After reading Rachel Stafford's moving post, "The Bully Too Close To Home," I thought a lot about the choices available moment to moment that make such a difference in our lives and the lives of our children.
Stafford realized she wanted to stop being hard on her children and decided to put that wish into action. Many parents have asked me how to be gentler with kids, which can certainly be hard to do.
The most important thing to remember is that we have a choice. We can actively choose to be friendly instead of harsh. The trick is to have a strategy in place. I call this a calm-down plan, which helps when you don't feel friendly.
In this kind of plan, you list the steps to follow each time anger brews. When a plan is in place that is repeated often, eventually, the plan will automatically be followed without much thought to it. This is not a quick fix, but can help immensely with continued practice. You can use the steps I have listed below to create your individual plan.
One of my mentors the other day asked, "What radio station are you emitting over the air waves? Stop-Annoying-Me? I-don't-have-time-for-this? Life-sucks? or J O Y?" People can feel what we are giving off. It seems to me that children can really pick up the vibes their parents give off. When we are aware of the station our head and body are on, and have a plan to alter that, connections improve all around.
Here are my suggestions minimizing harshness in a method I call "Thought Awareness & Correction."
1. See your negative thoughts.
The first step is to notice when your thinking turns sour and your radio is on the Negative Nelly station. Initially, don't try to change your thoughts, just notice them. You can use the 3-A's rule: notice when you are aggravated, agitated or annoyed. Observe when you think it is everyone else's fault or that your world would be so much better if this happened or that person did it right. Awareness can actually make the thought less powerful.
Don't try to suppress a thought; at this point, we need the chance to process it a bit before we can make it stop; otherwise, the effort may backfire and the thought becomes more powerful.
2. Hit the pause button.
Before your negative thought turns into a negative action, hit "pause," or "stop," as Stafford does. We need to stop ourselves so we can move from our more primitive part of the mind (that I call the "freak out" part) which might tell us to panic, snap or lose it, to the rational part ("check in").
Think of a way to pause that will work for you. I say, "Freeze, Sister!" which works (most of the time) for me. I sometimes hold my hand up and say, "Stop" out loud to myself. Think of what might work for you -- try a few different pause buttons until you discover one that is effective.
3. Release the pause button slowly.
Honestly, the best way to do this is to breathe. Fill your lungs entirely with air from the bottom to the top, then empty them completely out. Do this at least three times. After your last deep breath, go into slow motion. Don't speak until you feel fairly certain you are doing no harm, at which point you are shifting nicely into the "check in" part.
4. Create an alternate thought to the negative one.
When you feel calmness coming in from the breath, try a thought correction. That means create a thought you'd like to have instead of the negative one. What do you want to believe right now? Even if you don't believe it, identify it. For example, Instead of "I don't have time for this!" try changing to, "OK, time is tight. But I think my doctor won't cancel my appointment if we're 10 minutes late."
5. Act on the new thought.
If you believe the new thought, act on it. If you don't believe it, ask yourself how someone who believes it might act. In the example above, a person who accepts she and her child are just going to be late might loosen her jaw, lower her shoulders and speak more calmly. Perhaps instead of stuffing the child into the car seat, she can remember some clever tricks to firmly, but not harshly, invite cooperation from her child.
6. Regularly adjust your tuning to an empathetic station.
The last step from moving from harshness to kindness is to continually be aware of improving empathy. This means really attuning to what you and your child are feeling. If your child is having a complete and utter meltdown or has made a mistake, remind yourself what it feels like to be overwhelmed and to wish things would go your way. Those things that you want when you are experiencing big feelings are likely what others want, too -- space, help, understanding, or a hug.
Changing the dial to friendly requires making an active choice to do so. Even if you are weighed down with intense feelings and telling yourself that your child is such a jerk, you can choose to not react from this state. You can choose to change your dial to the more empathetic, "My child is angry -- I wonder why?"
This will not eliminate your blow-ups right away, but with continued awareness and practice, things will improve. Becoming more empathetic and being able to see your child's inner loveliness even when you're angry and stressed is like learning a new language. It takes trial and error and lots of practice.
If you make a concerted effort to snap less and empathize more but feel unsuccessful in doing that, I highly recommend finding a psychotherapist or counselor to give you a hand. Asking for help isn't a sign of weakness; it is a sign of courage. If you are looking for some resources to explain more, I do regularly post free parenting resources and suggestions on my Facebook page.