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How to Stay Calm When You're Losing It

I've come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It's my daily mood that makes the weather. As a parent or teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized.-- Dr. Haim Ginott

All parents know that everything goes better when we keep our own mood positive. Most of us can recognize those signs that we're on a downhill slide: stressed out, depleted, ready to snarl at the first wrong word out of our child's mouth.  We know we'll end up yelling, and we know that yelling will only make things worse. 

But what can we do about it?  There will always be children who act like children, and there's still dinner to get on the table, baths and the bedtime routine and the bills to pay. 

The answer is, you can postpone anything but love. You really can.  Here's how.

1. STOP, DROP, and BREATHE.  That feeling of annoyance or anger at your child is a signal to STOP.  Right now, in this moment, just STOP.  DROP everything else you're doing.  Now, BREATHE.  Take three deep breaths in through your nose, and let them out of your mouth, slowly.  Take three more. 

It helps to repeat a mantra like "I choose love"...."This will be ok" or "He's acting like a child because he IS a child."  Keep breathing slowly until you feel some calm flow through you. I know, it sounds simple.  But it gives us that tiny space between thought and action that lets us choose more wisely.

2. Put on your own oxygen mask on first. Yes, you're on a flight -- the Parenting Red-Eye. Your child can't calm herself, because she's still laying down the neural pathways that regulate her emotions.  She's depending on you to model emotional regulation, which helps her learn to shift from emotional upset to calm. 

What will calm you right now?  A cup of tea on the back steps listening to the birds while the kids run around?  Putting on music and dancing with your kids while you all sing and shout as loudly as you can?  Do it for five minutes. You can always make it up somewhere else, and this will change the whole tone of your day.  After you're calmer, you can revisit whatever was upsetting you with your child, and make things better.

3. Intervene in a way that doesn't make things worse.  If there's a storm brewing, your intervention can either calm it or turn it into a tornado. When we're in "fight" or "flight" mode and we can't run (Parenting Rule #1), we usually see our child as the enemy.  He isn't.  He's an immature human, dependent on us for modeling and guidance, whose bad behavior is sending an SOS.  If you have to intervene RIGHT NOW, do whatever you need to do to keep everyone safe, but bite your tongue. Later, try to decode the SOS behind your child's "bad" behavior.

4. Honor emotion. Actions have to be limited, but all emotions are allowed. One of the most useful parenting strategies is to always build in an extra fifteen minutes.  That keeps us calm, allows kids to transition, and leaves time to cry over spilled milk (or whatever.) Life with children is full of small catastrophes, and once we let our kids cry in our arms, they usually feel --and act -- a lot better.  But remember that the most important way to keep them calm is for you to stay calm.  If you've been running around like mad woman for the past fifteen minutes screeching at your kids as you try to get them out the door, you can expect one of them to have a meltdown before you get to the car.

And as long as we're on the subject, when's the last time you cried?  Or laughed yourself silly?  Most of us carry around a sloshing bucket of pent-up stress, worries and emotions, ready to spill over at the slightest provocation. But we don't have to, if we do preventive maintenance. Make a date with yourself to let off some steam. 

5. Use your upsets.  You can't address problems constructively in the moment when you're upset, but you can certainly solve them if you invest some energy at another time. If getting out of the house every morning is a struggle, don't put up with it.  Solve it. (For some ideas, click here.)  If bedtime, or homework, or transitions are a struggle, address those issues head on.  There is always something you can do to make recurring problems better.  If the recurring problem is your own constant irritation, depletion, or stressed-out state, you owe it to yourself as well as your child to address it by getting yourself support. (See # 6 below.)

6. Let go of all of all non-essential expectations. If you take seriously that your number one parenting responsibility is your child's well-being and healthy development, then noticing when you're getting upset and restoring yourself to a state of balance isn't a luxury any more.  It's your first priority.  So you may have to pare back in other ways.  My personal belief is that when you have children under the age of six, you are excused from any responsibility not directly linked to their health and well-being.

7. Support yourself.  Every upset in your life is a learning opportunity.  If you're a really fast learner, you won't repeat the same upsets twice. In that case, your home life is probably feeling pretty good to you -- and your children are probably thriving.

On the other extreme, some of us find ourselves re-living conflicts with our kids so often that we know exactly what will happen when things start to fall apart.  That's when we need outside support.  Maybe you just need a listening ear, maybe you need expert advice, maybe you need counseling to heal your own childhood issues so you can love yourself unconditionally.  Start now, today, by taking some action to move yourself forward.  It's your ethical responsibility as a parent to show up for your child. But it's your spiritual responsibility as an adult to show up for yourself.  I'm here rooting for you.

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