They say you teach what you most need to learn. I couldn’t agree more.

I have immersed myself in child development, psychology, emotional competence, healing trauma, family therapy (my own), early childhood education, and social work for the past 20 years. There are many things I teach, but none as important as this: self-regulation.

Self-regulation is what happens when you catch yourself headed into your “downstairs” brain (as Siegel and Bryson call it in The Whole Brain Child), and keep your thinking cap on. It means you’re able to weather a difficult situation that is rife with emotion and still maintain your equilibrium. It’s feeling an emotion fully, without it sweeping you off your feet (so to speak).

Also, if you do lose it (your thinking cap, control of yourself, your equilibrium), you’re able to get it back more quickly, and recover without beating yourself up or heading down a road paved with guilt and shame. This is AWESOME modeling, and honestly, all it takes is dedication and practice. (Though it certainly is one of this “simple but not easy” tasks.)

Josh all smilesI like to think of it as three separate steps. Again, very simple, but pulling it off takes mindfulness and commitment.

1. NOTICE when you are getting upset. Nervous. Mad. Frustrated. Annoyed. Whatever it is. Notice it right away. Once that first tiny blush of irritation moves through your system, you have moved into a different brain state.  It’s a chemically-based disruption over which you have no actual control–it’s hormonal and neurological. Just note that it has happened and that the experience is in your body and therefore yours. 

2. OBSERVE whether the origin of the emotional rush is old or new (I always think of that episode of Friends where Monica gets a voicemail from an ex and she is yelling, “Old or new? Is this message old or new??”).  Often, it is a combo of both–the “what is happening” in the moment, triggers the “what happened in the past.” The current situation, mixes with all the old emotional content, and it stews together like a smelly soup. Then watch for the story.

3. CHANGE the story. I find I can best HEAR the story if I listen closely to what makes me even more mad (or annoyed or whatever) than I already am. It’ll go like this: My son has a meltdown at bedtime because he wants a snack and snacktime is over. I, naturally, get irritated. Then a story flies into my head. It’s not usually a verbal story, so you have to really pay attention. Even if it’s not cohesive with a beginning, middle, and end, it is a story, and in my case it would sound like this:

“This is TOTAL B.S.! I should NOT have to put up with this. I already offered him a snack. Why does my kid suck so much? I am the WORST at bedtime. Why won’t he just go to sleep and give me peace? Why!? WHY!!??”

Yeah, it’s like that. Sound familiar? If bedtime is breezy for you, insert whatever problem area you typically encounter: getting out the door in the morning, preschool drop-off, negotiating outfits, meals, dentist visits, whatever. Everyone has something that really pushes their buttons.

A couple tips for shifting your stories: first, start with, “This isn’t personal.” Because it really actually isn’t. If I catch myself (that’s why OBSERVING and watching for the story comes first), I can change-up the “Why me?” story I almost ALWAYS have going, into something more empowering, more kind, more sane:

“Ahhhh, I really wish this kid was a better sleeper. But, alas, this is my child and I can’t change the fact that he fights sleep. Let’s take a deep breath here. Maybe he just…needs to cry…had a rough day at school…is extra hungry because he’s having a growth spurt.”

Really, anything is better than the victimized, powerless story I told myself the first time. Right? So maybe yours sounds like one of these:

Instead of, “How dare she not eat what I slaved over all day!” try “Kids have picky palates for an evolutionary reason.”

Instead of, “Why won’t he just put these clothes on, for Pete’s sake?” try “He is so confident in his desires! He really knows what he loves to wear.”

Instead of, “This child is the most clingy one in the bunch–why so much whining!” try “Let me see if I can fill his emotional cup with love and attention.”

This is it: Notice the upset, Observe your reactions, and Change the story. Simple but not easy! Give it a try and let me know how it goes.