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Stefanie Tsabar

How to ground yourself during dinnertime chaos



Think about the last time your kids pushed your buttons.

I’m going to guess that it was in the last 24 hours, and it probably had something to do with food.

I’ve learned that kids seem to know exactly what bothers us on a guttural (not conscious) level, even if we’ve never articulated it to them.

They are not aware of what they are doing by pushing your buttons, and so they are not manipulating you.

They simply have learned what it looks and feels like when mom/dad is emotionally preoccupied, and it makes them feel unsafe. So, they push your buttons to “wake you up” and pay attention to them on an emotional level.

Let me give you an example…

You are sitting around the dinner table asking your kids about their day. On the surface, you seem fine and present, but inside you are worried and angry that they are not eating any vegetables.

Even though you are not “acting” angry, anxious, etc., your kids feel it. And, they experience it as a threat to their own safety.

They are feeling something like, “Mom/dad seems really shaky. They can’t take care of me when they are shaky, so I’m not safe”.

Then, before you know it, they’ve started pushing your buttons by complaining about the food, refusing to eat, getting up and running around the table or scarfing down all the bread.

Of course, we cannot attribute all of their misbehavior to this, as healthy kids are meant to test boundaries. Plus, it’s vital that we serve dinner in a way that’s supportive to how kids learn to eat well.

However, it’s helpful to have this lens to peer through and consider as an option when trying to figure out why our kids are acting out.

One clue is that time-outs and consequences don’t work. The reason is that your kids are needing you to become centered so that they can regain their sense of safety and stop pushing your buttons.

And, when you are present and grounded at the table, you may be surprised to find out that much of your kids’ problematic behavior simply fades away. Your kiddos are sitting longer at the table, tasting more of the new foods and not complaining.

But, how do we ground ourselves during dinnertime, when stress is usually at the highest?  Here are 3 ways:

#1: Identify your personal “triggers”

Dinnertime is stressful for most parents, but if you have a history of an eating disorder, family dinners growing up were stressful (e.g., you were forced to finish your plate, there was a lot of yelling) or you have struggled with body image, then it’s likely that you will have recurring emotional triggers during dinnertime.

According to Psychcentral.com, “A trigger is something that sets off a memory tape or flashback transporting the person back to the event of her/his original trauma.”

What that means is that you could be serving dinner calmly, but then your child screams, “Yuck!” and suddenly, you find yourself yelling and dinner feels ruined. (If this happens, don’t beat yourself up. Click here on how to do a healing repair.)

A good therapist can help you identify and process what your personal triggers are so that you don’t have to work so hard to stay calm at the table. It will happen naturally.

It will not only benefit you, but your kids as well. Sadly, here’s what it looks like when a parent is unaware of his own triggers: Plenty to Lose in Discussion of Weight and Self-Esteem, By Philip Galanes, The New York Times.

# 2: Traverse the gut-punches like a zen master

If you don’t experience the types of triggers I described above or once you’ve become conscious of any triggers that you do have, you will experience frustration at dinner (e.g., kids’ whining, not sitting down) without feeling completely derailed.

In other words, you’ll be able to experience the initial gut-punch feelings without reacting to them.

Also, mindfulness training, meditation and yoga can help you feel more grounded and present before dinnertime begins or help you move through those painful feelings when they come up.

Then, instead of yelling at dinner, you might simply say out loud to your kids, “I think I’m triggered right now. I need a moment to ground myself.” And, then, take a few breaths, go to your room and sit quietly for a few minutes, etc.

My favorite book about becoming grounded in the moment is Amy Cuddy’s Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.

# 3: Choose the “right” parenting book

I’ve found that part of being able to keep ourselves grounded is feeling like we are responding to our kids in the most effective, yet nurturing way possible.

Like me, you’ve probably read plenty of parenting books. But, how many of them are the perfect fit for the child(ren) you are raising?

Throughout the years, I’ve worked diligently through renowned parenting books and courses. Nothing really worked until I discovered Transforming the Difficult Child: The Nurtured Heart Approach, by Howard Glasser.

Although I highly recommend this book and believe deeply in its merits, I believe more strongly in choosing a parenting approach NOT based on reviews or popularity, but rather based on how good of a fit it is for the child you are raising.

[Did you like this article? If so, I would be so grateful if you would share it with all of your friends!]

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