Some parenting moments can be intense. Big tantrums, sibling fights, or child outbursts can trigger us. Sometimes we can get through these moments with grace yet other times we will lose our footing. When we become emotionally dysregulated, we lose access to our logic, compassion, and empathy making it almost impossible to connect with our children. We may move into a state of fight, flight, or freeze. If we get stuck in fight, we may become punitive and say or do something that we regret.
When parents become very overwhelmed, sometimes they need to take a break in order to return to balance. This may mean walking out of the room or stepping outside. Sometimes all a parent needs is 30 seconds to focus on breathing. Other times a parent may need twenty minutes or more to get back to a space of responsiveness. Breaks are not to be used a punishment. Rather they are a tool for keeping all family members level-headed.
I remember a time when I really wanted to take a break. I was tired, my daughter was tired, and our dynamic was off. She was frustrated about something. Everything I said or did seemed to make her more upset, which led me to feel more upset. Once I became angry I knew it was time to get some space.
I told my daughter that I was going to take a break and walked towards my room. Not only did she follow me, but she started raising her voice. As much as I wanted to stay calm, I raised my voice too and explained why I needed some space. I left my room, headed outside, and she followed.
I told her I was going to the mailbox. Again, she followed. I could feel the tension rising in my body. My tone was sharp. I tried to convince her to stay outside and jump on the trampoline with her brother. This led her to get even more upset. I knew I had tools but I could not seem to access them. There was a part of me that was suggesting that I validate her experience, reflect her emotions, and just be with her. Yet, I really could not do this. I was far too worn out and upset.
I just needed a break!
I was so frustrated. Yet, this experience helped me see that there is a lot to a making a "parent break" or "parent time out" work. As much as we would love to say hear our children respond with "ok, enjoy your break, I will be right here when you get back", stepping away in the midst of an already hot moment can be a little messier than that.
1. Teach the value and importance of breaks
During times that you and your child are balanced and centered, talk about how sometimes when you feel angry or overwhelmed or worn out, it really helps to take a break. Explain what breaks looks like (reading, talking a walk, or simply getting a class of water and stepping away from an intense situation). Explain that when you break you are feeling your feelings, focusing on your breath, and regulating. Explain that you are a better human and better parent when you take some time for yourself. Like anything we want to teach our children, they will need to hear this message over and over again.
2. We all need space
If the only time you take a break is during conflict, or when your child is acting out, she may think that your break is a punishment. Really, we all need breaks on occasion in order to remain present and engaged. If you are an introvert, you may find that you need solitude time more often than others. So, start taking breaks even when everything is going good. Move into a place where everyone in the family begins to honor, respect, and value an individuals need for space.
2. During conflict, break before you reach your breaking point
Don't wait until you have smoke coming out of your ears! Think of it as a prevention. If you notice your body becoming tight and your heart rate increasing, these are signals that you are under significant stress. Take care of yourself, and your child, by announcing that you will be taking a break.
3. Connect with your child before you go
Pay attention to your tone. You will want to exude kindness as well as respect for self and child. Get down on his level, look in his eyes, and maybe offer a hug or spend a minute snuggling. Then explain that you are going to your room for a little bit and that you will be back. For younger kids it can help to set a timer that stays near your child so that he or she can come get you when the timer goes off.
4. Reassure him that you will talk later
If you had been discussing an important topic, let them know that you will finish talking later. We all get into arguments with our kids from time to time. If you and your child are very upset during a discussion you won't resolve anything until you have moved through your anger. Assure your child that you will be able to discuss later when everyone is back in balance. Do not walk away without making an agreement about this! Make sure to follow through.
5. Don't just walk away
If you leave your child without explaining what is happening for you, this can trigger a sense of abandonment. Be authentic and honest while explaining to your child where you are going, what you will do there, and when you will be back. I know we are only talking about a short period of time but this is very important!
6. Take a break with your child
Sometimes our kids don't want to let us go. Sometimes the best way to get a break is to break with your kids. So, remember that you always have the option of saying, "I do not like what is happening between us right now. Let's go hang out on the couch and snuggle or watch a movie together". Breaks may look different but may include taking a walk, cooking, or doing some sort of activity together. With younger kids, such as babies or toddlers, we may not have a choice but to break with our kids. The key is to notice when we are becoming dysregulated and to take action that will move us back into balance.
7. Consider a longer break
If you notice that you are overwhelmed a lot or that you quickly move into distress when your kid is having a hard time, this is a signal to pay attention to. Parenting is demanding. We need to have time built into our days for rest and resourcing. Take some time to look at your overall lifestyle and routine and determine how you can build more down time (or adult time, or alone time) into your day.
Have you ever found it difficult to get space when you feel as if you really need it? What strategies have you utilized to take a break with grace? Let me know about it in the comments box below!
Hello! I am Cristina Trette. I am a Couple Therapist and Perinatal Mental Health Therapist. I help couples create secure and vibrant relationships. I also guide parents to connect with their children, and themselves. I write, teach, and speak on relationships, parenthood, and integrative mental health.