Sometimes PARENTS Need a Timeout: How to Create Calm to Parent Better

Every parent has had those moments of feeling totally fed up.  Usually it’s when we’re exhausted, stressed, distracted, and hurried.  So many of us are running on fumes much of the time.  We have busy schedules juggling work, doctors’ appointments, school volunteering, and sport schedules, not to mention household chores and errands.  Add to this the frequent challenges of a sick family member, money worries, or relationship problems.  It’s not surprising that we often end up feeling over-extended and irritable.

It’s in these moments when we already feel stretched to our limit that our kids do or say something that just pushes us over the edge.  We want to scream, run, maybe even smack our kids.

This is when PARENTS need a timeout.

Most parents are used to implementing timeout as a disciplinary strategy for our children.  We see our kids getting overwhelmed or out of control and will wisely remove them from a situation to gather themselves.  Parents often need the same thing!  In fact, parents have regular opportunities to model self-control by intentionally stepping away to calm down during moments when we are overwhelmed too.

What’s happening in our brains when we’re feeling totally fed up is called emotional flooding.  The part of our brains responsible for emotions (the limbic system) is on overdrive while the part of our brains responsible for rationale decision making (the frontal lobe) is taking a break.  This means that we are no longer able to process information accurately.  We aren’t listening well.  We can’t make thoughtful decisions.  We’re in a place of emotional acting out rather than rational planning.  When emotionally flooded, it is NOT a time for effective communication or enforcing discipline strategies.

Signs you need a timeout:

  • You’re emotionally overwhelmed
  • Your muscles are tense, jaw clenched
  • You feel an urge to escape
  • You can’t think straight
  • You want to yell or scream
  • You want to shake or hit someone or something
  • You break or throw things

Many parents have the self-awareness and self-control to step away and take a break when feeling overwhelmed.  They don’t want to do or say something they might regret, or might regret even more than what they already did.  But so many parents end up spending that time beating themselves up.  They step away from their kids and start thinking things like: “I’m the worst parent,” “I’m such a failure,” “I can’t handle this kid,” “I’ve ruined my kids.”  This type of negative self-talk tends to make parents feel worse instead of better.  Parents feel terrible about themselves and their kids.  It doesn’t help them calm down or parent better.  Instead, parents could make the most out of a timeout by really focusing on relaxing their bodies and clearing their minds of negative thoughts.

How to create calm so you can parent better:

  • Make this an intentional time to self-soothe and avoid distractions like checking your phone.
  • Give yourself permission to prioritize creating calm, even if you’re already running late.
  • Take a breath.  Take a few slow deep breaths counting in 1, 2, 3, 4, then out 1, 2, 3, 4.
  • Close your eyes and try to drop & relax your shoulders.
  • Make fists with your hands, clench them tightly for a moment, then release the tension completely.  Just notice the change in sensation in your hands and arms.
  • Continue taking deep breaths until you begin to feel your body relax.
  • Identify negative self-talk if you’re experiencing it, noticing the terrible things you may be saying to yourself that you likely would  never say to anyone else you cared about.o   Ask yourself if these negative thoughts about yourself are helpful.
    • Ask yourself if these negative thoughts about yourself are always true.
    • Build yourself up like you’re talking to your best friend, focusing on your strengths as a parent and a person.
  • Imagine someone who really loves you and think about how that person would encourage you in this moment.
  • Find a sense of understanding and compassion toward yourself.  Parenting is tough work.
  • Find a sense of understanding and compassion toward your kid/kids.  Making mistakes is how they learn.
  • Prepare yourself to return to your family in a calmer state with a more positive focus.

Taking an effective, intentional timeout like this will allow you to problem solve whatever situation pushed you over the edge to begin with.  When returning from your time out you might explain to your child/children why you took a break and how you calmed yourself, sharing this essential self-care skill.  You may want to apologize if you said or did anything you regret, showing them how important it is to take responsibility for your behavior.  You might acknowledge that you were already feeling tired and irritable, recognizing what set you up for losing your cool in the first place.  Your ability to demonstrate how to recover from tough moments and manage big feelings teaches kids of all ages a crucial life skill.

If you notice yourself needing a timeout several times a week, you might want to consider broader lifestyle changes to reduce your stress and get you sufficient sleep.  You may also be struggling with depression or anxiety that would benefit from professional help.  Prioritize getting the treatment you need.

Written by Suzanne Smith, Ph.D. for the Linden Blog. If you are interested in receiving Linden Blog updates with original articles about parenting, families, mental health, and wellness, subscribe using the field below. If you are interested in scheduling an appointment at Linden BP call 440/250-9880