In imitation of me, G will occasionally take deep exaggerated breaths when he is very mad about something. It is cute and somewhat annoying that the kid can imitate me so well. He has done some other uncanny impressions of me that would be highly amusing if it weren’t for the fact that they reflect some of the worst of my parenting including sarcastic comments and rather wild gesticulations with his hands (hey-i’m half Italian after all!) The breathing is a good idea in theory, however, he seems to do it in such a way that it sounds like he is about to hyperventilate. So considering his mastery of mimicry I had to stop and think…wait, do I sound like that?!
Maybe. Although it is good that I’ve been trying to breathe through my frustrations, the bad news is that I have, in fact, been doing it wrong. As with many things, I have taken the sage old advice of “just breathe” far too literally. I always kind of thought the advice meant that you have nothing to do but breathe. That breathing alone, being the quintessential element of life, can transform one from a swirling mess of chaos and anxiety back to the basic peaceful essence of one’s being. And while that is partially true what I have come to realize is that if you are still allowing the chaotic anger/frustration/fear/sadness/exhaustion/confusion/anxiety swirl around in your head while you are breathing in and out, you just won’t be as effective. You have to focus on that breathing. You have to feel the breath. You have to silence everything else in order to hear it. And that was something I was missing. While breathing in and out, in loud angry breaths, I was still thinking about my frustrations or anxieties. That was still my focus.
I read a nice article/interview, Mindfulness, Children and Parenting, with a doctor who helps children practice mindfulness as a way of coping with their stress. She talks about mindful breathing as a way to find the “Still Quiet Place” and how once that place is identified and that children know how to get there that they can go there when they are feeling stress or anxiety and from there determine how they are going to behave or react in any given situation. It sounds so easy and I am sure some people without Irish/Italian tempers, or the worries of supporting children, or the anxieties over their children’s happiness and behavior are actually capable of calming themselves and getting to that place and making the decision to act in the best possible way in just a few seconds without needing to actually do breathing exercises to avoid blowing their stack and instantly regretting it. I’m certain there are people like that. I’m just not one of them. And I have a child who isn’t one of them either.
A few years ago I decided that I needed to see a therapist to help me help my son to deal with his anger and frustrations. Not really because he is so out of control, but because I realized I had no coping mechanisms of my own. When I had to look at how I dealt with anger and frustration, I realized that I did a lot of the things that I saw my son doing. And when I looked back at how I behaved while I was growing up, I realized that I had never developed those skills. My parents both had tendencies to blow their stacks probably after stifling their frustrations for so long that they had nowhere to go but out. They hadn’t been given the tools to deal with their frustrations and anger as children either. So if I had never been taught the skills and still don’t really possess them, how on Earth could I teach my son?
Unfortunately, the therapist just wanted to talk about the sources of MY anger and frustrations and told me that if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy and yes, I get it. But what I wanted and needed was to know how to deal with those stresses in a positive way so that I could teach my son that very same strategy. And so the therapist and I parted ways and I attempted to do my own self-help strategies, among them “just breathing” when things got too much.
I have come to understand that it isn’t enough to just breathe. You need to let that breath take you back to the essential point of your being. To that still, quiet place. And in that quiet place you can hopefully see things a little more clearly and know how to react or not react at any given time. I’m getting a little better at it. I’m seeing my son trying it. He will occasionally take a big breath before trying to explain to me why I’m wrong about something or why he needs something at that exact moment or any of the other number of things that cause him such distress. But we are both working on it and I think that is what is really important- whether you are 6 or 36 or 86. It is never too late to learn how to operate from a place of peace instead of a place of turmoil.
This morning as the time is running on our morning routine clock, C begins to empty his backpack on the floor when he is supposed to be sitting down to eat. In addition to getting sidetracked from breakfast, he is getting sidetracked from what he originally went into the backpack for (highlighters he got to pick from the “prize box” at school) and he is reading me papers and showing me stuff that he has made. I breathe. I don’t begin internally freaking out because time is ticking. Calmly, I pour my coffee and watch him for a couple of minutes and then finally let him know that this isn’t the time for that and he should put his things back in his backpack. I get the “But mommy, I’m doing something” screech and he continues right along.
I glance at the clock and take some more breaths and sit down to eat my own breakfast as he leaves the stuff on the floor and continues to roam the house opening doors, looking in pockets, getting louder as he goes. I get up and put his school things away back in his backpack and tell him that he needs to sit down and eat his breakfast and that when he is all ready for school we will look for the highlighters. He stomps into the kitchen and lets out a big sigh. Then he takes some breaths. Then he sits down at the table and starts to eat. I sit with him and do the same. Both of us quiet. And breathing. About five minutes later, he calmly says, “You know, I just really need to have those highlighters”. I look at him. He is so sincere and he isn’t whining and he isn’t crying or yelling or pitching a fit because he can’t find the highlighters or because I won’t let him look any more. And I tell him “I know, buddy. And I promise I will help you find them as soon as we are ready to go”. And I’m so proud of him. And I’m so proud of me. Progress.
It seems like such a silly thing and yet both of us were able to avoid getting into a frenzy over something (me- the ticking down of the clock to “GO” time and he- the loss of something he had deemed to be very important at that particular moment) and we did it by breathing. And so instead of screaming and yelling and crying and bad feelings to start the day, we left the house on time and parted with “I love yous”. And highlighters. Win-win.