Parenting fast and slow

Parenting, fast, and slow.

I’ve been doing a lot of parenting talks right now, around the topic of how we can help our kids thrive in anxious times. And so I’ve been talking about the notion of slower, strategic, creative, and integrated thinking being the superpower of the fully-formed adult brain. And that that superpower is exactly what’s needed from us by our kids at the best of time – but especially in these uncertain times of pandemic-living. It’s also been resonating in my own parenting as well as in the coaching I’ve been doing with various parents of late…
I’m going to share an observation of my own ‘fast parenting’ in action. Riffing on the science, psychology, and child-development angle of it all – and some tips and tricks to help notice when you’re ‘parenting fast’, and how to slow it down…

Much of this edition is in tribute to Daniel Kahneman’s ground-breaking book by Nobel Prize laureate – Thinking, fast and slow. In this book he discusses the two modes of thought – ‘System 1’ – fast, instinctive, emotional, inaccurate – and actually where our minds go to most of the time, automatically -especially when anxious…(like all the time right now?!?). And System 2  – slower, more deliberative, logical, and able to integrate different perspectives. 

So buckle -up for some fast / Top Gear parenting…

This morning chez Gleadhill…
Tiredness and inertia are prevailing against a list of things ‘to do’ as long as your arm. We move in approx 2 week’s time, so we’re dialling up on the current wallpaper of uncertainty, anxiety, stress, pressure…It was our no-so-little’un’s 11th on Monday…and I am still reeling from the exhaustion of hosting a ‘low-key’ rule-of-six-compliant garden party. And having performed the diplomatic act of decanting some of the guests to a super-special separate event…So the top-up party awaits on Friday night! It’s the gift that keeps on giving!
I’m also still tired from being woken super-early on Monday morning in preservation of the ritual of birthday present-opening having to happen at 6.30AM in order to be present and correct at school at the year 6 Lock-down catch-up time of 8.15(!). I have a sleep debt roll-over from then. I need my 8 hours adenosine purge to cleanse my system of the sleep-inducing chemical and declutter my mind…
This morning definitely feels like it should be Friday. But no. I am awake, totally tuned in to the Today programme, where experts are discussing potential lock-down situations. Because -heaven forbid- our plans to move house get disrupted…The Covid-contagion story is contagious. Because I am on the front foot, racing against time with work, life, and everything right now, I can’t stop listening. The news has hooked the circuitry of my anxious brain. Which has neural primacy…to keep me and my family safe. And of course the focus on the threat of the spread is continuous. I play the news on my phone and carry it around the house with me. My normal ‘mental moat’ of having 15 minutes quiet time and solitude at home has been stormed by Sarah Montague and John Humphreys – and a whole herd of government spokes-people and experts…
My head feels thick, the dishwasher can’t empty itself and restack itself fast enough. And why does my child see getting dressed as being a job that’s done in instalments? When she does appear, at intervals, in varying states of readiness, instead of having a quiet time to digest breakfast, chat, and fill in the dreaded reading record, everything is fighting for attention all at once. Speaking from the next room, trying to share the latest new joke over the noise of the kettle whilst I knock back paracetamol…Nothing goes my way, the world truly seems against me. This is because my physiology, my emotions, my behaviour and thinking are all affected by the anxiety loop of thinking fast, thinking inaccurately, rushing ineffectually, and less able to focus on what’s important. I recognise that I am living in frustration – I am rushing, and clumsy, and every short-cut I take mis-fires.
Finally we leave the house – running late – but at least I have left my phone behind and as we walk, the other bits of mental and life-clutter fall away, and I can concentrate on just 2 things. Walking quickly, and listening to our child – properly. A few deep breaths, and a look up into the trees and I’m just a little more present. I check in with myself and recognise:
‘Wow. I’m REVVED up right now…It’s only 8am. And I feel like Jeremy Clarkson has taken up a residency in my mind…Esprit de Gammon…

I need space. I need to get my head back in the game.
I need to re-set this morning. For me, and for my child as she starts her school day.
And breathe.’
And I am so glad I have. I inhale the breeze and see the sunlight in the trees.
And within just few paces, I’m catching up on snippets of school news that are left over from yesterday…
It turns out that they’ve moved the seating plan around in her class. Whoomph. It hits me in the chest. The ONE AND ONLY time she’s been sitting in a space working with people who are all likely to stretch her in her whole school career has lasted just 2 weeks. My heart sinks…And then races. I’m about to make a commentary. A ready-made, negativity narrative is running and ready to go IMMEDIATELY.
My hippocampus and negativity bias are collating ALL the moments when I’ve felt the decisions by teachers, or policies made by the school have felt sub-optimal to me. OR when I’ve felt the school might have let my little princess down…WOW. And it’s only taken maybe three brisk paces for my stream of consciousness to be running the narrative flow…
I’m about to vent my negativity about this scenario…I feel that internal sound effect…you know that one when the plane begins to nose-dive, as it’s about to crash…and I just about manage to lift up…to fight the controls and pull up, and up and over the mountain…
Because while it might take the edge off my disappointment to have a vent and critique this situation with my daughter…how would it help her?
She’s not angry or worried about it. Yes she’s a little bit frustrated that there’ll be more people management and frustration involved in collaborative work…But seriously, what’s my purpose here? – THIS morning, before she starts her school day…
OR my purpose over this next two weeks as she prepares to leave this school and start a new one. What narratives do I want HER to take away from it all – that she’s had a good time – a great foundation for life in all sorts of ways. That she can take the benefits of WHATEVER life has to offer – even if she has to spend a little bit of her education sharing the experience with the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Because basically – she’s got this. She’s learning NOT only from the curriculum. But from the experience of life as it is – and people how they are. She does not need me to snowplough her way. She doesn’t need me to badmouth her teacher’s decisions or undermine the true faith that she’s basically in a great place, with great people – even if it isn’t perfect the whole time.
My fingers may itch to type an email expressing my disappointment that her last two weeks couldn’t be spent with my misplaced fantasy of what an ‘A Team’ around my kid could be…BUT let’s face it – even the A team were basically a bunch of misfits, loose cannons – some of whom had anger management problems – to say the least…

But the point is I can’t make her school experience perfect. I can’t select her work-mates or friends for her. What am I saying if I speak to my sense of the imperfectness of this change? Tell her that I am disappointed because she might have a better learning experience if only, if only…? Because if I do, I am saying that her ability to thrive is fragile. And it shows I am judging and comparing her, her classmates, her friends and valuing them based on…on what? At best a partial sense of who they are and what they have to offer each other.
I can’t make them – or her nicer, or more focused, or more hard-working. I have to slow down and pull the levers that will help her discover her own way. To feel her own capability, her own relatedness to her strengths, to other people, to her purpose, and to develop her autonomy – the sense of what she is able to do to captain her own ship, to know who she is, what she wants, what she believes in, what she needs, and how she can advocate for herself. And if I am going to wade in – I’d better be really sure it’s genuinely what is needed.
I breathe, I bit my tongue. I ask her how she feels about the new set-up. I stop and just listen. And I’m so glad I did. I hear her kindness, her inner wisdom, the strategies she knows she has to head of trouble with the more tricky group dynamics. I feel from the inside-out, what I teach, train, and coach – about the value of slowing down, being more present, and being more purposeful. Noticing the triggers. Creating the gap between trigger and response. And enabling something more genuinely creative, resourceful, and whole to emerge.

What you’re noticing: rising frustration and anger

• Stop what you’re doing for just a minute.
• Go outside, or go to a window.
• Remove yourself from the scene 
• Look up, look out, stretch your neck and breathe.
• Consider what you need to do to ‘reboot’.

What you’re noticing: Tiredness, irritability, cluttered thinking

Prioritise an early night. Ensure you give yourself at least an 8 and a half hour window. Don’t self-medicate with wine to ensure the sleep is better quality.

What you’re noticing: you’re hijacked by a flood of strong feelings more suddenly and easily by things happening in family life

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Stop and breathe and create a ‘meta-moment’.
Ask yourself – who am I being right now? What is my purpose in this moment? What does this situation really need right now?
Choose your next move – don’t just react.

What you’re noticing: You leap onto the email / phone / Twitter / WhatsApp to complain and take the fight to the source…

Ask yourself if you are over-identifying with what’s happening? Are you moving in to fix things up in a reactionary way? Or in a self-regulated and moderate way?

Know that firing off a vociferous email accusing the Head of Year or teacher of being somehow neglectful is going to spark a whole emotional chain-reaction that will destabilise the very people who are part of the safe harbour walls you want around your child.

A contagion of stress at a point where -especially now schools are trying to juggle with COVID routines, a lack of empathy can be incredibly corrosive.

Be careful of feeling our children’s pain, vulnerabilities and struggles too closely. Over-defending and pre-empting problems erodes their sense of competency and independence. It contributes to an anxious narrative which over-estimated threat and impact. AND underestimates the coping resources of the child.

What you’re noticing: you’re about to leap in critically and judge another kid, family, teacher, school…

BACK UP the CLARKSON truck on that one…your kid will see you and hear you.

Is what you are going to say about to increase or decrease your approachability?
They will see a scary parent who is unforgiving and judgmental about other people…
You reduce the space they’ll feel they have to get things wrong and be the wonderful flawed people they are because they’ll be afraid of being edited and judged themselves.

It triggers their threat sensors…which means that often they will say things that are exaggerated or sometimes not even true in order to test out the parent’s reaction

What you’re noticing: You’re marinating in worry or negativity

Actively seek out good experiences and savour them.
Have the good experience.
Extend the good experience,
Ask, reflect, and absorb the good experience.
Link the good experience to other areas of your life where there are riches and resources to appreciate and be grateful for.
(From Dr Rick Hanson’s book – Resilient)

Let me know how this lands with you right now! What topics do you want discussed next time? I love to hear from you. If anyone is feeling pretty stuck right now with some of the feeling, and thinking states I’m describing, and wants to use some thinking space to really work on a re-boot, get in touch – for a one-off mentoring conversation, or for some coaching: you like what you read and want to recommend me on to friends – that’s great. Send them the link via my website: The more, the merrier.If you think that parents at your child’s school would appreciate a webinar – recommend me to the school or PTA.Here’s to some slower thinking at the weekend – and beyond…With love and gratitude,Emma.

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