Friday, November 17, 2017

Time Out in a Dark Room

My daughter takes time-outs in a dark room.  

With me.


Did you think I was a horrible father?

So, let me take you though this whole thing and see how you feel about it afterwards.  

To be honest, I am not a huge time-out fan.  Time-outs promote isolation instead of connection, and spanking promotes physical pain, but what else in the world is there?  Well, one day, for some reason, when my two-and-a-half-year old daughter was being obstinate, I took her into her bedroom, and I stayed with her.  We sat on a small couch, and I said, "I brought you in here because we are picking up toys right now, but you are not helping." The light was on, and she was looking around, so I could tell she was avoiding me and not connecting with me.  For some reason, I decided to turn the light off.  We sat back on the couch, and I held her close.  "I brought you in here because we are picking up toys right now, but you are not helping."

"I'm ready, Daddy," she said.

After about thirty seconds of this dark room experience, we went back out into the living room, and of course, she did not help pick up the toys, meandering around, doing everything but picking up the toys.  So, I decided to bring her back into the "dark room" as we now call it.  We went through this process at least four or five times until she finally decided to help pick up her toys and finished in about three minutes.

A reminder is that I hold her close when we get in the dark room.  The idea is to connect with her, remove her from the situation, and then the dark room part of it is to deprive her senses of everything except for me, her, and our words.  Thus, we are connecting emotionally and disciplining all at the same time.  It should also be noted that now I talk about going to the "dark room" ahead of time.  Of course, she does not like to go in the "dark room", but it is not the worst thing in the world either.  In fact, we are connecting instead of her being put into isolation, so there is a part of it that is desirable.  Our kids need our discipline and containment, but they also need our connection as well.  Over time, this process has become very short, usually about a couple of minutes at most.

Taking a time out in a "dark room" is the way in which I do time out with my daughter instead of sending her away from me.  She loses some freedom in the moment, but she does not lose connection.  In fact, she gains even more connection.

(Photo taken with permission from Matthew Wilkens at

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Brief, Intentional Family Transitions

My wife and I have busy schedules.  Sara is a full-time mom and a part-time student.  I am a full-time student and a part-time community college instructor.  We have a lot going on.

It is very easy to pass our daughter in-between each other, going from activity to activity.  However, we know from experience that this results in a lot of emotional dis-regulation, not only for our daughter, but for us as well.  

When time permits, why not schedule a half-hour of family time, to buffer the transition from one parent to the other?  For example, if I am coming home from work and Sara needs to go to school, why not come home half-an-hour earlier?  Then we get to play "kitchen", "kick-the-ball", or "run-up-and-down-the-hallway" for thirty minutes before mom leaves.  It isn't just good for our daughter, rather it is life-giving to all of us, even to our marriage.

When time permits, try to schedule family time into those transitions, if possible.  

(photo taken with permission from KrisBee_Biscuit @

Friday, August 4, 2017

All Words are Physical

If I harm someone with my words, this is a physical action.  


If I insult or degrade another person with my words, it starts first with a thought in my brain to do so.  Then my diaphragm expands with breath, my tongue moves, and with a puff of air, the words are spoken - a physical action.

Next, those words are carried through the air as sound waves which then physically strike the other person's ear drums.  The vibration of the ear drums is interpreted by the person's brain, and the message is received.  Not only that, but research in neuroscience is showing more and more how the verbal and visual messages we receive from each other physically change our brains.  Thus, continuous insults by me to another person literally change their brain physically overtime.  That sound wave struck their eardrums, which in turn literally changed the physical nature of their brain, especially if repeated over time.  This is why I am arguing that all verbal abuse is physical.  Oh, and by the way, physically changing each other's brains also affects our physical health over time.  Thus, according to much research, verbally abused persons have more health problems and live shorter lives.  

Thus, if I say to myself, "at least I don't hit my kids", then that is a very good thing, but it does not mean that I am not physically harming my spouse, partner, or kids.  My verbal insults, criticisms, and neglect physically abuse them over time.

The flip side is that all verbal affirmation is physical.  Every time we say good things to one another, those sound waves also strike the other's eardrums and are interpreted by the other person's brain.  We physically help the other person's brain grow physically with each affirmation.  Thus, all affirmation is physical as well.

There is wisdom literature of old that says, "When we speak to one another, it is as if we are able to speak the words of God to each other."  This is how powerful our words of affirmation can be.  We can physically transform the brains of one another.  Oh, and by the way, listening to one another is one way we speak to each other as well.  Our listening is a part of language and is a physical act as well.  Listen, talk, and affirm - these things will physically reconstruct our brains over a lifetime.  In turn, our physical health can also be strengthened by the physical nature of our verbal affirmations.  We help each other live longer, healthier lives through the affirmations we give to one another.

One might be tempted to enter shameful thoughts such as, "Oh great, now I know I am a physical abuser, not just verbal abuser!"  However, the hope we have is that we can start wherever we are starting at.  Life is a journey and a process.  We can only start from where we are starting at.  We can always try to do good, even in the midst of all the bad.  Maybe one way to start is to simply say to ourselves, "I might not know how to change yet, but I desire to change.  I don't want to verbally insult and criticize my close loved ones anymore.  I want to try to do good to them."  Maybe from simply having the desire or asking for the desire to come, we can make some sort of a start towards doing good to one another - reconstructing our brains and our bodies.

(photo taken from flickr creative commons with permission from "Search Engine People Blog" at

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Did you use your words Daniel Tiger?

Daniel Tiger is a cartoon spin-off of the well-known Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.  Daniel Tiger, his family, and friends live in the world of make-believe.  They tackle lots of life's everyday problems through connecting emotionally, using their words, compassion, and problem solving.

When Daniel Tiger gets mad or sad, Teacher Harriet says, "Did you use your words Daniel Tiger?"

Daniel Tiger spends a lot of time saying, "Grr!", instead of using his words to express how he feels and why.  My two year old daughter does the same, but actually, I do as well, at least on the inside.

I've been listening to Teacher Harriett a lot in my head lately.

Unlike Daniel Tiger, I say "Grr!" on the inside, not on the outside.  I spend a lot of time, unintentionally, using my silence as violence.  This means that when I'm angry with my wife, I harm her with my silence instead of using my words to say I'm angry and share with her why I'm angry.  I don't want to intentionally harm my wife (my intentions aren't the point here), but five minutes, five hours, or five days of holding in my anger harms my wife.

"Steven Dunham, did you use your word?" Asks Teacher Harriett?

"No, I got quiet," I say.

It is so easy to unleash our wrath through outbursts of verbal violence, contain our wrath with verbal silence, or any number of things to avoid the real issue, which is using our words to name our feelings and why. 

Ultimately, we have three basic choices: use our words, verbal violence, or silent violence.

"Did you use your words, Steven Dunham?"

I don't want to remain silent any more.

I want to use my words.

I'm angry, and this is why...
I'm sad, and this is why...
I'm elated!  And this is why...
I'm confused, and this is why...
The list goes on...

This photo was taken with permission from Isengardt at

Monday, April 24, 2017

Audio Stories in the Car for Kids

With tablets these days, pacifying our children with videos and games can be quite tempting, yet there is another route we can take to help our kids survive our drive times.

The other week, I converted several "Daniel Tiger" episodes from You Tube to mp3.  "Daniel Tiger" episodes are easy to follow along with in audio format, without the need for video.  Our two year old daughter hates drive time, but she is doing much better because she totally tunes into these stories about conflict, naming emotions, and problem solving.

There are plenty of websites that convert from to mp3 audio files.  Google can help you to find them.  Then simply convert videos to mp3 that you think your kid might be interested in.  Listen to them in your car with a phone, mp3 player, or burn the audios to CD if you have a CD player.  Convert your shows to mp3 and then have them listen to them on the car speakers.

Try different kinds of videos and see which ones your kid tunes into the most.  TV shows and videos that are positive, emotionally connecting, and problem solving are the best because they help a kid's brain activate parts of the brain that lead to emotional development.  Our brains are hardwired for stories that have a beginning, middle, and ending that lead to emotional connection, problem solving, and teamwork.

Right now, our 24-month-old daughter is watching Dora the Explorer, Little Einsteins, and Daniel Tiger.  While Dora and Little Einsteins are great shows, I recommend Daniel Tiger the most because this show helps with emotional development and problem solving.

I am uncertain about three years old and above, but I am certain that there are You Tube videos out there that deal with emotions and problem solving for higher ages.  One example off the top of my head for middle school kids would be the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.  The emotional development piece isn't as direct, but the teamwork and problem solving pieces are there.  I am certain there are good, positive, emotion coaching, and problem solving stories out there for all ages and development.

Watching Daniel Tiger on a screen in a car for hours can harm a child's eyes and doesn't engage a child's brain in the same way that an audio version does.  Listening to audio increases the child's ability to imagine, remember a video they have already watched, and increases concentration if they are listening.  It is a great way to help calm a child during drive time in a way that is emotionally and cognitively beneficial.

On a final note, if your child likes to read in the car, then that is great!  Not going to argue about that, except to say that if you listen to these stories with your child, then you can discuss them with your child too, which increases emotional connection between you and them.  Thus, I believe a combination of reading, listening, and watching stories is a nice balance.

(photo taken with permission from flickr creative commons by TILImAX10 at

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Kicking the Habit

Two months ago, I gave up reading the news, watching the news, and reading Facebook, which contains a high volume of news posted by friends and loved ones.

The results?

I feel great!

I'm sorry that I'm not responding to people's posts currently, but this has to do with self-care, self-preservation, and even care for my family and my students.

Most news is inherently toxic to our well-being, creating anxious hearts and minds, which affects our relationships with those around us.  The patterns of watching news, posting news, and getting into mental arguments or Facebook arguments is similar to any addiction.  We lose control, we feel like we can't stop, and we feel like we might die if we don't get our fix.  

In fact, when I disengaged from the news, I felt this sort of detox effect, of course in a *much* smaller way than hard core drugs, for example.  Nevertheless, any addiction, say to gambling, gossip, or news has a chemical component to it.  I really did detox to a small extent because my body was used to getting fed with certain chemicals through the addictive process.

The beautiful thing about disengaging from the news is the lessening of anxiety in my life over the past two months.  I have less fear of the world and my life falling apart catastrophically.  I can simply take in what is in front of me in the real world in real time.  In the real world, I can actually confront injustices for real, rather than just ranting and raving about them on Facebook or in my own mind.

In fact, the other day, I was talking with a Muslim man who told me that an Uber driver had refused to pick him up because he was a Muslim.  It was flat out discrimination.  He contacted Uber to file a complaint, but let's face it - it went undealt with.  In this situation, I was able to express empathy and give some advice to this man, as best I could.  I explained that I wish the man had received consequences for his actions and sorry that he got away with such a discriminatory action.  

Do you see the difference here?

I could read all sorts of news and get upset about all sorts of things, leading to lots of anxiety.  I could post all sorts of things in protest to Trump, Obama, Ophrah, or white supremacists.  Instead, I had the opportunity to deal with an injustice in real time and offer my support.

I'm not saying we all need to disengage from the news, but I guess the question is CAN I?  And, what sorts of effects is it having on my family or workplace?  To me, this is the most important.  Choosing to let go of things that produce anxiety in our lives is not just about self-care but also about our influence on those around us.  My family is more important than my supposed need to be informed.

(Taken with permission from flickr creative commons by Linda Aslund at

Monday, March 13, 2017

Preemptive Relational Strikes

In college, I attended a presentation in my residence hall called "Dr. Love: Advice on Dating".  Dr. Love was a sixty year old man, married to his wife for many years.

One thing I remember was his discussion of routines and preemptive love.  His example was that when his wife took a shower, he always pulled out a towel and put it on top of the heating vent to warm it up for her.  Everyday, she had a warm towel when getting out of the shower.  

Recently, our two-year old daughter has been getting up a bit earlier than we would like, especially for my wife, who likes to sleep in.  I found that my daughter will go back to sleep for almost another hour if she gets a bottle of milk, which helps her go back to sleep.  When she wakes up, my wife can just give her a bottle without talking, leave, and that's it.

I usually get up early, so what I've been doing lately is making a bottle for my wife and sticking it in hot water before I leave for work.  Then, when my daughter wakes up, my wife doesn't have to scramble, trying to put a bottle together before our daughter fully wakes.  She just grabs the pre-made bottle, gives it to our daughter, and goes back to sleep for another hour.

Whether it is a heated towel or a heated bottle, the rule is the same.  Try to find way to strike preemptively with love.  Often it is found in routines that meet our partner's needs.  Study your partner, ask your partner, and find out what they need.  These "small" things can have a huge impact over time.

(Photo taken with permission from flickr creative commons by Tinou Bao