You’ve probably heard of the term “flow” to describe a state where actions and thoughts progress smoothly and productively. It is characterized by ”energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” Perhaps you’ve experienced it yourself from time to time. I believe I have, on occasion. Other times I find myself in a state I call “undertow.”
For swimmers and waders an undertow is a current below the surface of the water. It isn’t obvious when one looks at the water, and it moves in the opposite direction from the surface current. And it may move more rapidly. I experienced a physical undertow last summer while wading in the surf. Usually ocean surf comes in and goes out with about the same force, on this occasion the incoming waves were strong but the current as they went out was much stronger and almost knocked me off my feet. Undertow is also called rip-tide and can be extremely dangerous.
Metaphorical undertow won’t kill, but it is a waste of time and energy and a source of frustration. It happens when I am working on something and get sucked away from making progress on my task by minor issues. When I’m writing, it might be word choice, phrasing, formatting, checking references, etc. I had problems when I used pen and typewriter but using a word processing program exacerbates the problem ten-fold—there are so many changes that could be made so easily. Case in point: I wasn’t sure exacerbate was the term I wanted or how to spell it; tried spell check with no results and finally used a thesaurus to look up synonyms for exaggerate. Classic undertow.
But undertow happens to me at other times: cooking comes to mind. What do I want to make? Is this the best recipe or should I look for a better one? Oops, missing an ingredient or two—what can I substitute? Did I already add the baking soda?
Sometimes undertow starts because of my distractibility/perceptiveness. Noticing something outside my main focus can lead me away from a project; the further away I get the harder it is to get back just as if I was swimming against a strong current
But undertow is also a cause of distractibility/perceptiveness. It’s like being stuck in a traffic jam: when I can’t make progress in the direction I want to go in, I start to notice my surroundings and pay attention to them and not to my goal.
What does this have to do with parenting?
Our children also experience flow and undertow. And both of those states can make our job as parents more difficult. We’re usually the ones who interrupt the flow with chores, homework, meals, and bedtime. And the ones who have to deal with the frustration, delays, and tantrums which may result from undertow or from interrupted flow.
Flow and undertow in ourselves also affect our ability to cope with the demands of parenting, especially parenting while trying to accomplish other tasks.
What can help? Understanding what is going on in ourselves and in our children. We can do this by taking time to observe both our own behavior and that of our children.
What environments and activities facilitate flow for me? What about my children?
What environments and activities contribute to undertow for me? For my children?
What strategies can I devise for easing the transition when I need to interrupt flow or when it gets interrupted? What strategies will work for my children?
What techniques can help me and my children escape from undertow?
I hope these ideas can help you go with the flow and avoid the undertow.
A good one on parenting teens
I remember going to a mother’s group back when my firstborn child was around 2 years old and asking “What do I do with my anger?”
Because I got angry sometimes. When I did I yelled, stomped around, said bad words and/or cruel things. Even when my anger was addressed at inanimate objects, this behavior was upsetting to my daughter.
I don’t recall receiving any helpful advice to my question back in that group. Over the years I learned a few things about managing anger—and sometimes was able to put them into practice! I’m still working on it.
Managing anger is hard. Managing anger at young children or even in the presence of young children is even harder.
One thing I tried was ignoring my feelings. I forced myself to stay calm and tried to be accepting and accommodating. Bad idea. I recall an incident with my second daughter who was in the midst of a tantrum. I was trying hard not to scream at her. I said something like “You are upset about having to leave now.” I was trying to be empathetic but she yelled back at me “Why are you so happy?” All my energy had gone into trying to be calm—and that interfered with my being truly empathetic. My calmness made it appear to her that I didn’t understand her feelings at all. And I wasn’t dealing with my own legitimate feelings.
Forced calmness often led to an even stronger outburst later on my part. I call it snapback—I was like a rubber band that got stretched too far and then broke with a snap.
What helped? Awareness about the factors that contributed to my anger. One big one was neglecting my needs in my efforts to be a “good” self-sacrificing mother. Being tired, hungry, stressed, feeling put upon, not having time or opportunities for doing things I enjoyed . . . all those contributed to the likelihood I would get angry and to the force of my anger.
I did get better at taking care of myself. I learned that the self-sacrificing mother ideal is nonsense. Like athletes, mothers need to take excellent care of themselves or they won’t be able to do their jobs—and the same is true for all parents and people in helping professions. Other things can be sacrificed –not you.
An important part of self-care is paying attention to feelings. Feelings can serve as warning lights reminding us that some need we have requires attention. Anger is a secondary emotion—we feel scared or frustrated or hurt and then we get angry. Karen Young from HeySigmund.com writes that anger “exists to block other more difficult emotions from rising to the surface.” Our mind is trying to protect us from those feelings we don’t know how to handle. For many of us recognizing emotions may need to be learned and may require professional help—and that’s okay.
Even with the best self-care parents will get angry. And that anger should be acknowledged –in ways that don’t hurt or scare others. In order to do that successfully we first need to recognize the physical signs that indicate we are getting angry. If we’ve never thought about anger in this way, identifying what led up to an outburst (or to a cold simmer, or a stone-faced withdrawal) may take some reflection. Authors Susan Beekman and Jeanne Holmes [Battles, Hassles, Tantrums & Tears] recommend looking back at a recent incident and remembering where, what, and particularly when you started to lose it.
A lot of times parents tell their children, “use your words,“ but words may not be adequate to manage the physical sensations of anger. (Not to mention that the words that come to mind may be ones you don’t want your children repeating.)
Taking deep breaths, briefly walking away, and counting to ten are some things that can help us calm down enough to use appropriate words. Doing something physical but safe—my son recommends hurling ice-cubes into the shower stall—is another approach.
Then simply saying “I’m angry” is a good place to start. Describing what triggered your anger in non-accusatory language can be helpful as well: “When we are late for an appointment, I get frustrated because I like to be on time.”
Nancy Samalin, author of Love and Anger (yes, I stole that title) also suggests: Avoid physical force and threats; Keep it short and to the point; Put it in writing; Focus on the essentials.
And finally, apologize for any hurtful words or actions. This can be a good time to reflect on what triggered you and make plans for handling future situations.
April 8, 2019 published on ParentingSuccessNetwork