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Most parents say that the hardest moments of their day happen after school, and it’s no wonder. Sometimes it’s just a little moment that triggers intense frustration, and sends us right over the edge.  We do our best to keep it together, to solve problems as they pop up, but at some point, our best intentions backfire in surprising ways.

The build-up

Here’s how it starts: we come home, slip off our jackets and collectively let down our hair. Backpacks are turned inside out, and papers spill all over the table. The remains of breakfast might still be on the counter, and now there’s a basket of markets sitting on top of the day’s mail. We’ve all had a day full of ups and downs, so there’s a load of emotional clutter to be sorted through or discarded as well. After debating about how much homework to do, searching for the latest permission slip, negotiating over how many bites of salad, which cup the milk should have been served in, and whether tonight is indeed bath night, we wonder: “Did I remember to ask them how their day was? Is anyone going to ask me?” The “final straw” could be anything. Maybe it’s yet another struggle to get pyjamas on, or an argument about how much TV is enough. That feeling of dread starts to well up.  “Why can’t we get this right? Why can’t we just be a peaceful family? Why can’t you just listen? What am I doing wrong? Why is it so hard?”

When you see yourself headed for the edge…

When you’re in the midst of frustration, you see the problem in front of you, and you think: I HAVE TO SOLVE THIS. THIS IS ALL ON ME.  Ever heard yourself say this? This is the moment where we want to yell. We want to lay down the law. We want to say “We’re never doing this again!” Here’s the problem: you’re looking at the end result, a struggle, a pile-up. You can clean up the mess, but the way you react right now isn’t necessarily going to prevent it from happening again.

1) This too shall pass (survive it now, problem-solve it later) 

It’s so hard to stay calm when you feel as if you’re all alone, trying to prevent catastrophe and watching leaks spring all around you. It’s also really hard to have a constructive discussion when you’re up to your knees in water (or clutter, or bickering…) Your stress level is rising, and your problem-solving abilities are not at their best in this moment. When you feel yourself getting overwhelmed, resist the temptation to:

  • to dish out a punishment
  • look for blame
  • yell
  • give very loud motivational speeches

All you need to worry about is how to get through this moment. If you need to take it ten seconds at a time, that’s okay. Remember to breathe, make sure everyone is safe. If everyone is breathing and no one is bleeding, you’re okay. Don’t try to fix it all right now.   When you’re ready to take the next step…    

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2) Look for the leak, not the mess

Imagine that emotions and behaviours are part of a system, like the plumbing in your house. If you walked into your living room and found a puddle of water in the middle of the living room floor, you would reach for a mop, but what would you do next?  You’d look up at the ceiling, right? You wouldn’t try to just paint over it, or put a bucket under it. When we forget to follow emotions and behaviours to the source, we’re stuck with the same mess over and over again, but cleaning up the mess doesn’t solve the problem. What’s in front of you right now is part of a larger system, so you can’t “solve” it until you see the whole picture.

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 3) Trace it to the source

When you have found a moment of calm, then you can problem-solve. You look for something you can fix. You look at what led up to the issue. Sometimes, a part of the routine needs to be replaced or add. Sometimes, an obstacle needs to be removed. When you look at the system as a whole, you can begin to find ways to prevent the problem from happening again. Sometimes the source of the problem isn’t really “solvable.” Maybe you’ve looked at the whole routine, and you’ve noticed a list of issues such as

  • stress at work
  • short attention spans
  • cramped living space
  • physical illness

Tough issues sometimes turn out to be fixable, but in the meantime, focus your attention on what you CAN do.

  • Can you plan your meals ahead of time, so there’s more time to set up activities and distract the children when they usually start teasing each other?
  • Can you put on some dance music when you come home so the kids can shake and wiggle instead of shoving each other or jumping off the back of the couch?
  • Can you grab some markers and create a step-by-step poster so the kids can follow the routine or remember an important step?
  • Can you adjust your work schedule so you start work earlier and pick up the kids earlier? (This might sound surprising, but the family who shared this story with me reported that it was a total game-changer.)
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The next time you feel yourself headed for “the edge”…

When you spot that stained underwear lying inexplicably in the hallway AGAIN, or your child’s teacher sends another note to report that homework has been lost, it feels like you’re the only one trying to clean up the mess. Yes, it’s a problem, and yes, it’s overwhelming to think that you have to figure it out right in that moment. Just remember: you’re mopping up a puddle right now, not fixing the leak.  To repair the leak and create a system that works in your home, you’ll need some time. You’ll need a strategy for inviting your family to work as a team, and an idea of how to take the first step toward solving this frustrating issue.. There’s so much more to say about self-calming, about family problem-solving, about “unsolvable” problems, so I’ll be adding to the blog soon.  hop on the list, and I’ll make sure you get more of the tools you need to keep your family in a peaceful flow.

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