Are You a Thermometer or a Thermostat?


No way around it.  This mothering stuff is not for the faint of heart.  And there is no insulating yourself from being knocked off-center sometimes.  I had one of those days, last week.

Part of my re-centering was having a good long (ugly) cry with a dear soul-sister friend who held space for me to just be cared for and work through it a bit.

As we were sitting on her steps, I brilliantly recalled a little bumper sticker wisdom.  Have you heard of the saying,

“Thermometers react to the temperature, thermostats control the temperature.  Which are you?”

It’s a good one, huh?  But here’s the thing.  There’s a lot more meat here than first meets the eye — particularly for parenting.

Let’s start with kids.

Kids are supposed to be thermometers.  It’s how they are wired from the start.  They don’t have the capacity to regulate their outer environment very well.  But they are experts at receiving the energy, tone and “temperature” from those around them.  In fact, they are constantly trying to figure out what they are supposed to be doing by watching, modeling, and exploring their reactions to the world around them.

So, thermometers are reactionary and they have no internal regulation system. 

Think about what happens when kids are in tense or anxiety-filled situations.   Or when they are tired or hungry or it is just too hot outside.  They are receiving the temperature around them, and when we are keyed into their reactions, we can tell that they need support in cooling off because they can’t do it themselves.

It is in their nature to siphon from us the tone and energy of their world.  Ever feel like kids suck you dry?  Well, it’s because they do! (And incidentally, that’s their job.)  They don’t have an internal locus of control yet, and they are feeding directly off of whoever is in their world.

Now shift to the adults.

One of the things that I believe we are meant to do for our children is to help them develop and strengthen their internal locus of control.  Kids are meant to grow from thermometers to thermostats as part of a healthy developmental pattern.

But here’s the rub.  We as parents can’t support this healthy development in our children if WE haven’t crossed over from a thermometer to a thermostat.  And for many adults, we simply weren’t taught how to establish a strong, resilient, healthy internal locus of control — particularly when we are in high-stress situations.

That’s where this gets sticky.  See, no one can be a thermostat when they are stressed out internally.  So the key to being a thermostat in today’s stress-crazed culture is to learn how to maintain an inner calm amidst the storm.

Many of us are adults functioning as thermometers and reacting to the world around us with an external locus of control.

I know, for myself, it felt like I regressed back to thermometer-level once I became a mom and the waters of my life started to boil over day after day after day.

My life as a mom added more stress than I had ever experienced before.  And this stress hit deeper and more intensely than I’d experienced before.

A stressed body and mind CANNOT function as a thermostat.  It’s impossible.  In fact, you can toggle back and forth between thermometer and thermostat, depending on whether you are in a calm state or stressed state.

I believe that as mothers, the most crucial skill we can learn is stress resiliency — how to live and mother from inner calm, deep reserves, and robust resiliency…even when the waters around you feel turbulent and choppy.

So how do we do that exactly?

Especially, when it feels like we are being asked to fix the plane while it is in mid-flight?

Oh, I’m thrilled you asked!  It’s really the crux of the work I do, of what transformed my own life (and still does).

Remember my thermometer meltdown I talked about earlier?

I’ll never promise you that you won’t get off-center.  You will — it’s a guarantee.  But, I am seeing the radical difference in my own life of what happens when I have strong supports in place to keep myself course-correcting before I spiral so far out of control that it can take weeks or months or years to pull myself back together.

Whereas, before, I wasn’t equipped when the warning signs hit.  This time, it felt different.

  • I spend time with a close friend that is 100% there for my best interest — I felt safe, I felt heard, and I felt cared-for.
  • I made sure I didn’t give in to caffeine or excess sugar — which I know adds to my anxiety and inner chaos. Instead, I went for the calming foods that I know work for me.
  • I gave myself full permission to cry it all out when I needed to.  I spent time outside in the fresh air. I brought in some stress-reducing mind-body-breath exercises, which turn on the calm, from the inside out.
  • The next day, I opted for a long walk after a heart-to-heart talk with my husband.
  • I paid attention to what was really happening in my internal conversation, what triggers were set off, and how much of that was baggage from my own past and not the truth of the situation.
  • I tried to speak kindly to myself and reminded myself over and over again (with the help of my husband) that we are just muddling our way through this parenting thing like everyone else, stepping out in faith and doing our very best.

And it lifted.  And I’m feeling a whole lot better.  I feel more equipped to get back in the saddle and regain my thermostat status. 

That is the power of self-care to me.

It’s why I feel it’s non-negotiable for every mother to be equipped with simple, effective tools to care for and protect her sacred core.  In fact who we are (at the core) is all we ever really have to offer ourselves, our spouses, our children and our world.