I believe that being able to calm ourselves in the throes of emotional intensity is one of the most valuable parenting skills to develop.
The wild behaviour that can happen when our rage hijacks us can seriously damage the relationship with our children, grow negative core beliefs in their minds, and inadvertently teach our kids to react in the same manner when they, too, get taken over by big feelings. If you haven’t heard of the term negative core beliefs before, stay tuned, because I’ll be writing about that in the future.
To create a calm-down plan that actually works, some understanding of the dynamics in play is necessary, as it is a combination of our self-talk, negative core beliefs, exhaustion level, and pure brain reactions that create that intense rushing sensation to shout or hit that can be very hard to stop.
Here are the elements of a successful calm-down plan:
What self-talk messages are your core beliefs shouting out? I don’t have time for this sh*t! If this child doesn’t stop yelling, I’m going to lose it! This kid is going to be the end of me. I’m too tired for this!
This kind of self-talk is often to blame for revving us up and making calming down hard. I wrote about the positive and negative messages we can tell ourselves and how they affect our frustration here. It is our self-talk that influences whether we see the world as our oyster or as something out to get us. It can shout statements of intolerance or whisper messages of reassurance and capability.
Controlling this self-talk is the first step to successfully calming down. Take a moment to “see” your thoughts—to be aware of the harsh messages. There is usually a pattern to your inner voice, which provides a glimpse into the workings of your subconscious. Writing your self-talk messages out in a journal is really helpful for identifying the core belief messages held in your subconscious that might be tripping you up.
When you find a negative self-talk message, ask yourself if you want to believe it or hear it. If the answer is, “no,” ask yourself what you’d like to believe instead—this would be the corresponding positive self-talk message. I encourage you to write them down so you can practice remembering them when your mind goes into flip-out mode.
I call that thought awareness and correction, which I wrote about here.
You will be more able to hear your positive self-talk and have empathy for others when they are melting down if you are not exhausted. Determine what is zapping your energy tank and take steps to change that. Do you need to: Schedule in rest time? Find other people to take care of your children for a few hours? Delegate parts of your to-do list? Spend less time thinking negatively? Attempt less?
There’s a part of our brain, the reptilian brain, which is hard-wired to keep us safe. This part kicks into gear when there is a real or perceived threat. It ramps up our heart rate, breathing rate and tenses muscles to get us ready to jump—called our “fight-or-flight” response. The focus suddenly switches from thinking calmly (being rational) to a purely physical reaction. This part of your mind is basically shouting, “DEFEND yourself!”
Once that happens, the connection to our calm, rational brain gets shut down. This is why someone who is flipping out has a very hard time hearing good logic. The priority needs to be to get back in the rational mind! When you are in an argument with someone else, taking time to make the switch back to thinking rather than defending will make the disagreement more productive.
The thing is, much of the time, the perceived threat that flips the switch on this response is a result of our self-talk (which is why I put that point first). We can actually activate this response with our thinking—we can think our way into panic in cases where a real threat isn’t there.
For example, if a mom tells herself, Oh Nooooo! I’m going to be late—argghhh! This is brutal… I need these kids to stop shouting NOW! He just WON’T LISTEN! and starts ripping around to gather things and get out the door, she may actually activate her reptilian brain. This will make it very hard for her to think calmly for a way to soothe her tantruming child, and be clear about what can be done that is helpful.
The rush of adrenaline is often the culprit that makes us shout, throw, or say things before we even have a chance to consider what our own body is doing.
The best way to reel in this physical response is with big, long breaths, but you have to remember to take them! Slow, mindful breathing is a fabulous way to stop the reptilian brain and get the flow back into your rational mind.
Include ways you will be able to do the following:
1. Hit the pause button—STOP talking. “Catch your mean words, harsh tone or hits before they come out.” (You can use that statement with your kids, too)
2. Identify your negative self-talk messages.
3. Create positive ones to believe instead.
4. Talk yourself down.
5. Take long, slow breaths (change where you are if that helps—sit down or crouch on the ground)
6. Ask yourself, “What do I need right now?” (A break? To try again? Help? Food? A walk? To speak up?)
7. Then ask, “What do my children need?” (Support? Empathy?)
8. Take action to de-escalate. What is the first thing to put your focus on?
When you are making your plan, just include the points above that you need. When you look at mine in the photo above, you can see I used some keywords, colours, and questions that I find helpful to pulling myself from my irrational to rational mind.
I know calming big, intense emotions can be hard. Please be patient with yourself as it may take time to see consistent results from your plan—keep practicing and identifying better methods for you when your reptilian brain takes over. I continually post free parenting resources on my Facebook page, and invite you over there to learn more and ask questions.