When it comes to emotions, we are all sponges. The grumpy Starbucks barista doesn’t just hand you your cappuccino, you get her bad mood, too— free of charge! Your coworker who is imploding over a missing file doesn’t keep his angst to himself, he rattles your nerves too. As adults, we should know that what’s happening to some one else often has nothing to do with us. But we don’t. The reason is that emotions are contagious. They are wired in to our survival system. Emotions signal what’s going on around us. It’s adaptive to tune in; it’s dangerous to miss the cues. Which is why children, initially dependent on us for all their cues, are the most sensitive to emotional transmissions. If we think of adults as regular strength sponges, then children could be considered super-absorbent.
This is just what researchers have found in lab settings. Dr. Wendy Mendes and her collaborator Dr. Sara Waters at University of California, San Francisco, found that when mothers experience stressful or relaxed events (away from their babies), the baby’s physiological responses “matched” or were synchronized to their mother’s within minutes upon their reunion (to learn more about this research, click here to listen to Dr. Dan Gottlieb’s radio program, Voices in the Family).
And, what happens in the lab also happens in our kitchens, cars, and dinner tables each day. We bring home our stress and our kids pick up on it. But, life is stressful, so, what to do?
We may vow each day to be that perfectly even-tempered parent, one mere lotus pose short of family-wide nirvana, but then the alarm clock buzzes, and we wake up. The toast burns, the gas tank is low and you’re late. But that’s okay. Having come from good stock—our primitive ancestors survived face offs with lions and tigers and bears—or wooly mammoths— we really are built to handle such survivable ups and downs.
But here’s the thing.
It’s not the ups and downs of burnt toast that are a problem for us and by extension our kids. It’s our reaction to these events. In the interactive world of crossed emotional wires, or what has been called by scientists: “the neurobiology of we,” our detours into internal distress challenge our children’s inner sense of safety: we take them along for that bumpy ride. That is, unless we do some very unexpected and powerful things. Here are some to try today:
One: S-l-o-w down (for just five seconds).
We have choices of how to interpret the events of our life, but we have to give ourselves a chance. We can override the alarms which hijack our attention. Our internal alarm system instantly sees and prepares us for lions and tigers, but… if we can step back—for even just 5 seconds— we could see and respond differently. We need to think in twos: first comes our reaction (losing our senses), then comes our repair (getting hold of our senses again). So, with a 5 second investment to pause, breathe and take a second look at our perceptions, we could avoid the synchronized melt down, thus saving lots of time and anguish for all. And… by modeling this, we are raising resilient children who learn to pause, breathe, and think in twos as well. What a difference that could make!
Two: Scrap the “perfect parent” model.
Strive to be what psychoanalyst Dr. Donald Winnicott called the good enough parent, one who isn’t 100% attuned to their child’s needs all the time, shielding them from any discomfort or distress (not having their favorite cereal, having to run errands with you, sharing their toys, clearing their plate, not rescuing them when they left a homework assignment at home, not looking every single time they attempt a cartwheel) but rather one who— out of necessity and reality of every day life—doses their children to small, manageable amounts of these stress, disappointment, delay of gratification so that they can learn how to manage, recover and regain balance from the vicissitudes of life.
Three: Have compassion for yourself.
First we get upset at the situation, then at lightening speed, we get upset at ourselves for getting upset. Double trouble. Instead, take a breath, and forgive yourself for being human. Would any one else with the same demands at that second do a whole lot better on a typical day? Probably not. Don’t have a double standard. Know that this is but one moment, not the one for which you’ll be remembered, and the possibilities for the next seconds to be different are all within your reach.
Four: Reconnect and repair.
If you do get upset with your children or in earshot of them, reconnect with them and empathize with their experience. Model an apology for “losing it” (especially given that so many children resist apologizing—they need to see how it’s done). Imagine as you are retelling the story of what happened, that you are reading a book to your child with a beginning, a middle and an end. Walk through and narrate the experience as if you were in your child’s shoes: “Mom was very mad this morning because your sister spilled the cereal on the floor, and then what, did mom yell? Right. Mom was rushing. What was that like when mom yelled—was that a little scary? Yes, I’m sorry. I don’t like yelling. I’m trying not to, but sometimes it’s hard. But now that’s over. Is mom still mad? Nope. Did we clean up the cereal? Nope! But we’ll do it when we get home tonight.”
You are showing your child how to take charge of her actions. This is whatyou did in the second act, something that you couldn’t do in the first. She will learn that it’s okay (and important) to get it right the second time, if the first time gets the better of you.
Five: Rethink your pressures.
We all juggle as parents, but learning how to handle our own stress better is a two-fer— we’ll feel better, and as a result, so will our kids. We want our kids to operate in the sweet spot of just enough stress so they’ll care, but not so much that they’ll be anxious. This is what I call amygdala-friendly functioning. The amygdala is our internal alarm system—we don’t want our lives to be set up to be constantly poking that beast. Are you overworking, overplanning, overdoing so that stress is built into your system? Consider whether there are small ways to take the heat off—especially in those transition-intensive times of mornings and evenings. Can beds survive un-made? Can dishes sit in the sink all day? Nine out of ten parents agree, or should, that they can.
If part of our stress is overscheduling our kids, time to reconsider our priorities. If the very things that we do in the name of helping our children succeed in the future—classes, activities etc.— are creating stress for them and for us, it’s time for a reality check. The best way to ensure that our children succeed in the future is by teaching them how to succeed in the present. Moderation and balance is what it is all about. Help your family practice sustainable living.
Six: Take a time out—or a time-in to connect with yourself, and give your children room to grow.
When we’re with our kids, especially young children, we’re on duty. And part of that is true. But we may also believe the more time and attention we devote to them (beyond safety concerns) the better they’ll be. Instead, do the “good enough parent” re-think: if we want our kids to grow up to be independent, we have to dose them to developmentally-appropriate periods of time when they are entertaining themselves, learning to generate their own games and, managing those brief separations in small doses so that eventually they can go to college (or just let you go to the bathroom without an escort). So, give yourself brief time-ins, where you check in with yourself, breathe, ground yourself, appreciate all you do, feel gratitude for what you have in your life, or simply where you walk out of the room, look out the window, and let every one see it’s okay, in fact, it’s really good.
Stranger things could happen, but probably there are few things that are better. If you want your child to be a good reader, read. If you want your children to know how to put on the emotional brakes and not just the gas—model this.
If you can accept that it’s okay to be a real human being with messy reactions at times, you won’t waste time feeling bad or angry or worried—activities that put you in the emotional debit column—you’ll be able to clean up as you go, setting an example for your child and leaving less for him to clean up, too. Watching you do this gives children a front row seat in how it’s done well. Now this, this, is something we want to pass on to our children. Namaste.