ASK any working parent and they’ll tell you that getting out the door in the morning takes planning, patience and perseverance.
It also takes a cool head — only that’s not always possible when you’re cajoling kids to make their beds, marshalling fights between siblings and trying to pack everyone a healthy lunch.
Grace Papers head of digital coaching, Tegan Sturrock, says there’s a very sound biological reason for why breakfast time chaos often causes people to snap.
“Over millennia, our brains have evolved to release cortisol in stressful situations,” Tegan says.
“This cortisol inhibits rational, logical thinking but potentially helps you to survive out there in the ‘wild’.
“As we sometimes just ‘survive’ the ‘wild’ morning mania, here’s what is happening in your brain and your body: your brain senses a potential ‘battle’ and triggers the release of cortisol into your system. With this release your heart rate increases, your blood pressure rises, and your body’s stress levels become elevated.
“The increased level of cortisol suppresses a part of your brain, your hippocampus, which in turn makes it more difficult for the brain to store and retrieve information — making the morning turn to chaos both in the brain and inside the house!”
Tegan says understanding the neuroscience behind morning meltdowns can help prevent them or, at the very least, make them far more manageable.
“Imagine your brain as a house with two levels, a downstairs and an upstairs,” she says.
“Downstairs is where all the basic functions happen (breathing, strong emotions of anger and fear and our fight or flight impulses) while upstairs is where all the higher functioning (empathy, planning and decision making) happens.
“Most meltdowns happen when the downstairs brain loses connection with the upstairs brain. The lower part of the brain, the amygdala, which processes the big emotions, takes over and hijacks the upstairs brain.
“Stress hormones take over the body and as a result there is virtually no part of the upstairs brain that is fully functioning. So, saying someone ‘totally lost their mind’ or ‘flipped their lid’ can be pretty accurate neurologically speaking.”
So how do we prevent our wild side from taking over? For Tegan, getting up ahead of her family to enjoy her morning exercise routine, or to quietly plan for the day ahead, makes her feel calmer and more in control. She has also encouraged her three kids, aged eight, 11 and 13, to take responsibility for packing their own bags and getting themselves ready for school.
But it’s not just Tegan who has devised strategies for her morning routine. Other Grace Papers staff have also shared some of the ways they get their days underway:
Amanda Meehan, NSW Head of Client Relationships:
My husband and I divide and conquer. There are tasks he doesn’t mind doing (sorting out breakfast, making or encouraging the kids to make the bed) and there are things I don’t mind doing (lunches, packing away and putting washing on and out). So, we choose what we want to do, and we share the rest. The one thing that made a big difference was letting him know that I was not going to be a backup for the tasks that he owned. If he didn’t make sure the kids were fed – whether by him or themselves – the kids would go to school without food. We worked through this the hard way.
Family meetings at the beginning of the week help us ALL to know when someone else has a big day ahead or something that might cause a bit of worry. We know in advance and we’re all mindful of each other. I always have UNO cards ready for a game (sometimes a REALLY, quick game) to pull a child out of a worry moment. We play a lot of quick games. The card deck lives on the bench. Table tennis also helps. The kids know when I am getting uptight about getting out the door and I’m often reminded to pick up the pack of cards or play first to five in table tennis. Four minutes later and we are much happier.
Kate Gilson, Vic Head of Client Relationships:
Despite the fact my children are older (11 and 13), I still love to wake them up with kisses and cuddles. Sometimes I’ll even lie next to them for a bit, so we have some happy connection time early in the day.
Helping to create independence in my kids has been a game changer. I found checklists great when they were younger. I get them to lay out their clothes the night before. I also try to make sure they put their clean clothes away each Sunday, so they know where things are. I can still remember my combined feeling of joy and sadness when they rode to school by themselves for the first time, but this is now the default.
Kate McCormack, Head of Marketing:
I try to exercise three or four mornings a week. This is good for everyone because life is more peaceful when I am at my best. Full disclosure: for the past couple of years I have had a nanny before and after school because I am working full time, and my kids are still too young to get themselves to school.
Frankly, I’d pay a million bucks for that 1.5 hours being outsourced sometimes! That is slowly changing though as the kids become more independent.
There have been so many meltdowns from all of us. When this happens, there are a couple of things I strongly recommend. Firstly, making sure there are moments of love and connection before you say goodbye to them for the day (even when they are hating you for getting mad with them), telling them that you love them, giving them a kiss and a cuddle to set them up for the day. It’s also important to remind yourself that you are not a bad person, that you are only human, and not falling into the trap of negative self-talk when it all goes pear-shaped.
Kristy Macfarlane, Qld Head of Client Relationships:
For me the best way I can set myself and the family up for a great day is exercise. My ritual is five to six am is “me time”, whether that’s Pilates, running or walking. I find it helps me clear the head for the day ahead and gives me clarity and focus. Then, when the breakfast meltdown happens, I’m in a better place to respond positively (it doesn’t always work). As they say, put your own oxygen mask on first — so I try to do that exercise.
Working for an employer with a flexible culture is also a game-changer for alleviating stress.
Jackson Bates, Software Engineer:
My family would struggle if I didn’t have excellent flexibility in my job with Grace Papers. The key to our mornings is planning and teamwork. The hardest day for us is our Tuesday morning. My wife works full time and is locked into a rigid school timetable. I’m working in the office in Melbourne. My son is at childcare, and my six-year-old is at school. Having prepped three sets of lunches the night before, I get up first (hopefully alone – sometimes my son has a differing opinion), have a quick breakfast, prep the kids’ breakfasts and start a little work from home. My wife gets up with the kids and gets them fed and mostly dressed before she must rush out the door. I finish them off, and then drop both kids at their respective activities. I’m running late enough at that point that I can comfortably do a little more work on the train into the city. That works for one day a week for us – frankly if I was locked in to a more rigid workplace myself I can’t imagine how it would work — unless the kids were in 10 hours of care a day — and we’d all be run pretty ragged!