Have you ever heard the term “put your own oxygen mask on first?”
We all know the concept, right?
If you’re in an airplane and the cabin pressure drops, those little yellow masks fall down from the ceiling and you’re supposed to put yours on before helping others with theirs.
Because if you pass out from lack of oxygen, you can’t help anyone else. Your child can’t put your mask on for you. Your elderly companion may not be able to help you. The idea is that if you put your oxygen mask on first, get your air flowing, then you’ll be able to turn around and help the people around you.
It’s an overdone cliche.
Moms, in particular, are always being told to put their oxygen masks on first, and most of us would rightly roll our eyes so hard that we pull a muscle because- sure, that’s a cute thing to say but it’s not exactly that easy in practice. We have so much on our plates and nobody is helping us out because “we’re superheroes!” so in an effort to preserve our sanity we do the only thing that we can- we de-prioritize our own shit so that our plate feels one iota more manageable than it did moments before.
Here’s the problem with that- and why it’s actually contributing to more misbehavior from your children. It’s contributing to more shit on your plate- pun 100% intended so that you can almost guarantee that your plate will never be empty enough that you feel you can put taking care of yourself back on it.
As you may have come to expect at this point our limbic system is to blame.
It gives off brain waves literal brain waves. Just like light waves and sound waves exist, so too do brain waves.
What is our limbic system responsible for?
It is supposed to help keep us safe, store memories, and release emotional signals, right? The brain waves we give off are not reasonable, rational, or knowledgeable. They’re emotional safety signals. The people around us pick up on those!
Dr. Stuart Shanker describes it as a Bluetooth connection to the people around us. The people you connect to most easily are the people you’re most familiar with just like how your phone connects to your car when you get in it, and maybe even connects to your spouses’ or friends’ cars when you get in theirs.
If you get in an acquaintance’s car or you an Uber it’s not going to, right?
We connect most easily and quickly to the people around us but we can still pick up on others’ brainwaves.
Have you ever walked into a room and immediately felt the vibe and thought “shit, what is going on in here?”
Or have you ever been in a meeting where you don’t really know any of the people but you can instantly tell who is the cocky jackass and who is the quiet alpha and who is the quiet submissive?
Yes, body language helps reinforce these perceptions but it’s the brainwaves they’re giving off that most strongly influence us.
What does this have to do with putting our oxygen masks on?
Well- nobody is closer to us or more adept at connecting with our brainwaves than our kid because for them it can literally be a matter of life and death.
If Mom’s not okay, chances are that I’m not okay.
If Dad’s giving off danger signals, I’m probably not safe.
What happens when I don’t feel safe?
I up my arousal level to be on high alert for danger, which burns all kinds of energy, which means I don’t have energy left over to use to think rationally, use my knowledge and language, and run my executive functions. This means my behavior goes in the toilet right?
If you’re like what the hell is she talking about?
Check out this blog post: What is Stress and the Difference Between Stress Behaviour and Misbehaviour.
All this to say…if you’re not okay, your kids can’t be okay.
It’s actually physically impossible. No matter how calm of a facade you’re putting on, no matter how well you think you’re hiding that you’re unraveling behind the scenes, no matter how good you’ve gotten at white-knuckling it…your kids can tell you’re not okay. This isn’t telepathy. They can’t tell why you’re not okay.
If our neocortex gave off brainwaves then yeah. You’d be able to hear other people’s thoughts and reasons because that’s where language lives but it doesn’t.
The limbic system has no language, it just has emotions and intuition. Feelings. That’s what our children get- feelings. They can’t tell where the feelings are coming from or what the impetus for those feelings are. They just know that you’re not okay, so I’m probably not okay. This is why on those days where your give a damn is busted it seems like your kids behave worse because they do.
When we’re having a bad day and everything feels like an attack we give off those “I am not okay” signals. They up their arousal level to try and protect themselves from the “attack” they can’t see but clearly you can because you’re not okay. This can very quickly become a feedback loop: You didn’t sleep well, so you perceive your kiddo’s indecision between cereal or a pop tart as stalling so you start getting annoyed. They pick up on you are annoyed vibes and their brain goes “uh oh- Danger? Where the danger? BE ON HIGH ALERT” and then they start getting a little nuts. This frustrates the hell out of us. They pick up on the increased frustration which they read as increased danger and they go on even higher alert. Which results in more intense behavior and before you know it you’re screaming at them to sit down and shut up and they’re confused, upset, and scared.
This means that self-care and putting your oxygen mask on first cannot be the bottom of the to-do list things if you want your child’s behavior to improve. The more dysregulated you are, the more overdue you are for a break the worse they’re going to behave.
Taking care of yourself isn’t lazy, it’s not self-indulgent, it isn’t something you should only do when you’re at your breaking point.
It needs to be consistent, and your top priority. Higher of a priority than their regulation. Higher of a priority than their needs.
Yours come first because if you’re not okay…they can’t be okay.
I’m not talking about nail appointments and bubble baths though those are nice too, and you should definitely schedule them in if they’re things that make you feel like a human being.
This can be as easy as refusing to get up from the table once you’re sitting down and eating your meal hot.
For me a big thing was drinking my tea hot. Making tea and not getting to drink it till it was ice cold grinds my gears like you would not believe. I told my kids very clearly that Mama was not available to help them until I had my tea- they could play until I was done and I refused to do anything else until I’d eaten and had my tea. Even if they were upset or needed my help or whatever. Nothing happens until my tea is done.
One way that I and a lot of my clients often overlook is not rushing to solve their problems for them when they’re frustrating us and prioritizing calming ourselves down first.
For instance, Owen does this wailing thing that totally sets me off. When he gets dysregulated he just sits down, opens his mouth to the sky, and wails and it triggers this instinct in me to hit him.
My brain is going *SHUT IT UP! ATTACK! ATTACK!* So of course he isn’t going to calm down…my brain is sending off alarm bells!
Most parents would try to take care of the child first, and then go calm down. I’ve learned to take care of myself first even though that means he’s going to be upset for longer. Crying never hurt anyone. My go punch my punching bag because resisting that desire to hit something actually makes my dysregulation worse. That’s how my brain wants to protect me! I obviously can’t hit him that would be a felony. I can hit the things that were designed to be hit! Then once I’m feeling calmer, then I can go deal with him and help him calm down.
That’s self-care. That’s prioritizing my needs over his. That’s what it means to put your oxygen mask on first.
It’s not about spa days and girls’ weekends though I do love those and I can’t tell you how much my mental health has improved since I gave myself permission to start getting regular manicures again. But those are the big, infrequent things.
Just like our kids need regular breaks, so too do we!
That break can be as simple as taking 10 minutes to go kick the shit out of our punching bag. Or going into the bathroom to take some deep breaths. Or go sit in the car and blast some 90s rap. Or go rip some weeds out of the garden for 10 minutes.
It’s going to look very different for every person so my biggest tip when you’re learning to do this is try not to judge what your breaks look like. It doesn’t have to be zen. It doesn’t have to look normal to anyone else. If you need to go stand in your shower and scream to calm down…DO IT!
Don’t judge yourself out of it.
Often these are the things we were chastised for as children, but that nobody showed us how to appropriately accomplish. Well, now you’re an adult and you know that tearing plants apart is not an acceptable thing to do, but tearing weeds out of the ground is not only acceptable it’s productive! So do that!
The bonus of this?
When we model for our kids what it looks like to put our regulation first, they start putting theirs first. A couple days ago Owen and I were butting heads, he wanted to go sledding, which was awesome, but not possible at that particular moment. And he was getting so frustrated with my consistent answer of “Not today, tomorrow afternoon.” Rather than wail at the sky he said “ARGH! I can’t talk to you right now! I need to go scream into my pillow.” He marched off and found a big fluffy pillow and wailed into IT. Instead of the sky, or my face.
Then he came and found me when he was done and clarified that he understood that we were going tobogganing tomorrow he just wanted to go snowshoeing outside right now! Oh! Cool go get dressed. Do you need help putting your snowshoes on? By modelling putting my regulation first I’ve actually taught him that it’s okay to not just push through when you’re frustrated it’s acceptable to go take a break and come back to solve the problem once you’re calm. I showed him what to do, and after a lot of repetition he’s doing it on his own. He’s doing it at school when he’s frustrated with peers. He’s doing it with his brother. If we want our kids to calm down before they try to solve problems, we have to show them how to do that and that means we need to do it!
The next time someone tells you “don’t forget to put your oxygen mask on first!”…try not to roll your eyes because it’s probably the truest saying in the English language.
The more you remind yourself to prioritize your needs over everyone else’s the more they’ll start to take care of themselves too.
Which frees up more space on your plate, rather than adding to it. And you’ll notice that their behaviour improves, your mood improves, and everyone is just a whole lot happier
What do you think? Does that sound like something you can try out?
Nobody’s going to be perfect at this I certainly am not. My husband and I can often be heard bellowing at each other over the kids “SPIRAL!” to try and alert eachother to getting caught in the feedback loop. The more you do it, the easier it gets.
If you want to learn more brain-based ways to change your child’s behaviour go grab my free Scripts for managing crazy-making behaviour, and there’s 10 quick scripts that you can use to stop behaviour episodes in their tracks. I explain why they work so that you know what you can and cannot change to customize it for your own kids.