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 myself from losing my temper, particularly around my children. Obviously I have tried the old favorite “Take deep breaths and count to ten” method, which is definitely helpful. 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 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.
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 my child’s mind and body right now? Is her heart pounding? Do she feel ashamed? Is she 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. After discovering how upset Izzy was about her homework and the pencil incident, I decided to let the “paying us with jobs” consequence slide. Sometimes it is okay to backpedal. (And for what it’s worth, Izzy and I were both able to calm down, and she made it through her dance class that night.)
These moments when we mess up are the times when we have to be patient with ourselves, forgive ourselves, and try as hard as we can to find the patience next time in whatever way works best for us. For me, trying to understand my daughter’s heart, remembering my past self, and envisioning my future self have helped me through some tough moments and given me strength to keep my cool and have patience long enough to make it through the crisis.
QUESTION: What is your most effective strategy for staying calm during challenging moments?
CHALLENGE: Next time you feel yourself about to lose your temper with your child, try a new perspective in order to feel more empathy and patience: Imagine yourself in his/her shoes, remember your childhood self, and envision yourself at the end of today looking back on this tantrum and feeling proud of the way you handled it.
Image courtesy of Microsoft Office Images http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/images/results.aspx?qu=children&ex=1#ai:MP900448663|mt:0|
Thank you, Stephanie, for this honest and introspective essay. I’ve already put it to use today and came back to comment because I believe your message is so powerful.
“I’m just a bad girl” – my daughter says this too! It’s a total hot button for me, because I do so much to build my kids up (not on a pedestal, but in an honest, “You are unique and wonderful just the way you are” kind of way) that when I catch a glimpse that their internal dialogue is negative or self-loathing, it absolutely breaks my heart. Then MY internal dialogue immediately goes into panic mode…”What have I done wrong!?”…”This is all my fault”…”How can I have let this happen!?”…”I’m a bad mother!”
I don’t normally have a short fuse, but I can absolutely get snappish with my kids, and I beat myself up for it at the end of the day. I’m going to remember your tips, especially the “no regrets” one – that is pure genius!
Stephanie Sprenger says
Thank you so much for that comment- that really means a lot to me! It’s wonderful knowing that someone else, even just one person, could relate to my essay and find something helpful in it!
My short fuse is not my best quality, and I definitely need some concrete strategies in place to help me!
Jessica Smock says
This is so inspirational! I’m not proud of how often I lose my cool during my toddler’s tantrums. It’s definitely something I’m working on. Your strategies are practical and sympathetic. Thank you!
Stephanie Sprenger says
I’m not proud of how often I lose my cool either. I’m working on it too, and it really helps to have as many resources as possible in my bag of tricks!
I am also the one who loses it around this house. Often both my toddler and myself are both in tears at the end. I appreciate your honesty and the tips.
I am definitely going to try the “looking back at the end of the day” mini-talk to myself the next time I find this happening. I am also the one who blows up in our house and it didn’t seem to an issue in earlier years for some reason but now that our son is 13, I find I’m sometimes appalled at what had come out of my mouth AND I can see it’s more immediate effect on him. I think I was more patient in younger years because I didn’t expect as much and now there are too many times that I think I am losing my temper and out of patience because – given how wonderful, kind and capable the child is usually — I am in a position of expecting too much.
Great perspective and well timed for me. I relate to Diane because my patience seems to disappear once the teen years appear. My temper flares and I also have hot button response to “I am just a… failure, loser,.. can’t do anything right” or the “you don’t care about me/love sibling better rant” meanwhile we have always tried to be fair and not show favoritism. However, big age gaps result in different expectations. I needed the reminder to change my approach and remember an emotional tantrum needs different response no matter if it is a toddler or a teen. Why did I lose that empathy with the big ones? Now I am seeing my own role in these out bursts. Praying for help to make changes and correct these mistakes so we can regain our peace.
Wonderful post! I have read so many posts around the web and books too. I feel like the more perspectives I read the better chance for me to stay calm. My daughter is 3 and son is 1. There are days lately as my daughter is searching for her place and her independence where I have lost my temper. I will totally print this off and work on it!
I wish I could post a picture but one of the above links should let you view it. It’s a pic of what you thought parenting would look like (scene from Mary Poppins with kids on Merry-go-round horses) and then another picture of what it’s like (scene from Jurassic Park with three dinosaurs in a pit with a scared trainer)