Are You a “FAT” Parent? 4 Exercises to Increase Parents’ Mental and Emotional Fitness

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If you’re looking for a way to lose 20 lbs. in the next week, sorry, that’s not what this article is about. However, if you would like to be a more calm and mindful parent with your child, this article is definitely for you. So many of us spend a lot of time working on, or stressing about, our physical fitness, and yet we spend very little time actually working on our mental and emotional fitness. This is ironic because most of our parental worries, regrets, and stress come from failing to stay mentally and emotionally fit and mindful in our parenting.

Each one of us has probably had a situation when we have lost it. We’ve all had moments when we have suspended good judgment and fallen prey to negative impulsive reactions. This could be overeating when stressed, yelling when angry or resorting to some ineffective or even destructive punishment rather than truly teaching our children in a more effective way. None of us are proud of it, but all of us have probably done it to some extent.

Awareness is always one of the first steps in making positive changes. It’s important to recognize that the tendency for each of us to flip out or jump too quickly to the negative is a normal, natural survival instinct. With that said, we have an incredible capability as human beings to override that automatic system and choose something different, something better!

This article will tackle what it means to be mentally and emotionally FAT, what a better alternative is, and finally, 4 specific ways we can train ourselves to be more mentally and emotionally fit.

“FAT” Reactions

“FAT” stands for Feel, Act, Think. If you think about the last time you lost your cool you’ll remember that the overwhelming feelings of fear, anxiety or anger came rushing in and you just reacted. It’s natural to have some kind of emotional reaction to things that overwhelm us or don’t meet our expectations. The problem is that we rarely separate our emotional reactions from our subsequent physical/behavioral actions that often follow the emotional reactions. It’s important to make the distinction between emotions and behavior. Name calling, yelling, spanking or other desperate attempts to force or control are not anger. Anger is a feeling. It is okay to be angry. It is not okay to hit. These types of aggressive or otherwise negative reactions tend to leave us with thoughts and feelings of regret after the situation has calmed down. When we feel, then act and finally bring our thinking brain back online after the fact, our thinking often becomes defensive. We seek to rationalize or justify away our actions and continue to perpetuate the negative cycle. Our thoughts are backward thinking rather that proactive and solution focused.

“TFA” Responding

TFA obviously means Think, Feel, Act. This model is proactive and positive. There are many struggles we have with our children that are regular and recurrent. We can anticipate them because they have happened before or it is just part of our children’s regular development. In these cases it is important to think and plan ahead of time what you will do. Provide reminders for yourself if you need to. You could do this with a contract on the refrigerator, a smart phone reminder, sticky notes around the house, an inspirational quote posted in a high traffic spot, or any other way that works for you. The point is to think it through when your emotions are not the driving force behind your plan of action. During these moments you can see other perspectives more clearly and consider alternative solutions. When we think before the overwhelm it allows us to see things as they really are rather than through our negative emotional lens. When our children act up or we experience overwhelm and stress we are then equipped with the tools we need to respond effectively. We have the ability to have a dialogue with ourselves about our emotional reaction and reconcile reality with our emotional perception. We can then act by doing what will actually Teach what we intend to teach, build the Relationship and continue to Upgrade ourselves as people and parents.

I realize that we cannot always anticipate and plan for every event that will occur but we can train ourselves to think first. When we learn to recognize our big, negative emotional reactions and utilize them as a sort of mental STOP sign to slow down and think first, great things happen. The following 4 skills and practices are simple ways we can train ourselves to be mentally and emotionally fit instead of defaulting to be “FAT.”

4 proactive ways to train yourself to think first and be more mentally and emotionally fit

1. Meditate daily: Learn to let go physically and emotionally. I have found that physical tension and emotional tension are closely related. When we are having an intense negative emotional reaction we are often more capable of letting go emotionally if we learn to let go of physical tension or discomfort in our bodies. It can be helpful to practice progressive relaxation techniques if you find it difficult to let go of physical and emotional tension. I often do an exercise with clients in my counseling office to teach them how to “let go” both physically and emotionally. It is helpful to close your eyes, take some deep breaths and calm your body. Then mentally imagine the source of your worry or negative feeling in some kind of physical form (a ball, a box, an animal, etc.). Mentally hold it tight in your hands and then envision yourself releasing it. Watch it fall from your hands or drift away. Take special notice of the difference you feel .

2. Wait: Make it a general practice to just wait. Learn to recognize and utilize natural negative emotional reactions as red flags that trigger us to pause and think. When you are extra overwhelmed, anxious or frustrated, identify that as a mental stop sign. Learn to sit with it until you are able to remember your plan, express the emotion constructively or release and resolve the emotion. Identify 3 things that happen regularly that you usually just react to and decide what you will do when they pop up. Practice waiting patiently. When you are in the checkout line or waiting for your food at a restaurant, practice being in that in-between place peacefully. Enjoy something or someone else while you wait. Just learn to wait well.

3. Challenge personal assumptions and perspective and consider other perspectives: Wow is this one hard. People generally seek only to validate their own belief or side of their story. Honestly seeking out and considering the other side of an argument helps us to learn to think critically and not give in to the emotional, automatic part of the brain. Think about what some of your biggest irritations are and genuinely seek to see your child’s perspective. Don’t jump to conclusions and assume what you think their intentions and perspectives are. Truly seek to understand their perspective. This does not mean that you necessarily have to change your opinion in the end, but the practice helps us to improve our ability to decrease “FAT” thinking.

4. Anticipate and Plan ahead: As was recommended above, create scenarios, problem solve and set tools or a plan in place ahead of time. Sit down with your child when you are both happy and thinking clearly and work together to find solutions and make commitments regarding what both you and they will do when certain conflicts arise. Draw a chart or picture together of what it will look like so that you can both deal with the problem in a positive way. Then post it somewhere in the house where everyone will see it. Let them know that they can remind you of your commitment to think first and use specific solutions. Identify a “code word” together that will help you remember when things get hot. Make it something funny to help lighten the mood during conflict. This is where you get to customize and personalize your solutions with your child. There are so many options to help us think first and keep to our plan but the most important part is just that we do it.

It’s so important for us to spend at least a few minutes every day to prepare for mental and emotional stress. When we don’t keep up with our mental and emotional fitness we get “FAT” and this leads to greater struggles and stresses.

On the other hand, when we do keep ourselves mentally and emotionally fit we are able to cope with the weight of parenting and life in general. We feel better, our relationships improve and our kids learn and perpetuate the cycle of mental and emotional fitness.

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