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Steps Toward Calm Parenting

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by Jamie Roach

Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other, in step with each other. None of this going off and doing your own thing. And cultivate thankfulness. – Colossians 3:17

I still remember feeling the adrenaline rushing through my body as I flew up the stairs to where my daughter stood with tears running down her cheeks faster than the words pouring out her mouth. In that moment, I could not see the hurt in her eyes. She wasn’t listening to me, and anger, like a time bomb, went off inside me. I grabbed her by the arm and jerked her into her bedroom. I was out of control. In that moment, there was no adult in the room. 
Why is it so hard to remain calm when our children act out, refuse to listen or are disrespectful? I bet you have felt that unwanted bomb of anger go off in your own body. One minute you are fine and the next you are acting just like a two-year-old. What is happening in these moments and, more importantly, how can we prevent them? How can we keep it together when our kids are losing it?  
Dr. Stephen Porges, originator of Polyvagal theory, explains from a biological perspective exactly what is going on in our bodies when we are triggered. He describes our autonomic nervous system (ANS) as our personal surveillance system. This system is always running, scanning our environment and asking the question, “Am I safe?” Feeling secure is a fundamental prerequisite to remaining calm and compassionate when our children are “out of control.” 
Our bodies alternate between three different systems at any given time. The first is our “Social Engagement System.” We know our Social Engagement System is online when we are feeling calm, connected and compassionate. Whenever we sense danger and feel insecure, our “Protective System” goes online, knocking our “Social Engagement System” offline. We know we are in this state when we are feeling anxious, worried, irritated or angry. This is commonly referred to as “fight or flight.” From there, if the situation begins to feel overwhelming or unbearable, our “Shut Down System” takes over and we feel depressed, hopeless, numb or trapped. We sometimes call this “freeze” mode. 
All three systems are needed and normal depending on the situation in which we find ourselves. The problem is when we become stuck and are unable to bring our social engagement system back online. We do our best work as parents when our “Social Engagement System” is online. We feel calm, curious and compassionate, not bounding up the stairs three at a time with a red face and steam billowing out our ears. 
When my daughter was standing at the top of the stairs talking back to me, I felt insecure as a dad, which triggered my “Protective System.” Anger emerged to “protect” me from my more vulnerable feelings of shame and inadequacy as a parent. With my “Social Engagement System” knocked offline, I was no longer able to remain calm and compassionate. Instead of seeing my daughter as a hurt child, I (subconsciously) saw her as a threat to my competency and I lost it. 
Here is what I have learned since that time. In the moment, I was unaware of feeling insecure, which was driving my shame and anger. As parents, it is imperative that we “do our work.” We must slow down and examine our hearts to see what is lurking in the shadows. Only when we name and welcome our insecurities, fears and sadness can we become unstuck and bring our social engagement system back online. 
There are lots of ways we can train ourselves to remain calm or to quickly regulate ourselves when we have been triggered. One practice, which combines deep theological and spiritual teaching with the latest neuroscience, is breathwork. This is why I am so excited about our new parenting workshop, Accessing Calm in Chaos, coming up on February 22 featuring special guest, Dr. Andrea Freemyer. I hope you can join us for this free online event where we will dig deeper into this topic and walk through proven breathwork techniques.
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