A few years ago, my sisters and I planned a zip-lining trip in the mountains of Montana with the three of us and seven of our eight children. We registered, signed our waivers, put on our equipment, and set off with our guides. We laughed away our nervousness as we hiked to the starting point, and the cousins debated who would be most nervous, who would go first, who would chicken out.
The zip-lining itself did not make me nervous. I trusted the equipment and enjoyed gliding over the Gallatin River. But there are things that bother me in my 40s that never did in my younger years, and, as I learned that day, standing with 11 people on a 10-foot deck attached to a swaying pine tree 50 feet in the air is one of those things.
I know each course is different, but this particular course has what they affectionately call “adventure bridges.” This so-called bridge is really a series of wood planks no bigger than the step of a ladder, separated by open air and with unsteady ropes to hang on to. As I crossed the bridge, my heart rate rose, I became dizzy and tingly and short of breath, such that I ran the last three planks and basically dove arms-first onto the landing deck, which was attached to the tree trunk, 50 feet in the air.
My memory is that everyone else was already on the deck (standing on their legs and feet like normal people, attached to their safety harnesses as I was). But not me, baby. In my moment of panic, I was literally lying on my stomach with my arms around the trunk of the tree like my life depended on it.
When you are panicking, you don’t think straight. You are not using the logical parts of your brain that say: “You are attached to a harness. You can’t fall.” When I came to and was able to look up at the 22 eyes on me, the kids laughing at my prone position, my daughter saying “WHAT are you doing?” in a horrified tone, I found it hilarious. The guide calmly said, “Julie, you have to stand up. You have to stand up.”
And I did have to stand up. I had to figure out how to return my mind and body to calm. Because once you’re on a small deck in a pine tree, the only way back to solid ground is to pull yourself together and step off onto the zipline. I could not leave my children, then ages 13, 10, and 7, up on the deck without me.
When you’re the parent, you suck it up, try to stay calm, and proceed.
Staying calm is one of the most important skills of a parent. As I parent, my kids will see me freak out or lose my temper (sometimes multiple times a day). But it’s imperative that they see me pull myself back together. I am the one who chooses what happens after I lose control. And with that choice, I teach the following: “It’s OK to feel worried or mad. Watch how I can calm down and handle this.”
Being calm is not always easy, but any pediatrician can tell you the impact of a calm parent. In my office, when kids start to lose it over having to get a shot or a blood test, what helps is a calm caregiver who says, “You can do this. Let’s take a breath and get through it.”
This week I witnessed an adult encouraging a child to take three long, deep breaths before a blood test, and I could feel the energy change in the room. It is our job as adults to change the energy, despite the chaos around us.
When your newborn won’t stop crying, stay calm. When your children are fighting, stay calm. Stay calm amid conversations of teenage angst, grades, screen time, and chores. Stay calm in discussions of social injustice, political divisiveness, fear of a global pandemic, and familial disagreements. Even if you have to walk away and take a break, try to stay calm. Parents who know how to calm themselves raise children who can do the same.
This week I was loading my groceries into my car in the H-E-B parking lot. I heard a toddler screaming and raging as he came out of the store, riding in the cart, pushed by what appeared to be his mother. He was past the point of reasoning and was thrashing about. We’ve all been there with our own children.
What struck me was the mother’s reaction. As she loaded her own groceries into her car, her voice stayed slow and calm. “You cannot hit mommy. Thank you for not hitting mommy again.” She corralled him safely into his car seat and continued putting her groceries in the car. She told the other adult with her, “He wants everything in the store and I am losing my mind.”
But she didn’t lose her mind. She stayed calm, or she pretended to be calm, which is just as important. If her inner self felt agitated and chaotic, her face and voice demonstrated tranquility and quietude. Fake it ‘til you make it and, eventually, your inner and outer selves will meet in the middle.
That day, her son learned what my children learned when I picked myself up off the deck and continued the zipline: staying calm is the first step to surviving the rest of your life.