I wrote this post two years ago, but I still struggle frequently with my tendency to overreact and blow up when parenting gets stressful. It was recently brought to my attention that I am the type of person categorized as a “hot responder” (Ahem. Everyone should have a good therapist.) in the psychology world. As such, I need to practice a whole lot of self-awareness, and it’s beneficial for me to have as many tricks in my keeping-cool repertoire as possible. I’m reposting this today because a few mamas I know and love are struggling with some challenges lately, and I thought it would be great to brainstorm some new ideas. So after you read this post, please post your favorite trick for staying calm in a crisis in the comments, or on my Facebook page!
Patience is a virtue, and unfortunately it is not at the top of my list of virtues. I have always struggled with keeping my cool when things become chaotic or stressful; my husband is the patient parent in our duo, whereas I am constantly managing my short fuse. I have always been wired this way, but as we all know, adding young children to the mix makes the playing field ripe for frustration, chaos, and maternal meltdowns.
Over the years I have tried a number of techniques to prevent me from losing my temper, particularly around my children. Obviously I have tried the old favorite, “Take deep breaths and count to ten,” which can be helpful and has its place. Sometimes when my six year old leaves me speechless, I regroup by giving myself a “time out” until I can regain my composure and figure out what exactly I need to say to her.
And sometimes, during the worst of the parenting “crises”, these strategies fall flat.
One evening, after arriving at my daughter’s dance studio, my six-year-old, one-year-old, and I were crammed in the bathroom stall, hurriedly changing out of school clothes before class. As I pulled my daughter’s shirt over her head, I noticed about a dozen holes all over.
“Izzy!” I exclaimed with alarm, “What happened to your shirt?”
“It was an accident,” she responded quickly, “My pencil accidentally poked holes in my shirt during math class.”
My first reaction was to be furious—she had ruined a perfectly good shirt! And then, almost immediately, I felt worried. It was no secret that my daughter, while an excellent reader and writer, struggled with math. It seemed clear that she had poked those holes due to her frustration and anxiety. Still, I felt I had to at least briefly address the situation, as destroying clothing was not an appropriate coping mechanism.
I was pleased with my calm tone when I replied, “We’ll have to talk about this at home and figure out what to do. You can probably do some jobs around the house to help us pay for the shirt.” I thought that was an adequate response- not overly punitive, but still authoritative.
My daughter went ballistic. “Why are you always mean to me?” she screamed, bursting into tears. “I’m going to run away! This is all my fault—I’m always a bad girl!”
For the record, hearing the words “bad girl” is a big trigger for me. I can’t think of anything more horrifying than my young daughter internalizing that she is “bad”. The wheels in my head were spinning out of control—I could not allow her to experience feelings of self-hatred and shame at six years old! I began to calmly remind her that she was not a bad girl, that we would talk about it later, that we loved her and she wasn’t in trouble, but it fell on deaf ears. Due to all the screeching and flailing. Attempting to stuff her legs into her tights was a lost cause, as she had gone into full-on toddler tantrum mode.
Mentally, I was scrambling, “Should we call a therapist? I need to email her first grade teacher ASAP…”
I had to think fast. I had to make a choice. A large part of me, the part that was in fight-or-flight mode, wanted to yell, pick up my hysterical daughter, and leave the dance studio immediately. But I knew that would send the wrong message. Any other day she wanted to get out of dance class, all she would have to do is have a horrific meltdown in the bathroom.
Parenting is like watching a slow motion action sequence. Of yourself. These scenes happen so fast, and your response makes such a difference. This was one of those moments when I needed to employ one of my more critical strategies for keeping my cool.
- My first line of defense is: Try to get inside her head. Or better yet, her heart. What is going on in your child’s mind and body right now? Is their heart pounding? Do they feel ashamed? Are they frightened? Sometimes putting myself in my child’s shoes defuses the situation for me.
- My second strategy is: Imagine myself at that age. Given that I have daughters, the older of whom is the spitting image of me at her age, it is easy to picture myself as the distraught six-year-old standing in front of me. Pretend it is six-year-old you who is crying. Sometimes this tactic is helpful for corrective emotional work on your own childhood traumas or hang-ups.
- Here is the last one: If all else fails, do it for your future self. No, not your elderly self looking back from your twilight years, I mean you- in two hours, or maybe 20 minutes. Stay calm if for no other reason than to spare yourself the experience of looking back with regret on words and actions you wish you could take back. Words that hurt, and moments where you feel you have lost all control. Make your future self proud. Later in the day, when you are debriefing your husband while sipping a glass of wine, you can say, “I am really proud of how I handled that tantrum today.”
Here’s the thing: we are all going to screw up sometimes. No mother is perfect. Sometimes our best intentions and all our preparations leave us flailing, and we lose our temper. Maybe we yell, or swear, or invent a consequence we later decide is inappropriate. (For what it’s worth, we calmed down for dance class, and after discovering how upset Izzy was about her homework and the pencil incident, we let the “paying us with jobs” consequence slide. Sometimes it is okay to backpedal.)
I would like to believe that during these “PARENT FAIL” moments, we have not done permanent damage to our kids. When I say or do something that makes me cringe, I immediately apologize and attempt to reassure my children, hopefully disengaging that “I’m a bad girl” response. I think there is value in our children watching us make mistakes and take responsibility for them. However, I don’t think it is appropriate for every day to include me (or any other parent) freaking out, exploding, and then apologizing later. I think that having a few different strategies in my bag of tricks increases my odds of keeping my cool in the heat of a meltdown.
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