Feeling Triggered When With Your Kids?

Try breathing in "choose" and out "love."

Posted Jul 12, 2020

Benjamin Manley/Unsplash
Source: Benjamin Manley/Unsplash

Like most parents, I have spent more time with my two kids over the past four months than I have since they were infants. With my partner working at his hospital for 10- to 12-hour stretches of time Monday through Friday and some weekends, the kids and I have had a lot of alone time as we continue to physically distance from friends and family.

As you might imagine (or know from your own experience parenting during this pandemic), some days have been tougher than others. However, to my surprise, I have mostly enjoyed this extended time with my kids, thanks, in large part, to Mother Nature.

Since we live in the city and have little outdoor space around our house for the kids to play, the kids and I have been driving a short distance out of the city just about every day to go on water hikes. Although my kids sometimes complain at home and say that they don’t want to go out, they couldn’t be happier than when they are finally on a trail or in a creek. Equally important, these hikes have become an invaluable way for me to recharge each day so that I can be the parent I want to be. Not only do I love being in nature, but I also relish getting to watch my kids fall in love with it – and each other – when we are on these hikes. Somehow, the quarrels that they often have at home seem to vanish once out in nature, thus giving way to a much more peaceful day for all of us.

The other day, however, things were different. While hiking on a winding trail a few feet above the creek below, my daughter gave her younger brother a hard shove, causing him to stumble off the narrow trail and into the creek. Dropping the dog’s leash, I quickly jumped into the creek and whisked my son, who has yet to learn how to swim, out of the water and safely back onto the trail. With only a few scrapes to show for the fall, my son soon recovered as if nothing had happened.

Meanwhile, my heart was pounding and I could sense anger toward my daughter, who was giggling uncomfortably, rising. And in that moment, I recognized the critical juncture that we had reached. The choice was entirely mine. I could either yell at or scold her, or I could let her know that I love her and that I would help keep her and her brother safe moving forward.

Having opted, almost reflexively, for the former in the past, I knew that making this choice would likely backfire and create discord between me and my daughter, while fanning flames of tension between her and her brother. Thus, while pulling my son out of the water, I made the conscious decision to breathe in the word “choose” and breathe out the word “love,” and then continued to say these words in my head with each inhalation and exhalation for the next minute or so.

Why Choose Love? 

This brief mindfulness practice reminded me that I did not need to give in to the urges that accompanied my anger, while simultaneously interrupting the “she should know better” voice in my head and calming the intense sensations that were swelling inside of me.

No longer so frazzled, I gave my daughter a hug and let her know that I was sorry that I hadn’t been there to stop her from pushing her brother. Clearly relieved, my daughter smiled and ran ahead to explore the preserve. The kids then spent the rest of the day playing contently with and alongside each other; something that I am fairly certain would not have happened had I shamed my daughter for having given in to her impulses.

So Many Choice Points 

During these unusually stressful and scary times, I am sure that I will face many similar choice points down the road. Indeed, nothing triggers the urge to explode and reprimand my kids more than when one of them purposely hurts the other. And despite the many preventive measures that I take, I know that I won’t be able to thwart or block every hit, push, or kick – especially now that we are spending so much time together. Thankfully, no matter how strong my anger gets, responding compassionately in these moments is always within my power. Breathing in “choose” and out “love” helps me remember this.

That said, I know that this mantra alone won't be enough to ensure that I always choose to act with love. In fact, even though I am a clinical psychologist armed with many tools for regulating my emotions, including mindfulness, I am also a human who makes mistakes. Plus, like so many other parents, I am trying to take on something that I never dreamed would be possible before this pandemic: spending most of the day, every day with my kids and then spending the next few hours after they go to sleep providing psychotherapy to my patients and supervision to my trainees. It’s a lot to take on and there’s no doubt that it leaves me more vulnerable to letting my emotions get the better of me from time to time.

Luckily, if and when this happens, I can return to my mantra and choose to love myself, like my kids, faults and all. Rather than beat myself up for my shortcomings, I can acknowledge how hard all of this is for me, my kids, and families everywhere, and then give a whole-hearted apology to my kids for deviating from the loving path I try to follow. Extending grace to myself in this way helps me bounce back faster so that I can once again immerse myself and find joy in the present moment, just as my son did after falling into the creek’s rocky bottom. 

Give It a Try

If you are finding yourself more easily triggered these days when in the presence of your kids, it's worth giving this practice a shot. Simply focus on the word "choose" as you inhale and then focus on the word "love" as you exhale, redirecting your attention back to the words "choose" and "love" whenever your mind drifts elsewhere. Then repeat and continue for as long as you wish.

You may also want to consider starting the day by practicing this exercise for a minute or two, even before seeing your kids. Doing so will increase the likelihood that you will remember to use this skill if and when you need it later in the day. 

Also, feel free to experiment with other breathing mantras. I came up with “choose love” because it gets to the heart of how I want to act toward my kids. You can create your own, though, or try breathing in “wise” and out “mind,” as is often taught in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).1 Silly words or other phrases that remind you of your parenting goals can work, too. For example, breathing in “slow” and out “down” can help counter the urge to speed through difficult moments. Or you can select a handful of mantras to pick from depending on the situation. All that matters is that you find something that resonates with and works for you! 

References

1. Linehan, M.M. (2015). DBT skills training manual (2nd ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.