We’ve all been there. Your kid isn’t listening to you, or they give you lip, or they just won’t stop doing something they’re not supposed to be doing—and you’re on your last nerve. You know there are a million and one reasons you shouldn’t snap or yell at your child, but man, the urge is there.
How do you keep your cool in these stressful parenting situations? During a recent conversation with Marc Brackett, Ph.D., a psychologist specializing in children’s emotional learning, Brackett shared with me a few helpful strategies for managing your emotions during these heated moments:
1. Don’t have the conversation in the heat of the moment.
Let’s say your morning is going less than smoothly: Your kids are taking forever to get ready, and you already know you’re all going to be late—them for school and you for work. You might think you need to go upstairs and directly tell the kids that they’ve got to get their act together and be more respectful of your time. But Brackett says these conversations to address conflicts and find solutions should not happen right in the heat of the moment while the conflict is playing itself out.
“Our brains are not ready for that. When we are activated, our brains—our cognitive areas of our brain, the problem-solving parts of our brain, the critical thinking parts of our brain, ability to have calm, reflective discussion parts of our brain—just don’t work,” he explains. “Don’t even bother trying to have the conversation right now. Until you’ve calmed down, until you’re in a relaxed state, you’re really not going to be able to do some really interesting problem solving and having intimate discussions.”
Brackett recommends saving in-depth discussions on improving family relationships and dynamics (and addressing anything that’s not working) for when everyone’s in a more levelheaded state, when the brain hasn’t already been triggered into that fight-or-flight state.
2. Make space for a “meta-moment.”
Whenever you’re in the thick of a stressful situation where your urge is to lash out, Brackett recommends taking a “meta-moment.”
A meta-moment is essentially a pause. In his recent book on understanding emotions, Permission To Feel, he describes it as “hitting the brakes and stepping out of time” to have a “moment about a moment.” In practice, this means that when you feel yourself about to explode, you stop and take a step outside of that experience to observe and acknowledge what’s happening. Notice that you’re angry or overwhelmed or feeling defensive or whatever it may be, and that your brain is activated, and that your instinct right now is to go off on your family. When you can observe that experience, then you can more easily remember your emotional management tools.
“You have to have the ability to have that meta-moment,” Brackett tells me. “You’ve gotta take that breath, and you’ve gotta separate yourself and say, ‘Honey, everything that’s going to come out of my mouth right now is not gonna be good. So we’re going to take a break, and then tonight at dinner, we’re gonna have this conversation.'”
3. Spend some time reflecting on your go-to stress response.
How do you usually respond when you’re stressed out and riled up? Do you tend to express your frustration by banging your hands on the table? By storming out of the room? By saying harsh things in a slow, quiet voice? What kind of language do you use?
“When you’re not in that state, just do a little journaling or a little review,” Brackett recommends. “Pretend you’re a filmmaker and say, OK, the last 10 times I have been angry or frustrated or stressed, what have been my go-to automatic ways of dealing with my emotions?”
When you’re aware of your patterns, it’ll be easier to recognize yourself when you’re in them and that much easier to take that meta-moment you need to make use of your emotional management strategies.
4. When spiraling, come back to the breath.
Breathing is a healing salve for a stressed-out brain. Brackett explains in his book that taking a deep, slow breath activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which reduces your cortisol levels and “naturally lowers our emotional temperature.”
“You have to rely on breathing. Your automatic response to a trigger has gotta be to pause and take that breath so that you can build a space to not react impulsively but respond in a helpful way,” he tells me. “When we are activated, that thinking part of our brain doesn’t turn on, so that’s why we’ve gotta make it a habit to go from activation to breath.”
The habit part is key. If you can change your go-to stress response from whatever it is now to take a meta-moment and breathe deeply, you can radically change the way you respond in even the most trying circumstances. No matter how impossible the kids might be right now, these tools can allow you to keep a cool head and respond rationally and with love.