Expert / 2 November, 2021 / Dr Laura Markham
Most parents think that if our child would just “behave,” we could maintain our composure as parents. But the truth is that managing our own emotions and actions is what allows us to feel calm as parents. Ultimately we can’t control our children or the hand life deals them but we can always control our own actions. Parenting isn’t about what our child does, but about how we respond.
Lucy’s parents grew up in loud households, and when they’re frustrated, they shout. When three-year-old Lucy gets out of line, naturally, they scream at her. And when Lucy’s little brother James takes one of her toys, or starts whining, Lucy yells at him. In fact, when Lucy is simply grumpy or out of sorts, she shouts at James. Now 15 months, James is starting to shriek back at her.
Isabel’s parents also grew up in loud households, but they’ve worked hard to stop shouting. Naturally, they get frustrated, especially when three-year-old Isabel acts out. So they’ve developed a repertoire of ways to regulate their emotions when they get upset, to minimise the number of times they raise their voice to their children. When Isabel’s little brother Milo takes one of her toys, Isabel has learned to try to trade toys with him. When Milo starts whining, she echoes her parents: “Milo, you sad?… I help you.” Now 15 months, Milo often offers Isabel toys, and Isabel is better than her parents at cheering Milo up.
Children learn what they live. When we scream and shout, we’re modelling exactly the behaviour we don’t want from our children. We’re teaching them:
1. To yell at each other and to yell at us.
2. To respond to the inevitable conflicts and frustrations of daily life by yelling and blaming instead of working with the other person to find a solution.
3. To take it out on others when they’re out of sorts.
Of course, no parent intends to scream, shout or smack. Most parents wish they could “stay more calm.” But no one stays calm all the time, at least not once they have a child, or especially two or three. We will always be buffeted by the surprises and trials of living with children, and find ourselves off-centre.
So parents who want more peace in their families, and in their own hearts, find that their most essential parenting skill has nothing to do with their children. It’s returning themselves to calm. That means noticing your mood as you go through your day, and taking responsibility to keep yourself on an even keel. It requires catching yourself when you get triggered and using the opportunity to reflect, not just react, so you can steer yourself back on track. This inner growth is the hardest work there is, but it’s what enables you to become a calmer parent, one day at a time.
Why does this matter so much? That’s how we maintain patience in the face of childish emotions, and it’s how we regulate our own emotions. We can count on every child behaving childishly at times. That’s why we have the responsibility to act like grown-ups, which means not giving in to the temptation to throw tantrums ourselves. We as parents always have the power to calm a child’s storms or to exacerbate them with our own response.
Calm doesn’t mean that things aren’t rambunctious or lively or hilarious at your house. It just means that YOU work towards being less reactive, more peaceful inside. That makes you a better role model for your children. In fact, it helps them build a brain and nervous system that can self-regulate.
How could your calmness have that much impact on your child’s brain? Babies are born with their brains unfinished, to give the child the best chance of adapting to the specifics of his environment. How reactive your child is, how easily he or she gets stressed, is only partly genetic. Your child’s brain literally takes shape depending on his or her interactions with you.
Unfortunately, that means that the more we yell and smack, the more our children get the message that life is often an emergency. Their brains adapt accordingly. Consider how this works. Your son pushes his toddler sister over. Is it an emergency? Actually, no. But it certainly feels like one to most of us. Without even realising it, we’re plunged into a state of “fight, flight or freeze” and our son looks like the enemy. We intervene with sirens blaring to vanquish the foe and rescue our baby.
Those blaring sirens can’t help but escalate the tension both children are feeling. Our daughter, who was startled but not hurt, begins to wail. Our son flees under the bed, where we pursue him, screeching and threatening. Restoring calm takes twenty minutes.
If this situation is repeated often, our children’s amygdalas (the part of the brain that alerts us to danger) become more active, more worried. They go more quickly from zero to 60 when they get upset. Because they feel threatened and upset more easily, they fight with each other more.
Of course, life with children is full of good reasons for parents to feel upset, overwhelmed, and angry. The baby won’t stop crying, the toddler hits the baby, the preschooler flushes the toddler’s teddy bear down the toilet, and the six-year-old starts repeating every insult he hears at school to reduce his little brother to tears. But parenting, even when our kids are at each other’s throats, isn’t usually an emergency. Often, our own issues get triggered and we leap into the fray with our children and make everything worse. If we want to break the cycle, we need to learn to regulate ourselves.
Is this easy? Never. Regulating our own emotions is the toughest part of parenting, and it’s usually a work in progress. Most parents scream and shout, especially once they have more than one child. It’s so hard not to. Anyone of us will go over the cliff if we’re pushed too far. But that’s why it’s your responsibility as the parent to stay away from the edge. Regulating our own emotions is one of the hardest things for any of us to do, but that doesn’t excuse us from tackling it. If you’re a screamer, now’s the time to stop. It isn’t easy, but I’ve seen thousands of parents do it.
It’s like playing a musical instrument. It’s a practice, which means you’ll never get perfect at it, but it will be easier every time you do it. As you go through your day, start training yourself to observe the ebb and flow of your mood. When you begin to get irritable, take action to restore your balance. This sounds hard, and it is. But you can start small, with some easy techniques.
For instance, when you find yourself swamped with other people’s needs, try the simple “Take Five” practice to check-in and re-center yourself. Just count five deep, slow breaths. To deepen the effect, notice what’s going on in your body as you breathe. Tight shoulders? Imagine you’re breathing light into any tense places in your body. This deceptively simple practice makes you aware of your stress, so you can breathe through it and let it go. Research shows that conscious breathing like this can shift you from stress to calm in five breaths, and it becomes more effective as you do it more often. You can “Take Five” with a crying baby in your arms, while you’re washing dishes, at a stoplight, or even when your children are fighting before you intervene.
Returning yourself to calm is always hard inner work, but it gets easier with practice, and there are many strategies to support you. The good news is that when we’re able to react calmly even as emotions get hot, our children learn valuable lessons.
The even better news is that your peaceful presence has a more powerful influence on your child than screaming and shouting ever could. Your own ability to be calm is what gives you the tools to manage your emotions, even on those days when your child pushes all your buttons. It’s what helps you to treat the people in your life, including the little people, calmly, respectfully, and responsibly and that’s what produces children who are emotionally regulated, respectful and responsible.
Are calm parents always calm? Of course not! They’re human. Like all humans, no parent is perfect. And regulating ourselves is the hardest emotional work we do, so it can be an uphill battle despite our positive intentions. What distinguishes a calm parent is the commitment to self-regulation, one action at a time. Since the parent-child relationship is just a series of moments together, all those positive choices are cumulative. Two steps forward, one step back still gets your family onto a more positive path. And before you know it, into a whole new landscape.
Dr Laura Markham is the author of Calm Parents, Happy Kids: The Secrets of Stress-free Parenting, the book for every parent who wants to stop screaming, shouting or smacking. Published by Vermilion in trade paperback , priced £12.99.
You can find more information about Dr. Laura Markham online at AhaParenting.com.