I know that when my older son becomes aggressive toward my toddler, it’s because he feels disconnected and is looking for more attention from me. I know that he can’t control himself, but instead of answering his need and reacting in a loving way, I feel really, really mad at him, and terribly sad and disappointed! I try to control myself and not yell at him but it’s hard! How can I switch from being crazy mad to being a loving and sweet mom when something happens that pushes my buttons? What’s the secret?
Dear Good Mom:
Every parent I’ve ever known has wondered what do to when your kids push you over the edge. And unfortunately, there is no fount of endless patience we can tap into at moments like this. But there are things to do that can help.
The practice of exchanging listening time with another parent is a powerful agent of change. It helps. It helps. It helps. Our Listening Partnerships for Parents booklet will get you started on the path of building emotional resource for yourself when your kids push you over the edge. In your Listening Partnership, safely out of hearing of your children, you can give that heated lecture, yell, rage, and vent the full reaction that brews inside you when your child’s behavior has driven you over the edge. Underneath that reaction lie some big feelings. As you come to trust your Listening Partner, you’ll be able to clear those feelings out with crying, tantrums of your own, and perhaps laughter, too. It’s a simple arrangement to make, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Over time, it can totally change what happens instantaneously inside of you at high-stress moments.
In the meantime, there a few strategies that can help you and your children get through fiery moments.
Empower your child.
Engage your most non-judgmental friends to receive a phone call from your child when your anger rises, so your friends can listen to your upset, instead of aiming it at your child. Then, make a nice big list of their names (or a drawing or photo of them) next to their numbers. Let your child practice calling them. Then, in the heat of your anger, your child has someone to call, and you have someone you can talk to.
Make a sign that says, “Daddy/Mommy, I love you,” and store it someplace hidden but handy. Tell your child that he can pull it out and show it to you any time you begin to get upset. It may jolt you out of reaction mode and help you remember your child’s innate good intentions.
Give your child a song to sing or a sentence to say or a magic word that means, “Mommy/Daddy, stop!” The song could be anything at all—any nursery tune. The magic word could be “Bananas!” or “Falafel!” Choose it together. Ask you child to say that word whenever your tone of voice scares them, and promise to stop everything when you hear it.
These kinds of measures give your child a way to not stand frozen in fear when you are upset. Practicing these strategies ahead of time will increase your child’s chances of taking action instead of going into defensive paralysis at difficult moments. And generally, when we stop ourselves part way through an anger incident, we can shed the feelings that drive our behavior much more easily. We save ourselves from the full weight of guilt that comes with being harsh with our children.
Create an “Upset Spot” for yourself. Practice using it.
For the times when you’re angry and ready to do something wild, designate a “Daddy/Mommy is upset spot” in the house–a wall in your bedroom, a wall in the laundry room, a bed you can beat on with a broom handle. This is the place you’ll go to pound on the wall or bed, or to jump up and down and make loud noises when you’re upset.
Then, gather your children and tell them, “I don’t want to be mean to you when I have big angry feelings inside of me. So when that happens, I am going to go to the ‘Mommy’s/Daddy’s Upset Spot.’ It’s right here.” Show them the spot. Then tell them that you’re going to make noise there and pound on something, and that after some minutes of doing that, you might be able to think well again.
Then, do few “anger drills” with them. Do a very light rendition of an upset in the kitchen, with your children right there, a comic little-tiny-voiced imitation of an anger moment, without using serious words. So you would say something like, “You cabbage! Why are you so hard to cut? You are supposed to be softer. I’m so upset with you, you green cabbage, you!” Then say, “Now I’m going to go to my spot, and let go of these feelings!” March off to your spot in a lighthearted way, and again, with humor, jump up and down or beat on the bed. Then, say, “Ahhhhh! I feel much better,” and give them a big hug.
Do this playful drill a few times.
Then, do it in real life around something that mildly ticks you off, so you and your children get some practice runs before you really do go off the deep end. Ask them whether they want you to leave the door open, or to close it, when you go to your Upset Spot. Try it both ways, so they can make their choice. When they get the hang of this, your children may tell you that it’s time for you to go to your Upset Spot. It’s maddening, but it helps.
I know one mom, a widow with four boys, who kept a plastic baseball bat in her bedroom. When she became enraged, she would race into her bedroom and beat the bed with her bat until she could cry about how alone and beleaguered she felt. It was a good stopgap measure that got her children out of the line of fire.
Creating an Upset Spot works because when we’re angry, we have tapped into feelings of being threatened that are very likely rooted in our own early childhoods. We’re driven by the urge to fight back with all the power we didn’t have as children. When we have a safe place to use our physical power and be loud, we remind ourselves, on a cellular level, that we’re grown, that we do have power, that we’re no longer really threatened. That reminder can let us have the cry we need to have, or start up some trembling or sweating that will release some fear. And that helps us shake free of the upset we’re caught in, and see straight again.
It can scare our children to see the long-held emotions beneath our anger, so this is not an entirely risk-free solution. Be sure not to say the feelings you’re having out loud, but think them as passionately as you want. Don’t say, “Why did I ever have children!” or “I just want to throw you through the window!” or “I’m a terrible parent! I can’t do this any more! I want out!” Growl or roar instead. Children need to be protected from listening to feelings like these. Do tell them that you just need to make noise and cry hard so you can feel better soon.
Lie down on the spot, and stay there.
A third alternative for heated moments is to lie down. Don’t go to the sofa or the bed—lie down right where you stand. You’re not thinking straight, so give up trying to be in charge. Lie down on the kitchen floor, or wherever you happen to be. Let your children continue with the goofy things they’re doing. Let them act out. You’re not in shape to handle it. So give up trying.
Sometimes, lying down can allow you to find the feelings that are roiling inside you and cry. Do that. Cry hard. Generally, if someone in the family cries, others will stop the behavior that was a signal for help, because a healing process has begun. So if you can allow yourself to cry, it will shift your children’s attention and behavior.
Because you’re not trying to be in charge, and because humans are wired for connection, your children will eventually come closer. They will come to sit on your tummy, or bring you a ball to play with—they’ll take initiative to repair the connection. They can’t take that initiative when you’re standing before them, scary and full of upset. They can venture to take initiative when you’re on the floor and regrouping. And when they come around, you all get a fresh start with one another.
These are my recommendations for how to handle volatile moments. Listening Partnership time is the key tool to use to improve your ability to handle your feelings moment-to-moment and day-by-day. To use the emergency measures above, you’ll probably need to catch yourself a few steps from the edge, rather than waiting until you’re over the edge. That’s not easy! So don’t look for perfection from yourself (or your children). The measures I’ve outlined are possible lifeboats for a swamped ship, not the all-important navigation charts to keep the ship on course. You’ll definitely want to develop and tend the charts, but use the lifeboats when you need them!
Here’s how it can work.
Here’s a report from a mother in our Online Discussion Group who tried lying down in a moment of upset. She had told her husband ahead of time that she wanted to try this strategy to diffuse her angry moments.
I am uniquely bad at conflict and my kids were having an argument about who got to go first at something and I was getting in the middle of it and getting frustrated with the whole thing, when I turned around and threw myself down on the floor, giving up being in charge a la Patty’s instructions.
My husband was there too, and just knowing he knew what I was doing I think added a lot of support to the situation. But what happened to me is not that I found my feelings and cried, I think I felt such relief that I LAUGHED harder than I have in a very long time! It was that kind of wonderful uncontrollable belly laughter that you just can’t stop coming out of you. The kind that would have you floating to the ceiling if you were in that scene of Mary Poppins. I could NOT stop LAUGHING! And the kids LOVED this! And it definitely did open up creative channels and defuse the irritation that was starting to build in me.
I think that I get into these power struggles with my children because I have this idea that on certain things I have to hold the line and ‘be consistent’ with things that really seem to matter—and I do think consistent is ideal for things that are important IF you can do it in a good way. But I notice that I get engaged in ‘holding the line’ even when it DOESN’T matter THAT much, and now I’m realizing that maybe it’s better to be CONSISTENTLY not mean and scary, than to be consistent about the rules, if it comes down to one or the other!
I LOVED the falling down
on the floor experience and have to
heartily recommend it!
I LOVED the falling down on the floor experience and have to heartily recommend it! It’s the most refreshingly unexpected opposite-of-how-you-usually-do-things experience. Usually at these moments I’m climbing on my ‘high horse’ so to literally throw myself to the ground was an amazing and useful SHIFT of absolutely everything.
I was still giggling about how that felt hours later.