Every parenting rollercoaster flies off the rails on occasion. Like when toddlers decide to use diaper ointment as body paint, or your middle schooler slams their bedroom door hard enough to rattle all of the dishes in the kitchen. But responding in a volatile manner doesn’t help anyone. It only upsets your kid and prevents them from engaging the cognitive processes that can help them learn from their mistakes and make better choices the next time around. So how can you stay calm when your kid absolutely confounds you with their behavior to the point of making you want to explode?
Parenting expert and author Sarah Ockwell-Smith, who recently wrote How to be a Calm Parent, approaches this common struggle as one that requires time and introspection. She sees calm parenting as a practice that parents can grow into as they better understand themselves and how past experiences inform interactions with their kids. Sure, calm parents tend to exhibit specific traits, but they are characteristics that emphasize an emotional presence that extends far beyond crisis management.
To start the journey toward calmer parenting, here are three traits that calm parents develop as they start to respond to their kids more constructively.
Calm Parents Prevent Emotional Displacement
Pretty much every parent is overwhelmed, and something has to give. Unfortunately, patience tends to be one of the major casualties.
“We only have the capacity to 'hold' so much, whether that's physical chores and jobs, giving headspace to things or people, and dealing with big emotions we may be feeling,” says Ockwell-Smith. “We can't keep adding and adding stuff without an inevitable explosion when we become overfull. Then, when we are full to bursting, and our children trigger us with their behavior, we will erupt like a volcano, with a reaction that is completely over the top to the behavior our children displayed.”
It’s a defense mechanism that psychologists call emotional displacement, which is when a person takes feelings that belong in one situation and places them elsewhere. So when a parent blows up because their kid threw a ball across the room and knocked over a glass of water, their response is likely not just a reaction to their child at that moment, but a combination of many many things they’ve been holding onto, plus what's happening in the present.
“Emotional displacement is not only scary for our children, but we often terrify ourselves when we feel so out of control,” Ockwell-Smith says. Learning to acknowledge and positively process feelings can help reduce emotional displacement by preventing feelings from bubbling over.
“This is tricky for a lot of people, as so many were raised to 'be good' and keep their feelings inside,” she says. People who were sent to their room or sat in timeout when they struggled to cope with their emotions as children learned to keep their feelings bottled up from an early age because big emotions were labeled as misbehavior.
But Ockwell-Smith points out that such emotional stuffing is untenable over the long run. “Like a bottle of fizzy drink that has been shaken, it's only possible to keep things contained for so long before they explode everywhere, making a mess of everything they touch.”
Calm Parents Recognize Their Triggers
Sometimes the impetus for getting upset isn’t suppressing emotions but encountering a behavior or situation that we are sensitive to due to past experiences. Unresolved emotional wounds can subconsciously elicit defense mechanisms or overload a person’s emotional capacity. Because at some point in time, their brain was encouraged to go into self-protection mode in the face of stimuli that is perceived as frightening or dangerous.
It’s even possible for triggers to develop from experiences that a person doesn’t see as traumatic or abusive. “Even if we think we had a happy childhood, there will have been things that were done to us, said to us, or said about us when we were in earshot that we have assimilated and that have grown to form a part of who we are today,” she says.
“We may grow unaware of these things. However, when we have children, they can — and often do — trigger us because of our own childhood experiences,” Ockwell-Smith continues. “We will often find ourselves in a situation with our children when we feel irrationally angry, struggle to stay calm, and often over-react when it comes to discipline because in that moment, we have stepped back into the shoes of our child self and we're reacting in the way our parent or carer did.”
For instance, parents who were expected to keep their bedroom clean enough to pass a military inspection when they were kids might feel anger rush to the surface when their own children leave dirty clothes lying around. This is especially true if their failure to meet tidiness standards was met with harsh discipline methods. The intense shame that was cultivated in childhood would manifest as parental anger down the road.
Awareness that this is happening can be incredibly freeing because it normalizes the struggle for parents and hopefully lessens feelings of guilt or shame when they have a hard time remaining calm. What might otherwise be construed as a static character flaw can instead be viewed within the context of personal healing. There’s also hope in the idea that while our childhood shapes who we become as adults, it doesn’t entirely dictate our future.
“Rather than using our own upbringing as an excuse for our behavior in the present, we can use it to motivate us to understand ourselves better and to grow emotionally so that we can be better for our children,” Ockwell-Smith says. “We can end the cycle with them.”
Calm Parents Aren’t Perfectionists
Every parent is going to screw up and yell at their kid. And those who are trying to do better will probably feel bad about it. But Ockwell-Smith is very open that even she regularly has her moments. So don’t assume that other parents are totally nailing this parenting thing simply because you’ve never seen them yell at their kids.
“However calm and zen and together you think somebody is, behind closed doors there will be times that they are completely the opposite of what you imagine them to be,” she says. “I like to aim for getting it 'right' about 50% to 70% of the time and allowing myself the grace of 'failing' the remainder of the time, safe in the knowledge that even when I screw up, I can apologize, learn from it, and move on.”
Those apologies are essential because they allow parents and kids to grow together even in the wake of a blowup. But apologizing can be difficult at first because it runs counter to how parents were treated when they were kids. For many parents, apologies from adults were few and far between as they were growing up, Ockwell-Smith says.
Habits that feel alien aren’t impossible to adopt, but they do take time. Taking a beat provides an opportunity to gain composure and reflect on both the present feelings and question why they’re present.
Embracing calm parenting as an incremental process of improvement and letting go of self-imposed pressure to figure everything out immediately can prevent parents from making rash decisions they’ll regret later. “It's a path you will need to tread for the rest of your life,” Ockwell-Smith says. “The tough moments don't mean you're failing or not good enough. That's just life. Keep going, and don't throw in the towel because you're having a bad few days.”