“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.
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 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?
At best, this is confusing for our children, who can sense the mismatch between the signals from our nervous system and the weird look on our face.
At worst, ‘pretend calm’ 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’ assumes that parents have calm to begin with.
They often don’t.
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;
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 weight of the undercurrent of harmful 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 calm;
we need to keep it real and meet parents right where they’re at.
To support parents to meet themselves right where they’re at.
To make space for their real, felt experience.
To tune in and respond to the real load.
To tune in and respond to what they need.
Often, it’s about identifying the cues of safety and connection the nervous system needs, so the exhaustion fuelled protective energies can down tools and pave the way for embodied calm.
In the bigger picture, it might also be about meeting the regulation and support needs of the whole family so that everyone is resourced inside and out.
Bigger picture still, it’s about holding our ‘support’ systems accountable for the unhelpful judging of parents as ‘catastrophising’, ‘helicopters’, ‘tigers’, ‘enablers’, ‘over-involved’,‘under-involved’ (the list goes on and on).
And instead, to look under the hood and see all the labels for what they really are:
Humans in distress.
Nervous systems in overload.
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.
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”.
So, mamas and papas,
next time you find yourself trapped in pretend calm here is a 3step formula to get you on your way to embodied calm:
- What is my intention (what do I want for this moment)?
- What is my reality (how do I really feel in this moment)?
- What do I need to close the gap (how can I nourish my nervous system to get me closer to my intention)?
And remember, you don’t have to do this on your own.
You are worthy of access to the supports and resources you and your family need to thrive.
Rachel Stefaniak is an AHPRA registered Occupational Therapist with a fire in her belly about the rights of families raising children with a disability or additional support need. She is committed to connecting parents with simple, practical strategies that they can weave into their ‘everyday’ in a way that respects their demands and aligns with their values, so that they can find relief from exhaustion, stress or overwhelm, have more ease and confidently support their family to thrive.