When my daughter first moved in with me as my then foster daughter, I was her 17th home. After just a few weeks, the testing began. It felt like a 24-hour a day attack; she was very determined to push me away. Even though I had every reason to be emotional, angry, frustrated, doubtful and full of fear, I quickly realized that my “rights” to these feelings were not doing me any good. I would imagine my girl getting on a daily roller coaster ride and I knew that I had to refuse to get on it with her. My mantra was: “she is a roller coaster; you are a straight line.” I practiced being calm and fearless moment by moment. Our heightened emotions were like a snowball picking up speed which threatened to avalanche our home. Remaining calm was a daunting challenge in the midst of incredible internal and external stress.
Parenting itself is an exercise in self-regulation. Parenting a foster child, a strong-willed child, a traumatized child or a child with mental or physical difficulties can be more like the Iron Man of Self-Regulation. Our emotional temperature as parents sets the tone for our home. If your house is full of anger, stress, chaos and hurt, YOU have the ability to create change. Once you change YOU, the others will follow.
Changing our emotional patterns is a huge undertaking but here are a few ideas for your journey:
- Speak a story of healing and warmth with your life. The five senses are key in changing emotions. Think about how colors, smells, tastes, words, sounds and touch are used in your home. Start with making changes that help you and once you are more regulated, attune to how the various senses affect your family members.
- Diminish Distraction. When we are busy and distracted, it is easy to become frustrated and snappy, and the intentionality of our parenting is reduced. Consider how distractions affect you when thinking about how you use technology and in developing a successful schedule for you and your home.
- Rest and Regulate. Dealing with emotions takes time, space and energy. You and your family may need more sleep and downtime. Instead of coming straight home and hitting the ground running, ask for a few minutes alone in your room so that you can lie down, let your body rest and breathe deeply. Helping your body relax physiologically can actually regulate your mood.
- Make sure your children’s consequences work for you. Sometimes timeouts are as much for us to regulate ourselves as they are for our child. Long-term punishments that require you to do a lot of policing or stay home-bound can end up being harder on you than your child.
- Avoid power struggles. If your child says, “You can’t make me do ___,” reply, “No, I can’t, but if you don’t, you are choosing __ consequences.” Trying to win control of your child is often when emotions escalate out of control. Take a deep breath and offer choices.
- Reinforce your goals through your self-talk. Instead of telling yourself, “I can’t believe I am letting him get away with this!” Tell yourself, “I have laid out the choices and I have to let this child decide their consequences.”
- Identify what is driving your dysregulation. Is it fear, selfishness, anxiety, perfectionism or pure overload? Is something triggering a past trauma? Do not be afraid to seek help. Triggers can be gifts because they force us to find more healing and health for ourselves, even as we seek to help others.
- Lastly, let your feelings out in a healthy way. Self-regulation does not mean stuffing your real feelings down. Self-regulation is actually the opposite. Self-regulation is learning to let your feelings out to the right people in healthy ways. Faith, friendships and a healthy lifestyle are often important areas that will grow as we exercise the self-regulation muscle.
You may have fitness goals for 2015; consider self-regulation to be a goal to include as well. Do not be discouraged if you feel incapable and broken in the process. Like a challenging hike, parenting will make you feel inadequate at times, but if you continue to exercise you’ll be amazed at how far you can actually climb!