One of the Greatest Gifts We Can Give Our Kids

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“I don’t know what’s going on here but it’s ridiculous and I’m not dealing with it!” Years ago, this is what I overheard after I asked my oldest child, then seven years old, to help her sister in the bath. It only took me a minute to figure out why this impatient sounding, easily frustrated reaction was bothering me so much; she sounded exactly like me.

As a child and young adult, tolerating stress and frustration had never been one of my strong points, and even now it’s a constant work in progress. My childhood was filled with moments where I felt exceedingly overwhelmed, overbearingly frustrated, and without any tools for managing these uncomfortable feelings which felt way too intense to be contained in my body. I watched adults deal with stress by turning to eating or other numbing and soothing behaviors, and combat difficult experiences with negativity and anger. Yelling was a frequently used strategy by adults nearly everywhere I went. 

As I continued to grow and become more aware of my own stress levels, I started prioritizing self-regulation and self-care in an effort to better care for myself as well as model stress management for my children. Given my years as a wellness and parent coach, I knew all too well that my children would internalize my reactions to challenging moments and use my responses as a framework for their own reactions.

I realized that I had developed a stronger sense of self-awareness around this idea during an afternoon when I found myself stuck in the car with my young children for three hours, trapped outside the Holland Tunnel, in a standstill traffic situation that I still don’t fully comprehend. Internally, I was screaming, cursing, crying, and collapsing, but as I helped them look around the car for old snacks that they might have left and diapers to use (yes that happened), I found myself exuding an unfamiliar sense of calm and positivity. I watched them watch me and I instinctively understood that the silly songs, jokes, and confidence that I was offering were making this experience more tolerable for them. I became aware that what they would come to remember was not being stuck outside the tunnel, but rather my reaction to us being stuck there. The connections that their brains were making in that moment revolved heavily around me and my responses as their mother, rather than the effects of being trapped in the car. I didn’t pretend everything was fine; that just would have confused them, as even at their young ages they were old enough to know that this situation was not the norm. Instead, in between my efforts to lighten the mood, I modeled my own regulation process with words and actions. “This is a difficult situation,” I said out loud, to nobody in particular, “And not at all what I was expecting. I thought we would be home already and we’ve been sitting here for so long. But it’s okay. I’m taking deep breaths, and I’m trying to stay patient. I know that soon we will be moving again.” Even I couldn’t believe what I was hearing myself say, and whether I was trying to reassure my own inner child or my actual children, I was soothed and empowered by my own response. It was such a far departure from the feelings of fear, anger, irritation, and hopelessness that I imagine I would have felt had this happened during my own childhood.

You, like I, have the same resilience and sense of inner strength, even if we sometimes struggle to remember that.

It is our job as parents and caregivers to learn more about our triggers, to work with our emotions, to repair and make corrections when we inevitably overreact, and to actively teach our children how to sit with feelings and manage stress. This isn’t easy, but what we model matters. I’ve witnessed so many parents make painstaking efforts to demonstrate important behaviors like manners, hygiene, and acts of kindness and charity, wanting to set strong examples for their children. There is, indeed, so much to model for our children, and I’ve started caring most about the emotions and reactions that I model, because I know that this is what they’ll remember, both cognitively in their thinking minds, as well as somatically, in their physical bodies. Rather than letting our children see angry, overwhelmed faces and hear yelling, we can give them caring, soothing, regulating tools to see, absorb, and ultimately use for life. I firmly believe this is one of the most important things we can do to set our children up for success, and one of the greatest gifts we can give them. And yes, I’m still working on this, as I imagine most of us are.

We are all so busy, and yet we must add modeling self-regulation and self-care to our to-do list. How can we proceed in a way that prevents us from feeling overwhelmed? First, it can be tremendously impactful to simply understand the importance of bringing awareness to the actions and reactions that we have around our children. Then, we can allow ourselves to share our process with them. As I often tell my clients, you don’t have to hide your acts of self-care or self-regulation, as if you’re a superhero who manages the messy parts of life behind closed doors. Let your children walk into the room to find you doing downward dog and ask what you’re doing and why. Let them see you pause to take a deep breath in a moment when they’re expecting you to yell. Let them hear you say, “This is frustrating. I’m going to stop and count to three.” Let them know that you’re taking a bubble bath because you need to relax after a long day, or that you’re taking a short walk to clear your mind. Encourage your children to take downtime to relax and explore interests (that are ideally screen-free; there’s a time for screens but we also want to equate relaxation with other fun activities), and consider adding this designated downtime to your evening routine or written schedules. Choose a couple of yoga poses or breathe together at bedtime. Ask your children how they feel in their bodies when they’re stressed, and what they find soothing, and remember that your calm, connected presence can sometimes be all that your children require when they’re in distress. Explicitly express the idea that these tools are here to help us find balance in our lives, and make self-care part of the culture of your home. 

What our children see us doing is arguably more important than what we tell them to do. Our children need to see that stress is part of life, that we have tools for managing it, and that this is a priority within our family. After some time, I promise, you’ll also hear your child mimicking you. This time, however, amid the yelling and chaos, you might hear as I recently did from my seven year old who is now sixteen, “I’m stressed out and I need a minute!” 

I’ll take it.

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Sheri Klugmann is a Wellness and Family Coach, parenting expert, educator, and a yoga and mindfulness instructor. She works with children, teens, and adults to reduce stress in all aspects of life and live with a greater sense of calm. To learn more or receive support, contact Sheri at www.weliveforchange.com or on Instagram @weliveforchange

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