Explosive parent

February 28th 2020 edition
The Explosive Parent…

We’ve all been there…there is NOTHING in the WORLD like our nearest and dearest, spouses, partners and children for taking us right over that red line so that we flip our lids!
And in the moment, there is a catharsis. It feels good for Krakatoa to finally blow. But as the Buddhist proverb says, anger is like grasping a hot coal to strike another. You are the one who is burned.
And the problem is, the trigger for your anger, justified as it often is…the continued use of the floor-drobe, your repeated requests being unheeded, the reliance on your nagging…all these triggers continue to be an issue. Because instead of being able to hold our beloved little ones to account, we divert to the guilt-laden repair for the fear in their eyes at Godzilla-Mummy doing an encore.

And, having used shouting, screaming, tears, threats as the rage rises from the deep in us…the thinking brains or pre-frontal cortexes of our kids have left the building…We’re both on amygdala time – so buckle up for a rough ride!!

They are in fight/flight/freeze mode and won’t be able to THINK about this and bring any resourcefulness or connection with us over it until they are soothed and back to feeling safe…and then the issue is yesterday’s news.

We’ve all got our stories from the trenches of family life – my daughter still remembers me blowing my stack at my better half on holiday in the Lake District 5 years ago. The irony of such a beautiful, peaceful backdrop to a swearing masterclass as I threw ALL my toys out of the pram. 
We can look back and laugh now. What is important about these blow-ups in family life, is that they can be repaired, put into perspective. 
It is important to remember what the great paediatrician, Donald Winnicott said when he defined parenting. He talked of ‘Good enough’ mothering – and that was back in the 60s when parenting was a more gendered affair! And recent research trying to quantify what that means has marked it out as between 70% to 50% of the time. 
A 2019 study by Professor Susan Woodhouse at Lehigh University found that care givers need to ‘get it right’ 50% of the time when responding to the needs of children for attachment to have a positive effect. Either way you look at it. 30-50% gives us quite a bit of lee way to ‘get it wrong’. And whilst I always believe in aiming high where being attuned to children and teens is concerned, too much perfection and shielding from frustration, difficulty, anxiety does lead to brittleness in adulthood. You CAN be too perfect a parent and get in the way of your child’s resiliency and ability to tolerate difficulties and shortcomings, in themselves and others. 
So the science says…give yourself a break! You are human, and you have permission to be overwhelmed – provided your outbursts are not abusive or traumatising. Provided you are getting it right with tuning in, empathy and good self regulation more consistently 50+% of the time…But toxic explosiveness, borne out of running on empty or fuelled by a bank of unmet needs that are screaming for attention – quite literally- isn’t going to be doing you, or your family, any good over time. It’s time to DO something.

A great deal of growth and strength comes from the way families process difficulty by being present to it for each other, listening, tuning in, supporting. Resilient relationships are based on rupture and repair.

So what about when Godzilla is rising from the deep on more of a frequent flyer basis? What then?
With the example I gave at the beginning – quite often the feelings of shame and guilt after an outburst can mean we avoid or soften the trigger issues. We put it behind us and want to move on… our INTER-personal skills are impaired. But also those feelings Of shame and guilt also cloud our ability to listen to what’s going in in ourselves and learn from our inner promptings. We are so keen to push Godzilla back under the waves that we don’t use our INTRA-personal skills.

What do I mean by intra-personal skills? This is our ability to tune into ourselves and look at what’s going on…Here I refer to the training I was lucky enough to experience from Prof Marc Brackett at Yale’s Emotional Intelligence Center, where I learned about Yale’s RULER programme.

Applying this to the parenting scene in our focus today this means…
Recognise – the emotionally volatile state we are in…
Understand it…don’t just suppress it – be curious about the origins / contributory factors.
Label the emotionality accurately. What are the trigger feelings, what is your general emotional back-drop…
Express the feelings appropriately…dig deep to be real and able to own our feelings as they are compassionately and reflectively rather than projectively (where we just blame other people or external factors…)
Regulate – the feelings. The last but most important stage – where we reflect on what it is we want to or need to feel instead – and what we need to do ourselves, and what we need from others in order to access those feelings.

To recognise and understand our emotion state in a more nuanced way, we need to hover over unpleasant feelings – as these are hyperlinks to help us with clues about what exactly is going on within. And this is key to moving forward. The more nuanced we – and our children are- in identifying our emotional states, the more effective we will be in getting our needs met. And we often have our heads in the sand about our difficult and challenging feelings… Yale’s Mood Meter is designed to help this pinpointing of mood, energy, and intensity:

Good relationships are based on good inter-personal reactions. Our interpersonal skills are key here. And A LOT of the relating we do in family life is crammed in around the beginnings and ENDs of the working day. When we are often depleted and less defended. We can easily be guilty of treating our nearest and dearest in ways we wouldn’t dream of treating our least liked colleagues. 
I was reminded of this last night when as a coach, and trainer who often majors on helping others define and discover great listening, I failed to listen to my daughters hurt at being passed over for the parts she had her heart set on in the school play, shut her down, beamed in as ‘Supermum’ (not!) and told her how to feel as I problem solved it for her….
So when you find that you are developing a pattern of showing up in a way that isn’t who you would like to be…you need to tune up your INTRAPERSONAL skills – work out what it is you need. How you show up inter-personally absolutely relies on you doing the work within. 
Dial up self care, to resource yourself up. What’s going on? What’s making the stress response such a ready go-to? Analysis without action will simply increase rumination and anxiety. Action binds and reduces anxiety…

Think about your needs with these coaching questions:

  1. Am I getting enough sleep – and is the quality of my sleep good enough?
  2. Am I getting enough exercise? How can I dial up physical wellbeing and provide a release for the psychological tension that so often is held within my body?
  3. Is what I am eating and drinking of the right balance? Growing evidence points to  mood, behaviour and the health of our gut being closely interlinked. Helen Thomson’s article in this week’s New Scientist talks off how ‘stress makes our gut leaky, allowing bacteria to escape into the bloodstream’ triggering inflammation which leads to physical and mental health problems.
  4. Do I get time to rest and re-charge? Or do I have an Atlas complex…where I am shouldering the world…the whole of family life? When do I let go? When do I let others take the reins? Is it all on me, all of the time?
  5. How can I use the holding environment around me to better effect? How can I be strategic in thinking about the help I need from others, to negotiate specifics in a win-win way? Who can help? Spouses and partners? Family? Friends? Parenting community? Open some dialogue to discover what is possible. You never know, meeting your needs may enable spouse / family / friends to benefit too? As they say ‘Up North’ – ‘Shy bairns get nowt…’ If you don’t ask, you don’t get. But do the work first so that you ask in a win-win way…
  6. What are the other stressors in my life? An unfulfilling job? Extra pressure at work? What might I need to communicate / change there? 
    If you feel you are stuck in a rut – think about what you can do about it. Often we can reflect with friends and family – and it helps – for sure. But sometimes that ends up being a vent rather than something more progressive…Sometimes it’s hard to find the time and thinking space to do that objectively and with sufficient depth – looking into the heart of what is really challenging us, making us angry or upset can feel like looking at Medusa…too hard, too painful, too risky…
    It’s then that you might want to consider a different dynamic and the formality of seeking help outside of your own circle. That’s where my work as a coach is so rewarding – to help people who want to move out of their stuck-situations. To provide a sacred space and time to think, feel, and reflect. 
    I hope you’ve found this edition helpful. And good luck in the many challenges and rewards of parenting life.

With love and gratitude,

More to explore