It was a beautiful spring day, and I took my girls to the park. They jumped and ran and played, and then we fed the ducks and swans. But it soon got late and on the walk back home, they begged and pleaded for ice cream. Waiting on a long line, knowing I had dinner, laundry, and a deadline ahead of me, I grew impatient, but tried to keep calm. My 3-year-old was going through a terrible two period, but when we finally were handed the cones, I thought I had put out a potential fire.
Two minutes later, as I was hurrying the girls to put a spring in their step, my youngest took one lick of the rainbow sprinkles and screeched, “This tastes bad!” and threw the whole cone on the ground. If a head could explode from agitation, mine would have that day.
I immediately shrieked, “Why did you do that? I just got that!” And I mentally lost it.
I grabbed her hand and walked angrily down the block. My 7-year-old stopped enjoying her ice cream and became silent while my little culprit screamed and cried even more, because I was upset. It was a very non-Zen moment and one that I had hoped I was above having.
There is no parent in the world that never loses it or gets angry. Kids challenge our patience every day. Even in those of us who actively strive to find a balance and struggle to be more calm and serene, there are those times when your child pours red juice on the white carpet or has a screaming meltdown in aisle three. Later on, it may be when those preteens give you an eye roll that instantly raises your diastolic in 30 seconds flat. Yet, with all the parental challenges that are thrown at us, being a mindful and calm parent is a practice, and it is something we can get better at.
It all starts with us, after all. Our children will pick up on the cues that we give them. Do we get irate every time a little milk spills, or when we can’t find our keys and the bus is late? Or, do we take these common instances as a bump in the road of a good day that is to come? How we deal with disappointments from little to big will affect how our children do the same. So if your child flies off the handle with his or her friends over minor infractions, we might want to take a look in the mirror at what messages we are sending them.
Clinical psychologist Yishan Xu explains, “Children, especially young children, are able to pick up their parents’ stress easily. Research has found that children who have stressful parents have higher chances of developing various psychological and physical problems later in their lives. I
n clinical settings, when a child is sent to us for psychological treatment, it is not surprising if we find a complicated family environment, including one or both parents who have difficulty dealing with their own stress. Children are not only picking up parents’ stress, they are also learning coping skills from their parents every day.”
The good news is that practice makes (almost) perfect, and by following a few simple tips, we can help foster mindfulness and harmony into our lives:
This doesn’t sound very optimistic, but expecting an inconvenience here and there will help prevent meltdowns of your own when your very busy schedule is impacted.
Dr. Xu offers one quick tip that works right in the moment: “When parents are caught off guard in the middle of a stressful parenting moment, they can distract themselves by shifting attention away from the stressful situation.”
This alone may help them calm down quickly. Dr. Xu advises parents to “count numbers silently, or play the ABC game: think of all words starting from letter A, B, or C.
Sometimes parents have negative self-talks such as “Oh no, not again! I am so angry (or anxious or unhappy or embarrassed) about this situation).” When this happens, parents can disassociate their acute stress by reframing their thoughts in this format: “I have feelings such as … I have thoughts such as …”.
This way, parents can tell themselves: “Well, let me reframe this: I have feelings that I am angry … I have thoughts that my kids are driving me crazy all the time!” It is key to separate you as a whole from your thoughts, which helps you identify your source of angst without becoming caught up in it.
For long-term stress relief, Dr. Xu encourages parents to practice relaxation skills such as meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, or diaphragmatic breathing. The more parents practice on daily basis, the more they will be able to calm down faster when faced with a stressful situation.
Danielle Sullivan, a mom of three, is a writer and editor living in New York City.