Inaugural C.U.E. Post: My T-shirt Tantrum

Inaugural C.U.E. Post: My T-shirt Tantrum

The question comes up often -- "How long did it take you, Catherine, to change?" I say it took at least several months and a lot of effort to start seeing significant shifts in our family's levels of peace and closeness. But I do let my course participants know that I still mess up at times. Sure, our family has a good handle on the healthier communication skills of P.E.T. but I am retraining a 44 year old brain after all!

So I thought it might be helpful and comforting to expose to light some of my own Consciously Unskilled Episodes (C.U.E.) -- those times when I am (painfully) aware that I am not using P.E.T. strategies -- and what I then did and learned.

By "Consciously Unskilled" I'm talking about the second step in the four learning stages for mastering a new skill:

  1. Unconsciously Unskilled - the way I parented before I took P.E.T.
  2. Consciously Unskilled - oooh boy, I catch myself Roadblocking!
  3. Consciously Skilled - let me try this; hey, it works!
  4. Unconsciously Skilled - ask me later, because I don't think I have actually experienced this yet

Most course participants find themselves flailing on this second step and we have a few good laughs in class because undoing years of patterning can feel awkward! We may stop ourselves mid-sentence with our children because we just recognized we were launching into a lecture or trying to send a solution. We sometimes allow ourselves the familiar judgment or label in class with a rueful grin and a "But I know better than to say that now!"

It's hard work. And often parents are flummoxed - "What should I have done? How would you handle this? But I didn't do that, so then what?" Group learning is very powerful and, in the discussion that ensues, I have some but certainly not all the answers. Here, though, I can share my experiences and hope that helps.

I'll break down C.U.E. posts like this: 

  1. A recent slip-up or struggle (nice and fresh)
  2. What I did to repair the relationship
  3. My take-away learnings 

So let me tell you the story of my T-shirt tantrum . . . 


The Missteps

One morning a couple of weeks ago, I was feeling such a lot of pressure. My mother in law had just requested that I gather some documents and then help her out in the Philippines. I had a work phone call in a few hours for which to prepare. I was tired because I had just come home from driving my eldest to 6:30am water polo practice. On top of all that, my ten year old Claudia was home sick from school. In P.E.T. parlance, my Line of Acceptance was high and my window was pretty closed.  

First thing I had to deal with right away was a deadline for a T-shirt order for my son's 16th birthday party. Claudia happened to see the T-shirt design and disapproved. She was not so sick that she couldn’t apply her superior tech abilities to redesign it, using a funky web program to scramble up the names. I agreed. 

Unfortunately, Claudia started to run into glitches: getting the font on back to match the front; emailing as a Word document; uploading to Sendspace etc. The clock was ticking and my other work went unattended.

I got impatient and, let’s face it, a little bit nasty. "Hey," I hear some P.E.T. graduates saying, "that's a judgment! You can't videotape or record 'nasty'!" Ok, then, let me just tell you what I said: “Can you hurry up, Claudia? Oh my gosh, I said to try the OTHER font! Now press apply! Come on! Can I just take over for a minute?!”  

I was mindful that I was out of control. I apologized, “Sorry, I am being quite a control freak right now, I am just so stressed!” And then, suddenly I had another crisis: I couldn’t locate the Keynote presentation for my class the next day! Over the edge now, I got snippier and toggled back and forth for a good 15-20 minutes between “adult” behavior and, well, a tantrum. Claudia gently said a few times, “Ok, jeesh, just calm down!”


The Repair 

Once the new and improved image had been successfully submitted to the designer, I did calm down. Claudia quickly went up to her bedroom. After doing some work (but all the while uneasy and distracted because I was feeling guilty), I walked up to Claudia’s room and sat down on her bed. “I’m sorry I was so out of control. Thanks for all your help with the design - I really like it a lot better than my own.” 

She just glanced up at me. Then I asked her, “I kind of scared you and you felt bad, didn’t you?” She looked at me with exasperation and pity, “Mom, it’s ok!” She needed space and I had done a poor job of Active Listening her. "Thanks, honey,” I said and left with a kind of heavy heart.  


The Take-Away

  • Time away RIGHT AWAY - It is amazing how hard it can be just to leave!! I have gotten so much better but once in a while I stick around and then say things that I regret. A pause can help me choose my reaction rather than my reaction choosing me.  
  • Show self-compassion - Tell myself "This is soooo hard!" Active Listen and explore my underlying feelings and needs rather than lash out with impatience and anger. That morning, I needed rest, control, efficacy and competence and I was feeling so overwhelmed and fatigued. 
  • Change my thinking - Instead of "OMG why is she taking so long, this is ridiculous!" I can choose more emotionally calming thoughts: "This T-shirt is going to be more special because his little sister helped with it! And my work WILL get done." How I think about something will change how I feel about it.
  • Active Listen more - instead of asking Claudia a question (which is a Roadblock), next time I can say, “Hey, when I was barking orders at you and speaking to you in such an impatient way, you seemed upset and stressed out by that.” That way, I show empathy and help her articulate how she was feeling. That's what I did a little while later and it helped release her upset and reconnect with me.
  • Forgive myself - Once I've apologized (which is important modeling behavior!), I can remind myself that changing patterns of reactivity takes a while and then, as my husband would say, "lose the guilt.

According to mindfulness author Tara Brach, each time we are aware that we have lost control, can name our experience as it’s happening or can observe ourselves trying to make different choices (like my toggling back and forth) it counts as another step on the way to being mindful and in control of our words and behaviors. Every Consciously Unskilled Episode, then, is cause for celebration! How about that for adopting a new thought?

I would love to hear from you in the Comments!

  • What are you finding particularly challenging to do with your child in the heat of the moment?
  • Have you had a recent C.U.E, and how did you fix it?
  • Is there a "mantra" - e.g. "She needs my compassion the most when she seems least to deserve it!" - that you have adopted to help you move up to the "Consciously Skilled" step and use your Active Listening, or assertively state your I-Message?
  • Have you experienced the "Unconsciously Skilled" stage and what was THAT like?

Read another article on what to do after you yell at your kids by wise Dr. Laura Markham.

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