Parenting in the real world

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Imagine your child is throwing an epic tantrum in the grocery store. You’re in line at the checkout counter, and he or she is demanding candy. The person ahead of you is taking forever, and people are beginning to stare. See if you can make this scenario real in your mind.

Do you feel anxious? Angry? Are you thinking, “How do I make this stop?” Are you wondering what other people are thinking?

I want to share a simple practice for dealing with situations like this one that make parenting enormously stressful. This small but powerful practice will help you respond in a new way. It will also help you find meaning in the experience of parenthood, which you can use to guide your actions with your children. But first let’s talk about how we sometimes go wrong in situations like this.

Getting Loud, Giving Up, and Giving In

There are three common reactions parents have when our kids stress us out: Getting loud, giving up, and giving in.*

We’ve all raised our voices when we’re stressed. The other day I actually screamed at my son to stop screaming at his sister. I was doing exactly what I didn’t want him to be doing. 

We’ve all given up. We get so exhausted, we stop using good parenting skills in a consistent way.

I once created a chart of all the things my kids needed to do in the morning. I tried it for three days, consistently checking in with them throughout the morning. Then I got tired; it seemed like a lot of work, and I quit. And – surprise! – they stopped being consistent with their morning routine. 

And we’ve all given in. On a camping trip, my son had already had three s’mores and was asking for another—over and over again. I was getting really irritated! Finally, I gave in: I gave him the whole bag of marshmallows. 

We could think of these not just as parenting strategies but also as emotional control strategies – ways in which we control our own thoughts and feelings. When we’re experiencing intense reactions, we can sometimes make ourselves feel better in the short term by getting loud, giving in, or giving up. For example: you yell, your child stops the behavior that’s irritating you, and you feel relieved.  

But at what cost? In this example, you may be unintentionally teaching your child that yelling is a good way to get what you want. So what can you do instead?

Pause. Notice. Choose.

There are three simple skills you can use when you’re feeling intense reactions and struggling to find a response to your child that’s in line with your values:

1. Press pause

2. Notice what’s going on

3. Choose your response  

Press Pause

Pausing means slowing down by focusing on the present. It’s different from operating on autopilot, just following where your reactions take you.

When you press pause, you create a space to switch out of autopilot and into awareness. From here you can choose your next action based on what’s important to you.

One way to press pause is to breathe. Even when things feel really out of control, there is almost always space to breathe. You can also give yourself a time-out. Try escaping to the bathroom, closing the door, and then breathing. 

Notice What’s Going On

Noticing involves observing and describing. It can help you tune in to what’s going on in the moment.

Let’s imagine observing and describing a dog. First you notice its size, coloring, and characteristics. Then you might describe it by saying, “It’s a small dog with black spots, and its ears are floppy.” Just the facts, nothing more.

You can do the same thing with your thoughts and feelings, even in a moment of stress. 

After you’ve taken a moment to pause, observe yourself and put words on your experience: “I’m noticing tension in my shoulders. My face is feeling flushed. I feel overwhelmed.” Then you're free to choose a response. 

Choose Your Response

You don’t get to choose what you spontaneously think or feel. Feelings just happen, like rain. But you can choose what you do. Will you let your thoughts and feelings push you around or will you choose how you want to behave? 

You don’t get to choose what you spontaneously think or feel. Feelings just happen, like rain. But you can choose what you do.

The first step is to consider your values. Ask yourself what’s important to you as a parent, and set your intention accordingly. How do you want to be in a stressful moment?  

For example, you might decide that being authentic, engaged, firm, responsive, and loving are important to you. These values provide direction for the action you take. You can be engaged and loving in many ways – even when you’re setting limits with your children or being “the bad guy.” I’m not suggesting that you pretend you don’t have feelings, that you’re not angry or frustrated. But you can choose how you act. 

Pausing, noticing, and choosing in a moment of high stress

So let’s go back to your child in the grocery store, this time using our three skills: pause, notice, and choose. 

Imagine yourself in this situation again. Your child is throwing an epic tantrum while you’re checking out. People are staring! You begin to feel strong emotions and have powerful thoughts.

You can press pause by slowing yourself down and taking a deep breath. After pausing, you can silently observe and describe what’s going on. You may notice the thought “I can’t stand this.” You may feel embarrassed, angry, or agitated. 

You might also notice urges. You may feel like just letting your child have the candy. You may feel like yelling or giving up and walking away.

Next you can choose your response based on your values. Unless your child is running into the street, you can always take a few moments to pause and come up with what you want to do.

Let’s say that “calm, patient, centered, and understanding” are the values you want to embody. You get to decide what this looks like. 

You may decide to calmly walk out of the store with your child. 

Or it may be effective to just say nothing. Of course, you aren’t really doing nothing. You are holding it together and not reinforcing your child’s behavior.

There isn't a best way to respond, and you don't have to be perfect. This is a tough situation. In the end, your child may continue screaming or may calm down. You don't always have control over that. But what you can control is what you do.

Of course you’re not always going to be able to pause, notice, choose your response, and act accordingly. Sometimes life is just messy and that’s OK.  When things don’t go right, you can be compassionate with yourself, as well as with your children. Even in imperfection, you can bring love and meaning to your relationship with your child.

 

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DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rebecca Aptekar, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist who specializes in using acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and other evidence based therapies. At Lyra, she manages clinical programs, develops content for workshops, and conducts therapy for high-tech employees.

* This description of parent reactions comes from The Joy of Parenting by Lisa Coyne and Amy Murrell