Friday, February 24, 2012

Triggers, Tantrums And Time Outs (Or, When Mom Is Losing It)

I'm beginning to realize that it is Mom who has the behavior problem and not my children. My children are just children. They have brains that are still developing, they are seeing and experiencing things for the first time, they have little to no practice handling frustration and disappointment. My children are guileless, curious and love unconditionally. Mom on the other hand? Mom has some issues.

Mom (and by mom, I am talking about me...not the collective "Mom", although feel free to commiserate) has a tendency towards rigid behavior, a short fuse and a need for order. Mom gets overwhelmed easily by too many things requiring her attention at once. Mom has layers of insecurities about doing things "right" and being a "good mother". Mom has lots of habits she has developed over the years that are really hard to break. But in an effort to be the type of mother I want to be and to not pass on these behavior patterns, I am working really hard to break the cycle.

Is this how I want my kids to see me?
I am constantly battling the knee-jerk reactions I have to some of my children's behaviors. We all have developed patterns of behavior over our lifetimes based on our own experiences. Some of the behaviors are habits, some are defense mechanisms, some we have because we were taught by others to respond in a particular way. 

But when we know better, when we see that there is another way, I really believe it is our duty to find a way to do things better. 

So it is not my children who need discipline. It is me. And I don't say this to make myself feel bad, rather it is a reminder that I need to pay attention not just to my children, but to myself. I need practice in being consistent and in modeling what I want them to learn. I need to be able to forgive my behaviors and remember that even though I have more experience, I, too, am still learning. 

Triggers: We all have them. Do you know yours?

When triggered we can literally lose control of the
executive functions of our brains.
One of my most popular posts, Keeping Calm When You Want To Explode was, like most of the things I write, an exploration of my own parenting frustrations in an attempt to do things better next time. Over time I have become more aware of some of my triggers, but I have noticed that just being aware of them doesn't mean they disappear. Digging deeper has made me see that at the base of my trigger thoughts is the notion that people are not behaving properly and that I have every right to be angry with them. I'm making the effort to understand what triggers me so I can work on my reactions. I am working on letting go of justifying my anger. It's a slow process, but I know it's worth it. Here are some ideas of things that can help identify your triggers:
  • Look for instances that trigger your anger and see if you can identify the triggering thoughts. Examples of trigger thoughts could be "I should be able to handle this, but I can't", "My children don't appreciate anything I do", "I have to do everything and no one helps me" or "No one listens to what I am saying".
  • Do not ignore your triggers. Paying attention to them helps you get out of auto pilot. I often ignore my triggers in the hopes that we will just get out of the store, get out of the house, leave the party and the triggering behavior will end. Sometimes that works, but usually not.
  • Keep a journal of the times you get triggered. Pay attention to details like how your body felt, if were you nervous, tense or otherwise feeling pressured by something else, what the effect was on others, how you felt afterwards, how angry you became etc. 
  • Look for reoccurring themes as you review the journal after recording this information for a week or so. Triggers often fall into one or a combination of several categories, including: other people doing or not doing what you expect them to do, situational events that get in your way, people taking advantage of you or being angry/disappointed with yourself.
  • Make a conscious effort. Once you have identified some of your triggers and have begun to understand the pattern, you can begin the work of learning to control your response to those triggers. Anger-triggering thoughts occur automatically and almost instantaneously, so it really requires some effort to be mindful of yourself and your interactions so you can choose a more appropriate response.
Tantrums: Children aren't the only ones who have them.

Of course my children throw tantrums from time to time. My daughter does it more often than my son. But I am starting to feel as though I throw more tantrums than either of them! And lately, I have noticed that it has developed into a habit. Almost as if I am the 5-year old in the family and when things don't go my way I lash out. How mortifying! And how confusing for my children.

Anatomy of a tantrum: 
  • This morning my daughter woke up grumpy and refusing to go to school. She whined and yelled me for about 30 minutes which I patiently and empathetically handled but which set me on edge (trigger thoughts: "She's not respecting me! I can't solve her problem! I am running late because I have to deal with this!").
  • Then, I kept getting phone calls from my visiting parents asking questions and interrupting me further (trigger thoughts which I ignored: "I have a schedule and everyone is interrupting it! I am being pulled in too many directions, why doesn't my husband ever DO anything!")
  • Then, just as we are finally about to leave, my son realizes I have packed him strawberry yogurt instead of banana and has a meltdown about how he is so tired of strawberry and I never give him what he wants. (Trigger thoughts coming loud and clear but I still ignore them: "We are going to be late for school! I don't feel appreciated! I can't solve his problem, I am doing a terrible job!")
  • I finally get him to calm down and something happens between my children where our daughter makes a face, our son reacts because he's still upset and she hits him with her lunch box and he starts wailing again. 
  • I lose it completely, speak harshly and throw their lunch boxes across the kitchen. Now we are all crying. Fantastic.
So, I was triggered over and over, didn't take care of myself in order to notice my stress level was getting out of control, and then the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back came along and I had a tantrum. While the anger I feel is legitimate in that it is the reality of how I am feeling at a particular time, it doesn't mean that choosing to act on those angry feelings is appropriate. So what do I do? 

Time Outs. Not so good for kids, but they can be great for grownups.

Deep breathing exercises help regulate your brain,
reduce stress and bring clarity of mind.

The only person in our house who get time outs is me (and occasionally my husband). I don't believe in them for children as research and personal experience has shown me that it is not an effective way to teach children right from wrong, nor does it fit in with the type of connected relationship I am trying to build with my children. For adults, however, I think giving ourselves time to calm down when we feel like we're about to flip out is crucial. Young children aren't capable of reflecting on their behavior during a time out, but I certainly am. My time outs, even if they are brief, allow me to do any combination of the following:
  • Take a few deep breaths to regulate myself and calm down.
  • Put a positive picture of my child (or children) in my mind.
  • Reflect on at least 3 wonderful things about my child, even if she is currently having an extreme meltdown.
  • Show my children that mom is aware of her feelings and her need to calm down before she gets angry.
  • If time allows, sit with the emotions I am experiencing and give myself a chance to process them.
  • Take time (even a moment or two) to be kind to myself and be aware of my own needs.
  • Be mindful of what I really want to model for my children.
  • Come up with better solutions to whatever problem has been causing me stress.
  • Remember that none of what is happening is an emergency. I don't need to have all the answers.
  • Remember what my long term goal is: happy, confident children who feel loved unconditionally.
The key to time outs for grownups though, is to notice that you need them before it's too late. Once you are already in a power struggle with your children and are angry they likely won't let you step away to collect your thoughts. Then you add a new layer of stress as you try to lock yourself in the bathroom while simultaneously peeling screaming children off your leg. To be aware enough to catch my escalating stress level in time requires me to limit the multi tasking which sets me into auto pilot parenting mode and instead really pay attention to what is going on around me. I have to be willing to let go of my agenda to get things done at a certain time or in a certain way...only then can I be mindful of what is needed in the moment.

My agenda to get my kids to school on time sometimes has to take a back seat to my wanting to be a calm, respectful, caring parent. My agenda to get the kids to bed so I can have some time to myself has to take a back seat when my daughter needs extra reassurance as she's tucked in or my son has "just one more" question about a book he's trying to read. The best way for me to be able to release my grip on my agenda is to take that time out, breathe, remember what my long term goal is and work on remaining in the moment.

What about you? How do you keep your calm when parenting gets messy? I'm all ears for more suggestions!

Thanks for reading,
- Gina
The Twin Coach
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