I am a big fan of using mantras as a parent. The right mantra has the power to bring focus and awareness to a moment that has almost gotten away from me. It can help me quiet the static in my head so that I am able to respond to my child sensitively rather than reacting from a place of frustration, misunderstanding, or disconnect.
A good mantra is one that speaks to you. It should be simple and easy to remember. It could be a sound to bring you back into yourself. It could be a word that reminds you to "breathe" or "wait." It could even be a phrase that reminds you of an important truth and brings perspective to a moment.
One of my recent favorite mantras is Michelle Obama's famous phrase:
"When they go low, we go high."
There are several reasons why I find this an effective phrase to call up. First of all, I find that calling it up in the face of a negotiation with a determined toddler makes me laugh. Humor helps me find some space in the situation and I am able to breathe a little easier. It also gives me an instant perspective--the gravity of the low that Michelle was referring to reminds me that however big a conflict with a toddler can seem, I am more than equipped to handle it.
Most importantly it reminds me of a truth about development. Our prefrontal cortex (the outermost, frontal part of the brain) does not finish developing until the mid-late twenties. This "highest" part of the brain is responsible for executive functions including:
-reason & logic
It is the part of the brain we are relying on as adults when we have had a long day and our commute home gets extended. Here in NYC I see it on the subway. Delays are announced and folks have all kinds of "high brain" strategies for dealing with the frustration. Breathing, distracting themselves with reading or a phone, shifting back and forth, walking to the other end of the train, sighing, sharing the frustration with another commuter.
Toddlers, no matter how precocious, do not have the full range of access to these abilities that we do as adults. Even as adults, depending on our level of stress, our childhood experiences, our emotional state, past trauma, and other factors, we are not always able to rely on our prefrontal cortex to regulate how we respond to a given situation. In the subway example, I notice this in my own increasing desire to let out a frustrated scream.
So toddlers, especially emotionally overwhelmed toddlers, are operating from a deeper or "lower" part of the brain that is instinctive and impossible for them to rationally control. There is no conscious manipulation. There is no intent to hurt or anger.
When confronted with a toddler who is "going low" our responsibility is to "go high." This means that we, who have access to reason, understanding and perspective taking, put those abilities to good use. We meet our toddler with empathy. We become their calm. We acknowledge their emotions without judgement. We wait with them. Each situation will be unique.
As we model "going high" the most amazing thing happens and our toddler's brains begin to learn and shape themselves after us. Over time, and with lots of repetition we are giving them the gift of a robust and well developed brain that can handle anything that comes its way.