Finding Emotional Balance
Finding emotional balance is hard when we are filled with our own anger, frustration, anxiety or resentment. These feelings knock us off balance, and parenting is already challenging enough when we aren’t wobbling – or falling all the way over!
Have you noticed the language that we parents use when things are not going well with our kids? We say they are “bouncing off the walls,” “having meltdowns” or “falling apart.” We describe ourselves as being “at the end of my rope,” “about to explode” or “losing it.”
Nevertheless, right now as you read this article, a parent somewhere nearby is taking a deep breath (or counting to 10) before reacting to his or her child’s outrageous behavior. A mom catches herself before yelling or hitting, telling herself that she’s just stressed about work and doesn’t need to take it out on the kids. A dad tries something different than the way he was raised, saying “tell me all about it” when his son is overflowing with tears or anger. A couple recognizes that when their daughter says, “I hate you both,” it really means that she is scared and lonely, and they offer comfort instead of punishment.
These examples of emotional balance seem simple, but they are awfully hard when we are filled with our own anger, frustration, anxiety or resentment. These feelings knock us off balance, and parenting is already challenging enough when we aren’t wobbling – or falling all the way over!
When we are off-balance we react emotionally, and our reactions often have more to do with our own childhood than with our children. When someone steps on your toe it’s aggravating, but if you happen to have a broken toe, it is excruciating. Our unfinished feelings from our own past are like the broken toe, and our child’s behavior is like the accidental stomp (OK, sometimes it isn’t exactly accidental).
Shelley was a client of mine who always found herself yelling at her kids when they wouldn’t do their chores or settle down to do homework. She knew the yelling only made things worse, but she couldn’t seem to stop – always a sure sign that there’s something deeper going on. Shelley remembered her mother’s passion for yelling, and her own fearfulness from being yelled at. As a child, she got the message to do everything her mother asked her to do, “or else.”
Shelley didn’t want her own children to live in that same fear; she wanted them to have more freedom to just be kids than she had, but that old feeling of helplessness kept coming back to her. Over time, she was able to practice taking a few deep breaths, focusing on the difference between the past and the present, and telling herself that her children were being annoying, but nothing dangerous was happening. That gave her some breathing room to come up with much more effective solutions than yelling, such as spending a little time with each child one-on-one and letting the kids choose which chores to do on different days. Shelley’s husband, whose pattern was to hide in his study when the yelling started because of his own childhood experiences of growing up in a family where no one ever yelled, began to be more actively involved in chores and homework.
It can be hard not to overreact (or hide) when we are faced with intense feelings from our children or from within ourselves. In the heat of the moment, when you don’t know what to do (a clear sign that you’ve lost your balance), it often helps to leave the room, count to 10, take three slow deep breaths, jump up and down a few times, or call a friend.
Once the crisis has passed, you can take a longer-term approach: meditate, exercise and get more support so you have time for yourself. Use some of that time to ask yourself these questions:
- What do you remember from when you were the age your children are now?
- Do those memories help you understand where things get hard for you now as a parent?
- How were different feelings, like anger and grief, expressed by different people in your family growing up?
Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., is a psychologist who specializes in children’s play and play therapy, and is the author of several books, including the award-winning Playful Parenting.