I recently used my Facebook page as a platform to ask parents what they do when their children’s behaviour gets too much to handle. Every response identified the need for the parent to calm themselves before dealing with the child’s behaviour. Strategies to do this varied greatly but the understanding was universal: a “break” of some sort is essential.
We have all heard or been told to calm down when we’re angry; to count to ten; to build a bridge, move on …etc. Usually this is said when the angry person is right at the peak of his or her emotion, far beyond the reach of logic or reason and most likely feeling very disconnected from others, alone in their anger. And as most of us can attest, this advice is usually not very well received. In fact, it often escalates the anger and aloneness: “Don’t tell me to calm down! You don’t understand!”
So we have a dilemma. The calm down advice is universal. But most of us don’t want to hear it when we need it. Some of us want to take it if we ourselves initiate it (and aren’t ordered by others)…but how? Why do we hate hearing it when we know it to be good advice? Why is it so difficult to do even when we want to? And lastly, how do we help our children to calm down, to adopt this skill we ourselves struggle with?
Imagine you are overcome with anger. Your body is tense, hot, maybe shaky. Words about injustice, unfairness, betrayal are screaming at you from inside your head. “I deserve better than this!” Memories of past betrayals and injustices leap up unbidden from your past. Fear of future mistreatment urges you on to stamp it out NOW and ensure it never happens again. Physical urges- to run away, to stamp your feet, to hit- are coursing through your feet and hands.
There is no way that in this state, a parent can tune in to their child’s needs and respond to the specific situation at hand. No, in this state we parents are reacting (not responding) to past events, the threat of future events, and judgments of the present moment. We are not present. We are not choosing our parenting strategies consciously.
Enter the need to settle ourselves, ground/centre/anchor; there are many terms for what I call the pause.
I have a pause button on my fridge at home. A simple printed pause button icon laminated with a magnetic strip on the back. It’s for me as much as for the children. It’s a visual cue to settle myself before I try to deal with my children’s needs.
In sessions with clients I provide information about basic neuropsychology and the effect of heightened emotion on rational thought. You can get the gist of this by clicking on this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gm9CIJ74Oxw
Dan Siegel calls it a time out. I call it a pause. I prefer pause because time out has connotations of sending someone away, disconnecting. For some people being alone is exactly what’s needed- a chance to centre in one oneself and settle- for others, isolation at the time of emotional distress is experienced as rejection or abandonment.
I’m not overstating it when I say that learning how to settle ourselves is THE key skill for parenting. No matter how many parenting articles we have read, courses we have taken, or experts we consult, none of our theory will be put into practice at times of anger (frustration, exhaustion, loneliness etc.) unless we are calm enough to access that part of our brain that houses our knowledge, beliefs, and skill. We’ve all had the experience of looking back on an incident with regret, knowing that it could have been handled better, that we actually DID have the skills but didn’t use them.
So how do we press pause? How do we unhook from the overwhelming thoughts, memories, sensations, images, and urges that block our access to tuning in to our children and to using our parenting skills? And then how do we help our children to pause, without unhelpfully ordering them to calm down?
1. We are hard-wired to seek connection when we are faced with difficult emotions. Some of us have learned to over-ride this instinct because the need was never adequately met but our children need it and if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with someone we trust, we adults need it too. Having someone validate you, accept you, and not talk you out of your anger when you’re in the midst of it, is one of the most sure-fire ways to press pause helpfully. We need this. Our children need it.
2. Use your five senses to get present. Notice what you can see, smell, touch, taste, or hear. This will ground you and help you reconnect your frontal cortex and limbic system (as explained in the YouTube link above). If you are able, invite your child to do this with you. Make a kit of sensory toys that can be used at this time- by you or your child IF your child understands and wants to, not as a tool to distract or silence your child; they’ll resist that.
One of the reasons we don’t like it when someone tells us to calm down or count to ten is because we fear our concerns will never be heard. Therefore, help your child (and yourself) understand that a pause button is not a stop button or a change the channel button. After the pause you will press play and get back to the issue at hand, but from a calmer place.
3. Know your parenting values. What do you want to role model? What do you want your children to learn? What sort of people do you want them to be? If you have a clear understanding of this then you can choose to act by these values once you are calm, even if every single parenting skill you ever read has completely flown out of your head.
Calm does not mean happy. It does not mean you’ve moved on. It means that you are ready and able to address your needs and your child’s needs in a tuned-in-to-the-moment manner. And that’s what your child wants from you: to be seen and heard and parented fairly.
The next incident might sound like this:
“I’ve had my pause kids. I feel calmer. You’re still in trouble because you weren’t allowed to do that. But now I can help you with what you really needed.”
“I’m here with you. I see how furious you are. I’ll stay with you. Let’s do some belly breathing and then work out how to help you.”
You’ll work out what feels comfortable for you and your family.
Just remember to pause.