“I’m bored,” my daughter muttered as she plopped herself on the couch.
“Only boring people get bored,” I quipped.
“I’m NOT boring!”
I’m not sure where I first heard the aphorism about bored people being boring, but I remember my excitement. I looked for the perfect opportunity to impart my wisdom. With teenagers in the house, I knew I wouldn’t have to wait long.
But as I looked across the room at my daughter’s defensive reaction, I realized my perfect pithy preaching hadn’t helped in the slightest.
Now she was bored AND mad at me.
Being bored is not a crisis. It is an opportunity.
“If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.”— Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller”
But being bored during a teen crisis — stuck at home with one’s parents for months on end — can seem like a crisis2 (a crisis squared).
And for parents, navigating the new work-from-home environment or worse, being laid off or furloughed during an existing crisis — like the COVID-19 pandemic — is like being in a crisis2. Crises aren’t solved by pithy sayings.
When everyone in the family is in some form of crisis2, we need effective ways to navigate the waters.
Burdened by stress, we must figure out how to be what Marriage and Family Therapist Lucy Rimalower called a “non-anxious presence” during our recent podcast conversation.
I wanted to share three ways I’ve tried to navigate these choppy waters with my family:
- Non-violent communication
- The family meeting
Seeking to Understand: Non-Violent Communication
Non-violent communication (NVC) was developed by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s. He provided a useful framework for improving dialogue.
The Four Steps of NVC:
- Observe Facts – Observe the specific facts that are affecting your well-being, and bring them up with the other person.
- Note Feelings – Contemplate what exactly you are feeling in response to what you’ve observed, and communicate those feelings.
- Uncover Desires – Figure out the desires, wants and values that are creating your feelings, and explain them to the other person.
- Make Requests – Ask for concrete actions to help resolve the situation.
NVC is rooted in genuine inquiry. You want to understand — and not assume — how the other person is feeling, and vice versa.
Sometimes the fact-finding is obvious. My daughter was repeatedly slamming her door, so we temporarily removed it. The specific fact affecting her well-being at the time was obvious — put the door back on!
My other daughter — the bored one — was frustrated by people eating her food. Though we thought food was generally fair game, she didn’t see it that way. The resolution to this problem was fairly simple — identifying the food that was hers.
However simple the solution, arriving there relies on identifying the problem (observing facts), finding out why it’s a problem (noting feelings and uncovering desires) and then coming up with a solution (making requests).
Lucy emphasized the power of good questions, particularly when we either don’t have an answer or genuinely are confused by what is bothering our kids.
Help Ourselves: The Importance of Self-Care
Lucy also highlighted the importance of self-care in a crisis.
If we’ve had our source of income cut off, or even if we’re just in an unfamiliar situation, then we are likely to feel stressed:
“At the intersection of being a parent and a person, we may encounter tension. We want to be there for our kids, but our undeniable anxiety might prevent us from being effective communicators.”— Lucy Rimalower
To be a “non-anxious presence” for our kids, we need to address our anxiety, not deny it. In her book Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach instructs us to immerse ourselves in the present:
“So walk with your heaviness, saying yes. Yes to the sadness, yes to the whispered longing. Yes to the fear. Love means setting aside walls, fences, and unlocking doors, and saying yes … one can be in paradise by simply saying yes to this moment.”— Tara Brach
Going against the prevailing self-help approach of simply positively feeling one’s way through difficulty, Tara’s advice is to, in effect, embrace these emotions. Doing so can help us better empathize with others (e.g. our children or our families) who may be experiencing similar feelings. And because kids can sense our stress, we can face our stressors — to ask questions of them — to help our children ask better questions of theirs.
Of course, meditation can be a helpful tool here. My wife has developed a nice walking habit during the pandemic that has helped her alleviate stress. An avid runner, I have increased my distances recently.
Even just separating ourselves from our technology can help. In my recent discussion with Ashley Whillans, author of a new book, Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life, she suggests a simple solution — ask yourself “Why?” any time you find yourself going down a social media rabbit hole.
Cultivating better time use is at the heart of self-care.
Listening, Learning & Changing: The Family Meeting
When you call for a family meeting, do your kids recoil in horror? Roll their eyes? Or the worst — snicker at you?
Too many of our family meetings have devolved into reading a list of directives by which our kids were to abide. More like the reading of a conviction rather than a discussion about improving family dynamics.
So my wife and I decided to change things up.
We held our first family meeting using some of the NVC principles above and the structure I discovered in this article.
We began with these principles:
- Listening is being prepared to be changed by what you hear.
- Everyone has the right to have different opinions and feelings about a situation.
- No matter what happens here, we still have to live together, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to get to a better place.
- Each of us is probably going to have to change at least one thing about what we’re doing to make the problem better.
Write answers to these prompts or questions:
- Please describe specifically what’s frustrating you.
- What do you want to happen instead?
- Is there anything you’re doing that is contributing to the problem? If yes, then is there something you’re willing to do to change it?
- Why would these changes be hard to implement? Why would you think they wouldn’t work?
- This meeting will be worth doing if …
We laid out the ground rules — that everyone would have a chance both to share and to respond. We also timed everything. Having limited time and knowing there would be an opportunity to respond helped mitigate the chance that everyone would just air their dirty laundry.
I hum when I work. Loudly. I discovered that my humming was bothering my family. The structure of the family meeting helped me be much more receptive to changing my behavior because a key component is that everyone shares what’s bothering them without interruption.
Giving each person a chance to offer up how he or she was willing to change — and the self-sacrifice involved in doing so — also helped us each to see how we could all contribute to a better working household for everyone.
And in the end …
Use these tactics however you think will work best for your family. I don’t use the NVC structure as a checklist, for example, but rather as something I try to be mindful of and incorporate into my family interactions. Sometimes I’m successful, and sometimes not, but I’m always learning.
The more we can listen to each other and ask better questions, the more effectively we can navigate a crisis2 together.
Without the need for pithy sayings.