How to stay calm when your child is not: Why deep breathing isn’t working for you
You want to stop yelling, right? You always imagined yourself being a calm, peaceful parent. The kind of parent that responds with empathy to tantrums and meltdowns. The kind of parent who is cool under pressure. A loving, nurturing, mindful parent.
But then your kids came along. And they don’t listen. They talk back. They hit each other and fight constantly. They do the same thing over and over no matter how many times you ask them not to. They whine all. the. time. And it drives you NUTS!
You try, and you try to be calm. But eventually, you can’t hold back any longer – it’s like a switch flips inside you and you just start yelling. You feel anything BUT cool, calm and collected. In fact, you may even feel completely out of control, Yeah. It turns out staying calm is hard.
Trying to stay calm
If you’ve been trying to work on your yelling for a while, then you’ve no doubt done your research. You’ve googled, “How do I stop yelling at my kids.” You’ve read books and blog posts. You’ve listened to podcasts. And at some point you’ve probably heard advice like this:
- Take a few deep breaths
- Walk away when you feel yourself becoming angry
- Do something soothing to calm yourself down
And listen, this advice makes lots of sense. If you’re struggling to remain calm, you’ve probably tried these things before. But they’ve probably not worked. You’re still yelling right? I mean, that’s why you’re reading this blog post.
I bet you’ve even wondered if there was something wrong with YOU. Why do these strategies work so well for others and not for YOU? Why can’t you stop yelling at your kids? Your precious, much loved, eagerly anticipated and very much wanted children whom you adore. What is wrong with YOU?
Well…nothing. Seriously. There’s nothing wrong with you, and there’s nothing wrong with this advice either. Deep breathing is a very powerful tool that can help us manage our stress response and calm our bodies. Leaving the room when you feel angry will give you the time to calm yourself before you react in haste and say or do something you regret. In fact, I’ve given this advice to parents many times before. I even cover these strategies in my Calm Parent Challenge. So what is the problem with this advice, then?
Why isn’t it working for YOU?
Well, the problem with this advice is that these strategies don’t work on their own. If you’re ONLY doing these things, you’re missing a super important piece of the puzzle.
If you’re anything like the parents in my Facebook community, or the parents who’ve completed my Calm Parent Challenge, then your child’s behaviour elicits an automatic response from you. You go from 0-100 in milliseconds. You don’t have time to stop and breathe. You don’t have time to turn and walk away. And you don’t have time for a warm shower. Your child acts, and then you react. Or at least that how it feels.
So you find yourself on the other end of these strategies, having done a lot of hard work, with not a lot of results. Making promises to yourself and to your family that you end up breaking. Feeling guilty and ashamed, and like there is something fundamentally wrong with YOU, because you can’t stop losing it at your kids. But it doesn’t have to be this way!
Triggers: The missing piece of the puzzle
What are triggers? Triggers are the things our kids do, say, feel or think, that cause us to have an immediate, and often negative reaction. Triggers activate feelings. Memories. Thoughts. Beliefs. And they make it very hard for us to remain calm. They take away our choice, because they cause us to react almost instantly.
So if we really want to change our yelling, we need to focus not only on calming our bodies after we’ve been triggered, but on addressing what has triggered us in the first place. We must address the cause of our yelling at the roots. If we don’t, then we’ll continue to be triggered over and over again. No matter how much deep breathing we do!
Why we need to know WHY
When we investigate our triggers, it is not enough to look at WHAT triggers us. We must also look at WHY. Why do we need to know why (try saying that 5 times fast!)? Because we often make a huge error when it comes to feelings. We assume that we experience a situation, and then that causes us to feel an emotion. But that’s not correct. What actually happens, is that we experience a situation, we make a judgment about that situation, and that’s what causes us to feel the emotion.
It is not the situation itself that triggers our emotions and reactions, it is the way we perceive, or think about a situation. After all, if it was the situation itself that caused us to experience the emotion, then everyone would react in the exact same way to the same situations, right?
Automatic Negative Thoughts
So if it’s our thoughts and beliefs that are actually triggering our feelings, what does this mean when it comes to our yelling? Well, it means that our child’s behaviour has triggered a deep rooted belief or thought we have about ourselves or the world. Perhaps our child expressing their anger, or telling us they hate us, triggers a belief that we are unlovable. Perhaps their tantrums in shopping centres trigger our belief that we are not capable. Or that we are a bad parent.
Of course, this belief will cause us to immediately feel a strong emotion – fear, anger, anxiety, embarrassment, shame. These emotions trigger our stress response. And so we lash out, yell, or shut down in order to keep ourselves safe. Our brain perceives our precious, sweet child as a threat.
How do we convince our brain that our child is not a threat? We change the way we perceive the situation. We change those automatic negative thoughts that pop into our heads when we are faced with a situation or behaviour from our child that triggers us.
How do we change automatic negative thoughts?
To understand how to change these automatic negative thoughts, we first need to understand how they become so automatic. You see, the brain likes to be efficient. It looks for short cuts all the time. It wants to help you out by doing things as quickly and effectively as it can. So when it notices that you frequently respond in a certain way to certain situations, it fires off signals and creates a little “pathway” for you to follow.
Every time you perform that same behaviour, and you respond in the same way, you strengthen the pathway. The brain remembers that you like to use it, and as soon as it realises you’re in that situation again, it gets that pathway good and ready for you. And so, your reaction becomes automatic. Your brain doesn’t even take the time to think about it anymore. It just fires.
But here’s the good news. We can rewire the brain. We can teach it to use a new pathway. And if we continue to use that new pathway, we create a new automatic response. We can replace those negative automatic thoughts with new, helpful thoughts. Realistic thoughts that help us shift our perspective and remind us that we are capable. That we are worthy. That we can choose how to respond.
Creating new automatic thoughts
Research tells us that mantras and affirmations are effective and powerful tools for changing negative self beliefs. Especially when they reflect our own values. Mantras are phrases or words we can say to ourselves when we recognise unhelpful thoughts and feelings arising. They help us to create new automatic thoughts, by creating new pathways in our brains.
They rewire our brain and help us create new habits and beliefs. By deliberately choosing a new response, over and over, we shift the brain from the old pathway to a new one. And every time we practice saying our mantra, we make that new pathway stronger. We create new, more helpful automatic thoughts, so we can remain calm and in control. So we can choose how to respond instead of being controlled by our emotions.
We can create beliefs that serve us, instead of causing us pain. Beliefs that are based on the actual evidence around us right now, not on distorted and unrealistic thinking patterns that were created in the past. Beliefs that lift us up and give us confidence instead of convincing us that we are failing.
And that’s why I created my Calm Mama Mantra Cards. Because I’m tired of dedicated, loving parents – good parents – believing they are failing their children because they can’t stay calm. I wanted to create something that would actually work. Something that would create a fundamental shift in the way parents think about and perceive situations. Something that would create a fundamental shift in their relationship with their kids.
That’s what the Calm Mama Mantra Cards are. A set of 24 hand illustrated affirmation cards for mums. They are short phrases that you can practice saying to yourself over and over, that will help you change your perception, rewire your brain, and stay calm and in control when your child is not. Practice saying a new one each day, choose the one that fits your situation best, or place them around your home as reminders. However you choose to use them, they are a powerful tool to help you manage your triggers.
Well, you could keep trying the strategies we spoke about earlier, and nothing else. Keep doing what you’re doing now. But I doubt very much that anything will change, if you remain stuck in the same negative thinking patterns. I know this because I was stuck there too. If you’re anything like me, and like my community, you’ll continue to stay stuck in that shame cycle too.
You’ll feel frustrated and overwhelmed by your kids behaviour. You’ll feel the anger building and building, and you’ll try to control it. You may even manage to get some deep breaths in. But ultimately, those negative automatic thoughts will take over, and you’ll yell. Then you’ll feel guilty. You’ll feel ashamed. You’ll worry about the damage you’re doing to your children. You’ll worry about the damage you’re doing to your relationship with your children. You’ll start to believe that you’re not a good enough parent. That your children deserve better.
And you know what? They do deserve better. You both deserve better. Better information. Better strategies. Techniques that work. So if you want to feel more calm and in control of your responses and improve your relationship with your kids, why not try something different instead? If you need a reminder of just how amazing you are as a parent, check out my Calm Mama Mantra Cards here. Change starts now.
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.