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Calming the Storm

Irrational behavior, short fuses, unrealistic demands. I’ve always joked the FBI should recruit hostage negotiators from parents in the preschool drop off line.

Parenting is unbelievably hard work, especially for parents committed to doing it well. Learning to navigate tantrums, potty standoffs, and food refusal alone can test your patience in ways you never anticipated. For instance, my daughter has an entire closet of pants, rompers, shirts, and shorts she simply won’t touch. I would love for her to rotate through her clothes so everything gets worn. She wants to feel like a princess every day and wear the same floor length “ball gowns” again and again. At some point, unless there was a real reason a dress would be inappropriate, I had to stop exerting my will over her fashion choices. I’ve learned the hard way with her that the more I push and force a particular agenda or outcome, the more she resists it. Same lesson learned with potty training…and her only wanting cheese quesadillas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

I’m feeling my way as a parent most days, and I’m grateful to positive parenting experts like Dr. Justin Coulson for providing a road map for navigating stressful encounters with our kids when we’re at our wit’s end. He has great tips for how to discipline (aka teach!) without damaging our child’s self-esteem or our relationship with them. In listening to a recent podcast, I heard so many parallels to my work with couples. For one, the importance of focusing on the message versus getting distracted by the delivery.

Example: Your partner comes in and kicks their shoes off in the middle of the room, your biggest pet peeve after just cleaning the house! You’ve asked kindly a dozen times before and finally snap this time, raising your voice and letting your partner have it for being so disrespectful.

Your partner now has a choice…they can respond to your outburst and escalate the fight. Or, they can hear the message you’re trying so hard to convey – move the shoes…show some respect…listen to what matters to me…notice I cleaned the house. Whether they focus on your tone or their shoes will largely dictate the way this conversation goes. Imagine if they simply picked up their shoes, moved them to the designated area, and said, “Sorry about that!” Your high emotions would immediately start to come down. You may even feel embarrassed for overreacting and apologize. Unfortunately, our nature is typically to fight back (or shut down). Your partner is more apt to say, “How dare you yell at me about my shoes! Are you kidding me? You’re such a tyrant!” That battle of wills could rage on for 3 hours. Putting your shoes in the corner conveys respect, validates your partner, and diffuses the situation in about 30 seconds. It’s not about being a doormat, or giving in, it’s about picking your battles and putting your pride aside. I often tell couples you can be right or you can be married, but you can’t always be both. Winning at all costs means your partner has to lose, and if that’s the hill you choose to die on, your relationship will quickly follow suit.

One of my favorite nuggets of relationship advice comes from Hal Runkel: “Calm down, grow up, and get closer.”

So let’s apply the same logic to a child screaming in the middle of Target. Your daughter wants another Barbie and you’ve just said no. She’s sobbing, maybe pounding her fists on the ground in a full-out tantrum. You’re feeling your face flush with embarrassment, and your child (whose prefrontal cortex responsible for higher order thinking won’t be fully engaged for another 20-some years) is attracting a crowd. You could respond with a proud, “Because I said so!” or “Because I’m the mom!” which conveys no desire to understand or connect and will probably escalate the tantrum. You could lecture her about the inappropriate outburst and threaten a consequence, but your child is too overwhelmed for logic right now. Drs. Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson explain we should never try to teach when our kids are flooded, and that’s been an eye opener for me. In that moment, she needs you to empathize and help her out of her inner storm. She’s out of control, and that’s a scary place for her.

Instead of threatening to take away her favorite toy at home or spank her in the parking lot, what if you tried this…get on her level, calmly sitting on the floor if you have to, and help her make sense of the big feelings. “Sweetie, you are feeling really upset you can’t have a new Barbie today. I’m sorry. Can mommy give you a hug? That helps me sometimes when I feel upset. ” Is this foolproof? No. But, Drs. Siegel and Bryson stress never withholding love from your child, even when they’ve done nothing to “deserve” it in that moment. Responses like this begin to show your child your love is not conditional on good behavior. That when they have hard days, you will sit with them in the big feelings, help them name those feelings, and teach them productive ways to work through them. When kids are flooded, redirection is rarely successful (Siegel & Bryson), just like repair attempts fail for flooded adults (Gottman). We have to calm down first. As a parent, you can model how to respond and not simply react. Maybe, once they have calmed down a bit, you say, “Mommy knows dentist Barbie is very special to you. Your birthday is next month. Would you like to ask for dentist Barbie as a very special birthday present?” This shows your child you are not being dismissive of what matters to them, but you’re planting the seed for delayed gratification. In that moment, you are choosing to focus on their message and not their insane delivery of it.

Dr. Coulson stresses the importance of a “time in” vs. a “time out” when our kids lose their minds. When I can keep that distinction front of mind when my daughter is struggling with disappointment or frustration, I view myself as a guide vs. a disciplinarian and it changes my approach completely. When my goal is to teach her and not punish her, she responds far better and the bad behavior doesn’t crop back up again and again. Positive parenting, screamfree parenting*, calm down corners, school meditation in place of detention…they all get at teaching children early how to self-regulate, and how we can connect during moments of conflict.

Dr. Gottman notes that most conflict stems from not feeling understood. With adults and kids alike, we often resort to acting out when we feel we can’t make our point any other way. “Listen to me! Play with me! Love me! Understand me!”  We raise our voices, get dramatic and emotional, or we disengage. Sadly, our instincts typically drive us further from the connection we desperately seek.

With our partners and kids, what’s the best way to calm the storm? Stop trying to and lean into it. Connection is the magic bullet.

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