“I won’t go!” were the last words uttered by my six year old as he slung his fifty pounds into the couch, burying his red, tear-stained face in his quilt. As he fought with fierce determination to stay home and not attend his second day of Safety Town Camp this past summer, I felt a flood of emotions. I was angry that he was resisting a program that I had thoroughly researched, paid for and thought I had prepared him to enjoy. I was worried that he might be getting sick and frustrated that I seemed unable to motivate him. I started to question, “Is one of the kids at camp being mean to him?” “Are the instructors acting inappropriately?” Of course, guilt entered the mix as I sorted through what I could or should have done to prevent this meltdown. “What am I going to do?” ran through my frozen mind.
As parents, we will all have our share of times when we lose our “cool” and are thoroughly uncertain about what to do next. “My toddler goes everywhere except on the potty.” “My third grader refuses to do his math homework.” “My fifteen year old lies to me.” We can become incensed and incapable of rational thinking.
My father wisely advised me in my dating years, “Make sure you see him angry before you choose him for the long haul.” Indeed handling your most heated emotions can be one of the greatest tests of character. But if we have established a plan in advance to deal with anger or anxiety, we will not only act with emotional intelligence, but also model the ways in which we hope to teach our children to handle their emotions.
Here are some ways that you can try to manage your emotions and set a good example for your child to follow:
First, it’s critical to understand that when someone says, “You are out of your right mind,” you are. High emotions mean that a chemical has washed over the logical brain and your amygdala - the flight or fight survival portion - is in charge. If your plan for those times is to come up with logical consequences on the spot, you will not have the mental capacity to do so. And the same principle holds true for your child if he is melting down. Your words won’t be internalized in that moment.
Take a parent time-out. Be clear with your children and partner in advance that you are planning to do this. Designate a favorite chair in a quiet spot and ask to be left alone during the five minutes that you need to recover. Decide on what you’ll say to your children each time. “Momma needs five minutes.” Keep it simple so that you can remember your plan when you’re emotional. Ensure your child is safe and then retreat to your chair. Breathe. Focus only on your “cool down.” After you’ve restored your rational thinking abilities, then you will be capable of asking yourself, “How can I respond so that I can stop the undesirable behavior, help my child repair any harm done and teach the positive behavior I want to see in the future?”
What if you are overcome with worry or anxiety? Perhaps an interaction with your child has brought up trauma from your own past that your child could not possibly understand. Our most powerful emotions can be used as a signal - a big red STOP sign - indicating we need to calm down before saying anything more or taking any action. When it’s stress or worry that is creating mental overload, it’s helpful to write your thoughts on paper. It takes the worries out of your head and puts them in a safe place. Situate a blank notebook and pen by that same favorite chair. Instead of trying to push through - as we busy parents often do - recognize that the pushing will only escalate the emotions. You may successfully swallow the worry for a time but later, at the most inconvenient moment, it will refuse to be ignored.
In your writing ask yourself, “Why am I so upset?” “What is really going on here?” and “How can I deal with each of these issues in a way that is helpful to me and those I love?” Your children may even be watching you as you write. Assure yourself that you are modeling a coping skill that may serve as a significant gift to them.
All children learn from watching us handle situations. They become particularly keen observers during moments of crisis since they look to us for survival and worry that their life line may be compromised. Establishing a simple plan with your family for dealing with intense emotions can prevent the guilt that comes from reacting in those moments. More importantly, you will become a better version of yourself.
Jennifer Miller is author and illustrator of the blog, Confident Parents, Confident Kids and writes for numerous publications. Miller is also one of the expert contributors to the Parent Toolkit's upcoming Social and Emotional Development section, which is set to launch soon.