iPhone Overboard: Using Co-regulation in a Sink-or-Swim Moment

Sometimes we surprise ourselves, especially in relation to our kids! Earlier this summer, my family took a ten-day vacation to Belgium and Germany. On the second day, while in Gent, we went on a boat trip along the Leie River with friends we’d arranged to meet. All was well until my 11-year-old son, Gabe, decided to snap some photos using my smartphone. He was holding the phone and leaning near the edge of the boat, when somehow the phone slipped out of his hand. It hit the water and sank like a lead balloon.

Immediately, everyone looked at me to see how I’d react. And I found myself unable to look at Gabe. I turned my body in the other direction, and very consciously took some deep breaths. As I did, I told myself, “I am breathing in, I am breathing out,” which I’ve done many times as a mindfulness practice. That wasn’t working. Then I glanced at Gabe, whose eyes were filled with tears and I saw that his pain was worse than my own. In fact, he felt so terrible about what he’d done that it gave me some much-needed perspective that really put me in check. It wasn’t the end of the world and getting upset wasn’t going to bring my phone back. But, it could change my relationship with my son and the experience we’d all have on our vacation. Yes, losing a phone is a huge nuisance and a big expense and I’d lost some video I’d taken for work. But on the other hand, my son was already miserable and understood that he’d made a big mistake. Did I need to make things worse?

I reached out, took his hand and said, “We could let this ruin our vacation or we could choose not to.” He nodded unhappily, but I sensed his huge relief along with everyone else’s.

In this situation, Gabe and I co-regulated our emotions: his remorse helped me put my feelings in check, not over-react and make it worse for him. In response to his intense reaction, I was able to soften and modulate my own feelings. He is a sensitive child, so I validated his feelings and helped him process what had happened and how he was feeling. Everyone else was trying to make a joke out of it, so I coached him and tried to jump in and make light of it by asking others if they wanted him to hold their phones, wallets, or anything valuable. Now we can laugh and both tell the story as one of the highlights of the vacation without him getting upset or feeling bad.

During the vacation and when we returned to our day-to-day lives, I’ve thought many times about this experience and the lesson that I took away from it. Even though this was a larger mistake than the daily irritations that come up, it really showed me how much my reaction to a situation can make or break the outcome and affect my relationship with the person/people involved. And after all, why should I have a fit over an unmade bed or a messy room? Despite an iphone overboard, I still managed to keep our family vacation afloat.

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