H ow often have you been triggered because your child just won’t listen or ignores you? I have, countless times. I’m the parent, so I should know better. Why is this so hard for me? How do we overcome and calm the triggers caused by our children’s behavior?
“You can trace it back to when you didn’t feel safe or when you didn’t feel heard or seen,” positive discipline trainer Casey O’Roarty told attendees at the Positive Parenting Summit 2022. “‘So I’m gonna get bigger and more intimidating because I want you to do what I want you to.’ It’s painful to realize that, ultimately, we have no control over our kids. They are their own people.”
O’Roarty, author of “Joyful Courage: Calming the Drama and Taking Control of Your Parenting Journey,” said that what’s under the surface of anger is typically fear—we get embarrassed or disgusted by our kids’ behavior. We all did stupid stuff when we were young and we turned out okay. But what if our kids aren’t so lucky?
O’Roarty said that sneaking out and experimenting come from curiosity, not fear. So, let them be curious about even small things, otherwise, they’ll feel trapped. Allow them space for risk-taking and don’t push them further away with yelling and punishments without understanding why they do what they do.
When you lose your mind when things you don’t like happen, you’re on the emotional freight train, according to O’Roarty. The train becomes in charge and you are no longer in control. You’ve just had enough, used all your tools and you lose it. Logic is out the window, you’re completely run by your emotions, and you’ve got a whole wreck to clean up.
“It takes a lot to stop it when we hit an emotional threshold. No parent is immune to this,” she said. “So be conscious when the train is pulling in.”
She advised the audience to pay attention to their bodies: how does it feel right before you lose it? Maybe your legs get hot, your shoulders come in and your fists clench. If you want to get off this destructive loop, you have to practice a lot before the trigger happens.
Do a quick check-in with your body. Say, you’re irritated. Release the tension by spreading your feet a bit, to be more neutral. Start with the body and the mind will follow. When the body leads, the mind bends. It’s hard to talk yourself out of being upset. So instead, take deep breaths to slow your heart rate. Soften up to get off the train.
“This doesn’t mean you’ll never get on the train after this. We can’t know the future, but when we do everything we can to show our kids how we are trying to be better humans, that’s enough,” said O’Roarty.
It helps to know that we can affect our triggers through awareness to respond positively to our children. Acknowledging this relationship will enable us to get off and stay off the train. Body awareness is crucial to calming down and accessing a broader perspective amid intense feelings. O’Roarty calls it the 3Bs:
Breathe. Pay attention to how it feels to breathe; just notice the physical sensations. Don’t overthink it. The quality gets better, more nourishing, like a blanket of peace. Exhaling for longer slows down the heart rate.
Body. Do a full-body scan. Start from your head, the muscles on your face, the jaw, all the way down. Notice and release some of that tension in certain parts of your body. Soften and settle your body into a more neutral place.
Balcony seat. Lifting up and out of your experience, imagine seeing yourself and your child from a broader, neutral perspective. Is this even about me? Is my child hungry/angry/lonely/tired (HALT) right now? Your child is not being a problem; he’s having a problem. Be willing to see that there’s something bigger going on. O’Roarty differentiated having a response versus a reaction. Some parents think kids “need to know that this is not okay; they’re going to feel the pain.” But she said that approach doesn’t leave kids with tools or skills. It’s not solution-oriented and doesn’t help the situation.
Finding your breath
“The assumption is that if I get really mad, they won’t want to do it again. It’s short-sighted. Sure, fiercer punishments and fear could work in the short term, but do you want to do that and be that? When they grow up and no longer fear the punishment, it’s not going to work,” she said.
O’Roarty told a story about a mother who threw a dinner party for her 16-year-old daughter in a restaurant. Instead of being grateful, the daughter was snarky at her. The mother asked, “Are you okay?” and refrained from adding “because you’re being a bitch.” The daughter replied, “They’re not going to come and sing, are they?” referring to the waiters because she’s introverted and anxious. She just had to be assured that they won’t, and she was fine after. But before that, the mother was thinking, “She is ruining this for me!”
Fortunately, she found her breath and gave her child the benefit of the doubt that there must be something else happening. She was able to shift the experience into something positive because of truly open curiosity instead of loaded questions. Now, the daughter might be anxious, but it still isn’t okay for her to be rude to her mom. However, addressing it is not helpful at the moment, they can have that conversation later.O’Roarty added that “choosing in” is declaring that this is what you want to do. It’s deciding to be different at the moment, instead of being emotionally big, loud and angry. It can feel so far from how we want to be.
When parents embark on this process, they learn more about themselves. “It feels weird at first, but it just takes practice,” assured O’Roarty. “Who do I want to be for my child? Of course, we want to be loving, nonjudgmental, curious, open and available to them. So be those things when it’s hard and challenging. Practice how you want to be when the stakes are low so it’s easier for you to access the 3Bs.”