Know Your Triggers: Managing Your Emotions and Reactions is one of your most important parenting tools

Know Your Triggers: Managing Your Emotions and Reactions is one of your most important parenting tools

Cherie, a very social and athletic mom who highly values team sports, feels very anxious that her 4-year-old, Martin, is hesitant about playing soccer with the other kids on the playground. He watches on the sidelines. Cherie keeps pushing him to join in, but this leads to greater resistance. So she tries bribery, which results in Martin inching his way toward the soccer field and running around the kids but not playing with them, looking anxious and sad. 

Caring for young children (really, children of any age) is an intensely emotional experience. We love our kids so deeply and want the best for them, so when faced with an incident or behavior that we worry is detrimental to the their well-being, it triggers a reaction which often leads to negative outcomes.  In the case of Martin, forcing leads to a decrease, not increase, in his desire join the play, and erodes his trust in Cherie to be sensitive to and respect his needs. Further, bribery communicates that the goal or desired behavior is so important to the parent that she is willing offer a reward for it—making it about meeting the parent’s not the child’s needs; and when the child can’t meet the need, there is a risk that he feels like a disappointment to his parent—a big burden for a little child. (Bribery can also lead the nasty little phenomenon of your child expecting a reward for everything—cleaning up toys, brushing his teeth.)

So know your triggers. Anticipate what kinds of situations get you revved up and reactive. Using what you know about your child, think about what the behavior might mean (shouting “go away” to a family friend who has come to visit because he is uncomfortable with anything new and unexpected) and what he needs from you to cope (acknowledgment that he needs time to get to know someone and inviting the friend sit with them as they read a favorite book). That is responsive versus reactive parenting. One powerful strategy to avoid a reactive response (think: yelling, threatening, bribing, shaming) is to take your own time-out when your child is provoking a situation you need to respond to, for example, demanding ice cream right before dinner. Calmly, you state: “Hmm…this is a problem: you want ice cream but that is not a choice right now. I am going to take a mommy moment to think about how I am going to help us solve this problem.” This gives you a chance to calm down and think through the best way to respond, and throws a monkey wrench into what often becomes a heated back-and-forth. (It also sometimes has the very fortunate effect of the child stopping short in his tracks—so shocked at your calm response!) Taking this time-out can keep you from being reactive, gives you time to think, and provides a very powerful model for exercising self-control.  It is also a great tool for co-parents as a way to avoid undermining each other (one parent says no while the other caves) and to allow time to come up with a united plan: you announce that the adults are going to have a pow-wow and will be back in a minute to let your child know what his choices are: “We know you love ice-cream and want some now, but that is a sweet for after dinner. Now your choices are apple slices or carrots.”

This approach enables you to be responsive, not reactive, and is as important for you as your child, as it prevents you from behaving in ways you feel bad about and regret. It also helps your child learn to make good choices.  When Cherie got out of reactive mode and into mindful, responsive mode, she changed course. She brought a soccer ball to the playground and kicked it around with Martin, without any coaxing of him to join the other kids.  She also planned some opportunities to meet one or two other kids at the park on weekends to help Martin feel more comfortable with group play.  At the same time, she followed Martin’s lead on the playground, showing she values whatever most interests him—which is often the sandbox over running and climbing—not imposing her own expectations on him. Both Mom and Martin felt a great sense of relief and their time together was much more joyful.