I get inspiration for my posts from many places. Sometimes it’s from reading the news, or reading parenting blogs or forums. Sometimes it’s from conversations with other parents, and others from my own life. Most times, whatever it is that triggered the initial thought, I find that the same themes emerge from everywhere parents talk and share.
However, I often find myself admiring other parents for their apparent unflappability; how amazingly calm they are. I know many parents who I simply can’t imagine ever shouting at their children, or feeling despairing.
And yet, and yet…well, we all know that the parent who never loses it is a very, very rare species, if one that even exists at all. Maybe parents who are fortunate enough to live in more natural communities, where there is less isolation, and less pressure on parents to be the sole carers for their children?
But here, in the West, where we parent on our own, compare ourselves to other parents, compare our children to other children; where we ‘lie’ about how easy we find parenting, if not overtly, then by omission – by simply not being honest about how bloody hard it is to keep your temper with your children at times? No, I don’t think the perpetually calm parent exists in our culture.
I’m not blaming parents for not telling the world and his wife how many times they shouted at their children today – who wants to even remember the shitty parts of the day, let alone relive it in all it’s gory details? Add a good dose of good old parental guilt into the mix and you have some pretty compelling reasons not to share how badly we’ve behaved as parents.
However, what would you say if another parent told you about their shitty day; about how they had to walk into the next room and scream into a cushion to stop them hitting their children; about how they screamed at their children, swearing and raging?
I know some parents are so ashamed of their own losses of temper that they pretend to themselves that they would never do that, and would somehow manage to react shocked at a ‘less’ perfect parent: shocked with a light dusting of smugness.
The parents I like most are the ones who breathe an inner sigh of relief that they’ve just discovered they’re not the only ones who screw up from time to time; the ones who offer a hug, kind words and the reminder that all we can do as parents is to apologise, dust ourselves off and start again. Are you one of these parents?
Whichever type of parent you are, today I offer you this: an emotional first-aid kit. With the awareness that very little can be solved by out-of-control emotions, but very much can be solved by harnessing the power of strong feelings, I want to share some of the tools I have learned to use to minimise major screw-ups in our family, and I’d love it if you could add yours in the comments. I’ve put ideas for ‘preparing’ yourself or your home in advance in italics.
Yeah, I know, we’ve all heard this one: “Take a deep breath and count to ten”. I don’t know about you, but when I was younger and was advised to do this, I would grit my teeth and mentally stamp my foot through every single number and still be as cross at ten as I was at one!
No, what I mean is to really breathe. If you do yoga and know ujayii breathing, do that. If you don’t, you may find it helpful to learn. It’s a very simple, but effective way of breathing, and the very act of concentrating on your breath can really calm your mind, never mind the positive effects of getting more oxygen moving around your body. If you can’t find someone to teach you, then work on simply lengthening your breath. Count your natural breath, and see if you can make each out-breath one second longer than your in-breath.
If you are able to practice breathing in this way at least once every day, then your body will also learn an association and will start to circulate those calming hormones each time you start to do so. Your breath will naturally begin to lengthen, even in every day life.
Fast breathing is not only a symptom, but a cause of stress, and is part of a self-perpetuating cycle, so practising ujayii breathing daily (known in yoga as pranayama, but breathing practice is in no way confined to the tradition of yoga!) not only gives you an easy tool to access when the stress levels start to rise, but also makes you less likely to ‘lose it’ in the first place.
There is even a yogic breathing technique that is designed specifically to cool you, either physically or emotionally – the calming, cooling breath. Ask your yoga teacher if you don’t know this technique and would like to learn it.
2. Remind yourself of the simple mantra: who is the adult in this situation?
When we are able to catch ourselves in the act of behaving in the same way as our children do when they’re losing their tempers, the question ‘who is the adult in this situation?’ can be a good, sharp reminder to grow up and act our age.
When I was going through a stressful patch recently, and having read Naomi Aldort’s book recently, I taped up a piece of paper on the wall with this very question that she mentions: “who is the adult in this situation?” so that I could take a look at it whenever I felt my anger was about to overwhelm me…it even helped if it already had overwhelmed me!
3. Go outside
Have you ever witnessed that phenomenon of a newborn baby in the midst of a furious screaming fit, seemingly unsoothable by rocking, slings, music, even the breast who suddenly stops short and relaxes nearly instantly once taken outside? I have many a time. There is something about the change of atmosphere, the feel of fresh air on your skin and in your lungs that just seems to really break a cycle of stress.
It’s not just the fresh air that helps – being in nature, even if that is a patio with some planted up containers and a tree in the distance, can bring us back to the part of us that isn’t controlled by emotions.
And don’t worry about the weather – a raging storm can be wonderful to roar into and rain on your face is cooling.
Just make sure you are able to get outside if you need to – have a pair of shoes handy if you can’t bear to go bare-foot, although I’d argue that bare-foot is even better to rekindle that connection with our higher-selves. Plan ahead how your baby, toddler or child will be safe if you need to go outside for a few minutes without them.
4. Retreat to a calming space in your house
Obviously this requires some preparation. I do yoga in my bedroom, sometimes every morning, sometimes just once a week. I have a little ‘altar’ in that space – somewhere to place things that remind me how I want to live. When I practice yoga, I also burn incense, and the aroma lingers all day long. When I go into my room in the middle of the day if I’ve done yoga that morning, I can literally feel my breath and heart-rate slowing and I nearly always sigh. The last vestiges of the incense in the air, and the calm, peaceful, connected energy of the space bring me back to myself and visiting my ‘altar’ reminds me of the intentions I had that morning.
Practising yoga daily isn’t for everyone, but try to find a space in your home where you regularly do something peaceful – give yourself an aromatherapy foot massage with the same oils every time (then you can burn a little of the same blend to calm you when you need it); meditate; do reiki; whatever floats your calming boat.
If you don’t have anywhere big enough to do anything like this, then consider creating yourself a small sacred space – a shelf in the kitchen will do – that you can clear of clutter, and use to keep things that carry meaning to you. Make a commitment to yourself to visit and tidy your ‘altar’ every morning, maybe while you drink a cup of tea. Light a candle; burn some incense or essential oils; put a flower or leaf on it and then try to remember to come back there to reconnect when anger threatens to cloud your wisdom.
5. Ask your children’s help
I think this is possibly one of the most powerful tools. Children know what it’s like to be swamped by emotions and to feel that there is no way out, and they usually appreciate their parents’ honesty and genuineness about their feelings.
Personally I see parenting as a sort of apprenticeship. Sharing our own shortcomings with our children, and also ways of managing them is one of the most effective ways of teaching our children how to manage their own.
I have a copy of Oliver James’s Love Bombing to review soon, but from what I’ve read of it so far, I would think this technique could be applied very effectively the other way around. Last week, when I was very tearful and snappy, I suddenly remembered that tribe in Africa who knows that when someone is acting anti-socially, what they need is to have their self-esteem raised, and they go and tell them wonderful things about themselves, giving them as much love as they can. I was feeling very sorry for myself that I had no one who could do that for me right in that moment.
But how short-sighted of me? I had four beautiful, loving, empathic children who would, I knew, be honoured to be able to comfort me the way I try to comfort them when it is they who are losing it. I lay on the floor and said ‘hey girls, who wants to have a big love bundle!?’. Sure enough they all snuggled round me and showered me with kisses. It was the most blissful thing in the whole world, and calmed my mood for the rest of the day.
6. Love yourself
Isn’t that a really, really difficult thing to do when you’ve just behaved in a rather disgusting way? But you know hating yourself only makes things worse. Yes, being loved by others is helpful, but loving yourself unconditionally really is the key to peace in the midst of chaos.
Do something loving for yourself. Go and tell yourself in the mirror that you are loved; that you’re a good mum or dad; that you are capable of resolving situations peacefully – whatever affirmation works for you.
If you are able to repeat positive affirmations to yourself every morning after you clean your teeth, they’ll work even more effectively in the moment…and may even reduce the need for them in the first place.
But be careful with some actions that look like you’re ‘loving yourself’. Gorging on sugary treats feels like you’re being kind to yourself, but actually you’re not. Sugar is addictive, and can make bad tempers and depression worse. The same is true of caffeinated drinks, alcohol, the internet and cigarettes. Think about reaching for some honey-roasted nuts and seeds or a herbal tea instead. Choose a repetitive craft like knitting or do yoga instead of turning that computer on.
If you already have an addiction to sugar, caffeine, the internet, alcohol or nicotine, lovingly start to work towards reducing them – as you take less, you’ll begin to need and crave less. Trust me, I know!
I hope some of these ideas are helpful to you – please feel free to add your own ideas in the comments.