Picture this: a parent sits down to dinner with their child. The child sees a pile of broccoli on his plate and begins to complain that he won’t eat it. The parent retorts, “Oh yes, you will!” They lock eyes and prepare for battle. Within minutes, everybody is riled up, screaming, and frustrated with each other, and the broccoli sits on the plate untouched. Moments like this happen often in families. An instigating event is followed by a sharp increase in everybody’s emotional arousal, which leads to breakdowns in communication, overreactions, saying things people don’t mean, hurt feelings, and friction in relationships.
When tension runs high between a parent and a child, the single most effective way to bring the energy back to baseline is for the parent to decrease their own arousal. Children are still developing the capacity to self-regulate and often struggle to manage their own strong emotions. One way that children learn to self-regulate is by co-regulating with their parent – meaning that whatever the parent feels, the child’s emotions are likely to tip in the same direction. This tendency is a direct factor of how close your relationship is and how much your child identifies with you, which is really beautiful…until broccoli ends up smashed all over the walls!
Basically, the more escalated you are, the more escalated your child is likely to be. On the other hand, the more you are able to stay calm, the more it helps your child to do the same. But staying calm is not always so easy. The following are some tips that have helped parents keep their cool in the midst of family conflict:
Learn Your Signs.
Start observing yourself to notice patterns in your arousal level. There is often a moment when your blood pressure starts to go up, your heart rate begins to accelerate, and your breathing quickens just a little bit. Practice attending to your own bodily signals – at first just to observe, not with the goal of changing, but rather to learn and understand how your own body tends to respond to triggers. Can you identify the exact moment your body begins to process the stress?
Practice Cooling Down Your Body.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of identifying the start of your arousal, it is important to utilize this technique. This works best when your arousal level is still pretty low, before you’re so upset that you no longer feel in control. If you notice your heart beating just a bit faster or your breath just starting to get faster and shallower, take a few deep breaths. You can keep one hand on your chest or wrist to monitor your heart rate and see if you can feel your body coming back down to baseline. The more you are able to respond to and subsequently regulate your body’s reactions (this process is called biofeedback), the more you will feel in control of stressful moments.
Distract Yourself From the Situation.
If your arousal level has already ticked up, you need more ammo to bring it back down. Take a mini mental vacation from an argument by thinking about something else. What exactly you try to think about will be different for every person. For some people, it helps to focus on a rote task, such as thinking about your grocery list. For other people, that causes too much stress! Some people get a lot out of visualization (like imagining yourself on your favorite vacation – maybe before you had kids!); others find it hard to conjure a happy image when they’re upset. It takes some trial and error to figure out what kind of thinking task works for you, but others that you can try include: doing math problems in your head, “replaying” an episode of TV you recently watched, planning out the steps to a task (such as the order in which you might prep dinner ingredients tonight)…and if all else fails, you can even whip out your phone and scroll through your Instagram feed for a minutes.
Leave the Room.
This may be necessary if the arousal is too high for you to access any of these aforementioned skills. Separate yourself from the situation entirely until you have time to cool down. Staying in the room when you are upset increases the chances you will say or do something you don’t mean because your emotion has taken over. Make sure it’s safe to leave the room (you don’t want to leave your child unattended if they are unsafe, such as if they are engaging in self-harming behaviors), but as long as there are no glaring immediate threats, everybody in the family will probably be emotionally safer if you have some time apart. If you don’t feel comfortable leaving the child alone and you have a partner available, this is a good time to tag them in.
When we experience conflict with our children, we tend to focus more on how they are responding to the situation than on how we are. But as the parent, you and your actions set the frame for how an interaction will play out. So just remember… when tensions are running high, the first person to calm down is yourself!