'Get calm, first': How to deal with teens, and the rest of 'em, too
The story on NPR this morning about the biology of teenage misbehavior led with something like an excuse for the kids -- it's the hormone's fault, and not just that even -- but the scenario laid out as an introduction felt very familiar. Sure, it was about hair spray and a new couch, nothing I'll probably have to deal with exactly (no girls here, for one). How should the mom deal with what was, it seemed, an escalation of conclusions jumped-to? "Get calm, first," said psychologist Laura Kastner. I'd missed it while listening to her piece, but that's the title of her book: Getting to Calm: Cool-headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens and Teens.
Is an eight-year-old a tween? How about a three-year-old? Because these are the strategies I use (and often kick myself for having forgotten to use) with my kids. Kastner says the arguments between parents and older children often resolve to "emotional flooding"; in other words, rational thought is frozen while we go black-and-white. I'm good. You're bad. In the example argument, both mother and daughter are explaining why they hold the position they do; daughter describing her rationale for hairspray on the couch, mom wondering why she didn't remember the "simple" instructions; both seeing their own position as inherently well-intentioned and, well, correct. When we attribute the best of intentions to our own actions, we're often, subconsciously, attributing the worst to those who act in conflict. Emotional flood ensues.
What to do? Remember: when we ask "what were they thinking?", answer with "nothing."
They weren't thinking, neither the teenager who (in another example on NPR) goes to spray shaving cream on a friend's house, or my eight-year-old who screamed in frustration right next to my ear over his Pokemon game -- while I was on the phone interviewing Tim Zagat -- nor my three-year-old who ran across the street against the light this morning (thankfully, the traffic had already cleared the intersection; I had turned to talk to someone and didn't see him until he was halfway in). We're in the situation we are in because no one was thinking. According to the NPR piece, "Steering clear of emotions is difficult, even for adults. But Kastner says it's something parents just have to learn how to do. There are some obvious tools: Step outside for a moment. Take a breath. Think mindfulness or Zen."
Whatever you do, get calm before you enter into an argument with a tween over your expensive and beloved new couch; a remonstration for running into the street and scaring you half to death; a reminder that Mama did tell you she was about to get on an important phone call (for the record, Tim was gracious and sweet and told me to treasure my children); a rehash of the same old fight with your spouse about how, when he comes home late from x, it throws your plans into disarray and makes you feel out of control. Getting calm will help you change the problem from an argument into a reminder, or a learning tool, or a chance to see the world from your child's perspective.
It's a good reminder that heightened emotions, especially anger, turn off all the other parts of our brain and leave only what Kastner calls "fight/flight/freeze." Take a breath, and try again another way.