Compassionate Parenting Blog
If your family is like mine and the other families I know, heading into December feeling like “I’ve got this!” is a daunting task. On top of all the usual ups and downs of family life, there are the added emotions that the upcoming holiday brings. Extended family complexities, holiday expectations for everything to be “merry and bright,” memories of loved ones that have passed, the high energy of lively young children… it can all be rather exhausting.
When you notice that your heart rate is rising, your shoulders are tensing up, and you are thinking, “This is not going to end well,” taking a mental step back and giving yourself some space can help you respond to a situation rather than react. When we respond, we are more mindful of our tone of voice, the words we are using and how our own emotions are contributing to the situation. It doesn’t mean that we are okay with any behaviour our kids (or others) dish out, but it does mean that we respond in a way that is helpful rather than in a way that adds to the situation.
Here are four strategies to help you take that mental step back so that you are more able to respond from a grounded place. You can try these strategies in the moment and see if they help. There might be one or two that work better for you than the others. Those are the ones you can return to whenever you notice you need to take a moment.
1. Name 5 Things – When you feel like your head is spinning and everything is getting overwhelming, take a moment to name to yourself five things you can see around you. You try it now. “I see a chair. I see a shoe. I see a clock. I see a window. I see a tree outside.” Bringing your attention to your sense of sight helps bring you back to the here and now of your body. When I do this, I notice my breath slowing down as I name the objects I am seeing. You can also do it by naming the sounds you hear around you. It does the same thing of bringing your mind back to the present. You can name the objects or sounds silently to yourself, so that even if others are around, they are unaware that you are practicing this strategy.
2. Ground Yourself – For this strategy, breath into your centre (about an inch beneath your belly button) and notice your feet on the ground, feeling where the soles of your feel make contact with the earth. If you are sitting, you can notice where your body touches the chair. Again, this strategy guides you back to your body in the present. It gives you a moment to take that step back and respond mindfully to the situation.
3. Breathe – Bringing your awareness to your natural breath is another way to settle yourself. You don’t need to change how you are breathing, just bring your awareness to it. If you have a particular breathing technique that you like, such as square breathing or belly breathing, you can use those as well. In the moment, simply noticing your breath will give you the pause you need to respond rather than react.
4. Notice Your Emotional Elevator – You can imagine your emotions as an elevator. At the top is where the high-energy emotions like anger and rage as well as excited and ecstatic live and at the bottom is where the low-energy emotions like calm and restful as well as sad and bored live. Taking note of where your emotional elevator is and then visualizing it going down (or up if needed) can help you regulate your emotions in the moment.
All of these strategies can be done quickly and without anyone else around being aware of what you are doing. If you are with your children, and it a situation with them that you are trying to manage, you can also practice these strategies out loud. Doing this models for them that we all feel overwhelmed at times and need to have strategies to regulate ourselves so that we can respond mindfully. It also gives them strategies that they might choose to use later when they need to pause and take a mental step back.
Do you have other strategies that you use? I would love to hear about them in the comments section.
Wishing you all a December that is filled with ease and moments of connection and joy,
Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. She spent years telling people that stress was bad for them; that stress would increase their risk of experiencing all sorts of minor and major health issues. Then she came across a study that made her rethink stress. Her 2015 book, The Upside of Stress, is a fascinating and intriguing exploration of her journey through the research of stress (that first study and many others) and how science is now discovering that there is more than one stress response – and that there is indeed an upside to stress. Her TED Talk, above, has been viewed more than 17 million times.
McGonigal relates that there are three other stress responses besides flight, fight and freeze. Stress can also encourage you to: rise to the challenge; connect to others; and learn and grow. These responses and their indicators are described in the table below:
|How the Stress Response Helps You||How You Know It’s Happening|
|Rise to the Challenge
•Focuses your attention
•Heightens your senses
|•Heart pounding, body sweating, breath quickening
•Mentally focused on source of stress
•Excited, energized, anxious, restless or ready for action
|Connect with Others
•Activates prosocial instincts
•Encourages social connection
•Enhances social cognition
•Dampens fear & increases courage
|•Desire proximity to friends & family
•Paying more attention to others
•More sensitive to others’ emotions
•Desire to protect, support or defend people, organizations or values you care about
|Learn & Grow
•Restores nervous system balance
•Processes & integrates the experience
•Helps the brain learn & grow
|•Body is calming down, but mentally charged
•Replaying or analyzing experience in mind or want to talk to others about it
•Mix of emotions along with desire to make sense of what happened
How we think about stress, McGonigal tells us, makes all the difference in how our body is impacted by stress. Studies indicate that before a stress-induing situation, like writing an exam or having a job interview, if people view their beating heart and sweaty palms as their body preparing them to think more quickly and clearly, then not only do they feel more positive and perform better on these tasks, they are also viewed by independent observers as more confident than people who continued to view their body’s response as stress.
Her TED Talk is 15 minutes. I highly recommend it and The Upside of Stress. What McGonigal has to say is hugely relevant to us all.
Values are what is important to you; the guideposts by which you’ll make decisions. They are qualities that reflect who you want to be in the world. When we make decisions that take into account our values, we are more congruent and will feel more connected to ourselves. We experience greater fulfillment when we live by our values,
The decisions we make and our behaviours are based on and reflect our values. When we use our values to make decisions, we focus on what is important to us—what we need to feel a sense of well-being.
As parents, we can’t always be there to guide the decisions our children make. The values we impart to our children are what will lay the foundation for the kind of people our children become. They are a map for how we want to be as a family. “In our family, we are kind – we use our words and don’t hit others.”
Examples of values include:
- Respecting others
- Spending family time
- Service to others
- Being outdoors
There is a difference between values and beliefs which can be summed up as, “Values unite. Beliefs Divide.”
Beliefs are assumptions we hold to be true. When we use our beliefs to make decisions, we are assuming the causal relationships of the past, which led to the belief, will also apply in the future. In a rapidly changing world where complexity is increasing day by day, using information from the past to make decisions about the future may not be the best way to support us in meeting our needs.
Beliefs are contextual: they arise from learned experiences, resulting from the cultural and environmental situations we have faced. Values are not based on information from the past and they are not contextual. Values are universal. Values transcend contexts because they are based on what is important to us: They arise from the experience of being human.
An example of how values unite and beliefs divide is spirituality. Spirituality is a value that many people hold; however, some people may believe in a particular god, while others find their spirituality in another god or in nature.
How are emotions linked to values? Why is teaching our kids emotions and self-awareness important?
We need to feel and listen to our emotions for them to tell us, and sometimes remind us, what our values are. Big emotions will tell us what we really care about.
For example, when I feel sad that I am not spending time with my children, my sadness tells me my value of connecting as a family is out of alignment and I pay particular attention to how I am spending my time. I might decide to cancel or postpone an afterwork meet up with a friend so that I can reconnect with my family.
Grief is the emotion that expresses love and value for what is being lost. It points directly to what we care about the most. We feel grief when someone or something we value is lost.
Anger, in its balanced expression, is the emotion that gives us the strength and courage to say “No!” in the face of violation. Anger may be pointing us to deeply held values that are being violated. Values like protecting the environment and women’s rights are values that people are motivated by anger to fight for.
If you are interested in learning more about values and exploring what your family values are, contact me at 604-733-8409 or firstname.lastname@example.org to find out when the next Family Focus workshop is happening.
Family meal times are an opportunity for families to come together, check in with each other, share information on how the day is going, and generally just touch base in our fast-paced lives. Children learn societal values and cultural norms around food and eating; family values are imparted; and connections are strengthened.
Research has also linked families who eat together frequently with increased child and youth health. What has not been clear is if families who ate together more frequently were just healthier to begin with or if it was because they ate together that the children were healthier.
This recently published study out of the University of Montreal looks at the relationship between meal times eaten together as a family and the associated physical and mental health benefits over a ten year span. PhD student Marie-Josée Harbec and her supervisor, pyschoeducation professor Linda Pagani, studied a cohort of children born between 1997 and 1998 from 5 months of age until 10 years of age. Studying families since almost the birth of their child and over such a long period of time allowed them to adjust the findings to account for many factors (such as cognitive abilities, child temperament, family configuration, maternal education, and depression) that previous studies weren’t able to. The families started reporting data on meal times when the children were 6 years old. When they reached 10 years of age, parents, teachers and the children, reported on their lifestyle habits, academic achievement, and social adjustment.
The results show that when the quality of the family meal environment is better, children consume less soft drinks, have a higher level of fitness and increased social skills (reporting less aggression and oppositional behaviour).
Setting the intention to eat two or three times together a week can go a long way to raising healthy, socially and emotionally resilient children. With busy families, it is difficult to find a time when everyone is home and can sit down together, but I encourage you to try to do it when you can as the payoff is tremendous.
Wellbeing. What does it mean? And how does your wellbeing affect you and your family?
Wellbeing is a balance between your resources and your challenges. There are psychological, social and physical dimensions on both sides. It is not static; our wellbeing changes. Our resources can increase, like when we manage to fit in an evening out with friends, or they can decrease, like when you don’t get out on your regular run. Our challenges can increase and decrease in the same way. If a relative becomes ill, your challenges will increase and your wellbeing will be affected. Alternatively, if a friend who you were concerned about begins to do better, your challenges decrease. You can visualize it like this:
As a parent, it can be hard to focus on your own wellbeing. It can feel selfish, or extravagant, or unnecessary. There are always, it seems, more important things that need your attention: cleaning, grocery shopping, returning emails, helping with homework, swimming lessons to get to, and so on and so on and so on. In fact, your wellbeing is vital to not only your own health, but that of your family. Sometimes it can be easier to see the affect of your wellbeing on your family when you think about the other way round. What happens when you are not looking after your wellbeing; when you are tired, or hungry, or distracted by work stress? How do you interact with your family in those moments?
Personally, I am less patient with my children and my partner, I’m quicker to anger, quicker to make assumptions about other’s motivations and behaviours, and perhaps most profoundly, I am not able to help my children regulate their big emotions. The cycle can look something like this: I go to bed late and am tired the next day; after getting through my day, I come home to shoes and coats strewn in the entry way. In my exhausted state, I immediately go to my script of, “why am I the only one who picks up things around here?!” My greeting to my family is, “Why is this place always a mess?” My daughter, who has had a tough day at school, immediately shoots back, “Why do we always have to clean up instead of play?” Before you know it, the moment I’ve been waiting for – reconnecting with my family – has become a scene of anger and irritability. If I want to salvage this moment, I am going to have to regulate myself quickly so that I can help my daughter regulate and we can re-establish a connection. Regulating myself might look like me taking a breath and pausing just long enough to remind myself that this is not the way I want to come home. Regulating my daughter might look like me talking softly and saying, “Sorry, that’s not the way I wanted to come home. I’ve been looking forward to seeing you” and then giving her a hug. None of this is to say that I’m forgetting about the mess in the entrance way, but I can deal with that once I’ve connected with my family, and I can do it in a manner that is less confrontational. If I had better wellbeing, was less tired when I walked in the door, I may have been able to be less combative from the beginning.
Our children learn by watching us as well. How we model self-care will be how they learn self-care. If we want our children to grow up resilient and healthy, we had better start by looking after ourselves. Modelling is one of the most powerful teaching tools there is.
Increasing our resources does not have to take a long time. We can build up our psychological, social and physical resources in quick, easy ways. Wellbeing strategies such as breathing, setting an intention, and savouring can be built into our days. Learning about self-compassion so that we don’t beat ourselves up when we are less than fabulous with our families is also a worthwhile and positive step.
If you are interesting in learning more about wellbeing and some strategies to increase wellbeing, join me at a Parent Wellness workshop. The next one is May 29th in North Vancouver.
Figuring out what practices work for you and your family – whether they be mindfulness, kindness, compassion, gratitude or any other type of practice – is a process. My daughter, when she was four, used to tell me quite emphatically, “I don’t want to take deep breaths!” I’ve since learned more playful ways of introducing breathing rather than just asking a four year old to “take some deep breaths” in the middle of a meltdown!
We’ve also learned as a family what works for us. One of the things we’ve learned is that we like to mix it up – sometimes we do breathing or other mindfulness activities at bedtime, other times we take turns at the dinner table saying what we’re grateful for. Currently, we have an Acts of Kindness Jar where we record on slips of paper either kind acts that one of us has done for someone else or that someone else has done for one of us.
I used to worry that not doing one practice consistently would be counter productive. I feel better though, after hearing Dr. Kimberley Schonert-Reichl speak at the Heart-Mind 2018 conference this March. One of the things she said was that research suggests that it may be best to “mix it up” with children. Anecdotally, my daughter does internalize and then use the practices that resonate with her. One of the advantages of exposing children to different practices is that they can choose the strategies that work for them.
Above is a video that I took of Elli last summer. She had been in a bike camp the previous week and, as she tells me in the video, she wanted to calm down her body. To regulate herself, she used some of the strategies that we had been doing together. I was awed at how she was able to transfer what we had been doing at home to “the real world.”
We’ve both come a long way from “I don’t want to take deep breaths!”
This video is shared with Elli’s permission.