"When emotional reactions replace mindfulness, you're on the low road and it is very unlikely that you will be able to maintain nurturing communication and connection with your child." -- Dan Siegel
You know what the high road is. When you’re feeling really good, nothing fazes you. You respond to your child’s foibles with patience, understanding, and a sense of humor.
You know what the low road is, too. It’s when you’re stressed, exhausted, resentful. When you insist on being right or wringing an apology out of your child. When your fuse is so short that you feel justified in having your own little tantrum. When you're in the grip of fight or flight emotions, so your child looks like the enemy.
All of those challenging emotions that flood us and wash us on to the low road can be traced, at core, to feelings of fear, shame, powerlessness or grief. We can't bear those feelings. So we start blaming and lashing out. We become resentful, angry, disappointed and disconnected--from our child, and from our own ability to love.
Sure, we're reacting to our child's behavior. But we rage so we won't have to feel those unbearable feelings.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons to get upset. It means there are far fewer reasons than we think. It means that what upsets you today might make you shrug a year from now. It means that when we're in a state of love, not much upsets us. By contrast, when we're on the low road, everything upsets us.
Parenting is hard, and nobody takes the high road all the time. But you can find yourself on it more and more. Here's how.
1. Use Your Pause Button.
Your Number 1 parenting responsibility is monitoring your own emotions, so that you can regulate in the face of all that childish behavior. That allows you to use your emotional Pause button:
Stop (what you're doing), Drop (your agenda, just for this moment) and Breathe (which signals your body that it isn't an emergency).
Just bringing awareness to your thoughts and emotions is enough to keep you from being in the grip of them. What does "bringing awareness" mean? Notice what's happening in your body right NOW.
Every time you take a deep breath and feel the sensations in your body, you're practicing mindfulness. You're pressing the pause button so you aren't just getting triggered. That gives you a choice about which road to choose. (Hard? Very. A regular meditation practice makes it a lot easier to find the pause button when you're upset.)
2. Accept feelings and take loving action BEFORE you get mad.
We usually start sliding down onto the low road by tolerating behavior that is bothering us. We try to be patient, but we're gritting our teeth. So we get increasingly annoyed and finally get hijacked by our anger. To stay on the high road, practice accepting feelings while you take loving action to set limits -- before you're near the edge. Here's the difference:
"I wish she wouldn't call her sister names." - This is tolerating the behavior that goes against our values, without accepting feelings or taking action. It doesn't solve the problem because no limit is set and the child doesn't get help with the feelings that are driving her to act unkindly. It makes us resentful of our child and more prone to snap later.
"Stop that name calling right this minute or you'll get punished!" - This is indulging our reaction without helping the child with the feelings driving the behavior. Although a limit is set, this response escalates the problem and reinforces it, because now the child blames her sister for the punishment, is angry at your unfairness so she doesn't WANT to cooperate, and gets no help with her feelings.
"You sound mad! The rule in this house is that we speak to each other with respect, and no name calling. You can tell your sister what you're mad about without attacking her." - You're setting a clear limit on behavior without resorting to threats or punishment. You're also accepting the child's feelings and guiding the child to express them directly, without hurtful behavior.
3. Don't get hijacked by the low road.
When you notice that you're shaking with anger, that's NOT a sign that your child needs to be taught a lesson RIGHT NOW. It's a red warning flag telling you to STOP, because you're getting hijacked by your upset and sliding down onto the low road. So disengage from your child. Then, shift yourself out of being triggered by noticing the emotion but resisting the urge to act on it. Breathe through it. You aren't that emotion; you are observing that emotion. It will pass. Melt that rage away by letting yourself feel the fear, sadness and disappointment under the anger. If this happens often, give yourself whatever support you need to heal your own issues. (And who doesn't have issues?!)
4. Remind yourself that the low road never leads to the destination you want.
From the low road, our child is so clearly wrong. But the wider view from the high road shows us our child's perspective, and our compassion blooms.
Let's say your child is objectively, totally, completely, off-track. That often happens to young humans with big feelings and immature brains. But your child can only join you on a better path if you're reaching out from the high road. Blame, shame, anger, and criticism never help your child become a better person. (Do they help you be a better parent?) Your heart is your compass here; getting in touch with our love always gets us back on the high road.
5. Consciously choose the high road.
Children who feel ugly inside act ugly, which is a signal that they need our help. We always have a choice. Will you join him on the low road and escalate the upset, or will you embrace him with your love so he can get back onto the high road with you?
You can't live on the high road all the time, if you're human. But the more you get used to choosing it, the faster you'll notice when you're off-track. You're actually rewiring your brain. It's hard, yes, but it isn't complicated. The high road is love. The low road is fear. Choose love as often as you can. Unconditionally.
Today is Step 8 of Ten Steps to Unconditional Love:
This series is designed to heal our ability to love unconditionally, so we can give our children the unconditional love they need. The first six steps were:
Want More? We're exploring each of the ten steps in more detail over the next few weeks. Join us for some heart stretches!