Happy New Year, everyone! I hope 2017’s holiday season brought joy to you and your families! And I hope 2018 has already delivered some great memories.
As we enter a new year, we are faced with a lot of typical winter challenges as Carers. Here in Ohio, we have already had several snow days, problems with school pipes and heaters, and all kinds of illnesses passed around… lots of reasons to keep the children home from school. All this time stuck indoors with our children, combined with the long winter break, the busyness of the holidays, new toys to fight over, and colds and flus, we sometimes find our patience wearing very thin!
It isn’t easy on our children, either, as they so often need routine and structure to feel truly safe. They let us know they’re struggling with all this down-time, too, by acting out and pushing limits, which thins our patience even more.
When we are feeling overwhelmed, and our patience is already thin, it is too easy to lose our tempers. When we do, we often regret the things we said or did in our anger, and find that—in addition to being stressed and exhausted and overwhelmed—we now feel guilty, too.
In these times of high stress and low patience, it’s important to remind ourselves of ways to manage our own emotions.
We can usually detect our waning self-control when we feel that first wave of heat wash over us: our muscles tighten- maybe we clench our fists or jaw, or furrow our brow- our chest starts to pound with our racing heart-beat, our cheeks may feel hot, and our breathing becomes quick and shallow. This is the sign that fight-or-flight neurotransmitters (the same chemicals released when you see your child fall and hit his head, or when your car is rear-ended in a traffic jam) are surging through the nervous system. These hormones and neurotransmitters are designed to keep us safe in emergencies, but when we are dealing with our child’s difficult behavior, we are not in the middle of an emergency.
When we are interacting with our child, and we feel the physical symptoms of those fight-or-flight hormones flooding our bodies, we know we are beginning to lose our cool. Call it anger, call it patience-running-out, call it mad, sad, upset, irritated, aggravated, annoyed, exasperated… but whatever we call it, we must recognize that the chances we’re going to be able to react constructively at this point are very low.
Before we proceed in dealing with our child, we must return to a state of calm:
Be honest with your child. Take a deep breath and say, “I’m feeling way too mad to talk about this right now. I need to take a time-out and calm down.” Resist the urge to express anything beyond your intention to calm down; it won’t be helpful. This doesn’t mean your child has “won,” or gotten away with anything. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It means your child gets to see firsthand how a mature person exercises self-control. Since it’s a guarantee our children will experience anger in their lives, too, it’s a valuable contribution to their own development when we can model for them healthy emotional regulation. You can finish the discussion when you’ve cooled off.
Find a way to calm down. Splash some water on your face, take some deep breaths, do some jumping jacks (research shows physical activity releases the tension in your body), stand on one foot (this allows your brain to focus on keeping you upright, rather than maintaining your upset), or repeat a calming phrase. (My personal favorite mantra—learned from Dr. Becky Bailey, creator of Conscious Discipline—is “Keep breathing. I am safe. I can handle this.”)
Despite the commonly given advice that you should express your anger while you’re angry, so you can “vent” it or “let it out,” the truth is that talking about your anger while you’re angry actually escalates it further. So, while it’s tempting to call your best friend or your mother to vent your rage, don’t. It will only make it harder to calm down. If you need advice or support, wait to ask for it until you’ve come back into emotional balance. You’ll be better able to find ways to solve the problem when you’re calm, anyway.
All behavior is a form of communication. Remind yourself, “my child is using this behavior to send me a message. She needs my help.” She may simply need a snack, or she might need a longer nap today. She may need you to set a limit so she feels safe, or she may need some time to herself, away from her siblings. It may just be that some one-on-one time with you is needed. Whatever your child might be trying to communicate, you’ll be better tuned in to hear it when you are calm.
Don’t discipline while you’re mad. The actions you take while you’re still worked up will never be what’s best for your child, and will likely worsen the original situation. If you’ve taken five or ten minutes to yourself and you still aren’t calm, tell your child, “I want to take some more time to think about what happened. We will talk about it later.” Then follow through: continue doing what you must to calm down. Then think through the situation, and talk to your child about it.
Give your child the same respect you would expect to receive. When you are calm enough to discuss the situation with your child constructively, approach him gently and ask, “is now a good time to talk to you about what happened earlier, or should I come back in five minutes?” This lets him know the conversation can take place with mutual respect, and gives him an opportunity to prepare himself for it accordingly. When he is ready to talk, use a gentle tone to express your needs and acknowledge his, and work the situation out together. When you can use a calm tone of voice, it helps you to relax. And when your words and tone are calm, your child will begin to relax too, and the tension will dissipate.
Above all, prioritize self-care. If you aren’t allowing your own needs to be met, it is impossible for you to meet the emotional needs of your children. Sometimes it dawns on us, “It’s not my child who is cranky from not getting enough sleep. It’s me!” Give yourself permission to put the kids to bed early so you can get enough sleep, too. Or leave the dishes in the sink tonight so you can unwind with a cup of tea and that book you’ve been wanting to read. Find someone to babysit so you can go grocery shopping alone sometimes or grab a coffee with a friend. You can’t love your children well if you aren’t loving yourself. And if you make it a priority, you will find the time to make it happen.
Our commitment to emotional regulation makes a powerful impact on our children as they watch us model self-control! Let me know how it goes for you during these winter weekends, sick days and snow days.
I wish you well, dear friends, as you power through the joys and challenges of this season!
(These words were inspired by the wisdom of Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting, and of Dr.’s Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, authors of The Whole-Brain Child.)