with God to help the other person become fully the person God desires them to be.

At the heart of our love for anybody, then, is the question: “What do I need to do to help this person achieve the good that God wants for him or her?”

In a healthy relationship, the answer would begin with the needs and desires of the other person. But in the case of someone whose problematic behavior is causing real, ongoing harm to us or other people, the bar is a lot lower. In these cases, really loving the person begins with not letting them mistreat you or other people. Instead, it begins with helping them become a better person.

Usually, the first step is to engage the person in a respectful, cooperative conversation about how to change the problem behavior. In God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! Making Peace with Difficult People, Dr. Popcak outlines a five-step process for doing that.

If a person isn’t open to cooperatively working on the problem, then the next step might be setting limits or boundaries on the relationship. Ideally, these boundaries are targeted at the problem behavior and don’t cut off the relationship completely.

Sometimes, though, it is necessary to end the relationship entirely, especially if your life or health are in danger. As the Church teaches, we have a duty to care for our own life (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2264).

 

The Love of the Cross

At this point, you may wonder how Jesus’ call for his disciples to “take up their cross and follow me” fits into the picture of Christian life. After all, plenty of saints have suffered, and even given their life, for the sake of Christ.

What distinguishes the sacrifice of the cross, though, is that it served a higher purpose; Jesus sacrificed his life to save all humanity. The sacrifices of the saints and martyrs participated in that sacrifice. For instance, saints such as Maximilian Kolbe, Gianna Beretta Molla, Oscar Romero, and Maria Goretti sacrificed their lives in order to save another life, or to stand up for truth and justice.

Each of us has everyday opportunities to practice this sort of sacrificial love: quietly putting up with a spouse’s annoying but harmless habit, getting up with the baby so your spouse can get some much-needed rest, ignoring a stranger’s rudeness out of charity.

But if you’re dealing with someone whose behavior is causing real problems, then ask yourself: Is putting up with this behavior really the best way to love this person? Does it serve Christ and the Kingdom of God?

If the answer is “no,” then it might be time to imitate Jesus’ other ways of loving difficult people.

For much more on this topic, check out God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! And if you need professional, one-on-one help navigating a difficult relationship, reach out to one of the Catholic counselors at CatholicCounselors.com.

Kids Behaving Badly? Follow These 3 Steps to Turn That Problem into an Opportunity

Imagine you screw up at work one day, the kind of mistake that makes life harder for the whole team. Your boss pulls you aside to talk about it. Which approach would you prefer he take?

  1. Yelling at you and generally venting his frustration.
  2. Docking your pay or vacation time.
  3. Lecturing you about your dumb mistake.
  4. Working with you to figure out where things went wrong, then showing you a better way to do things the next time.

If you answered A, B, or C, please schedule a counseling appointment at CatholicCounselors.com as soon as possible!

But if you are a parent and you answered D, here’s a follow-up question: Which approach do you take with your kids when they screw up?

Many parents respond to their kids’ misbehavior with some sort of reactive punishment (options A, B, and C). That’s understandable, especially when we’re stressed; reactive punishments are quick and easy.

But this approach has big drawbacks, Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak said recently on their CatholicHOM podcast. For one thing, while it might stop problem behavior in the short term, it doesn’t address the root cause of the behavior. This, in turn, can cause bigger problems in the long run. It also strains rather than strengthens the bond between parent and child.

And, ironically enough, it can leave parents feeling frustrated and powerless.

Instead of taking the quickest path to stopping kids’ misbehavior, the Popcaks urge parents to see problem behavior as an opportunity to help their child grow in maturity, and in the process, form a stronger bond with their child. This is the attitude Jesus took with the people he met; rather than focus only on stopping bad behavior, he worked for their growth and healing so that they would have a stronger relationship with him.

Here are three questions parents can ask to guide them through this Christ-centered approach to discipline.

 

1. What Is My Child Trying to Do?

The first question is, “What is my child trying to do?”

 “They’re trying to drive me crazy, of course!” might be your first response. But the reality is that even the most obnoxious behavior is rooted in the child trying to fulfill some need or desire. Identifying that need or desire opens the door to teaching the child a more appropriate way of meeting it.

For example, a child who whines or speaks disrespectfully is really trying to communicate their feelings or needs; they just don’t know how to do it appropriately.

Sometimes, figuring out a child’s intention is as simple as asking, “What were you hoping would happen by acting that way?” Other times, though, figuring out a child’s motivation for misbehaving may require parents putting themselves in the child’s place.

 

2. How Can I Teach My Child to Do Better?

The next question for parents to ask is, “How can I teach my child to meet their need or desire in a better way?”

Helping kids figure out more appropriate strategies for getting what they need or want is the heart of this Christ-centered discipline approach. If a child is whining or speaking disrespectfully, for example, the parent might model for her a more respectful tone of voice and choice of words.

Simply shutting down the behavior without teaching the child a better way to get what they want makes it more likely “they’re going to keep trying to meet that need in some kind of crazy way,” Lisa Popcak said. “And then you’re going to think, ‘They never listen to me. I’ve told them a thousand times. What’s wrong with them?’”

 

3. How Can I Teach My Child in a Way That Draws Us Closer?

The third question is, “How can I teach my child this new strategy in a way that makes us closer?”

Parents are often stumped by this question, Dr. Popcak said, but really, it’s as simple as asking yourself how you would want to be treated if the roles were reversed.

“Do you want someone to come along and shame you? Do you want someone to come along and take your important things away from you?” he said. “Or do you just want them to come alongside you and appreciate what you’re trying to do, and saying, ‘You know, I get it. That’s not the best way to do it, but I get where you’re coming from. Let’s figure this out together,’ and really work with you without making you feel like an idiot.”

 

A Catholic Approach Rooted in the Dignity of the Child

In the big picture, a Catholic approach to discipline is all about recognizing, respecting, and nurturing the inherent dignity of our children.

Each child is “a son or daughter of the most high God,” Lisa Popcak said. “That’s where their dignity comes from, and that’s what we have to train them into, step by step throughout their lives, by upholding that dignity…so they can treat other people the same way.

“That’s an incredibly Catholic way to parent.”

If you would like help applying this approach to your own family situation, consider joining CatholicHOM, the app for Catholic families, where you can drop a question into the community forum anytime. Or for more personal guidance, reach out to a Catholic family therapist at CatholicCounselors.com.

Five Ways Happy Couples Fight Differently

Conflict is an inevitable part of human relationships; even the happiest of couples experience it sooner or later.

But surprisingly, research shows that happily married couples “fight” differently than others. While many couples fall into an adversarial, combative mindset, happy couples tend to take more of a team approach. Their priority isn’t winning the argument. Instead, it’s solving the problem in a way that respects their spouse and strengthens their marriage.

Just as great sports teams support one another even in tough situations, couples with a team mindset go out of their way to make sure that their spouse feels loved and cared for. In fact, research finds that happily married couples have five positive interactions for every negative interaction—even during conflicts.

What does this look like in practice? In his book How to Heal Your Marriage and Nurture Lasting Love, Dr. Greg Popcak describes some of the strategies couples can use to navigate conflicts in a more loving, caring way. Here are five to try the next time you find things heating up between you and your spouse (or other conversation partner).

 

1. Give a Heads Up Before Difficult Conversations

If you know you need to tackle a tough conversation, try scheduling the conversation with your partner for a later time—and do it in a way that sets the tone for a cooperative, problem-focused conversation. For example: “Hey, I feel like we need to talk about (topic). Could we make some time to do that tonight? I know this isn’t a conversation either of us really enjoys, but let’s think about how we want to handle it between now and then. I’m interested in hearing your ideas.”

 

2. Turn to God for Help

Christian couples have an extra resource to help them manage conflict: the power of prayer. Praying before, during, and after a hard conversation grounds your relationship in the larger reality of God’s love for both of you, opening you to receive God’s help.

You can maximize the power of prayer by praying together, out loud: “Lord, you know how difficult this conversation is for us. Give us the grace to be both loving and truthful with one another, and help us be open to your will for us. Amen.”

 

3. Complain, but Don’t Criticize

At a minimum, couples who take a teamwork approach to conflict focus on solving the problem, not attacking one another. It’s all right to complain. But when that complaint becomes a personal criticism—when you name your partner as the problem—you’re headed for a contentious, unproductive argument.

Here’s a personal criticism: “You obviously have no money management skills; I can’t trust you with a debit card.” And here’s the same issue framed as a complaint: “When you go over the budget we agreed on, it makes me feel frustrated and anxious.” The first statement locates the problem in the partner; the second states two facts (the state of the budget and your feelings about it) that pose a problem to be solved.

 

4. Offering Encouragement and Affirmation

High-functioning teams offer one another words and gestures of support even when they’re in a tough spot. The same goes for happy couples during hard conversations.

You can reaffirm your bond and create a supportive atmosphere with a simple gesture—reaching out to hold your spouse’s hand, for instance, or offering them a tissue or glass of water. A few well-chosen words of affirmation can work magic, too: “Hey, it’s going to be okay. We’ve gotten through worse.”

 

5. Take Mini-Breaks When Things Get Too Hot

Another way couples can care for one another when a conflict starts getting too contentious is to take a short break. The point of the break isn’t to avoid the situation; rather, it’s to give yourselves a chance to calm down and refocus the conversation.

During your mini-break (five or ten minutes may be enough), work on empathizing with your partner and his or her position (even if you don’t agree with it). Then, ask yourself what you can do to shift the conversation to a more solution-focused mindset.

 

For couples who handle conflict in this way, it doesn’t drive them apart—instead, it results in a stronger, happier relationship. And that makes sense: After all, what better testament to true love is there than caring for your partner even when they’re driving you a little crazy?

You can learn much more about this topic in the “Caretaking in Conflict” chapter of Dr. Popcak’s book, How to Heal Your Marriage and Nurture Lasting Love. And if you could use some professional help with your marriage or other relationships, reach out to one of the Catholic counselors at CatholicCounselors.com.

Give Your Kids ‘Little Lice’ (and Other Affectionate Touch) to Help Them Thrive

In Latin America, they call it piojito—literally, “little lice”—but parents all around the world use this special form of physical affection to bond with their children. The Spanish name hints at the basic technique: parents draw their fingertips over their child’s head, back, or arm in short, gentle strokes.

The resulting sensation might remind some people of little lice, but the effect is more magical, evoking a warm, cozy feeling—and a sense of closeness between the person giving and receiving the touch.

It turns out that lightly stroking the hairy parts of our skin at just the right speed activates special nerve cells called C-tactile fibers. The activated CT fibers signal the release of dopamine, which in turn lights up parts of the brain that process sensation, emotion, and reward. The resulting burst of pleasure motivates us to seek out the same connection again, strengthening the relationship.

 

We’re Hard-Wired for Physical Affection

But if the idea of imitating creepy-crawly little bugs turns you off, don’t despair. Piojito isn’t the only way to connect with your kids; many types of physical affection are just as effective. 

What is most important, according to Dr. Greg Popcak, is for parents to be generous with appropriate physical affection.

“We’re hard-wired by God to long for affection and to want to be affectionate with each other,” Dr. Popcak says in a video on CatholicHOM, the Catholic parenting app. “In fact, for mental and physical well-being, affection is a more fundamental need than even food.”

The importance of so-called “social touch” for kids’ healthy development has been understood for decades. In the moment, physical affection measurably reduces stress and pain. But it also releases growth hormones, boosts the immune system, and strengthens brain development. Children who experience regular affectionate touch often display stronger cognitive skills, empathy, and emotional resiliency.

The benefits of physical touch last well into adulthood, according to one decades-long study by Duke University researchers of 482 people. The researchers found that individuals who received lots of affection from their mothers as eight-month-old infants “showed significantly lower levels of distress, anxiety and hostility” as 34-year-old adults.

 

But I’m Just Not Affectionate!

Parents sometimes tell Lisa Popcak, a family coach and vice president of the CatholicCounselors.com, that they’re “just not affectionate” or that their children aren’t affectionate. But while some people may shun affection due to a neurodevelopmental disorder such as autism, in most cases, “if we aren’t affectionate, it’s actually because somehow affection was trained out of us,” she says.

The good news is that even people who aren’t used to giving and receiving affection can train themselves to become more comfortable with it. But because this involves physical changes to our nervous system, it might take some time, much as it takes weeks or months of practice to develop a new physical skill.

Start by pushing yourself a little out of your comfort zone, Dr. Popcak advises, gradually building up to a more affectionate way of interacting with your kids.

 

7 Ways to Practice Physical Affection with Your Kids

Remember, too, that physical affection comes in many different flavors. Here are seven to try with your kids in the coming week:

  1.     Hugs, especially as part of a daily leaving or returning ritual
  2.     Cuddling on the couch
  3.     Gentle back and shoulder massage
  4.     Holding hands
  5.     Tickling, playful wrestling, or piggyback rides
  6.     Hand games (“Miss Mary Mack,” “Say, Say Oh Playmate,” “Stella Ella Ola,” etc.)
  7.     The gentle pressure of a soothing hand

And then, of course, there’s always piojito—the magic touch that soothes, calms, and connects…despite its association with “little lice.”

If you’d like more parenting help, come join our Catholic parenting community on the CatholicHOM app, where you’ll find the CatholicHOM Foundations course, a library of helpful videos and podcasts, and a supportive community of Catholic parents. For more in-depth help with family issues, visit CatholicCounselor.com.

But I don’t want to spoil them!–How to Have a Healthy and Positive Relationship With Your Child

I want to have a good relationship with my kids but I don’t want to spoil them!”

Does this statement feel familiar?

Attachment does not mean that you have to give your children everything they want, when they want it, and how they want it. It means listening to them, taking the time to understand why they want the things they want, and—if you can’t let them—brainstorming more godly and efficient ways that you could help them meet at least some of those needs in the here and now.

Alternatively, if you have to say no, as parents often must, it is always for a good and objective reason (for instance, your child’s safety or well-being) and not just because you don’t feel like it or because you reactively tend to say no to things out of stress and irritability.

In infancy and toddlerhood, fostering healthy attachment means responding promptly, generously, and consistently to cries. It means trusting the schedule God has built into your child for sleeping, feeding, and comforting and not making your child “cry it out” at night, or cry for long periods as a matter of habit during the day. Crying is never good for a child. It always means he needs help in regulating some system in his body (Sunderland, 2008). God gives parents the responsibility to attend to those cries promptly, just as he tells us He does in Psalm 34:4. “I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.”

As your child matures through childhood and adolescence, his needs become more complicated to meet. Parents should, as much as possible, use the “qualified-yes” technique in responding to these needs unless the request is for something that is truly contrary to the child’s well-being. For instance, if a child asked for something the parent couldn’t afford, the qualified-yes technique would have the parent say, “I can afford to contribute only X toward that, but let’s talk about ways you might be able to earn the difference if it is that important to you. Otherwise, this is what I can do. What do you think?” This would be as opposed to saying, for instance, “You want me to spend $250 on a pair of sneakers? Are you crazy?”

With the qualified-yes technique, the child learns that the parent is always someone to whom he can turn to get help in meeting his needs or making a plan by which those needs could be met. Because of this, even when the parent can’t supply what the child wants or needs, the child still feels attached because he has been heard and helped to come up with a plan. And, if the child decides that having that thing really isn’t worth the effort after all, it is he who makes that decision, and not the parent who makes himself an obstacle to achieving that need or want.

For more on how to use the qualified-yes technique as a way of fostering attachment through childhood and adolescence, check out our books Parenting Your Kids With Grace and Parenting Your Teens and Tweens With Grace!

 

Quick Links and Resources:

Parenting Your Kids With Grace

Parenting Your Teens and Tweens With Grace

Discovering God Together

This Is My Circus And These Are My Monkeys! — How To Gracefully Deal With Drama and Stress

Does the world around you feel chaotic? Are you having a hard time knowing how to handle certain challenges that are coming up in your life? Often when situations are escalated, we can quickly become overwhelmed and feel as though we don’t know where to start or what to handle.

This is because drama pulls us out of the receptive spirit God calls us to live in. It makes it difficult to hear God’s voice and cooperate with his will. We’re so busy living in reaction to the drama-causing events and people that it sometimes doesn’t even occur to us to ask God what to do.  The Theology of The Body reminds us of the importance of resisting the impulse to get caught up in our drama: that, even in the middle of the drama, it’s important to cultivate receptivity, the ability to step out of the craziness that’s happening around us, center ourselves in God’s grace and respond (rather than react) to what’s happening in a loving, responsible way that glorifies God, works for our good and the good of the people around us.

Here are a few ways to ensure we are responding with a receptive spirit:

1. Take a Dramatic Pause–When the drama is mounting, we’re often tempted to try to get control of what’s going on around us, and that’s what pulls us in. Don’t jump into the drama.  Instead, take a dramatic pause.  Mentally take a step back and look inside yourself.  Offer up a quick prayer.  Ask God to give you peace and perspective.  Ask for the grace to respond to this situation rather than reacting to it.  Then think, “Where do I want this situation to go?  What do I need to do to move it in that direction? What do I need to do to protect myself and the people I care about from the drama?”  THEN and only then are you ready to act.  When drama strikes, the best way to get control of the situation, is to reclaim your sense of self control.

2.  Get the Other Person Back “On Book”–When actors forget their lines, they are said to be “off book.” When people are creating drama, they’ve forgotten how to be their best selves.   After reclaiming control of ourselves, the next thing to do get them back “on book”  that is, remind them of healthier ways to deal with the situation they are creating drama about.   Don’t criticize their behavior.  Instead, help them refocus on solutions rather than their reactions.   Don’t say, “Calm down.” or “You’re really overreacting”  Say, “Listen, I really want to help but you’re just lashing out right now.  Can you focus on what we can do to make this better?  What’s the next step you can take to make this better?”   Try to help the person creating the drama refocus on solutions and reminding them that you’re here to help.

3. End the SceneRemember, it is not your job to save other people from their own drama.  You should do what you can to be helpful, but if they resist your efforts, get worse, or lash out, the best thing you can do is end the scene.  When a person is too seriously caught up in their own drama, anything you say or do can and will be used against you.  Although it might feel like you’re being insensitive, the best thing to do is to say something like, “I want to help, but the most important thing you can do right now is take some time to pray about this and think about what you want to do to try to make this situation a little better.  Let me know when you’re ready to do that and I promise I’ll be here.”  Then, find a way to make a graceful–or if necessary, abrupt–exit.  If you can’t redirect someone who is in drama, the most loving thing to do is to refuse to contribute to it, even if that means withdrawing. If the person continues to try to draw you back in, suggest places they can turn for more professional support, and encourage them to turn to those resources.  If they are serious about seeking help, they will be grateful for the suggestions. But if they are just interested in creating more drama, it would be better for you to step out as gracefully as you can.

Find more resources at CatholicCounselors.com!

 

Quick Links and Resources:

Unworried—A Life Without Anxiety

God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts!

Pastoral Tele-Counseling

St Sebastian Center for Performance Excellence