Keeping Your Cool When Your Child Has Lost Theirs
Tips For Keeping Your Cool When Your Child Has Lost Theirs*
By: Barbara Tantrum
If you have been a parent at all and especially if you have parented a traumatized child, you know how hard it is to keep your cool. But we also know how important it is for two main reasons: modeling how to handle emotions and helping activate mirror neurons in the child’s brain to help them calm themselves down.
But keeping your cool, modeling to your child how to cope with the “big emotions” that come up for them is critical. Coping with the “big emotions” is essential for kids to be able to do, and you’re their best teacher. Being able to name your emotions and verbalize how you cope with them is very helpful to your child. For instance, being able to say, “Wow, I’m feeling really mad about that. I think I’m going to take a few deep breaths” or “I’m feeling really angry and I don’t think I can talk to you very well right now. I’m going to sit on the couch for ten minutes until I’m calm enough to be a good Mom.”
Also, as a child’s brain is healing from the past trauma, we know that keeping our cool activates their mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are a way of speaking about the parts of our brains that respond to other’s emotions. This is where empathy comes from. So when you are able to remain calm and engaged when your child is emotionally upset, you can help activate their calming process. However, don’t be surprised that their emotional upset triggers your own mirror neurons and that you feel a part of the anger and fear that they’re feeling. It is normal to have strong emotions in response to your child’s strong emotions, but your being able to weather those emotions and stay calm will help the child to be able to calm.
So how do you stay calm? It can be easy to stay calm if you disengage and ignore the child, but this isn’t the kind of staying calm that’s going to be as helpful. Granted, it’s much better to disengage than to get emotionally dysregulated yourself, and you should never enter into engaging with your child unless you can regulate your emotions. And parents that have a trauma history of their own can find regulating their own emotions especially difficult. So given how important it is and how difficult it can be, here are my best tips at helping stay calm:
1. Breathe - it is important to breathe. When I find my anger start rising, I try really hard to take a few deep breaths. It’s amazing how good this is at diffusing your anger.
2. Self care - especially exercise. I love to swim, and I know on days that I swim I am a lot more emotionally regulated. Swimming gives me time by myself, uninterrupted by cell phone or email, and gives me space to move my body. It feels meditative and good. Any self care like this is good for you, whether it’s doing art, taking a walk, calling a friend, or indulging in a fancy cheese.
3. Remind yourself that it’s not your fault - if you have a child that flings accusations at you, it can be really easy to get defensive about them. Do not try to defend yourself, just try to calm the situation down. Your child cannot hear logic when they are dysregulated, they are in the “doing” not “thinking” part of their brain.
4. Be in therapy yourself - if you find that there’s a button being pushed for you, especially if it involves childhood trauma of your own, it’s very wise to invest in therapy for yourself. I have found this an enormously helpful part of my own journey.
5. Give yourself a time out - it is perfectly reasonable and in fact good modelling to say you are taking a specified period of time to help yourself calm down and regulate again.
6. Tag out - if you are parenting with a partner, work out with the other parent how to signal that you need to tag out and also give them the authority to suggest that you tag out. Sometimes they see you dysregulating before you feel it yourself.
7.Read books and get tools so you feel like you know better what you’re doing. If you haven’t done the PATCH program yet it’s full of great strategies as well as attunement activities that will help your child’s brain begin to heal.
8. Give yourself grace - you will screw up. What you are trying to do is extremely difficult, and you need to have a plan for when you do fail. Taking responsibility and teaching your child how to repair a rupture of relationship is very valuable relationship education as well. You don’t need to beat yourself up about it, but you do need to apologize.
9. Nobody is able to keep their cool all of the time and still be engaged with loving and caring for traumatized children. But hopefully with these tools and ones you discover for yourself you can help be an agent for healing.
*This article is meant as an introduction or supplement to in person therapy, not a substitute. There is no substitute for in-person therapy with a qualified therapist.