Emotional Emergency—What’s a Parent To Do?

We can improve our parenting lives by anticipating emotional emergencies, and experimenting with strategies that can help us to avoid the worst—to divert us before we yell, hit, grab, blame, or shame. Long range, we parents need to set up good emotional support for ourselves, so our well of patience doesn’t run dry so often. It’s a hard job. It’s smart to build support. But even with good support, all parents face moments when our own behavior gets out of hand.

Want something new to try when your children are off track and you’re so exasperated you don’t know what to do?

We all hit these moments! Parenting is emotional work! Our children get into upsetting behavior snarls that build into truly impossible moments. These moments aren’t our fault. They happen.

On an assembly line, workers all are trained in what to do when the machinery snarls and the line suddenly stops. When a car runs out of gas on a bridge or in a tunnel, an emergency crew arrives quickly. If an elevator stops between floors with you in it, there’s a button to push that brings you help. Emergencies are foreseen, and help has been built in.

We can improve our parenting lives by anticipating emotional emergencies, and experimenting with strategies that can help us to avoid the worst—to divert us before we yell, hit, grab, blame, or shame. Long range, we parents need to set up good emotional support for ourselves, so our well of patience doesn’t run dry so often. It’s a hard job. It’s smart to build support. But even with good support, all parents face moments when our own behavior gets out of hand.

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The first step to handling emotional emergencies is to acknowledge that, between now and when your children reach their 20’s, you will be pushed to the end of your patience at least one more time. You can hope for the patience of a saint, but practically speaking, even a saint would not parent through 20 years in your family, in mine, or in anyone’s, without losing it. I am pretty sure of this. So emergency measures are in order.

Second, remember that you have permission to experiment. Trying things out is how we learn! This may not be the strategy for you, but it may be worth a try, just to see. You don’t have to look good. It doesn’t have to work well the first time you try it. But you’ll learn something, I would bet. And if it’s not the strategy for you, you can try one of our other ideas here.

Lie down

As soon as you notice you’re gonzo. Right there, on the spot, wherever that spot happens to be. You’d have to possess an unusual amount of courage to do this in the grocery store, but at home, lie down.

Lying down is a sign to your children that you’ve dropped your agenda. However wild the situation, you aren’t trying to control anything right now. You haven’t gone away, but you’re short-circuting the usual pattern of what happens—you’ve pulled the plug on yelling, on figuring out who is wrong, on the whole rigamarole that tends to happen when you are at the end of your rope.

Lie there. Notice how you are. Allow yourself to laugh, or cry, or growl, or kick the floor, or think dark thoughts like, “I may not survive this parenting gig!” No complaining or talking out loud, though—focus on noticing how you feel when you can’t force things to be better. Doing has not worked. Not Doing is in order.

As long as your children aren’t in major danger, it’s fine to Not Do. If one is in the high chair, screaming, you might get up and release her to the floor. If one is in the bathtub, wrap him in a towel and pull the plug. Secure all hatches, then lie down again.

What often happens is that by Not Doing, you can feel, and when you feel, sometimes you can release the unbearable tension by crying or laughing or even trembling. It might help you to call to mind someone who loves you, or to picture the person you wish were there to help. Your first priority is to do no harm; it is a big bonus to have a few moments to release some feelings, so you can heal a bit right there.

Even if the pent-up upset won’t spill out, 5 or 10 minutes of Not Doing on the floor may help you to connect with yourself. And your children will find a way to connect with you. They’ll eventually come over to see what’s up. They want connection. When you’re not active, their prospects for connecting are better, and they will sense that. Repair and relief can be cobbled together, without any agenda, from their side and from yours. We parents do want to be “in there” with our children, and Not Doing can open doors that were jammed shut by upset and frantic effort.

One day, a Parenting by Connection mom I know tried this in her kitchen. She was fed up with her 11-year-old son’s behavior. He had been off track for several days, and had defied her all afternoon. She could feel the harshness inside her mounting.  She made herself lie down on the linoleum floor. She managed to squeeze out a few tears of frustration, and after about four minutes, that same son came in, saw her, and sat on her tummy. He said, “Mom, I’m not going to let you up. You have to stay here. You’ve been too busy!” with a big, warm smile on his face—an entirely different expression than she’d seen in days. He put his hands around her wrists, pinning her gently. She is a mom who is ultra-aware of what everyone around her needs, ultra-responsible, and pretty darned busy. She began to laugh.

He sat there and grinned at her, and she lay there laughing at this odd turn of events. The idea that her son would keep her there, the idea that he would force her to Not Do, the idea that he was loving her while she was Not Doing, struck her as extremely funny. She asked every now and then, “Can I get up yet?” and he said, “No” again and again. She could feel her own discomfort with Not Doing, and her laughter kept rolling.

Eventually, he agreed that she could get up, and they resumed their daily activities. Were they better connected? Yes. Were things better between them? I’ll say! Had he managed to actually help his mom in the process? Yes, both of them gained.

No one can guarantee that your experiment with this strategy will be a “Wow!” experience. But whatever happens, you will have short-circuited the troubled moments you are hoping to avoid. Something fresh will happen. You’ll be a learner. And you will be able to pat yourself on the back for your willingness to experiment, and your determination to figure out  a 4-Alarm strategy for yourself and your children.

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