Updated: Mar 27, 2020
Hi Justin. My kids often yell throughout the day, even at night. This always sends me into flight. I get major anxiety every time, and when he does it repeatedly I get angry. How do I deal with my state?
Hi there. First thing, and I'm sad I have to say this, but I do - thanks for being a parent that doesn't hit their child.
That being said, as parents, we do have to do something about our state when it comes to interacting with our kiddos. If you are chronically not in a safe/social state, I'd recommend doing some physical activities with the family when there isn't a crisis going on.
In all honesty, there's many different things we can do, there's no one answer. So instead, here's a breakdown of what I do. These are mostly top-down approaches.
be aware of the state I am in (top down)
stop what I am doing (top down choice)
take at least one deep breath (bottom up)
remember my parental values (top down)
attempt to understand the state of my kids (top down)
provide cues of safety to them
solve the problem with them (top down)
1. BE AWARE OF YOUR STATE
Day to day, I am constantly checking in with myself and my breathing. It's become a habit at this point. I often do random checks of different spots of my body (why is the area behind my ears tense so often?!). I know my body cues well enough to catch it before it turns into a behavior I'll end up regretting. Meaning, when my frustration level goes up, I notice it and immediately do something different, otherwise I turn to yelling.
So if your child wakes up in the middle of the night, screaming, how do you feel? Like running? Are there thoughts of danger flitting through your mind? If your teen has attitude, what does your body do? Is there a spike of acid in your belly? Does your jaw clench?
Doing the daily check-ins, whether random or not, gives you the awareness of your body. And with awareness, being able to name and describe your body sensations or thoughts, will increase your control over what choices you make in response.
2. STOP WHAT YOU'RE DOING
Seriously, just stop what you're doing. If this is a brand new idea to you and you easily go into a rage or want to take off, that probably seems like a dumb recommendation and completely undoable. And I get that. It's still a challenge for me if I'm not at my most safe/social state. Giving in to your frustration is easier and honestly feels way better than attempting to calmly deal with a screaming kid. But it causes more harm in the short and long term.
I've simply accepted that stopping what I am doing allows me the opportunity to get to the next step. It's like a transitional moment for me, not a solution to the problem. But before that, my singular goal in this step is to not make the situation worse. If my kids is angry and I join them, the situation itself will probably get worse. And in the longer run, I am damaging my relationship with my family. And that doesn't work for me.
If your kids is screaming in the middle of the night, don't make it worse. That's a kid who's terrified and has dropped into their own sympathetic arousal. Cues of safety are going to be more effective and have a longer positive impact on the child, including their ability to tolerate their state the next time. Don't make it worse this time by acting on your impulses to be more aggressive. You have an opportunity to build now for the next time.
3. DEEP BREATHS
I know, this one sounds like an idiotic recommendation and seems totally impractical. But it's effective for grounding yourself. I take as many as I need, being still and going a bit more inward. And my kids will notice this, which gives them pause. Usually one nice deep breath with a long exhale is enough for me to focus on the next step. If you need more, do it.
This is a good time to think of a memory that brings you some safety. I recommend thinking of a time you held that child as a baby, or the first time they held your thumb or their first game. Just something to remind yourself of how much you love them. Because you do, even if you don't feel it in the moment.
Of course, you should be practicing deep breaths throughout the day. I don't do meditation or yoga, it's not really my thing. But consciously controlling my breathing every now and then builds my ability to go to a better space pretty quickly.
4. REMEMBER YOUR PARENTAL VALUES
In these moments of intense anger or frustration, I find it helpful to remind myself of my values as a parent. I absolutely will never hit my children. That's an easy one though, and frankly, I have no desire to hit them. If that's something you need to prioritize, please do so immediately. Please.
Here's a few others:
I parent from a place of love, first and foremost
I need to be a safe person, providing safe cues
I will be a safe person for them, knowing I am a model for future ones
These are typically enough for me to get to the next step. No, it's not this super easy at first. Yes, it gets way easier with practice. There's been times where I've had sort of an internal debate on how to handle a situation, knowing the safe/social route is the right way to go, but also knowing that giving into the flight/fight energy might get me a faster result. Typically, this internal dialogue ends with the safe/social system telling the flight/fight system,"Tough s**t." Ultimately, if I want my kids to be in their own safe/social states, I need to have access to my own.
5. UNDERSTAND THE STATE OF YOUR CHILD
The other benefit of being aware of your state is using it as a cue to inform your decision-making. If you feel panic when your kids screams, that's a clue as to where your child is at. They are likely going through something similar and you're now feeling that.
Imagine you're at a mall and you hear a baby scream. What happens? Your internal alarms go off, right? Those alarms are there for a reason. Respect them, listen to them, then act. They come from a place of love for your kids. When you slow down, you can be more aware of that fact, then choose how to act.
6. PROVIDE SAFETY CUES BEFORE PROBLEM SOLVING
This means provide safety cues directly to them, like being with them, holding them, singing, smiling, using prosody or getting up and moving with them. For teens, it's going to be a lot of facial stuff, like eye contact, being curious and caring. For the kiddo that's awake in the middle of the night, screaming, they may need a prosodic voice and to be held and rocked.
I don't exactly have a cookie cutter approach to this, and every child is different, obviously. For my son (4), when I stick my arms out in an offer to hold him, he usually melts and comes to me, even when he's down the ladder a chunk. For my daughter (9), it's listening and giving her some time, then checking in with her and giving some love and positivity after she's self-regulated.
7. SOLVE THE PROBLEM WITH THEM
Once you've gained control of yourself, have more of an understanding of where your child is at and you're focused on providing safety cues, now you can attempt to solve the problem.
Why is the kid screaming in the middle of the night? Obviously they don't feel safe. And that can be a ton of different things. But once they're in their safe/social state enough, now is the time to process what's going on. It might sound like this - "Hey, I saw tears coming out of your eyes and I heard you screaming, but now you're breathing better. That was really scary, huh? What's going on?"
After they give you an answer, do some problem-solving with them. Do the actual solution together, like closing the closet door for a toddler who's scared. For a teen, it might be planning out a homework schedule. Working with them will help build their capacity to stay in or return to a safe/social state the next time. In the long-run, this is building self-regulation.
The bigger issue here is that we can't wait until the moment of crisis to worry about our self-regulation. This needs to be done much more often. If we wait for a moment of screaming to happen, then ask "What do I do!??!," it's going to be more difficult to implement these solutions. So practice this stuff well ahead of time and it won't be as overwhelming when the real deal happens. Trust me, I've been there and have (mostly) come out the other end.
If you want to learn more, I highly recommend reading (links to Amazon where I got a portion of the sale at no extra cost to you) "Trauma-Proofing Your Kids" by Peter Levine, the miracle trauma healer behind Somatic Experiencing.