As a clinical psychologist and parent coach, I’ve worked with thousands of moms and dads on a variety of parenting challenges. One of the most common challenges is staying calm when kids are pushing our buttons, or anytime our reserves of patience are low. Every parent struggles with this.
Parents know they should stay calm and matter-of-fact, offer empathy, avoid arguing, and gently but firmly enforce household rules. But this is easier said than done.
In the heat of the moment, it can be difficult to rein in our own emotions so that we can effectively deal with the situation at hand, whether it’s your toddler throwing his food off the table, or your teenager breaking her curfew.
One technique I’ve used successfully with many clients is this simple visualization: when you find yourself in a situation in which you need to keep your cool while patiently enforcing rules, pretend you are a concierge.
Visualizations are helpful because they use the power of our imagination to rehearse a desired behavior. They prime us to act in a way that follows what we have imagined.
When we picture a concierge, most of us imagine a friendly and helpful hotel employee who can muster great reserves of restraint and calm even in challenging situations.
The image of a concierge embodies three critical ideas that can provide a useful model for parents.
1. A concierge is calm and matter-of-fact
2. A concierge uses empathy to diffuse tension in a potential conflict
3. A concierge understands that how she says something is just as important as what she says
Imagine your 12 year-old daughter emerging from her room, dressed and ready to go to school. Imagine she is wearing a skimpy halter top and a very short skirt that you find inappropriate. You have talked with her before about clothes that are appropriate to wear to school, and she seems to be ignoring you.
Maybe you also didn’t get much sleep last night so, before you can stop yourself, you yell: “For the hundredth time, you can’t wear that! It looks awful! Go back to your room and change right now!” This approach is likely to start a power struggle and create a disconnect in your relationship with your daughter (not to mention putting a damper on the morning).
How would a concierge handle that situation, if a guest in his hotel were heading toward the dining room wearing inappropriate clothes?
A concierge response might sound like this: “I can see you put great care into choosing your clothes this evening, Ma’am (empathy). I imagine you were unaware that our downstairs dining room requires long-sleeved attire (benefit of the doubt). However, our café upstairs would be a good choice, if you prefer not to change this evening (give alternatives).”
A concierge would not yell or insult a guest, and would instead use empathy and a matter-of-fact statement of the rules to redirect behavior.
So let’s translate that approach back into our example at home: “Sweetie, I know you really want to wear that halter and skirt, and it does look cute on you (empathy). At the same time, please remember our rule that school shirts must cover your stomach and pants or skirts must reach your knee or below (restate rule). Please go change for school (request). Why don’t you save what you’re wearing now for our trip to the beach/pool/etc. next weekend? (alternative)”
Although every situation is different, pretending to be a concierge can help you to muster your patience and can also provide a model of how to approach a situation in a way that minimizes conflict and distress.