“You would think that after a year of this we would have figured out how to live together without fighting. But right now everyone is just prickly and exhausted,” a parent recently confided.
She isn’t alone in her fatigue. Adam Grant recently wrote a piece in the New York Times giving us a word to describe the tired and apathetic psychological space between thriving and depression that many parents find themselves in: languishing.
While each of us faces a unique combination of personal strengths and challenges due to our identities and geographies, huge stressors like unrelenting racialized violence, COVID-19, and economic uncertainty are putting a tremendous burden on our nervous systems.
The challenge is that stress in our collective systems can increase conflict in our personal ones. As parents, we really rely on the power of our prefrontal cortex to help us handle conflict inside of our homes. When we are relatively calm, recharged, and regulated, this part of our brain helps us greet challenging behaviors with empathy and perspective. We are also better able to manage our own feelings, consider our kids’ perspectives, and engage in creative problem solving.
On our best days, our brain provides essential parenting superpowers for healthy communication. They include:
- Problem solving
The challenge is that when our prefrontal cortex is drained and strained, our three superpower “Ps” can quickly become replaced by another set of “Ps” that are a recipe for power struggles and conflict. Let’s take them one at a time:
When we are tired, we are far more likely to take our kids challenging behavior personally. This is what this can sound like in our heads: “My kid is doing to me.” or “This behavior means that I am a bad parent.”
The reality is that kids’ behaviors often reflect a complex combination of development (their prefrontal cortex is, after all, still under construction), stress, temperament, skills, and needs. But once we frame their behavior as a personal affront – then we are more likely to get pulled into heated conflict.
Naming this first P allows us to get some distance from it. We can think to ourselves, “This is not about me.” Then we can take a deep breath and call on the power of our prefrontal cortex to get back to purpose. Our purpose is not to “win” a battle. It isn’t to be right. It isn’t to be the perfect parent.
During times of strain and struggle, our purpose is to stay on the same team with our kids. Try, “This is hard isn’t it? We will figure this out together.”
Once we start to take things personally, it is easy to slip into the second “P,” Pervasive. This means that we start to see only the negative or challenging behaviors in our kids. This is what this can sound like in our heads. “Everything is bad, all the time.”
When we are tired, we are vulnerable to drawing universal conclusions based on single behaviors. For example, we might decide our kids are lazy after noticing that our kid didn’t clean up after themselves. Or decide that our teens are disrespectful after a single eye roll.
Once we’ve formed a universal conclusion, pervasive thinking can quickly take over and accelerate. It works like this. If we have decided that our kid is disrespectful, we pay more attention to the behaviors that back up this theory. This kind of confirmation bias also means that we are more likely to ignore behaviors that don’t fit our theory. For example, we might miss the moments when our kids are kind and considerate. We are also more likely to interpret ambiguous data according to our theory. For example, there are multiple reasons that our kids might not respond when we call for them. But if we have decided they are disrespectful, we are more likely to interpret that response as they are purposely ignoring us.
Identifying pervasive beliefs is the first step to disrupting them. Try this exercise:
- Write down one challenging behavior that is difficult for you right now.
- What are your pervasive beliefs about this behavior?
Now that you’ve named the pervasive belief, get into problem solving mode by looking for evidence that doesn’t back up your theory. Convinced your kid is rude? Look for kindness. Convinced they are selfish? Look for empathy. The goal isn’t to ignore challenging or inappropriate behavior. The goal is to “right size” our response to it. We want to go from “all the things are bad all the time” to “I can problem solve our challenges and cultivate our strengths.”
Once we take behavior personally and start to form pervasive beliefs about our kids, then our brain really goes off to the races by worrying that the dynamics are permanent. In other words, it isn’t just bad now, it might always be bad.
For example, not only does my kid roll their eyes at me but what if they never learn how to be respectful? What if they can’t form healthy relationships? What if….?!”
Once we slip into permanent thinking, our emotional response to specific behaviors is much bigger than what is in front of us. Before we know it, we aren’t just responding to an eye roll, we are trying to save our kids from a lifetime of failed relationships! No surprise, this kind of emotional intensity tends to amplify conflict.
Once we see this, do everything you can do to find perspective and stay in the moment. Look around the room and find three new things you haven’t noticed before. Take your kid’s perspective. Imagine a million alternative futures.
Most important, tell yourself, “Let’s just take this one day at a time.”
Look for patterns, not perfection.
The point of learning about the three Ps isn’t to point out our failures. It is an opportunity to reflect on our patterns. While things right now can feel like a never-ending, languished slog, brain science reminds us that our kids’ brains are a work-in-progress. We are works-in-progress too.
We are parenting through a global pandemic and navigating the roots, pain, and impact of white supremacy culture in our bodies and communities. This stress is likely to “come out sideways” with the people we love most. At home, we are going to get mad, sad, angry and experience the full range of human emotions. But we can’t get stuck there. When it comes to our kids, we don’t want anger, conflict, and yelling to become the pattern.
This is a stressful time on top of an isolating year. Striking that tender combination of warmth and structure at home is the key to resilience and avoiding power struggles helps us prioritize connection when our kids need it most.