“I know it isn’t helping my kids how much I’m losing my temper lately. It isn’t even their fault. Everything seems to get to me.”
Have you noticed that your temper is short lately? That you’re over-reacting to things that wouldn’t necessarily have upset you two months ago?
That’s not just cabin fever. It’s not even just having kids at home, trying to get them to do schoolwork, and at the same time trying to keep your paycheck coming in. All of that would be enough to test a saint. But there’s something additional going on here. This is your mind’s way of showing you that it’s on anxiety overload.
It’s natural to worry in the middle of a pandemic. Unfortunately, when the human mind gets worried, it fixates on control. We worry about every little thing, because the mind begins to see everything as an emergency. We obsess about things in the future that are unlikely to happen. We doom-surf in a futile attempt to find out something, anything, that will change the situation. At this moment when we’re faced with the reality that we can’t control the things that matter most to us, our minds spiral out of control.
But this is guaranteed to keep you in a state of high anxiety, because you’re attempting the impossible: trying to control something that is uncontrollable. It creates drama with your kids and partner, since you can’t help visiting your anxiety on them. And it makes you miserable.
Luckily, there is one person you can always control: YOU. Anxiety may be unavoidable in a pandemic, but drama is always optional. Here’s a four-step plan that you can use any time you feel triggered, whether by your child, your partner, or anything else.
It takes practice, but every time you manage your stress without getting triggered, the next time is easier — because you’re re-wiring your brain.
When you notice your anxiety mounting, here’s your four-step plan.
- Stop, Drop and Breathe to keep from getting hijacked by your emotions.
- Bring yourself more present, so you have more options.
- Interrupt the drama by taking charge of yourself.
- Try a Do-Over.
Here’s how to use this in daily life. Let’s say…
You’re trying to get your squirmy, distracted child to focus on a school assignment.
You find your anxiety mounting as you think “I didn’t sign up for homeschooling! I don’t have the patience to be a teacher! Is there something wrong with my child?!” You know this will spiral out of control and end badly unless you self-regulate. So this is your signal to:
1. Stop, Drop and Breathe
- Stop what you’re doing (interacting with your child).
- Drop your agenda, just for the moment (trying to teach).
- Take several deep breaths.
This keeps you from being hijacked by your emotions. Now, bring yourself more fully present.
2. Be Here Now
- Find three things that instantly bring you back into the present moment: Your child’s beautiful face. The sounds from inside or outside your home. Your own breathing.
- Notice your feelings, in this case irritation. It’s okay to feel irritated. But you’re in charge of what you do with those feelings. It won’t help to visit them on someone else.
- Resist acting on those feelings. Don’t lash out. If you need to, remove yourself from the situation.
Okay, now you’re more present and aware. Now you have more access to your reasoning mind, and more accurate perceptions about what’s actually happening, so you have more options.
3. Interrupt the Drama: Take Charge of Your Runaway Thoughts
Notice that you’re over-reacting to this specific situation, in this case your schoolwork conflict with your child. You’re taking your own worry — which is probably overblown — and acting that worry out on your child. That’s the definition of creating drama.
What if your worry is well-founded? You can’t judge that when you’re upset. And you certainly can’t respond constructively by jumping to conclusions when you’re upset. When you’re calm, without your child there, you can reflect on this situation. For now, your job is to calm yourself and reconnect with your child.
- Notice the thoughts that are creating your upset. (“This is impossible! I can’t do this for a month!”) Let those thoughts go. You don’t know what will happen in the future, but in any case, you can’t solve the issue constructively while you’re upset.
- Choose a more constructive thought that makes you feel better right now. Maybe: “This is a hard time, but I can choose to act in ways that will make me a better parent and a better person.”
- Choose Love. When we’re upset, it always seems like the other person is wrong. But the other person, who is also upset, assumes we’re wrong. And there is usually more than enough responsibility to go around — but it is always our job to model constructive anger management and compassion. If there are points to be made or lessons to teach or new structures to put in place, there will be time later. For this moment, extend grace.
4. Try a Do-Over
Now that you’re not triggered, reconnect with your child.
“I think both of us are starting to feel stressed. I’m sorry I raised my voice. I think we both need a break. Let’s do some roughhousing and laughing. We’ll try again in a little while.”
If you’re worried about whether you’ll actually get back to the schoolwork, I understand. But schoolwork is not your most important priority right now. You’re teaching much more important lessons: Self-regulation, Connection, Stress-management, Anger management, Working things out with someone you love when things get tense.
Oh, and managing your own anxiety so you don’t take it out on your family.
That’s a curriculum in emotional intelligence. And that will ultimately be more important to your child’s success in life than any schoolwork.
Dr. Laura Markham, founder of AhaParenting.com and author of The Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids Workbook, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting and Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life.
Image courtesy of Jason Blackeye.