Proactive Parenting: Preventing Meltdowns, Managing Emotions
One parenting tactic that has worked for me with my children is proactive, preventative measures. What are these? In short, it's heading off conflicts and meltdowns before they occur. It involves paying attention to my children's moods and energy levels so I can intervene before we get to the point of no return.
Why it matters: Children are still learning how to regulate their moods and emotions. One of our jobs as parents is to help them learn. One tool we can share is how to use proactive, preventative measures to head off problems before they arise, thus helping everyone stay happier, better regulated, and more able to do the things they want to do. That is—anything we can do as parents to help our children learn these skills will help both us (and our stress levels) and them (and their stress levels).
An example of not being proactive
A friend of mine shared a struggle she had with her six-year-old daughter. They were at a grocery store. The daughter wanted to be in the cart. The cart was full. Mom told daughter to walk. Conflict ensued. Big, angry conflict, full of feelings and threats, loud voices, heightened emotions.
When you have this kind of conflict, it's never about the proximal events. Being in or out of the cart, walking or not, is not the issue at hand. That was just the last straw. The trigger. We all have those—a day full of small annoyances and stressors adds up until BOOM we explode at someone over some little thing that we ought to be able to brush off. And they wonder what our big deal is, and we get angrier about it, and all of a sudden you have a big conflict over "nothing."
You can see this easily when you hear the rest of the context. As it turns out, my friend had taken her kids to the grocery store on a whim, after a sports class, before dinner, late in the day—a busy day, too. It was a spur of the moment thing. It was a hectic store, lots of those after-work before-dinner shoppers.
Aha. These bits of context are clues. How do you think you might feel after a busy day, ending with an intensive workout class, if you were then dragged along to a loud, hectic store when you're tired and hungry? I'd be grumpy. I'd be feeling done with being busy for the day. I'd want to head home. I wouldn't throw a tantrum, but only because I'm an adult, and I'm better at inhibiting that kind of expression of negative emotions.
No wonder my friend's daughter blew up. The situation was setting her up for disaster.
How to be proactive: Emotion regulation is key
Many people assume emotion regulation is an internal process. Count to ten, take deep breaths, etc. But regulating your emotions—managing your emotions—isn't only about you and what's in your head. It's also about your environment, the context, the situation, the external stimuli.
You can manipulate the external stuff to manipulate your emotions. You can change the physical location, the amount of stimulation, the kind of stimulation. You can help set yourself—or your child—up for success, or for failure, by paying attention to and changing your environment.
- You're feeling low energy, but need to get a bunch of cleaning done, so you put on energizing music to help up-regulate your mood.
- You're tired at a party and overstimulated, so you find a quieter corner to chat with just one or two people—or you leave early.
- You're feeling anxious, so you go outside for a walk in the sunshine.
- You have a lot of errands to run, so you start early, and make sure to bring a snack to eat between stores.
A while back, I wrote about the importance of outdoor time, because for my family, the change of environment and stimulation can make a huge difference in our days.
Helping your children regulate their emotions
The story above about my friend's daughter illustrates how the context and environment impact emotions.
You can help your children regulate their emotions by manipulating their environment and context, and teaching them to do the same. By paying close attention, you can learn to recognize when your children are getting overstimulated, overtired, or overwhelmed. You can help them make environmental or situational changes so they don't blow up. You can have a sense, in advance, of whether going to a store after sports practice is a good idea—or not—based on your general knowledge of when your child is high or low energy, when they're able to deal with chaos and waiting and crowds, or when they're in need of quiet time.
It isn't easy. Even as adults, it can be difficult to be self-aware enough to know when we need a change of context, whether we need more, or less, stimulation. It's worth it, though.
This idea of selectively choosing activities based on children's energy levels and the kinds of days they're having (high energy, busy days versus quieter, calmer days) comes up in Kim John Payne's book Simplicity Parenting, which my book club read recently (read my review!). Payne writes extensively about ways to simplify your children's lives, take rest and recovery time, and help your children regulate their energy and emotions.
Personally, I'm highly selective about when I take my children to stores, or to other activities, since they're all 7 and under. The main things: if they're tired or hungry or both, it's probably not going to go well. That usually means it can't be too late, since by late afternoon or evening, they've often been busy all day and are tired. But if we've had a quiet day, and everyone is well-fed, then doing something more active later in the day can be just fine.
It's a matter of knowing your kids. Then, you can proactively make your collective days calmer and less stressful.