Self control, triggers, and teaching when our kids can hear us
Keener and Grace have gotten much more physical with each other of late. They are only 18 months apart and generally enjoy spending time together. They share a room, have many of the same interests, and most importantly, have figured out a system for who gets to pick the first show on the iPad. Recently, they have started solving many of their problems with their bodies.
The majority of the time, I let them figure it out. Of course I don’t want anyone to end up in the ER, but I also don’t want to send them the message that they can’t handle a sibling scuffle on their own. I was talking to a friend this week about empowering our kids which often is in conflict with our instincts. We think we are being helpful by stepping in and offering our ideas, support, and advice. Unfortunately, we inadvertently send the message – I don’t believe you are capable of handling this without me.
Last weekend, Keener and Grace were watching shows together. When I told them it was time to turn them off, Grace started to “run away” with the iPad. Keener took it upon himself to “make her listen” and ran after her, pushing her to the ground to get the iPad and turn it off. Then, Grace spit in Keener’s face — her current power move (which I just figured out she is copying from a show).
In the moment, I could tell that things were going to escalate rather quickly so I intervened. Upon reflection, I realize why such a simple event often leaves me so perplexed:
- I want to foster independence and not step in
- I want to send my kids the message I believe in them
- I don’t want anyone to end up actually hurt
- I don’t want to feel threatened by my kids’ behavior
- My kids behavior does, in fact, make me feel threatened
- I feel it’s my job to make my child stop a dangerous, not desirable behavior
- The heat of the moment is NOT a good time to teach my children about behavior
- I am triggered when my kids do not listen
- No one wants to misbehave — we are all doing the best we can
As I realized this, I see that there are many priorities that conflict during this simple moment. Grace spitting is an absolute trigger for me. For the record, when I am triggered, I forget to think and default to fight or flight mode. This leads to VERY poor decision making on my part — yelling, throwing out absurd punishments, etc. If Grace is spitting, I know that means she needs help. And I know that yelling and acting like a child myself is NOT helpful. Which is why I am working on MYSELF. When I hinge my sanity on Grace spitting, I am expecting more of my three year old than I can handle at 35.
I also know that this moment, when she is spitting, is not in fact the moment that I will get her to realize that spitting is not a good option. And believe me, I have tried many times (and she’s still spitting). But I also know that I can’t make her stop spitting. I can’t take her tongue away from her. So what can I do?
- I can help her regulate her emotions by staying calm myself
- I can help Keener find a safe place away from her — a spit free zone
- I can offer her a hug
- I can remind myself that she needs help
Why then, in the moment, do I continue to yell, try to teach her just how gross spitting is, and name a punishment? Because I feel threatened by her behavior. In the moment, it is SO hard for me to remember what I know to be true. However, the more time I spend identifying my own triggers, reminding myself what I can control, and thinking through my options OUT OF THE MOMENT, the more chance I have at being successful in the moment.
Out of the Moment
Spending time planning for the most challenging moments always pays off. Much like training for a marathon or meal planning for the week ahead, there is such comfort in having a plan. Why I don’t do this more often, I’m not sure. But it is no different for anticipating challenging behavior. When I think through the next time Grace spits, I know I have options. I know in advance, that it is going to trigger me. Knowing my triggers and accepting them is the first step.
Next, I try and give myself a script. Empathize, set a limit, and stay calm. This might sound like, Grace, I see you are frustrated that Keener hit you. Spitting is not allowed. Then STOP TALKING. When she is spitting, she is not available to learn. Next, I will remind myself I can always control my breath. Breath Jenny, just breath. Breath in slowly through your nose and slowly out of your nose.
Having a plan is key. Is it easy to follow? No. But it gives me a fighting chance that I might be able to.
Teach when they can listen
This is also the reminder I need to teach her about alternatives to spitting when things are calm. I have yet to do that… Because when do I remember that it’s a problem? When she is spitting! But I have to find times — in the car, at meals, right before bed — to teach her what she can do when she is frustrated. Again, I can’t expect her to manage frustration well when I can’t even model this myself.
Grace and I need to brainstorm together what she might try instead. Then, we can practice it out of the moment. Just like I have been practicing my own script, she needs to practice hers. That way when the emotion does come, she has the same fighting chance I have that we just might remember that we can control ourselves. Because at 3 or 35, self control is challenging; but it is a skill that can be improved.