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When staying calm doesn't work and what to do instead

When staying calm doesn't work and what to do instead

“I’ve been told that to support my autistic child I have to stay calm…. I tried to be calm but I wasn’t.  And my child knew – they said; Mum are you really calm or pretending to be calm?”. 

I’m in a session with one of the magnificent Mums in my coaching program.  Her voice is layered with grief, frustration and shame.  I’m sure many of you reading this can relate.

 Just stay calm.

It stirs a fire in my belly every time. In the spirit of keeping things nice, I used to dress it up and describe it as ‘well-intentioned or well-meaning advice’.  I’ve decided not to do that anymore and to simply call it what it is. Patronising. Dismissive. A cheap shot that minimises the true level of demand many parents face and leaves them isolated and alone in their felt experience.

Now just to clarify, I am not anti-calm. 

Calm is a wonderful quality to bring to a family and a wonderful tool to support our kids through their difficult moments. I am, however, absolutely against shaming parents and kids for their humanness.

You see, we are not biologically wired to feel calm under pressure.

To find calm in moments of stress, requires an intentional shift in our physiology. With the right tools and support it’s possible, but it’s not always easy. And, the more exhausted we are, the harder it can be to embody calm in the face of stress. When our tanks are empty and we’re under stress, we tend to get trapped in ‘pretend calm’ – tensing our muscles and holding our breath as we try our best to look calm on the outside.  Maybe you can relate?

Pretend calm is confusing for children. They can sense the mismatch between the signals from our nervous system and the weird look on our face.  Pretend calm teaches our kids to mask and that it’s not safe to be with our real feelings and experiences. And, pretending to be calm also puts the body under more stress in an already stressful situation - meaning, that parents and children are more likely to flip their lids as the autonomic nervous system detects that demands are too high and steps in to make it all stop.

‘Just stay calm’ also assumes that parents are calm to begin with.

Exhaustion is a common experience for many parents raising a child with a disability or additional support needs. By the time a parent comes through my door, the protective response of the autonomic nervous system has often been in overdrive for years;

Fight-flight-freeze-fawn-sleep-repeat. It’s a recipe for exhaustion, overwhelm, isolation and burnout. IMHO this pattern is less about the day to day demands of family life and more about the impact of navigating a world that wasn’t built with their child or family in mind - the silent undercurrent of outdated socio-cultural ‘rules’ about what ‘good families’ look like. The energy drain from the constant justifying, negotiating and advocating for their child’s basic right to safe and supportive environments to be upheld. The weight of the invisible load of worries about the future, that has parents awake long into the night. The cumulative impact of this load means that many parents aren’t resourced inside or out, to embody calm in the ordinary moments, let alone during stressful moments with their kids. 

To pave the way to embodied calm, we need to keep it real and meet parents right where they’re at.

In my work, this often looks like identifying practical ways of cultivating the safety and connection so that the exhaustion fuelled protective responses of the nervous system can down tools. Connecting parents with safe ways of being with their real feelings and experiences and meeting the regulation needs of their own nervous system.  Because when parents are nourished and supported, they can much more easily support their kids to feel the same.

As for the Mum in my session:

We celebrated how in tune her child was to spot the difference between pretend calm and real calm. We highlighted what a great opportunity this was to explore and learn together what real calm looks and feels like and what everyone in the family needs to feel safe and supported.  We got real about the challenges and needs both in the difficult moments as well as the day to day. And she got connected to practical everyday ways of nourishing her nervous system and meeting what she coined her “basic needs”.

Did the challenges disappear?  Of course not. Did her capacity and confidence to navigate the challenges increase? You bet. In her words “a significant improvement”.

Final thoughts:

Staying real is much more helpful than pretending to be calm.  When parents are resourced with safe ways of being with their real felt experience, they can more easily support their kids to do the same.

And, remember, you don’t have to do this on your own.  You are worthy of access to the support and resources you need so that you and your family can thrive.

About the Author:

Rachel Stefaniak is an Occupational Therapist with a fire in her belly about the rights of families raising a child with a disability. She is committed to connecting families with practical strategies that respect the demands they face and align with their values and preferences, so that they can find relief from stress, exhaustion and isolation, have more ease, feel more connected and in control and confidently support the whole family to thrive.

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