Recognizing Your Parenting Tipping Point
Updated: Sep 22, 2021
When my children were small, I was often exhausted. And in my depleted state, I was sometimes an impatient, disrespectful, out-of-control parent. Beyond my “parenting tipping point”, my strengths were diluted, my values compromised and my convictions crumbled.
Typically, I was an easygoing parent. I put a great deal of energy into my children’s lives and creating a harmonious home. And when I was tired and things weren’t going smoothly, I would become increasingly agitated. I’d start tidying intensely as if the Queen herself was about to visit. I disapproved of anything and everything my kids did. When it escalated, I would explode with anger: yelling, slamming, berating, intimidating, etc.
It produced exactly the kind of tense, unpredictable environment I didn’t want for my kids. It felt like I was my own saboteur, which led to more guilt and frustration. I was certain that I was screwing up parenting pretty badly.
Our Tipping Points
What I know now is that, when we go past our tipping points, we unconsciously move into behaviors that contravene our deeply held beliefs and intentions. This is completely natural. It’s how our brains work, reverting to survival strategies when there’s a sense of threat, stress or fatigue.
I have found that it’s tremendously useful to take a look at how we behave when we’re tired and stressed. Not to incite shame or regret, but to get to know ourselves better so we can recognize old patterns and cultivate new ones.
Beyond our tipping points, some of us disintegrate into perfectionism and criticism; others manage the pressure by tuning everything out. Are you the type that gets anxious and scared? Is your default more forceful and dominating? Or are you more likely to become stubborn, moody or self-indulgent? It’s ok. We’ve all got them. Getting to know your stress response pattern is an important step to being able to shift it.
Feeling your pattern in your body
I’d like to share a practice I often give clients to help them recognize the onset of their typical stress response. It involves getting to know, in detail, how that tipping point feels in your body. This practice involves a little movement and I encourage you to do it standing.
When we know what our pattern is, that cognitive awareness helps us notice when we’re “in” the pattern again. But when we learn about the more subtle physical and energetic aspects of the behavior, it helps us recognize when it’s starting. That’s when we want to make our shift – before we’re in it.
There are three main stress response patterns: flight, fight and freeze/please. You’ve heard them before but I invite you to lean in and take a closer look to how they occur in your body.
1. Moving away or flight. This is when we create a sense of safety through distance. This doesn’t necessarily mean running away, though I’ve certainly seen people leave the room when faced with a stressful situation. It also shows up when someone pushes their chair back from the table. When they collapse their shoulders, lower their eyes or disappear into their phones.
Take a moment now to feel how you might “move away” from a stressful situation, particularly in your parenting. Please stand up, give your body a little wiggle, imagine such a situation and let your body respond. How do you move to safety? What’s your stance? What are your gestures and facial expressions? Are you shaky, numb, holding your breath? What’s tensions and temperatures do you feel inside your body? Take enough time to feel into your personal flight response.
When it feels complete, please make 5-10 loud exhales or do a dance to fully release this position.
2. Moving against. Fight. Here we are trying to create safety through asserting ourselves. You may think you can easily recognize this behaviour - hitting, yelling, fists - but there is also more subtle confrontational body language, such as making yourself bigger, positioning yourself at the front of the room, above others or between them and the exit. Some people puff out their chest, take a wider stance, move their arms out from their body and speak in a threatening tone. Even slighter indications are a tightening of the eyes and mouths.
Again, take a few moments to explore how you “confront” stressful circumstances. This is about your physical response, not your thoughts. Observe your body’s way of meeting the situation. What are your movements, from large to miniscule? How has your breathing or heartrate changed? Are you jumpy or completely calm? What’s happening in your belly, bladder, chest, shoulders and spine? This is your physical fight response.
When you’re ready, release this position using movement and breath until you feel grounded again.
3. Moving toward. Please and appease. This pattern, either subtly or overtly, seeks safety through relationships. It can be a barely noticeable tilt of the head or slight smiling at the corner of the eyes. More obvious moves might be nodding, flirting, smiling, bowing, leaning or moving toward the person.
Now is your opportunity to take the shape of this response and explore how you, as a parent, move to please others when facing stress. Notice your gestures and movements. What sensations are you aware of? Check in with your internal systems. What does it feel like physically when you’re past your tipping point and you try to please someone?
Before continuing, please take a few gentle breaths and move your body in a way that brings you back to your centre and back to this moment. Appreciate that you followed your curiosity and learned something about yourself. And make a gesture or say something to mark the completion of this practice.
Now that you’ve taken the shapes of each of these responses, which was most familiar to you?
What are the clearest physical signs that occur when you are moving into your default response pattern? I encourage you to write them down.
How It Works
When we were small, we needed to feel safety, belonging and dignity. And in our childhood world, we naturally developed strategies for times when we believed those needs were threatened. Let’s not judge those strategies. They were what made sense to a child in a stressful situation. In fact, they were pretty smart and practical.
As we continued to use them, these strategies became imprinted on our bones, muscles, organs and tissues. Our go-to movement, the muscles that tense automatically, the involuntary gestures and facial expressions are a well-worn path from Situation X to safety.
As teens and young adults, we used the same Flight, Fight or Freeze/please approach, albeit more sophisticated and nuanced. And, even though it didn’t feel quite right or actually get us the result we wanted anymore, we said “This is just the way I am”. And each time we said it, we believed it all the more. Somewhere between childhood and parenthood, we became conditioned to believe that we don’t have any choice.
And it’s not true.
We can learn and grow.
We can change our response to a situation that creates a sense of threat, even when we’re exhausted.
We can develop the ability to
1) recognize when we’re nearing our “parenting tipping point”,
2) pause and connect to our centre, and,
3) choose a different response to the situation with our children.
The first step is getting to know your default pattern. I invite you to play with this practice. Try it on different days and see what information arises for you. Observe yourself. Practice, mess up and try again. Learn about the sensations that accompany the onset of your Parenting Tipping Point.
This is the work of giving ourselves a choice.
This is the work of change.
Next week, I’ll be sharing a simple but profound re-centering practice that many busy parents like. Until then, I’d love to hear your experiences with this practice.