We live in stressful times. There are the big stresses and the little ones. Included in the first category might be: Loss of a loved one, an illness in the family, job loss, economic issues, marital discord, divorce, infertility, challenges with children, to name just a few. The second group involves our everyday lives, the nuts and bolts of living a busy life: carpool, homework, meals, family time, making and enforcing rules, quality marriage time etc. – all this can add up to parents who are feeling overwhelmed, on edge, and irritable.
The more stress and worry, the greater the tension in the air. And of course, children react to the tension, often, in ways that increase the stress, making it even more challenging for parents to create the kind of home atmosphere that they know is so important for the healthy development of their family, a sense of calm, security, stability, and happiness.
How does Mommy act when the car breaks? What does Daddy do when I’m moving too slowly?
Children learn about calm where they learn everything else – from watching their parents. How does Mommy act when the car breaks down or when my room is a mess? What does Daddy do when I’m moving too slowly or when he hears upsetting news? Our reactions to life’s ups and downs are observed, absorbed, and internalized.
Many years ago a young couple came to see me to discuss the behavior of their six-year-old son whom they reported as having an out of control anger problem. They illustrated this by describing an incident that took place the previous week in a restaurant. Mother and son were eating there together, and when the meal was over and she expressed her desire to leave and go home, he refused. He then stood up on the table and said, “I’m not going anywhere with you, you…,” using a very inappropriate word.
The parents finished telling me their story and paused to get my reaction. I responded by commenting that six-year-olds don’t know that word, and they certainly don’t know how to use it in the 'articulate' manner that he did. And then I was quiet, waiting.
Finally, the father said, somewhat embarrassed, that he and his wife often argue and it’s possible that his son may have heard that expression during one of the arguments. That child’s problem was his role models. He was a good boy, learning well from his parents.
Parents can teach children to respond to life with calm. It is important to ask oneself: How do I react to disappointments? How am I when I’m driving and someone cuts me off, or if there’s bad traffic and I’m running late? What do I do with the everyday annoyances and aggravations, when things don’t go my way? And what if, God forbid, I am going through something from the first category of stress that is so painful, so scary, so anxiety provoking? Do I model self-soothing to calm my own fears? Do I bring God into the equation? Do I remember what our tradition teaches us, that I must do my part but to remember that God runs the world and every detail in it? And that I need to trust Him, and that I can trust him, to throw my burdens, and worries, onto Him, to feel the calm that comes from feeling the love God has for me?
Just as we say to a young child when he’s crying, “Shhh, it’ll be okay, it’s going to be alright, I’m here,” we need to say the same thing to ourselves, to look deep inside and say, “Shhs, it’s okay, I can handle this. I’m not alone.” And to hear God say, “I’m here. I love you.”
There’s an expression that is used by twelve-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, that is very comforting, “Let go, let God.” Letting go of my fears, letting go of my anger, my disappointments, and my pain. And letting God in, comforting me, soothing me, holding me, and filling me with inner quiet and inner calm.
If we can bring that calm into our own lives, we will be showing our children how to bring it into their lives as well.