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.
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
What do you need?
What do you need as a parent? Probably more sleep, right?
Often as parents we get lots of information about things we ought to be doing—or not doing. We don’t get as much information about HOW we might actually be able to do or not do those things. We don’t often concentrate on what WE need.
As a parent with young children I remember thinking, “If I wasn’t so tired right now, I might be able to respond to my whining child in an empathetic and firm manner—the way I want to respond.” It took a few more years for it to dawn on me that a major part of my job as a parent was to take care of myself. Nobody else was going to make sure I got enough sleep except me. Even then, though, the prevalent philosophy I ran into was that I could only take care of myself by neglecting my child’s needs. That approach didn’t meet my needs as a person or a parent.
Finally, I began to see parenting as a form of sharing. By learning how to share I could meet my needs and those of my children in ways that would be affirming and beneficial to both of us. After all, as a biological mother to three children I had shared my body and all its abilities and resources with them during pregnancy. I nourished them then by nourishing myself. After their births I shared my breasts, my arms, my legs, my voice, and my brain as I cared for them. I had to keep nourishing myself to have something to give. I had to have something in order to share it.
Focusing on sharing helped me realize how many things I had that I could share—I had strengths that I could use to guide my children. When I viewed what I had as strengths, I could also work on getting stronger. How do you make a muscle stronger? By using it, by pushing it a little harder, and then giving it a rest.
As a children’s book explains it: when you share, you give something and then you get it back. I shared what I had. And I got something back—new skills, new insights, a better understanding of who I was and what I was capable of, and, best of all, three unique wonderful individuals who are still willing to share with me about their adult lives. I was not the world’s best parent (I am still not the world’s best parent), but I shared what I had and I got a lot back.
What do you need as a parent?
Published on ParentingSuccessNetwork 9.22.12 http://parentingsuccessnetwork.org/parenting_tips/2012/what-do-you-need/
I got upset the other day and it took me a while to calm down.
Now I am a middle-aged grandmother. I have experienced some bad times in my life; compared to those, the incident that upset me was trivial. Nevertheless, it took me a while to calm down.
Children get upset a lot. They tend to express their grief, anger, hurt, and/or frustration with loud vocalizations and violent actions. Loud noises—crying, screaming, whining–are stressful for most adults to listen to. Violent actions—thrashing about, hitting, biting, throwing things–can be dangerous to self, others, and property.
Helping your child to deal with grief, anger, hurt, and/or frustration in ways that don’t unduly annoy or hurt others is an important part of your job as a parent.
The problem is that you are very likely to be upset (or to get upset) when your child is upset.
Not to mention that you, as a human being, get upset yourself for reasons unrelated to being a parent.
Learning (and practicing) healthy ways to calm down is a lifelong endeavor.
Fortunately, when you calm yourself down you model that process, thus making it easier for your child to learn ways to calm down as well.
Note that there is a difference between shutting up and calming down. Shutting up is a valuable skill—particularly in social situations—but it doesn’t give the benefits of actually calming down. Shutting up is like putting out the flames of a fire but leaving the coals still glowing—ready to flare up at any time. Calming down includes dousing the coals and making sure they are all out. Once you are calm, you can access your thinking brain and, if necessary, problem-solve any underlying issues or strategize ways to prevent future occurrences. But first you need to calm down.
What helps parents to calm down? Here are some ideas for when you are the one who is upset.
Breathing: If you learned any breathing techniques for coping with labor, even if you never used them then, they can work well for you now.
Movement: channel the adrenaline in your system by pacing, walking, throwing things that don’t break, working, etc.
Empathy or validation of your feelings—silently or out loud: focus your attention on yourself and what is happening in your body and mind. Tell your body you are listening to it.
Positive self talk—silently or out loud: “This is a challenging situation but I can handle it.”
Drink water, eat nutritious food: dehydration and low blood sugar contribute to being upset.
Provide a place to make noise—the classic going into the bathroom and screaming. If it is safe to do so AND your child is not upset, excuse yourself—stating that you are upset and need to go outside or be alone for a moment. Simply changing the setting can be calming as well.
What helps you to calm down?
Next time: Calming yourself down when your child is upset.
Published on ParentingSuccessNetwork 11.8.12
Are you the perfect parent? Chances are probably not. But possibly, secretly, do you really want to be the perfect parent? I know I do.
Most adults (my children included) can tell you all the things their parents did wrong. Some parents definitely qualified as Toxic Parents (a term coined by therapist and author Susan Forward). Other parents, well, they were somewhere on the scale between tolerable and pretty good—all things considered.
No matter where our own parents fell on that scale, many of us want to do better than them. That’s a good thing. But in wanting to do better some of us fall into the perils of perfectionism:
- We have unrealistic expectations for ourselves and others.
- We focus on what we did wrong—not on what we did right.
- We self-criticize and may be highly critical of others.
- Criticism from others (or even helpful suggestions) may increase our feelings of inadequacy. We may respond with defensiveness and hostility. We may be unwilling to admit being wrong.
Full disclosure: I’m a recovering perfectionist. But I’m also an educator. I believe in improvement. I believe people can learn new skills and change their behavior.
As an educator, I also know that learning takes having access to accurate information and getting encouragement from others. It takes time and practice. It takes making mistakes and then learning from those mistakes. For some reason, when it comes to parenting we think we ought to know how to do it just because we want to. After all, we can identify all those things our parents did wrong.
Here are some ideas that have helped me focus on improvement and step back from perfectionism:
Asking myself: is the issue one of health and safety?
Are the goals my goals or those that others think are important? One study found that parents with “self-oriented parenting perfectionism” had higher parenting satisfaction, whereas those with “societal-oriented parenting perfectionism” were more stressed. Parenting Perfection and Parental Adjustment
Noticing what is working well and what got done. Being specific. Praising myself and others.
Admitting to messing up, apologizing, making amends if possible, thinking about how to do it better next time.
Asking myself, what do I need to do this—information, encouragement, practice?
Perhaps what is most helpful is accurate and honest information about how other people have succeeded in doing what I would like to do. No one is exactly like me, of course, but parents share many things in common. Realizing that others struggle with challenges and hearing how others dealt with similar situations can spur me in problem-solving, even if their solutions are not the same as mine.
This can be really hard on families with children and teens. Not to mention every other person.
Here are a few strategies that have helped me as an adult and a few ideas I’ve found online. Please share your own strategies.
Start now by moving bedtime a little bit earlier each night—if you have a lead time of five nights (Monday-Saturday) then 12 minutes earlier each night gets you to an hour.
Some people recommend simultaneously waking up earlier as well. I’d suggest NOT doing that or at least not doing that until closer to Sunday. My rationale is that it’s better to get as much sleep as you can in advance of the change. Many of us are already short on sleep. See waking up strategies below.
Practice healthy sleep habits:
Fresh air and exercise during the day
De-stressing/relaxing times during the day and/or evening
Shift meal schedule gradually as well (if possible) It isn’t just bedtime and morning that gets thrown out of whack by the time change. If you can’t move meals try to incorporate more snacks (healthy ones and maybe some high tryptophan foods for dinner and bedtime snacks). See https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/food-and-sleep
One hour before you want to get to sleep: No screens. No full spectrum, LED or fluorescent lights. Use a yellow, amber or red bulb for reading (see https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/how-blue-light-affects-kids-sleep). Red Christmas lights work well as nightlights. Googling “blue light blocking products” will get you to many sources of bulbs. Candlelight probably works as well, but please be careful!
Change your clock during the day on Saturday (if at all possible). I got this idea from crossing the Atlantic Ocean by ship. Going east, they changed the time at noon (since they had total control over the schedule, this was possible). I don’t know if part of it was psychological but it really helped. The change made dinner earlier so that also contributed.
Waking up. Just as light interferes with going to sleep, it helps us wake up. Gradually increasing the light in the morning will help you (and the kids) wake up. There are products “dawn simulators” that provide this (sorry to keep you Googling and spending money but it can be a good investment-some are less expensive than others so research options). Or you can do this manually for your children.
Make morning a pleasant time: snuggling, talking, reading with your child can make for a happier transition. Breakfast in bed anyone? Allow enough time for morning routines.
The real key to happy waking up is getting enough sleep the night before. Most of us don’t get enough sleep so this is a good time to focus on more sleep. Here are some more guidelines and resources.
Sleepless in America by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. She also has a website with a free download of sleep suggestions http://www.parentchildhelp.com/Resources.cfm
Also on ParentingSuccessNetwork
In my years of parenting, I often acted and reacted to my children in ways that weren’t very effective and that sometimes made the situation worse. As I worked on making changes in my behavior I learned that changing behavior isn’t easy. Here are some ideas that have helped me—and continue to help me—I am still not a perfect parent or grandparent! These are research-based ideas, drawn from The Incredible Years, Nurturing Parenting and other parenting curriculums. They are also ones I have found helpful to me.
- Focus on one skill or change. Be as specific as possible: “I am going to spend 10 minutes playing with my preschooler every weekday at 9 am.” It’s fine to make other changes at the same time, but focus on one.
- Make it a positive action. You can’t do a don’t. Every relationship can benefit from you spending time focused on that person—playing, listening, doing something fun together, or working on something together. Relationship expert John Gottman recommends a ratio of at least 5 positive interactions to each negative interaction.
If you want to stop doing something—like yelling at your children—come up with a substitute action to do when you feel like yelling. Writing a note, doing jumping jacks, throwing ice cubes into the sink—you might want to brainstorm a list with a friend or with your children.
- Involve others. Explain your plan and ask for their help and support. Tell them what would be helpful to you as you make changes. Don’t waste time criticizing other’s approaches, but concentrate on your own efforts to change. Find or create a support group of others who are making changes—especially if those around you are not supportive. Parenting classes are a great place to get support and make friends.
- Expect resistance. Changes—even positive ones—can trigger negative responses from those around you. Family and friends may be skeptical or even outright hostile. Children may misbehave to get you to react the way you used to because that is what they know and expect from you. It can help to acknowledge their confusion while explaining your new approach and addressing any misbehavior calmly but firmly. “I know I usually yell at you. But I don’t enjoy doing that and I don’t think you like hearing me. You know how to listen to my quiet voice, too. The toys still need to be put away.”
- Use reminders: electronic or old-fashioned. Try notes, checklists, calendars, alarms, timers, friends, relatives, your children, etc. Create or request reminders that are polite and reaffirming.
- Track your progress. Praise and reward yourself for accomplishments—no matter how small. Star charts aren’t just for kids.
- Be nice to yourself. Keep your inner and outer self talk positive. When you mess up, you can admit it (and perhaps apologize) and say “_____ is hard to do but I am working on it.” When you are successful, celebrate that achievement.
- Learn from your mistakes and from the times that went well. What things interfere with and what things help your efforts to change? If you don’t seem to be able to make the change, step back and analyze the situation and the factors involved.
- Be patient. Real changes take time.
- Keep at it. According to researchers Prochaska, Norcross, and DiClemente, in their book Changing for Good, real, lasting change usually takes a spiral pattern—up, level, dipping back down, then around and up a little more.
We often wish our children would change their behavior, but for that to happen, we usually have to change our behavior towards them. Moreover, being a parent means our behavior has to keep changing because our children keep growing and changing. Change isn’t easy, but it is possible. You can do it.
Published on ParentingSuccessNetwork 1.6.15
Esther Schiedel 12/22/14