“Surviving and Thriving” as a Parent… Entry #3 – Staying Calm When You Are Triggered

So, we’ve established that parenting is hard work and all of us come to the table with some kind of personal baggage or experience from our own upbringing that impacts our ability to parent optimally at all times. How can we manage our emotions when children present with big feelings and / or challenging behaviors day in and day out?

From a developmental perspective, we know that children don’t think like us, are impulsive, curious, and are limit testing creatures. Current research in the field of neuroscience states that it takes 24 years to grow an adult brain and a combination of genetics and experience determines who our children will be as adults. It is up to us as mature adults to take control of our family lives and provide safe, nurturing experiences that teach our children healthy ways to manage emotions and cope with life’s inevitable ups and downs. The first step is to understand and accept that children sometimes have strong feelings that they can’t manage and are gradually learning how to respond and adapt in a complex world. We need to be very mindful as their parents that harsh emotional reactions to our children’s feelings and behaviours can have harmful effects on their health, well-being and confidence for life. Our young children are completely dependent on us to provide a loving, responsive, safe oasis from which they can develop and grow to their full potential. As parents, we must avoid harmful verbal, physical and emotional reactions at all costs.

Anger is part of being human and learning to manage our intense emotions responsibly is a mature response to these sometimes overwhelming feelings. Rage can hijack us and cause damage to our relationships. With practice, we can develop good coping plans and anger management strategies that will become invaluable parenting tools as our children grow and develop. Try to examine some of your own emotional triggers and what times of day or what specific issues are hard for you. We can tackle these triggers by planning ahead and thinking about what strategies we can use in the moment when we feel as though our buttons are being pushed by our children.

One strategy is to listen to our negative “self- talk” and the beliefs we hold when we are feeling angry. We might be feeling resentful that our child is whining and not behaving appropriately after you just spent the whole day at a water park or attended an expensive special family event. In this example, you may be saying to yourself that your child is a selfish, inconsiderate, and ungrateful and you shouldn’t have to tell them to behave several times after they just had such a great treat. Can you challenge this negative belief and “self-talk” and find a healthier perspective that keeps the connection with your child? Could your thoughts change to “my child is overtired and hungry after a big day and can’t cope.  I can help by not reacting, staying connected and offering some downtime.” I can take some deep breaths and let my intense feelings pass without lashing out at my child. I can take a break for myself when we get home to recharge even if it is just a cup of tea for 10 minutes at the kitchen table. Focus on de-escalating the situation and remaining calm and present.

Here is a mini tool box for managing anger:

  • Make sure you practice good habits for stress reduction – enough sleep, healthy meals, daily exercise and relaxation time, support from friends and family, time for fun.
  • Choose positive “self-talk” next time you feel triggered. “I can cope. This is not an emergency. I will let these feelings pass and stay connected to my child who needs me”. Make up your own calming mantra.
  • Take some deep breaths in and out to re-oxygenate your brain and reduce the “fight or flight” response brought on by intense reactions/emotions. Think of a happy calm picture of your child to bring back good feelings in the moment.
  • Walk away and tell your child that you need to take a mini break to calm down. Be mindful that your child is safe and that walking away is appropriate for your child’s age, stage and temperament. In some cases, for the safety and security of your child, you may have to practice calming yourself on the spot. Remember, you are modelling healthy strategies that your child will eventually learn.
  • Respond with compassion and empathy instead of reacting angrily. (What does your child need right now? What are the feelings behind this misbehavior? What do you need?)  Pay attention to your body language, voice tone and the language you use to ensure that your message teaches rather than punishes. Wait until you are calm to discipline or help your child so you can do the right thing for all of you.

Be reflective and keep practicing these skills over and over. Over time it will eventually become easier for you. When you make a mistake, go back and tell your child that you are sorry and you didn’t manage that situation very well. Tell them that you will continue to work on your reactions. This is a great way to teach your child very important relationship skills. Be kind to yourself and put a plan in place so you will be prepared for the next battle. It is through life’s challenges that we learn and grow the most. Warmest regards, Joanne