On a recent morning, my eldest daughter was disappointed, and I wasn’t sure why. I wasn’t even sure where she was, but I could hear her loudly crying to announce her upset. It had been a morning full of complaining, bickering and sibling rivalry that was starting to feel like a game of whack-a-mole. I had just finished talking my younger daughter down from a ledge after a hitting incident, and it was time for us to load up and go to school. But here I was looking for my sad kiddo, wandering through the house, calling her name with increasing intensity.
I stopped, took a breath and thought about how I would laugh about this later. Then, I spoke to the ceiling, “I can hear you need my help, but I have no idea how to help you if I cannot find you.” At which point a cupboard door in the entryway creaked open, and I crouched to find a sad little person crumpled up in a pile of coats and shoes. I sat next to her and opened my arms, and when she crawled into my lap I suggested that this morning’s struggles weren’t really about running out of cinnamon sugar, getting hit by her sister or any of the little things. They were about the big thing that was happening the next week.
“What is happening,” I asked her, “that will change all of our lives next Tuesday?”
“It’s the last day of school,” she said, fresh tears welling up in her eyes.
Yes. School is ending, and summer is starting — and with it come so many changes and uncertainties that are tough for both kids and adults. For many families, the clear daily and weekly routines of the school year go out the window and we start the sweaty and sticky marathon of swim lessons, camping, potlucks and family road trips.
I know that in addition to a lot of fun and adventure, this summer will bring mealtime madness, bedtime drama and uncooperative transitions that are common when we lose the security and predictability of the school year. As I sat on the floor with my daughter, I realized I wasn’t the only one who was feeling excited and terrified about the last day of school; we were all feeling it in our own unique ways. So I took some time to remember some impactful actions we can take every day to make summer as sweet as possible, and I wanted to share them.
My first recommendation is to take a deeeeep breath. However, I would never suggest you say that to anyone who is already angry. For both kids and adults, it almost always sounds patronizing when a calm and collected person tells someone with big feelings to take a deep breath, right?
Adults can practice breath counting: Inhale for four counts, hold four, exhale four and hold four. Repeating this several times helps your nervous system calm quickly.
School-aged kids can do a hand meditation: With a hand outstretched, help them trace each of their fingers. Inhale up the thumb; exhale down the other side; inhale up the pointer finger, exhale, etc. That’s five mindful breaths, which is plenty of time to calm their body and mind.
Toddlers can learn to take deep breaths with buddy breathing: Place a small stuffed animal on their belly and guide them to watch their buddy as they take a deep breath in, then out. Try it slow at first, then take a few quick breaths. It’s like their buddy is on a roller coaster. Ask them to notice how their body feels when they do this. Does their buddy like to snuggle and breathe together?
Remember to practice breathing exercises when calm, so the skills are well-rehearsed and easy to access when you feel your face turning red and your fists clenching. Plant a seed that this is something we can do when we need to calm down.
Adults who are feeling easily triggered by normal testing behaviors can ask a few questions that may help them make changes to create a more sustainable and fun summer. Questions like: What’s under the surface? How can I support my child when they are struggling?
It’s normal for a struggling child to be hitting, crying, hiding or just saying “no” to everything. These difficult superficial behaviors are typically a sign there’s something bigger going on under the surface.
Ask yourself: What time of day do tantrums occur? What are they doing? Who are they with? Are they hungry/tired/frustrated? Are there any transitions or disruptions happening in the bigger picture? How can you reassure your child, let them know you see them and give them age-appropriate control over their lives?
I find summer is a time of near constant change and transition. Whether it is camps, adventures, travel or hosting guests, summer is a major shift in routine, and kids often end up tired and maybe feeling a bit insecure about the schedule or what to expect on a day-to-day basis.
For all ages, it’s key to reconnect to the quiet and calm inside us as individuals after big feelings blaze through. Using breath, music, pillow punching or journaling can speed the process along. Kids bounce back quickly, but if you’re like me, you can stew in guilt, anger and shame for days after blowing up and saying things you regret. However, that’s not kind to you or your family, so remember to make space for yourself to process. Speak gently to yourself, like you would a friend.
It’s also helpful to connect to one another in a way that lets everyone know they are valued and safe. Be sure to normalize anger, sadness, frustration and confusion; they all are OK to feel and express. I’ve found that nonverbal communication is helpful when big emotions are fresh; a silent snuggle is enough in the moment. For both kids and adults, it’s a lot easier to talk about it and problem-solve a few hours (or even days) later.
It took me three hours, some exercise and connection with friends to finally calm down and stop replaying the whack-a-mole morning over and over in my mind. Later that evening, I asked both of the girls some of my favorite connection questions: What were you trying to say when you hit your sister? What feelings made you want to hide? How do you think I could have handled it better? What did you really need to hear? I wonder what you could do or say next time to help yourself get what you want and need?
Petterson lives in Moscow with her husband and their two children. She left public education to become a yoga instructor, sleep specialist and mindful parenting educator. She can be contacted via her website at www.kristinepetterson.com.