This month, I feel like there has been lots about Big Feelings in our family - both on how to honour and deal with them, but also tactics on how to help you (or your children) have their needs met, so that big feelings don't need to be triggered.
Over the years I have realised big feelings can be hard for me. Especially big angry feelings. Still today I can let the anger build and build inside until I eventually explode - and then I am really, really mad. I am fuming inside, I might shout, slam doors and have all this excess energy that I need to get rid of. On the plus side, it doesn't happen too often. On the down side, I don't think I am a particularly good role model when it comes to dealing with my big angry feelings.
Gradually, I have learnt my triggers and I have learnt what to do to help calm myself down - like take myself off for my own 'time out', or go for a run or for a walk. But still, sometimes the big feelings seem to take me by surprise and when I see my own children acting in similar ways to me, I know that I am not teaching them the skills they need to handle their own big feelings better than I do. Or at least teach them how to figure out how to learn how to manage their big angry feelings earlier than I did.
I have often felt sad and guilty about not providing this role model for my children, until the other day I read a post on Instagram that really resonated with me. It was a quote by Dr Laura Markham:
'Your most valuable parenting skill is learning to manage yourself first.' - Dr Laura Markham
The post went on to describe how our own growth as a person is vitally important - and I agree, I think especially as a parent. But instead of beating ourselves up for all the times we are not getting it quite right, and still learning ourselves, I think it is important to be kind and allow ourselves to be vulnerable and learn.
So now, when my triggers are activated, I try to communicate that to my children. I try to explain to them what it is I am doing and why, and why this situation is tough for me, too. The post offered some really interesting practical ideas and things to say that I have been trying out this past month.
My favourites are:
'This is tough for both of us. I am going to take a moment to calm myself and then I will help you.'
'I needed to take some deep breaths so I could share my calm with you.'
'I want you to know that when I need to take a time out it is because of me, not you.'
'I didn't learn how to calm myself when I am upset until I was a grown up. And sometimes I have to work harder at it than other times. And it's not your fault.'
'When you have a hard time calming down, I really do understand because sometimes i do too. We're both learning. You're just learning way sooner than I did.'
Of course, in the heat of the moment, things still go awry, or I end up using far too many words and my kids zone out and tell me to 'stop talking Mummy!' before I feel like I've got my message across, but we are trying. And it feels good to allow myself to learn with my children, rather than feeling like I need to have the answers ALL THE TIME.
So, what about finding ways to help understand the triggers for Big Feelings?
I have realised more and more, how different each of my children are. And that the triggers that set me off with my eldest can be completely different than the ones my middle or youngest child trigger. And equally, the way I set off their triggers differs hugely, depending on their preferences, personality and even the time of day. All my children are strong-willed to a certain extent, but I think my daughter is (at least currently) the most strong-willed of them all. She can be gentle and kind but also fierce and fiery. She loves her independence and gets frustrated more quickly when things aren't going to plan. And most of all, I have slowly learnt that she struggles with uncertainty, a change in routine, or spontaneity more than the other two. And this comes out in big angry feelings. So when I came across the following quote this month, it made me sit up and read more...:
'Routines are the guardrails that keep your strong-willed child from going off the tracks' - Amy McCready, Founder Positive Parenting Solutions.
So many instances with my daughter make so much more sense to me now. When she knows what is coming, she is much more relaxed and happy. Every Saturday she has Ballet. She loves it and will get up, excited, dress herself and sit at the table ready for breakfast. Every day is school - she is fine getting ready, as she knows what to expect.
Equally, when she knows the 'rules of the game' she seems much more content. In fact, when I 'break the rules' or flex them she will point this out to me over and over again. One example is that we have water with our meals rather than juice (because otherwise everyone fills up on juice rather than eat), but sometimes the bottles that have been used during play time get put on the table and they still have juice in them. I don't want to waste perfectly good juice, so I let it slide. But without fail, Isla will tell me that this is against what we'd agreed as a family. It bothers her all through the meal.
Another example is when I change gears too quickly and expect her to drop her colouring pens and get into her shoes and jacket 'right this minute' because we are running late, I can feel the tension in both of us rising. This is much less of a problem for both of her brothers. I am notoriously late at times, and it has just been part of how we are as a family. But now, I am working harder to plan ahead more, stick to a routine and give as much warning as possible, or time for the children to get ready independently.
I know a second trigger can be when Isla feels like she has very little control or power - so when it comes to picking out what to wear, I will let her decide (as much as possible), or give her acceptable options to pick from. I also ask all three children to help with little things - like setting the table, or clearing up after a meal. They each have their 'jobs' and that sense of responsibility and empowerment does wonders for them.
Finally, I try really, really hard to be consistent in the routines or 'rules' we set. This is probably one of the hardest for me, as when the children (or I, or my husband) challenge the routine or 'rule', I can hear myself thinking, 'Is it really that bad, if they have TV a little bit earlier today? Or, 'Juice just this once at dinner will be fine, I don't want to waste it.' Or, 'Maybe just today we could have three rather than two stories for bedtime, it is early, after all.'
But if I stray from the routine or 'rules' I know that it not only is confusing for everyone, it also means that the routine, or way we do things will be questioned more and more often. And that only results in more energy trying to stick to and establish what works down the line. The routine needs to be reasonable and work for all of us (rather than just the parents) - and I will regularly sit down with the children and talk through what I think could work and get their input on what they would like to see on the routine too. Often, the things they want to see are things like - a dedicated time just to play, or regular days they know we'll head to the park, or special time with Mummy or Daddy, or a Movie or Games night.
On good days, I think parenting is one of the most satisfying experiences there is. And even on the trickier days, when it is exhausting, infuriating, and somehow mind boggling all at once, being a parent is a special experience I wouldn't want to miss. I know that for me to be a reasonable person and parent, I need to make sure I re-fill my own cup regularly, little and often. So that when the going gets tough, I can be in the moment with love and care for both my growth and that of my children.
What are your triggers and how do you deal with them? What are the triggers of your children, and if you have more than one, are they very different? What have you found works and what doesn't? I'd love to hear from you!