To Best Support Our Kids, We Need to First Support Ourselves

I always thought that when I yelled at my daughter, it was because of her.

I was wrong.

It’s not her. It’s me.

It turns out, I yell because I’m stressed not because she’s doing any thing wrong! (Or, at least, not doing anything that she wouldn’t normally be doing.)

Here’s a really lame graphic to prove my point.

Turns out, my tools of discipline are directly related to my own mood and frame of mind! 

Maybe this seems obvious. I mean, we all know things are harder to handle when we’re overtired or overworked. I just never realized that my yelling at my kid had so much more to do with me than her.

Here’s an uncomfortable truth: we can’t control our kids. And while we know this, somehow, this sneaky little thought keeps worming its way back into our consciousness. If I just repeat myself again or raise my voice to just the right tone, she will do what I say immediately. Not exactly a reliable method. We can’t control their tantrums, their joys, their sleeping, or their growth rate. We can do our best but we aren’t actually in charge of the bad grades or the mean friends, the gossip or the trends in society. 

We cannot control most of what happens to us either. We aren’t in charge of the weather, traffic, or the price of food. We aren’t really even in control of most parts of ourselves. Think about it: we have something like 50-100 thousand thoughts each day. How many of those do we actually ask for? How often are we really in control of our emotions? Anyone else get stressed about stuff that you know isn’t objectively stressful? Or can’t help worrying even when you know worrying doesn’t help? And sure, we can control parts of our bodies, but definitely not all. When our children cry or get hurt, we experience a visceral response. And our emotions? Almost entirely out of our control, at least initially. When our children say they hate us or slam the door, emotions just follow unbidden. 

The primary thing we can control is how we respond to all of that. We don’t choose what’s happening but if we can see it, we can choose how we respond to it. And that can change everything. What does that mean? It means we have to support ourselves FIRST in order to support our kids BEST.

Put Your Own Oxygen Mask on First

The first step of taking care of our kids is actually taking care of ourselves. The oft-repeated airplane instructions make this clear: put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others. We can’t help anyone else if we haven’t first helped ourselves. If I am not okay (at least okay enough), I can’t support anyone else to be. 

This can be hard for parents or guardians because our instinct is to tend to our children first. We put their needs before ours. And we are even shamed or called selfish for doing anything but. No wonder so many of us feel bad about taking time for ourselves. But caring for ourselves is not selfish. It’s a basic human need and right and, if those aren’t reason enough, it’s actually the only way we can really care for our children.

This whole thing makes sense when we consider that the human nervous system is a collective one. You know this from experience. If one person comes into a room in a major panic, it becomes hard not to react to that panic. When someone else is really excited, you feel excited too. Humans regulate their nervous systems to each other. It’s most obvious when our children are infants. Remember all that time you spent rocking, shushing, holding, swaying, talking softly, touching them gently but firmly enough so they felt secure and safe? We do this in order to regulate their nervous systems. For the most part, babies can’t self soothe. Much of the time, our kids co-regulate their nervous systems with ours. We can support them to find balance when they’ve lost it, but only when our own systems are regulated.

I remember a time when my daughter was a few weeks old (admittedly, the memory is hazy but I swear it’s there). I was overtired, hormonal, and stressed. She wouldn’t stop crying for what felt like hours and, to be honest, I couldn’t either. The more upset she got, the more upset I got. And vice versa, so it seemed. Luckily, I had help. Within minutes of my husband taking her, the crying stopped, and she was fine. (And after a long shower and a break, I was too.)  I just didn’t have it in me at the time to be able to soothe her. 

Caregivers cannot pour from an empty cup. If we are burnt out, it becomes almost impossible to offer real care to our children. And if we’re always in fight/flight mode, they will feed off that and become increasingly agitated with us. Think of a field of white-tailed deer. When one hears a sound or senses something suspicious, its tail goes up. Almost immediately, all of the other tails go up too until the threat passes, one way or another. When it comes to our children, if we want their ‘tails’ to be down, we can’t come in with ours up. When our nervous systems are dysregulated, it’s all too easy to pass that onto them. 

This doesn’t mean that you always have to be calm or you can go and get a million massages (sorry). It just means that the first step in supporting your child is supporting yourself. It’s taking a breath or two and checking your own nervous system before you help them (unless, of course, there is immediate danger). 

This moment or breath will help you be more present and stable for your own life as well as for them. It will also make you less likely to react on autopilot or behave in a way that doesn’t help at that moment. 

But how do you actually do this?

Checking and regulating your own nervous system might be something you’ve never really thought about but you’ve done it many, many times. Any time you’ve stopped and taken a breath, any time you needed some space and went for a walk, or anytime you paused before saying something you might later regret, you’ve been self-regulating. It’s not about telling yourself to stop worrying or to control yourself. Self-regulation is much more (and much more realistic) than control. It’s about recognizing and responding to stress and/or disruptive emotions and thoughts in a healthy, more supportive manner.

And I don’t want to leave you hanging. But I swear I’ll talk more about how to self-regulate in the next post. Stay tuned…

This blog post contains excerpts from my upcoming book, How To Discipline Your Kids with Positive Parenting. Published by Rockridge Press.