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Supporting Your Kids When Life is Tough (Part 1 of 2)

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Supporting Your Kids When Life is Tough (Part 1 of 2)

Psychologist and best-selling author Dr. Kevin Leman offers parents practical advice for helping their kids process, learn from and rise above life's difficult challenges. (Part 1 of 2)

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Episode Summary

Psychologist and best-selling author Dr. Kevin Leman offers parents practical advice for helping their kids process, learn from and rise above life's difficult challenges. (Part 1 of 2)

Episode Transcript



Kevin Leman: So if he gets hammered, or she gets hammered in their home, and they’re hammered in the peer group out there, where’s a kid go?

End of Excerpt

John Fuller: That’s psychologist Dr. Kevin Leman helping us to understand through the eyes of a hurting child just what’s going on inside. You know, as parents, we want the best for our kids. And when tough situations come, and they inevitably do, we can either help them or hinder them. You’ll hear how to help today from Dr. Leman on Focus on the Family. Thanks for joining us. I’m John Fuller, and your host is Focus president and author Jim Daly. 

Jim Daly: John, we have a live studio audience around us. And they’re gonna sit and listen. And then, we’re gonna get to a couple of questions, hopefully, at the end of the program. So, say hello.

Audience: Hello!

Jim: And then we’re gonna go from there. So it is great to have one of the most popular guests here at Focus on the Family, Dr. Kevin Leman, back with us. Here’s a news flash. We live in a sinful and broken world, and our kids are going to run into a lot of disappointment in life, just like we all do. But we need to understand as parents how to help them through that and how to, hopefully, be healthy in our parenting so that our children are healthy in their journey. And that’s the goal. We want to offer you that kind of help here as Focus on the Family. I know that’s Dr. Kevin Leman’s heart, as well, in writing the book, When Your Kid Is Hurting.

John: And he has written, I think, over 60 books now. He’s been on Focus on the Family dozens of times, and he has lived this out. He’s got five grown children and I can’t remember how many grandkids. It’s…

Kevin: Four kids, four grandkids, yeah.

John: And he and his wife Sande live in Tucson, Arizona. 


Jim: Dr. Leman, welcome back to Focus.

Kevin: Hey, it’s my pleasure to be here. This is always like home.

Jim: Well, we love it.

Kevin: So Focus on the Family, you know, I’ve spent my life dealing with families, trying to do my part, not only personally, but helping people around the world understand it can be done.

Jim: Yeah. Let’s start there. So many parents today – we feel like we’re up against a tsunami that others before us never encountered, that the culture today is damaging our kids – Hollywood, politics, the whole bit. Is it really different than 20 years ago, 40 years ago?

Kevin: Yes. Yeah, it is.

Jim: In what ways?

Kevin: Well, you just turn on television or Google or Yahoo, and you’ll see the latest. It’s a shooting. It’s gang violence. It’s just – it’s pervasive in our society, and culture rules. But I know myself – you talk about how parents feel overwhelmed. As an author, when I thought about doing a book called, When Your Kid Is Hurting, I thought, “Where do you start?” Because, it seems to me in our society today – in fact I tackled this in a book called, Have a New Kid by Friday. Every place I go, Jim and John, I run into parents who say, “Aw, Dr. Leman, we are so glad you’re with us, because we two want” – what? “Happy, happy children.” And it seems like the goal for parents today is they want happiness to reign in each of their children.

Jim: What should be the goal?

Kevin: Well, I pointed out in that book, an unhappy child is a healthy child.

Jim: Yeah. I like that.

Kevin: And there’s times that your son or daughter has to be – what? Unhappy. And so, if that’s your goal – your onset as the parent is to create this happy, happy child, good luck, because culture does reign. And unfair things are going to happen to your kids. It’s not a great world, like you – it’s a fallen world. And, all those maladies of life are out there waiting for your kids. And the initial reaction as a parent is – what? Protect them…

Jim: Yeah.

Kevin: …and put them under the bushel. And that’s where I really found myself lying awake at night, thinking, “Okay, what do we do here?” How do I help that parent understand that part of what this book is about – it’s almost like an art form? It’s the words you choose to use with your kids that make a difference.

Jim: Well, you’ve identified in the opening the three basic fears that children have.

Kevin: Right.

Jim: Let’s start there. Let’s talk about these basic fears that kids have.

Kevin: Rejection, uncertainty – okay? And fear itself. And there’s not a kid today going to school from – especially from the fourth or fifth grade up, who’s thinking to him or herself, “I hope today isn’t my day, my day to be singled out, laughed at, mocked out, whatever.”

Jim: Now let me highlight this, because I think even in our day, that bullying was occurring in some form or another. And I would say today, yeah, because of social media and other tools at the hands of children today, it’s amplified. So the fear of rejection – there’s a heightened fear of rejection in today’s culture maybe than what I experienced in the ‘70s growing up, ‘60s and ‘70s. Is that fair?

Kevin: Yeah. It can happen in the lifespan of a mosquito. I mean…

Jim: What does that look like? Describe it.

Kevin: Well, it’s the best friend forever. You know, your 11-year-old daughter and her buddy, little Rebecca, they do everything together. I mean, they hold hands. They’re so cute, you know? And all of a sudden, there’s a split because Rebecca’s best friend forever happened to look at the boy she thought was cute in the fifth grade. And that’s where it starts. Now, you go – you know, a kid today, 16 years old, a lot of them want to drive. Some of them don’t, interestingly enough. It’s the interesting thing about millennials. But the kid who wants to drive a car, you know, you go get a permit. You take instruction. Some parents are smart like we did once and hired a driving instructor to teach our youngest. I did four. I said the driving instructor can do the fifth. I’m done…


Jim: And that child’s the best driver?

Kevin: Yeah.


Absolutely, by far. But, anyway, I digress. But we prepare kids to drive a car. It’s a $3,000 lethal weapon. Okay. He gets the permit. She gets the license. Life goes on. We put the new Goliath in a kid’s hand in the third grade.

John: You’re looking at…

Kevin: A cellphone.

John: Yeah.

Jim: That’s – yeah…

Kevin: Okay? And I’m telling you that’s a lethal weapon because the nasty things that can come from the former best friend forever about the 11-year-old girl can be devastating.

Jim: It gives the tongue unlimited access.

Kevin: Absolutely. Kids are just run over today, and there’s no filters. And we could go on and on…

Jim: So in that area, let’s go to a practical resolution. How does a parent respond when they have that child that’s being run over through social media? What can they do?

Kevin: Listen. But there’s a second part of that: listen. And a third part: listen some more, because every emotion in you – when you hear about the cruel and untrue things a kid said about your 11-year-old daughter – okay – calling a kid a slut – okay? At 11. You think that happens? It happens all the time.

John: Yeah.

Kevin: So we live in an era where kids have access to terminology that maybe we didn’t have years ago. They see it every place, and it’s vicious. So, I say you listen, you listen, you listen. You stop yourself from doing what you’d like to do. You know, someone once said, “Oh, I know the problem here. You didn’t get in touch with your feelings. And if you get in touch with your feelings, you’ll know the right thing to do.” That is terrible advice for anybody, because you’ll go kill somebody if you get in touch with your feelings when someone’s harming your kid. And so after you’ve listened, I like the proactive suggestion. One of the suggestions I give in the book is for this 11-year-old kid, who’s just been hammered, doesn’t want to go to school.

Jim: Right.

Kevin: “Honey…”

Jim: “I don’t feel well today.”

Kevin: “…I understand why you don’t want to. If I were you, I would feel the same way.” But maybe that’s a time to share a story from your heart about where you got ripped off from your best friend or somebody made you the target for the day. And you use what I call Vitamin E, which is encouragement, the “Honey-I’ve-got-the-faith-in-you-that-you’re-going-to-be-able-to” – and I say run toward the fear.

Jim: Yeah.

Kevin: But here’s the other part of that. “Honey, listen, you’ve just got to remember, I’m 30 years older than you. And you just have to trust me on this one. I just want to give an idea to you. And maybe you’ll take it on, maybe you won’t. Just an idea. It’s gonna be a rough day. You know that. I know that. But at lunch, at cafeteria, look for a kid that’s sitting by themselves, and sit across from them. And just introduce yourself to them. ‘Hi, I’m Janey Smith. I never had the pleasure of meeting you.’ And start a conversation with that kid. And then come home at the end of the day and tell me how your day went.” And I guarantee you – I guarantee you that that kid is gonna learn something about the heart and relationships that would – they would never learn…

Jim: Yeah.

Kevin: …Like, you know, saying the traditional things that parents would say to a kid.

Jim: Kevin, so often, that child may be embarrassed because of what’s happened, so the listening on the parent’s side is doable. But they’ve got to be saying something. So, what happens when you have that child that’s withdrawn, even from the parent, and not open about talking about what’s going on?

Kevin: You give the permission for the kid to have the feelings that they have. What we tend to do with kids is we tell them things like, “Honey, you shouldn’t feel that way.” As a caution to parents who are listening, never “should” on your kid. It really just essentially says you didn’t measure up. You fell short…

Jim: Over and over.

Kevin: You want to use that Vitamin E, that encouragement. “Honey, you know, I think I would feel just like you, exactly like you…”

Jim: Right.

Kevin: “…But you know what? I have the confidence in you.” Now, there’s the high-octane in the kid’s emotional gas tank right there. “I have the faith in you, because I know you, and I know you have it within you to face that tough thing.”

Jim: Yeah.

Kevin: And even when kids are hammered and you look at the situation – hey parent, can you see what your kid did right in that situation? Can you say to them “Honey, I’m so proud that you didn’t strike back, like most people would? And even though they hammered you, you put a smile on your face, and you walked away.”

Jim: Yeah.

Kevin: And then, sometimes, I think you have to give kids what I call pocket answers. And somebody’s mocking a kid out, because they slipped and stumbled, or something. And kids mock him out. “Yeah, you’re right. You know what? I think God put my feet on the wrong legs.” I mean, come up with some kind of a one-liner that makes light of it.

Jim: Yeah.

Kevin: I’m a guy who’s known for using humor. And I remember being on The View with those crazy ladies. Well, how do you defend yourself with all those ladies on The View? I know how Kevin Leman does it. And I use it with humor. And so, sometimes, giving your kids some ways of handling those tough curveballs in life just keeps the enemy at bay for a while…

Jim: Right.

Kevin: …to give you a chance to recoup and to move forward, because it’s tough.

Jim: Yeah. And it’s a tool for them to use. I like that idea. That’s on rejection – uncertainty – what do you mean by uncertainty – that this is one of the – a child’s deepest fears?

Kevin: Well again, you don’t know if today is your day. You – you – you live your life, as an adolescent, in particular, walking on eggshells.

Jim: Huh.

Kevin: And you don’t know what’s gonna happen. It can – it can turn in a matter of seconds.

Jim: And are you talking about the world at large – the various crises…

Kevin: No.

Jim: …that can occur, and…?

Kevin: No. Not really, because in the book, I talk about those out-there experiences, and that’s the shootings and the – and the floods. And, you know, again, I – I say, “Let’s be proactive.” Let the kids see that you write a check to the Red Cross to help those flood victims. Let the kids do a car wash to raise money to send blankets and supplies. I mean, there’s lots of ways of getting kids – you want them to be sensitive to the world around them. But when you look at your kid’s life – look at your two kids’ life. Where – where is their life, and – and where’s the centerpiece? It’s the home. And it’s mom, and it’s dad, or it might be a relative, or their school, or their church. And most of us would agree our kids’ world is very small…

Jim: Mmhmm.

Kevin: …Until you put Goliath in their hand – that cellphone, and then everything’s open. It’s all up for grabs. So, is there a protective nest? Is your home a harbor where kids feel safe? Everybody, finish this sentence. You’re in good hands with….?

 Jim and John: Allstate.

Kevin: That’s been around since…

Jim: Yeah.

Kevin: …Since I was a little boy, and I’m near death. I’m telling you.


But you know, that’s how a kid needs to feel. So if he gets hammered, or she gets hammered in their home, and they’re hammered in the peer group out there, where’s a kid go?

Jim: Yeah.

Kevin: And what is it that you put in your home that’s gonna have your kid reject temptation? Everything from, “Smoke this, drink this, snort this, etc.” to just being hammered by kids? I love to teach kids at Leman Academy of Excellence, our charter schools. I go into the classroom, and I always talk to the kids about being kind and respectful. And I say, “Are you a kind class?” And it’s really fun, because all the kids will say, “Yes, Dr. Leman. We’re a kind class.” And they’ll say it in unison. I said, “But, don’t you know that there are people who are mean to you?” “Yeah.” “Well, the next time someone’s mean to you, I’ve got a suggestion. Just look at them and say, “Oh, Dr. Leman said that you don’t feel good about yourself…”


Kevin: “…because you just put somebody down.”

Jim: Interesting…

Kevin: You know what? It’s called psychological disclosure. But it takes a lot away. And in a peer group – I’m just telling you – you need to give those little pocket answers, somehow, to your kids so they can help defend themselves from the wolves that are yipping at their heels.

Jim: Boy, this is good. This is normal, unfortunately, kind of a sinful, normal human interaction that…

Kevin: You were an athlete.

Jim: I was.


Kevin: I heard of some of your exploits last night at dinner. I have to tell you that. But, anyway, you know, as a guy growing up, how smart is it to show your weakness? Not very.

Jim: Certainly not on a football field.

Kevin: They’ll devour you. You have to pretend. “Okay, that didn’t hurt.” I can remember as a kid – as a college kid – getting ready to play a doubleheader against Illinois Wesleyan University, and the coach walks by my locker room. And his name was Royner Green. I want to give the guy credit. He coached out of Middletown, Ohio, and coached a NBA Hall of Famer by name of Jerry Lucas. Well, he was our baseball coach at North Park University in Chicago. He’s walking by my locker. He says, I mean, not at me, just sort of at a bleak statement. Two guys next to me, getting their stuff together – he says, “Leman, I don’t think we’re going to need you this weekend.” I’m – I cry thinking about it to this day. I was – I thought, “Oh, gosh. You have to say it in front of everybody else?” So I high-tail it back to the dorm. Words hurt. Words make a difference. Parents need to understand that in that arsenal of encouragement, what I call vitamin E, you can turn a kid around. You know, our schools have been so successful. And it’s interesting, because the culture of the school – when I look back at it now – started years ago, when I was a head resident of a dorm, and the dean talked me into being head dorm rat, where the football team was quartered.

Jim: Oh, not good.

Kevin: Not good at all.

John: I see where that’s going.

Kevin: They put the head resident in the hospital. Some guy broke his eye socket, you know? I told the dean, “Dean, my mama didn’t raise no dumb kids. I ain’t going over there.”

Jim: Right.

Kevin: And he said, “Kevin, you’re the guy that can do it.” And to show you how stupid I am – I took the assignment on. But one of the things we did is we met the football players at the curb. And my skinny, little, scrawny assistants carried their bags to their room. And we changed the culture of that dorm to the point where the University of Arizona Vice President for University Affairs gave myself and the dorm what they called the Student Personnel Award. We changed the culture, by what? Servicing other people.

And what we’ve done at our schools is we meet kids at the curb. We bring those little ankle-biters right in to the safety net of our schools. Parents love it. But we get to see the cars. We know the families. And so I look back at my life and I see the connection between what I learned as a young guy and what I’m trying to dispense to parents today, that it’s the words we choose to use with people that make all the difference in the world. And so, if your kid’s getting beaten up out there in the peer group, which is easy to do, and comes home, and he’s hammered or she’s hammered for everything under the sun, good luck. It’s not going to work out well.

Jim: Kevin, again, this is great advice and good insights. The issue of the broken home – I want to touch on that before we end today and jump into next time. And I know you’ll be willing to stay with us. But what about that idea where kids are living in a – you know, a difficult environment at home. Mom and dad aren’t getting along. Maybe the divorce has already happened. Unfortunately, it’s commonplace, whether you’re in a secular home or a Christian home, divorce is happening at the highest rate in the country’s history. So the issue and the question I have for you is how do we help, as adults, as those parents, how can we help our kids in these areas of fear, in the modeling of marriage and the modeling of family and how it should be done? I mean, I think the most fearful kids today are kids in homes that are dangerous.

Kevin: The number one fear for a kid today, I think is, “My parents will get a divorce.” I think the two things – if you asked me what two things are the most hurtful – divorce and the best-friend-forever split-up kind of thing – those young relationships with kids. We could do a whole program on how to help kids who are a product of divorce. Parents say things that are so stupid like, “Oh, it’s not your fault.” Okay so, we’re starting off talking about fault, which isn’t a good place to start off. There’s no win-win divorce I’ve ever seen. And we live in a culture, where you go into a Hallmark store, and you’ll see “Congratulations on your divorce.”

Jim: That’s amazing.

Kevin: Great – you know what? Divorce hurts. And what do we do as parents? We split them in half like a loaf of bread. And we say, “All right – 50 percent here – 50 percent there.” King Solomon had something to say about that once, if I remember – not a good idea. If you parents are so cool, you’re so interested in moving, you two move. Let the kids stay in their home. Okay? And parents, extend the olive branch to that ex. I don’t care if he’s a slime ball, if she’s a slime ball – scum of the earth. You’re so mad. You know, you’re hurt. He did this. She did that. Do not lambaste your ex. Or your son or daughter will turn that parent into the Time magazine “Father of the Year,” because that’s the natural instinct. And a parent – they want to protect. They want to balance things out. So you say you don’t want to put your kid in the middle. You just have, as soon as you open your mouth about your mate. So when the kid says, “I miss my daddy.” “Honey, I know you miss your daddy.” “No, I want to see my daddy now. I want to go on a plane.” “He’s three states away, honey. Wouldn’t that be great to go on a plane right now, and see Dad?” Now, notice the tone here. “Wouldn’t that be great?” So you’re granting in fantasy what you can’t in reality, because number one, as a single mom, now, you can’t afford that airplane ticket. It’s highly impractical because Dad’s a traveling salesman, all those things. But you grant them – “Wouldn’t that be great to hop on that plane and see Dad? I know you miss him, and that’s understandable. Honey, I know you’re hurting. But listen. Here’s the thing. Tonight after dinner, why don’t you give him a call?”

Jim: Yeah.

Kevin: And so, you look for ways – okay – of negotiating this tough curveball this kid’s been hit with in life. And you give him that vitamin E.

Jim: And that is so good. I think one of the most difficult letters that I’ve read that have come into Focus on the Family over the years, was from a grown woman who recounted the divorce of her parents when she was a little girl. And you know, her dad, I assume, tried to do the best he could, saying, “Your mom and I aren’t capable of being together, so I’m going to be leaving. But, I’m gonna be there for you. I’ll see you on the weekends. I’ll see you on your birthday – made all the promises, and then never kept one.” And she actually never saw her father again. At the time of that letter, she was now in her late 20s. And the divorce probably happened when she was about 9 or 10. So, think of that. Twenty years go by. And the father that said, “I’ll be there for you,” never was. And you never saw the person again. That’s devastating for a child, obviously. That’s the fear of what breakup does.

Kevin: And that influences that kid’s view of who Almighty God is.

Jim: Right.

Kevin: Okay? The trust factors – but parents, a couple of things quickly, because I know we need to take a break, but don’t hide your tears. I cry easily. I cry at supermarket openings when they cut the ribbon.

Jim: Oh, that’s a big event.


Kevin: Yeah. It’s a big event. But you know, when you see your kid crying, go and put your arms around them.

Jim: Right. It’s a message.

Kevin: You don’t even have to say a word. Learn to cry together. Learn to miss things that used to be. Keep routines as much as you possibly can. Try to avoid as many changes as you can, because that is such a tough time for a kid.

Jim: Kevin, this has been terrific. And we are going to continue, so we can come back next time. I do want to cover depression in children. I think that’s an epidemic right now. We have suicides going on in high schools and junior highs. And it’s important that we cover that if for no other reason to equip us as parents to how to talk about this with our own children, how they can be a friend to those around them. But before we end today, I do want to work in maybe one question from the audience sitting around us. So does somebody have a question as you’ve been sitting here? Sure. Come to the microphone. Go ahead and give us your first name and where you’re from?

John from South Dakota: Hello. I’m John, and I’m from South Dakota. And thank you, Dr. Kevin Leman, for being here. But you talk about putting Goliath into the hand of your child. So I was just wondering if you have any practical, like, tips as to what stones can you put into David’s hand?

Jim: There you go.

Kevin: Well, again, I was on a television show once. And this guy sort of sarcastically said, “Well, I’ll tell you the truth, Doctor – seems to me what you’re talking about is just common sense.” I said, “Oh, thank you very much – appreciate that. I know a lot of people in my profession that don’t make a lot of sense in my biased opinion.” But you know, parents, you’re the one – you’re the one that has all the keys. You got all the gold in your back pocket. Your kid wouldn’t have underwear on today, quite frankly, if you didn’t buy it for them. So who’s kidding who? So who purchases that cellphone? And what kind of expectations do you have for that kid who has a cellphone?

I mean, I think you build things in, where a kid realizes that this isn’t just a right here, this cellphone. This is a privilege, and with it comes all kinds of things. And as a parent, you have to know where your kid’s going with that cellphone. So everything from passwords, whatever. You have to use some good old common sense. But you’ve seen it in grocery stores. You’ve seen kids on appliances – all you parents who are watching us – I feel like I’m in this middle of a fishbowl here – but you’ve seen kids who are how old – 3? And they have a cellphone in their hand. They know exactly how to cue things up on it, et cetera. So I…

John: I saw a stroller with a tablet holder as they were pushing through the supermarket.

Kevin: So, it’s crazy. So parent, you need to exert authority, not as an authoritarian. There’s a big difference. When we come back tomorrow, maybe we’ll get a chance to talk about that difference, because it’s really important to understand what true authority is. 


Jim: Well we want to do that. Dr. Kevin Leman with us today on Focus on the Family. His book, When Your Kid Is Hurting. What a great discussion we’ve started. Let’s continue that, come back next time and cover some of the things that – practical helps that parents need to understand their kids, and where they’re at emotionally, physically and – and really, to do the job of parenting.

Here at Focus on the Family, it’s why we exist. And supporters help underwrite this effort, in order to allow us to accomplish the mission. Thousands of parents call us or write us or ask for help every month, and your support makes it all possible. When you make a monthly pledge, which is the best way to support the ministry, that way it evens out our budgeting, and it helps us tremendously, if you’re that regular monthly supporter. If you – for any amount – I mean, that could be $25 a month, if you can do that, that’s great – but for any amount, we will send you a copy of Kevin’s book, When Your Kid Is Hurting, as our way of saying thank you for standing with us to help those that are in need. Also, if you’re not able to be a monthly supporter, give a gift of any amount, and we will send you the book as our way of saying thank you.

John: Donate and get this book at focusonthefamily.com/radio or call 1-800, the letter A and the word FAMILY. And when you get in touch, if we’ve surfaced some issues that you’d like to talk through with one of our caring Christian counselors, they are available for you, as well.

Jim: Kevin, let’s do it. Let’s come back next time and hit some of these issues. Thanks for being with us today.

Kevin: You’re welcome. 

John: And on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening to Focus on the Family. I’m John Fuller, inviting you back tomorrow, when we continue the conversation with Dr. Kevin Leman and once again help you and your family thrive in Christ.

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