By: Cristina Trette, MA, LMFT
Some parenting moments can be intense. Big tantrums, sibling fights, or child outbursts can trigger us. Sometimes we can take a deep breath, use our tools, and get through these moments with grace. Yet other times we lose it right along with our kids. When we become emotionally dysregulated, we cannot access our logic, perspective taking, compassion, and empathy making it almost impossible to connect with our children. We may move into a state of fight, flight, or freeze, and if we do, it will be very hard to stay grounded during difficult times.
When parents become very overwhelmed, sometimes they need to take a break in order to return to balance. This may mean walking out of the room, stepping outside, or putting a conversation on hold. Sometimes all a parent needs is 30 seconds to focus on breathing. Other times a parent may need twenty minutes or more to get back to a space of responsiveness. Breaks are not to be used a punishment. Rather they are a tool for keeping all family members level-headed.
I remember a time when I really wanted to take a break. I was tired, my daughter was tired, and our dynamic was off. My daughter was frustrated about something. I wanted to turn things around yet everything I said or did seemed to make her more upset. I was getting upset too and needed a break in order to get myself back into balance.
I told my daughter that I was going to take a break and walked into my room. Note that the first mistake I made was when I told her I was taking a break, my tone was firm and accusing. As I started walking to my room, my daughter followed me, and became every more upset than she had been before. As much as I wanted to stay calm, I raised my voice and said I was going outside instead. I left my room, headed outside, and she followed.
I told her I was going to the mailbox. Again, she followed. I could feel the tension rising in my body. My tone was sharp. I tried to convince her to stay outside and jump on the trampoline with her brother. This led her to get even more upset. There was a part of me that knew that if I could just pause, validate her experience, reflect her emotions, and be with her for a moment that she would settle down. Yet there was another part of me that desperately wanted the intensity to stop and knew that getting some space would help.
I just needed a break!
Parent breaks can be an important tool for regulation and connected parent-child relationships. It is far better for parents to take a break than it would be to engage in punitive behavior. Yet if you are wanting to take a break when your kid is already dysregulated, it may not be as easy as it sounds. Keep reading for ways to implement this valuable tool.
1. Teach the value and importance of breaks
During times that you and your child are balanced and centered, talk about breaks. Learn about whether or not they want breaks. Share about how when you feel angry or overwhelmed or worn out, it helps you to take a break. Explain what breaks looks like (taking a walk around the block, getting a class of water, heading to your room, or putting a conflictual conversation on hold). Explain that when you are taking a break you are creating space for your thoughts and feelings, focusing on your breath, and getting back into balance. Help them see that you are a better parent when you take some time for yourself. Like anything we want to teach our children, they will need to hear this message over and over again.
2. We all need space
If the only time you take a break is during conflict, or when your child is acting out, they may think that your break is a punishment. Over time, your break may be associated with disconnection from you and can trigger even more emotional dysregulation. Really, we all need breaks on occasion in order to remain present and engaged. If you are an introvert, you may find that you need solitude time more often than others. So, start taking breaks when things are going good. Have conversations that help everyone in the family to honor, respect, and value an individuals need for space.
3. During conflict, take your break well before you reach your breaking point
Don't wait until you have smoke coming out of your ears! Think of it as a prevention. If you notice your body becoming tight and your heart rate increasing, these are signals that you are under significant stress. Take care of yourself, and your child, by announcing that you will be taking a break.
4. Connect with your child before you go
Pay attention to your tone. Do not use harsh words. You will want to exude kindness as well as respect for self and child. Get down on their level, look in their eyes, and maybe offer a hug. Then explain that you are feeling stressed and that you need a break and that you will be back. For younger kids it can help to set a timer that stays near your child so that he or she can come get you when the timer goes off. This step is so important.
5. Reassure him that you will talk later
If you had been discussing an important topic, let them know that you will finish talking later. We all get into arguments with our kids from time to time. If you and your child are very upset during a discussion you won't resolve anything until you are both regulated. Assure your child that you will be able to discuss later when everyone is back in balance. Do not walk away without making an agreement about this! Make sure to follow through.
5. Don't just walk away
If you leave your child without explaining what is happening for you, this can trigger abandonment. Be authentic and honest while explaining to your child where you are going, what you will do there, and when you will be back. I know we are only talking about a short period of time but this is very important!
6. Take a break with your child
For very young kids, we may not be able to walk out of the room for safety reasons. And other kids may be so dysregulated that it may make more sense for us to take a break with our kids. We always have the option of saying, "I do not like what is happening between us right now. Let's go hang out on the couch and snuggle or watch a movie together". Breaks will look different depending on your child's age and the personalities and temperaments of parents and children. Yet they could include taking a walk or doing some sort of soothing activity together. The key is to notice when we are becoming dysregulated and to take action that will move us back into balance.
7. Consider a longer break
If you notice that you are overwhelmed a lot or that you quickly move into distress when your kid is having a hard time, this is a signal to pay attention to. Parenting is demanding. We need to have time built into our days for rest and resourcing. Take some time to look at your overall lifestyle and routine and determine how you can build more down time (or adult time, or alone time) into your day.
Hi, I am Cristina Trette. I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the Founder of Integrative Family Therapy. I help others improve their most important relationships. If you have any comments or questions, please let me know in the comments box below.
Hello. I am Cristina Trette. I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. I help others create thriving relationships, joyful families, and vibrant wellbeing.