Last week I posted a reflection on a story about losing my cool with my kids. For me, tending trust is a lot about situating stories like those within a broader context of growth and discovery – panning out to see such stories as single chapters in a much richer, more beautiful tale.
Toward this end, I thought it’d make sense to describe the kind of trust-tending that happens in our household after the drama of mommy or daddy expressing anger in less-than-constructive ways. If you don’t have kids – and even if you do – I’m thinking these moves could work well no matter what the ages or relationships of those involved in such experiences.
So here are some of the things my husband and I try to do:
Apologize. Once we’ve cooled down enough to do so honestly, we say we’re sorry. We try to be specific about what it is we’re sorry about.
Take responsibility. Kids often internalize blame when things don’t go like they should, and we try to help our kids understand that it’s our responsibility as parents to practice self control, no matter what they do or say. We own that we’re still working on self control, and that we’ll keep working at it.
Debrief with the child toward whom our anger was directed. We ask our daughter or son what the event was like for them. We try to say as little as possible, and when we do talk, to get into their shoes as much as we can. (I wouldn’t like to be talked to that way. What was that like for you?) We’ve found that even when a child acts like they aren’t bothered by what happened or doesn’t initiate any further conversation about it, when invited to talk, and particularly in a setting conducive to one-on-one conversation (for us, this means bedtime) they have big feelings about what happened, and things they’d like to say.
Debrief with the child who was merely an observer of the episode. It’s easy to focus all our trust-tending efforts on the child who received our wrath, but angry moms and dads and exchanges between them and siblings can be fearsome for other siblings to watch. As above, even when the witnessing sibling doesn’t initiate conversation about what happened, we’ve found they actually have big feelings about it, and have healing and processing they need to do as well.
Get conscious of our triggers. It’s easy to want to move on from our anger completely, but we’ve found it really helpful, once we’ve cooled down, to take some moments getting conscious of what actually triggered it. Was it really about our own fatigue, hunger, or illness, or was there a telltale recipe beyond that that triggers us all of the time? My anger flares most predictably when I feel helpless in a situation where I know something really needs to happen in a timely way (i.e. we need to leave a park before we all get ravenous; we need to get to school on time). Understanding why we got angry is a HUGE move for us toward figuring out how to avoid hurtful exchanges in the future.
Strategize how to avoid getting triggered again and what to do when we see we’re heading that way. Sometimes there’s no getting around triggering situations. But even in those instances, the triggers can often be made slightly less potent with a little bit of forethought. For example, I can always have some kind of snack in my bag to give myself or the kids when I know it’s possible we won’t get home by mealtime (something I didn’t do last week). In the case of our park time last week, I’ve noted that no matter how good I feel when we head out for the day, if I’m still a little bit sick, I need to set a timer for an hour and round up the troops once that hour is through. No waiting until I’m ready to keel over completely before trying to get kids and so much stuff back to the car.
And in the case of what to do when I can feel myself already getting triggered, I’ve decided I’m going to try something new the next time. I’m going to see whether it’s possible, once I’ve noticed my anger beginning to flare, to pull outside of myself a little bit and watch myself and my child/ren as a third party observer who isn’t so personally involved in the situation. What if I pretend I’m watching as a grandparent with all the advantage of decades’ distance from early years of parenting? What if I pretend I’m someone surrounded by love, like in this ritual? I don’t know what will happen, but I’m imagining that having at least part of my consciousness not fully enmeshed in the here-ness and now-ness of whatever it is that’s making me angry couldn’t help but cool me down.
Try to avoid trigger-rich situations altogether for a few days. After displays of intense anger, everyone is a little bit tender. We’ve found that having some days of relative peace afterward is a good way to boost the rebuilding of trust. And if some of the reason for such displays is about ongoing sleep deprivation or illness, chances are high that such displays will happen again in trigger-rich situations. For me, this means having extra modest goals when it comes to outings and errand-running. It means not trying to do anything beyond super simple meal-prep, since dinner time is notorious around our household for everyone being on edge. It means starting the process of getting ready to leave the house for school well before it’s time to actually leave, so that mama doesn’t need to turn into drill sergeant.
Constructively redirect guilt and shame. Rather than tell my child/ren more often than usual that I love them, or give them special treats in the days following a blow-up – both things that guilt and shame and a child’s vulnerability/distrust can make us want to do, and that seem to elicit less, rather than more, trust in the long run – we try to put our love for our kids into practical action. How can I get more sleep or maintain my blood sugars so that I’m less grumpy? How can I be more present to my kids when I’m actually with them? How can I tune my expectations of my kids’ impulse control, conflict management skills, and coping mechanisms to the ages they actually are, rather than the ages I sometimes wish would correspond to their skills in such things?
Cut everyone extra slack. It’s hard to be a kid and it’s hard to be a parent. Heck, it’s hard to be a human being most of the time! Navigating fear and guilt and shame are things everyone in a family or relationship will have to do after hurtful episodes, and such seas are rarely smooth sailing. Expecting choppiness and adjusting expectations accordingly can be one of the biggest expressions of love any of us could give or receive.
I would love to hear any ideas any of you might have to add to this list. And leads to other helpful resources are likewise welcome!