Your #1 Responsibility as a Parent
"Mindfulness: Allowing an emotion to take hold and pass without acting on it."
“Mindfulness: Not hitting someone in the mouth.”
-8 year old, quoted by Sharon Salzberg
Your child is fairly certain to act like a child, which means someone who is still learning, has different priorities than you do, and can’t always manage her feelings or actions. Her childish behavior is guaranteed, at times, to push your buttons. The problem is when we begin acting like a child, too. Someone has to act like a grown-up, if we want our child to learn how! If, instead, we can stay mindful—meaning we notice our emotions and let them pass without acting on them—we model emotional regulation, and our children learn from watching us.
There's a reason the airlines tell us to put on our own oxygen masks first. Kids can't reach those masks or be relied on to use them properly. If we lose function, our kids can't save us, or themselves. So even if we would sacrifice ourselves to save our kids, it's our responsibility to put on our own masks first.
Kids can't manage their own rage by themselves, either. They can't find their way through the tangle of jealousy that pushes them to whack their little sister. They need our help to handle the fear that we don't love them because they somehow just aren't quite good enough. They know that if they were good enough, they wouldn't want to hit their sister, or sneak that piece of candy, or throw themselves down on the floor and scream. But they can't help themselves, however hard they try not to. (Sort of like when we eat that extra piece of cake.)
So just as with the oxygen mask, it's your job to help your child with his emotions, which is what helps him with his behavior. Unfortunately, when you're stressed out, exhausted, and running on empty, you can't be there constructively for your child, any more than if you black out on the plane.
That's why your first responsibility in parenting is being mindful of your own inner state. Mindfulness is the opposite of "losing" your temper. Don't get me wrong -- mindfulness doesn't mean you don't feel anger. Being mindful means that you pay attention to what you're feeling, but don’t act on it. Anger is part of all relationships. It's acting on it mindlessly, with words or actions, that compromises our parenting (and other partnerships).
Emotions are useful, like indicator lights on a dashboard. If you saw a blinking red light in your car, you wouldn't cover it up or tear out the wiring that caused it, right? You would listen to the information and act on it, for instance, by taking your car in for an oil change. The challenge with human emotions is that so often we're confused about what to do when we feel them. We're hard-wired to respond to all "negative" emotion (those blinking red lights in your psyche that light up throughout your day) in one of three ways: fight, flight or freeze.
Those strategies work well in most emergencies. But parenting—despite our fears—is not usually an emergency. Usually, in parenting and in life, the best response to upsetting emotions is not to take action while we’re triggered.
You can count on finding yourself triggered at times, but if you can train yourself to notice when you start to lose it, you have the choice to return yourself back to a state of equilibrium. That peaceful place inside insures that our actions are wise and loving.
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Have a question about parenting your preschooler? Questions from readers, with wise and practical solutions from Dr. Laura Markham to the worst problems your preschooler can dish out!