Have you ever noticed that we, as parents, expect ourselves to have the perfect parenting response, at the ready, for every child-rearing situation that falls into our lap? Where did this ridiculous notion come from? Some voice in our head whispers to us, “You should know exactly which words to use right now, in precisely the right tone of voice, to deliver the perfect, parenting reaction to this alarming moment.” But we never even got the manual! The elusive parenting manual. I’m still hunting for it. So’s my husband. And it’s been almost 20 years at this sport called parenting.
Perhaps we can choose to cut ourselves some slack, instead. Recent brain research tells us that when we are agitated or escalated, we “flip our lids,” meaning we no longer can access our prefrontal cortex. That’s the part of our brain that’s home to good judgment and sound decision making. We probably have no business making any decisions regarding our children when we can’t access that part of our brain, and when we are firing from our reptilian, fight or flight part of our brain. It behooves us to press pause on any parenting moment when we feel overwhelmed or upset. Pressing pause, taking a time out, and walking away from the upsetting situation allows us to calm down and access the good part of our brain again.
What does this sound like, in front of our kids? It sounds like this: “I am so upset right now that I need to take a break and think about this. I’ll get back to you when I’m ready to talk.” You are modeling how to step away to reestablish your cool before you rupture a precious relationship with reckless words that are driven by anger. Pressing pause models for kids that our relationships with them are so significant that we want to tread carefully, not impulsively. This stepping away behavior does not, in any way, condone any wrongdoing or poor decision-making your child may have just exhibited. Instead, pressing pause on a tense situation requires the child to exercise his muscle for tolerating uncertainty. He doesn’t know if he’s in big trouble with a significant loss of privilege or if the two of you will just engage in a serious talk. These hours or days of “not knowing” allow him to grow that muscle for tolerating the unknown, not something any of us seek out, but certainly not a bad thing to expand.
Another important tactic for parents to remember is that each parenting moment is new for them when they are parenting their firstborn. In other words, parents can say to their child, “I’ve never parented a ten year old before so I’m going to take some time to ponder this. I’ll get back to you.” You do NOT owe your kid an immediate response. Give yourself permission to take some time, to consult with your spouse or parenting partner, to call your therapist, to go for a run, or to take a shower. Do what you need to do to collect your thoughts so that you are delivering the smartest response possible to your kid, the one that will nurture the relationship between parent and child rather than fracture that relationship.
Finally, know that many “correct” answers exist, not just one. The way you choose to respond to a situation might look very different than the way I choose to do so. That’s okay, as long as your response truly reflects your values and family belief systems. Sometimes, it takes us a little while to land squarely, with conviction, on what we believe about each situation. Give yourself that gift of time. Your child can wait.