This article first appeared in mybaba.com
There’s a commonly held belief that the ups and downs of parenting causes stress. Physiologically, this is true for every mother giving birth, but thereafter, when the wondrous, exhilarating and often exhausting roller coaster ride of parenting begins, stress isn’t a given, but more often an unconscious choice that many of us make.
There is undoubtedly a correlation between the occurrence of stress felt and having a little human being to care for and protect. Factors such as sleep disruption, illness, feeding challenges, tantrums and accidents all offer an opportunity for feeling less than our best. However, our relationship to such events is not causative, say in the way that the heat from the sun causes ice cream to melt. No matter how many times we take ice cream out on a sunny day it will inevitably melt. People on the other hand don’t always melt when the heat is turned up. People do all sorts of things to cope with heat because we have choice. This distinction really matters if we desire to enhance the experiences that can accompany parenting.
Consider the approaches of two different parents facing the same challenge of (as one example of many), a child who flatly refuses to eat.
Parent one gets swept up in their emotional state, reacting in an unconsciously triggered, authoritarian approach that the child chooses to reject. With a burning feeling of desperation, and rising frustration, this parent loses any capacity for clever problem-solving and resorts to demanding loudly that the child eats his or her food – or else. In many cases this reaction is fuelled by a deep concern for the child’s welfare. Any parent who has gone down this route will attest to the less than favourable consequences of this bulldozer approach, both for the child and ones own wellbeing. But when this parent loses choice over his or her own state, bulldozers may feel like the only viable option.
Parent two is also faced with a child who refuses to eat a single mouthful. However, instead of rushing towards a battle of wills, they choose to retain a relaxed and useful attitude and approach to the problem. This is done initially by not labelling the experience as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’, as well as adjusting their emotional response to the challenge. By doing so, they create a space and opportunity to conjure a more effective solution, or maybe no solution at all, but with minimal emotional stress for both the parent and child.
What I’m highlighting in these two examples, along with the endless range of likely parenting scenarios is that when we are non-reactive in our parenting, we are more likely to achieve desirable outcomes with our kids. When we allow ourselves to react as if to an emergency, the solution oriented areas of our brain are less likely to be utilised.
Training ourselves to choose emotional states when the heat is rising will have the biggest impact upon our children’s behaviours. Kids of all ages have acute awareness of the non-verbal ‘signals’ arising from the adults in their lives. As an example, when a child needs guidance or comforting, it’s one thing to say, ‘there, there, everything will be ok’, but if your own eyeballs are on stalks and your jaw gripping like a bullterrier, words will have little affect. As parents, when we allow ourselves to experience un-resourceful emotional states such as anger, frustration and anxiety, we shouldn’t be surprised when our kids take a cue to join us in the same unhelpful, downward slide. After all, replication and modeling is how kids learn.
I recently showed my three and half year old son a video clip of a friend who goes spearfishing off the California coast. In the clip we see down the barrel of his spear gun as he’s about to shoot a fish. Then from nowhere a 7 foot shark comes at him and attacks the tip of his spear gun (an apparently common event in the waters my friend hunts). My son has always loved to look at pictures and videos of marine mammals and sharks. As we watched it over and over again, he exclaimed how cool the video was. My wife then joined us to view the video for the first time. As she watched, her mouth dropped agape and she inhaled sharply. I nudged her to bring awareness to her reaction in front of our budding little Cousteau, but it was too late. Seeing his mamma’s shock immediately influenced his own feelings about the video. A split second later he tensed up and stated for the first time, ‘Dad, I don’t like Sharks, they’re really scary’.
It has been estimated that as little as 7% of our communication is received through the words we use, and that the other 93% comes from physiology, body movements and voice tone. In young, pre-language children, we can remove the 7% entirely. Consider how when someone is communicating to you and saying one thing, ‘it’s lovely to see you’ but their non-verbals are screaming something else entirely, ‘ah, not you again’.
Most humans are adept at reading the feelings of others without the need for language, including our kids.
Children can read moods and states long before they read letters on a page. This is important to know, because if we want to influence our kids in the most elegant and effective way, choosing our own emotional states is essential. This also goes for our adult interactions, where any enhancement of the way we feel, will directly influence our behaviours, and that of others, regardless of the context.
In an ideal world every parent would have the ability to choose his or her response to the bumps and dips of raising little ones. When we can change our immediate feelings as easy as we might change a jacket, the whole experience of parenting becomes one of learning, discovery and satisfaction for everyone concerned – both you the parent and your child.
Unfortunately, in much of our culture there is a tendency to accept emotions as happening to us. We might express this by saying ‘I get angry’, ‘I’m an anxious person’, ‘I get desperate’, ‘I’m a worrier’, ‘my son/daughter drives me crazy’, ‘parenting is so frustrating’, ‘my child knows how to push my buttons’. In all such statements, as well as many more, the use of cause-and-effect is prevalent. For any of these statements to be true the person making such claims has to be without any ability to make choices in how they think, feel and respond, just as an ice cream has no choice but to melt in the sun.
Thinking and feeling aren’t fixed genetic processes that some of us are victims of, and others not. Everyone perceives events that in a split-second our brain transforms with meaning and interpretation, which then prompts a corresponding feeling (state) followed by our actions. This plays out in our parenting choices in a hugely diverse way. As an example, one parent may view that plate of uneaten food as meaning their child is ungrateful and needs to be ushered to the naughty step, whilst for another parent the view of a full plate is confirmation of his terrible cooking skills, for which he apologises and then offers a sandwich.
Neither response is inherently wrong or right, it is only the consequences of those differing actions that we can use to gauge the effectiveness or not, and if not, then how clever can we become in seeking alternative solutions?
Not that I am encouraging the testing of ‘naughty steps’ for parents who otherwise feel no desire to shame their kids. My own approach would always be to turn sandwich making (or some other fun, supportive option) into an art form.
As parents, the interpretations, evaluations and labelling that we apply to our children, their activities and behaviours will have a significant impact upon how we ourselves feel, and therefore raise our little ‘angels’ or ‘pirates’.
Fortunately, there are a number of practical steps for freeing ourselves from knee jerk reactions and less than useful assessments of our parenting challenges. Even if that’s at 3am when our little one is more inclined to party than sleep.
Step 1. Learn to rename any situation.
Our feelings and behaviours are a response to what meaning we attribute to an experience, not the experience itself. By creating alternative meanings we create alternative responses.
My eldest son recently poured black paint all over our back porch and steps. My immediate reaction was to race forward, grab the paint can and start asking some rather loud questions, like ‘where the f**k did you get that from?’
I didn’t. Instead, I took five seconds to adjust the way I felt (see step 2) and then renamed what I was seeing from, ‘a hellish, time consuming mess’, to, ‘a sign of my son’s quest to be creative’.
When I asked him in a calm, encouraging voice how he’d opened the paint can, he showed me a small nail hammer he’d used to leverage the lid. He’s three and a half and I can honestly say that in that moment his cleverness made my chest thump with pride. I then explained a little bit about painting in context, but he was on to the next adventure in our garden. Unfortunately, the paint still hasn’t been entirely scrubbed out.
One of my friends has a little girl who rarely slept more than three hours in a row for the first year of her life. Sleep deprivation as any parent knows can feel like a form of slow torture. My friend decided that torture was precisely how he would view each night’s activities. Being a James Bond fan he got into the habit of waking with the reframe of, ‘how tough, resilient and strong of a man am I, and like Bond, can I resist this torture without tagging out and waking my wife from her needed sleep?’ Interestingly, now that his daughter sleeps the whole night through, he partially misses his night time test of manliness.
Renaming, or reframing situations such as these isn’t about the avoidance of reality, but rather turning an undesirable situation into something more manageable or even pleasant. If you’re lost for reframes when things are getting really on top of you, there’s always the golden, go to of ‘this too shall pass’.
Step 2. Change your state.
The way we feel in any given moment is influenced by many factors. However, the two most available and immediately effective adjustments we can make are via our breath and physiology. If all behaviour is influenced by the way we feel, those feelings are most influenced by our posture, muscular tension and breathing depth and rate.
You can test this yourself by curling up in a ball and tensing all your muscles whilst trying to feel good. How does that work for you?
Now stretch out and reach your hands to the sky for thirty seconds. Better right?
Our emotional state is hugely impacted by our posture and breathing, both of which we can choose to adjust for a better experience.
By bringing regular attention to our bodies and breath, in the moment of feeling angry, stressed, sad and overwhelmed we can appreciate that our posture, muscular tension and breathing pattern is locking-in those unwanted feelings. Change your breath and physiology and you change the way you feel. Simply stretching upwards, shaking our body (like most prey animals do after the stress of escaping a predator) and slowing our breathing rate down can have the affect of shifting reactive states. Reaching your hands in the air for an extended stretch whilst your child throws a tantrum can also have the effect of interrupting his or her state, therefore creating two benefits for one simple action.
If you’d like a more thorough explanation of these change patterns, you can download my entirely free app: apple.co/1nPcR7S
- Take an alternative position.
Our experience of an event is often dependant upon our point of view. In the same way as renaming an event can transform its meaning, so too can experiencing an event as if through the senses of another. You can do this by imagining that you can float from your own body into that of your partner, friend, colleague and child. If you were this other person, looking back at yourself, hearing what you just said, and feeling the sensations that arise from your actions, what would that be like?
In my work as a coach I have encouraged many struggling couples to take on the views, values, beliefs and attitudes of their partners for long enough to appreciate what its like being in the other’s skin. Overly strict, authoritarian parents can also experience a huge shift in awareness when they look back at themselves from the tiny shoes of their own children. ‘Second positioning’ on my own kids (and wife and business colleagues) provides a never-ending appreciation and awareness of how my own views, approach and attitude in the world can benefit from regular updating.
These three simple but highly effective shifts in perception can have a profound impact on our parenting as well as other areas of our life. By taking a committed approach to choosing our emotional states, remaining flexible in the meaning we give a situation, and walking in our children’s shoes for a mile or two, we can better appreciate how so much of the alleged hard-work of parenting is often a consequence of our own making.
My 3 ½ year old son already understands this, and will often cuddle me (to ensure my state is prepared) before asking, ‘daddy, if you were me and you really, really wanted another pack of jellies, what would you do?’
Well, what would you do?