Best Kept Secrets of Parenting
This article first appeared in St. Louis Kids magazine.
Hundreds of parenting books claim to have the “number one” secret that will make you a successful parent surrounded by cooperative, happy children. The ideas in most of these books are good as far as they go, but but they fall short of having the impact they promise.
In my years of working with parents and children, as well as my study of the neuroscience of child development, I have found that there are thee basic practices that help parents through their most frustrating challenges – when the baby is screaming, when accidents occur, when children are throwing tantrums, when the home feels like a war zone.
Calm yourself. The airline safety instruction, “put the oxygen mask on yourself before putting it on the child next to you,” applies to parenting as well. You can’t solve anything when you’re upset or feel overwhelmed. Children, even newborns and babies in the womb, react to their parents’ emotions. When you have the skill to calm down, you not only help yourself, but you set a powerful example for your child. The only way that children learn to self-calm is through their relationship with their parents.
How do you calm yourself in a chaotic moment? It’s all about dialing down your arousal system. Breathe smoothly and concentrate on feeling your breath flow in and out. Take a pause without reacting, even if the baby is screaming (unless, of course, there is a physical safety issue). Lower your voice and speak slowly. Tell your child or baby what you are doing. (“Mommy’s feeling very upset and I’m going to breathe for a moment. Then I will take care of it.) If you practice these techniques when small problems occur, you will find it easier to use them when more serious, nerve-jangling situations come up.
Calm your child. Regulating your own emotions is the foundation. Children learn how to self-regulate from their parents’ model. When a child is screaming, first acknowledge their feeling, including the degree of their emotion, “I can see that you are very, very upset.” Speak clearly and deliberately, so they can hear that you understand what is really going on with them. This is important even with infants, who respond to your tone of voice, even if they don’t understand every word. (Though babies understand much more than most people think, but that’s a story for a future column.) Next, you can lower their arousal by soothing touch, establishing eye contact, and speaking more and more softly and slowly. Get down to their level if possible. Be patient. Following these steps will help your child settle and step down the ladder of arousal, but it can take time, especially at first. As your child gets used to this approach, they build trust in you as a source of emotional security.
These three practices seem simple, but they are the foundation of conscious, thoughtful parenting. They may not get instant results, but if applied consistently, they can help the child build attachment to you and to self-calm their nervous system. These are the resources that help children build relationships, regulate their own emotions, and learn in school.