I've been thinking some more about those times when things are on the edge of chaos, and we're expected to be in control. Sharing your children's lives with an ex-spouse can be challenging. There are issues like differing parental styles and values and the need to manage schedules and to communicate concerns that can all be areas of potential conflict. It takes calm and a great deal of self discipline to manage these challenging situations. We can't always control the stressful experiences that come our way, but we can control how we respond to them. Being in control, and resisting giving in to anger, yelling or blaming, will not only defuse the situation, but will also give you a powerful experience of your own competence. You will also be providing a model for your children in how to exercise self-control in tense situations. Children learn by observing; when we model calm responses to our children they learn self-control.
As important as this skill is, it takes time to develop, and there will be plenty of times when it's just not possible. Your attitude towards yourself in these moments is very important. Here are some additional suggestions to help you get though those tough times.
When you're in one of those moments of being overwhelmed, and revert to less than desirable responses, forgive yourself. There will be times when just too many things go wrong; or times when no matter what you do, nothing works. Or times when you're tired or getting sick and empathy is in short supply. In these moments, let it be okay that you didn't do better. Parenting is hard work; children demand a lot of attention which often requires an inordinate amount of patience. So be generous with yourself and accept your human imperfection. Your commitment to work on self-control is what matters, not your temporary mistakes.
In his research, Ed Tronick, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist, found that parents fail to attune to their kids about 66 percent of the time. Yet, when they provide quick apologies it actually helps builds resilience in their relationship. How reassuring to know that we have a fair amount of latitude to make mistakes if we quickly make amends. This video of Dr. Tronick's Still Face experiment which shows how disturbed infants get when parents are disengaged and then how quickly a repair can help them reengage.
When you're feeling stressed, notice your breath. When we're stressed we sometimes find ourselves breathing shallowly from our chest. If you notice this, try to switch to belly breathing which comes from lower down in your diaphragm. Slowly inhale through your nose, feeling the breath start in your abdomen and work its way to the top of your head. Reverse the process as you exhale through your mouth. This is a quick way to calm the body. There's also an app called Breathe2Relax that can help walk you through belly breathing. Deep breathing reduces the effects of stress by slowing the heart rate and lowering blood pressure. Practice at times when you're not under stress, so it becomes more reflexive. Here's an interesting article and NPR interview with an opera singer who had to relearn breathing.
When it's too hard to concentrate on belly breathing, exhale forcefully. Do a number of long exhales. Breathe in through your nose, and then slowly exhale through your mouth. Making noise with the exhale can also help release tension. It might seem silly, but it helps. Sometimes doing it out loud with your kids can change your energy as well as theirs. You can pretend to be different animals, like a snake or lion, with the exhale.
Sometimes when we're feeling overwhelmed it's just too hard to do anything productive. In those times, remove yourself. Pretend you need an emergency bathroom break and stay there until you feel calmer. Or pretend you've forgotten a phone call you have to make, and go into another room. Call a friend and ask for help. Moving away from the situation can give you some needed time to get perspective. Or if you can't leave, do something unexpected like jumping up and down or start singing loudly. Be creative and do something to interrupt what's happening. Being physical can dissipate some of your stress and help you recover your balance.