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Toddler Tips

From infancy on, children need loving guidance that reflects acceptance of their capabilities and sensitivity to their feelings

Tricks for Keeping your Cool

Hilary Flower
From: New Beginnings, Vol. 29 No. 4, 2009, pp.36-37

Gentle discipline means, quite simply, placing empathy and respect at the very center of your parenting. When we're at our best, we listen to our children, giving them empathy, and try to find solutions that meet everyone's needs. The more practice you have, and the more ideas and skills in your gentle discipline tool box, the better able you will be at being emotionally present and responsive to your child's needs in the moment.

In my book, Adventures In Gentle Discipline, I help parents explore ways to prevent the preventable problems, have reasonable expectations of their children, and find positive solutions whenever possible. Many of us need to develop and practice new skills so that we can parent in empathic and respectful ways, particularly when facing challenging situations.

As I was gathering the wisdom and experience from parents for the book, I found that their experience corroborated a very simple and very key fact and one that I have noticed in my own parenting, even though it is overlooked by most parenting books. Skills and ideas are important, yes -- but just as crucial is the parent's own state of mind. In short: how do you parent with empathy and respect when you feel the heat rising to your head?

In this adapted excerpt from Adventures In Gentle Discipline, I share some of the tricks for keeping your cool that other parents shared with me.

Stop the action.When you're charging ahead you have no time to choose your course. A short break can make a big difference.

"When I am feeling completely at the end of my rope, I make myself take a deep cleansing breath before I say one word. Not the kind of breath you take before 'yelling' under your breath, but the kind that gives you little pleasant tingles down your spine. Then I have had a second, at least, to formulate an effective sentence." Lindsay B.

Use your imagination.You may be able to "trick" yourself into good parental behavior for a critical few minutes until you feel more in control.

"I sometimes pretend that people are around -- I'm much more patient in public, trying to look like the model mama!" Betsy S.
"Sometimes I ask myself how I would respond to someone else's child in the same situation?" Krista M.
"When I'm having a really, really difficult time I ask myself, 'What would a good mom do? If I was a good mom right now, what would I need to do?'" Elizabeth B.

Get in touch with your tenderness for your child.Identify some sensory experience of your child that helps you feel his vulnerability -- and reach out for it when you need it. Is it looking at those round cheeks, the shortness of his shins, or how small and dimpled his hands are? Is it listening to the high note in his voice, or feeling his tender skin?

"I touch my boys' skin, really feel them, when I'm feeling anxious or stressed. They feel so small and fragile and perfect and innocent. It puts my impatience into perspective." Anna W.

A hug can bring you back to your child when you need it.

"The hardest for me is when I get hurt by one of my boys. My anger seems immediate. Sometimes I pull them into a hug just to feel how small they are and feel their little heartbeat, and it helps me react in a physical way that dissipates the anger." Anna W.

Maybe it's a mental image of your child that speaks straight to your heart.

"I carried a joyful image of my child in my mind's eye that I could call up while I took those deep breaths. With my son, I used to picture him smiling and laughing as he rode on the carousel at the Children's Museum." Carissa D.

Change the scene.When you're starting to get into a bad space, try changing the physical space you're in.

"I live in a really small house where my kids are practically in my lap every second of the day. Going outside gives me a little space to breathe and center myself. It gives the kids some time to be wild where they won't break anything or hurt themselves/each other." Lauren K.
"The other night I felt ready to explode. I put my boys in the bath because it always calms them down and I got in with them. It calmed us all down." Erin B.

Change your self-talk.Identify a key question or a helpful mantra that helps you switch gears mentally.

"For me the urge to hit is usually precipitated by thoughts of 'He's gonna get it' or 'He's driving me crazy, I can't take this.' I try to change the way I think. I say to myself: 'He needs me to teach him what to do. I can do xyz …' It really helps focus my thoughts on how to help him, not control him." Anna W.
"I have worked on self-talk too ... this always helps at least a bit ... it is hard to yell when I am telling myself: 'I love me, I love her, I want to find balance.'" Teri J.
"My husband and I see 'love' as an entity. We think, 'What would LOVE do now?' It is amazing how differently we react." Janine G.

Jump ahead.Imagine a peaceful resolution.

"Parenting is stretching the limits of my patience. Most of the time I can now visualize the resolution of conflicts with my son when they begin. So, if I have a technique to share, it's to try visualizing a happy ending before things escalate. I remind myself, 'This too, shall pass,' and it will all be over quicker than I think." Melinda R.

Call someone.As parents we all need a trusted person we can reach out to when we're at the end of our tether, someone to "talk us off the roof." Is there someone you could call?

"I call a friend and cry. Not often, but when it gets this bad, a friend will usually come over or invite us over. Just not being alone helps hugely." Jennifer V. You can offer the same support to your friend, when he or she is in a bad space.

Change your delivery.Sometimes getting down at your child's level so that you can peer face to face might help you snap out of an impending tirade. Opening your hands to your child in a gesture of giving can change your energy. Notice your voice: can you make it sound like you're talking to a friend? What shifts in posture or delivery help you rediscover your compassion?

"If I feel as if I'm going to start yelling, I try to breathe and talk to them in a very calm and loving voice. I find that when I use a soft voice that I'm paying attention to, it somehow helps calm me." Allison G.

Take time for yourself.It's easy for parents to get into an "all or nothing" mind frame, and lose perspective on what matters most. Sometimes ordering a pizza or popping in a video, even if this is not how you wanted the day to go, can be worth it to help you avoid losing your temper.

"Seriously, sometimes I just pour myself a glass of wine and relax, put the TV on for my daughter, and ignore the annoying things so long as they are not harmful to anyone or anything. Of course, I only do this when it's at least close to happy hour time (not in the middle of the day), usually don't even finish the glass of wine. The time to relax helps immensely." Jennifer V.

Flower, H. Adventures In Gentle Discipline, Schaumburg, IL: La Leche League International, 2005.

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