“What the heck do I do?”: Practical parenting tips for difficult moments
This may come as a shock, but parenting is hard. Okay, maybe this isn’t shocking. That’s why there are a million different books on how to do the parenting thing. What is shocking is that even though there are tons of books and resources out there, so many parents find themselves in situations wondering “What am I supposed to do here?” In the heat of these moments, it can be hard to find the best way to handle a particularly difficult situation. There are countless experiences where we may feel like we have no idea what to do. The purpose of this guide is to give parents practical steps that help them feel more settled and clear in those situations that leave many of us thinking: “What the heck do I do?”
These steps can help with navigating challenging parenting moments:
Notice what’s happening with you
Take inventory of how you’re being affected. When a challenging situation arises, we have an initial reaction to it. We may feel immediate anger, panic, sadness, or even shock. Before we intervene with our children, it’s important to bring awareness to how we’ve been impacted by what’s happening. This awareness can keep us from reacting out of strong emotions, which can often make the situation worse and hurt the relationship with our kids.
Self-regulate: check in and take time to settle down
Take a moment (or a few) to pause. It may also help to take a few breaths so you can gauge if your initial reaction will be helpful in navigating this situation. Intervening from a strong anger or fear reaction won’t help kids learn how to deal with tough situations. Our reactions trigger their reactions, making it hard for them to retain anything you teach them. It’s also likely to negatively impact the relationship with your child.
If your initial reaction is intense anger or fear, take the time you need to acknowledge it, give it some space, and then let your body and mind settle down before intervening.
Notice what’s happening with your child
Once you’ve got a good sense of what’s going on with you, notice how your child is reacting to the situation. Are they experiencing fear, anger, shock, or sadness? This is important because your child won’t be able to learn from the situation while they’re actively experiencing big emotions or reactions. They’ll first need your help with regulating their emotions. Their nervous system is likely highly activated and needs some time to reset.
Our nervous system is responsible for the fight/flight or shut down/freeze response (the survival reactions that are designed to keep us safe). When we’re having an emotional reaction, our nervous system shuts down access to the learning part of the brain so that all of our energy is focused on whatever we need to do to protect ourselves. This process is automatic, so our brain and body literally jump into action on their own (hence it being a reaction). The important piece to highlight is that when your child is having an emotional reaction (fight/flight or shut down/freeze), they’re not going to hear much of anything you’re saying, let alone retain it. Their brain and body are too busy trying to process how to get safe from what they’re feeling.
Help your child self-regulate and settle down
In a similar way you just helped yourself through this process (settling down your own nervous system), you can help your child through it too. Help them label what they’re feeling - anger, sadness, fear, disappointment, frustration, etc.. Then guide them to slowly regulate their breathing by breathing with them. Help them notice and label what they experience in their body as they start to calm down (breathing slower, feeling less hot, relaxing in the muscles, heartbeat slowing down).
As they’re calming down, let them know that everyone experiences big reactions (like you just did a moment ago) and that you’re there to help them through it when they need it. Using an example of how you managed your reaction can be additionally helpful to their awareness and learning.
Teach the lesson
Now that you and your child are more settled down, walk them through what you want them to know about the situation. Help them understand what to do the next time something similar occurs.
If your kids have developed language and processing skills, it can be helpful to have an open conversation with them about what their experience was like. This helps the lesson sink in since they’re getting a chance to process what you’re saying and connect it to their own experience.
Repair the relationship (if you lost your cool)
It just happens sometimes: we react before we even realize it; saying or doing something out of anger/fear that hurts the relationship with our kid. Our kids will do it too. We are all human, after all. Once you’ve both settled down and talked through the lesson, take time to be open and honest about losing your cool. Let them know that you’re both human and that sometimes it happens. Remind them that you love them and assure them they’re not bad. When you take time to do this, it teaches them the importance of honesty and empathy while building trust and security in your relationship.
There is no manual for perfect parenting; we’re going to make mistakes. Our kids will make mistakes too. It’s a part of being human. And really, what is parenting but being human while teaching little humans how to be human too.
Sometimes parenting can be exceptionally challenging and we need a helping hand. If you’re currently struggling and need additional support, reach out for a consultation by calling (832) 639-4043, emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by clicking the “Let’s talk” button below.