Here’s a link a PDF of the slides from tonight’s presentation on boys and brains at the Northwest District (Do Your Best) roundtable. As always, feel free to contact me if you have questions.
Tag Archives: Fiddlehouse Dad
I was driving back from a family weekend in Iowa and had some thoughts about the Incredible Hulk. He’s always been one of my favorite superheroes, not because of his uncontested physical power, but rather because of his emotional intelligence. What? You might say. How can The Hulk, a rage fueled master of destruction be a model of emotional intelligence? Here’s what I think.
There is a decisive scene in one of the Avengers movies when Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner says, “That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always angry.” He then turns into Hulk and tips the balance in favor of civilization.
All superheroes are models of different aspects of the human condition. In the case of The Hulk, Banner starts out with significant childhood trauma and exposure to experimental technology that makes him vulnerable to emotional/biochemical influences. Can anyone identify with that on any level? The beauty is that The Hulk learns to control and manage his explosive power.
So, as I was driving, I wondered if I could figure out a good acronym for H. U. L. K. that would serve as a reminder for me (and maybe others) when my temper starts to take over. Here’s my favorite idea. Let me know if you have others.
This one is my favorite because they are one-syllabus words that can come to mind quickly when thinking of HULK.
“Hold Up” makes me remember to pause and take a breath.
“Laugh” reminds me to smile and chuckle at my situation, which is ipso facto stress relieving.
“Kid” serves a dual purpose. For me, it can remind me that kids are kids (if I’m getting frustrated at my boys) and they aren’t supposed to be perfect yet (or ever). This could also be helpful for children or youth who are putting too much pressure on themselves.
The other application of “kid” is to remember humor. Of course, the word “kid” can also mean to joke. There is humor in everything we go through, and often it’s just downright funny to realize how seriously we take situations.
So, I think it can be helpful for me to Hold Up and Laugh Kid when I start to feel angry and frustrated by what’s going on. Maybe it will be for you too.
Here’s the inspirational piece that I shared at the last roundtable as a parent recruitment tool. When it came time for our pack meeting, I actually ended using it as the Cubmaster Moment at the end. I didn’t use the powerpoint slide show in the meeting this time, but rather read through the script/slides and just let the audience focus on the yardstick (which I pre-scored) as we snapped off the pieces. Pre-score the yardstick at 3 inches, 5.5 inches, 9 inches, and 11 inches. Snap off the sections after slide 7, twice during slide 9, and after slide 10 so you’re left with 2 inches. You can download the whole Powerpoint and put your own Pack number etc. in it at the bottom of the pictures. This is an old, traditional tool that has been used by many organizations. The version I have was originally adapted from Bryan on Scouting, but it didn’t start there.
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.
There 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.
It 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.
There 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.
** 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.
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.
What’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.