“I’m so tired.”
“I cannot believe they are doing this again.”
“Why can’t they just eat over their plates? I’m so sick of sweeping under the table…”
“Why don’t they understand that they need their bookbag/coat/boots/shoes/homework every morning?”
“What in the world could they [my children] possibly be unhappy about?”
Do any of these thoughts sound familiar? If so, you are not alone and you are a normal parent, and you have normal children.
This post is not about solving any of these problems or questions, well at least not directly. This post is about managing the thoughts, and therefore, emotions that arise in the course of parenting, and in doing so, you might just find what you thought was a problem is simply not appearing to you as problematic any longer.
In Montessori training there is the concept of the preparation of the teacher, which is undertaking self-study, self-observation (and really, self control) in all aspects of interacting with the children in the classroom. Dr. Montessori believed this preparation was more important than mastery of the academic subjects the teachers were to pass on to the students. I believe this same kind of self-mastery can be applied to the parent-child relationship and life in the home as well. Not only that, I believe it is crucial for our home and family life to thrive.
In The Discovery of the Child, Dr. Montessori said:
“The teacher must fashion herself, she must learn how to observe, how to be calm, patient, and humble, how to restrain her own impulses, and how to carry out her eminently practical tasks with the required delicacy.”
This is a tall order and a true calling. While almost any Montessori teacher will agree – being a teacher to a child in a classroom and being a parent to a child in the home is a completely different undertaking, I don’t see any reason why these principles cannot be applied by parents.
There is a lot of advice out there that talks about self-care, time management, hiring help – and while those things are great and if you have time and resources to support you in your parenting journey, then by all means, employ them. But not every parent has resources. Some parents have multiple children, or multiple challenges. As a mom of three kids close in age who manages a child with a 24/7 chronic illness, I often feel frustrated with advice that tells me to take a break or hire help if I’m feeling worn down. I really just don’t have that option. But I also don’t have the option to allow my circumstances to make me unhappy and bitter – because I am not and I want to be able to choose how I feel and how I parent.
So how do we parent through difficult situations? How can we ensure we do not let negative thoughts overrun our minds?
The first step is to recognize the thoughts will occur. Just accept that we are going to have negative thinking. This is very human. When we accept our negative thoughts we can more easily move on. When we start to feel guilt or shame about them, we actually run the risk of giving those negative thoughts more weight, and perpetuating more negativity about ourselves, which doesn’t help us or our child, or whatever the situation happens to be that is causing us to have negative thoughts.
The next step is to start observing our thoughts and bringing awareness to them.
Observation is key. If we are not observing ourselves while we parent to see what is successful and what is not, we run the risk of just going on autopilot, taking the path of least resistance, which may lead to what life coach Brooke Castillo has termed indulgent emotions (this particular podcast episode is one I have listened to many times, it is such valuable training to learn and internalize). Indulgent emotions have a sort of roller coaster effect, self-perpetuating because we repeat them so often. We are not even aware we are thinking them. She recommends observing your thoughts for a day, and list your top three emotions you experience during a day. I did this and was surprised to notice I often thought, “I’m so tired.” I’d think this whether I was busy or not, whether I was well-slept or not. It had simply become a habit to say that to myself. I decided that was unhelpful and I wanted to change that.
Once we have a good sense of what exactly we are thinking, we can then employ some kind of tool to evaluate and hopefully change the negative thought. You can do this informally by simply checking with yourself throughout the day, asking yourself quick questions.
For example, “How did our morning go? Could I have done something differently in the moment? Is there a change I could make that would help every morning go more smoothly?”
A question I ask myself a lot is, “Is this reasonable?” This is a great catch-all question for my expectations of my child or of myself. For example, when my 7 year old is supposed to be in bed and sees me pass by their room and calls out for “just one more hug!?” I might ask myself, “Is this reasonable?”
My answer might change depending on the day. Maybe yes, she had a hard day and needs those extra hugs. Maybe no, I have had a hard day and I remind her it’s time to be asleep or at least still and quiet in bed.
As you can see, this is not about being scripted and always responding the “right way”, whatever that might be. I believe we have to be flexible in our observations and willing to be patient with our children and with ourselves and creatively discover how to get all our needs met.
Another one of my favorite and quickest tools I have found is to employ neutral thinking. I am a huge fan of neutral thinking where positive thinking is just not realistic. The reason is that it is very difficult to take a negative thought like, “I can’t stand when my child won’t get ready on time. I’m so sick of this.” And turn it into, “I just love how my child takes their time and are their own person. What a lovely experience! I have no problem with this.” Yeah, that’s not happening.
You could, however, turn the thought into, “My child really is acting normally for their age and current situation. I can handle this disruption in our schedule by making some adjustments.” See how the thought is neutralized? You are just acknowledging the situation, you are taking the sting of emotion out of it, and just keeping things on an even keel.
You are moving into a more positive space by saying, “I can handle this.” You don’t have to be puppy dogs and rainbows about everything – that is just putting way too much pressure on yourself. However, you might be surprised how training yourself in neutral thinking makes positive thinking so much easier to access. Since I started my Montessori training and working in a Montessori classroom with master teachers, I have been so inspired by their composure. I have learned little tricks, phrases, and emotion management tools just by observing them. Quite frankly, just seeing that it is possible to stay completely calm no matter what a classroom throws at a teacher, and then seeing the response in the students who also stay calm has been so informative (if not totally miraculous).
Neutral thinking is a crucial step in moving towards positive thinking. When you are doing thought work you have to take small steps toward change, change you can actually believe. You might get to a point where one day you really do embrace every tiny moment along the way, but until then, just work on accepting the moments neutrally.
Another quick tool is an old favorite that everyone knows about, because it really works. Find a mantra, a short phrase you can repeat to yourself that is a catch-all for how you want to be as a parent. For example, “I love my kids.” Or, “I can handle this.” Or, “This too shall pass.” Any short phrase that will trigger a new feeling or a new way of acting positively can really be so helpful.
If you have more time to do some thought work as a parent, you may wish to employ a more thorough method that Brooke Castillo calls “The Model” and has a detailed video about it on her site. She uses an acronym CTFAR to prompt you to walk through the Circumstances, Thoughts, Feelings, Actions, and Results in any situation you want to evaluate, or “model.”
For example, you just start with the facts, then move into the effects of how your thinking causes certain results:
Circumstance: my child is getting ready so slowly we are going to be late for school
Thought: I am so sick of this. I can’t deal with it this morning.
Feeling: frustration, irritation, overwhelm
Action: snapping at my child, dressing my child myself in a hurried way
Result: a child who feels hurried and confused about what they are doing wrong, a parent who is upset and frazzled, starting their day on the wrong foot.
It should be obvious enough that the more we repeat the same thoughts, we will get the same results. And if we keep getting results we don’t like, we need to trace the line back to the thoughts that started the chain of feelings, actions, and results in order to change.
You might be thinking, “No! The child needs to change! The child needs to stop dilly-dallying.”
Well. Maybe. (See how I neutralized that objection? 🙂 ) But if they could, they would have by now. For whatever reason the child is dilly-dallying and while we can find ways to guide the child to be more focused, the only person we have 100% control over is ourselves. This is a really important point I want to explore further another time. But for now just be clear: we do not have control over our children, and the false belief/thought that we do or we should leads to a lot of parenting problems.
So let’s change the thought to something neutral using the same circumstance.
New Thought: This delay is not going to derail the whole day, even if it’s inconvenient. Maybe I can learn something here and adjust our morning routine going forward.
Feeling: in control, optimistic, creative
Action: taking action, teaching my child how to be on task, proactive about how to handle future mornings
Results: even if this morning’s commute is delayed, future mornings will probably run more smoothly
I have been employing these techniques for a while now, and they make such a huge difference in my parenting, relationships, and how I view the problems I encounter as a parent. I hope you find these tips and links to resources as helpful as I have. I would also love to see some more sample models in the comments!