This is the sixth part of a series we have titled “Concepts and Skills of Parenting.” It is adapted from the book Healing Parents: Helping Wounded Children Learn to Trust and Love. To read Part 1 — which provides a look at secure attachment at the start of life — click here. Part 2 explores the core concepts of child development. Part 3 examines the importance of trust and reciprocity in the formation of secure attachment. Part 4 provides an overview of the developing brain. Part 5 explains the importance of parenting with a mindset focused on opportunity, not crisis.
To be clam is synonymous with being levelheaded, peaceful, patient and composed. However, remaining calm isn’t easy — especially if you have challenging children.
The usual reactions of frustrated parents are to impose their wills, retaliate or withdraw to avoid a fight. While those approaches may bring short-term satisfaction to the parent, they aren’t the building blocks for establishing a loving, lifelong relationship. The only effective way to positively influence children is to gain their trust, making them willing — not necessarily happy — to follow your direction.
A calm and consistent approach to parenting works best — especially because there are several unhealthy impacts on children when parents are emotionally agitated. Consider what happens when a parent is:
- Not in a leadership role. These parents react to their children and allow them to take the lead. This erodes a child’s confidence that the parent can be a responsible and reliable caregiver and safe authority figure. “How can I trust you when I have the power to make you so emotionally upset?” the child thinks. Parents need to be leaders.
- Allowing the child to replicate stressful and dysfunctional patterns of relating to others. Perhaps your child experienced these dynamics as a foster child living with another family or in an institution. Maybe your child is simply stuck in patterns developed within your family. Without intervention, these children often grow up thinking, “I’m used to turmoil and conflict; I can navigate well and never have to change.” Parents need to engage to help make change.
- Reinforcing the child’s negative core beliefs. “Your anger and disapproval affirm my belief that I am bad and undeserving of love,” the child thinks. Parents need to calmly and consistently express love.
- Expecting less of — or keeping the bar low for — your child to avoid more stress and conflict. “I can wear you down, you’ll leave me alone, and I am off the hook,” the child thinks. Parents need to consistently communicate expectations and lovingly hold their children accountable.
- Feeding into the child’s discomfort with, and desire to avoid, emotional closeness by perpetuating an adversarial and emotionally distant relationship. “As long as we are mad at each other, I don’t have to be close to you or anyone else,” the child thinks. Parents need to consistently reach out.
Calming parenting for children with compromised attachment
It is especially important to remain calm, centered and emotionally balanced with children who have compromised attachment.
These children did not receive adequate emotional regulation from caregivers. They missed the necessary balance of up-regulation (stimulation) and down-regulation (soothing). Unlike securely attached children, they do not internalize parental care and learn self-regulation — in chief part because they did not develop the ability to regulate their emotions and impulses.
Children with compromised attachment can become behaviorally and biochemically disorganized, resulting in aggression, impulsivity and distractibility. They overreact to stimulation, stress and anxiety.
In time, parents who provide a consistent example of calmness teach their children to be more calm — which gives them space to feel a greater sense of safety in relationships and security enough to think rationally and learn.