One of the hardest things in the world to do as a parent is to keep from ‘going there’ along with your kids when they’re losing it big time and spilling their frustration all over you. Maybe your two year old is flailing on the kitchen floor because you won’t give him a cookie before dinner, or your 9 year old is stomping around mad over having to set the dinner table, or your 16 year old wants to go to the mall when he’s got mountains of homework. Here we are, doing our best to parent wisely, and there they are, spitting mad and sure we’re just being mean. It can be pretty darned tempting to lose your cool right alongside your kid, can’t it?
Back when all my kids were preschoolers, I fondly imagined having loads of patience by the time my kids were teens. What I didn’t realize is that often the teen years can be more frustrating than the teeny ones, and with my houseful of teens and preteens, drama happens on a daily– ok, sometimes hourly — basis. Decisions are bigger. Hormones are everywhere. (Four girls live here, after all–okay, 5 counting me.) By their teen years, kids have a pretty good idea of where mom’s buttons are. So when they’re mad, they often try to get you to join them there in frustration-land. Maybe not all teens do that, but some of mine sure do. Maybe some of yours too?
Two books by Daniel Seigel have been a hugely helpful to me in moving past gritted-teeth frustration toward something that looks and feels more like real grace. I mentioned them to you last year: Parenting from the Inside Out and The Whole-Brain Child. I’m still benefiting from reading those books and better understanding (everyone’s) brain function. To look at a person who’s losing his cool and to be able to remind myself– “Oh, he’s/she’s dysregulated right now.” — well, it has just been huge.
Because here’s the thing: no amount of logic is going to touch a really upset person at that moment. That kid is going to need to be heard and soothed before I will have much success steering him towards right behavior. It’s not about sanctioning rudeness– it’s about accepting where they are and sometimes being willing to wait to talk about what behavior is okay and what isn’t. Everyone returns to calm more quickly when they feel heard instead of squelched. And kids with very intense personalities, loss issues, or trauma backgrounds are going to need a whole lot more time and help getting to calm before successful correction and redirection can happen.
For me, a big part of the equation has been getting better at recognizing when I myself am following my kid down into dysregulation. You know, that place when your heart speeds up and there’s tension in your chest and you can practically feel the steam hissing out of your ears? When I go there, whether or not I manage to fake calm, I’m rarely especially wise or kind. That of course does nothing to help my kids toward calm. On the other hand, when I AM able to model calm (have you heard of mirror neurons?) I can avoid fueling the fire and often can help him find his way back to calm a little sooner as well.
- Remember in the midst of the interaction to ask children about their feelings and reply with empathy. Let them vent a bit. Yes, even if they’ve been rude. Once calm has returned is plenty soon enough to talk about any inappropriate behavior that happened while they were angry.
- Hang onto your compassion. Try to remember how it felt to be a kid, and out of control of so many things in life. Try to guess what’s most frustrating for your child about this moment.
- Ask yourself honestly if this is a big problem or a small one. Hang onto your perspective. Many things that feel big in the moment will not matter a week or a month or a year from now.
- Take a deep breath and (if your child is somewhere safe) step away for a few moments. Grab a cup of tea if you have time. Remember that in most cases it’s okay not to resolve the entire problem right then. Just do what it takes to get people moving back toward calm.
- Call or text a friend who understands and is willing to listen to you complain for a bit. I think every mama would benefit from having a texting buddy for those hard moments– a true friend who understands you can feel terribly frustrated with your child while also still loving him greatly. (Come to think of it, almost all moms should understand that, right? Haven’t we all been there?)
- Pray for your child. Remind yourself that God has a plan for his future, that He is growing him each day amid the challenges. Then remind yourself of five things you love about this kid. He’s worth every ounce of effort and hassle, isn’t he?
- Finally, don’t forget to give yourself grace in the middle of this messy work. We all lose our cool sometimes. And one of the hard but beautiful things about motherhood is that tomorrow and the next day and the next we’ll get many more chances to jump in and try again. Be blessed, momma, and remember you’ve got Jesus right there beside you on this journey.