Controlling My Responses
"I have the space and time to marvel at the twins growing up, and can put my energy into coming up with constructive responses that help them grow and learn, trying not to grin along with their mischief. I know those are the memories that are going to stick with me as it becomes clear how quickly the twins are growing up."
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1. On any given day, there are lots of things that can tip me as a parent over into acting without thinking, and result in me responding to something the twins are doing in a way that is not helpful or that I would regret.
2. Being tired, stressed out and having lots of competing priorities (i.e. a lot of the time!) doesn't help with this!
3. Children’s brains grow to 80% of their adult size by the age of 3, and 90% by 5, so what happens over those first few years dictates a lot of how their brains are wired up to react to situations, so how I responded to what in the grand scheme of things weren't really a big deal, would have a big impact on the twins.
4. We already had an idea of the type of characteristics we wanted to role model, and I definitely had a pretty good idea of the type of things I was likely to do, especially when stressed, that wouldn't be helpful in building those characteristics!
5. Key was being "proactive" and controlling my responses, especially when I was stressed.
6. There were 4 things that I found really helped me do this.
7. Understand and be aware of my triggers 🔫 Especially the ones that were a priority to keep locked down in front of the kids - anything that dialled up any levels of impatience or temper. Knowing (/being honest with myself about!) my triggers wasn’t easy, and being able to effectively recognise them and catch myself took some practice - deep breaths helped!
7. Deciding how I was going to respond in advance. This meant that I had much less to figure out on the fly (and therefore less influenced by my mood), and could make sure that the response was helpful with a clear head and some decent research.
8. Changing my expectations. I love the expression "“Happiness is the gap between expectations and reality”, and nowhere is this more true than parenting. I realised that in order to close this gap I needed to change my expectations around pretty much everything! Allowing more time to get things done and changing my mindset so that I focused on the things that went well, not those that didn't live up to my expectations had the biggest impact.
9. Focusing on what I could control. Children introduce an element of chaos to pretty much anything - be it a dirty nappy just as you are stepping out of the door to those days where nothing you do seems to make them happy. This can be both tiring and disheartening, but I found that by focusing on the things I could control, no matter how small, gave me a lot more energy and patience to deal with things that I couldn't.
(TG = Twin Girl, TB = Twin Boy)
When TG is eyeballing me, grinning ear to ear as she wriggles out of her highchair straps, stands up and starts to twirl around on her chair, totally ignoring my requests to be seated, be safe, and get ready for dinner, I can find it hard to keep my 💩 together!
One of the joys of parenting is about a million of these scenarios every week! On the good days, it was hard to keep a smile off my face and try to maintain some discipline, on the bad days it was hard to choose a constructive response over a snappy, unhelpful reaction.
It was critical that I did though. Children’s brains grow to 80% of their adult size by the age of 3, and 90% by 5, so what happens over those first few years dictates a lot of how their brains would be primed to react to situations. How I responded to what in the grand scheme of things weren't really a big deal at the time could have a big impact on the twins developing personalities.
We also had a pretty clear idea of the type of characteristics we did want them to pick up from us (and those we didn’t!), which didn’t always match the typical snappy, impatient (or inappropriate belly laugh!) response they might get if I let how I was feeling at the time dictate what I did and said.
This is even more true in stressful situations. This makes sense when you think about an important function of our brain - avoiding danger. The last thing we would have wanted when we were about to get eaten by a sabretooth tiger was to wait around for an extensive internal dialogue before we ran away. Today, most of us aren't dealing with life or death situations on a daily basis, but our brains don’t know this. As soon as we are in as situation where we feel stressed and under threat (like when I am sleep deprived, in a rush and the shoes aren’t on the shoe rack, or the printer isn’t working), this flight or flight mode kicks in (known as the amygdala-hijack) and we are even more likely to react without thinking or control. Cue said shoes and printer going through the nearest window!
Short story long, I knew there were two tiny people who wanted to enthusiastically explore new ways to introduce stress into our lives, so I would need to manage my reactions and make sure that I was consciously choosing how to respond, and, regardless of the circumstances, definitely not showing up carelessly as my stressed out, impatient, frustrated, hyper analytical self.
The ability to choose your response is described in Franklin Covey's book “7 Habits of highly effective people” as being “proactive”. I know, I know, the book title is a bit wanky. I was once sharing a flat with a friend who was reading this and I thought it sounded like something a recovering agoraphobe might read. But, it turns out when I eventually read it 10 years later, that the joke was on me. It’s an epic book, and one that if put into practice, can be life changing. It’s the only self-help book I managed to get my wife to read and not have her 🙄 at me constantly, enough said.
FC defines proactivity as “about taking responsibility for your life. Proactive people recognize that they are ‘response-able.’ They don’t blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behaviour. They know they can choose their behaviour…”
In simple terms, when something happens, instead of letting the circumstances or others dictate our reaction, being proactive means one has the ability to choose their reaction. Even if TG is a massive windup merchant, it was still on me to make sure I chose a helpful response.
Luckily both in my career and as a coach I already had experience of working specifically on being "proactive". This didn’t mean that it was always easy to do as a parent, but I did begin to recognise those things that made it easier:
Understand and be aware of my triggers 🔫
Especially the ones that were a priority to keep locked down in front of the kids - anything that dialled up any levels of impatience or temper. Knowing (/being honest with myself about!) my triggers wasn’t easy, and being able to effectively recognise them and catch myself took some practice - deep breaths helped, along with trying to reflect on things when not in the heat of the moment and then taking action to stop a repeat.
Deciding how I was going to try to respond in advance 💣
Trying to figure out how to respond constructively to a screaming child, for reasons unknown, whilst cooking dinner and trying to remember where I had left the second child, all having had 2 hours of sleep, was unlikely to end well.
By taking time out up front to think about the types of situations we might end up in, and how we could respond in line with the impact we wanted to have on the twins was really helpful. This made me take more seriously our parenting choices, because I knew that getting to grips with the practical detail was going to help me be prepared. It didn’t always work, but having some familiar responses ready to go increased the chances of me being proactive in the first place. I can’t count the number of times I avoided losing my mind and instead said “I can’t let you do that, because…”, even if through gritted teeth!
Changing my expectations 🤓
The cornerstone of many parenting challenges, having more realistic expectations was huge - one of my favourite expressions is “Happiness is the gap between expectations and reality”. The greater your expectations, the “more” life has to give you to keep you happy. Pre-twins, I struggled to get this balance right, and I knew from the conversations I had with parents about the likely impact of the twins' arrival that my expectations around a lot of things were going to need to change if I wanted to be happy!
How long it takes to get out of the door, how often I would get to see friends and of course, how much sleep I would get were obvious ones. But after several months I realised that I needed to change my expectations about pretty much EVERYTHING! Whilst this didn't mean we abandoned having expectations, I had to totally flip my mindset so that achieving pretty much anything as planned was a victory, rather than seeing every time we failed (a lot) as a defeat. This was a HUGE mindset shift for me, and took some months to even get close, and it’s one I am definitely still working on. In the areas where I have, it has made a massive difference to my stress levels, and also means that we are practically better prepared to achieve what we set out to do.
Over time I also learnt how to focus them on having the right kind of response to help the children grow and learn, not just getting through the day. The most obvious, and for me important place to start was resetting my expectations as to how long something was going to take (i.e. much longer than I was used to and would have liked!). Whilst time wasn’t always the trigger, having more helped me avoid any other buttons that were in danger of being pressed! This was critical to avoiding frustration and enabling me to relax and control my responses. The amygdala-hijack lasts about 7 seconds, hence the advice to count to 10 in a really stressful situation before you respond. I often found even 10 seconds seemed too much if I already felt in a rush!
It’s tough to carve out extra time, especially when it might mean 5 or 10 minutes less in a precious bed, but, without doubt, I found the impact on stress levels and my ability to control my responses far outweighed any sacrifice or inconvenience I had to suck up to find a little more time.
Focusing on what I could control 🥷
I’m not a control freak, but when I say I am going to do something, I really like to do everything I can to make sure that it happens (which perhaps does occasionally make me a control freak 🤣). The problem was, we now had 2 small people involved who didn’t really care what I thought should be happening. Add to this an often random chance of a decent night's sleep, and the ability to do anything in the way I had planned became something of a dice roll! I have yet to find a magic wand to solve this problem, and suspect there isn’t one, but what did help was controlling the controllables (Franklin Covey also talks about this as the circle of concern vs the circle of influence).
So, whilst I couldn’t always control how much sleep I got or how much mischief the Twins wanted to get up to on a given day, I could make sure the night before that we were in good shape to handle breakfast/work/visitors the next morning, that myself and my wife had already decided who was doing what if we did have a mare that night. Practically things like having food pre-prepared in the freezer so if things got crazy we could just reheat something and not worry about cooking, getting organised with where all the babies and our stuff was so we didn't waste time looking for things all made a massive difference in giving us time and energy to focus on the twins and ultimately minimised stress levels so that we had the space to control our reactions.
Whilst parenting still has its moments where my head is about to explode trying to get the simplest of things done with the twins, when I have done a decent job of thinking through and putting in place those things above, it often transformed the experience from one of frustration. I more often have the space and time to marvel at the twins growing up, and can put my energy into coming up with constructive responses that help them grow and learn, with the biggest challenge being not grinning along with their mischief. I know those are the memories that are going to stick with me as it becomes clear how quickly the twins are growing up.