By Amy Small, LICSW
Some of you may have had the pleasure of attending the recent talk at the Jewish Community Center by one of the authors of the book, The Joys and Oys of Parenting. While I was unable to make that event, I have been reading their book and would like to share one of the topics here: The Peaceful Home.
Picture this scenario:
"The household is in an uproar. Everyone is upset at everyone else. There is yelling, no one is listening.... And the doorbell rings. It's a neighbor. Suddenly, everyone calms down; they're not only polite to the neighbor, but also to one another. When the neighbor leaves, lo and behold, life goes back to something more like "normal" and the argument is left behind."1
The authors call this the "Neighbor Test" and describe how this shows that we "all value having a peaceful home," but that it is "easy to lose sight of that ideal".1 They reflect that the presence of a neighbor somehow "engages our better temperaments and behavior". 1 Somehow, everyone snaps out of the argument and chaos, but how? I think a bit of mindful attention is coming into play here. While we are in an argument or a stressful situation, it is hard to see anything else, even things we deeply care about like our love for our family members. Defending our position, discussing a past transgression, lamenting a lost privilege, or other thoughts, take over both the parents' and the child's minds. While these things may need addressing, if emotions are running high, it is hard for anything to be accomplished effectively.
If we could have a neighbor surprise the family like in the above scenario, everyone might have the chance to regroup and re-engage with each other more constructively. Do we have to wait for a neighbor to visit for this to happen? No! We have tools always available to simulate the "Neighbor Test" and bring ourselves into the present moment- our 5 senses! Here is a fun and grounding trick to try that I like to call the "Color Trick". When emotions or general chaos is running high for yourself or the household, identify a color for you or the family. Then, everyone glances around the room, from right where they are, and notices everything that is that color. When our mind is captured by the present moment and our attention is brought to a bodily sense, it is hard for our minds to keep spinning out of control. A calmness and increased ability to be engaged and listen may be more accessible to all family members at this point. Now the task of getting out of the house, dealing with a consequence, or eating the broccoli seems more possible. At the very least, everyone has a chance to bring their best selves to the situation just like they did with the neighbor. Experiment with this trick for yourself and your family! There are no rules. You can say what you see out loud or silently. You can notice, point to, or touch the items. You can do multiple colors. You can do multiple senses! A variation on the color trick is an exercise where each person stops to notice one thing for each sense, sight, sound, touch, smell, and (maybe more challenging) taste. You and your family might even find this fun, which is always a plus when things have gotten out of hand! Rabbi Philmus at Torat Yisrael shared the trick of doing something silly that gets everyone laughing or at least gives them a moment to pause from the challenging time. Once a new habit like this gets started, kids may get more involved too and even initiate one of these tricks when they see things are getting heated!
What if your kids don't buy into these tricks? No problem! It is a great self-care tool to keep your own cool in a stressful situation. If we can keep our cool, we are better able to see solutions we may not see otherwise, avoid doling out consequences we can't follow up on, and respond with compassion and clarity rather than react with an "emotionally charged comeback".1 Sharing what we are doing with the child helpsmodel this type of self-care and self-regulation skill. Taking our own 'time out' where we stop engaging with a child for a period of time and focus on a self-care tool can be very powerful in modelling self-control and providing us a break from the intensity of the situation. You can do the color trick, count to ten, take some deep breaths, or even go to another room for a few moments.
The authors of "The Joys and Oys of Parenting" remind us that "a peaceful home is not a place where no one ever gets angry".1 Anger is "healthy and normal" and "it's what we do with that anger that counts". 1 The authors quote the Talmud, "When a wise man loses his temper, he loses his wisdom." 1 I think it is safe to say that we have all experienced this at one time or another and experienced the unintended aftereffects. So, how do we experience anger without losing control of it, especially when we are under the stress that chaotic family life often provides? First, how do we recognize anger rather than be taken over by it? There are often "physical signals" like sweating, flushed face, a fast heartbeat, teary-ness, shaking, clenched muscles, or a tight jaw that occur to a small or large degree. 1 Once we have noticed these signals, we can use a tool like the color trick, deep breathing, or taking a break from the situation to cool down. 1 When we get some distance from the situation and the initial emotion, we may see that another emotion was hidden under the "rug" of anger such as worry, exhaustion, disappointment, or embarrassment. 1 After the intensity of emotion has lessened a bit and we have a clearer idea of what is going on for ourselves, we can then put our feelings into words more clearly and address the situation constructively. For example, after a heated debate about a child's refusal to pick up their shoes, it might sound like this: "I realize I've been raising my voice and am sounding angry. I apologize. Actually, I am tense today for totally different reasons than your shoes. I needed a minute and a way to take a step back to realize that. Let's try again." It may have been a stressful phone call earlier, worries about your child's school performance, or a difficult day at work that contributed to the emotions of the moment, but now you can more clearly and constructively address the issue at hand with less emotional reactivity. This is great modeling of self-regulation and self-expression for our children.
When our own emotions are clearer and calmer, we are able to see what may be under the "rug" of our children's initial feelings or behaviors as well. We can then speak to those feelings, helping them "build a vocabulary to communicate what is going on inside" rather than acting it out.1 For example, maybe your 4-year-old had trouble playing with a friend that day or your 14-year-old got a disappointing grade or felt left out at school. Either of them might just be feeling unsettled that day for reasons they don't understand. When we are more grounded and calm ourselves, we can see the signs that something is off with our child and tune into that as well. The shoes still need to get picked up, but hopefully it can happen with a little less anger and frustration once difficult emotions have been acknowledged. It can be difficult to sit with our true emotions, both as children and adults, but being mindful of these can help us create a peaceful home where we can stay connected to our values regarding our families and loved ones.
1Elias, M. J., Gootman, M. E., & Schwartz, H. L. (2016). The joys & oys of parenting: insight and wisdom from the Jewish tradition. Springfield, NJ: Behrman House.
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Amy Small, LICSW, is the new Kesher social worker at the synagogue. Kesher is the congregational outreach program of Jewish Family Service of Rhode Island, funded by the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, and currently active at Congregation Agudas Achim, Temple Torat Yisrael, Temple Am David, Temple Emanu-El and Congregation Beth Sholom. Amy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or