by John Hoffman
You know how people say, “Wow! He was in such a state!”
That “state” they’re talking about is a combination of intense emotion and a high level of arousal. I don’t mean sexual arousal. I mean a feeling in the body, a combination of energy and tension. When a person is in a “state”, that’s usually code for high energy, high tension and intense emotion.
We need to be in high-energy, high-tension mode sometimes, like when we’re dealing with a situation that calls for urgent action.
I recall one time when my three-year-old was about to dart out from between two cars into the path of an oncoming car. I exploded into action. I didn’t have time to grab him, but was able to scream, “STOP” at the top of my lungs. My kid froze and the driver slammed on his brakes. Life saved. That was a good use of high tension, high energy and emotional alarm
Most of the time, the best state for parenting is calm and alert. That’s low tension and moderate energy without intense emotion. You already know this I’m sure. But let’s connect the dots anyway. “Which of the more difficult parts of fathering are you better at when you’re tense and upset? Which aspects of parenting are you worse at when you’re calm and alert?”
The trick is how to get yourself back to calm and alert when you’re upset, tense, angry, frustrated or feeling down. And what can you do to help yourself be calm and alert more often. These, I would argue, are two of the key skills of parenting.
Whatever your philosophy is – attachment parenting, lots of structure and rules, free-range parenting – you’ll do it better if you can be calm and alert most of the time. One part of this is knowing how to get yourself back to calm and alert when you’re losing it.
Let’s say you’re already stressed out for whatever reason and then your kid does something that you really aren’t happy about.
In that case, sometimes you need to do something to calm yourself. You might need to just walk away for a few minutes – if that’s a safe option. Go somewhere, close the door, lie down or take a few slow breaths. Take a quick shower perhaps. Or, if you have a partner or someone else who can take over with the kids, get out of the house. Go for a walk. Physical activity is a good way to get back to calm, even though it uses energy.
I remember taking a very long walk one Saturday, right at the time I should have been sitting down to lunch with my family. It had been a tense morning. Then something really set me off. I can’t even remember what it was. In other words, it was some trivial incident that, on a lower stress day, wouldn’t have bugged me as much.
But that day, I needed a long walk – like, for an hour – to calm down.
The other part of calm and alert parenting is knowing how to recover your positive energy after stress. People always talk about coping with stress. Coping is important. We need to do it sometimes. But coping burns energy. So we need to have ways to recover our energy. Stress, tension, anxiety and anger all burn our energy. That’s energy we could use to make good parenting judgments, have fun with our kids or do other positive things. So, when you’ve burned up energy because of stress, you need to help yourself recover that energy.
Part of that is a healthy lifestyle – enough rest, good food, exercise and making time for things you like to do. Doing enjoyable things creates energy. Come to think of it, having fun with your kids can be a great way to restore your positive energy.
Another part is figuring out activities that help you recover. For some guys it’s sports – running, playing hockey or working out. For others it’s yoga, reading, hanging out with friends or even going to a place of worship. All of these activities burn some energy, but they also create energy and help us restore our positive energies.
So, to recap. You can help yourself be a good dad by figuring out what helps you be calm and alert more often and how to get back to calm and alert when you lost it. That is important as anything else you do to be a good parent, employee, partner or friend.
Your kids will be better off and so will you.
If you want to learn more about this topic, check out a new book called Self-Reg. How to Help Your Child (and you) Break the Stress Cycle and Fully Engage with Life, by Canadian self-regulation expert, Dr. Stuart Shanker. That’s where a lot of the ideas in this blog came from.