Dr Justin Coulson is the co-host of Channel 9’s Parental Guidance, a three-time bestselling author, a TEDx speaker, and one of Australia's most popular parenting experts. In this article he looks at ways to handle those difficult parenting days.
Some days are tough. Being a parent stretches us. It creates challenge, stress, tension, and apprehension. We question ourselves and our abilities. Are we doing this right? If we’re doing it right, why is it so hard?
And sometimes we’re pretty sure we’re doing it right, but the kids? What’s going on with them? Are they ok? Do other people’s children do this?
Some days we wish we could hand the children over to grandma (or kindy) and hide under the blanket watching Netflix for the day… or perhaps the week. (Or maybe forever!)
This might be an option for some of us on some days, but we all know this is not going to be a useful long-term strategy. Life throws us curve balls; moments that are tough, unfair, and definitely random. Whether it’s our baggage, an unexpected problem from outside the family, an accident, or children with challenges, one thing we can rely on is that life isn’t all roses.
The following ten ideas can help you manage you on those tough days so you can still show up as a reasonable parent and adult when things aren’t going so well.
1. Slow Down
Research shows that when we are under pressure, we naturally speed up. We try to get through things faster. We want the discomfort to end. This approach, in our families, leads to disconnection, frustration, and more pressure. The phrase “hurry up” may be one of the biggest connection killers known to parents. But when we slow down, the pressure is reduced. Our thinking becomes clearer. Our connection becomes stronger. And our kids become more likely to work towards a constructive outcome.
2. Deep Breaths
On tough days the pressure can leave us breathing short and shallow. This quickens our heart rate and increases our blood pressure. It can create thought patterns that place us on high alert. A simple exercise is to sit still, close your eyes, and breathe in through your nose for 5 seconds, hold it for 3 seconds, and breathe out for 5 seconds. Do this three times and feel the difference it makes to your tough parenting day in under 60 seconds.
3. Countdown to Calm
Another way to get in touch with the here and now in a level, balanced manner is to do a simple mindfulness exercise that connects us with peace. The instructions are super easy and you can do it anywhere, including in the car. And bonus: the children love it as well.
- List or name 5 things you can see
- List or name 4 things you can feel or touch
- List or name 3 things you can hear
- List or name 2 things you can smell
- List or name 1 thing you can taste
Connecting with the senses takes away stress, apprehension, and regret or sadness. It places your mind in the same place as your feet and helps you regain your balance so you can face challenges in a level, safe way.
4. Create psychological distance
When we are in the thick of things we struggle to see clearly. Our emotions can cloud our reasoning and judgment. We make rash decisions or statements. Creating psychological distance is a way of stepping away emotionally and psychologically without stepping away physically - because we have to be near the children for safety/supervision reasons! My three favourite ways of creating that distance are:
Imagine an audience
Have you noticed that when people are watching then you are more likely to behave at your best. Imagining an audience helps you to create that emotional buffer. A fun spin on this idea is to imagine that you’re about to wrangle someone else’s child rather than your own. We tend to be more gentle and considerate towards others’ children!
Channel an inner mental mentor
By pretending to be someone else who is really good at what you’re trying to do (which in this case is staying calm and level-headed on an otherwise very challenging day) you’ll often find that it helps you to be your best you. Acting like someone else changes your thinking, creates space, and helps you navigate a tough day the way that other person who is always in control would.
Mental time travel
Psychologists call this “temporal distancing”. It means that we take ourselves into the future and reflect on the situation we’re now in, asking ourselves to imagine it was over and we dealt with it well. What did we do? How did we do it? This helps us tap into our deepest values and align our behaviour with those values.