Dear Caring Parent,
Sometimes when we parents hear the prompt to provide calm parenting, it feels like an insult. That’s because there’s a problem with being a calm parent. How can I be calm when my teenager is slamming doors? And then there’s my toddler with nerve grating tantrums all day – you suggest I get calm? How about when they laugh in my face when I ask them to do something? What about when my OB just told me I have to be induced? Or when I’m on deadline and all the kids want is me? How about us POC worrying about my child’s experience as they expand into the bigger world? No, not a calm parent, we say.
There is a LOT about parenting that is a blow to calmness, in other words dysregulating. There are ample other parenting scenarios that spark great big feelings within us. So what is the deal with all this ‘become calm’ stuff?
The Problem With Being A Calm Parent
I think the real problem with calm parenting is that when we talk about it we leave out the first step, the ‘c’ in calm – call-it-out. Calling it out is about what WE are experiencing.
We give our children feeling words for different experiences, we call it out. When they dysregulate, we also let them work it by helping them or giving them quiet space. We hug them. We’re thankful that they let us know how they feel (sometimes!). At our best, we talk about other ways to express the feelings. All of this is what we forget when it comes to ourselves.
Somehow, as adults, permission to use the ‘c’ in calm, calling it out, gets lost. So when friends or ‘parent experts’ suggest calm parenting, we toss out the whole idea because it seems like it denies our very real and valid experience.
In parenting, when our child is dysregulated, how and when we respond in fact matters. For instance, calling your child an a–hole or screaming at them is usually not going to open problem solving. You can, but does it get you what you want? In the short term and the long term?
As Mark Greene and Dr. Saliha Bava say in The Relational Book for Parenting, “at times our children will express deeply challenging emotions. How will we listen?” How do we listen AND not deny what we are experiencing? (By the way, Mark and Saliah use comic strips to describe the relational space between us and our children. Their book also includes some fun games for working through those “say/do whuut?” times with our children.)
I have come to appreciate what needs to be part of our thought process to do calm listening/responding with our children yet get to be real ourselves.
Calm Parenting Includes Understanding Child Development
When our children dysregulate, it helps us stay calm when we understand child development. For instance, tt helps to know that the brain doesn’t have the connections between emotion and thought needed for a two or three year old to calm down. We’re in fact activating those connections in how we respond to their upsets and sometimes annoying curiosities.
When your tween, who is gradually increasing their steps into independence, makes a mistake, it helps to remember that this is all pretty much new to them. They are activating some connections also.
It’s helpful to know that the teen’s whole being is immersed in becoming independent from you. Psychologist Erik Erikson calls it ‘individuating’. Therefore when you say yes, they push back and say no. That’s normal.
If you are interested in the major developmental ‘task’ associated with different phases of childhood, distilled into what brings out the best in them and you during that phase, click here for my free booklet and 21 email sequence. The point here though is that some understanding of child development is needed to be less stressed and drained, more calm, when dealing with phase-normal or specific situations that dysregulate us.
Calm Parenting Requires Genuinely Listening to Yourself
After moving through an upsetting day or situation, it is time to call out the depth of your experience. Initially we are pretty good at the vent, cry, or foot stomp.
Once past that, ask the question “what about this affects me so much?”. Sometimes that answer is readily available. I usually encourage people to go through at least five rounds of the question. It’s like in strategic planning at work when doing ‘what if’ scenarios – you keep it going until there is silence.
When asking this question, the MOST important thing is to remember that it’s not about critiquing the reply. It’s not about negating the reply. It’s about going with it until you bring forth your affected parts. Keep going with it until you get to your hurt spot or where it’s not about your child but about you. You’ll see this in the example below.
Don’t skip over this step. A mom I talk to often says, “I know I’m supposed to be nice, be calm.” I repeatedly remind her that she gets to have her feelings. She gets to call-them-out; she values calm parenting responses but forgets this part of it (it’s easy to do as it’s not emphasized enough).
Listening to ourselves is about naming what we feel, identifying what’s important about it to us and then problem solving about our need and tending to any triggers. Because relationships are dynamic, this is ongoing. With patience, it gets easier once we incorporate this in our inner conversation around upsetting times between our children and us.
Know Your Triggers
We all enter parenting with previous life experience, not all of which we embrace. As we grow, behavior and attitudes we used to accept, we no longer do. I can almost guarantee you that your child will rub up against the hurt in what you are now rejecting. So, to be calm parent, it helps us to know our triggers. We know them by asking, guess what, ‘what about this affects me?’
Here’s what it looked like in a conversation I had with a mom upset with her four year old’s response when asked to do something.
Mom– She just says ‘no’. Stubbornness all over that face.
Me: What about that affects you?
Mom: She can’t get away with that. I’m the mom! Me: What about that affects you?
Mom: Nothing I do or say matters in getting this peacefully done. Me: What about that affects you?
Mom: I can’t get things done. It’s always like this too. I have to get things done! She has to listen to me! Me: What about that affects you?
Mom: Sh–, I wish I could get attention for stubbornness. I want her to respect authority! People tell me I let her get away with too much, but if I don’t, it’s a big argument. Then people begrudge that I argue with her. Nobody gets how hard this is. Me: What about this affects you?
Mom: I want someone to pay attention to me! My needs! It’s always about her needs. It’s just like when I was young and had to yell and scream for someone to pay attention to my needs.
There. Need and trigger – pay attention to me now, and, a long felt hurt about not being easily heard .
Mom: OMG, this sends me back to my young self! I promised I’d never let that happen again. And here it is my daughter! And she’s only 4, so of course she doesn’t want to be bossed. Especially when there’s been a lot of it.
By tolerating this question, we open up problem solving in the end. We discover more than one loving way to ease the situation. I suggest sitting with what you’ve come to realize for a bit. Then incorporate this along with what you know about your child’s development. See what new ideas you now have about changing your response and also helping them grow into a different reaction.
With this mom, our talk includes ideas about a four year old’s need for choices. Her daughter in fact does much better with choices – totally falling out if not given any. This mom recognizes that kids are just where they are in their development, that in how we respond to them we build them up, or not, and help them express themselves in a more relatable way.
She also knows that kids learn best through play. Therefore, the idea to role play, using her daughters favorite toys to work out feelings in urgent situations with no choices, appealed to her. We also talked about her personal trigger – what her commitment to being heard means now in the context of parenting a four year old.
Additionally, when I wondered if there are other ways in which Mom isn’t being heard, she realizes she is highly reactive with her daughter because indeed there are other contexts for this trigger. A little bit of self-care planning ensues!
Does Calling It Out Work In Calm Parenting?
Did her daughter get better at not arguing when it was a no-choice time? Yes. It took a couple months because mom needed reminders (that’s part of relationship problem solving, consistently responding differently), and her daughter kept working out her part as they played their way through the problematic scenarios.
As a parent, I know very well that seemingly every day things can dysregulate us. I promote getting back into calm because it’s a more productive, happier, healthier state. When calm, things don’t seem to get bigger. And frankly, I grow more, not to mention my relationship between me and my child grows increasingly engaged and fulfilling. This mom expressed just that too. She laughingly told me, “I’ll probably need reminders about this forever because my daughter and I are a bit alike. BUT, I get how big a deal this was to me when I was young. And I’m happy I don’t need to steamroll over my daughter’s strengths to get her to listen to me.”
All of this to say, you get to have and feel your feelings, your experiences. In fact, it’s best to not step away from all that. Keep calm parenting going by remembering the ‘c’ in calm – calling-it-out.
Take care now, Natasha
p.s. If you can’t quite get to your trigger by asking yourself this, or think someone listening to YOUR feels about something would be more productive, I invite you to schedule listening session with me.