Aha! Parenting Blog

Practical solutions for real parenting problems

When Your Child Makes You Want To Scream: 10 Steps to Calm, Connect & Teach

"Your step by step role plays are a godsend, I love that you show me exactly what to say.  But the hardest thing is still to calm myself down when my kids get wild and my buttons get pushed. I end up screaming despite my best intentions." - Mollie

When your kids are stuck in the house in lockdown, you can count on them getting wild sometimes. And you can count on your buttons getting pushed.

Every child can drive a parent crazy, at least sometimes. Some strong-willed children can drive us crazy most of the time! But really, what are your options when your child makes you want to scream?

  • Scream, escalate the drama, make everyone feel terrible (including yourself) and then feel remorseful later.
  • Resist screaming by calming yourself down. Intervene calmly to settle the storm. Role model for your children.

In other words, you can make everything worse, or make everything better. 

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. Often, we're trying so hard to be patient that we let things get out of hand, and then we snap. 

The key is to set limits BEFORE you get angry. The minute you start getting angry, it’s a signal to do something. No, not yell. It’s time to intervene in a positive way to:

  • Set appropriate limits
  • Redirect your child to meet the needs that are driving their irritating behavior. 

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. (No, your child does not need to hear from you right now about their failings. You'll teach better later, once you're calmer. You know where they live.)

2. Remind yourself that it's not an 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 will feel an urgent need to act; probably by clobbering your child. Repeat after me: IT'S NOT AN EMERGENCY.  

3. Consciously speak in as calm a tone as you can manage to calm the drama.

Describe what's happening non-judgmentally so your children feel seen and heard. (Research shows this also helps you feel more calm.) Restore a feeling of safety so they can stop escalating.

"Whoa, whoa. I hear loud voices. You both seem upset. I'm right here to help. We can make this better. Let's all calm down now."

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. Consciously choose to calm yourself and defuse your anger.

If you're thinking your child is a spoiled brat who will grow up to be a thug, you can't calm down. The truth is, your child is a little person who is struggling inside, and is showing you that by his behavior.

  • Breathe deeply a few times times. Soften your belly. Shake the tension out through your fingers.

  • Reassure yourself: "I'm a good parent. They're good kids. I can handle this."

When you're angry, it's hard to talk yourself off the cliff. So do two things right now that will help you in those tough moments:

  • Write and post a "mantra" that it will help you to hear when you're upset, like: "He's acting like a child because he IS a child.... My child needs my love most when he least 'deserves' it."

  • Write down what you love most about each child on a sticky note, and post it where you can see it. When you're upset, read that note to put your child's current "mis" behavior in context.

5. Set whatever limit you need to.

Here's how you set a limit.

a. Empathize: "You two seem to be having so much fun!"

b. Set the limit clearly: "This is too wild for inside. I'm worried something or someone will get hurt."

c. Tell your child what they CAN do: "You seem to have a lot of energy right now. Why don't we put on the music and have a family dance party? I can get you started for a few minutes, and then I will need to get back to my work, but you can dance as much as you want. When you're tired of dancing, we will find something calm for you to do."

6. What if you're too angry?

Hopefully, you've calmed yourself enough to set a limit with empathy and redirect your child. But what if the behavior pushed all your buttons and you're just too angry?

Wait. Just say "I'm still upset about what happened. I know you were upset too, but 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 haven't helped your child with the feelings that drove that off-track behavior, so she might act out more. On the other hand, if you're still angry, you can't be emotionally generous, and anything you say will make things worse. So wait to do the hard work of connecting until you can actually connect without attacking.

7. Once you're calm, connect.

Your first goal is to connect with your child, because that's the only way you have any influence. Connect before you try to correct.

Your second goal is to help your child surface the emotions that led to the behavior, so you can help your child to process them and manage them.  That way they won't drive more bad behavior in the future. The key to this is empathy for your child's feelings. 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.... I know that you've said that sometimes you wish you didn't even have a brother..... Everyone feels that way sometimes.... You know that you can always tell me how you feel and I will always understand and help you.... I could never love anyone more than you.....You have a special place in my heart just for you."

If you can resist lecturing and instead offer understanding, your child will share his feelings. They may not be feelings you want to hear: his hurt, his resentment of his sibling, or his anger at you. Just listen and empathize as he gets it off his chest. If you're really empathizing, you'll be able to see why he feels that way (even if you disagree). You'll probably even get tears in your eyes.

8. Once you're connected, teach.

Remind your child that you always want to hear how she feels, AND it is always her responsibility to manage her behavior. Explore with your child how she might handle such a situation in the future. "I know you were so very mad, and I know what it's like to feel that mad... AND it is NEVER okay to hit your brother.  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? Throw your arms around yourself in a big hug? Great! Let's practice that right now."

9. Prevention is the best medicine. 

That means get your kids busy with something that doesn't take a lot of supervision, before you try to work. It means make sure their needs are met, so include roughhousing and special time as part of your daily routine.

And preventive maintenance is equally important for you. 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. 
  • Be sure you have self-care practices in place, like moving your body and/or meditating.
  • 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 you find yourself losing it, you'll begin rewiring your brain. 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 your buttons won't get pushed nearly as often.

Easy? No. This is some of the hardest work there is.

Possible? Absolutely. You can do hard things! Look at everything you've done to get to here. Give yourself whatever support you need. Every step in the right direction gets you into a new landscape. In three months, think how much better your home could feel.

I'll be here cheering you on, every step of the way.

 



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