This time of year is always busy, with the end of school and trying to plan for the summer. This year we have the added stress of navigating the ever-changing and contradictory advice about recovering from the pandemic lockdown. Here are some thoughts to keep in mind that may help lessen the chaos that we all are experiencing.
Hold the Center
Many years ago that I took my foster daughter with me on a work trip. After the work part was over, we spent some time sight-seeing and visiting with friends in the area. My friends were working parents with 6 kids, all of whom had music lessons, school activities, and other places to be. After an evening of shuttling everyone around, my friend sat down and said, “I’m sorry that our lives have been so chaotic during this visit.” My foster daughter immediately said, “Oh no, I think everything is very serene here.”
Thinking through how my daughter and my friend could have such different views of the family, I realized that they were looking at different things. My friend was looking at the packed schedule and long to-do list. My daughter, on the other hand, was looking at the family relationships. Yes, they were all busy, but they had a strong foundation of love and respect for each other. All of the chaos was outside the relationships. Inside the family, the center was holding.
The lesson for us is to safeguard our relationships. Sometimes we can’t avoid the chaos. In those times we need to concentrate on keeping the relationships as strong as we can.
Pick Your Battles
“I just can’t help it; that sort of thing just really bugs me.” How many times have we heard that statement, or said it ourselves? The fact is, we can control our reactions to things that annoy us, and the more issues we learn to let go of, the happier we will be.
Of course, we have to establish healthy boundaries within our family. Mutual respect, for example, should be non-negotiable. Beyond those issues, though, most of the flash points in a family are issues that we can let go past us without damaging family bonds.
Some issues are legitimate trauma triggers, and those are difficult for us to manage. They hit us at a level deeper than logic, and most of the time our brain reacts before we have time to think it through. But we can find techniques to manage even those issues. Some people find help in prayer or meditation, while others use biofeedback to manage involuntary reactions. One friend told me how she would close her eyes and envision unclenching her hand finger by finger. By the time her hand was completely open in her mind, she was able to deal more logically with the situation.
Whatever the technique, we need to learn to let go of our grievances, even the legitimate ones. After all, we often are asking our kids to let go of their legitimate grievances and control their trauma triggers because we believe it will make them happier in the long run. If it works for them, then it will work for us. If nothing else, we need to model the behavior that we want to see from them.
Invest in Relationships and Memories
Many years ago, I read a series of studies showing that accumulating possessions did not make people happy. Up to a certain point, material wealth correlated with happiness. Beyond the point where people could cover their basic needs, however, increased money and possessions did not reflect increased happiness. What did correlate in happiness in these studies were activities that represented memories and connections. For example, bowling memberships and travel had a higher correlation with happiness than a new car.
The takeaway from those and more recent studies is that we should invest our family resources in common activities that build relationships. Yes, extracurricular activities are good and important for our kids. But find ways to participate as a family — attending the ball games, for example, or watching a cheerleading competition. Even if the other kids are bored, they will learn the importance of showing up to support people in the family.
Embrace the Power of Boring
Finally, learn how to not buy into other people’s chaos. Traumatized kids sometimes create chaos because that’s what is familiar to them. They don’t necessarily like it, but it is what they know. Even non-traumatized kids go through phases when they emote and react rather than thinking things through. We need to learn how to counteract those tendencies by being steady, stable, and even a little bit boring.
That’s not how we like to see ourselves. I certainly always planned to be a hip, cool adult. But then I realized that all of the somewhat boring adults in my life had given me a stable foundation that I never could have gotten anywhere else. They weren’t famous adventurers, but they showed me the power of stable relationships. As one of my older relatives said once, “I’m pretty much like gravity. I’m not glamorous or exciting, but I’ll always be here.”
There is a lot of power in boring stability. We may not be able to keep our kids from following their emotions into mistakes and chaos. But we don’t have to follow them there. Instead, we can work to give them a stable base to come back to. Being like gravity can be a powerful gift to our children.
As with any part of parenting, there are no sure-fire techniques to avoid chaos. Our kids have agency and will make their own decisions. But if we can learn from these techniques, we can give them a stable center to retreat to and learn from.