Striving Toward Controlled Chaos

Striving Toward Controlled Chaos
By Rita Brhel, editor of The Attached Family

I am naturally a very high-strung perfectionist with a short fuse. A bad combination for relationships of any sort. After seven years of marriage, my husband would now describe me as much more mellow than when he first met me. I can walk through a kitchen with dishes that haven’t been washed for three days, a table covered in an odd assortment of items with a small surface cleared off to allow for a family dinner, and a mine field of kids toys without batting my eye once. I can now look past many of the messes that come with a busy family with young children, especially the messes that come with a laidback husband who just doesn’t care if things aren’t perfectly in order and the messes that come with two toddlers. I just strive toward “controlled chaos” – that is, things don’t have to be perfect; they just have to be good enough.

It is through attachment parenting, specifically the approach advocated through Attachment Parenting International, that I have found a way to control my natural tendencies to demand too much from everyone around me including myself and then punish them when they don’t meet my expectations. I credit Attachment Parenting International not only for creating a truly joyful family atmosphere in my home but also for finally giving me peace and especially for saving my marriage.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t still meet challenges. Oh, I do, everyday. There are times when I don’t get enough sleep and I have to fight my temper. There are times when my husband is having a hard time with his illness and is unable to give emotionally to me or my children. And there are so, so many times that my children push my buttons and I have to consciously push down the feeling of spanking or yelling and reach into my parenting toolbox, grappling for an attachment tool, and often in these situations that I must apologize to my children for not being understanding.

I have learned that the best plan is to think proactively, instead of reactively, to keep myself ahead of my natural tendencies. Make sure I get enough sleep, eat frequently and healthily, keep my relationship strong with my husband so that the stress from that doesn’t spill over into other areas of my life, give myself time to myself, and especially find someway to channel my feelings of stress into something positive. For me, that’s working with Attachment Parenting International. It is amazing how therapeutic it is to turn my natural tendencies into something good through my skills and talents.

My goal in contributing to API Speaks is to give parents a peek inside my world, to reveal the ways that I am able to respond to the great challenges in my life in an attachment approach rather than simply reacting with all the force and destruction of my natural tendencies.

As some of you may know, I’m the editor of The Attached Family print and online magazines. Coming up next week on The Attached is an article from an attached parent on diverting anger in toddlers. It makes me think about this past Monday, the day after my family returned from a vacation to the Ozarks with Grandma and Grandpa. We had a great time, but the children were certainly tired and having some difficulty getting back to their normal activities and schedules after a couple days of no naps and late bedtimes. My three-year-old would demand for something with “I want…” and anytime that I would say that she needs to say “please” or “no, not right now,” she would scream “NO!” and crumble into a heap on the floor, crying and screaming and kicking. My attempts to help her calm down were met by more screams. And then her 20-month-old sister started doing it, too.

During one particular incident, I had taken my younger daughter’s sippy cup away when she continued to squeeze milk out onto the floor after telling her that she needed to drink the milk, not play with it. I told her that she could get her milk cup back after she helped me clean up the milk and put the cup on top of the refrigerator. Usually, on most days, she wouldn’t be spilling her milk, and if I did need to take the cup away, she would happily help me clean up the mess. This day, she went into a meltdown, yelling “no” at me and throwing her sister’s glass of milk on the floor, too.

Patiently, I picked up my flailing, screaming child and carried her to her room, determined to get her to a quiet place away from the scene of the incident. I would clean up the milk later. In her room, I sat down on the floor with her, while she screamed “no” and then hit me in the face. I tried to catch her attention by using my “listen” sign, where I put my index finger up to my ear and say “listen.” This usually calms my children right down, as they repeat after me, lock their eyes on mine, and give me their full attention. Not so this time. My daughter screamed louder, hit me, and ran to the far corner of the room where she hid under the bed.

By this time, I’m accessing the far reaches of my brain, trying to come up with another strategy to reach my daughter in her tantrum. I decide that maybe I’m not a comforting figure at this time, so I tell her that I’m going to go clean up the milk and I’ll come back to see if she wants to talk. I came back a few minutes later. I gave her the listen sign and she did it back. I sat down on the bed and she sat on my lap and began playing with a butterfly-shaped hair clip latched onto my shirt. And she was ready to talk.

I spent the whole day doing this – disciplining and then helping my children calm down from a long-winded tantrum, easing them back into life at home. Neither does well when they get off of their routines, and while they certainly enjoy not having to follow the rules we have at home, this doesn’t help matters, either. The vacation was wonderful, although I think we all needed to recover.

There were so many times I was tempted to spank or yell, or just leave my kid in her room. But, I know that these aren’t discipline methods. They don’t work. They’re simply a reaction parents have to their child’s behavior, a reaction often done out of anger, and no teacher can truly teach if they’re consumed with feelings of anger, hurt, and revenge. That’s what I keep in mind when things seem to be getting out of control – disciplining out of anger is not disciplining at all.

How do you stay calm and remember to use positive discipline when you’re faced with an emotionally challenging situation?

Author: Rita Brhel

Rita Brhel, BS, CLC, API Leader, lives with her family near Hastings, NE, USA, where she works as a WIC Breastfeeding Counselor. She also writes for Mothering and La Leche League's New Beginnings.

9 thoughts on “Striving Toward Controlled Chaos”

  1. Hi,
    Thanks for writing this — I really appreciate seeing it. I have been thinking A LOT lately about the process of self-healing and self-care in order to get to a place where I can give what I want to my children, and I think that it is important to talk about the very real occurrence of us parents being too overwhelmed to provide the care we want to.

    When my first son was born, I had no trouble sensing and finding a way to follow my heart toward gentle and respectful parenting, and for the most part, I had little trouble meeting my child’s needs in ways that pleased me and maintained our connection.

    It’s been a very different story since the birth of my second child… It seems as though I am pushed beyond my limit daily, and then I am exactly in the place you are writing about. How can I bring what I “know” into practice when I myself am overwhelmed?

    It seems like the prescription is two-pronged… doing things that give us more flexibility and strength so we’re less likely to become overwhelmed, and then there are practices that help us from turning the overwhelm into anger or non-helpful responses.

    Some things that have helped me and my children are below…

    Practices for in the moment (overwhelm is happening)
    — Ringing a mindfulness bell (I wrote about it here)

    — Giving myself a time-out (a retreat into the bathroom to regroup)

    — Taking a break to eat some food, as having low blood sugar will really affect my patience and flexibility

    — Going outside to change the scene and give us all more space

    — Taking three deep breaths with eyes closed

    Practices for creating more flexibility, etc.
    — Meditating in the morning (I still struggle to do this regularly)

    — Getting enough sleep

    — Eating enough and healthfully (and drinking water)

    — Having time to myself and time to socialize

    — Going to therapy (hakomi therapy, which is mindfulness-based and can help unstick patterns and beliefs that were set in our own childhoods)

    — Studying and understanding compassionate speech and empathic listening (also known as nonviolent communication)

    — Spending undivided time playing with my children, using “time-ins” rather than time-outs

    Can you tell I have been thinking a lot about this? I am really looking forward to what others have to say!

  2. I think your focus on what is really important instead of a momentary reaction with spanking or yelling is so admirable! I hope to be able to keep my head the way you describe in the face of a toddler whirlwind: reaching into my toolbox for an attachment tool, rather than a distancing one like spaking or yelling. It is so nice to read that this takes effort, though, and that even the Mammas who make it seem effortless are constantly thinking on their feet, trying new strategies, and having occasional difficult days. Thank you for a really interesting (and heartening) post!

  3. Reading this almost brings me to tears of shame and inspires me at the same time.

    When it comes to AP the practical things I can say I have down pact. Breastfeeding, baby-carrying, co-sleeping, not a problem. But discipline, I could never, and still can’t, seem to figure out how to go about it. Trying to unlearn how I was raised is one thing, but for me not knowing what to fill that hole with, often leads me back to square one doing all the things I don’t want to do with my children.

    I could go on and on, but this being my first time here I want to thank you for posting this and letting us in to your world. As I search on here I hope to find the answers that I have been desperately searching for before it is too late. Thank you once again.

  4. I was so moved by your statement: “It is through attachment parenting…that I have found a way to control my natural tendencies to demand too much from everyone around me including myself and then punish them when they don’t meet my expectations. I credit API not only for creating a truly joyful family atmosphere in my home but also for finally giving me peace and especially for saving my marriage.”

    Having the AP tools to use–maybe not always perfectly, or even always wisely– has increased our family’s JOY factor as well. It has certainly been instrumental in providing healthy avenues for resolving conflict in my marriage as well as in my parenting. And most importantly, it has lead to a desire to be kinder to myself. It is a work in progress, like everything in life. Thank you for an honest, heartfelt post!

  5. I have found that it’s gotten easier to keep my cool in the face of an angry or out-of-control child as I’ve gotten more parenting experience. Now that I’ve been at this for 4 1/2 years I have enough perspective that I’m better able to maintain my own emotional centre even as my child loses it. When my first was a toddler and the yelling and tantrums started it was a shock for me. Now I’m able to remind myself that ‘this too shall pass’ and remember what my child is going through.

    That last bit is especially helpful for me. I find that my kids don’t do well when they’re tired, or hungry, or going through some sort of developmental milestone. These things throw adults for a loop, too, and so it’s no surprise that kids are different. Reminding myself that my child is behaving in a way that may be age or situationally appropriate, and will not last forever, helps me keep my cool.

  6. Thanks for posting this. It is hard to stay calm in the midst of our kids tantrums. There have been times where I have to remove myself for a few minutes to calm down. I also try to remember that these are very big emotions for such small people.
    As parents it’s our job to help them figure out how to deal with these emotions.

  7. Giselle, I’m so glad that you found us! I would encourage you to read Connection Parenting by Pam Leo…it contains some really helpful tools for assisting you in identifying your “programming” and provides ways to learn new strategies that really work. Last year I wrote about how I was able to keep my cool with my preschooler at a grocery store:

    The Discipline Book by Dr Sears is another great resource. And no AP library should be without Attached at the Heart by API’s very own Barbara ad Lysa 🙂

    And it is never too late to start being the parent you want to be!

  8. Thank you so much, Rita, for posting this! It was quite apropos, as I had just drafted a blog on a related issue ( titled “no spank you and I’m not choking” discussing how we decided before our son was born four years ago to use positive discipline, but you HAVE to have positive tools at the ready when your child does things like decides at a restaurant that it is funny to try to choke himself repeatedly! It truly seems the more of a rise my child gets out of me, the more he likes it. So, I think the challenge sometimes is to not act emotional even though that is the way you are feeling. To save the bells and whistles for the good times.
    Justine–great reminders about Barbara and Lysa’s book, and the Discipline book, too! Bedside must-haves.

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    Translated to English:
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