I lost it the other day with my 12-year-old daughter.
I was triggered, and I lost it. I yelled. I got angry.
We had gotten into a conflict and had come to a standstill. We both said things we shouldn’t have. I felt she was being unreasonable. I’m sure she felt the same about me.
What I should have done was walk away and approach her at a different time. Instead I let myself become swept up in the power struggle. I didn’t give in, and I backed her into a corner. All animals fight back when trapped. I should have known better.
But I was triggered. My “shark music” began to play. Shark music is the thoughts and beliefs going through our heads about ourselves and our children during times of conflict. It takes us away from being present in the moment and giving our children and ourselves what we really need.
My beliefs, and the stories I tell myself, can take me to some pretty far-fetched places of doom and gloom for my kids. We all have them — we just might not be aware of them.
As parent educator Vicki Hoefle says, we have to dig deep to see where our beliefs take us and how they hold us hostage, fuel our anger and trigger our responses. These stories can sound something like this:
“My daughter is on her device for hours. She’s lazy. She doesn’t take care of her responsibilities. She doesn’t respond to me. She’s never going to learn how to interact in a social world. She won’t be able to find a fulfilling relationship or hold down a job.
“My son never picks up his things. He’s a slob. He’s going to leave the house and not know how to clean and keep things looking nice. He’ll never find a good partner, because who wants to live with a slob who doesn’t help out in the house?
“My child always talks back. We can’t have a reasonable conversation without conflict. Our relationship is going downhill and there is always angst and discord in the house. Can’t we have some peace and fun together?”
See how we went down the rabbit hole and fueled our anxieties and fears while raising tension? Instead, can we take a step back and observe?
The first step I talk to parents about when they are in conflict with their child is “calm.” It is for ourselves, the parents. Before we approach any interaction with our kids we need to calm ourselves, put on our own oxygen mask before we help our kids with theirs.
Admittedly, that’s easier said than done with a mid-tantrum toddler or headstrong defiant teenager.
To maintain calm we have to be aware. We have to know we are headed toward dysregulation before we can stop dysregulation. Begin to notice how you are feeling. Where do you feel your anger or frustration or fear in your body? Notice it and acknowledge it without going into the story of why those feelings are there. Then you can move toward calming those strong emotions.
What helps you stay calm? Deep breaths? Counting to 10? A sip of water? Some fresh air? Figure out your needs, and have the wherewithal to address them.
Maybe most importantly, talk to your child about what you are doing. Kids learn how to manage their strong emotions and behaviors from the most important people in their lives: you. It may initially feel contrived, but even starting with a simple acknowledgement like, “I’m starting to feel angry. I can feel my shoulders tightening and my face is getting red. I’m going to take some deep breaths to calm down, and then I’ll come back and talk to you.” Can you see the gift of what you are teaching your child in this moment?
It also helps you to distance yourself from the situation at hand. Rather than going into the story about what your child is doing, how awful it is, what your beliefs are about kids who act that way, and how the behavior is affecting you, take a step back. Simply narrate what you see. “My daughter just hit her sister.” “My son just said nasty things to me.” “My kid won’t leave the playground.” “My teen came home drunk.”
All of those behaviors can be triggering. But yelling, sarcasm, silence or responding with passive aggression only distances us from our children. Reacting with anger only makes it harder to address the behavior effectively while maintaining a strong relationship.
After my mess with my daughter, after time had passed and we had both calmed down, I apologized. I told her I was angry and lost my cool. I admitted I didn’t handle it well. We talked about the situation, voiced our concerns and listened to the other’s. We repaired.
We are all going to have disruptions in our relationships. Going back in and repairing is what allows the relationship to remain strong even after a rupture. It also teaches those skills to our children and is the critical modeling they need.
I haven’t lost it with my kids in a long time. I’ve done a lot of hard work to be able to manage my strong emotions and reactions when I’m triggered by them. So this surprised me. Seems fitting, though, as this column is about us, the parents, and how we respond to our kids. Yes, our children’s behaviors trigger us. But we are in charge of how we respond. And we are the adults. The adage rings true: You can’t change others, you can only change yourself.