Riding the Wave: How to keep calm when your daughter isn’t.

A beautiful wave
Written by Fiona Ghiglione, PhD

Last year I took my youngest daughter to athletics for the first time but as we arrived at the track she promptly declared (in tears) that she didn’t want to try and wanted to go home. She was scared, upset and furious that I was making her go. After 20 minutes of loud wailing the thought actually passed my mind to give in and say, “okay, let’s go home”, but I didn’t want her to think it was okay to give up that easily. So I waited it out – sitting with her, reassuring her every so often and breathing. God, I did lots of breathing and awkward smiling at all the onlooking mums. Then suddenly she just stopped crying and asked to have a go. I remember sitting there later dumbstruck, but also deeply joyed, as I watched her run the 400 meter track, giggling the whole way with her friends. The whole process was excruciating but I felt amazing afterwards. It was worth “riding the wave” with her.

Mothering involves a lot of that – riding emotional waves with our children – sometimes the waves are small and sometimes they seem like tsunamis. I really like this metaphor for a few reasons: First, emotions are actually just like waves – they come and go – but are never permanent. Even though it feels as though they will last forever, if we look closely at the fabric of our day, no one moment is coloured by the exact combination of emotions. We might wake up feeling sleepy with a tinge of excitement; then are frustrated in the car, amused checking Instagram, tired in a meeting and so on. 

The second reason I like this analogy is that there are actual physical cycles that our bodies go through when we start feeling a certain emotion and it relates to the activation of the autonomic nervous system – where our bodies increase, and later decrease, the release of certain hormones. These happen in a wave-like pattern and are reflected in the state of our bodies – as we begin to get angry our hearts race, our palms sweat, our faces tense and we feel more energised as our bodies release more adrenaline and noradrenaline. When we finally calm down these things occur in reverse. 

Finally, I like to imagine myself “riding” the wave with her because let’s face it emotions can be scary – especially when they are stronger and intense. Every time I can accompany her to the other side of the wave, I am teaching her that strong emotions are part of life but will eventually pass and are not something to be feared. 

Having said that, in our day to day lives it is very hard to show up for our kids when they are in the thrust of these emotions. Chances are, when our daughter is in a complete meltdown, we are in the middle of cooking dinner, are on the phone, in a conversation or rushing to finish up a last piece of work. In those moments, where we are resource-strapped, we are likely to show up in a way that is less than ideal. Our go-to response in these moments may be to dismiss them (“don’t be sad, it’s just a toy”), punish them (“right, no iPad for today”), bribe them (“here’s an ice-cream to cheer you up”), brush them off (“I can’t deal with this right now”) or go into fix-it mode (“why don’t/doesn’t you/he/she …”). We’ve all been there – and usually our rationale is – we’re doing our best and it works in the moment. 

Every time I can accompany her to the other side of the wave, I am teaching her that strong emotions are part of life but will eventually pass and are not something to be feared. 

If we do this every so often it isn’t such a big issue (especially if we debrief later with her and talk about what was learned from the situation). But we know that overusing these strategies doesn’t help build trust. Imagine being in a similar situation as an adult: your boss has given credit to a co-worker for something you have worked exceptionally hard on. You feel furious and upset and go to a friend to share it with her and she says, “don’t be angry, its just work” or “I can’t deal with this right now, let’s talk tomorrow”. After a while you will learn not to go to that friend.

All relationships are like this. As Brené Brown describes in her memorable speech on the Anatomy of Trust, relationships are made up of thousands of “Marble Jar” moments. Your relationship is like a jar and every time someone stands up for you, listens to you and is there for you a marble is added to the jar. Every time they don’t, a marble is taken away. The total trust you have in that relationship can be represented by the amount of marbles in the jar.

A good question to ask yourself is this: when your daughter is a teenager, who is the first person you want her going to for advice and comfort when she feels scared, afraid or anxious? We want our girls to trust us and feel comfortable telling us their deepest feelings and issues. Right now every moment they come to us with strong emotions is a defining moment. If our girls feel heard and understood they are likely to come back again next time and confide in us. If they feel unheard or misunderstood on a consistent basis after a while they will learn not to tell us so as to avoid the negative response.

So what can we do to help ourselves show up in these moments and ride the wave with our girls? Luckily, there are three simple steps we can use to do this:

Step 1: See the Wave. The moment your daughter starts experiencing strong emotions – anger, sadness, fear, frustration, jealousy – just repeat this mantra to yourself: “This too shall pass” and create some space to allow her to complete the cycle. Remind yourself that she is riding a wave and your job is to help her ride to the other side. It will end! 

Step 2: Calm. One of the reasons it is so stressful for us during the ‘wave’ is that emotions can be contagious. There is a body of neuroscience research that has uncovered that as human beings when we see someone having an emotional reaction, specific neuronal reactions in our bodies are triggered that mimic that same emotion. They are called mirror neurons and can be extremely powerful. In order for us to not be swept away by her emotions too we need to learn how to calm our systems first. 

When I am with my daughter and she is in the crux of riding the wave of her emotion, there are two excellent techniques that I go to which help me maintain a sense of calm. Both take no more than 2 minutes each and can be applied anywhere, which makes them super useful. 

The first one is a technique called “4-7-8 Breathing”. You can practice this when you aren’t stressed to get used to it first. It works like this:

Inhale counting to 4 (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4)…

Then hold your breath as you count to 7.

Exhale slowly counting to 8. Trying to empty all the air from your lungs.

Repeat this 10 times.

The idea is that your in-breath is shorter than your out-breath and we do this because it triggers a relaxation response in our vagal nerve, that says to our nervous system “okay, let’s switch to being calm”. If it feels like you finish exhaling before 8 then shorten it. That’s fine. So long as the inhale is shorter than the exhale.

The second technique is something I call “Grounding”, which helps me feel stable and strong. I do this by:

Stand with both feet on the floor – feet slightly apart – and begin by paying attention to all the sensations of your feet touching the floor. Notice how you are supported and balanced in this posture. It also helps imagining your body as though it was an old oak tree: solid and strong despite stormy emotions blowing around you. Stay with this imagery for a minute or two. It can also help to repeat: “I am grounded. I am strong”.

Paying attention to your body like this for a minute can be extremely soothing and we can actually use mirror neurons to our advantage – if she sees us calmer, it can help her calm too.

Step 3: Empathise. Finally, after taking a few minutes to calm myself I try and empathise. Empathy involves identifying what she might be feeling (I can see you are upset because X, is that right?) and then for a moment imagining what she must be feeling. Empathy is very important and is different to sympathy. It is worth watching this video of Brené’s that reminds us of that difference.

All these steps take no more than 5 minutes but can mean the difference between connection or disconnection; regulation or stress. I challenge you to try it out for a week. They could make a big difference to how you and your daughter are able to navigate future waves together!

If you would like to build these skills even further check out my three week online Mothering Tween Girls Workshop Series where I teach more mindfulness skills and help enrich your relationship even further.

Photo by Keating from Pexels

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