Be the thermostat, not the thermometer
If there is one parenting tip that I would love all parents to hear, this may be it. Why this one when there are so many valuable parenting nuggets?
This one is the hardest to accomplish and can be the most important.
Let me set the stage. It is 3 pm and your child is having a meltdown. Maybe it is a full on throwing their body on the floor screaming meltdown. Maybe is it somewhat more contained and showing up as an insane amount of attitude being thrown your way for "no reason". What happens to us as parents in this moment?
I can tell you my experience. I get tense, I start to get agitated too. I am essentially allowing their feelings to become my feelings. I notice it coming on by the tension I feel in my shoulders and jaw. In this moment, I am becoming a thermometer. My mood is shifting to match my child's.
I take a step back, take a deep breath, and separate my feelings from my child's. I switch to being the thermostat instead. I choose the mood, feeling, state that I would like my child to match. I regain a sense of calm and approach my child with calmness. Just like my child's feelings started to seep into my space, my calmness can also begin to seep into theirs.
When our kids are losing it and out of control, they need us. They need us to help them learn the skills to calm down and manage feeling overwhelmed. When children become overwhelmed with emotions their "reptilian brain" takes over. They are not able to think logically and think about consequences or poor choices. They are simply impulse driven in that moment. This should sound familiar to you. Every child gets to that place where they are unable to hear us and nothing we say is helpful. That is because they are overwhelmed with emotions. Even adults can get to this place (hopefully less often as we have more coping skills).
If we approach them and become overwhelmed and chaotic ourselves, we will just be escalating the situation. If however we remain calm (yes, this is WAY easier said than done) , we are providing a model for managing feelings, we are sharing our calm, and we are avoiding adding to the overwhelmed feelings. This is not a time to teach a lesson, there is plenty of time for that. It is more helpful to revisit and process a behavior after your child has calmed down and regained control.
If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. It takes effort for us to manage our own feeling of being overwhelmed. It takes even more effort to notice and not play into a situation when our own buttons get pushed. When we are able to manage our feelings and see our child as needing us to guide them through their big feelings, we are able to step up to this challenge. Bringing the calm to these situations allows our child to have a model for what managing feelings looks like. It gives our child a reference point for re-centering and finding the calm. It gives our child, who is out of control in the moment, a feelings of comfort, support, and love.
So next time your child has big feelings and feels overwhelmed, whether they are 4 or 14, take a deep breath and bring the calm.
Claudia Glassman is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Registered Play Therapist, and Parent Coach
**Disclaimer: This blog is the opinion of an individual and is not to be construed as professional advice or a professional relationship. If you are seeking mental health advice contact a therapist in your area. If you are experiencing an emergency, head to your nearest emergency room or call 911