It’s often said that we’re living with our best teacher, and nowhere is that more true than with our children. No one has the ability to push our buttons the way our kids do. And no one offers us the opportunity to practice the things we preach — about love, forgiveness and staying centered — like our kids do.
Every parent wants to stay cool, calm and collected. We don’t want to threaten to send them to bed without their supper when they’ve sassed back, or tell them they’re grounded for a month when — yet again — they refuse to honor their curfew. But taking a deep breath or counting to ten can seem almost impossible in the presence of kids who seem to know exactly how to push our biggest buttons.
No one can motivate us to grow up the way our children can, but it isn’t easy. Our kids provide us with endless opportunities to see our reactivity manifest in ways that can surprise even the mellowest moms and dads.
Identify the thought pill you just swallowed
The key to keeping your cool is to identify what I call the “thought pill” that you swallow right before you lose your temper.
“The kids should come to the table for dinner the first time I call them.”
“Devin should turn off the TV when I ask.”
I advise parents to find the thought pill that, upon “swallowing,” makes them feel desperate, causes them to tense up, and prompts them to come at their kids aggressively, rather than alongside them.
Then, I ask them to consider how the opposite of that upsetting thought might also be true. (This is from Byron Katie’s wonderful approach called The Work.) By identifying three reasons that it makes sense that Devin shouldn’t turn off the TV when asked, the parent has a chance of managing the reactivity that makes things fall further apart.
“Devin shouldn’t want to turn off the TV because … he’s enjoying the show he’s watching … he doesn’t want to start his homework … he’s trying to exert some power because he feels I’m constantly telling him what to do.”
Now, this doesn’t mean Devin should continue watching TV, or that there aren’t equally valid reasons for him to turn it off when asked. But by seeing the situation from the youngster’s point of view, parents can often prevent themselves from escalating the situation.
Identifying the meaning behind children’s actions
We also lose our cool because of what we make our children’s behavior mean. We tell ourselves our kids are intentionally disrespecting us or trying to hurt our feelings, when in fact, that could be completely untrue.
By meeting our kids where they are, without superimposing judgments (which are often wrong), we become better able to loosen the grip these thoughts have on our blood pressure. If you accept that your daughter is anxious about how she looks, you’ll be less angry when she changes her outfit three times. If you know that your boys are tired and hungry, you’ll take it less personally when they fight in the back seat after a long day of school.
You’ve lost it – Now what?
If things do deteriorate and you find yourself shouting, threatening or bribing, recognize you’ve lost it. STOP before you do or say something you’ll later regret. When we rush our parenting, we act impulsively, disregarding that inner voice that needs us to be still in order to hear its counsel.
By demonstrating to your kids that they don’t have to fall apart whenever things don’t go their way, you’ll be giving them the gift of a lifetime: the possibility of navigating life’s disappointments with the recognition that the things that push our buttons offer us the greatest opportunity for growing — and growing up.
Author of Parenting Without Power Struggles (www.parentingwithoutpowerstruggles.com), Susan Stiffelman is a licensed Marriage, Family and Child Counselor, an Educational Therapist, Parent Educator and Professional Speaker. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Developmental Psychology from Johnston College/ University of Redlands, a California K-9 Teaching Credential, a Masters of Arts degree from Antioch University in Clinical Psychology, and a California Marriage and Family Therapist license since 1991. For more information, see www.parentingwithoutpowerstruggles.com