"I read Dr. Laura every day and I can actually feel my brain being rewired. I sense myself making continual progress towards the mother I want to be. I'm learning to love myself unconditionally along the way, too." – MaMammalia
You've probably noticed that things work better with your child when you're in a good mood. At least half of the time when we get irritated, impatient, or frustrated with our kids, it's because we're already feeling unhappy. Then there's a spark, our bad mood flares, and before we know it we're in the middle of a firestorm. That's why noticing your own mood as you go through your day, and re-centering yourself when you're out of sorts, transforms your parenting.
The other half of the time our anger is "justified" in the sense that our child acts in ways that trigger us. Naturally, we feel an urgent need to teach a forceful lesson she won't forget! Isn't that how she'll learn?
The short answer is No. That's not how she learns the most important lessons. And you'll be teaching her some things you don't want to teach, such as "The grown-up way to deal with conflict and upsets is to yell at people and hurt them." At those moments our child looks like the enemy, and we shouldn't try to teach.
Because the truth is, we're on the same side. Our job is to nurture and guide, theirs is to grow and learn, but we're partners in growth. If we can take that long view, we're more likely to remember that when our kids trigger us, we have an opportunity to teach them the most important lessons.
Like how to regulate themselves emotionally.
Guess how they learn that? From us. Young children don't have the neural pathways to calm their own turbulent feelings. Everything seems like an emergency to them. But when we stay calm in the face of their upsets, they calm down too -- and their bodies learn from that experience how to calm their stormy emotions. That's how they wire the neural connections to self-regulate.
So your child is counting on you to de-escalate the situation, because he can't. If you can stay calm, you'll help him shape a brain that will make regulating himself easier, soon, and for the rest of his life. And once he can regulate his emotions, he can regulate his behavior.
That's the trick, of course. Most of us are still working on the "staying calm" part. Welcome to being human.
But there’s really no magic to staying centered. It’s just committing yourself, and then practicing.
And then forgiving yourself when you fall short, and practicing some more.
So each and every time you find yourself losing it, just STOP, DROP, and BREATHE.
- STOP: Close your mouth in mid-sentence, if you have to.
- DROP: your agenda, just for now. Don't try to resolve the situation until you feel better. Just get everyone out of danger, and then wait until you're calm to teach, or even talk.
- BREATHE: Deep breathing calms you. You can even do this with your child. ("It's not an emergency.... Let's all stay calm here.... Let's breathe deeply together five times and then try a do-over.")
This is what they mean by putting on your own oxygen mask first.
After you Stop, Drop and Breathe, try a "Do Over."
1. Connect. Hug your child. Yes, even if things are tense. Just say "Let's try a do-over. I think we both need a hug."
2. Set an empathic limit by helping your child with the emotions that are driving the "bad" behavior. Let your child talk so he feels heard, and empathize before you restate your limit: "That was so upsetting for all of us.... I guess you wanted xyz.... You really wish... You must be so disappointed..... I hear you...And no matter what, it's not okay to ......."
Note that if you're telling your child it isn't okay to raise their voice at you, you can't be raising your voice at them.
3. Teach. Later, when everything's calm, work with your child to solve the problem or make repairs.
- "You told me that you thought I was being unfair. You never have to raise your voice to get me to listen. I will always listen to what you have to say."
- "You were really mad that your sister messed with your things. It sounds like you need to tell her how you feel about that. You can express what you need without attacking her, and that will make it easier for her to hear you without getting defensive. What could you say to her?"
- "It's okay to get mad. It's not okay to yell at other people. What could you do to calm down next time you get so angry?"
The bad news is, this is really hard. Regulating our own emotions is the hardest part of parenting. The good news is, every time you resist acting on your anger and instead restore yourself to calm, it gets easier. In fact, neurologists say you're rewiring your brain to be calmer and more loving.
So this is possible, for every parent. You gain the skills and neural wiring to return yourself to calm the same way you get to Carnegie Hall -- Practice, Practice, Practice.
The even better news? You're giving your child a head start on building a calmer, more loving brain right from the start. Which I'd call a small miracle.
"The main difference between a master and a beginner is that the master practices more." -- Yasha Heifetz, Master Violinist