One of our biggest foes when it comes to parenting is our patience—well, our lack of it. No matter how laid back we are in our "normal" lives, our children seem to have an innate knack for finding and pushing our buttons (and pushing, and pushing) until we erupt. But it's not because they want us to get mad at them; negative attention really isn't better than no attention. It's usually because they want to get their way and haven't learned the art of negotiation yet, or they are testing us. Testing to see if our love for them is, in fact, unconditional. This is especially true for teenagers, who are often convinced that they stand alone and are even unlovable to their parents. And the more we get angry and yell at them, the more we unwittingly support this theory, at least in their minds. It may seem a bit misguided to us as adults, but think back to when you were a kid. Did you ever test your parents? How often did they "pass?"
Nothing good can come out of a screaming match between you and your child. In fact, a 2013 study involving nearly 1,000 families found that verbal lashings may ultimately be doing far more harm than good. The teens who experienced the kind of emotional pain and discomfort brought on by a parental verbal onslaught showed a bump in anger alongside a drop in inhibition, prompting an increase in the very things -- lying, cheating, stealing or fighting -- that most parents set out to stop.
Unfortunately, no matter how determined we are to remain cool, we can still lose it. A recent study published in The Journal of Marriage and Family found that 88 percent of parents admitted yelling, screaming or shouting at their children during the year. Another survey reported that roughly nine in 10 American parents have engaged in some form of harsh verbal discipline at some point with their child. And when we do, we unleash a cycle of bad feelings that continue to escalate.
Fortunately, in the same way that anger begets anger, calm begets calm. So if we can somehow change our reactive pattern and remain calm, cool and collected when we interact with our kids, we can reduce the amount of frustration, stress and hostility in our household.
There are numerous ways to manage anger in the long term, such as meditation, exercise and therapy. But many of us just need a quick fix to get us through our momentary lapses in the "heat of the moment." If the classic calming technique of counting to 10 doesn't work for you, there are many other options. Here are 12 clever tricks that can help you find your cool in an instant. Pick one or two you like, practice it when you're already relaxed until it feels natural, then use it every time you feel you're reaching the end of your rope:
1. Breath, tense release. Inhale through your nose for 3 seconds, tense every muscle in your body for 5-10 seconds, release every muscle as your exhale slowly through your mouth. You can also scan your body and relax areas that are especially tense (jaw, fists, shoulders). Repeat until your heart rate goes down.
2. Roll your shoulders. Slowly roll your shoulders back three or four times, using as much range of motion as you can. Then, roll them forward. Repeat as often as you need.
3. Squeeze something. Squeeze a stress ball, sponge, or another pliable object at least 50 times in a row. If this is your trick of choice, make sure your squeeze toy is on hand before you talk to your child.
4. Suck on something sweet. An easy way to calm yourself down is to suck (don't bite) on Life Savers, a lollipop or other hard, sweet candy. The sucking reflex is soothing like a pacifier and the sweetness from the sugar creates a pleasurable sensation that counters the negative emotions. An added benefit to this technique is that the candy gives your mouth something to do other than yell.
5. Chew gum. Researchers from Australia and England found that in moments of stress, gum chewers felt less anxious and had 18% less cortisol (a stress hormone) in their saliva. "Chewing increases blood flow to the brain—which may make us feel more alert—and it may also distract us from stressors," says study coauthor Andrew Scholey, Ph.D., director of the Centre for Human Psychopharmacology at Swinburne University.
6. Say how you feel. A great way to conquer anger or frustration is to express how you feel clearly and calmly, even if it's through clenched teeth. Simply say, "I feel angry/frustrated/annoyed, when ______." The key word in that statement is "I." This is about identifying and labeling your feelings, not blaming someone else for them. That means, avoid saying, "You make me so angry." No one can make you feel something unless you let them. The added benefit of this technique is that you are helping your child learn to identify and label her emotions as well.
7. Find a pressure point. To calm your anger and irritability put pressure on the 3rd eye and sternum. Gently place your right middle fingertip in between your eyebrows and use the fingertips of your left hand to hold the point in the center of your breastbone. Close your eyes and breathe deeply for at least one minute.
8. Talk low. Talk slow. If you want to remain calm, why not follow the acting advice of one of the coolest actors in history—John Wayne? When communicating, slow down, stay calm and lower the pitch of your voice. This is also trick used by hypnotists to put their subjects into a relaxed and receptive state.
9. Drink a glass of water. Even minor dehydration can cause you to feel fatigued and cloud your thinking and judgement, making you more susceptible to losing your cool. Drinking a tall glass of cold water can be a simple but effective way to improve your mood, and the benefits can last for hours. Taking a few minutes to gulp down the H2O also forces you to take a much-needed pause before you respond.
10. Smile. Studies show that you can change your mood by changing your facial expressions and physical responses. When angry, try to soften your eyes, unclench your teeth, relax your hands and force a smile. This will send messages to your brain that you are experiencing a different emotion.
11. Turn the lights down. Hit the dimmer switch to stop disagreements from escalating. Studies show that bright lights intensify negative emotions, perhaps because they increase the perception of heat. These findings suggest a simple way to nudge people into being less emotional is by simply turning the lights down.
12. Walk away. If you're past the point of no return and nothing is going to calm you down at that moment, the best thing to do is walk away. Let your child know that you are too angry to talk productively right then and set a time to continue the conversation after you both have had time to collect yourselves.
Experiment with the different techniques to determine which ones work best for you. Then, when you use it, tell your child what you are doing to calm yourself down so he can learn from you: "I am so upset right now that I can't talk to you calmly, so I am going to take a second to suck on this lifesaver until I can think of nice words to use." This moment may actually be more useful and meaningful to your child than anything you end up saying to him after you've calmed down.
About the author: Dr. Cameron Caswell is a family coach and founder of the Fuel Center, which specializes in helping parents and their teens redefine their relationship, rebuild mutual respect and trust, and learn to live together in harmony. Learn more at www.theFuelCenter.com.