Holidays can be wonderful, and it’s also true that celebrating a holiday means changes in routine and more unstructured downtime for children and parents. For many families, holiday breaks are accompanied by moments of heightened emotion, ranging from elevated joy and excitement to increased frustration or disappointment. Holiday breaks may involve managing difficult conversations with extended family members, having your parenting scrutinized or criticized by visiting relatives, increased arguments between siblings, or more intense and/or frequent meltdowns as children struggle to manage all of the different dynamics and expectations.
Parents can manage stressful moments with a few different types of coping tools:
First, there are strategies for helping your body to be calm. When faced with a challenging parent moment, a straightforward and effective strategy is to pause and take a couple of slow, deep breaths. Try to slow the pace of your breathing for a beat or two, perhaps putting a hand on your heart while you do so, possibly counting as you breathe (“in…2…3, out…2…3…4”). It might help to hold in mind a goal of creating space, even for just a moment or two, between the stressful trigger and your reaction. Remind yourself
‘I need to re-set. I’m going to take a breath before I react.’
‘Wait…pause first…then talk.’
‘Ugh, this is a tough moment. I’m going to take a couple of slow breaths then re-evaluate.’
‘My goal is to keep things even. I’m going to take 3 deep breaths and picture the ocean on a clear, calm day.’
If your muscles are tight and your body is holding a lot of tension, consider pairing breathing with simple, repetitive physical movements, such as squeezing and releasing your hands, gently patting your chest, or tapping the sides of your arms or thighs. Gentle, repetitive movement may have a soothing effect and help you maintain a calm, centered presence when your child is in the midst of a big emotional reaction or when a relative has made a comment that causes distress. One of the benefits of these strategies is that they are totally portable - you can use them anywhere in almost any situation.
Remember, a moment to yourself can be very useful. Step into another room, or, if your children cannot safely be left alone, either close your eyes for a second or take a step back so you are slightly physically removed from the situation. If you are going to leave the room, communicate with your children so they know what’s happening and reassure them that you are not abandoning them. Rather, you are doing something healthy for yourself (role modeling):
“My brain and my body need space for a moment. I love you and I’ll be right back.”
“I’m closing my eyes and taking 3 deep breaths so I can settle my brain and my body.”
“I’m going to take space for about 2 minutes. You’re not in trouble and I love you very much.”
“I’m taking a time out in the bathroom. I’ll be out in 1 minute. My body needs to take some slow breaths in a quiet place. I love you.”
Another set of tools to have in your coping toolbox are cognitive strategies, which address the way that you are thinking about a tough situation. One example is to think of a phrase or two to coach yourself through tricky moments, such as:
‘This is a tough parenting moment - I’m going to do my best.’
‘My child is having a hard time. This doesn’t feel good, but I need to remember that it’s not an emergency.’
‘Things feel hard right now but that feeling won’t last forever. We’ll get through this.’
‘I knew ___ [my relative] was likely to criticize my parenting. It’s ok if they disagree with me. I’m making the best parenting decisions I can.’
‘This feels like a lot but I’m not alone. I can tell ___ [my partner, a family member, a good friend] about it later."
A final strategy is to write an encouraging word or phrase on an index card and keep the card in your pocket. For example, you could write, ‘Deep breaths,’ ‘This moment will pass,’ or ‘Pause first, then react.’ When emotions are elevated at home, simply feeling the index card in your pocket can remind you of the bigger picture and your intention to face difficult moments with a calm demeanor.
So what can you do in the 'in-between' to help you increase your own resilience. If you find that you are losing your patience and your emotions are becoming elevated more often than you would like, try to carve out some time to analyze whether you notice any patterns in these difficult moments. For example:
Do you find it more challenging to maintain a calm demeanor when you are hungry or thirsty (most of us do)? If so, can you plan ahead to have snack or drink some water before a particularly challenging time of day so that you feel more fortified to manage the chaos?
Do certain words or behaviors from your children tend to trigger a big reaction? For example, perhaps you lose it when your child says, “Shut up,” to their sibling or tells you, “You are the worst parent ever.” If this is that case, it can be so helpful to talk with a caring friend, family member, or therapist to help re-frame your child’s words as the expression of their frustration or disappointment rather than a critique of your parenting.
When your child is dysregulated or family dynamics are challenging, do you tend to engage in negative self-talk, such as saying to yourself, “I’m a terrible parent,” or “I know I’m messing up my kids”? If so, spend some time thinking about what you would say to a friend who was experiencing a tough parenting moment. Set an intention of treating yourself as kindly as you would treat a friend who is having a hard time.
Almost all parents have a moment when they lose their composure. If you find yourself in this situation, keep in mind that part of being human is making mistakes. Once everyone has had time to calm down and re-set, you have an opportunity to model apologizing and making amends. You can talk with your child about the fact that everyone makes mistakes sometimes. Explain that, just like your child, you are working on developing new skills, and you’ll try to do better next time.
Wanna chat further or have any questions? Reach out to Dr. Kramer at firstname.lastname@example.org