It is sometimes difficult to feel like you know what to do in the midst of your child’s meltdown. It is easy to lose sight of our values when we are triggered by behaviour we see in our child. When we are triggered, we enter into our ‘lizard brain’ where we are not able to think clearly and make decisions based on reason.
In the heat of our child’s dis-regulation, everything becomes heightened and we resort to old patterns we’d rather not repeat; dis-regulating ourselves. Our child’s behaviour becomes confirmation of our worst fears (that our child will not turn out well) and we scramble in the moment to avert the perceived danger. After it is all over, we regret not being at our best when our children need us the most.
So what can we do to hold it together in the most challenging moments of our parenting journey? I have made a list of some things I do to help myself navigate the more unsavoury situations:
If I can take a pause between the stimulus and my response, there is a much greater chance that I will be able to respond rather than react to what is happening. Taking a couple of seconds to inhale and exhale can help me to ground myself and keep my own brain from entering ‘fight or flight’ mode.
2. Notice my inner landscape
I try to notice what is coming up for me because of the stimulus. For example, if I’m in a store and my child screams, I might notice that I feel judged, that I feel shame for not being able to ‘control my child’ and that I am embarrassed. Bringing a mindfulness to what is going on for me helps to create space between my child’s behaviour and myself. It is important but difficult to figure out which emotions are mine and not my child’s. It is so easy to act on invented stories or ingrained patterns when navigating sticky situations. The neurological patterns of the past are well worn paths in my brain, but it is possible for me to override them by being aware of my emotions. I need to create some awareness to remind myself of what I want for my child and myself in that moment. Noticing what’s going on gives me the opportunity to change it.
3. Use a mantra
To prevent myself from coming unhinged, sometimes I use a mantra (a short phrase I repeat over and over, either in the moment, or from experience to experience). I really find that saying to myself, “This is not an emergency,” really helps me to slow down the moment so that I can think through how I want to respond. I also like “This too shall pass,” since the emotional storm my child is experiencing will blow over soon.
4. Visualize them at their best
Sometimes our children need us to be present with them for quite some time. I find that often I have patience at the start of a problem, but as it drags on, it is easy to become frustrated with wanting it all to be over! As my child is struggling, and I’m desperately wanting them to not be struggling, it helps me to remember a recent time my child and I shared that was a wonderful experience. I picture them with that joy and happiness and instead of wanting the undesirable behaviour to go away, hold them in the vision of what I know them to be at their best. It helps me to respond more compassionately and thus my child feels more supported. When we can hold the perfect vision of our child, it helps us to moderate our own dis-regulation.
5. Have compassion – it’s not about you
Thinking of what I would want someone to do for me in that situation really helps me re-frame my point of view. It is easy to feel like our child is doing something ‘to us,’ when really, it isn’t about me at all. Emotional storms come from a child’s inability to self-regulate. The challenging behaviours we see are coming from our child’s desire to feel loved and supported through any means possible. We need to hold appropriate boundaries with the most compassion we can muster. Being quick to forgive helps me hold more compassion for my child. By recognizing that my child is not in control of themselves and they need my help allows me to adjust my responses. My child is doing the best they can (this makes another great mantra!). If we can try to put down the difficult emotions and see the situation more objectively it will be easier to identify root causes for the dis-regulation.
6. Practice self-compassion
Self-compassion means reminding myself that I am doing the best I can. When I feel I am out of line, I recognize that the act of identifying my behaviour as undesirable is the first step toward changing it. Sometimes the best I can do feels terribly inadequate, but I remind myself that next time I will try again; and again I will do the best I can. One day, I will find that things have shifted. My self-compassion is rooted in knowing that the situations that are the most difficult to navigate are the ones that teach me the most.
7. Teach later
In the middle of a meltdown is not the time to teach anything to my child. In a state of dis-regulation, they will not remember a thing I have said anyway. Not only that, but likely I will add to my child’s struggle by giving them more to deal with when they are already overwhelmed. I need to keep them safe, as well as others and our things. If we can get through the emotional storm, we can talk about it all later when we’re all in a much better frame of mind to understand each other’s perspective.
8. Plan ahead for next time
I will often replay a situation to think through how I would have liked to have done it differently. I then visualize how the situation might unfold the next time creating an intention for myself for the future. I do not use this as a way to make myself feel worse or harbour regret, but rather as a light to walk toward in the next patch of darkness. I also use this strategy when I know I will be expecting a lot of my children (for example at a formal or public event). I will prep them with a description of what it will be like and what the expectations are in that environment and we discuss the reasons why these are expectations. If I can be really clear about what is expected, my children have a much better chance of succeeding. Also, I have a chance to put my expectations in check before we enter a demanding situation.
What strategies do you use in the heat of the moment to help yourself regulate?