Sometimes it feels like parents are being sold a myth of calm. So much so that it has become an industry. There are books, experts, blankets, toys, scents who all promise calm. Caregivers are told that children need them to be calm and parents want their children to be calm.
The truth is that calm has the same value as any other feeling. Calm is not better than angry, sadness, anxiety or elation. All emotions have messages for us. A key developmental task as the brain matures is to learn how to think about feelings and what they mean, and how they serve us. When we are caregiving, our feelings have important messages for us about the children in our care.
In our pursuit of being calm, we devalue other emotions to the point that we don't feel them. Sometimes we and our children develop coping strategies to stay calm that prove unhelpful. And we can miss out on the full experience of being human. But what specifically does it mean for us as parents and caregivers in the context of our work as co-regulators for our children?
When children are emotionally activated, they need to access another mind which can help them tolerate difficult feelings ("co-regulating"), or we could even think of it as "borrowing" another mind. Another theory is that the child projects feelings into us to get rid of them from themselves, and they need for us to feel how they feel and to think about and tolerate the feelings for them. This is called "containing", and is an inevitable part of caregiving or teaching children.
Therefore it is unrealistic to require that people caring for children feel calm. The expectation that we are calm sets an unrealistic standard for parents which can make them feel guilty and ashamed. The expectation that children are calm an even more unrealistic one.
Caregivers are wired to feel the feelings of their children, so in the presence of a child who is emotional activated, they will also be activated. More so when that child is acting out or triggering unconscious responses from the parent's own childhood.
A normal child produces disruption and disorder as they grow up, and bump up against parent's boundaries. It's normal for you both not to be calm.
Rather than striving to be calm in the presence of an activated child, focus on being curious and connected, with yourself. Try and identify what sensations you are feeling in your body, and if you have a name for that feeling. Take a breath. This starts you on the road to calmness, and will be experienced by the child as well.
You don't need to pretend you are calm when you are not. This seems incongruent to the child, because they will sense that your body language and presence is not calm.
This is not an invitation to get on the emotional roller coaster with your child or to act out impulsively. It's permission to feel the feelings, connect with them and even comment on them to your child.
They key is on connecting with yourself, so your child can connect with themselves, and you and them can connect together. This will start the process of the intense feelings subsiding and the part of the child's brain that can think about what is happening can come on line.