By Lisa Cucinotta
I have never believed that yelling at your kids is particularly effective or necessary, except in extreme circumstances, like danger. That being said, I haven’t exactly practiced said parenting philosophy regularly. The kind of parent I aspire to be and the kind of parent I’ve been most days the last six + years line up only about 50% or so. I imagine this is pretty common among parents and so I’m guessing there’s been yelling at your house too, at least the exasperated kind.
Lately, since I’ve been practicing parenting with P.E.A.C.E. I’ve noticed 2 things: The first is that I am not being as hard on myself for my perceived parenting flaws. The second is that living with P.E.A.C.E. has made me a much calmer, happier person and as a bi-product, I am able to practice calmer parenting with much less yelling (we’re not talking a full state of zen parenting bliss, but I definitely feel we’re making progress over here).
I am very open on this blog about my challenges embracing parenting and my anxiety problems, which pre-dated having kids. It made for quite a cocktail when you mixed self-pity, generalized anxiety disorder, lack of autonomy, lack of sleep (at least in the early years) and parenting.
Self-pity was a deep driver of my anxiety before I had kids, and one of the ways I managed those things was trying to exert control over my environment. There’s nothing like parenting small children to make you feel completely out of control. You can not predict them, nor can you always manage their endless stream of needs and wants and interruptions and crazy ideas and dirty hands and spilled milk, and…. wait hold on, I just fell down a rabbit hole there for a second.
But for every time they get peanut butter on your shirt right before they leave for work there is a moment where your daughter calls a thermos a “thermostat” or announces she needs a family hug, or your son does a booty dance to Rihanna in his diaper or requests extra hugs at bedtime. I want to make sure you know this, and know that I know it too, that a safe space to complain about parenting absolutely needs to have a place to also sing its praises. Being someone’s mom or dad is an awesome honor and privilege, and when we lose sight of that, like I have hundreds of times, we are doing a disservice to ourselves and to our kids.
This is why a big part of P.E.A.C.E. is the “bank of proof”. The bank is where you store your positive experiences – both parenting successes and moments of pure enjoyment with the kids. It’s part of the Embrace stage, (the second E) where you embrace the outcomes, no matter how small the win. And it’s crucial to continually working through the first E, Examine, where you are able to draw on the bank when you feel yourself getting worked up. Both Es can save you a lot of yelling.
So, back to this new calmer parenting thing I am working on (modestly) mastering. How does it work? It’s something that honestly needs a lot of practice, patience and a good deal of self-control and doesn’t that just sound easy (ha). I spoke in my last post about how practicing P.E.A.C.E. is like starting a weight lifting practice and I really mean it. Not just because you start small and build (a literal analogy) but also because if you stop practicing it regularly you will have less strength to continue it.
My #1 tip for you to start with is to build up your flexibility. You have to challenge yourself to say yes more often, and to make sure when you say no you have a real reason, and give it to your kids. I tend to be a rigid parent, and once I say something, I have a tendency to refuse to back down. What I have been doing lately is questioning my rules, especially because some of them genuinely make no sense to anyone but me.
Here’s an example: I have stopped refusing to read certain books to Julia before bed time based on how close it was to 7pm. I discovered that my brain was so focused on having the reading end within a few minutes 7pm because that is her bed time. And I had secret anxiety I wasn’t even fully consciously aware of that Brian would be upset with me if I came down too much later than 7 because he was timing dinner with her bedtime. Guess what happened recently when I stopped caring as much about nailing bedtime to the minute? Pretty much nothing bad. Julia and I stopped arguing about books. I stopped feeling tense while I was reading them. Brian never seemed bothered I came down later and on the “latest” days I was still downstairs by 7:15. Listen, I do believe routines are important for kids, and I’m a little OCD, so my flexibility isn’t going to mean Julia can just go to bed whenever, but giving a little has resulted in getting a lot.
It turns out there are a ton of these rolling around in my brain and I am trying to knock them down one at a time. I’m not always successful – today I managed not to yell when I was frustrated with Julia while we were out shopping, but I did say a few things that in retrospect I wish I hadn’t, even if I said them calmly. On the bright side I didn’t beat myself up for it after, Julia seemed ok with what I said, and we had still had fun shopping, so that can all go in the bank.
Your yelling or impatience or frustration might (or likely does) come from a totally different place than mine. A fifteen minute adjustment to bedtime might be laughable to someone who doesn’t stress about routines. But I am sure you aspire to be a calmer mom too. So try it out. Let me know how it goes!
By Lisa Cucinotta
I started this blog because I wanted to expose the truth about the challenges of parenting. I’ve talked about the importance of honesty in revealing the tough parts so that we don’t feel so alone. I’ve addressed postpartum depression, losing a pregnancy, and the (not so) magic of babies among other topics. But something that I haven’t tackled much is specifics for how we can make it better. Mostly this is because I felt unqualified to give parenting advice, since I have struggled with it quite a bit (spoiler alert: so do most people).
Recently I have been going through a period of major inspiration in my life. I’ve been more productive and more positive than I have been in years. The happiness and calm that has been coursing through me has been such a contrast to the ball of anxiety and gloom I was from mid 2016 to mid 2017 (aka “the dark period”). I have noticed that my parenting methods have improved pretty dramatically since I have become more peaceful and positive. I’ve long believed, and seen the proof, that yelling doesn’t actually help the situation, but my frayed nerves prevented me from effectively practicing that on a regular basis before.
I have been working recently on a self-help and self-care philosophy that I’ve dubbed P.E.A.C.E. (gotta love a good acryonym!). While I had originally built it as a method for helping myself and others with anxiety, I have discovered it has a number of other practical applications, including work issues like coping with stress, identifying priorities and managing people. But it is also super good for parenting.
P.E.A.C.E. is simple. It’s five steps that you run through during the course of a situation. However, you can also access each of the steps independently depending on what you need at the time.
Here’s an example of parenting with P.E.A.C.E. in action:
You are going out to a nice dinner with your husband and toddler and another family tonight. You’ve had mixed results taking her out; sometimes she behaves great, sometimes she is a disaster, so you’re a bit nervous/stressed about how it will go.
Prepare: This is your pre-game. What worked during those successful dinners and what didn’t at the rough ones? Based on that you can prepare for a better outcome: Let’s go at 6 instead of 7 so she will be less tired. We’ll bring a few toys and books. We’ll have cheerios to feed her before the food comes.
Examine: It’s game time. You’re in the restaurant. She starts to cry. You give her the books and she throws them. You offer her cheerios and she isn’t eating them. You begin to get impatient and stressed. What if the restaurant throws you out? What if you can never go out to eat with her until she is a teenager? What if your friends think your a bad mom because their kids are sitting so nicely.
This spiral and frustration is what usually leads to the impulsive behavior – the yelling, the anxiety, the obsessive thoughts. It’s time to examine what is really happening. Take a beat. Clear your mind of the worries and focus on reality. I suggest that you begin to keep what I call the “bank of proof”. This can be something that just lives in your head, or if you need it, something you physically write down, ideally on your phone so that you can access it anywhere. Your bank of proof is a reminder of your “wins”. Say to yourself: we’ve gone out to dinner 6 times in the last year and never been thrown out, no matter how she behaved. People are nice because they understand kids aren’t always perfect. You’ve had luck in the past calming her down by playing games with her – why don’t you try that?
Accept: You are now at the solution phase. It is what it is so let’s deal with it. She is crying. It’s not the end of the world. She will stop at some point. Try that game you remember working in the past. The one where you have to guess animals by the sound they make. Hey, that seems to be working. Now let’s get some bread and butter over here and fill her up. Maybe she’s hangry. If all else fails, you can always take her outside for a quick walk, or (last resort) let her play with your phone.
Calm: Do an emotional gut check. Now that you’re not zoomed in on your fears or anger, it’s a lot easier to process what is happening. You want to enjoy the rest of dinner, and not feel worried she will do it again (but if she does it again, just keep going through E and A), or make a rash decision to leave. You’ve got this, girl! You can choose to enjoy yourself tonight. There is this great quote from Mary Engelbreit that has always stuck with me “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you feel about it.” IT IS NOT EASY TO DO. But it is SO WORTH IT to work on this.
Embrace: You are in the car on the way home from dinner. You made it! The rest of the dinner turned out ok. Your toddler wasn’t always happy, but she did eat some of her pasta, and you and your husband had a much needed glass of wine, and no one in the restaurant gave you evil looks, and now she is sleeping in the car seat like a little angel and you survived. You can add this to your bank of proof. Build up your wins, and draw on them whenever you need. Be proud of yourself. You can embrace even the more shitty situations because there is always a redemption point in there somewhere.
I truly believe P.E.A.C.E. can provide a true path to changing your life as a parent. I just practiced it on a week-long vacation with the kids and my husband in the Dominican Republic and it was amazing. I focused before the trip on not being apprehensive and obsessive or worrying about bad outcomes, which is something I often do before traveling. I was able to go into the trip more calmly and parent with more enjoyment. I very rarely get to spend that amount of concentrated time with my kids because I am a working mom, and I thought I would feel exhausted but I came home feeling peaceful and refreshed. I am not saying the trip was all roses and sunshine because let’s be honest, we were dealing with a 3 and 6 year old here (I will write a post about vacation soon, because I highly recommend the resort!) But there was so much magic, so much fun, and so much happiness. Were the kids behaving any better or worse than usual? I don’t think so. But I did, and it made all the difference.
Think of this method like lifting weights. Day one you aren’t going to pick up the biggest barbells and hoist them over your head. But with continued practice, you can build your strength and accomplish bigger goals. I believe you can find a path to being a calmer and more rational parent and be able to enjoy your kids and your life more!
Note: I will be writing a lot more about P.E.A.C.E. in the future and working on it’s various applications. If you are interested in learning more about it, please reach out. I’m looking for beta testers to give feedback on how to distill the idea with the most simplicity and also what specific tactics lead to the best outcomes!