I like to borrow concepts and approaches that were not originally designed to help parents and that can be adapted to offer interesting, new insights parents might find helpful.
HALT: A telling acronym
For this post, I am going to borrow from the wisdom of Alcoholics Anonymous, who recommend the use of the acronym “HALT” to promote self-awareness. In his recent book, Why Therapy Works, Dr. Louis Cozolino recommends that his clients take a few seconds before acting in an emotional way to consider if they might be hungry, angry, lonely or tired. Being one or more of these can contribute to impulsivity and poor judgment, sometimes accompanied by behaviors a person later regrets.
Consequences of stress
How often do we as parents find ourselves caught up in the stresses of the role along with the many other stresses of life in general that can make us behave in ways we later regret? Parents can sometimes lash out at children because they are feeling frustrated and impatient about other things and people in their lives, i.e. the real causes of their frustration and stress.
We can carry around those stresses and frustrations without being able to direct our thoughts and feelings towards the actual person or situation causing them. Then when interacting with our children, we say and do things that go against our core beliefs about how we want to parent.
Often, those stresses can be traced to being hungry, angry (about something or someone else,) feeling alone and possibly isolated or abandoned and/or being deeply tired.
Sometimes in our own inner-worlds when we are hungry, angry, lonely or tired, we can be harsh and self-critical, which in turn can lead to feelings of shame, discouragement and self-doubt.
Cozolino uses HALT
Cozolino encourages the readers of his book to be more mindful and self-reflective in order to enhance their overall emotional health. He states the following: “HALT not only reminds you to not drink (or eat [those things that are not healthy for you] but also to be self-reflective and to engage in a caring relationship with yourself. You are doing what a good parent should do, saying, ‘I can see something is wrong; tell me what you’re experiencing.’ The added awareness interrupts the chain of internal cause-and-effect relationships that provide you with the opportunity to reflect, reconsider, and redirect. This is where well-established and mature relationship with your inner world comes in handy.… In a sense, you are giving yourself what you needed as a child-to be seen, to feel felt, and articulate your experiences in a healthy way.” [Page 55].
You also might want to notice that when your children are acting out – losing their cool, becoming highly emotional and even aggressive – if it is possible the underlying cause of their challenging behaviors has to do with hunger, anger, loneliness or tiredness.
Taking the time to address the actual causes of challenging behaviors can help children regroup and become calmer in the moment and can provide them with a quick self-assessment tool they can use in the future.
I invite you to consider using the principles of HALT to become more aware of why you might be responding in a harsh or otherwise emotional way to your children, why you might be highly self-critical or self-punitive and even why your children might be struggling and experiencing emotional meltdowns.
Invitation to reflect:
1. Think about a time when you got very impatient and even lost it with one of your children. When you reflect on that, is it possible your reactivity was associated with being hungry, angry, lonely or tired?
2. The next time you feel yourself going to a darker emotional place where you might say or do things you will later regret, try to stop (“HALT”) and notice whether you are hungry, angry, lonely or tired. If you can pause and make that assessment, then you are better able to do something to address the underlying need or needs rather than lash out at your children.
Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network