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The Nuclear Option

Now that the winter holidays have come to a close, I’m taking a look at all of the similar challenges a variety of families have brought to their coaching sessions in the last six weeks. I am always reminded we are more similar than we are different. Parenting is no exception. In every single parent coaching session I’ve had since just before Thanksgiving, something has come up for every family.

My child is saying mean things to me!

The holiday season is a wonderful time for lots of family time, extended family visits, delicious special meals, presents, and time spent with people you may only see once a year. The holiday is also a challenging time with lots of family time, extended family visits, delicious special meals, presents, and time spent with people you may only see once a year. Plus, lack of routine and woefully little sleep. Put all of that overstimulation together and no one is able to be “on their best behavior”!

Thinking only about yourself for a moment – I invite you to reflect on how you feel by the afternoon of your last winter holiday. Do you feel calm, relaxed, well-rested, peaceful and have a full cup? If you do, then huge kudos to you! Please tell the rest of us how you do it! If you’re like me, and every other parent I know, you may feel irritated, tired, and depleted. Not the epitome of a peaceful parent. You’ve spent the last six weeks running in the holiday marathon and you’ve crossed the finish line to collapse in a heap.

We know self-regulation is the most important part (and hardest!) of being a peaceful parent. But self-regulation can feel nearly impossible during this season. You are more liable to snap, yell, or struggle to provide as much empathy as your child needs. You probably haven’t gone to bed at a decent hour and are running on fumes. So you are going to have to work overtime to stop, drop your agenda, and breathe… Add to that the pressure parents put upon themselves to be the *best parent ever* with the *best children ever* during all of the families gatherings and parties. It’s no wonder I’ve gotten so many exasperated calls from parents this season.

This brings us to our children.

They feel just like we do.

Sure, the holidays are a lot more magical for them than they are the typical adult but they are still overstimulated, overscheduled, exhausted, and feeling the pressure of our expectations.

When any human being is in this state, we are liable to lash out.

Who hasn’t come home from a hard day at work and started in on our partner about the dishes in the sink?

The vast majority of adults don’t have the skills to instead come home and say, “I had a really hard day at work and I am feeling scared I might be fired because my boss called me in for an early meeting tomorrow so I’m distracted and overwhelmed. Can you sit and talk with me?”

Instead we lash out and pick at our partner and/or children. We don’t feel good doing it and it doesn’t actually help. Even if we can see what we are doing and make amends, a skill many don’t have, it’s hard not to discharge our frustration at those close to us.

Now you probably don’t come home and tell your partner, “You’re the worst partner ever! I am going to find a new family!”

Because you have a fully developed prefrontal cortex which houses that impulse control and can exercise control about what comes out of our mouths *most* of the time…

Our children don’t and because we are their safe person, they discharge their feelings AT us.

They don’t mean you’re the worst mom ever.

They don’t mean they are going to find a new family.

They don’t really want you to throw their baby sister in the trash.

They are pulling out the “nuclear option” as my mentor Dr. Laura Markham calls it. They want you to know how upset they are.

As always, look underneath the behavior.

“Oh honey, you must feel so angry with me to say that. I can tell how upset you are!”

“Wow! Those are some BIG feelings. I see how big they are.”

“It is so hard to be a big brother sometimes! You just want me all to yourself!”

Then, we meet the need that’s driving the behavior.

The need is nearly always connection.

You can and should address the behavior later. Once no one is upset and you’re not feeling triggered. Talk about alternate ways we can share how upset we are. Role play with your children or some stuffed animals. Read Kevin Henkes’ book “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse” with your children and talk about how Lilly lashes out at her teacher and how she makes a repair with the support of her parents.

As the holidays draw to a close, refocus your priorities and get back to daily preventative maintenance. Make a commitment to yourself and your family to make special time and roughhousing to happen daily. They are game changers. Welcome your children’s feelings and give all of the empathy. Get back to your routines.

If you're struggling, reach out. I am available to support your family in coaching no matter where you live.

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