Every child can drive a parent crazy, at least sometimes. Some strong-willed children can drive us crazy most of the time! Children are immature humans who have an unerring instinct for pushing our buttons.
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.
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.
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!
3. 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 and then we will fix this."
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. They can only calm down when we stay calm. This is called co-regulation.
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. Choose to calm yourself and defuse your anger.
Changing your thoughts can change your feelings. 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, 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. Calm your body and soothe yourself.
When you’re triggered, stress hormones flood your body. You need to send a signal to your nervous system that there’s no enemy here, so you shift out of “fight or flight.” Breathe deeply at least ten times. Shake the tension out through your fingers. Splash water on your face. Restore your own sense of safety by reminding yourself that it's normal to get upset at your kids and you can handle it.
6. Once you're calm, move back to your child and set whatever limit you need to.
Here's how you set a limit.
- Empathize: "You two seem to be having so much fun!"
- Set the limit clearly: "This is too wild for inside. I'm worried something or someone will get hurt."
- 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 to do."
7. Allow emotions, limit behavior.
By calming yourself first, 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 you can help her with those feelings and 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. Right now I need you to come over here and be on your best behavior."
The disadvantage to waiting is that you haven't helped her with her feelings now while she's in touch with them, and they're still 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 actually connect without attacking.
8. When everyone’s calm, talk with your child about what happened.
Your first goal is to 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. So you have to connect with your child and create safety, or your child will shut you out.
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....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...."
9. Once you're both calm and feeling connected, teach.
Explore with your child how he might handle such a situation in the future.
10. 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.
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 your buttons won't get pushed nearly as often. Easy? No. Possible? Absolutely. I'll be here cheering you on.