“School is stupid. It’s for boring people and I AM NOT A BORING PERSON!”
Elena stared at Max and felt waves of anger, despair and confusion washing over her. Max continued, “I’m dropping out and moving to Arizona where I’m going to have a horse ranch and never ever speaking to you again!”
Elena felt the urge to both laugh (a horse ranch?) and to tell Max in no uncertain terms that he was not dropping out of school, not moving to Arizona and why were they even having this discussion when they we’re both late?!
How can a parent get a grip in situations like this and have any chance of making things work? Try SOBER: Stop – Observe – Breathe – Expand – Respond.
S Is for Stop
When we confront one of these common, frustration-rich situations and feel the pull of those old, habitual, unhelpful reactions (such as yelling), we need to STOP. Of course, if your child is about to be hit by a car then you should react, and react quickly. But barring such life-and-death situations, you can stop what you're doing to take the 10 seconds or so needed to run through SOBER.
O Is for Observe
Take a clear-eyed look at what is actually going on, both in terms of actual events and what you’re thinking and feeling. This second piece — of checking in with your own thoughts and feelings — is important.
In the case of Elena and Max, Elena might describe the situation this way: “Max is worked up about school. He's anxious.” At the same time, Elena notes her own feelings — dismay, frustration, impatience — and thoughts — “We’re going to be late” and “Why does he always do this?”
Simply observing but not reacting to our intense feelings and judgments is extremely challenging. That’s why we have “B.”
B Is for Breathe
Taking a deep breath buys you a little time before deciding what to say next. Plus, by taking a long, slow breath, you model a useful self-regulation tactic for your child.
E Is for Expand
When we get stressed, our view of things tends to narrow. This makes sense if we’re focusing on a threat; it’s part of fight-or-flight. But it limits our options. Max is focused on school; Elena on not being late for work. When we “expand” we’re stepping back and taking in the bigger picture, finding what really matters in that moment and looking for the possibilities and the creative solutions.
If Elena expands her focus, she may realize that using this situation as a teachable moment is more important to her than not being late for work. It may help her adjust her goal, refocusing on making a sensitive and helpful connection with Max and finding a reasonable solution together.
R Is for Respond
This is the action step. Here you make a values-driven, goal-directed response, as opposed to the old, habitual reaction.
Such a response might look like any number of actions. Perhaps initially you simply acknowledge and thus validate your child’s ideas and feelings. Or perhaps you ignore your child’s behavior. A goal-directed response could be taking command of the situation, e.g., “Max, I get it, you’re unhappy about going to school, but we need to leave now.”
I make no judgments.
By utilizing SOBER, the idea is for parents to pull themselves together in stressful situations when they feel the pull of old, reactive habits that have proven unhelpful. Your response may not necessarily be serene (this is parenting, after all) but you’ll have a better feeling for the possibilities of turning a bad situation into an opportunity for connection, communication and coping.