By: Kim Marcin, LPC, Senior Family Counselor, Penfield Children’s Center
The body’s stress response system helps us react to events that could put us in danger, such as accidently putting a hand on a hot stove – you don’t have to think about removing your hand, it pops up automatically. If our brain perceives that something is a threat, the body acts quickly, without thinking because it is in a state of alarm. While situations like these require an immediate, non-thinking response to keep us safe, other everyday life scenarios can benefit from more thought.
For example, if your child runs into a room you just cleaned and dumps a bucket of toys all over the floor, it’s easy for your body to go into quick, reactive anger even though the situation is more annoying than life-threatening.
How can you as a parent become more mindful in these moments of daily stress, since our bodies are wired to react suddenly to perceived and real threats?
The key is to buy yourself time before you react.
A simple solution? Walk away.
As long as your child is in a safe space, walk out of the room before you can react. If you can put actual space between the stressor and your reaction, you have taken the first step to responding vs. reacting.
While in the other room, do something to calm yourself down. Take a deep breath. Exhale longer than you inhale (inhale for a count of 7, exhale for a count of 11). Listen to yourself taking the breath and feel how it leaves your chest. Allow yourself to process the negative emotion you’re feeling, but don’t react to it. Oftentimes, we’re taught to brush negative emotions associated with anger, grief and discomfort to the side and not truly FEEL them. It can be empowering to have control of your emotions, while still letting yourself feel the emotions.
Another calming action you can take is to drink a glass of water or listen to music. These activities buy you the time you need to calm down and also ground you so that your emotions don’t take over.
The goal with these calming activities is to slow yourself down and to give yourself a moment to process what happened so that you can respond in a positive way. Once you’ve had time to relax, find a non-confrontational strategy for dealing with the situation. Keep in mind, you are dealing with a child who might not be able to manage his feelings as well as an adult. The second you start to lose your cool, your child will follow suit. When you respond to the situation in a calm, but firm way, you have started to take the control back from a negative situation and diffuse the tension.
And, you are your child’s teacher. If you constantly lose your cool and yell, your child will learn that behavior and respond to stress in a similar way. Try not to over explain things to your child or talk to him during a tantrum because this actually provides attention and can be an ineffective response. If you do need to talk to him about his behavior, keep it short. One to two sentences works best. Make sure to model to your child how to stay calm and not overreact.
What tactics have you used to calm yourself before reacting to your child’s negative behaviors?