There is a lot out there about coaching our children through their emotions, but what about dealing with our own? Someone once commented to me that the toughest part of being a parent is that it doesn’t come with a day off. Even when your kids are off at camp or staying with a relative and you have an empty house, you are still a parent. And because, we don’t see ourselves as getting a break, sometimes the steam starts to build up.
When that steam reaches a breaking point, even the best parents out there lose their cool. Maybe your spouse is out of town and the kids just clogged the toilet again. Or you get a call at work that a child got in trouble again or an unexpected bill arrived in the mail that throws your budget out of whack. I don’t have a name for that feeling, but it’s when the stress of work, home, and children just reaches a tipping point and you feel like you are going to boil over.
And then you discover that your kids really need you to be present for them because that’s your job as their parent.
The first step in coaching your kid’s emotions is to calm yourself down. Like they tell you on the airplane, you need to put your oxygen mask on first. It may seem counterintuitive, but you can’t help them if you can’t breathe. Getting yourself to a place of equilibrium can the entire situation more than any strategy that you try with your kid.
Stop, Drop, Breathe
These are three easy steps to start you on the path to centering yourself and control your own emotions. Stop and drop whatever it is that you were doing. if you were being distracted by a household task or something on your to-do list, put it down. Take a deep breath in through your nose and count to three and then exhale through your mouth, counting to four in your head. Repeat this several times until you start to feel more in control. You can repeat a mantra in your head or just remind yourself that you love your child.
While simple, this strategy addresses many of the physical causes of our raging emotions by bringing our breathing under control. You can also clench and relax your fists which will have an impact on your body’s fight or flight system which will reduce how alert you feel.
Parent Using a Quiet Voice
When we yell, our body starts to respond to the increased energy that we’re using. Our heart rate can go up and we start to shift into a vicious cycle of increasing emotional reactiveness. Instead, shift your voice to a whisper.
This is a classic teacher trick for dealing with loud classrooms as kids start to match the teacher’s voice. It works at home as well as your kids start to wonder what you might be saying. It allows for mirroring your actions which can de-escalate the situation. But most importantly, using your quiet voice has a calming physiological impact on you and can help you not lose your temper.
An alternative to this strategy is to pretend that you are a concierge in a hotel. No matter how intense the hotel guest is, the concierge stays calm and unflappable. With this visualization in hand, think about not just what you are saying, but how you are saying it. Keep your tone even and calm, minimizing inflection in your voice. Stick to the facts and don’t embellish your conversation with additional emotions.
Shift Your Thinking about Your Kid So You Don’t Make It Worse
Let’s be honest. We think our kids are much more sophisticated in their thinking than they actually are. You may ascribe all sorts of motivations to them about the cause of whatever has led their behavior to trigger you. “They are pushing my buttons” or “They want me to lose my job” might be running through your head. The reality is that they aren’t that complex and you shouldn’t mistake their behavior for the complex machinations of an evil villain, even when they remind you of Dr. Evil.
Beyond changing your thinking about why they are acting this way, you need to adjust your expectations. Are you asking too much? Are you making task demands at the wrong time? Are they tired, hungry, anxious, etc and is this interfering with their behavior? Dialing down the demands can quickly de-escalate a situation.
Consider if the expectation that you have of your child is crucial. If it is related to health and safety, then it’s not the time to set it aside. If it isn’t, consider whether you have dug your heels in on the wrong issue.
Become an Innovative Parent (just not now)
Most of us have a sudden urge to move into a problem-solving mode in these situations. We’re upset and angry and we want a solution right now so that we never feel this way again. Finding a solution to the problem is really important, but not when you are angry and upset. Strong emotions like anger can inhibit our problem-solving skills and blind us to better solutions.
Hold on the solution seeking and innovation until you are calm. Being an innovative parent requires you to use your observation skills and to brainstorm openly which are difficult to do when things are heated up.
Look for Parenting Supports
If you are finding that a pattern is emerging, it might be time to bring in some extra support for yourself. This could be as simple as reaching out to a relative or friend for support and a little commiseration. It can also be finding a parenting coach or therapist to help you objectively sort through some of your parenting challenges. Be open to not walking this path alone.
Grappling with your kid’s emotions is hard enough. Doing while dealing with your own can seem impossible. Keep these strategies in mind the next time that you think that you are going to lose it and you’ll feel more successful and better prepared to stay calm.