From Calm to Chaos
The sun rises, your alarm rings, you roll out of bed and find your way to your first mug of coffee (Not a coffee person? Imagine tea instead). The birds are singing. The world feels full of possibility. You take a deep breath, committed to starting your parenting day with smooth transitions and calm nerves. You were born for this.
Twenty minutes later, this delightful vision already feels outdated and naive. Your coffee mug is still half full but cold, your son has ZERO socks in his drawer and homework is nowhere to be found. You utter two or three well placed exasperated sighs which does nothing to produce the socks or the homework. You try yelling instead which, no surprise, is only producing a child yelling louder than you. You practically push your child out the front door to run to the bus.
Some days things go just as planned. Other days things go about as far from planned as we can imagine. It doesn’t make it easier that the part of children’s brains that help them regulate their emotions, get perspective, and problem solve is still growing and developing throughout childhood and adolescence. It also doesn't help that parenthood taxes that same part of our own brains.
There is certainly no “fix” for emotional outbursts in childhood and adolescence. Learning how to have and handle big feelings is one of the major developmental tasks of childhood (and parenthood). But starting the day with power struggles, yelling matches, and failed visions doesn’t feel good either.
So what can we try instead? Start here to work from chaos back to calm(ish):
1. Check in with yourself:
Check your expectations. Take your child’s developmental stage (0-8 and beyond) and/or their specific abilities into account. Having unrealistic expectations for what your child is capable of sets everyone up for failure.
Know your triggers. Are you most likely fly off the handle if nothing is ready in the morning and you are heading off to work and school? When you are in between shifts? If you can, create systems that reduce your stress in predictably tense situations.
Take a break. Addressing things in the moment is important with very young children. As they reach school age, it is okay to take a break and come back to the issue when you are calm. “I am too angry right now to talk about this. Let’s take a break and talk about this when we have both calmed down.” The only catch? You have to come back to it.
Apologize if you need to. “I was really frustrated that you weren’t listening to me earlier when I asked you to turn off the computer and come to dinner, but I shouldn’t have yelled at you like that. I am sorry for yelling.”
2. Coach for self regulation:
University of Washington professor John Gottman, coined the term “emotion coaching” when he found that children whose parents help them make sense of and handle their feelings were more confident and resilient. When we address misbehavior without attending to the underlying emotions we lose the chance to help them practice managing them differently.
Be curious. Big feelings can teach us a lot about our kids. Instead of just trying to get rid of them, try being curious about them. Are there things that predictably make your child angry or frustrated? What might they need? What skills do they need to practice?
Name feelings. “Maria I can see that you are really angry. Is that right? Yeah. You are really mad right now.”
Validate their feeling. “It makes sense that you are angry. You want to go to your friend’s house now but there isn’t time before dinner.”
Address the poor behavior. Coaching your child’s emotions doesn’t mean not setting boundaries or limits. “It is okay to feel angry and I know you were looking forward to hanging out with Veronica. But it is not okay to throw all your books on the floor. Let’s calm down together and then you can pick them back up.”
Work together to come up with different solution. When everyone is calm, you can process what happened. “ Seeing your friends is really important to you and I understand that. Having dinner together is really important to me. How can we make this work?” With very young children it is helpful to give them words and ideas. For example, suggest, “You can say ‘Mama I am frustrated. Please help me!’”
3. Put your positive thinking to work:
Are you thinking, "Yeah, those strategies all sound nice and good in theory but it never seems to work out that way!" That's true for all of us. Sometimes brushing our dreams up against the obstacles that stand in our way helps us plan for problem spots. Dr. Gabrielle Oettingen’s WOOP method doesn’t just work for kids, it works for us grown ups too. Here is the basic framework:
Wish: Start by focusing on something that you believe is achievable.
Outcome: What is the best thing that you associate with fulfilling your wish? How would it feel? Imagine enjoying this outcome as vividly as possible. Don’t skip this part.
Obstacle: Look for the most critical internal obstacle that prevents you from fulfilling your wish. It might be an emotion, an unrealistic belief, or a bad habit.
Plan: Name one thought or action you can take in response to the obstacle and hold it in your mind. Think about when and where the obstacle will next occur. Form an “if-then plan.” Repeat this in your mind. For example:
Let’s take a quick look at what this can look like with a simple example -
Wish: “I want to stop feeling frantic and angry with my son when he seems so disorganized.”
Outcome: “I will be more calm and feel comfortable in my body. I will enjoy my son more and have more time for myself. I will be proud of myself.”
Obstacle: I realize that I have a belief that I need to do everything for my teenage son and manage his life. I have a belief that if I don’t do things for him then bad things will happen.
Plan: The next time this will happen is tomorrow morning before school. I will expect my son to prepare for school the night before. If he needs help, then I will help him create a structure/system as he learns the skills but will not do it for him. If he forgets his homework, then I will let him experience the consequences of that at school and help him brainstorm solutions without feeling like I need to rescue him.
There is no such thing as the perfect parent and there isn’t a roadmap for how to navigate the messiness of human emotions and family relationships. The goal of parenting isn’t to get rid of big feelings, but for all of us to learn how to handle them.