10 Tips on How to Be a Calmer Parent

Parenting might be the most important job in our lives and yet it can also make us feel the most incompetent and out of control. There is a lot of scientific research in neurobiology and attachment theory that explains how our own childhood experiences influence our brain and therefore shape how we parent. Understanding our own histories helps us raise psychologically healthy, caring, and resilient children. Dr. Dan Siegel, a pediatric psychiatrist, and Mary Hartzell, M.Ed. (a child expert) wrote a wonderfully insightful and helpful book on this topic called Parenting from the Inside Out. Some things to focus on include:

1.      Understand the psychological impact of yelling at your children and aim to not do it. I know, this may be extremely difficult since at times since yelling seems to work (at least in the short-term) and other rational approaches may appear to get you nowhere.

2.      Understand that your children are their own unique beings and that means they behave in ways that are different and often outside of how we want them to behave, and not necessarily wrong.  

3.      Know your own triggers. In psychology, we often talk about how you can’t control anyone’s behaviors but your own, and unfortunately this has truth in parenting as well. There is a misperception that we can control our children but in reality, they are their own beings with their own needs and wants. Notice when YOU feel stressed. The physical signs include increased heart rate, sweating, tension in the shoulders, head pressure, and upset stomach. Some behavioral signs include reaching for that glass of wine, eating for comfort, raising your voice, and speaking quickly. Learn stress management coping skills including relaxation training and thought replacement.

4.      When you notice a trigger, get curious without judging. “What about this situation is stressful for me?”, “When have I felt this way before recently or in the past?”, “What are my emotions?” Name the feelings – sad, out of control, overwhelmed, worried about the future, and helpless. “What does this emotional part need in the moment and why?” Imagine that these thoughts and emotions are outside of yourself and analyze them. For example, I notice there is a part of me that feels frustrated and overwhelmed. One part feels frustrated that the kids are being so loud and won’t stop. And the overwhelmed part feels overstimulated by the noise and just wants quiet. Begin to notice the parts that reoccur and ask when these parts came about in your life? What is the function of these parts and when in your life were they helpful? Are they still useful? I think of it as understanding the whole team of parts that make up your personality. Dr. Richard Schwartz has done extensive work in the area of working with our varied parts, called Internal Family Systems - http://selfleadership.org/about-internal-family-systems.html

5.      Prioritize your own self-care. A wise friend once told me to take the extra 5 minutes to shave my legs not too long after having my third baby. Great advice. Get some exercise, even if it is a short walk. Prioritize sleep – it is more important than staying up to watch your favorite show. Care for yourself through the food you eat – find a way to sneak nutritious food in. I find it easiest to make a green juice in the morning and get it out of the way before the day starts.

6.      Remind yourself that leading by example is always the best and has the most impact on our children. Practice patience and compassion when in disagreement with your children or partner. With my kids, I find it easiest to do something super silly when things escalate; this often derails the anger and gets a chuckle out of the kids. We come back to the topic later when everyone is calmer.

7.      Keep expectations of yourself and your children realistic. Is it realistic for me to feel calm when I have committed to shuttling the kids between 3 different activities? Is it realistic for me to expect my 2.5-year-old to sit in her seat for 2 hours at a fancy dinner out? Practice setting realistic expectations and aim to minimize chaos.

8.      Understand the family patterns repeat themselves unless we consciously change them. This is often easier said than done and seeking professional help may be the best thing you do for yourself and your family.

9.      Avoid power struggles. Don’t get sucked into arguing with your child. It goes nowhere and reinforces negative behavior. The best policy is often to walk away and come back to the issue when you and the child are calmer.

10.   Stay in the here and now. Psychologists often say depression is remaining in the past, and anxiety is living in the future. Stay here. What feels best for you and your child in the moment. Any experienced parent will remind you that most things as ‘phases’ and will pass. It is easy to worry about our child’s future and who they might be and what they need to learn to get there – throw that irrational thought out the window.  A good life is just a series of good days strung together.