Do you ever feel like you’re in a constant state of war? Or like you are under constant threat of attack? Like at any moment you might be ambushed by the little people in your life and left dazed and confused in the wake of their attack.
If so, you might find yourself feeling stressed.
But what is stress?
Why does it matter so much in your relationship with your self and your children?
And how can you learn to master it, so that it does not become a master over you?
We hear about stress all the time, but what is it really?
Stress is the name we give to a set of biological, cognitive and emotional reactions we experience when we sense threat from our surroundings. When you’re heart races, when your thoughts are occupied with items on your to-do list or when you feel overwhelmed or anxious, we call this stress. Stress is really an automatic reaction to perceived threat.
When we interpret stimuli from our environment as threatening, we react automatically to them as a mechanism of survival. Sometimes this automatic response is helpful, even life saving, but sometimes it can be hurtful.
At times the threat we experience from our environment is real, like when there’s a wild dog running around my neighbourhood (true story) or when my kid falls and gets seriously hurt, in which case there is no time to stop and think. It’s reasonable to say that in these situations it can be a matter of life and death.
However, there are times when our interpretations of our surroundings are not a true reflection of reality, but rather coloured by habitual thinking patterns and expectations, in which case our reactions are unwarranted and can often be hurtful.
For example, when a child disobeys or disrespects their parent, it can be a powerful trigger. For many parents that I work with, they tell me that what really sets them off is when their kids say “no” or talk back. They are justified in their internal reaction to their kids’ disrespect. Being ignored is infuriating. So much so, that without even thinking about it, you react to your kids’ behaviour with authority and often impulsive punishments. And then, when the dust settles, you ask yourself, “What just happened?”.
So let me tell you what happened.
We all operate on auto-pilot. We go about our days in a state of automatic. Meaning, you don’t put much conscious thought into what you do. For example, you don’t have to walk yourself through getting your car started and pulling out of the driveway like when you first learned how to drive and had to talk yourself through every move. You just hop into your car, fasten your seat belt, turn on the ignition and you’re on your way. And it’s not just how you drive your car, it’s almost everything you do. But most importantly, it’s how you interact with others, particularly your kids.
Without realising it, your brain receives information from the external world, calibrates it with your internal your kids behaviour, applie
. If we are not mindful of our automatic assessment tools, like our habitual thinking patterns and expectations, we will inevitably experience the same stress response to our children’s undesirable behaviour as we would to a criminal vandalising our property. Now imagine that!
It may seem absurd, but it’s understandable why many of us react to our children’s behaviour (and other non-life threatening events) with the same emotional and physiological response that we would have to an actual threat. From early experiences, including events and relationships, we establish methods of understanding ourselves, others and the world around us. These habitual thinking patterns and expectations are mostly unconscious, which means that we maintain automatic stress responses to events and interactions that in and of themselves are not life threatening, but that we nonetheless experience as such. It’s no wonder that we find ourselves reacting to our children with automatic stress responses such as snapping at our children (fight), avoiding confrontation (flight) or disconnecting from ourselves and our loved ones completely (freeze) without conscious intention (automatically). Fortunately, though these responses have become automatic, we are nevertheless able to recognise that these reactions are unhelpful and ineffective and change our reactive responses to interactive.
(1) The first step of course is to acknowledge your unhelpful or hurtful behaviours. You can do this by listing the common incidences that tend to trigger your stress reactions. This might be getting out of the house to school in the morning or getting the kids into bed and asleep at night. But be specific. Is it actually leaving the house, or is it having your children put there shoes on. The more specifc you can be, the better.
(2) Next, look at your list and ask yourself, what do I do in these situations when I feel stressed? How do I react? Here you want to emphasize your behaviours.
(3) Then, you can then ask yourself What is going through my head before, during and after I act? Ask yourself if thsese thoughts are helpful or if they are even true, if they reflect reality. Are your kids really rotten animal? Here you might recognise some habitual thinking patterns, or mind traps that you fall into that fuel your (mis)interpretation of reality and your unhelpful or hurtful reactions.
(4) Once you can identify the habitial thinking patterns and expectation that colour your interpretation of your interactions with your children, you can start to try to notice them before you react. At first, you will likely only recgonize their presence after you react, but give it some time, and I assure you that, with practice and self awareness, you will begin to recognize their presence during and even before you respond to your children.
By looking in to yourself and increasing your self understanding, you will activate your brains ability to be more reflective rather than reactive to your children’s behaviour. Now, imagine what that might look like!
As you increase your awareness of your habitual thinking patterns, you’ll begin to be able to recognise them before your act on them.