"The hardest thing is still to calm myself down when my
boys get wild and my buttons get pushed. I end up screaming despite my
best intentions." - Mollie
"When my kids become wild and unruly, I use a nice, safe playpen. When they're finished, I climb out." -- Erma Bombeck
Mollie's right. The hardest part of parenting is regulating our own emotions. In our last post, we talked about how to get angry less often. But what happens when your child does something that makes you want to scream, and a playpen won't work? What are your options?
a. Scream and then feel remorseful later.
b. Resist screaming by calming yourself down.
In other words, you can escalate the upset, or you can try to stay calm to settle everyone down.
Of course, you have more options if you take positive action BEFORE you feel like screaming. Often when we lose it with our children, it’s because we haven’t set a limit, and something is grating on us. Some parents are trying so hard to be patient they let things get out of hand, and then snap.
The key is to set limits BEFORE you get angry. The minute you start getting annoyed, it’s a signal to do something. No, not yell. It’s time to intervene in a positive way to meet everyone's needs, including your own!
But what if despite your best efforts something happens that pushes you over the edge?
1. If necessary, intervene to move a child out of danger. And, of course, tend to anyone who is crying or hurt. But don't open your mouth to the child you want to scream at. Whatever comes out will make you sorry later. Bite your tongue. Just focus on making sure everyone is safe.
2. There is no emergency. This is the critical moment; your body has been hijacked by fight or flight hormones and part of you thinks it's an emergency. You feel an urgent need to act; probably by clobbering your child. Repeat after me: IT'S NOT AN EMERGENCY.
3. Take Five. Consciously speak in as calm a tone as you can manage. "I need to calm down. I'll be back in a minute" and move away from your child. (If one child was being attacked by the other, take that child with you to keep him safe.)
Maybe you're wondering how your child will learn not to do such things if you stay calm. Research shows that when we get upset, our kids get more upset -- and the learning functions of their brains shut down. Kids learn best through a limit given empathically so that it lessens their upset, followed by a problem-solving discussion once they calm down. By comparison, when we act like it's an emergency, our child spins further out of control.
4. Do whatever calms you and defuses your anger. Breathe deeply at least ten times to turn off your body's alarm response. Shake the tension out through your hands. Splash water on your face. Look in the mirror and reassure yourself: "I'm a good parent. This will be ok. Whatever happens, I can handle it."
5. Change your thoughts so you can change your feelings. If you're thinking your child is a spoiled brat who will grow up to be a bully, you can't calm down. The truth is, your child is a little person who is in pain and is showing you that by his behavior. Remind yourself "He's acting like a child because he IS a child....My child needs my love most when he least 'deserves' it."
6. Once you're calm, move back to your child and set whatever limit you need to as empathically as you can. You're role modeling for your child how to regulate emotions. Hopefully, you're feeling calm and kind enough now to help your child express whatever emotions led to her outburst, so she can move beyond them. But if you're still too upset, just say "I'm still upset about what happened. I know you were upset too, but you know it's not okay to behave like that. We'll talk about this in a while, once we're both calmer."
The disadvantage to waiting is that you aren't helping her with her feelings now, while she's in touch with them, and they'll still be driving her behavior. On the other hand, if you're still angry, you can't really be kind to your child, and anything you say will make things worse. So wait to do the hard work of connecting until you can empathize instead of attack.
7. When everyone’s calm, talk with him about what happened. Your first goal is create safety, so your child can process the emotions that led to the behavior and move past them. That way those challenging feelings won't drive more bad behavior in the future. The key to this is for you to actually feel compassion and empathy for your child's perspective. Remember, actions must be limited but all feelings are allowed: "You hit your brother...you must have been very angry.....you get mad at your brother a lot....it's hard to share me, I know....sometimes you wish you didn't have a brother.....everyone feels that way sometimes....you know that I could never love anyone more than you.....you have a special place in my heart just for you...."
8. Once you're both calm and feeling connected, teach. Explore with your child how he might handle such a situation in the future. "I know you were so very mad, AND I will not let you hit your brother. I know what it's like to feel that mad. ... What could you do next time instead of hitting?....Use your words? Yes. What else? ...Do you think you could call me for help?... Stomp your foot? Great! Let's practice those things...What could you say to your brother next time this happens?" Notice you're not lecturing. You're his coach, supporting him to be his best self.
9. Prevention is the best medicine. If your cup isn't full, you're at the mercy of your triggers. One little push from your three year old, and you've slipped from the high road of parenting to the low road. You can only give what you have inside, so keep your cup full. Talk with a trusted friend about the trials of parenting. Turn off the computer and go to bed early. Make daily opportunities to laugh with your children. Try to just stop and really enjoy your child, even with all the chaos and mess.
10. Fake it till you make it. What if you find yourself screaming before you can stop yourself? The minute you notice it, just stop. In mid-sentence. Close your mouth. You're not embarrassing yourself, you're demonstrating the kind of self control you want your child to learn. If you do this every time, sooner or later you'll be able to stop yourself before you start screaming. You'll be on your way to becoming a parent who never screams. And you won't get triggered nearly as often.
Easy? No. Possible? Absolutely. I've seen thousands of parents do it. We're actually re-wiring our brains, and de-activating those triggers from our own childhoods. So the next generation won't have to.