February 21, 2023
Having arguments with your kids takes work. These disagreements are often disruptive and hurtful to everybody, leaving painful memories marked by regret. Everybody gets carried away and suddenly an escalating dynamic turns into a raging bonfire. I’ve certainly lost it with my kids and, over the years, I wish I had better tools to make different choices. Instead, I found myself being surprised every time tempers flared in yet another new way and floundering to respond effectively instead of overreacting. Let me share a situation that, frankly, still haunts me today.
Several years ago, on a bitterly cold New Year’s Eve, I had an epic meltdown. It was very cold that night, bitter—15 degrees Fahrenheit cold. My ninth-grade daughter bounced downstairs in a short-sleeved cropped tee shirt and jeans to wander around town with friends for the First Night festivities. She grabbed a thin, faux leather jacket as she headed towards the door. I stepped into her path: “Sweetie, I don’t think your outfit is quite warm enough.” “Why? I have a jacket” she sneered with a smile. “Because it’s 15 degrees and you are just getting over a cold?” We went back and forth until my husband chimed in that I was right and she stomped back upstairs. When she returned wearing a long sleeve crop top and reached for the same thin jacket, my frustration from weeks of constant, unpleasant negotiations and the absurdity of this situation, I went over the cliff of sanity into the land of crazy parents. I rushed lickety-split to the door and blocked it with my body, shouting: “NO! YOU ARE NOT LEAVING THIS HOUSE until you get another coat. You are just getting over a cold and you CANNOT go out for HOURS dressed in NO WARM COAT! NO WAY!” My daughter stared hatefully at me, gritted her teeth, and grabbed a down jacket with red gloves shoved in the pockets. “You can forget about a hat!” she yelled as I stepped aside and she slammed the door on her way out. My heart pounding, I realized immediately how much I blew that and felt terribly ashamed. I may have won that battle but with my dysregulation and the unpleasantness of it all, there was no satisfaction in it.
Does this situation or a similar one sound familiar to you? Many families whose kids may be neurotypical or neurodivergent, go down this path of emotional dysregulation and poor impulse control. Surely, it would have been better if I had pulled my husband aside quickly and decided together on a plan of action in light of my daughter’s defiance. Trying to collaborate on a solution with her would have been equally effective—one where she looked cool but also stayed warm. Any of these options would have avoided the blowout that occurred instead of flatly imposing rules and wrestling for who’s got the power.
Understanding the biology of an upset can assist you in responding more effectively and making alternative choices to your own reactivity. When people become angry or agitated, the emotional part of our brains (the amygdala) takes over the thinking part of our brain (prefrontal cortex). Feelings rule the day as adrenalin courses through our bodies, ratcheting up the intensity of our reactions, our words, and our behaviors. To re-stabilize, you have to stop this flood by slowing down your breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure and using language to describe what’s going on. While it takes seconds for the amygdala to activate the fight, flight, or freeze response, it can take up to 20 minutes for the body to recover from the adrenaline and cortisol to return to normal levels. We want to practice self-control for ourselves first and then assist our kids in doing the same. We have to teach them (and learn ourselves) how to identify the signs of angry feelings building up inside of them and what tools they can use to slow themselves down.
Instead of being triggered every time conflict arises and perhaps baffled about how you missed the signs that something was percolating, it helps to create a plan to respond to any chaos when it emerges. Because it will occur over and over again, shapeshifting so that whatever you’ve prepared yourself for, now looks different. Being a parent means having times when you and your child will disagree and will wrestle with power dynamics. In these moments before and during an outburst, you need a strategy. Having a plan for explosions gives everybody in the family predictability about what will happen and what to do when they occur. Instead of being surprised each time emotions heat up and improvising when you’re also upset, rely on my STAR (Stop-Think-Act-Recover) sequence. You will need to collaborate with your child or teen in advance to set up this plan. Choose a time to talk about reducing conflict in your family and then work together on what your STAR strategy will look like.
- STOP: This stop is the first step in recalibration. It’s a break in the action and relies on a predetermined Time Apart. Create a signal for the family so everybody knows when to begin the slowdown. Then discuss what types of self-soothing activities will help people settle down. Younger children might prefer being with you for a hug and a story. Tweens and teens will likely be happier going to their rooms. In a Time-Apart, no one is in trouble. It’s just that things got too heated and a reset is in order. Write down a list of alternative activities or self-soothers (music, coloring, shooting hoops, trampoline, reading, yoga, etc.) and post it on the refrigerator and in your kids’ rooms so they have ideas of what to do. Set a timer for 15-20 minutes depending on the age of your child and, when it goes off, you’re ready to move to the THINK phase.
- THINK: This is a time to come back together and listen, really listen, to what your child or teen is telling you. Ask them to review what happened, what they would have wanted to do differently, and any other feelings or observations. Reflect back what you hear them say. Offer your own observations about what occurred succinctly but this is NOT the time to teach anything or argue about whose truth is correct. You may see things differently and that’s fine. Acknowledge what they’ve said and be accountable yourself also. There are no interruptions and no blame. Once everybody has spoken and felt heard, it’s time to figure out how to move on. This is when you brainstorm ideas and use problem-solving techniques to go forward. Your focus is on figuring out the NEXT RIGHT THING to do. Ask them, “Where should we go now? What do you think we should do?” Whether it’s an apology, making amends, cleaning up a mess or agreeing to disagree, start by meeting them where they are. Collaborate on identifying the next logical step and pivot together.
- ACT: This is when you enact what you’ve agreed to. You’re not lecturing them about what they did wrong, disciplining them, or explaining the future pitfalls of whatever poor choice they made. If a consequence is appropriate, hold off on naming what it is so you don’t trigger another outburst. There’s everything right with waiting and letting you and your kids reflect on what’s happened. Moving forward with the action is what’s called for now.
- RECOVER: Provide time and space to process what’s just happened without triggering another eruption. You and your kids have moved into your next activity: stay there and let things flow back into normalcy. The time for teaching a lesson, explaining a logical consequence, or offering feedback is later when your bodies and brains are settled and calm. Perhaps several hours later or maybe the next day, find a quiet moment and talk about what lessons can be gleaned from the incident. Ask your child or teen first what they think and then share your ideas.
In order to teach “STOP, THINK, ACT, RECOVER”, frankly, you have to be able to do it yourself. I’ve learned this the hard way and, I’m glad to say, things have improved greatly with my daughter. It’s my hope that you can benefit too. Your efforts today will ensure that the tools for self-control, self-reflection and good judgment are evolving as your children and adolescents are developing. Calling for that pause in the action is the first, and for many of us, hardest step in your STAR strategy. Be patient with yourself and your kids as you are learning this new approach for arguing less and connecting more.
You may also enjoy reading more articles written by Sharon Saline, Psy.D. for Intrepid Ed News.