How to Raise a Secure Child in Anxious Times - Part 1: Put on the Oxygen Mask First
These are the times that try everyone's souls, addle people's brains and agitate their minds.
There are two reasons they tell you to put on an oxygen mask on you before you put one on your children in an airplane. First, if you are unable to think clearly due to a drop in oxygen, you won't be able to be much help to yourself or your child. Second, if you become anxious, it will cause your child who looks to you to be calm in a crisis to become more anxious.
This is just as true outside of an airplane.
Your main role as a parent to your children is to prepare them to do whatever they will need to do at age 18 (or sooner) in order to be secure, successful and happy. I use those words in that order because a secure and successful person is often happy while an insecure and unsuccessful person is rarely happy. In fact the only time such an insecure and unsuccessful person is happy is when they are escaping their insecurity or lack of success through alcohol, drugs, buying things they don't need (and usually can't afford), engaging in sexual escapes or sleeping that provide instant relief, but then cause them to be further behind their peers who handle such setbacks more effectively. After the escape wears off, being further behind their peers just increases their insecurity and lack of success and the cycle starts to rapidly go further downhill.
How do you teach a child to become centered, strong and effective in dealing with setbacks, obstacles so that they will be able to handle them on their own without you?
As mentioned above, the first thing is to learn to do this yourself. That requires learning to calm your brain. That will enable you to quiet your mind enough to think your way through to the best thing for you to do.
When you are faced with a setback, roadblock or disappointment it causes you to become upset by causing what's referred to as an amygdala hijack. The amygdala is a part of your middle brain that serves as an emotional sentinel. When it gets overloaded, instead of being able to rationally assess the present situation it throws you back into a memory that is triggered by the present situation. That causes you to react to the present with something from the past that may not fit and in many cases makes the situation worse. For example, if you became defensive to a hostile comment in the past and misperceive constructive, helpful input in the present as an attack and become quickly defensive, that person in the present will quickly begin to realize that they can't give you any input without your taking it the wrong way and they will stop trying to help you.
The Seven Step Pause*
When you most feel like reacting, what you need to do most is pause. When you pause to become more aware of what's going on within you it calms you and enables you to begin to think and respond (vs. react) more effectively to the present situation. The following Seven Step Pause achieves that by causing you to thwart an amygdala hijack, calm your brain and then enable you to access your upper brain to respond to the present situation rationally based on it as opposed to reacting to it from something in your past.
- Physical Awareness. When you're feeling in distress after a setback or upsetting event, think to yourself, "I am physically feeling [what] in my [where in your body]." For example, "light headed and sick to my stomach."
- Emotional Awareness. "And emotionally I feel [angry? frustrated? scared? sad? disappointed? hurt? upset?] and how my [fill in the emotion you just named] is [name the level of intensity]. For example, "scared out of my wits and more scared than I can ever remember feeling in my life."
- Impulse Awareness. "And feeling [name the physical feeling] and [name the emotional feeling], and feeling it [name the level of intensity], makes me want to [name the impulse]." For example, "sitting down and doing nothing."
- Consequence Awareness. "If I act on that impulse, the most likely immediate consequence will be ____, and a longer-term consequence will be ____. For example, "I will probably feel even more out of control and even more hopeless."
- Reality Awareness. "While I am holding off (for now) on acting on that impulse, another possible and more accurate perception of what might really be going on is [seeing the world as it actually is can further help you not react to the way it isn't]. "For example, "my life being forever different doesn't mean my life is over."
- Solution Awareness. "A better thing for me to do instead would be to [fill in an alternate behavior and what you need to do to achieve those outcomes]. For example, "learn to live with life being never the same again and to start by interacting with (vs. withdrawing) others, comforting each other, thinking together what we can do now vs. focusing on what we can't and then have each person commit to doing something to achieve our desired outcome." The best resource I have found for coming up with a solution when faced with a setback is: Workarounds That Work: How to Conquer Anything That Stands in Your Way at Work by Russell Bishop. Read about Bishop's Five Steps to do that.
- Benefit Awareness. "If I try that solution, the benefit to me immediately will be [fill in the immediate benefit]. For example, "I'll begin to feel more in control and less helpless and even less hopeless."
If you are a person for whom self-talk does not work (I am such a person), imagine doing the above exercise with someone who cares or cared about you (I imagine my deceased parents and deceased mentors going through the seven steps with me).
The Seven Step Pause will at first not seem natural. That is because you are learning a new skill to overcome your natural, but irrational reaction that is based on the past not the present. The stronger you resist them may be because your reactions to setbacks is so ingrained that you feel you can't change. If that is so, ask yourself how well those ingrained reactions serve you now. If they serve you well, continue on. If they don't and furthermore make a bad situation worse, you may want to start practicing the Seven Step Pause until they do become more natural.
More importantly, begin to practice them with your children whose minds may be more flexible and able to learn new skills now that will serve them well for a lifetime.
* Adapted from Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior by Mark Goulston, M.D. and Philip Goldberg.
Stay tuned for Part 2: Monkey See, Monkey Do where you will learn that your children are always watching you and using you as a role model of how to act and reinforcing the quote: "Children rarely listen to their parents, but never cease to imitate them."