Summer is almost over and the school year has already begun. Most days, outside temperatures are becoming manageable as the summer heat retreats to the middle of the day. As I reach for the thermostat in my house, I am reminded of Dr. Gary Landreth’s analogy of parents choosing to play the role of thermostats rather than thermometers in the family.
As a parent of school-aged children, the new school year has ushered in a different level of activity in our household that requires a time of adjustment for all. So as outside temperatures become more manageable, inside the house, the heat is on! The rapid pace of school days, new departure times and morning routines for different children, a new schedule of after school activities, parental and professional commitments — all inevitably collide until we find a rhythm for the medium term, until next June. Meanwhile, I hear myself saying ‘hurry up!” and overworking to meet the new demands of the day. And then I notice and remember….
As a parent and therapist I have the choice to join in with the craziness and get affected by the rising emotions around me. Or I can choose to notice the discomfort, and accept the emotions as information about the level and type of unmet need. Thanks to my ability to slow down and observe, I am able to turn on a different part of my brain: the one that can make considered choices. I then take actions to reduce the emotional temperature in the house. It is the difference between being passively subjected to my family just like a thermometer that rises with ambient temperature in contrast to thermostats’ ability to assess the temperature and take action to adjust the ambient (emotional) temperature.
Our brains, especially children’s brains, are natural thermometers. When a child experiences an emotion or identifies an emotion on the face of a loved one, the child experiences the feeling as if it were his/her own. Neuroscientists explain this by pointing to mirror-neurons in our brains. These special neurons help us understand the non-verbal cues of others, deduce what others may be feeling, have empathy for them, and also in the process, to feel what the other person feels. We are made to be porous to others’ emotions. If one person feels an emotion, those closest to him or her inevitably feel it too.
When I manage to take on the role of thermostat I find a way to respond rather than to react to the rising heat in the room. Just as I would open a window when the air gets too stuffy in a room, I can also help my emotional child regulate and tolerate his/her needs and emotions by responding and reflecting to my child her/his thoughts, feelings and needs with acceptance and empathy. In doing so, I am not agreeing. I am just communicating that I “get” her/him. I become curious about the other person’s experience, setting aside for the time being the behavior. In communicating that I accept the child’s feelings, I am serving the role of thermostat in my child. I am offering a positive emotion the child can mirror. I teach the child that the feelings are tolerable. In doing so, I allow the child to soothe and to access a higher level of functioning where she too can look at the whole picture and make choices. In this way, I also get out of my child’s way so that her internal struggles (with autonomy, competence, social skills, disappointment, etc.) do not get played out as external conflicts between her/him and me.
It is so easy to remember to pick up infants and soothe them by rocking them and speaking softly. However, with a school aged child, many parents forget that the same processes would also help their child: touch, proximity, a soothing sing-song voice and waiting until the temper has cooled until a challenging activity can be completed. High pitched voices, empty threats (“I’m going to leave without you!”) and exasperation won’t make a child more efficient. It may scare him, but in the process will wire in a higher emotional temperature in his brain, making him less likely to tap into the more complex functions of the brain (such as adapting, problem solving and planning) that rely on cooler temperatures.
Given the lifestyles for most households in the DC area, being a thermostat happens in fits and spurts. Setting the intention to be a thermostat can require some considerable reworking of family dynamics and more than just seasonal maintenance.
Some of the key elements are the following:
1) Know (and accept) your child. You can provide acceptance and empathy as a safe base from which s/he can learn to better manage who s/he is. But also, set reasonable expectations based on development. Anticipate issues and plan with your spouse, with input from your child depending on age. Adjust your expectations to reflect your understanding of your child’s own personal needs. You know your child better than anyone.
2) Adopt a ‘being with’ attitude in moments of stress. This means communicating that you will remain present with the child, that you hear what she is saying, that you understand and care. However, it does not mean that you always agree with what s/he says, that you must make her happy or that you must solve her problems.
3) Don’t sweep issues under the rug. Once the child is calm, you can come back to the issue or the event in a family meeting or one on one.
4) If once you fail, try again. The most important thing may not be what you do in the moment, but how you recover from mistakes. If you are unable to stay calm and get agitated with your child, go back to your child when you and he are both calm, apologize for your behavior and talk about how you and he felt at the time. Parents are powerful role models, when you apologize with the aim of repairing the relationship you teach your child that he can do so without losing face.
5) Learn to set limits to ensure your child’s safety and growth AND to preserve your own sanity. Adjust your expectations based on what you know you can do without getting irritated. Your own anger is the best red flag that something is wrong and you have given more than you can give. The answer is to revisit how you got there. What compelled you to give what you do not have? Setting clearer limits, expecting cooperation and collaboration from children, expecting age appropriate behaviors, and adjusting your schedule for self-care can all contribute to reducing your impulse to overdo.
6) Align your expectations with your values and priorities for your family. The first step here is to identify your values and what makes your life worth living. Then revisit your current schedule, so as to make physical space for those things that give you pleasure and joy as a family. By creating a positive atmosphere at home, you convey to your kids that they are worthy of happiness, that they too can make choices for connection, that they can grow up and have a happy family life.
I wish you all a good start to the school year!