Mindful Management of Self (all while being a parent)
"When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not to join their chaos.” -- L.R. Knost
One recent rainy weekend I made Ooblek. What’s Ooblek you ask? It is a magical solid yet liquid concoction of cornstarch and water that I love. I wanted my daughter to love it. I wanted her to be occupied and interested for at least 20-30 minutes on a rainy afternoon. I wanted her to love this stuff as much as I do. To play with it the way I do. To find it fascinating and mystical the way I do. That’s what I wanted. She wanted to add too much water. She wanted to make “porridge” by filling a cup, bowl and bin with various amounts of water left out for rinsing. She wanted to stir vigorously and watch water splash everywhere. She wanted to do her – i.e. be her curious, excited, impulsive, self-directed, genius, creative little self. That’s what she wanted. So, of course, I got irritated.
In the end it was MY expectation for that play time and my eventual difficulty in managing my own reaction that for a time made the experience less than ideal. I allowed my irritation and my own feelings to take over for a moment. I let my feeling brain react instead of my thinking brain. I raised my voice in disappointment and in frustration. It was a moment when my reaction was solely about ME and MY needs and had little to do with HER.
Parents often talk to me about the frustrations they have with their kids’ behavior as well as the frustrations they have with their reactions to said behavior. We talk about parental expectations for the kids as well as for themselves. In focusing on a parent’s expectation and reaction I may ask what it all means for a parent. What does it means in the big picture of life and what does it mean logistically and emotionally for the parent as a person. I ask these things because a person’s reaction almost always has more to do with themself and their own internal workings than with whatever is actually happening.
Listen up -- therapists are not perfect. Yep, I said it. Even therapist moms who work with and treat kids and families. We lose it too. We question ourselves too. When that happens (if we believe in and follow our own work) we then (try to) offer ourselves some kindness. We tell ourselves tomorrow is another day, and we try to forgive and accept our imperfections while working to find meaning in our reactions. I work just as hard as my clients do to master the techniques we discuss in session. I do this because interactions with your OWN children are about 10,000 times harder than interactions with someone else’s children. That’s why getting an outside opinion and perspective can often be illuminating and helpful. But what do you do when you’re in it? What do you do when your child has just pushed that same button of yours for the tenth time in as many minutes? What do you do when you find your feeling brain taking over and want more than anything to keep your thinking brain in charge? Below are some mindful strategies to help in those ever challenging moments.
1. Breathe: Never, ever underestimate the value and impact of a good, long, deep breath. Deep breath in and long, slow breath out. Repeat three times.
It is more than ok to stop yourself just as you’re about to shout or even mid-shout. It is imperative to take a moment for yourself if you find your reaction veering into aggression. This is okay. You are okay. Stop wherever you are in the moment, ball your fists up and breathe. As you breathe out attend to the feeling of your body physically relaxing. As you breathe in and then slowly out attend to your reaction and your emotions. As you physically and mentally relax you allow your thinking brain to stay in control and give yourself the time to think clearly, make better decisions and manage your reactions.
2. Acknowledge and accept your feelings: Everyone has conscious and unconscious expectations and desires for a situation. The situation doesn’t matter, what does matter is the ability to think about how you are feeling in that moment. Knowing your own feelings allows you a certain amount of perspective. This perspective gives you the ability to think and stay calm rather than emotionally react. It helps you to see the situation. See your child - are they safe? Are they happy? Are they frustrated? Are they disappointed? See yourself - are you safe? Are you happy? Are you frustrated? Are you disappointed? Think a moment and ask if anything is an emergency? Does an issue, behavior, action, statement need to be addressed right this very second? Accept your feelings whatever they are. Accepting your feelings does not mean you act on them. It does not mean there is shame in them. It means you acknowledge them. You allow them to be present in the moment, but you do not allow them to be in charge of the moment.
3. Find meaning: Very few people can manage and understand their feelings and reactions in every single challenging situation. Even if you are able to identify how you feel, you may not always so easily know why you feel that way. The next step in developing the mindful management of your reactions is trying to seek the meaning beneath your reactions and feelings (think about the anger iceberg pictured below).
By exploring our own emotions and needs we gain clarity, insight and the ability to manage our reactions because we have worked to understand them. Let’s review my Ooblek situation and focus on a momentary tug of war I had with my daughter over a plastic spoon and a bowl of watery mess. As we each tugged I was in my head thinking about my reaction. It dawned on me that I didn’t care about avoiding a mess. I was feeling frustrated and hurt because I felt like my helpful suggestion/direction on how to play was being ignored and dismissed by my very opinionated, self-directed little one. In acknowledging this I allowed myself a second to think. The meaning in this interaction for me was all about me and my needs. I thought am I okay letting this one go? Did this need to be my teaching moment? Did I need to be ‘heard’ in this specific situation? Did it need to happen right that second? I breathed. I thought. I let go of the spoon. I calmed my voice. She looked at me rather than anywhere but and I felt okay with letting things be good enough (and pretty freaking messy).
Many times parental reactions happen in an instant, and then you and your child are “in it.” That does not mean you must stay “in it.” That does not mean that the power struggle you entered into has to end with a winner and a loser. Allowing yourself to ignore some of your children’s (non-emergency, non-dangerous) behaviors as you take the time to focus on your own needs and behaviors is so important in parenting. A very valuable parenting approach is in fact the planned, purposeful and thoughtful ignoring of many of your children’s challenging behaviors. Not all actions need a reaction.
Kids want attention – they’ll take the good and they’ll take the bad. But in all relationships it is the positive attention, interaction and reactions that have the most impact. When parents address their own needs and work to be mindful of their own reactions, they allow for better emotional management and self-regulation, and in turn their children learn to do the same. To ask our children to do this without asking it of ourselves is unrealistic and frankly, unfair. To believe in yourself that you have the capacity to do this is the first step in the work of mindful management of one’s parenting self.
If you find yourself having big, uncomfortable reactions when parenting or feel like you need help or support reach out and talk with someone. Contact me and see if I’m the right fit for you.