3 Things You Can Do to Stay Calm When Your Child Isn't

Just when you’re past the sleepless nights, the crazy, twisting road of nursing, and figuring out the ins and outs of solid foods, you start to think you’ve got this whole parenting thing down. Your kid, on the other hand, has very different ideas.

Yes, it’s that time in life when our children discover hints of autonomy while still being largely dependent on us. Toddlerhood. It’s a time of push and pull.

It’s a time of meltdowns — for children and parents alike, it seems. Children with Sensory Processing Disorder have an additional layer of challenges on top of this already precarious stage of development that can make parenting feel like, well, a nightmare.

Thinking about making a transition in your family’s daily life? Good luck with that. Frequent, intense, massive meltdowns with difficulty self-soothing coming your way!

My son is sensory over-responsive and has a very difficult time with transitions. When he has to stop playing to have his diaper changed, I’m braced for a full meltdown. When it’s time to leave the park…meltdown. When we have to get in the car to go somewhere…meltdown.

Structure, consistency, and routine are what he needs most. So when we moved to another city the summer he turned three years old, we knew it would be tough, but we underestimated the impact.

Our move threw him into a tailspin and brought the rest of us down with him. After two months of parenting hell, and what seemed like my son’s millionth meltdown that day, I texted my husband, H. is ruining my life.

I truly felt that way. And enormous mom guilt set in the moment I hit “Send.” Bring on the self-criticism and judgment.

What is wrong with me?
Why can’t I manage his behavior better?
What am I doing wrong?
I am a horrible parent
.

Misery. Compounded.

This cycle of my son’s dysregulation triggering my dysregulation (going into fight or flight, becoming reactive, irrational, emotional, and self-criticizing), went on for the rest of the summer.

One day I had an epiphany. What if rather than seeing my son’s behavior as a reflection of a deficiency in my parenting skills, I saw it as an opportunity for me to practice my own self-regulation? Staying calm, present, rational, and attuned could be a model for him in how to stay regulated in the midst of sheer chaos.

During his next sensory-related meltdown, I gave myself a pep talk, took a deep breath to calm my nervous system, and remembered this wasn’t about me.

I simply watched what was going on with him and tried to tune into his needs. I was able to quickly assess what was going on, take action, and help him regulate. The meltdown was over in half the usual time.

During the weeks that followed, I felt more empowered, more confident, less agitated, and overall happier. I no longer felt like my son was ruining my life. Texts to my husband were now more along the lines of Having such a great day today. H. has been cracking me up!

The next time you’re in a similar cycle, try these things:

  1. Separate yourself from your child’s behavior.
    Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of times that my son’s behavior is linked to faulty parenting. I haven’t been consistent or I’m not setting enough boundaries. But, when you have a child with sensory issues, there are many times when his behavior is sensory-related. In these instances, say to yourself, This is not about me. There is something powerful about actually saying that. It allows you to take a step back which has an instant calming effect on your nervous system.

  2. Breathe.
    Any time you feel yourself going into hyperarousal — your heart starts beating faster, your muscles tense up, you feel reactive and impulsive — your breath is your most powerful tool. When fight or flight takes over, your prefrontal cortex — the part of your brain that allows you to stay objective —gets hijacked by the part of the brain that’s responsible for our basic drives. When the limbic system takes over, you’re no longer able to think rationally or act deliberately. You’ll either fight (think blaming, yelling, or criticizing) or take flight (think avoiding, ignoring, or dismissing). Or you could entirely freeze, shutting down your emotions. Just breathe starting from your belly and moving up through your ribcage and chest. In through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to make your exhale longer than your inhale. It is instantly calming and will keep you centered.

  3. Be an observer.
    Once you’ve thwarted a fight or flight response, you have the opportunity to be an objective observer rather than a reactive participant. Observe what is going on with your child. Be curious and ask yourself questions. What was going on before the meltdown? Is he tired, hungry, overstimulated, under stimulated? What does he need in this moment? The key is to stay objective and non-judgmental. If you feel yourself slipping into reactive mode, go back to your breath. When you observe your child’s behavior without judgment, you are better able to assess what he needs and effectively intervene.

Staying regulated in the midst of my son’s dysregulation has been one of the greatest parenting challenges for me. I am constantly learning, practicing, and improving. I’ve learned to be kind to myself. And, at the end of the day, I pour myself a nice glass of wine (or two) and congratulate myself for all that I’m doing to be a great mom to my son. Like me, you’re on this journey for a reason, and you’re doing an amazing job.

What are your biggest parenting challenges? What tools have been most helpful for managing your child's challenging behaviors? Leave a comment below, I'd love to hear from you.


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