The volume in the room is steadily rising. The kids may be having a really great time making all kinds of silly faces and noises, instead of eating their breakfasts, but it’s getting harder and harder to keep your temper in check. If they would just FINISH already!! If they don’t finish soon, we’ll be late for sure. All you want is a little peace and quiet and EATING, and it seems like the absolute last thing you’re going to get.
All this, and it’s only 7:09AM. It’s going to be a tough morning if you can’t find some way to change the kids, yourself, or the situation. And it’s pretty unlikely you can change the kids.
I’m faced with this scenario three times a week, on average, maybe four. And every time I’m surprised again by how quickly I fall into frustration, anger, and that sense of this-has-to-stop-or-I-will-lose-it. I teach meditation, for crying out loud! I should be able to handle anything my kids throw at me with admirable calm and steadiness!
But the truth is that practicing mindfulness isn’t about not having emotions. It’s about recognizing that you’re experiencing those feelings, and making a conscious choice about what you’re going to do next, rather than being swept away by them.
Here are three steps to help you regain your cool when you’re on the brink of losing it, too.
#1: Feel Your Body
Often, what gives me that out-of-control feeling is actually a physical experience that I’ve been trying to suppress, or ignoring.
If I take a moment to feel what’s going on in my body, it grounds me and helps take the panic down a notch.
Here are three ways you can do it yourself:
Focus on your breath. For some people, putting all their attention on their breath can actually increase the sense of panic (when they realize they are breathing hard, fast, or shallowly). But for others, the breath is a really simple and powerful way to bring them back into their bodies. Try taking 3-5 breaths, focusing on breathing out completely through your mouth, and breathing in completely through your nose.
Focus on your feet. Just feeling the weight of your feet on the floor can be a great way to ground yourself. Spread your toes and lay them down again, lift your heels and lay them down again, and feel each foot fully in contact with the floor.
Focus on where you feel the emotion in your body. We call them feelings because you can actually feel the emotion somewhere in your body, if you pause to look for it. Maybe your stomach is in knots, or your throat is tight, or your shoulders are tense. Check in with your body and find out where the feeling is happening. Breathe into that space, and breathe out, just watching the feeling without needing to do anything about it. Before long, it will pass.
#2: Notice Your Thoughts
What pushes me over the brink from irritation, to losing it, is believing that the situation is out of my control, and that it’s incredibly important for it to be in my control. If they don’t eat right now, we’ll never get out the door on-time and I’ll miss my train and be late for that meeting!
Sometimes, it’s true that I need things to happen on a particular timeline or sequence, or there will be real consequences. But often, there’s more flexibility than I think.
Here are three ways to get perspective on what’s happening:
Notice if you’re thinking in extremes. If your thoughts about the situation include the words “always” or “never,” that’s a red flag that you’re getting swept away by your emotions. Question your thought. Is it really true that you’ll never get out the door on-time? Or are you just afraid that you might not, given the pace things are going? Reframe your thought in less extreme language, and you may find your emotions settling down.
Notice if you’re very sure about your point of view. If your thoughts about the situation include certainty about exactly how everything is going to fall out if it continues, you’re probably creating unnecessary drama. Yes, if they don’t finish soon, you may be late and you might miss your train and you might be late for your meeting - but you don’t know any of that for sure. Remind yourself that you are not clairvoyant and things might unfold differently than you expect.
Notice if you’re blaming other people for the situation. They aren’t eating as quickly as you need them to, true; but what could you do differently to change the situation? Could you challenge them to finish before the song on the radio ends, or before a timer goes off? Could you make silly faces and noises with them for a few minutes, to help them get it out of their systems? Could you ask them if they need help finishing their breakfasts? Even if I don’t do any of the things I come up with, sometimes just thinking about alternatives to sitting there stewing - or yelling - shakes me out of the tense moment.
#3: Pick Your Battles
Sometimes, it really is important to get out the door at a particular time; and sometimes, you’d just prefer the situation to be working out differently than it is.
Getting clear on what the stakes truly are helps me know when to step in with firmness and authority, and when to let the silliness (or stubborness or loudness) just keep on going.
Here are three questions to help you get that clarity:
If the situation doesn’t change, will we break a commitment to someone else? If your kid needs to be at school by 8am, that’s a commitment you’ve made to the school, and it’s your family’s responsibility to keep that commitment. If others are counting on you to be at the meeting on-time, that’s a commitment you’ve made. But if you’d just prefer to get to work by a certain time, being late isn’t going to impact other people significantly. If there are no real commitments in play, then it’s easier to be flexible about how the situation unfolds.
If we break that commitment, will there be serious consequences? Being late to school once in awhile isn’t awesome, but it’s not a big deal. On the other hand, if you’ve been late a lot and the school has given warnings about tardiness impacting grades or the ability to graduate, that’s much more serious. Being late for a meeting with friendly coworkers who can start without you isn’t really serious, even if you’d rather not have it happen. On the other hand, being late to a meeting you’re leading on a critical topic isn’t something you really want to chance. Getting clear on the degree of seriousness will help you decide whether and how to hurry the kids along.
Is this about me wanting things to go a particular way, or is there a real need for my plan to happen? If your answers to the first two questions above are yes, then you might conclude that it’s your way or the highway. But often, there’s more than one way to get to the destination you’re set on (in this case, leaving on-time). Just taking a moment to ask yourself if there’s another way can help you find your cool and take action that’s truly helpful.
In the middle of the intensity of the moment, it can be hard to remember to take all of these steps. Practice some self-compassion when you lose it, and remember that mindfulness is a practice, too. The more you do it, the more second-nature it’ll become.
Which of the suggestions above do you want to try, the next time you find yourself on the brink with your kids? Pick one or two, and write yourself a post-it to help you remember. Stick it where you’ll see it when you’re most likely to feel your temperature rising.
Which suggestion are you going to try? What did you try, and how did it go? Tell me in the comments below!