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Exercising Emotional Muscles by Kristina Kotlus

In 2009, we watched “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” For those of you who have forgotten that cinematic masterpiece, an out of shape want-to-be cop must settle for a security guard position because he cannot pass the physical fitness test for the actual police academy. Hilarity ensues when the mall is overrun, hostages are taken, and Blart must save the day despite physical readiness.
What does this have to do with being ready for a crisis? Well, there’s the obvious lesson that walking a little bit and doing a few sit-ups wouldn’t hurt any of us, but that’s not really my concern.
There are emotional and mental muscles that need to be worked out, and if you, like Paul Blart, wait until the moment of crisis to stretch them, you’re likely to end up face down in a ball pit, rather than saving the day. Can you make it through? Sure – but you’ll do a lot better if you prepare, rather than waiting for when you need them.
When my children were 4, 6, and 8 years old, I was diagnosed with a citrus-fruit-sized brain tumor in my 4th ventricle. Surgery was planned, radiation would be necessary, and it was likely that the cancer would recur (which it did, four years later in my spine).
How do you help a preschooler, kindergartner, and second-grader deal with the trauma that comes with possibly losing a parent and having their primary caregiver out of commission? Well, we did it by exercising joy.
There were a lot of things we already had in place when I was diagnosed. My family is deeply rooted in our faith tradition, which is helpful not only because it gave my children a platform to build their hope on, but they also had a community of adults rallying around them. However, I know many families are not part of a faith tradition by choice, but they can still practice joy.
When a crisis like a parent getting cancer happens, children are highly aware of their lack of agency. They are not in control of their surroundings or outcomes, and frequently they are robbed of their schedule, caregiver, and possibly even their home. Rather than focusing on the future, we worked with our children on acknowledging that the current situation was not ideal (okay, fine, we allowed everyone to start using the word “sucks”), and focused on what was good in our lives in spite of the cancer.
For us, this practice was an addition to our family prayer time, but it could easily occur whenever it works best for your family. Each night we gave our children an opportunity to express how they were feeling. If they were struggling, we made time to speak privately but focused on choosing joy, whatever that was.
When we first started, our youngest frequently saw a pretty cloud or grandma let her have a treat. That was fine. Our older son would find joy in me reading a chapter of a book to him. Our middle son was overjoyed when someone brought non-casserole dinner- he doesn’t like his food touching.
We would remind each other that while we were in the middle of a bad situation, we were in control of our responses, and while it was okay to be sad or angry, we could choose to refocus our energy on being joyful and grateful instead of x or y.
There were several key components of this practice. First, we would rotate the person in charge of taking everyone’s joy notes down. This gave the children ownership, as well as made it a practice that did not require mom or dad, in case we could not be there. When visitors were with us at bedtime, they participated, too. This was something we normalized. Everyone can be in charge of their feelings. Second, we wrote everything down. This may not seem important, or maybe just like one more thing to do, but having evidence on really bad days is crucial. In the middle of brain radiation, when I lacked the strength to suck water from a straw, I could be reminded of all the wonderful things people had done to support me or my last good blood count because the evidence was on the pages from days before.
When my cancer came back, we were able to look over years of blessings and joy because we needed the reminder that things had been good before and could be again.
Third, we allowed feelings. Choosing joy means that other emotions are not just allowed, they are expected. We did not teach our children that they had to fake emotion or be “okay” all the time.
They were allowed to be angry, scared, sad, or tired. In fact, we extended this beyond our family practice and empowered our children to be what is usually classified as “rude” to adults who asked them too many questions. They were allowed to feel how they wanted, and we would address those feelings, but in the end, our choices matter more than our knee-jerk reactions.
Being prepared for an emotional crisis and the trauma it brings by making it a point to exercise emotional intelligence will make you a more prepared family on the bad days and a more grateful family on the good ones. ❦

About Kristine Kotlus

Kristina lives in Prince William County, Virginia with her husband, Austin, and educates their three homeschooled children. She teaches writing, Sunday School, and volunteers in her community.
Kristina loves speaking with others about parenting, faith, cancer, choosing joy, and, of course, general joking/sarcasm. She’s spoken for numerous moms groups, done training for churches, and is a gifted teacher and engaging speaker.
You can find Kristina’s book, “I Quit” from Morgan James Publishing at Amazon, her speaking engagements, and local bookstores. You can also visit to follow her local parenting blog.

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