One of the hardest aspects of parenting for me is remaining in a calm and patient frame of mind so that I can model that way of behavior for my children. I know that being mindful in my parenting is key, as is learning how to take a mommy time out. But a third component is helping our children understand that parents have emotions, parents aren’t perfect and that everything is going to be alright even if mom or dad is upset.
Beware of him that is slow to anger; for when it is long coming, it is the stronger when it comes, and the longer kept. Abused patience turns to fury.
~ Francis Quarles
My father is, perhaps, one of the most patient men I have ever met. And he’s also one of the most sensitive. When I was younger he would experience things I did as hurtful or insulting, but would keep it to himself. Then, after a seemingly insignificant last straw would occur, he would explode. As a child, there was nothing quite so confusing as this. I was unable to connect his anger to a cause that made sense and the intensity of his anger seemed so disproportionate to the offense.
The ability of a parent to be aware of their feelings as they occur, and to let a child in on that process, can be a powerful way not only to connect, but to also reduce the friction with one another. As compassionate parents have turned away from time-outs as a means of stopping children’s negative behaviors, many have realized they need more tools to help themselves cope when things get out of hand.
One of the most powerful ways I have learned to reduce my own stress is by “sportscasting” my feelings. I have often used sportscasting with my children as a way to help them learn how to solve problems for themselves. Janet Lansbury recently wrote an excellent post called Sportscasting Your Child’s Struggles that describes how this is done with young children:
“Sportscasters don’t judge, fix, shame, blame or get emotionally involved. They just keep children safe, observe and state what they see, affording children the open space they need to continue struggling until they either solve the problem or decide to let go and move on to something else” ~ Janet Lansbury
For adults, sportscasting our struggles can be a gateway to mindfulness. As Janet points out, you are simply observing your state of being, and there is no judgment, fix, shame, blame or emotional involvement in your own suffering. But how, exactly, does one go about sportscasting?
1. Pay Attention To Your Body
When you’re with your children, periodically check in with yourself. How do you feel from moment to moment? Are you relaxed? Nervous? Anxious? When you notice you’re moving from relaxed to becoming angry or stressed, give some thought to what is happening in your body. Do your shoulders hunch up toward your ears? Does your jaw become tight? Does your stomach get into a knot? Do you hands form tight fists? Does your face flush? For me, a sure sign that I’m about to pop is that I clench my teeth and feel a sudden rush of heat.
But even before I reach that boiling point I have learned that I often get a sense of being overwhelmed, as if my brain can’t think clearly. I particularly get this way when multiple people are talking to me at once. I also feel my heart beating faster, as if an emergency is happening. Just thinking about this as I type makes my chest tighten and my breathing get shallower.
All of these sensations are fairly subtle and it has taken some time for me to be able to link them to my stress level and to be aware of them instead of letting them flood me. It can be quite difficult to be aware of all of these signals if you are not used to paying attention to your body and especially if you are in the midst of a conflict brewing with your child(ren), but the more awareness you practice, the easier it becomes.
2. Verbalize Your Feelings And Sensations
You’ll likely feel a little silly at first, but give it a try. In a regular tone of voice simply describe what is going on and what you feel. There is no judgment involved, just a statement of facts:
“I feel anxious right now. You are jumping on the couch again and I feel worried that you will fall. I have tension in my tummy and my heart is beating faster.”
“You are throwing your toys on the floor instead of picking them up. I feel pretty frustrated. My jaw feels very tight and my body feels hot.”
“I feel annoyed. You are teasing your sister and making her cry. My chest feels tight and I feel like I want to yell.”
What you will begin to notice as you do this is that you actually start to calm down when you verbalize your feelings. Just like when you sportscast for your child and they feel “felt” and begin to relax, by labeling what you are feeling the part of your brain responsible for telling your body there is danger (the amygdala) is less activated:
“When people see a photograph of an angry or fearful face, they have increased activity in a region of the brain called the amygdala, which serves as an alarm to activate a cascade of biological systems to protect the body in times of danger. Scientists see a robust amygdala response even when they show such emotional photographs subliminally, so fast a person can’t even see them. […] The study showed that while the amygdala was less active when an individual labeled the feeling, another region of the brain was more active: the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. This region is located behind the forehead and eyes and has been associated with thinking in words about emotional experiences. It has also been implicated in inhibiting behavior and processing emotions…”
~ UCLA Newsroom
By not judging the situation (“I’m so angry because you are jumping on the couch!), you don’t set up a power struggle where your child feels the need to defend himself. You are simply stating facts.
In addition to actually calming yourself down by verbalizing how you feel, you are giving young children language to describe their own emotions and helping them to recognize that there is a connection between the sensations in their bodies and what emotions they have. The more you do this and the more you help them connect the dots, the better the dialogue is when big feelings surface (from you or your child)!
3. Model Self-Regulation (It Helps Your Kids do the Same)
One of the very helpful things we have learned in my daughter’s social skills class is the idea of green, red and yellow zone emotions.
The green zone is generally where we want to be and to stay — relaxed, calm, at ease, happy, focused and so forth.
The yellow zone is, as with a traffic light, a warning. This is the most subtle emotional zone and often the hardest for people to recognize. When you’re in the yellow zone you may be experiencing frustration, irritation, anxiety, silliness, nervousness, difficulty concentrating and other similar feelings.
The red zone is where you may feel fury, rage, anger, terror, explosive behavior, and other “out of control” emotions. Often people don’t notice their “yellow zone” feelings until they have slipped all the way into red — these are often people who seem to go from “zero to 60” or “flip” from being calm to being enormously angry without warning.
I often talk with my children using this traffic light analogy:
- let them know how you feel: “I am starting to notice that my feelings are in the yellow zone now. I feel anxious and annoyed. I would like to get back into the green zone so I am going to take a few deep breaths to help me calm down.”
- focus on the positive: “I was really in the red zone before and felt SO angry! But you reminded me to do a rewind and now I am really in the green zone and feel so calm and happy again. Thank you!”
- get them to notice how your mood affects theirs: “I notice that when you and your brother are fighting in the car, I have yellow zone feelings like annoyance and frustration. And when it goes on too long, I go right to the red zone! How do you feel when I am in those zones? What can we do to all get back in to the green zone?”
By talking about your feelings you are letting your children know that, yes, adults feel things too! More importantly, you are showing them that you are aware of your feelings and are taking responsibility for them. Be careful not to blame children for your feelings. the point isn’t to say “When you are doing ______ you make me feel _______.” Rather, you are saying, “When you do _______ I feel ______.” A subtle, but important
4. Remember Being Real is Better Than Being Perfect
When children are young, mom and dad are god-like. We can do everything, we know everything and we never ever make mistakes.
Except we do.
By showing your children that you can get upset about things and sometimes lose control, you are teaching them that they don’t need to be perfect. By showing them that you know how to make repairs when you do get angry, you also show them that the relationship doesn’t need to be perfect, but it does need to be cared for and to continually improve.
Our children need real, relatable role models, not perfection. Let them see you, flaws and all. Feel your feelings. Just as we tell our children that none of their feelings are bad, parents need to know this as well.
Those feelings are yours. The good, the bad and the ugly. Own them.
5. Create Safe Spaces
There are times when our children’s behavior will get to us, no matter how much we try to stay in the moment and no matter how many tools we have for helping ourselves stay regulated. It’s times like that when parents often feel the need to take a time out so we can cool down. Parents always ask me, “how can I take a time out from my child when his meltdown is pushing me over the edge? He will feel abandoned and would run after me.”
When children feel dis-regulated or disconnected from those they care about, they are not capable of thinking logically about how you might need a minute or two to calm down so you won’t flip your lid. No, children in that state need your empathy and connection so they can regulate themselves.
However, by sportscasting your emotions as you begin to notice your frustration levels rising, not only are you able to notice that you need to take a break before you flip out, but you can also notice you need to take a break before your child senses any disconnection from you. Because you have been mindful of your emotions and reactions, it is much easier to tell your child in a relaxed way, “I feel a little anxious right now so I am going to step out and cool down for a minute. I will be right back.” There is no anger, no disconnection, no need for your child to feel abandoned or concerned.
Sportscasting means you are just letting your children know how you feel, that you take care of yourself when you feel that way, that you will physically be with them again shortly and that they are safe and not to blame for any part of what is occurring.
Although I may have rolled my eyes at my father when I was a teenager or complained that he talked to me too often about his feelings, today I am so grateful that he had learned to express those emotions to me. That constant desire on his part to connect gave me a rich and expressive language to describe my own thoughts and feelings and, most importantly, made me feel that our father-daughter relationship was important to him.