Not to toot my own horn, but one of the skills I have mastered (and I use that word loosely) in my career is the ability to remain calm in a time of stress.
When your child, (partner, mother in law, etc.), gets heated the way you respond matters (duh, right?). If your child screams at you and you scream back--"STOP SCREAMING" you're sending the wrong message.
Keeping your emotional responses in check is not always easy!
One of the first things I remember hearing after I had my daughter was “you’re such a calm parent”; I thought it was hilarious considering I am a pretty Type A, overly-anxious and often all-over-the-place human being.
On the other hand, I have a few more tricks up my sleeve than your average parent (this is quite literally my day job), which I am not above letting you in on, but believe me when I tell you I still find myself having moments of “OH LORD HELP ME”...
Crying seems to be a common trigger that makes even the most zen-mama, or chill-papa, go a tad bat sh** crazy.
So how do I keep my cool?! Let me explain.
As someone who analyzes behaviour for a living, I know that communication is a habit established young. Crying (no matter how cringe-worthy) is a form of communication. When I hear those delightfully high pitched noises, I think—what are you trying to say and how can I teach you to say it another way? This may sound obvious, but I can’t tell you how much stress it has saved me.
This perspective has stopped me from developing stress responses we all know (and hate) like...
...becoming flush, ...starting to sweat, ...trying desperately the stop the crying, ...becoming increasingly anxious the longer it goes on ...eventually resorting to any means necessary (bribery?!), conceding or otherwise reinforcing the behaviour.
So, what causes this kind of reaction from parents? What causes us to become consumed with fixing it? It’s our natural instinct! And it’s not an accident.
Babies develop the behaviour of crying to communicate; it's a primitive (and important) behaviour. If your baby cries, you pick him or her up; if your newborn wails, you figure out what is wrong! It's OK for a baby to cry--that's what they do!
But here’s the thing you have to realize if you want to be a zen-mama or papa, at a certain point we forget that our kids will cling to these primal ways of communicating (crying) and fail to develop more sophisticated habits if we don’t help guide them (and this will slowly contribute to us going mad and losing our chill-factor). Likewise, kids are super perceptive and if you respond to escalation emotionally, so will they. We teach them how to communicate with us!
If your newborn cries---go with your natural instinct to fix it. It's appropriate at that developmental level. But unless you want to lose your chill-factor, remember your baby is communicating! Say it aloud—MY BABY IS COMMUNICATING! Remembering this is essential to calm parenting. The guilt we feel when we think we may have caused sadness in a newborn (OMG that face they make; you're pretty sure it was inherited from grumpy old man in your family you never knew existed), is enough to stress out even the calmest of calm.
As adults, we interpret crying as sadness. It's not exactly as black and white as that when it comes to raising kids. Crying can be protest, it can be anger, it can be confusion, it can be hunger, thirst or response to the natural elements (cold, hot, etc.). Crying can be a way to get attention, or a way to respond to what’s going on around them (sounds, sights, smells).
As your child grows so does your parenting style and if you want to keep your calm-parenting approach, you'll have to get comfortable with a new kind of crying (i.e. one that serves the same communicative purpose as when they are a newborn, but needs to be shaped into more functional communication habits).
“Put on your socks please”
“Ok kid, listen—I realize you don’t want socks right now, and I empathize with that, but you can’t possibly be stricken with grief over it—I’m not feeding you to lions."
Depending on the age of your child, and their ability to regulate impulse control, this kind of response pattern may last well beyond toddler-hood; but, if you respond consistently, without losing your cool, I promise you will drastically decrease this stage of development. No guarantees that it won't resurface during the teenage years. (My mom calls that stage of development "payback").
If my daughter wants cookies for dinner and I say “sure, but first eat your broccoli” only to be met with a full blown meltdown I can calmly walk away knowing my daughter isn’t “sad” (as in, how I feel when someone close to me passes away, or how I feel when I miss the Bachelor...kidding...kind of).
So what does her crying tell me?! (And how does that help me rationalize staying calm and not reacting emotionally and giving her a whole bag of cookies?).
Her crying says: I'm pissed.
My emotional side empathizes with her but my rational side understands the purpose of her communication and realizes that by limiting my affect I can keep my cool, while also taking proactive steps to teach her the kind of communication I respond to, and the kind I don't respond to.
This is a learning moment for her and I am not suggesting we ignore her (as in, "I don't respond to crying so I don't respond to you"). You do, however, ignore the crying (as in, you don't get worked up, you don't respond with anger, your own sadness, or demonstrate that this coping mechanism will work for her to achieve her desired outcome) and communicate with her by modeling the delivery you want her to have (calm!), acknowledging her emotional response, and clearly stating your expectation .
It’s not a power struggle where I flex my muscles because “I am the boss and you are not” (I am not an overly authoritarian parent); it's an opportunity to learn that crying won’t get you a cookie. If instead of crying she said “2 more bites of broccoli then cookie?” I might actually concede and negotiate the expectation—why? Because she communicated her intention, calmly, rather than losing her flipping mind; it’s SO not about the broccoli here—are you seeing what I mean?!
All the while I am calm and unaffected by her meltdown (at least on the outside); easier said than done I know, but here's the thing... if I "match her level" with anxiety, anger or frustration it will only further the problem. Just sip your wine, take a long and deep breathe and say NAMASTE zen-mama (or chill papa)!
If I stay calm, I show her how I want her to act. If I lose it--I show her how I want her to act.
The bottom line is, the calmer you stay the more grounded you remain; the more able you are to act quickly, and keep your wits about you! The more you look like a calm parent, the more you start to feel like one. You’ll notice your face doesn’t flush as often, your temper doesn’t rise, you don’t feel like you’re boiling over…as much. You’ll still have your moments, we all do, but if you remember that crying (no matter the age of your child) is a form of communication you’re on the right track and the rest...is pretty much a crap shoot even for the most experienced (THAT'S the truth!!).
And then, someone will say to you..."you're such a calm parent" and you'll laugh. And laugh. And maybe agree a little!