Tag Archives: Raising Boys

H.U.L.K. Emotional Intelligence

hulk13I 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.


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Posted by on December 31, 2016 in Present Moment Parenting


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Father’s Day: For dads of boys when…

Joshua KoeppFor Fathers Day, here’s my advice to dads about the three situations that regularly bring out the worst behavior from dads of boys at child-care programs. Providers ask me about these at nearly every boys workshop I present.

For dads of boys when… (from a dad of two boys)

  1. your son wears “fancy” or “girly” dress-up clothes at daycare.
  2. …you want to tell him to stop crying and take it like a man.
  3. …you’re temped to tell him it’s okay to “hit back” to stand up for himself.

your son wears “fancy” or “girly” dress-up clothes at daycare. Don’t worry. It’s normal. It can’t “make him” gay any more than dressing up for Halloween makes him a ghost. Dress-up play is one way boys grow their brains and make sense of their world. It helps them experience and understand what other people think and feel. In fact, boys are more likely to be confused if they DON’T get to play dress-up.

Resist the urge to disapprove or tell him “boys don’t dress like that.” In his little mind all that would do is make him feel like Dad is upset and there’s something wrong with him for playing and having fun. It can also send the message that women are inferior and anyone who does certain jobs or roles doesn’t deserve as much respect. Ironically, when we teach children not to fully respect others, they end up thinking they don’t deserve respect themselves.

…you’re temped to tell him it’s okay to “hit back” to stand up for himself. Give him more credit. Soldiers and martial arts experts know it takes more strength and skill to solve conflicts without force. “The strong survive” only works for wild animals. Human evolution actually favors the males who learn to make friends, get along and solve problems. Even bullies respect the kid who knows how to make friends. Living by the sword only ends well in movies. In real life, there are better ways to feel capable, safe, strong, and win a fight.

If your son gets physically assaulted by another child, he doesn’t need you to give him boxing lessons. Rather, he needs you to let him know there’s no shame and you still respect him. Teach him that you both have skills to handle what comes without regressing cave-man status. True strength and authentic manhood can start young, and Dad is the one who gets to model it. Giving-in to violence is a cop-out that makes more problems than it solves.

I know first hand how emotionally charged and difficult these situations can be when you’re in the middle of them. Send me an e-mail if you’re seeing red and want a set of fresh eyes.

…you want to tell him to stop crying and take it like a man. Be careful. Crying is the body’s normal, automatic expression of emotional processing and release. (It can also be a way children try to manipulate and control adults, but that’s a different story.) In the first case, telling him to “man-up” and stop the crying makes emotions even more confusing and sends the message that men and boys should be ashamed of something that’s normal. Living in an emotional straight jacket causes all sorts of problems, but to understand and manage our emotional landscape has huge benefits.

My son and I have discovered a counter-intuitive formula that is healthy and actually seems to help tears end sooner. I call it C.A.P. Connect. Acknowledge. Protect.

Connect: For boys, this is most often done non-verbally through physical proximity. To just stand or sit near him is often enough. Sometimes an arm around the shoulder or hug for the little guys helps. Don’t get too close if he’s not ready.

Acknowledge: A short phrase. Usually something like: “You seem sad, angry, upset (fill in the blank).” “That was pretty tough.” “Do you feel? I can understand if you do.” The key is to recognize that he has emotion and give it a name if possible.

Protect: Let him know he is safe with you (from ridicule, judgement, shame) and protect him from embarrassment. When necessary or possible, find some privacy for him.

In many cases, this whole process only takes us a manner of seconds, but you don’t want to rush it. The counter-intuitive part is that it usually helps him stop crying in a few seconds. That’s not the goal, but it usually works that way. Which makes sense, when you think about it, because it helps to process the emotion. Once the emotion is processed, crying is unnecessary.


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Responding to “I HATE YOU!”

9947161_sFew phrases are more difficult for me to hear as a parent than “I hate you.” Whether one of my boys directs it at me, his brother, or even a toy, hearing “I HATE YOU” always triggers a response.

It’s important to be able to stay in the “parent place” when it happens. Here are some tips and insights that help me.

First, (as always) be self-aware. I use Daniel Siegel’s C.O.AL. acronym for this.

  • Curiosity: What feelings am I having? Why did he say that? Did I ever say that as a kid?
  • Openness: Can I respond with humor, insight, compassion, silence etc.?
  • Acceptance: His emotions are valid. My emotions are valid. I can’t change the past. The future will be fine. Stay in the present moment.
  • Love: Connect with my heart. Follow its lead.

What it feels like “I HATE YOU” means:

  • He hates me.
  • He doesn’t appreciate everything I do for him.
  • He can’t handle his emotions.
  • He’s going to grow up to be a violent kid.
  • Him and his brother will never get along.
  • If he says that here, he’ll probably say it in public.
  • He’s depressed.
  • I’m depressed.
  • The list goes on.

It’s important to note that many of my automatic emotional reactions above are fueled by fear, anger, or sadness.

What “I hate you” REALLY means:

  • I don’t like the boundary you set on my behavior (even though that’s what I thought you’d say).
  • I’m sad (mad, afraid etc.) and don’t have the words to say it another way.
  • I need to save face, so instead of crying I’ll be angry.
  • Will you always love me, even if I say this?
  • Since you can read my mind, I know you’ll understand what I really mean.
  • I feel powerless, and saying “I hate you” gives me the power fix I need right now.
  • I want attention, and this usually gets some.
  • I’m having a testosterone surge and it’s making me crazy.
  • My brain can’t process emotional data fast enough, and I need to say something  NOW.

Responding during the situation:

  • Keep your cool. By keeping my response calm, I stay in the parent role and model for my boys the best way to handle strong emotion and maintain their dignity.
  • Remove energy from “hating.” By responding with as little energy as possible (not yelling, jumping up, making faces etc.) I send a message to my son’s brain that there is no reward for that kind of behavior here. For more info on the energy match, check out Nurtured Heart Approach and Present Moment Parenting.
  • Validate his emotions: “It sounds like your frustrated.” “Is it a tough day?” “I know this is disappointing.” By acknowledging his feelings, I show my son that it’s okay to have emotions and that I have respect for what he’s feeling and processing.
  • Use non-verbals. Observe his body language and subtly mirror it by being calmly present with a similar (appropriate) posture, position, or action. If he needs space, move away, but don’t disconnect.  Give a pat on the back, or just sit. These nonverbal often communicate better than words that I care, I understand, and I’m here for you.
  • Use humor.  No demeaning sarcasm, but don’t miss the chance to lighten the mood if you can. “You hate me? Well I HATE MUSHY PEAS!”
  • Do something unexpected. This is one of my favorite Adlerian Child Guidance Principles. Have fun as you tailor it to your own style and relationship. For instance, I might start singing loudly “I am Henry the Eighth I am. Henry the Eighth I am I am. I got married to the widow…” If he says, “SHUT UP, I HATE THAT SONG,” then I might say “Well, at least you’re not hating me now.” Start throwing popcorn in the air and catching it in your mouth. Do the cinnamon challenge.
  • Delay teaching and lecturing until later. When emotions are high, the lizard brain is in charge. There’s not much higher-level thinking, learning, or emotional processing going on. Wait for calmer times to do your instruction.

Responding after the situation:

  • Especially for boys, set up teaching moments in the right container. Doing some kind of physical activity, eating, or driving often works well. Barry MacDonald has great resources on Action Talk.
  • Teach feelings language. For boys in particular, avoiding phrases like “I hate you,” requires that they be given the right words to use. Help them think about what their feelings really were and what shades of emotion best describe it.
  • Make a plan. Think together of a couple different ways he could respond to the things that stress him into hating. Give him some of the basic strategies like deep breaths (for younger kids I use snake breaths), positive self-talk, or taking a break. If I don’t use these techniques often enough myself, I start modeling them.
  • Practice other responses. Actually play out a situation or two and have him practice the new response. It’s amazing how powerful and effective this is. This can even be done with older youth, especially if points 5 and 6 from above are used.
  • Try using the Incredible Five-Point Scale. Talk about what it looks and feels like when emotions are at a 5. What it looks and feels like when they are at a 4, 3, 2, 1. Collect ideas about how to move down a step.  Then, during heightened moments say, “It feels like a 5 right now, and I’m going to bring myself down to a 3.”
  • Provide healthy opportunities for power. If “I hate you” gets an angry response, it’s a real power trip for him or her. Learning to get power in healthier ways reduces the need to automatically to hating.  (See the Adlerian Mistaken Goals Chart for specific ideas on this).
  • Provide healthy opportunities for attention. Similarly to the above point if the mistaken goal of saying “I hate you” is attention, consider healthier ways to meet the need for attention.
  • Give energy to success. Whenever I see my son managing emotions, I always recognize it and let him know he’s using his skills. In fact, even if I know he’s likely going to need to manage emotions, I try to set him up for success by reminding him of how much I appreciate it when he uses his skills. This is a proactive approach from the Nurtured Heart Approach and Present Moment Parenting. After all, why should negative behaviors have all the fun! Right?

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