Stop Reacting, Start Exaggerating
"I know what I should do, but I often react, instead of responding with understanding."
For every parent who feels wrong for reacting in the moment, I was right there with you when my kids were little. I'd read all the books, and knew what to do, but there were times when I just couldn't do it.
The thing that made a difference for me was realizing that there had to be something right about my reactions, or I wouldn't be having them.
Over the years I boiled down the "needs" the experts were talking about into three simple categories. I call them the Three Basic Needs: Experience, Connection, Power. I added a chapter about that in the back of the printed version of my handbook as a preview section for the next book (still in progress).
Turns out that we have the same Three Basic Needs as our children! And like our children, our physical and emotional reactions to a mental trigger are our body's way of meeting our own need for power.
So the best thing to do in those moments is to go into it (in a safe way), instead of trying to stifle it. You would never try to cap an active volcano, but that's what we do to ourselves, and then we start fueling the next explosion immediately when we start kicking ourselves for being volcanos!
Since making big sounds and big actions (reactionary yelling, stomping, etc.) actually work to meet our need for power, a great thing to try in the moment is exaggeration. Because exaggeration is deliberate and big, it gets you conscious and starts to meet your need for power instantly, which is all it takes to turn the tide.
Plus saying something like, "That's it! I'm so angry, I'm about to explode!" then miming a roar and stomping or pounding the table in slow motion like a giant, does two things. Brain research confirms what experience has shown us, that putting your feelings into words makes anger less intense. Plus the exaggerated actions break the tension for you and the kids and create a moment of playful giggles and connection. That may be all it takes to allow you (and them) to return to the problem at hand feeling more in control of yourself and able to SAY WHAT YOU SEE to describe the problem more objectively.
If exaggeration doesn't work for you, then try turning away and validating your own feelings out loud by SAYing WHAT YOU SEE to yourself:
"You are so angry right now, you are ready to explode…"
Anything that doesn't make you wrong for reacting will help.
Just find one thing you can do, practice it over and over in low stress moments until it becomes second nature, and you will not only be changing your reaction to heated moments but be modeling for your kids self-control through self-acceptance. Plus the self-acceptance can help you take a fresh look at the mental trigger that set you off in the first place, and voila, you're back on the path to personal growth.
I go into the exaggeration strategy in greater detail in a 3-part interview on mamaTRUE blog. Here is the relevant section from Part III, edited slightly for clarity since it is out of context:
Tornado parenting sounds like a dizzying whirlwind of overwhelming moments that has the potential to leave a path of destruction. Not a desirable place to be for the parent or child.
The situations you describe tend to leave a parent feeling powerless [like when "...the parent is dealing with his/her own emotions, is exhausted, has a shorter fuse, and less patience..."]. When our needs are high, we need to meet them first before we can do much to help our children. Since we can’t stop and make the world go away, here are four things that come to mind:
1. SAY WHAT YOU SEE to yourself. The same kind of compassionate understanding you bring to your children when you say what you see, you can bring to yourself. Imagine you have a short fuse one day (or lots of days) and yell at your child for forgetting to feed the dog. You even call him or her irresponsible (my own personal hot-button). SAYing WHAT YOU SEE to yourself afterwards in your head could sound like:
SWYS (complaints): “You are so angry that the dog didn’t get fed! You even reminded her, and she still didn’t do it. You’ve done all you can do! You are at the end of your rope, working, taking care of the kids, and now the dog, too. It’s too much responsibility. Life shouldn’t be this hard!”
When you begin to nod and agree with yourself as in, “No, it shouldn’t,” you’ve established the dialogue needed to get you heard. After you have heard and agreed with all of your complaints, go into your wishes continuing to refer to yourself as “you.” This process makes you your own best friend and guides you toward your STRENGTHs:
SWYS (wishes): “You wish there were someone you could count on to help you get through all of this. You hate doing things alone!"
Just like that you find out you are someone who loves doing things with others, who loves companionship, loves supportive relationships. Wow! And you thought you wanted the world to go away — including your kids!
Seeing your STRENGTHs usually fills your need for power enough to go back and do a do-over with your kids. If you use these moments to help them understand human behavior and why, even as adults, we do things we don’t want to do when we feel powerless — like yell at our kids — it’s a win for everyone.
Plus you might just get to hear what CAN DO’s your child has already come up with to remedy the problem and point out the STRENGTH in your apology: “I am sorry I yelled at you and called you irresponsible for forgetting to feed the dog. Forgetting is a mistake, but figuring out a solution is responsible!”
Seeing the STRENGTHs behind your complaints also helps you figure out what CAN DO’s will fill your needs. If you take yourself at your word in the above dialogue, you will see you are right. You have done all you can do and know what you need — help. Seeing the hidden STRENGTH in wanting help, as opposed to seeing it as proof you are irresponsible, may open the door for you to finally get the help you need in the way of friends or a support group. There’s always something you can do when you find your STRENGTHs.
2. SAY WHAT YOU SEE to your children. This one step, because of its uncanny ability to get you out of your head into the present moment, can help you stay calm in challenging moments. Even if at first, it comes out through clenched teeth, say it again, objectively describing what you see, until you begin to calm down. Once calm, you will be able to offer CAN DO’s and ultimately find STRENGTHs, either in this moment or later as a do-over.
My Language of Listening partner Eva Sim-Zabka shared a moment like this when her son and a friend were digging in her yard:
SWYS: (Fists tight and teeth clenched)”You’re digging in my grass!!!
SWYS: (Calmer) You’re digging in my grass. You must want to dig.
CAN DO: “Must be someplace you can dig that’s not in my grass!”
STRENGTH: (After the kids found a patch of dirt) “You found another place to dig!”
3. Own it and become Tornado Mom. This surprise reversal can instantly turn any challenging moment around but it requires you to take ownership of your mood without guilt or blame. Becoming Tornado Mom “on purpose” with the appropriate warning sirens (some weird noises made by you) can break the tension and create lots of giggles. My favorite parenting author Lawrence Cohen explains why in his classic book, Playful Parenting.)
For example, imagine you are trying to make dinner. It’s already late, everybody is hungry, kids are chasing each other through the kitchen, table is not set, and what you really want is help. Start with the warning siren:
“Bwoop, bwoop! This is a Tornado Mom warning! Clouds are swirling around the kitchen. Kids running makes the wind worse. Oh no! Here they come again! Quick, get the dishes on the table before Tornado Mom lets loose! This one looks like a real yeller! Grab the plates! Grab the silverware! Oh no, she’s about to go! Oh no! Aaaargh! (Make loud noises and stomp or sweep playfully around the children.) Dishes aren’t enough! I hear tummy thunder! Must be something else you can do…”
In addition to looking hilarious, exaggerating how you feel instead of resisting it is a kind of validation for you and is far more authentic for the kids. They already know you are Tornado Mom, whether you admit it or not! Turning the game over to them with the all-purpose CAN DO "Must be something you can do," can stop the running and possibly create the sense of team.
If after the first giggle or two, one or both children decide it’s not funny, at least you will be calmer and ready to SAY WHAT YOU SEE to hear their thoughts, feelings and upsets about their day. Either way, it gives you a short emotional break.
4. Seek professional help. If none of the above work for you, depending on the severity of the problem, either talk to a therapist or find a life coach — barter if necessary. Eva is my personal coach. She and I both offer private coaching services, but she is the one who first applied Language of Listening to adult personal growth. She is lightning fast and fun to work with.
In the case of Tornado Parenting, the key to calming the storm and getting rainbows back in your life is being heard and validated — both for you and your kids.
Note: The artwork pictured is by my daughter Colleen. You can find more of her amazing original drawings and prints at colleenblackard.com .