A group of moms I’d invited over for a session with parenting coach Kathy Whitham came to my house a few weeks back. Whitham had promised to offer tips and strategies for “No-Yell Parenting,” and many were eager for her advice.
So was I. The Big G is a yeller.
The ladies (and the Big G) sat on the edge of their seats, ready to receive. Whitham began slowly, and, in the end, spoke mostly in generalities — a source of some frustration but also a metaphor for the entire lesson: as parents, we must relax, even when things don’t go perfectly to plan.
“Stress causes confusion, distorted thinking and short-term memory loss,” Whitham said. In those moments, anything you know gets lost, including, of course, the right things to do or say to your child. “The goal,” she said, “is to calm the brain.”
The problem is, that’s no easy thing. Whitham offered up three first steps:
• Replace self-criticism with more positive free thinking, that of your “sexy” self. Be comfortable with discomfort. If we always have to be right, so too do we pass that attitude along to our children.
• Find a place of calm and confidence in order to get in touch with your own parenting voice. We know what to do if we relax.
• Commit to relating to your child with the understanding that connection matters more than perfection.
The first thing to do when a child pushes your buttons is to breathe. “Upper breathing makes us anxious, so we need to learn to bring breath down,” Whitham said.
We all stood up, fists raised at chest level, and were told to imagine ourselves as a bellows, pushing fists out as we expand and breathe in, fists in as you contract and breathe out. Doing that three times consciously has a physiologically calming effect.
We should stop to take three deep bellows breaths in the morning and three at night before bed. I personally have been using the strategy near constantly in the moments when my stress levels start to rise, like when the kids continue playing with their Legos long after we are late for school. When I stop and breathe and think for a moment, I can more easily refrain from blowing a gasket and, hence insuring they will continue not to listen.
When we are calm and conscious of our breath, we are more able to handle a child’s outbursts or his withdrawals, whichever behavior a child exhibits when his or her “stress exceeds the window of tolerance,” a situation Whitham refers to as “dysregulated.”
In order to help children build their resistance to stress we, of course, have to build our own.
Stress sensitivity differs by brain chemistry, Whitham said, so those of us stress-balls shouldn’t beat ourselves up about it. What we have to do is take action: take a walk, take a shower, listen to music, whatever helps restore breathing and calm. It is easier said than done in our fast-paced lives, of course, but a goal nonetheless, an important one.
If we come from this place of calm, we might be better able to do what it takes not to yell, we might actually remember in the moment when a child isn’t listening, uses the “F” word or wrestles unceasingly with a sibling, when he or she talks back or is just plain resistant, that this action is coming from an unconscious fear-based place of stress. Quite simply, the child is overwhelmed.
A child, she says, has three ages: chronological, intellectual and emotional.
“When we stress, we regress,” Whitham said. It makes perfect sense. I am constantly thinking and sometimes even saying to my children, “How old are you? I THOUGHT you were 9.” Whitham confirms I was right to think that, but my course of action has been wrong.
Since 80 percent of communication is non-verbal, the stress shape-shifts into childish behavior well below actual age and I have been woefully unsympathetic. I really should be getting down on my knees to help put shoes on in a time of stressful morning transition instead of freaking out and yelling at them to stop being “babies” and do it themselves. Hard to do, though, when often I can’t locate my own shoes or when their whining or active willfulness triggers me to regress myself to my own emotional 5-year-old self.
In these moments, Whitham says, let your heart break open: sympathize. Step back, breathe, and whenever possible, get down to their level and meet them where they are, at whatever age. This is only possible, of course, if we can transform our own emotional buttons and learn to enjoy the specific moment or the general feeling of having kids — even though the reality of parenting does not always jive with our former expectations of bliss.
Whitham left us calm-seeking yellers one last thought: remember to cut yourself some slack. Mistakes will be made in our parenting like everywhere in our lives, but in order not to stress, we need to focus on the positive.
In her calm voice, she spoke over the noise of everyone rushing to gather their things and get going with their Sunday.
“Homework,” she said. “Write down at the end of the day three things you did right as a parent and three things your child did right.”
And if you can only come up with two things on your list, cut yourself some slack and do it better tomorrow.
For information on Kathy Whitman, visit www.parentingbeyondwords.com