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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Take a step back from emotion of moment

Benjamin Garber

Emotion can be blinding.

Sadness and anger, guilt and shame and fear, pride and even happiness, can twist reality.

Strong emotion can make fiction into fact, black into white and white into black. Our feelings can distort our memories, deleting events and manufacturing others, molding sight and sound into a new reality that fits the moment.

Perhaps scariest of all, powerful emotion can make the most cautious, reserved and thoughtful person into an impulsive, explosive wreck.

Ask anyone who has survived a life-threatening trauma. Time slows down. Colors are magnified or drained out of existence. Sounds sharpen or are drowned in the brain’s tsunami-like roar.

Reason and thought and logic disappear or take on new meaning, making sense in the moment of choices that could never otherwise make any sense at all. Adrenaline fuels super-powered rescues and miraculous escapes.

The emotion of the moment makes the moment into an entire world of its own, independent of the expectations that rule the rest of our lives.

But it doesn’t take a horrific natural disaster or a tragic car accident for emotion to more subtly corrupt reason and reality.

For some parents, it might be little more than a broken curfew and the mounting terror of where-is-he? Is-he-OK?

Or the growing frustration of yet another day that the bed has gone unmade, the dishes unwashed or the cat unfed (“If you let me get him, I promise I’ll feed him every day!”).

It can be as simple as the sadness that erupts when you realize she spent recess all alone yet again. It can be the self-blaming guilt that you carry around because her other parent isn’t there and – try as you might – you can’t be both mom and dad all at once.

The parent whose well-deserved pride and excitement over today’s big game, final competition or year-end recital barks at her son about his worries, pushes another parent out of line and curses the coach for making a bad call is drowning in emotion.

The dad who lost a big client at work, got yelled at by the boss and a speeding ticket on the way home can barely keep his head above the rising tide of anger and fear. This dad is in no shape to hear that his daughter got a detention or that his son needs help with his math.

The mom who just heard that her own mom is suddenly very ill, that her new job prospect has disappeared and that the mortgage is overdue (again) isn’t likely to be the picture of patience when her son resists bedtime or her daughter won’t eat her vegetables.

Been there? Done that?

We all have. It’s the nature of being human.

Emotion enriches us and cripples us. It adds color where there might otherwise be gray, but sometimes the colors overwhelm everything else.

This doesn’t mean our goal is to become emotionless robots, Spock-like zombies who stand calmly in the midst of a burning building calculating the most logical means of exit.

If the building is burning, run. But know while you’re running that you probably aren’t thinking clearly, that the flames and smoke of emotion may be blurring your perceptions and – fully aware of how emotion corrupts reason – once you’re safe, stop and clear your head. Save all the other decisions for later, when you’re thinking clearly and when you can talk with your parenting partners.

What does this mean in day-to-day life?

“But I gotta have it NOW!” Our kids live in the me-here-now, so it makes sense that everything is urgent. They whine and demand and rage that they need it now, no matter that they’ve known about it for three days or six weeks or a full year.

You know how it goes: 6-year-old Sally announces at breakfast that she’s supposed to bring in a treat for her class that day. Ten-year-old Billy must have a full-scale model of the solar system to turn in the next day. Fourteen-year-old Rachel needs a check for $200 right now or she can’t be in the pageant.

There and then in the crush of the (could easily have been avoided) now-gotta-must crisis is a mistake in two ways.

The emotion of the moment will inevitably get in the way of good decision making. You’ll skip over reasonable considerations such as should she really go and can we afford this? As the clock ticks away precious seconds, as the bus is about to pull up or bedtime fast approaches, you’ll make an impulsive decision that might come back to bite you later.

You’ll forget about a conflicting date. You’ll misread how much is in the checkbook. You’ll send your child off to do something that’s inappropriate or even dangerous.

The second problem with allowing non-emergencies to be treated like emergencies? You’re making more of the same. If Billy or Sally or Suzie can get a last-minute response from you in the heat of the moment, there’s no reason to do differently next time.

Stop. The next time there’s a “crisis,” take a deep breath before doing anything. Assuming that everyone’s safe, acknowledge the emotion at least to yourself and perhaps even out loud. Consider responding with, “OK. I’ll think about it,” or, “I’ll talk to your other parent about it and we’ll let you know.”

“But Mom! It’s now!”

True. She may miss an opportunity or two, but you’ve modeled calm, thoughtful decision making and you’ve taught her to plan ahead.

“You’re grounded until you’re 40!” Same problem, different circumstance.

Sam is 45 minutes late for curfew. Maggie broke your favorite gadget even though you’ve warned her at least 10,000 times to stay away. Kyle was drinking. Nick was smoking.

Pick your terror-inducing, enraging, button-pushing scenario. There you are, flooded with emotion, hands balled into fists, fists hard against your hips looking at the scratch that runs the length of your brand new $30,000 car and the fork in your 5-year-old’s hands.

Take a deep breath. Make sure everyone is safe. Hit the pause button while everyone lets their powerful emotions settle and jump-starts their thinking.

This might mean Billy is sent to his room. It might mean the day’s previously planned activities are put on hold or canceled.

Its perfectly fine (and great modeling) to say, “I’m really mad/sad/scared right now. I need to calm down. Everyone to your rooms until I call you.” End of discussion.

Don’t fall for the whining, pleading and begging. Don’t take the bait when you think you hear a curse whispered as he leaves the room.

Calm yourself (see Parenting Pointer). Talk it through with your parenting partner. Even talking to yourself is better than just letting the thoughts and the emotions simmer together in your brain.

When you’re ready, try again. You’ll find that everyone is more reasonable and, if punishments are necessary, they make more sense.

We’re all human. We all get tired and overwhelmed, mad and sad and scared and joyful. Try as we might, we’re all going to make parenting mistakes in the moment, fueled by emotion, choices that we’ll look back on in an hour or a decade with absolutely no idea how they happened.

We all overreact sometimes. We make mistakes and we allow upset that belongs elsewhere to influence parenting decisions. OK. It’s hoped no one gets hurt and the hurts that do happen are small. Afterward, once you’ve calmed down, when the emotion that blurred or blinded your vision recedes and you’re seeing clearly once again, can you apologize?

“Sweetie, I was really scared last night. I think I overreacted. Sorry. You aren’t really grounded until you’re 40. What do you think would be a reasonable punishment for what you did?”

Or, “Billy: I think I was impatient and harsh last night when you asked me for help with your math. I’m really sorry. Can we try again tonight?”

Or, “I’ve been thinking, Sally. I think I got carried away at the game last night. I probably embarrassed you and I’m going to apologize to your coach tonight. Sorry about that.”

Or, “Remember yesterday when you had to have $20 right then for the class project? I know I gave you the money; I was in a rush, but I think I made a mistake. The teacher can keep the money because I know the project is important, but next time I’ll need enough time to think about it. No more last-minute emergencies, OK?”

Dr. Benjamin Garber is a child psychologist in Merrimack. To order his latest book, “Keeping Kids Out of the Middle,” or to reach him with comments and questions, call 879-9100 or visit www.healthyparent.com. Copyright 2009 Benjamin Garber, all rights reserved.