The other day I noticed a mother vibrating with stress attempting to calm her crying baby. The little one couldn't crawl, walk, or talk, but her instinctual senses were sharp enough to know stress when she heard, saw, and felt it. The mother's attempts were futile -- you can't calm stress with stress.
This snippet reminded me just how often I see the same mistake in my practice. Moms and dads, with the best of intentions, try in vain to bring calm and order to their teens' lives. They fail for the very same reason the mother above failed: They're wearing their frustration on their sleeves, hoping to fight stress with stress.
Not all parents fail in this goal, of course. A seemingly gifted handful have the ability to bring order to their kids' hectic lives by approaching their roles as parents with a calm, coolness usually reserved for Bond villains. What's their secret? Though every case is unique, I have seen three skills pop up again and again.
Step One: Do Less.
As a parent who loves your kids, it's hard not to feel compelled to do everything for them. But I want you to do less, and do so for two reasons. First, your kids must learn how to become capable and resilient if they want to succeed later in life. Doing less now allows them to develop these skills for use later. Easier said than done, but still crucial to their wellbeing.
Second, hovering just feet away from your kids, ready to act on their behalf as a moment's notice, is stressful. It's stressful for you and it's stressful for them. If you put it on yourself to run two people's lives, you'll quickly run yourself raw. It's too much. When you let yourself do less -- and give them a chance to do more -- you have time to breathe, to relax, to have fun, which means you'll be refreshed and ready to tackle the larger issues that come your way.
Step Two: Watch for Signals/
Parents who bring calm order to their surroundings are also great at reading their own moods and emotions. Tune into your body. What happens when you get stressed or overwhelmed or frustrated or overtired? What signals predictably appear? They're there, no question. The issue is whether you can detect them.
I struggled with this myself, but soon found the cure: my wife. I may not have been aware of what my body did as the stress gathered, but she definitely saw it. Like the moments when we're gripping the wheel with intensity but don't realize it until someone comments on our white knuckles, she noticed my signals plain as day. She cued me in, which helped develop my own radar.
Step Three: Interrupt the Stress.
Recognizing stress isn't enough. You need to interrupt the pattern before approaching your kids. Sometimes that's as simple as noticing the stress, taking a breath, and regrouping. Other times you'll need to put your parenting plans on hold and do something else entirely; try as we might, sometimes we can't think our way out of a bad mood.
Once the frustration or bad mood has been recognized and interrupted, you can safely engage with your kids without worry of bringing more stress into the situation -- or more gasoline to an already burning fire.
Develop these skills and you'll have a far easier time serving as a calming force and effective parent, even when faced with the most difficult of situations. But there's something else I see in clients who possess these talents. They're modeling ideal behavior.
Kids of all ages learn so very much by watching what we do. They're more than sponges; they're mirrors. Hundreds of times, more likely thousands, they'll be faced with tense situations that call for calm. How will they respond? If they were raised by parents able to remain calm when the world around them was closing in with chaos, they'll respond in a way that would make mom or dad proud.
Life is stressful. Add parenting to the mix and it can feel as though you're carrying the weight of the world on your back. Still, you have a choice. Impulsively react or calmly respond. One may be harder than the other, but it's also well worth the effort.