Behaviour & Emotions

Calm under pressure: How to take a break

Parenting Place Take a Break

Parenting is one of those areas where you can find yourself bumping into your own big feelings – feelings our kids can be particularly skilful at triggering. We talk a lot about the need to support kids through their big feelings and you may have been practicing sitting quietly with your child until their storm blows over. But what about our own big reactions? Whose is helping us with those?

Picture this

Your child has been ignoring your polite request to brush their teeth – the same old job that needs doing every day before school. But just like yesterday and the day before and the day before that, they are not moving. They are blatantly ignoring you as if you don’t even exist.

You promised yourself last night that you wouldn't blow up today – that it would be a harmonious morning and you would send your children off to school happily and peacefully. This now seems almost impossible because aside from feeling invisible, you also feel tired from nights of broken sleep and pressured by a pile of jobs that need attention, as well as some simmering anxiety about that phone call regarding your dad’s health.

When you add it all up, you’re generally feeling a bit defeated. If someone was to measure how much bandwidth you had left, it wouldn’t be much. Which doesn’t bode well for yet another teeth-brushing refusal amidst the pressure of the morning rush! How is a parent supposed to cope with big feelings in a moment like this?

If someone was to measure how much bandwidth you had left, it wouldn’t be much. Which doesn’t bode well for yet another teeth-brushing refusal amidst the pressure of the morning rush!

Press pause

It’s time for a mini-break. Not a weekend away at some luxurious destination (although that would be nice), but a parenting break – simply taking a few deep breaths and stepping away from the situation to find some peace and perspective.

First things first, check in with yourself and assess how you are feeling physically in your body. Later on you can unpack why you are so cross or triggered (maybe you felt disrespected?). Now isn’t the time to analyse how wronged you feel – this might wind you up more!

Now is the time to care for yourself, to regulate your body so that your emotions will follow. When you are about to explode, it is time to notice and attend to the symptoms of anger in your body. It’s physical intervention time! Here’s a checklist of three things to take a quick look at:

1. Look kind

Basically, ask yourself ‘how is my face?’ Are my teeth clenched? Am I glaring at my child? Deliberately soften your gaze and your facial expression. Try to relax any tension you're feeling in your body. Notice if you feel an immediate change in the intensity of your emotions.

2. Look cool

Okay, so this is actually more about feeling cool rather than looking cool. Check in with your body temperature – are you getting hot? Drink a glass of cold water and take your jumper off. Go to the sink and run cold water over your hands. Being too hot makes us more likely to be cross.

3. Look outside

Now, try to leave the room – without being dramatic (as in don’t slam doors). When the pressure is mounting, we need to create some space between us and the child who is winding us up. Getting outside for a micro-break is a very good idea.

It could be that your strategy is to call out to your kids that you are just going to check the mailbox. It’s unlikely that there will be any mail, it’s far too early for the postie. Besides, who gets actual post these days anyway?

It could be that your strategy is to call out to your kids that you are just going to check the mailbox. It’s unlikely that there will be any mail, it’s far too early for the postie. Besides, who gets actual post these days anyway? But the walk and the purposefulness are calming. Take a few deep breaths, exhaling fully and dropping your shoulders down. Notice how much cooler the air is. Take note of the leaves on the hedge – just to refocus and still yourself.

Stepping away from the scene of the tension also gives us some space to be curious about our emotions. This is powerful because even if we’re not able to fix or change things right now, acknowledging our feelings sets us up to be curious about our children’s feelings too.

The Pause, Reflect, Engage tool is another way of looking at the ‘take a break’ process. Put simply, the encouragement is to Pause and take a deep breath; Reflect on your own perspective and that of your child; then Engage when you can choose a good response instead of a poor reaction.

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The beauty of a break

Taking a break may not be convenient, I agree. But the reality is, we can’t access our kindness and patience when we’re overwhelmed by frustration. We need a break to reset. If there is a 10-minute delay in the teeth getting brushed, it is worth it for the benefit of staying calm.

When your children are aware of your ‘taking a break’ routine, they’ll be reassured that you are not disappearing on them. You’ll also be modelling valuable life skills around emotional regulation, showing your kids that there is a way through big feelings that is constructive and peaceful.

Return with a plan

Now you’ve calmed your body down in three ways. Your face has changed its expression – your eyes are soft and kind. You’re not too hot. You’ve stepped out, breathed deeply and had a calming walk. You can return with a plan!

Your lovely child still needs to clean their teeth. With some refreshed energy and gentle expectation, any one of the following strategies might work –

  • You get up close and gently place your hand on their shoulder or take their hand. “Hey, what did Mum/Dad just ask you to do? Off you go.”

  • You ask them to report in so you can do the ‘teeth inspection’. Kids love hearing feedback on the job they have done.

  • You ask them if today is the day they would like to use a voucher for a ‘supreme clean’ –children need to have an adult clean their teeth for them from time to time, to ensure all those hard-to-reach places actually get reached.

  • You get some support from your partner who has heard the request and takes on some of the weight by asking the child to show them their beautiful pearly whites.

  • You hold up the chart that shows pictures of your child doing five tasks in the morning – one of them is cleaning their teeth. Kids love ticking the box.

Ask them if today is the day they would like to use a voucher for a ‘supreme clean’

Another tip to keep in mind – keep any instructions short and specific. Don’t bring up any resentment or irritation accumulated over the several days of teeth-brushing battles. Right now is just about what is happening right now. If there is a pattern of ignoring your instructions in the morning, this can be addressed later when everyone is calm – maybe at a family meeting where everyone can feel heard.

Sometimes our big triggers are so activated and jangled that we are tense before we even start the day. There are times when we need someone else to talk to who can help make sense of why we feel so undone and tense. If you can access this kind of support, it will be a gift to yourself which your whole whānau will benefit from.

We all need help to navigate the frustrations of parenting. Most of us want to stay kind and peaceful. The ‘taking a break’ tool can provide a helpful pathway to peace and it’s there for us to step onto whenever we need it.

Jenny Hale

Jenny Hale

Jenny Hale is our Senior Family Coach and we’ve been lucky enough to have her on our team for over 20 years. She’d love to raise free-range chickens, write children’s books and perhaps even take up horse-riding again.


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