Nowadays it seems so easy to “know” the right way to do things! How to eat, how to get fit, how to parent… But in real-time everyday life, there are moments, days, weeks and months even, when parenting may seem to be the hardest journey of all.
Take, for example, potty training. There is the child that just knows – and follows an intuitive step-by-step approach, aided by parents and school caregivers, and before you know it, is out of nappies. But there is also the young child who just cannot stay dry, day or night, no matter the support and willingness, or who refuses to use the toilet out of fear or laziness or just defiance. What then?
And the other tricky scenario – the picky eater. Like the little one who will only eat bread? White bread with butter day in, day out. We supposedly know and can access the information that tells us how to do it. Potty training in three easy steps. The quick guide to feeding the picky eater. The websites and books are a brilliant resource. But what if the little child in front of us will not follow the rules?
This can lead to tears of frustration, anger, and huge amounts of stress for all family members involved. Often, the key strategy suggested to parents who feel unable to cope in these moments is: “calm down”. There is even the meme: “Keep calm and parent on”.
It’s so easy to say. How exactly is it achieved? As psychologists, and mothers, we know that children are experts at reading body language. So, they know when the parent in the room is stressed, out of their comfort zone or sometimes just plain at their wits end.
Along with their own struggles and added awareness that mom or dad is now losing the plot, the parents’ inability to cope increases to the child’s fear and stress level. And it all adds up. The lack of containment spurs on the child’s own feelings of anxiety and apprehension, and that further impacts their behaviour resulting in a messy situation all round!
So, how to keep calm?
The number one strategy to achieve this goal is (drum roll), to breathe. How is that possible, you might ask? We surely do this every minute of every day, as our very lives depend on it. So many parents and clients will sigh and say, “I’ve tried it, but it does not work”.
The simple key is to breathe deeply and to practise. This deep breathing (also known as diaphragmatic breathing) provides much-needed oxygen for the brain. It goes beyond the breathing needed to sustain life. This allows us to regain control of our most important parts of the brain that control problem solving and clear thinking. As we reduce our stress response and increase control, we certainly make better choices in the moment as to how to manage and parent. And that’s a winning stance.
It is important to clarify that deep breathing is not a few quick breaths. It is, in fact, a mindful practice that we engage in in order to have a positive impact on our body and mind. We seek to reduce the stress and anxiety of everyday living, working and parenting, so that we can be more focused, clear, grounded and appropriate – things that are not easy to achieve when clouded by stress, anger, frustration.
A simple way to learn deep breathing is the 4-square method.
- In a quiet, calm space, breathe in deeply through the nose for the count of 4.
- Hold breath for the count of 4.
- Breathe out slowly through the mouth for a count of 4 (getting the picture?).
- And finally, hold for a count of 4. And repeat, at least 5 times!
Most important of all is that this is something that needs to be practised. If we practise, when the times of stress and strife arrive and we actually need to calm down, our body and brain know the pattern. And we easily slip into the process of deep breathing to oxygenate the brain and support the nervous system before it enters a fight-or-flight stress response. And it’s worth practising every day in order to become an exercise that can enhance all aspects of life, mental and physical.
And then what?
Well, the first step is to calm down. The next is to decide on a course of action – be it addressing the behaviour, ignoring it or something else, such as asking for help from a friend or professional. Once calmer, it may be useful to mentally sift through all information and options and advice obtained and then take what resonates with you.
It is important to let go of what doesn’t work for you as a person or family as often the “shoulds and have to’s” overwhelm us as parents, keeping us stuck in the cycle of anxiety, overreaction and panic. So, try to listen to that inner voice. Problems are only defined as problems if they’re a problem to those involved. Sometimes, we need to consider the middle ground, of course, and the need to fit into a social or school group. (Quite complex really!)
“The first step is to calm down. The next is to decide on a course of action – be it addressing the behaviour, ignoring it or something else, such as asking for help from a friend or professional.”
As we have noted, the next step may entail a variety of different solutions or attempts to work through the challenge of potty training or fussy eating behaviour. In this process, you are also showing your little one how to regulate their emotions, a critical life skill that is modelled when we are able to regulate and manage our own emotions.
It is a winning formula. Feelings may come and go, but we are able to control our reactions and our behaviours. This is a vital skill for parents and for our children to learn. Come on parents out there, I challenge you to calm down and breathe deeply! Let us know your stories …