This quote from L. R. Knost, a child development researcher and author, has crossed my path numerous times in the past year and it struck a chord in me from the first. Had I seen this 10 years ago when I was deep in the little one/big emotion drama, I would have printed posters of it to hang around my home as a constant reminder. Not that I didn’t know this—I knew my son was little; I knew that he was the child and I was supposed to be the grown up; that he would learn how to deal with these emotions by watching me. But as we all know, parenting is every day, hour after hour, and it’s intensely personal, and there were simply times when I admit I walked right into his chaos cloud, breathed it in, and allowed the situation to shatter my calm.
The first thing I’d like to say to other parents (and to myself, too, for that matter) if they do lose their cool is “don’t be too hard on
yourself!” In my own personal experience, there is nothing I have done in my life that was more capable of pushing me right over the emotional cliff than parenting. There may be that one superhuman parent out there that has only ever responded with calm and restraint in every situation, but most of us know what it’s like to hear ourselves saying something we know we should not be saying while in our own adult version of a temper tantrum. When this happens, please forgive yourself, but then, also, try hard not to miss the opportunity to let your child see how you work to repair it. “Use your words” as we like to tell our little ones. “That is not the way I want to behave when that happens, I made a mistake. I’m sorry I yelled like that. It’s okay to feel angry but I always want us to be respectful to each other even when we are mad. I need to keep working on it, too.”
In those times that we do manage to remain calm and caring in the midst of our child’s tantrum, we can rest assured that, in doing so, we are not coddling our children. One of my very favorite authors in childhood education and psychological development is Dr. Becky Bailey. In her book, Conscious Discipline, she lays it all out in terms of what’s happening in a child’s brain when they are in an upset emotional state. It’s physiological—fight or flight—survival mode! There’s no point in deciding if it’s rational for them to respond this way, we simply need to understand that they are no longer in the “driver’s seat” of their brain where they can make sensible choices. They are not in a good place to learn anything so lecturing and teaching at this point is not helpful, either (though you can bet I’ve tried!). Dr. Bailey says, “The only way to soothe a survival state is through the creation of safety.” Your only job is to help them feel safe so that they can find their way out of the trunk of their “brain car” and back to the driver’s seat. It is then, when you are both calm and reconnected, that you’ll be able to address what happened, teach them ways to respond differently, and, if necessary, address those things that are not acceptable such as hurting themselves or others. (Incidentally, the same thing happens in our adult brains when we start to lose our cool: we lose access to judgment and working memory and don’t make the best parenting choices. If you struggle with keeping your cool, a strategy of posting reminders around the house could be very helpful as backup at these times.)
One of my favorite ways to address the behavior when everyone is calm is positive practice: think of something you would want them to do in a moment of strong emotions and practice it over and over while they are in their driver’s seat. Big hugs and special rewards come with successful practices! The more they practice the more likely they might naturally demonstrate it when things start to go bad. Teach them to breathe and remember to breathe yourself (“Sometimes you’re only a few breaths away from feeling better” –Amy Poehler… indulge me, I love quotes).
It was a nod to my speech-language pathology background that I mentioned “using your words.” Children benefit every time we give them language for their emotions and actions. Now I’ll speak from my Kindermusik educator angle: Music is magic!! You don’t have to be a great musician to use music to your advantage. Sing something or play some music to change the atmosphere. Gauge what the situation might need: an upbeat song that might inspire some dancing; a silly, distracting song (“The Duck Song” on Youtube was a favorite with my kids—a somewhat irritating earworm of a song but effective!); or a quiet song that might inspire some calm and reconnection. The same thing will not work every time so be prepared with your “bag of tricks” to respond when these intense emotional moments arise.
We have the privilege and responsibility to coach our children as they navigate these big emotions and learn how to cope. So take a breath, keep calm, and then pass it on!