Mindfulness is the opposite of “losing” your temper. Don’t get me wrong — mindfulness doesn’t mean you don’t feel anger. Being mindful means that you pay attention to what you’re feeling, rather than just acting on it. Anger is part of all relationships. It’s acting on it mindlessly, with words or actions, that compromises our parenting (and other partnerships).
“Mindfulness: Allowing an emotion to take hold and pass without acting on it.” — Benedict Carey
Emotions are useful, like indicator lights on a dashboard. If you saw a blinking red light, you wouldn’t cover it up or tear out the wiring that caused it, right? You would listen to the information and act on it, for instance, by taking your car in for an oil change.
The challenge with human emotions is that so often we’re confused about what to do when we feel them. We’re hard-wired to respond to all “negative” emotion (those blinking red lights in your psyche that light up throughout your day) in one of three ways: fight, flight or freeze.
Those strategies work well in most emergencies. But parenting — despite our fears — is not usually an emergency. Usually, in parenting and in life, the best response to upsetting emotions is mindfulness. How?
1. Notice the emotion. STOP. Don’t act on it. Create space. Move away from your child and take a few minutes to yourself.
2. Tolerate the emotion without taking action. Let yourself feel it. Breathe your way through it. Name the emotion if that helps. Notice how it feels in your body.
3. Notice the thought that’s triggering the upsetting emotion. “He wet his pants AGAIN?!”
“Mindfulness: Not hitting someone in the mouth.” — 8 year old, quoted by Sharon Salzberg
4. Shift your emotions. Scream out your anger in the car with the windows rolled up. Put on music and dance. Remind yourself that they’re acting like kids because they are kids. Choose a positive thought that makes you feel better quickly: “This will be ok… I can handle whatever happens…Nobody goes to high school in diapers…”
5. Once you’re calm, respond to the situation with gentle guidance. Set whatever limits are appropriate, with empathy. This doesn’t mean backing off on your necessary limits; he can’t hit his playmate, sit on the cat, or scream in the restaurant. Doing so will result in his being removed from the situation — a natural consequence, but not a punishment, because you do it kindly. Empathic limits means setting a clear limit when necessary, and responding to the feelings your child is expressing about your limit with compassion.
6. Consider what actions on your part could prevent this situation in the future. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Since feelings drive behavior, responding to your child’s feelings BEFORE she acts out will prevent much of the behavior that drives you crazy.
Sound hard? It is. Regulating our own emotions is the hardest part of parenting. But every time you do it, it gets easier. Before you know it, you’ll look back and realize that you haven’t “lost” your temper in a really long time.