“Our Mom wasn’t like other Moms.” a twenty-something daughter of my mentor recalled. “As kids, when we were doing something crazy, she wouldn’t yell. She would get so quiet.”
“And she moved really slowly.” added the thirty-something sister. “We called it her strange calm.”
“And I guess it worked because we were weirded out by it but we stopped what we were doing and just watched her.”
I listened to this conversation years ago before I became a parent but have recently realized the power of its application in family life. Do you notice that musical pieces that include a moment of silence have the greatest emotional impact? You stop and notice the silence. And the energy of the piece changes. The lack of sound calls attention through sheer contrast. Teachers in schools apply this principle and talk at a whisper when it’s getting too loud. “Those who can hear my voice, clap once. Those who can hear my voice, clap twice.” And on a much larger scale, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi used their own form of calmness as social nonviolent protest. And it changed the tone of the conflict. It was impossible to ignore. Escalation of the emotional drama either by yelling, punishing or getting upset is expected by kids. But what if you sat down in the middle of it, shut your eyes and became quiet?
Strange calm is an easy technique to use at home as well in times of great chaos or even when kids are misbehaving. There are numerous benefits to this strategy. At the very least, you will not contribute to the emotional upheaval. It gives you the chance to breathe, restore your mental facilities and think about the situation at hand before acting. You will be more capable of a constructive response – the one you might hope for and plan for in calmer times – because of the chance to pause and reflect. And additionally, you are modeling self-management and self-discipline in a challenging moment. This is particularly impactful modeling for children who struggle with impulse control.
When discussing a family emotional safety plan at a recent workshop, one parent said, “I would love to be able to leave the room to calm down when I am upset and my kids are acting out but I’m afraid they’ll hurt one another. I don’t feel like I can leave.” When siblings are fighting, it may enrage a parent standing nearby but leaving to calm down may not be practical. So why not calm down right where you are?
Another parent carried around post-it notes and pen and wrote down her frustrations when the volume and upset escalated with her kids. “My daughter stopped and wanted to know what I was doing.” And that’s the idea. It stops her disturbing action. She has the opportunity to pause and find out what’s going on with Mom. Her daughter is learning that there are a number of ways to cope with stressful moments that do not involve contributing to and escalating the conflict.
Like anything worthwhile, moderation is best. Use this technique too often and it becomes expected and perhaps ignored. But use it when the chaos is escalating along with your last nerves and you may feel a renewed sense of power and control as you change the tone of your environment.
* Thanks for the inspiration, Ginny Blankenship, Anna and Margaret Lang!