mindfulness-and-meltdowns

Mindfulness and meltdowns

“Seriously sweetheart – calm down!
“It doesn’t taste any different in a blue cup”
“In our family, we don’t shout!

I’m not suggesting any of you sound like this, but years of my parenting did. I was baffled that all five of my kids were completely irrational human beings. You’d think I might get one or two, but all of them? They were ‘over-sensitive’ or had ‘anger issues’. They repeated the same meltdowns at the same things, in spite of my well constructed consequences.

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There’s never a transformation that doesn’t have regular reminders that relationships are messy, but we work differently these days. I’d love to say I got a grip on myself, but what actually happened is that I discovered mindfulness and the science of emotions.

The science of emotions

I’m no neuroscientist, so I’ll explain emotions with the simplicity I needed to understand them. Emotions are a motion of energy in our bodies, so literally an e-motion. A chemical message is released inside that runs through our body before we’re even aware that we’re feeling something.

Some emotions are the result of more challenging hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. The most common emotions we feel when these chemicals are released are anger, sadness and fear. These are red brain emotions. They cause tension, a raised heart rate and often tunnel vision.

Other emotions are the result of our bodies releasing serotonin, oxytocin or dopamine. They make us feel happiness, love or joy. These are green brain emotions. They make us relax, reduce our heart rate and broaden our perspective on life.

The emotional balloon

The tricky thing about emotions is that we can’t unfeel what we’ve felt. The best way I’ve found to describe this is that we have an emotion balloon inside us, with tiny emotion vents. As each emotion is released into our system the balloon stretches a bit. If we can process well, the air comes out of the vent and the balloon returns to the right size. We generally process green brain emotions easily. We laugh or hug and the hormone is released. The balloon returns to optimal size and life goes on.

Unless we understand emotions well, we generally don’t know what to do with the red brain ones. They divide most of us into two camps. Some of us are suppressors and some of us get stuck.

Suppressors and stuckies

Suppressors push their trickier emotions down into the subconscious and that’s where they stay for a while. At some point, there’s a trigger that activates the emotion again. It can be difficult for suppressors to work out where the feelings of sadness, fear or anger are coming from. Over many years, suppressors tend to have a balloon that’s a bit limp, and life loses its vitality.

Stuckies tend towards the opposite response. We feel our emotions acutely and we might be called ‘sensitive’. Our balloon tends to fill up and get quite taut. With a build up of challenges, our balloon eventually explodes.

Children start life with a healthy balloon. It’s the perfect size, vents wide open, and they’re able to express anger, fear, sadness and happiness. For many of us, we’re triggered by red emotions, especially anger. Fear and sadness are easier to respond to well, but even they can be challenging for those of us who grew up feeling like we couldn’t express our emotions.

What do we do with their emotions and the way they trigger our emotions? One of the most life-changing techniques I have ever learnt is a simple mindful technique. It pays attention with kindness (the definition of mindfulness) to someone’s emotions, rather than trying to change them.

It’s called Mirror-Link-Pause (MLP – think My Little Pony).

Mirror

“I can see you’re so frustrated that ____” Here, you’ll add in the scenario. Maybe the plate was the wrong colour or iPad time was up.
“It sounds like that was so disappointing/ made you so sad ____” Add the scenario in again. It could be that they didn’t get invited to a party or came second in a relay.
“I can see you’re scared about ____.” You know the drill, add your scenario here. This time it might be school camp or a test.

The goal is just to mirror back to your child what you see they’re going through. Science shows us emotions stick around unless they’re genuinely acknowledged.

Link

“That makes perfect sense because ____” Add in what you’re linking the emotion to. You could say “you love that colour plate”.
“That makes perfect sense because ____.” Here’s where you link again. This time, you could say “she’s one of your best friends.”
“That makes perfect sense because___” You guessed it, link again. You could say “you’ve never been to school camp before.”

Science shows us that our brains relax when we know what we’re feeling is valid. The words “it makes perfect sense” are incredibly healing. It’s a challenge to use those words when your child is inconsolable because their socks feel funny. Stretch yourself, get those words out, and you’ll be amazed at how situations can dissipate almost instantly.

Pause

Say nothing. This is the hardest part for most parents. But it’s your child’s emotion to process and their problem to solve. Your child may ask for your help in a minute, but their ability to handle their own valid emotion, whatever its intensity, comes first and is dependent on your reaction to it.

Mirror-Link-Pause. It’s a simple technique, and after five years of practicing many different versions of this using different phrases depending on each age and stage, I now have five children who all have fairly healthy emotion balloons. My kids feel anger but generally don’t collapse into rage like they used to. They feel sadness but bounce back. They feel fear but are courageous.

Mindful parenting means welcoming more emotion, rather than creating a zen household. Although, if you’ve worked out how to create one of those, I’d love to hear from you. You can book in to attend one of my mindful parenting workshops here. 

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About Author

Shirley Pastiroff

Shirley is a counsellor and mindfulness trainer registered with the New Zealand Association of Counsellors. She is also a mum of five. Shirley teaches effective mindful parenting techniques that reduce parenting stress, improve relationships and create deep and lasting connections with your children. For more information, visit her website here.

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